The Dan Schneider Interview 40: David Desser (first posted 6/16/13)


DS: This DSI is with a man whose work I got to know best from some of his DVD film commentaries for Japanese films such as the all time classics, Seven Samurai, directed by Akira Kurosawa, and Tokyo Story, directed by Yasujiro Ozu. His name is David Desser, and he is a film historian and scholar, an emeritus professor of cinema studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. Before I go into more detail, let me first welcome you, David, and give you an opportunity to tell the readers a bit more about yourself: who you are, what you’ve done in your life, what your goals are (and if you feel you’ve achieved them), and also your place in the film and film studies/critical world, etc.

DD:  Thank you for giving me the opportunity to introduce myself via your web site and thank you for your interest in me and my work.  I am from Brooklyn originally and it is while a high school student in New York City that I saw my first Japanese films (aside from the dubbed “monster movies” of my earlier youth, which were common on TV).  These films Seven Samurai, Yojimbo – shown on PBS as part of a series on world cinema, struck a chord with me immediately. Fortunately, there was a theater in Manhattan, the Bijou as I recall, that was showing Japanese films. It was great to be able to seem them in a theater instead of TV (remember that the biggest TVs in those days were only 25 inches).  Later, I saw dubbed Hong Kong movies and, when I moved to LA in 1975 I got to see Hong Kong movies in Chinese.  I have written a good deal on Hong Kong cinema, actually (as per your next question which indicates that I focus on Japanese and Korean cinema, but I do HK as well).  I have had the great good fortune to be able to have traveled to many parts of the world and have managed more extended stays in Japan (in Tokyo and Osaka) and in Hong Kong – my longest stay overseas by far, more than one year.  After I finished graduate school in Cinema at USC I entered the margins of the film business, but determined or realized that the academic life was for me.  And so I was lucky to get a position at the University of Illinois and from there to travel the country and the world.  I am in the perhaps dubious situation of having achieved my goals – and more!—and since my retirement have kept my hand in the academic life by editing my journal and teaching in one or more of the various film programs in LA.

DS: You have edited and written for numerous cinema and film studies publications. Please name some of those you were most involved with, and what the aims of such publications are. Are you involved with any at this time? What are your future plans re: propagating the exegesis of foreign cinema? What has been the driving raison d’etre for your focus on Japanese and Korean cinema vs. other ethnic and national cinemas?  

DD:  I was the editor of Cinema Journal, one of the premier academic journals in the field, from 1993-1998; before that I was the Book Review editor of Film Quarterly, another major publication.  Currently, I co-edit the Journal of Japanese and Korean Cinema.  Journal editing has changed a great deal since I was involved with CJ.  It’s a breeze from the technical angle—everything done electronically.  The tough part if finding good essays to publish and the fun part is working with the authors to get their pieces into the best possible shape.  These journals are all geared toward Film Studies specialists.  There would be no great point to try and sell them on newsstands.  But it has been very satisfying to help shepherd younger scholars into print and to publish the work of major figures in the field.

  As for Japanese and Korean cinema vs. other national/regional or ethnic cinemas.  In fact, as I mentioned, I have done a good deal of work on Hong Kong cinema and I have a strong interest in Indian cinema, especially Hindi.  Bollywood is, however, difficult to keep up with and I just don’t have the time to see as many of those films as I’d like.  I have, by the way, published quite a bit of work on American cinema, too, so please don’t think I ignore my own culture and country!  I would, however, love to write a decent history of Hong Kong cinema – there is no such thing in English.  However, I am unlikely to be able to achieve this goal.  It won’t be a great regret, but it will be too bad that I am unlikely to achieve this particular goal.

DS: Film criticism seems to break down into two camps: popular or demotic: with the late Roger Ebert being the best known example, but this also includes online critics, and the sort who give mere yea or nay opinions, if they like or dislike a film, and make the most obvious points that every other critic makes, and then there is the obtuseness of film school sort of criticism- the best popular example would be the Senses Of Cinema website sort, wherein critic will rhapsodize on a slight camera movement in a minor scene, or an obscure symbol, that has nothing cogent to do with the film’s overall theme or purpose, while missing more important aspects like the acting or screenplay. These sorts of film writings are as worthless as most of the yea or nay sorts because they show the film critic or historian is more concerned with preening, bigwordthrowingarounding, and a sense of superiority than they are with explaining why a film does or does not work. Which school, if either, do you find more gallig, and do you think that a lack of any real good film criticism has anything to do with why the modern American filmgoer is so rapt by the puerile idiocy Hollywood foists at it?

DD: Well, I have to say that while there is a good deal of validity to your critique of “film school” criticism, as the product of film school myself and a professor who taught film in a university setting, I am reluctant to agree with any wholesale dismissal of it.  In fact, I often assign essays from Senses of Cinema to my students.  I’d say if you think that writing is bad you should see some of the stuff published in books!  I don’t pay much attention to film reviews—I read the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Time and Entertainment Weekly and certainly read the reviews in there, but rarely would anything a reviewer says influence my decision on whether or not to see a film.  Academic criticism tends not to be involved with aesthetic judgments, so I wouldn’t say that tends to influence my film-going decisions; though occasionally a good article about an older film might inspire me to seek it out.  That’s what the best criticism does, after all.  And I try to write in such a way that non-specialists could enter into my discussion without feeling that I am more concerned with preening, showing off and demonstrating my superiority.  (I save that for the classroom - J)

  It would be nice if Hollywood “trained” its audience to think about film instead of simply being swept up by it.  But I have given up imagining that American audiences will abandon Hollywood for foreign cinemas or even go a bit more often to see a subtitled film.

DS: As you are an emeritus professor, what does your typical workweek consist of? Do you spend more time in theaters or at a tv screen than you do in the classroom?

DD:  Actually, I do teach on an adjunct basis as much as I can to some extent.  So I still do course preparation, grading and going to classes.  I also write a great deal still (mostly contributions to edited collections) and also have a child.  Childcare is time-consuming, but very worthwhile.  I see only two or so films per month in the theater and a few films a month on the tv screen.  I wish I could see more movies, that’s for sure.

DS: Do you have a hierarchy for national cinemas- i.e.- if you were to rank the top 20 cinemas, is Japan #1, France #6, America #10, Italy #12, India #17, etc? And, is there a separation between studio films and independent films in other countries, the way there is in America? Are most national cinemas like the current U.S. model, more like the Golden Age Hollywood studio system. Or are there more ethnic John Cassavetes/Orson Welles types out there? If so or not, to what degree do certain national cinema’s structural ‘architecture,’ if you will, affect the films that come from them?

DD: I do rank national cinemas – though national cinemas is a problematic concept to conceptualize these days.  What is frequently called “globalization” or transnational filmmaking, though already a cliché, has clearly affected any simple notion of the national.  Actors who appear across boundaries has long been common in film (think of so many multi-national casts, for instance, or wonderful, beloved films with actors from different countries, such as the charming Cinema Paradiso or the powerful The Conformist or even Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. 

  National cinemas also rise and fall.  France in the 30s was far better and more important than it was in the 1950s.  America/Hollywood (we often neglect to imagine “Hollywood” as the American national cinema or think that America has no national cinema) was unimportant in the 1960s, but France had risen.  But of all time, I would say: the US, France, Japan, India, Hong Kong in that order.  Then places like the UK, Italy, South Korea, Germany and Mexico would round out the top ten.

  I am of the opinion that, overall, studio filmmaking produces better films than independents.  Japanese cinema of the 1930s and 1950s relied on a model comparable to the Golden Age Hollywood model and those two decades are the best in Japanese film history.  Similarly, Hong Kong cinema of the late 1950s through the 1970s also had something similar.  The case of Hong Kong is interesting these days --- there are no studios as we understand the idea, but there are companies that produce films and these tend to be better than the strictly independent films that are made.  The same thing in South Korea – major production companies partner with the companies run by the directors.  Of course there are exceptions, but in bulk the studio films of yesteryear or the production companies of today tend to make better films than pure independents.

DS: In this video interview you state that Japanese cinema no longer seems to be Japanese any longer. Famously, Ozu was always tagged as the most Japanese of Japanese filmmakers. Someone like Kurosawa was more universal, in a sense. Is this what you mean- a universal Japanness that seeks excellence, like Kurosawa did, or a sort of generic, bland Hollywoodized, or Bollywoodized embrace of Lowest Common Denominator schlock? Pleas expound.

DD: I don’t actually mean either of the alternatives you present.  What I mean is that the Japanese, in the main, tend to work in what I call “global genres” that transcend the national and appeal to global audiences.  But this is not necessarily “bland” LCD filmmaking.  Japanese horror or action or neo-noir is often very good.  It’s just that there are very few working in the real Ozu-like mode.  It is the difference, say, between the wonderful Horror-Thrillers of Kurosawa Kiyoshi compared to the more specifically Japanese, Ozu-like films of Kore-eda Hirokazu.  Of course, Japan’s most popular director both at home and abroad is Miyazaki Hayao and he is very specifically Japanese.

DS: I am of the opinion that ‘pure cinema’ is a chimera, and that film is more of an extension of literature with pictures- i.e.- ‘cinemature’- than it is moving photographs with words appended. That is, I agree with the old maxim, I believe from director John Huston, all good films start with a good script.’ What are your thoughts on this?

DD: Most good films start with a good script; but some great films use the script only as a basis to begin with and transcend it.  We could go back to the Cahiers du Cinema in the 1950s and re-argue the question of the auteur director vs the “scripteur” – the director who competently films someone else’s words.  As for the former idea – I met with the great director Don Siegel years ago and we talked about his later films and why they just weren’t as good as his classics like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Killers, Dirty Harry.  And he said they were rushed into production before the script was ready and without a good script things were simply “hopeless” as he said. But the greatest movies cannot show their greatness from the script.  Meet Me in St. Louis, The Searchers, Taxi Driver – have someone else film them and maybe they are not so great; just good. And I would say the weakness of Hong Kong cinema, maybe throughout its history, but certainly since the 1980s, lies in the weak scripts; but many very good films are made in that circumstance.  So maybe there is no “pure cinema” but there are filmmakers who make better films than others.  Here’s the test:  why are remakes of classics almost always worse than the originals?  Same story, often same settings.  So why is the original better?  Better director.

DS: Let me now turn more basic. How do you define your job, as a film critic, film historian, film sociologist? What import on culture do you think film has specifically? What import on culture do you think art has generally?

DD:  I define my job as pointing out aspects of films that people may not have noticed or known.  This may involve the socio-cultural-historical context out of which a film grows.  How best to appreciate, say, Japanese radical films of the 1960s?  I would say by understanding the time and circumstances in which they were made.  Or in discussing Japanese cinema more generally, I point out the style – the specifically cinematic elements – as a way of both increasing enjoyment as well as linking films to aspects of traditional or modern Japanese art.  And I conceive of my job as bringing to attention films that might not be so well known, adding to the canon.

  The question of film’s import and impact on culture is, literally, incalculable.  Film has transformed not just traditional art, like painting, or modern art like literature and photography, but our very consciousness 

DS: Did you have any heroes in filmmaking or criticism, or any other arts or professions, as you grew up? If so, who and why?

DD: I am not particularly a “star worshipper.”  I don’t really have heroes.  I was, however, an admirer of Andrew Sarris and a less well-known English critic-writer named John Russell Taylor.  These two taught me about the importance of the film director and Taylor introduced me to a host of foreign directors through his writings (a book called Cinema Eye Cinema Ear was perhaps the first great book of film criticism devoted to foreign directors – I read it around 1971 or so and it really opened my cinema eyes and ears, so to speak.  In graduate school at USC I had a chance to take classes from him. 

DS: When and where were you born? What were some of the major, or defining, issues during your youth, insofar as they affected your career path? Were you politically, socially, or artistically active when young? What films or television shows had an effect on you?

DD: As I said above, I was born in Brooklyn and went to high school in Manhattan, near Greenwich Village in the heady days of the 1960s.  I cannot imagine that I would be anything like the person I am were it not for the 60s—both the counterculture and the politics, both of which affected me greatly.  I was both socially and politically active right through the early 70s.  I tried political activism (though I was very young) through organized groups as well as intellectual-social activism through others.  I was in those days very introspective, moody and neurotic (today I am merely the latter two).  I thought I might be a poet and did indeed write and publish some poetry (in terrible anthologies).  And I thought I might be a filmmaker/director.  In fact, though I got a PhD in film studies from USC, I began in their very famous and prestigious MFA program – but I determined I didn’t have either the drive or the talent to make it as a director in Hollywood.

  I was always an avid reader – in high school I discovered the works of Kurt Vonnegut, Hermann Hesse, Robert Heinlein, JRR Tolkien.  And when I was as a high school senior I learned of Jack Kerouac.  These works impacted me profoundly.  I also discovered foreign films.  When I was a kid everyone went to the movies regularly, if not often.  But we never saw foreign films.  But in my high school in Manhattan I made more worldly friends who introduced me to the wonderful world of foreign films.  Perhaps my favorite of that period, which spoke to me tremendously, was the British film If….  I also discovered the films of Luis Bunuel, Ken Russell, and Fellini.  Quite a trip for a teenager!  And I’ll tell you a favorite TV show - Then Came Bronson.  Only the Made-for-TV pilot movie is available on DVD; wish the whole series was.

DS: Where do you reside? How long have you lived there, and what advantages and disadvantages does the location present for your company and work?

DD:  I live in Los Angeles now; have for the past two years.  It’s the perfect place to see and study film.  I’m so glad the twists and turns of my life have brought me back to LA.

DS: What did you want to be when you grew up? Where did you go to high school, and to what college?

DD: Well, for years I imagined I’d be a doctor, especially attending my Manhattan-based high school which specialized in math and science.  Even when I began NYU I was pre-med.  But my introspection and writing talents took me toward majoring in English and fancying myself, as I said above, a poet. I was still reading Tolkien and Kerouac and other fantasy and Beat writers.  Perhaps I thought I might become a Beatnik hobbit?

DS: What were some of the cultural touchstones in your life, the things, events, or people who graced your existence with those ‘I remember exactly where I was’ moments?

DD: I remember where I was, like many people, when I learned of JFK’s assassination, and RFK’s and that of Martin Luther King, Jr. Terrible events in difficult times.  And I clearly recall the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show and also LBJ’s announcement that he would not seek reelection to the presidency. I also remember where I was when I learned of the shootings at Kent State. 

DS: Are you married? What does your wife do? And how did you meet? Is she a critic, writer, etc.?

DD: Yes, I am married.  My wife is also a film professor who works on Korean cinema and African American cinema.  We met through a mutual acquaintance, also a film professor.

DS: What sort of child were you- a loner or center of attention? Did you get good grades? Were you a mama’s boy or a rebel?

DD: As I hinted at above, I was both outgoing but also introspective.  I was a good athlete, but never one who could imagine playing professions sports.  As Woody Allen says in Annie Hall, I was “all schoolyard.”  I got excellent grades, but by high school I was a rebel – long haired, radical, hippie freak.

DS: Any siblings? What paths in life have they followed?

DD: I grew up in a solid nuclear family with many relatives nearby.  I had a younger sister with whom I frequently played many games.  She became a health care professional, but, sadly, died of cancer at age 52.  There were hundreds of people at her funeral.  I was so proud to know how loved and respected she was.

DS: Any children? What paths have they followed in life? What are their interests?

DD: I have two children – one happily married, who is an event planner, the other is six years old. 

DS: What of your parents? What were their professions? Did they encourage your pursuits?

DD: My parents were basically lower-middle-class. No profession; they had jobs.  They went to work, worked hard for years and took care of their children.  They were extremely supportive of me.  What I did – getting a PhD – was so far from their own experience.  Neither of them even went to college, let along graduate school.  They were terrific parents and people.

DS: I’ve often argued vociferously against the notion that ‘art is truth,’ but journalism, science, and history are or should be about the search for truth. Do you agree? If so, what truths have you encountered in researching films that debunked some well held fallacies you had? What was it like to have to let go of your presuppositions?

DD: I do not agree with this separation of yours.  “Art” is, or should be, about the search for truth.  Truth is not simple, singular or reducible.  Art is an expression of some fact of the world, whether the outside world or the inner. I don’t think, however, that I’ve ever had to let go of well-held fallacies or presuppositions in reading anything.  I’ve learned so much from reading journalism, history and science, as well as seeing and reading about film.  My mind is always open and I hope will remain so.

DS: Art speaking a truth is fundamentally different from its being a truth. Looking at the root of the word art, after all, shows it derives from the same place as artifice. Therefore, art can NEVER be truth, only an instrument that CAN get at a truth. But, it can also illumine aspects of existence utterly disconnected to truth, like emotions, bad ideas, politics, etc. Do you also find the ‘art is truth’ equation laughable and silly. 

DD:  I’m afraid I don’t agree at all.  Emotions are truth, bad ideas may be wrong, but they are a “truth” even if they are not true.  But I don’t place films in any kind of hierarchy of “truth” just as I wouldn’t put paintings or novels in that way.  They are experiential and that is as much truth as anything.

DS: What of your views on politics? How, if in any way, do they affect your criticism?

DD:  My politics does affect my criticism, though I am not generally thought of in the field of academic film studies as a particularly “ideological” critic.  I would prefer that the films I like be politically progressive, but, on the other hand, I don’t generally care about the actual politics of the filmmaker.

DS: Why do you think so many artists believe that politics take precedence over artistic quality?

DD: I don’t think so many artists believe that at all. If they do, then they are not artists, but only propagandists.

DS: Before we get on to more specific areas, have you any ideas on what is the cause of the lack of introspection in modern American society- from Hollywood films, television shows, book publishers, etc.? Is American or Western culture simply as shallow as man of its detractors claim? In the arts, Political Correctness and Postmodernism have certainly aided in the ‘dumbing down’ of culture. What are your thoughts on those two ills- PC and PoMo?

DD: I don’t agree that PC and PoMo have aided the “dumbing down” of culture.  PC can certainly be taken to absurd or silly extremes, but the opposite is far worse.  Racism, sexism and homophobia are far greater ills than attempts to get people to change our language or images to a kind of bland gender or racial neutrality.   Just think of what things were like in our society before a greater political consciousness came about. 

  As for PoMo – yes, this, too, can be taken to extremes, though it did not start as any kind of conscious “movement.” It began simply as a descriptive category to explain some then-current tendencies.  It was initially allied to Marxist criticism and so there was a real “bite” to it, a real critique of the dumbing down of culture in the name of the commodity.  And so if there is indeed a dumbing down it’s not due to PC or PoMo, but to good, old-fashioned commodification and consumerism.  These tendencies have always been a part of the movie business, of course, but somehow art overcame commerce as it much less frequently does today.

DS: Do you believe any critic or filmgoer owes it to the artist to take into account anything that does not belong on the screen, page, or between a frame? If so, does that not necessarily bastardize the standalone work of art?

DD: You are getting at the old New Criticism movement that claimed that a work of art must stand alone, that authorial intention had no place in criticism or that even historical context was irrelevant to the aesthetic/formal features of the work and the genre(s) into which it could be placed.  I rarely read biographies of directors and even if I do it is not as a search for clues to the meaning of the work.  Do I care if Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare’s plays or do I care that those plays assigned to “Shakespeare” are among the greatest works ever produced by mankind?

DS: Let me ask you of something I see as deleterious to both the appreciation of film, and the purveying of good criticism, and that’s what I call ‘critical cribbing.’ It happens especially online, but started long before that, in print. This is when claims- pro or con- about a film, or serious errors, are propounded again and again. If a Kenneth Turan or Roger Ebert said A, B, or C about Film X, then the same ideas, with the slightest variations, are propounded on hundreds of blogs and newspapers. I think about the misinformation in films, such as when I watched Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup; and the same nonsense about the characters having names cropped up, but there were none in the film. A similar thing re: the characters being called by letters occurred in Last Year In Marienbad; but that, too, was false. This tells me the review is a phone-in, and I’ve seen similar things occur in reviews of books and poets. I posit that most critics, in whatever field, truly do not engage the art they review. They watch or read part of it, justify presuppositions and biases, and, once an artist or film gets a reputation, they never waver from it. If you troll about online, you will find very little variance in the ‘meme’ that gets attached to any film or director. The point of view- negative or positive, may be differing, but the take, often flawed, is always the same for each critic. Do you agree that this lack of attention to their own craft is formed by biases?

DD: I’m not sure it’s biases that are involved, but, rather, laziness.  Let me give you an example of exactly what you are talking about.  It’s common to say about the films of Ozu that he uses an angle in filming Japanese interiors that reproduces the eye-level of someone sitting on tatami mats.  But this is patently and clearly not true.   The camera position is obviously lower than that, not eye level at all.  Yet one reads this time and again. 

DS: How do foreign films differ from American films, in terms of quality, aims, content, and reach into the culture? Is it drastically different per country, or is film merely a diversion for most worldwide?

DD: You load the question at the end by saying “merely a diversion.”  Although film can provide a momentary escape or diversion I’m not sure “merely” quite captures the value in that.  And one can also say that film provides glimpses into other things at the same time one is trying to be diverted. 

  As for your question about foreign films:  “foreign films” is too big a category to be of use any longer.  Hong Kong films, or Hindi (Bollywood) seem to be closer in intention to Hollywood than French cinema these days, while we could say that Japanese cinema offers films that divert and films that challenge and confront.  I’d say this:  Hollywood’s global reach is such that foreign filmmakers have two choices:  try to compete with Hollywood on Hollywood’s terms (China and South Korea have been doing this lately) or make films that Hollywood won’t or can’t – and that accounts for the perceptible differences we see between Hollywood films and foreign films.

DS: Define what constitutes a good film from a bad one. Give me the parameters. Also, what is the difference between a good and a great film? Name me a film you think is great and one that is bad. Define why each is at the level you ascribe to it.

DD: A good film succeeds on the terms it sets forth; a bad one has no idea of what it wants to be.  A good film introduces a coherent world, whether or not it corresponds to the real world, and offers up characters who try to succeed within this world, whatever success might mean, while at the same time these characters grow, develop and learn.  A bad film presents characters with no inner life, who move through their world as if it could be anything or anywhere.  Of course there are films which are simply incompetent – the works of Ed Wood. I don’t agree with the idea of “so bad it’s good.”  You can make a very fine film on a low budget if you have talent and creativity or you can make a bad film if you have no talent.

  A great film has what I call moments of transcendence – a shot, an insight, something that moves it from the realm of craft into the realm of art.  Why is The Searchers the greatest Western ever made out of the thousands produced? It’s great because it has humor and pathos; insight into character; something to say about American heroism and American history; and moments of transcendence, shots of such power and subtlety, acting of depth.  As for bad, it would be easy to take Ed Wood, but let’s take a filmmaker who was once very good and who made a film about Ed Wood: Tim Burton.  And take Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  This is a bad movie because it doesn’t know what it is or what it wants to be.  As happens too often these days, Burton lets Johnny Depp take things too far.  What kind of world does Charlie want to offer up and does Depp’s vision of Willie Wonka fit into this world?  How are we to feel about Willie and is there, as there should be, any real magic?  That’s why it’s as bad movie.

DS: Let us speak of Japanese cinema, and the two commentaries you did for The Criterion Collection. I believe the first one was for Ozu’s Tokyo Story. In my review of it I wrote:

  The audio commentary track by Ozu scholar David Desser, editor of Ozu’s Tokyo Story, is surprisingly good, especially considering it’s highly scripted. He seemed to time his comments perfectly for each scene, and explain many in technical detail, as well give backgrounds on the film, Ozu, and the actors. Sometimes he misses some narrative points and gets a bit haughty and moralistic, but often he does well to explain Japanese customs and the politics of the time, and how certain scenes played to Japanese audiences then and global audiences now.

  First, how thoroughly do you script your comments, and do you time them to scenes? Most highly scripted commentaries never explain scenes well, and are just de facto essays. On the other end of the spectrum are DVD commentaries from actors, directors or experts that are just unscripted bits of fellatio where everyone praises everyone else: ‘Ah, the script boy was wonderful, especially in his selection of Krispy Kremes every day.’ You seem to have struck a balance, in this and the updated release of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai.

DD: I’m sorry, first of all, that there were times I sounded a bit haughty and moralistic.  That said, here’s how it worked technically.  I script my commentaries completely beforehand and read along as the film is projected for me in a studio.  Thus I can see what is happening on the screen as I read along.  Sometimes I will ad-lib and then afterward the producer will ask me questions to which I will provide unscripted answers and she may insert in lieu of my scripted remarks.  I got a bit formalistic for her tastes and so she asked me more general questions and then had the audio engineer insert those replies.

DS: Where would you rank both films you commentated on in world and Japanese cinema canon? Where do you rank Ozu and Kurosawa in the same context, as well as their pros and cons vis-à-vis each other?

DD:  Interestingly, while Tokyo Story has for years been reckoned as one of the greatest films ever made in all of world cinema, it’s not my favorite of Ozu’s.  That distinction goes to Early Summer.  And for other people it may be Late Spring – an understandable choice indeed. (Funnily enough the influential Japanese film journal, Kinema Jumpo, awarded both Late Spring and Early Summer their “Best One” award in their respective years of 1949 and 1951, but Tokyo Story only placed second in its year of 1953.)  However, I can see why Tokyo Story appeals a bit more to foreigners than the other films.  Still, it is a masterpiece and deserves its high praise. 

  As for Seven Samurai – what can one say at this point?  It is, among other things, the most influential film ever made.  And that is a large claim, but one that can be substantiated.  It is certainly, also, the greatest film ever made about men in combat.

  The two films cannot be compared while the two directors are vastly different.  Ozu is understated, Kurosawa can be bombastic; Ozu is highly consistent in form and theme, Kurosawa is more varied in subject and setting; Ozu is more accepting of life’s inevitabilities, Kurosawa seems more of a fighter.  But both have proven hugely influential and that is saying a great deal about both of them.

DS: What drew you to the cinema of the Orient vs. European or other cinemas? How does Korean cinema stack up to Japanese cinema, and other cinemas from the Orient, as well as worldwide?

DD: I simply liked Japanese cinema from the moment I saw it and over the years kept liking it more and more.  I do, however, love British cinema and French cinema; I just haven’t published in these areas.  So it’s not simply a question of Orient vs. Europe, but rather a scholarly choice made back at a time when much less was written about Japan compared to Europe.  But what drew me and kept me….I can’t really say.  I am a film lover above all, but there are films that I like less than others in terms of national cinema.

  As for Korean – at its best it’s very good.  And there are a handful of absolutely great films that I could point to, both big budget (like Shiri) and small (like Take Care of My Cat).  Korean films tend to be as anybody’s, especially at their best.         

DS: It seems to me, that in the 1950s and 1960s, Japanese cinema was the best in the world: Ozu, Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, Ichikawa, Kobayashi, Naruse, Imamura, Oshima, Teshigahara, and others. The range, the writing, the acting, the daring. Not even Italy came close. Do you think there was just all this pent up creativity from the militaristic dictatorship of the 30s and 40s? If so, why didn’t Germany explode, like Japan, and to a lesser extent, Italy, in cinematic greatness?

DD: Ah!  Great question!  One could say that Italy was almost as good:  neo-realism in the period 1943-1952, then the later works of Rossellini and then Fellini and Antonioni and the early Bertolucci, etc.  So while I agree with you that Japanese cinema was the best in the world in the 50s, especially (by the way – I’d suggest that second best in the world was India at this time) why Germany was moribund is interesting.  Of course, one thing to consider is that Germany’s finest talent fled before 1941 or was killed in the Shoah.  No Japanese talent left.  Unlike in Germany, where certain directors and stars who worked for the Nazis were purged from the industry, no such thing happened in Japan.  Ozu, Mizoguchi, Naruse, Kurosawa, Ichikawa, Kinoshita Keisuke all made films during the war and then continued thereafter.  And so, too, major stars who made propaganda film in Japan during the war worked in democracy films thereafter.  I would also say there were structural reasons, as well.  All of Germany’s infrastructure was destroyed, whereas Kyoto, site of many film studios, was spared.  But I think it was mostly the fleeing of Germany’s major talents and the murder of so many others.

DS: Great answer, and, in retrospect, it makes eminent sense. The 60s saw the New Wave hit Japan, yet, whereas the French New Wavers basically just copied American film noir, and tried to pass it off as something new, the Japanese directors of that time were WAY beyond Godard, Truffaut, and company, in terms of mastery of skill and richness of vision. Do you think that the so-called Japanese New Wave was independent of what is credited to the French, or did they just have better film directors, period? What is your book, Eros Plus Massacre, which covers this era, about?

DD: Eros plus Massacre is subtitled “An Introduction to the Japanese New Wave Cinema.”  I think it turned out to be a bit substantive than that.  I do try to situate the New Wave in multiple contexts: as a response on the part of a group of young filmmakers to their place in Shochiku Studios; to Japan in the 1960s; to the Japanese relationship to the US, etc.  Yet at the same time I also ended up defining the New Wave in terms of its major concerns:  youth, women, the working class, Koreans and other minorities.  This had never been done before and I linked fiction films with experimental works and documentaries and I also compared it to theater and literature.  In this respect the Japanese New Wave was much more politically and socially engaged than the French New Wave which is often, incorrectly, seen as “political”.  Godard became more politically engaged later in the 60s along with Alain Resnais.  But the French New Wave was primarily aesthetic, not political.

  The Japanese New Wave was completely independent of the French New Wave in 1960.  It was more influenced by Polish cinema of the late 50s than French, by the way.  The mastery of skill and vision you speak of had something to do with the fact that most of the major directors were college educated but also products of the Assistant Director system which trained them in screenwriting, staging, lighting, etc.  It gave them a better background when it came time to direct their own films.

DS: While not a good film, I found Wim Wenders’ Tokyo Ga (on the Ozu DVD for Late Spring) and the excellent documentary I Lived, But... on the Tokyo Story DVD, to be films that gave a good backgrounding to the life of Yasujiro Ozu, as well as information on the Japan of the mid-20th Century, and the films that came out of there. For someone whose idea of Japanese films was all about Godzilla and giant monsters, these films are a great help. In the latter film, there is mention of Ozu’s attraction to the concept of mu, or nothingness. What are your thoughts on this claim, and how or how not did it set Ozu apart from his contemporaries?

DD: “Mu” is written on one side of Ozu’s grave marker so it obviously meant something to him.  It is both a Buddhist and aesthetic concept that Ozu relied on, but not necessarily in an unprecedented manner. We can easily overstate this; Westerners have proven fond of Buddhist elements in Ozu.  They are there, but so are lots of other things.

DS: I recently watched the Criterion DVD of Kurosawa’s Red Beard, and commentarian Stephen Prince criticized some scenes for being too didactic, yet, never are the films heavyhanded. They exist, in a small sense, with an ethical compass, but Kurosawa never hammers the points home. Do you see Kurosawa’s canon, as Prince does, as didactic? Is this a negative? Is didacticism to Kurosawa what mu is to Ozu?

DD:  Yes, Kurosawa is didactic.  It is not a negative.  It stems, in part, from Confucianism, which insists that all art have a didactic function.  And perhaps you are right in your syllogism about Kurosawa and Ozu.

DS: Re: Kurosawa, I always find it odd that most critics gush over his samurai period pieces and slag on his contemporary set films, like Ikiru, The Bad Sleep Well, and, especially the transcendent High And Low. While Kurosawa’s samurai films are masterful action films, often laced with comedy, and Seven Samurai is the best example of this, the modern films have a deep vein of humanism and realism the samurai films lack. By contrast, the two samurai films that I’ve seen of Masaki Kobayashi, Harakiri and Samurai Rebellion, simply do more, and succeed greatly in doing so, than Kurosawa’s samurai films. They fuse the best of Kurosawa’s action and the psychological depth of Kurosawa’s modern films. These are the only two Kobayshi samurai films I’ve seen, so the rest of his work may not be as great, but do you agree that Kurosawa’s period pieces wrongly overshadow his modern pieces, and that Kobayashi’s samurai films trump Kurosawa’s?

DD: A couple of things by way of preliminary items:

  Ikiru and High and Low are enormously respected in the critical literature on Kurosawa. You can find people who think Ikiru is his best film. 

  Harakiri and Samurai Rebellion are the only two samurai films that Kobayashi made. 

  In answer to your query.  Yes, people underrate his modern films at the expense of his period films.  However, his period films are so good that it is understandable.  Still, films like Drunken Angel, Stray Dog and Dodeskaden are vastly underrated.  People do indeed pay less attention to them than they deserve.  For me High and Low is second only to Seven Samurai at the top of the list of Kurosawa’s best.

  As for Kobayashi – his two samurai films are absolutely masterpieces.  But they have different points to make, different intentions if you will. One cannot overstate the brilliance of Yojimbo.

DS: Re: Ozu, I think his Japanese bona fides are overclaimed, and that his films are universal- from their depictions of little brats and farting, to their scenes of human depth and yearning. Do you think this as well?

DD: I don’t think his Japanese bona fides are in doubt, but they may be overstated.  Indeed his films are universal and that is why he is, along with Kurosawa, among the most influential filmmakers who ever worked, on a par with Fellini, Bergman, and Antonioni.

DS: Other than yourself, who do you look to re: Japanese or Oriental cinema, for recommendations of works and directors? Any thoughts on folks like Stephen Prince or Donald Richie? Personally, I’ll take your and Prince’s commentaries over Richie’s because, while Richie certainly was immersed in Japanese culture, I find his understanding of the art of film to be substantially less. I.e.- his commentaries give excellent backgrounding of the director, actors, time the film was made, and symbolism, etc., but he overreaches when he tries to explain why a scene works or not, and falls into biases of what he likes vs. what is objectively good. Aside from some moralistic comments in your Tokyo Story commentary, you seem to understand what makes the film you comment on work, in a more down to earth sense.  Richie, however, is the perfect example of a film scholar who knows facts but misses the art. Comments?

DD: Stephen Prince produced the best book on Kurosawa yet written and likely to remain so.  As for Richie – it’s hard to overstate the impact he had on the introduction of Japanese cinema to the West.  No one, in any field of endeavor perhaps, has been so centrally associated, so linked, as Donald Richie has been to the Japanese cinema.  But he came from a different generation than Stephen Prince and myself and so his approach to film was different.  But he was knowledgeable, enthusiastic, kind and generous, a fine man and a decent one.  And that is saying as lot.

DS: What do you think of Netflix? A year or two ago they had some troubles when they decided to raise their rates drastically, then the ill fated and reversed decision to split into streaming and DVD companies alone? Without such a service I would have never discovered many of the great Japanese and other foreign directors I have.In that way I think Netflix is utterly invaluable. Comments on these matters?

DD: I can’t speak to their business decisions, but they are invaluable, not just for Japanese cinema, but Hong Kong, Mainland Chinese, Korean, as well.  I don’t use them myself as I have amassed a huge collection of DVDs, but down the road I’ll buy less and stream more.

DS: Part of the reason Netflix decided to raise their rates was because of studios wanting to be able to eventually stream their own films, but this seems absurd to me because no one feels a brand loyalty to a studio the way they do to an actor or actress, or a film director. Who will pay for only Sony or Disney films? Plus, this would destroy the very desire of people to want to sample a variety of new things on Netflix. If one has to pay per item, then people like you will be screwed over by the big studios yet again. What are your thoughts on this?

DD:  You can count on the Hollywood studios to ruin anything that makes films more accessible and cheaper to more people.  It began with high-priced VHS until market forces brought them down; then the ruining of laserdiscs and then the stupidity of region-coding on DVDs.  I hope services like Netflix and Moby and others survive in some form whatever the inevitable changes the future brings.

DS: This, in fact, is why I think the studios want to destroy Netflix, and also things like Hula, because, just as with cable tv, they want to be able to force people to pay for crap they don’t want with bundling, rather than let the free market play out and allow bad channels and shows to fall away. After all, if I’m a science guy and only want three or four nature or science or history channels, and no sports, porno, nor cooking and shopping networks, why can’t I have that? Netflix operates on that model of choice and sampling. Do you think that this is the ultimate goal of the Hollywood studios and television networks, to monopolize and deaden the minds of its viewers, to turn them into zombie consumers?

DD: Yes.

DS: On the con side, do you think that Netflix and Hula have basically killed off the Golden Age of DVD commentaries? Criterion used to be the industry standard, but they’ve basically abandoned the commentary feature in new releases.

DD: The commentary feature was expensive and made the DVDs pricier.  Perhaps that’s why they are doing them less often.  You may be right about Netflix and other services indicating that commentaries have had their day.

DS: Do you think commentaries make for better viewers? Are they that expensive to produce? What is (or was) the going rate to provide a commentary of quality- such as you or a Stephen Prince might do?

DD: As I said, they are expensive to produce along with the other extras.  The major expense was their attempt to get the best image possible, but they also made new subtitles, etc.  So we’re talking, besides video transfer, well up around $10K.

DS: Let me ask a few queries that I ask almost all my interviewees; because this is a series, and the parallax of replies is of interest to me and my readers. I started this interview series to combat the aforementioned dumbing down of culture and discourse- what I call deliteracy, both in the media, and online, where blogs and websites refuse to post paragraphs with more than three sentences in it, or refuse to post anything over a thousand words long. Old tv show hosts like Phil Donahue, Dick Cavetti, David Susskind, Tom Snyder, even Bill Buckley- love him or hate him, have gone the way of the dinosaur. Intellect has been killed by emotionalism, simply because the latter is far easier to claim without dialectic. Only Charlie Rose, as a big name interviewer, is left on PBS, but near midnight. Let me ask, what do you think has happened to real discussion in America- not only in public- political or elsewise, but just person to person? And, even in a small way, do you think films like yours help to counteract such willful ignorance?

DD: I, too, miss the likes of Dick Cavetti, David Susskind and Buckley’s “Firing Line.”  And I like your notion of “deliteracy.”  It is unquestionable that something has been lost in public discourse.  There are multiple forces at work, but one of them is media conglomerates.  There is simply too much power concentrated in the hands of a few companies.  It’s the profit motive at work, to create synergy across their media outlets:  to create a brand is more important than to create an educated public.  They want consumers, not citizens.  Of course, the information overload, tweets rather than paragraphs, hypertext rather than linearity, shock rather than story, has something to do with a lack of ability to sustain reason and argument.  Classical Japanese films, the art cinemas of Taiwan or South Korea, belong solely to the select few – we’re not smarter, but we have developed the patience and appreciation.

DS: I also believe that artists are fundamentally different, intellectually, than non-artists, and that the truly great artists are even more greatly different. Let me quote from an essay I did on Harold Bloom, the reactionary critic who champions the Western Canon against Multiculturalism: ‘….the human mind has 3 types of intellect. #1 is the Functionary- all of us have it- it is the basic intelligence that IQ tests purport to measure, & it operates on a fairly simple add & subtract basis. #2 is the Creationary- only about 1% of the population has it in any measurable quantity- artists, discoverers, leaders & scientists have this. It is the ability to see beyond the Functionary, & also to see more deeply- especially where pattern recognition is concerned. And also to be able to lead observers with their art. Think of it as Functionary2 . #3 is the Visionary- perhaps only 1% of the Creationary have this in measurable amounts- or 1 in 10,000 people. These are the GREAT artists, etc. It is the ability to see farther than the Creationary, not only see patterns but to make good predictive & productive use of them, to help with creative leaps of illogic (Keats’ Negative Capability), & also not just lead an observer, but impose will on an observer with their art. Think of it as Creationary2 , or Functionary3.’ What are your thoughts on this concept of mine? Have you discerned any differences between non-artists and artists, or average artists and the greats? And, if you are copacetic with such a system, where on the scale would you place yourself? And do you think disciplines like teaching or criticism are 180° from creativity? Are there some directors you would rank higher or lower on such a scale?

DD: I don’t believe this at all.  Artists do have abilities (or an ability) that non-artists don’t have, but it doesn’t make them fundamentally different intellectually.  It certainly doesn’t make them better.  I have the ability to write reasonably well.  Not everyone has this talent or ability.  That doesn’t make me fundamentally different.  It is often stated that artists are not the best people to explain or critique their own work and that such is the job of the critic or scholar.  Maybe so but one or the other is not “better.”  And non-artists and non-critics are not fundamentally different, just differently talented or abled.  I don’t romanticize the artist nor look up to the critic.  We are all good at something.

DS: Do you believe in The Muse? Divine Inspiration? I find that many artists use the idea of a Muse or Divine Inspiration as a crutch for times when their productivity is fallow. I call this the Divine Inspiration Fallacy. Any opinions?

DD:  No; don’t believe in divine inspiration or The Muse.  But some artists have a muse.  Hitchcock and Cary Grant; Ford and John Wayne; von Sternberg and Dietrich. People can inspire, can coax, can help.  But there’s no magic, no myth, no god.  Talent and hard work.

DS: Some years back I co-hosted an Internet radio show called Omniversica. On one show we spoke with a poet named Fred Glaysher, who- in arguing with my co-host Art Durkee, claimed that, in art, change does not come until some giant- or great artist, comes along, and buries the rest of the wannabes. It’s akin to Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure Of Scientific Revolutions. Agree or not? And name some film giants you feel who’ve buried past tropes or styles with their canon.

DD: In a certain way this goes along with Harold Bloom’s less bombastic idea of “the anxiety of influence” – that succeeding artists try NOT to be influenced by the major artists who came before.  I agree with Bloom, not with Fred Glaysher.  But there is always more than one artist working to affect change or even revolutionary change.  James Joyce was not alone in his rethinking nor was Picasso nor was D.W. Griffith, etc.  I believe more in movements of groups than singular individuals.

DS: Have you ever watched Michael Apted’s The Up Series documentaries for the BBC? What are your thoughts on it as a longitudinal study of human development? How about sociologically? Do you agree with its epigraph, the Jesuit proverb, ‘Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man.’?

DD: I haven’t actually seen the Apted series, though I think it is unprecedented and fascinating.  Someday… Yes, I agree with the idea.  The importance of teaching and loving little children…

DS: A few less intense queries. That old chestnut- name a few folk from history you’d like to break bread with, and why?

DD: From history or film history?  I’d like to dine with Jane Austen, chat with Emily Dickinson and take a long walk with Virginia Woolf.  It’s just the knight-in-shining armor syndrome.  Somehow I’d like to save these women whom I so much admire from loneliness and sadness.  Not less intense after all!

  I’d like to drink whisky with Howard Hawks and go on safari (with a camera) with John Huston. I’d like to play baseball with Buster Keaton in the 1920s and tell him not to drink so much.  These guys seem like the fun figures in film history. 

DS: At this point in your life, have you accomplished the things you wanted to do? If not, what failures gnaw at you the most? Which of those failures do you think you can accomplish yet?

DD: As I indicated above, I’ve pretty much accomplished what I wanted to and more.  I don’t think like I’ve failed and have no gnawing regret or sense of defeat.  My family means a lot to me and spending time with them trumps writing another essay or book.

DS: Let me close by asking what is in store, in the next year or two, in terms of your work?

DD:  Like I said, at this point another essay takes a back seat to a six-year old girl who needs my attention,

DS: Thanks for doing this interview, David Desser, and let me allow you a closing statement, on whatever you like.

DD: Thank you for your interest in me and my work.  I’m always happy to correspond with people who take film and ideas seriously.  You certainly pressed me to think deeply.  Thanks.

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