The Cannes Congress (extract)

Cahiers du cinéma no. 213; July 1969

The three great films at Cannes, the Italian Carmelo Bene’s Capricci, and Nagisa Oshima’s (Japan) Death by Hanging and Diary of a Shinjuku Thief, devote themselves to exploring new planets in cinema.

The most daring of the three is the Bene: hardly any plot, even less psychology. It’s cinema at a state of purity never seen so far. There is nothing here other than cinema, other than ideas about cinema and without anything to do with tried and tested ideas of cinema. I don’t want to talk about technical ideas, even though there are technical ideas. It’s a hodgepodge of all kinds of ideas including technical ones. Until now, filmmakers who took off too directly from reality in order to arrive at the nonsensical, the absurd or the enlightening have fallen on their faces. I’m thinking especially of Richard Lester’s ill-fated Help. Bene is the first one to have succeeded without falling back on conventional references. It’s true that he resorts to parody, especially on the subject of gerontophilia. But this parody is too excessive to be effective as parody. It soon become lyrical and assets itself as a new value independent of what it caricatures. Bene’s success probably stems from a ceaseless descent into excess without hesitation or respite. Though there are moments stronger than others, it becomes almost impossible to remember all the elements, the viewer being overwhelmed by the whirlwind of the whole affair and the elements too far from reality to be readily absorbed by the mind.

Death by Hanging, too, has this quality of a compact monument. Oshima, however, doesn’t start off from the beyond. The film begins with a simple description of hanging and it is only slowly that we enter increasingly strange horizons. The viewer is captivated and carried away by this continuous progression. The fantastic acquires greater power as it is presented in a classical, sober and rigorous style that compels us to accept everything. At the same time, there is a constant exchange between these two contradictory elements. The film revolves around a death row convict who survives his hanging and must be hanged again immediately. But in Japan, you can be hanged only if you’re in a state of complete conscience, something that’s difficult to get after a first hanging. The officers of the prison mime the crimes he committed in order to bring back his memory, the prison director playing the role of the raped girl etc. This is only the starting point of a story which has infinitely more original events to follow, with a final return to social realism that assumes an extraordinary character by being situated after such narrative and thematic extravagance. It’s the most fantastic script in the history of cinema. And it’s hard to imagine how it could’ve been possible not to make a masterpiece out of it. I mean that, at this degree of ambition, it would’ve been impossible to shoot such sequences if they hadn’t been perfect. The actors couldn’t have been able to perform, the technicians couldn’t have been able to continue… That’s why I was doubtful about Oshima’s value. Perhaps he was a flash in the pan of The Brig kind. When he isn’t supported by a strong subject, Oshima would probably collapse. That’s why I wasn’t in a hurry to see his Diary of a Shinjuku Thief. I stayed through Biberman’s film and only saw the second half of Diary. Coming out of this other masterpiece, I was even more annoyed with Biberman, clearly made to look ridiculous in front of such films. Sex, theatre and social politics are indissolubly united here in a series of surprising confrontations of elements no less surprising. The film’s foundation might recall Godard, but the developments are absolutely personal. One is amazed to learn that this unknown filmmaker with a devouring personality is not a beginner, but has already made fifteen films in ten years. The law of averages guarantees that there are some more masterpieces in there in reserve. Forgotten masterpieces exist not only in the past, but also in our own time. The jury at Bergamo, where Hanging was in competition, refused even to give awards; all the films seemed mediocre to it. I’m perhaps slightly overrating Oshima’s work since I’m almost completely unaware of his context and this ignorance increases the impression of originality: there is a tradition of excess in Japan—which we admire in Yasuzo Masamura too—and a tradition of amalgamation, ghosts rubbing shoulders with social politics in Teshigahara for one thing. Be that as it may, Oshima towers over everything that we know of these traditions.

 

[From Luc Moullet’s Piges choisies (2009, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

Kôshikei (1968) (Death By Hanging)
Nagisa Oshima
Japanese

 

Death By HangingTroublemaker extraordinaire Nagisa Oshima’s Death by Hanging (1968) is a tar-black comedy in the vein of Dr. Strangelove (1964), straddling the polar realms of docu-drama and over-the-top absurdity, and begins with a documentary passage that tells us that about a recent survey which reveals that most Japanese are against the abolition of death penalty. Following this statistic, we are shown the process of execution of a prisoner step-by-step, with voiceover commentary that befits one of those state-sponsored awareness raisers, before being abruptly thrust into a world of Kafkaesque fiction. Authorities overlooking the execution discover that the hanged prisoner R (Do-yun Yu) is not dead yet and has lost his memory. Not having encountered this situation before, they scramble for law books and scriptures, before deciding that they would have to rekindle R’s memory and make him aware of his guilt so that he can be hanged again. What ensues is, as it were, a theatre of the absurd, with officials role-playing, reconstructing in great detail R’s past – right from his possibly troubled childhood – based on popular knowledge, their biases, neuroses and fantasies. “The Law is always prepared to lend you a spare brain in order to condemn you without remorse”, wrote Barthes. In Oshima’s film we witness that tendency in all its viciousness, as the officers channel their repressed racism and sexual frustration onto the ethnic outsider R, who becomes a Christ-like figure bearing the consequences of the prejudices of a whole nation. Oshima is unabashedly agenda-driven and uses a host of devices, which no doubt recall Godard, that distances the audience – who are explicitly implicated and grilled – from the central drama. With a moralist’s anger and a filmmaker’s flamboyance, he creates a cold, caustic work that presents a ruthless Japan that haunts its youth with the ghosts of an imperial, feudal, terrorizing past.

Manzan Benigaki (2001) (Red Persimmons)
Shinsuke Ogawa, Xiaolian Peng
Japanese

 

Red PersimmonsRed Persimmons (2001) begins with a movie crew watching the fascinating A Visit To Ogawa Productions (1981), in which the late Shinsuke Ogawa, that Japanese filmmaker who pushed the limits of documentary filmmaking like no other, talks to Nagisa Oshima about his then current project A Japanese Village (1982), a work that is so oppressively modest that it turns out avant-garde. This absence of Ogawa haunts Red Persimmons, which Chinese filmmaker Xiaolian Peng helped complete, especially when it uses on-screen text instead of Ogawa’s usual, casual voiceover. Less digressive than the typical Ogawa picture but as sensitive and attentive to the rhythms of the countryside as any of his works, Red Persimmons attempts to trace the history of Kaminoyama with the science and commerce of persimmon farming, which forms the lifeline of the village, at its focal point. We see how personal and collective histories are tied to the production of this fruit, how persimmons have use, exchange and even symbolic value for the villagers and how the technology that develops alongside evolves primarily to address necessities and reduce effort than for expansion or multiplication of revenue. We observe, through the course of the film, that the persimmon itself becomes representative of ‘the Japanese village’ in the way it goes from being an organic part of a lifestyle, through being a commodity under simple capitalism and then a fiercely competitive economy, to gradually losing its ritualistic qualities and finally ending up as a low-demand produce. Beautiful, like a Dovzhenko film, humble, essential.