Death of a Cinematic Genius: Nagisa Oshima, 1932-2013

January 15, 2013 § Leave a comment

Nagisa Oshima in the 1960s

Nagisa Oshima in the 1960s

It was with shock and more than a little sadness that I read of Nagisa Oshima’s death today. Though he forever will be associated with the youthful themes of the Japanese New Wave, he was 80 and apparently had been in poor health since a stroke suffered in 1996.

Oshima’s films were featured in a major retrospective at the American Cinematheque in 2009, about which I wrote this piece:

During his fiery career, Oshima broke cultural and censorship barriers in Japan and abroad. The product of an affluent and aristocratic Kyoto family, he studied law and had every reason to protect the status quo, both politically and artistically. Yet he was heavily influenced by the Japanese student protests of the 1960s, and by leftist politics in general. As a filmmaker, he claimed, “My hatred for Japanese cinema includes absolutely all of it.” He meant it. Oshima had no use for the poetic films of Yasujiro Ozu (on which he got his start as an assistant). He also claimed the goal of his films was “to force the Japanese to look in the mirror.”

There are no equivalents to Oshima among younger Japanese filmmakers: there don’t have to be. In challenging censorship, artistic mores and the very basis of filmmaking, he blazed a trail that made their path smoother, though probably less memorable. RIP.

A link to the New York Times obituary:

Deliver Us From Lollygagging: The Glacial Pace of Tourist Traffic on Beachwood Drive

August 20, 2012 § Leave a comment

Beachwood Drive at Glen Alder, with Speed Limit Posted/8-19-12/Hope Anderson Productions

An exponential rise in visitors to the Hollywood Sign has brought not only picture-taking throngs in the middle of traffic but the daily phenomenon of cars traveling well below the posted speed limit on Beachwood Drive. On the mile-long stretch between Franklin Avenue and the Hollywoodland Gates, the posted speed limit is 30. Yet the average tourist–status verified by out-of-state plates, rental car stickers and a penchant for running stop signs and not using turn signals–takes it upon himself to drive at a leisurely 20 mph, the better to take in the view.

While this might not sound like a serious problem, it is huge for those of us who live in the Canyon and have schedules to keep. Once we get stuck behind crawling tourist traffic, we are trapped for a mile. Drivers are completely unable to pass north of Graciosa, where Beachwood Drive is a narrow, two-lane ribbon. South of Graciosa, where the road is considerably wider, passing is possible but fraught with hazard. Sudden stops and swerves are common tourist driving tactics, as is road rage: How dare you pass us! seems to be the general attitude, as if no one should have anything better to do than chug up and down Beachwood Drive at 2/3 the legal speed. (I’m neglecting the fact that some tourists go even slower than 20 mph. 15 mph is common.)

The mile-long stretch between Franklin Avenue and the Gates has no stop lights and only two stop signs. At the posted speed of 30 mph, it took me 1 1/2 minutes to drive it at 6:45pm today. Yet it often takes five times as long, an inexcusable length of time for such a short distance. Getting stuck behind tourist traffic on Beachwood Drive is getting more common–and more frustrating–every day.

If you’re reading this and contemplating a visit to the Hollywood Sign, please drive at the posted speed. If you need to take a photo, please pull over, signalling first, and let the driver behind you pass. I’m thanking you in advance, not just for myself but for everyone concerned.

Jim Thompson’s Life After Death

November 10, 2011 § 5 Comments

Jim Thompson in the Living Room of his Bangkok House, circa 1967/Courtesy Jim Thompson Thai Silk Company

Jim Thompson (b. 1906) was an architect, Army officer, OSS operative, art collector and entrepreneur. In the years after World War II, he transformed homemade Thai silk into a thriving industry, in the process lifting some ten thousand impoverished weavers out of poverty and into comparative wealth. Jim Thompson’s silks, whose dyes and weaves he devised, soon found their way into Buckingham Palace and onto Broadway, via the costumes for “The King and I. Along the way, Thompson became famous, as did the Thai-style house he built to showcase his superb collection of Southeast Asian art. Then, on Easter Sunday of 1967, Jim Thompson vanished in the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia, and the mystery of his disappearance eclipsed the story of his life.

Jim Thompson was also the subject of my first film, “Jim Thompson, Silk King” (2001), and the reason I became a documentary filmmaker. In the expatriate communities of Asia where I grew up, Thompson was not merely famous; he was a household name. My father had met him, as had many of my parents’ friends, and the Thai Silk Company store in Bangkok was a primary destination for every westerner who visited Thailand in the 1950s and 60s. Because he was not merely a person but a brand, Jim Thompson’s disappearance struck our world like a bomb. The event was so odd and disturbing that my mother instructed me to “go to the library and find out what happened to him.” I was eight years old at the time, and eight months away from my first visit to Thailand.

I never found out what happened to Jim Thompson, though over the years I developed various theories about that Sunday in the Highlands. More importantly, I  became interested in his life, particularly his accomplishments in the silk industry, Southeast Asian art and traditional Thai architecture. Each of these feats would have been notable in itself; the fact that a non-Thai-speaking foreigner had left his mark on all three after the age of 40 impressed me enormously. As the years went by, I often thought about Jim Thompson’s life and hoped someone would make a serious film about it. When no one did, I learned the basics of filmmaking, tracked down his biographer, secured the permission of Thai Silk Company to film at its factory and main store, and flew to Thailand.

The result was not only the biographical documentary but a second film about Thompson’s Thai house, now a museum showcasing his art collection. (There would have been a third Thai documentary, about silk weaving, but no one cared.) “Jim Thompson, Silk King,” went to festivals, won a prize, got on TV and came out on DVD. Then came what I call The Jim Thompson Business: years of correspondence from conspiracy theorists, distant Thompson relatives, and a guy who wanted me to fly to Kuala Lumpur so that he could tell me what his dead father saw in the Highlands that Easter Sunday. (I didn’t go). There were inquiries from movie producers seeking the (perennially unavailable) rights to Thompson’s biography for a feature film, and inquiries from movie producers wanting to make a film based on a fictional character who resembled Jim Thompson. And a series of emails from a writer named Josh Kurlantzik, who was working on a book about Americans in Thailand after WWII, including Jim. Would I care to be interviewed? Of course I would; I also let him borrow footage of my interviews, newsreels and various other materials from “Jim Thompson, Silk King.”

Four years later, the resulting book has reached publication, only it’s called, The Ideal Man: The Tragedy of Jim Thompson and the American Way of War. (Why Kurlantzik danced around his subject is a mystery, since he had every right to write about Thompson, but he did the same with my interviewees in Thailand.) Although I haven’t read the book, I have read the new Foreign Policy article by Kurlantzik, which sheds light on Thompson’s political activities in Thailand and Laos during the Vietnam War. Through the Freedom of Information Act, Kurlantzik was able to obtain Thompson’s CIA file which, though heavily redacted, quashes the idea that he was a politically uninvolved businessman. As I learned from my own research, Thompson remained deeply committed to anti-colonialism and national self-determination in Southeast Asia, and scoffed at the prevailing Domino Theory. These beliefs put him on a collision course with various governments, including his own, and no doubt sealed his fate.

In making “Jim Thompson, Silk King,” I wanted to shift the focus of public interest from Thompson’s unsolved disappearance to his remarkable life. Then I tried to walk away from The Jim Thompson Business, only to learn that, as with the CIA, one can never really leave. Earlier this year, I optioned my documentary for a feature film. The script is in progress; if it gets made, I’ll let you know.

Note: DVDs of “Jim Thompson, Silk King,” and “The Jim Thompson House and Art Collection” can be ordered from

Without A Box

May 18, 2009 § Leave a comment

Once upon a time, filmmakers on the festival circuit had to obtain an application for each festival, fill it out and mail a check along with videocassette (remember those?). I’m not making this up; moreover, this was the way it was done in 2001, when I started sending out my first documentary. I can’t even remember how I obtained the applications, but I do remember the process was tedious and discouraging enough to prevent me from entering more than a handful of festivals.

How things have changed. Now there’s Without A Box, a website that allows filmmakers to fill out a standard online application used by hundreds of festivals. While the WAB application– which includes a press kit–takes some time to fill out, it only has to be done once. After that, it’s just a matter of choosing the festival and providing a credit card number before sending every conceivable bit of information about the film–including production stills–off with a single mouse click. The DVD does have to be mailed, but that’s the only manual labor involved.

This is why I find myself with two films–one long-form documentary and a short feature– entered in a dozen festivals. And why I often can be found tending my WAB web page by updating information, browsing the descriptions of upcoming festivals and pruning my watch list as I apply (or don’t apply) to new ones. If the Internet is a virtual world, Without A Box is (for the moment) my virtual home.

The only catch–besides the expense–is that not every festival is on Without A Box. The larger and older the festival, the less likely it is to want to surrender part of each entry fee to be on the WAB roster.  Toronto, New York, Montreal, Venice and Deauville go their own way with online applications, while Cannes maintains some mysterious application process that apparently doesn’t involve the Internet. Recently, my filling out one of these festivals’ applications was a crawl through the gaslit streets of the misty, pre-Without A Box past. Though the application was online, the site was so much more difficult to navigate than WAB’s that I would have gotten through it faster using paper, and perhaps a quill pen.

As much as most filmmakers dread selling their wares, Without A Box has made the crucial marketing phase so much easier that it’s easy to forget how much worse things used to be. Until, of course, they apply to a festival that’s not on it. Though it’s probably unrealistic to expect the most famous festivals to put themselves on WAB, it’s not so far-fetched to imagine a WAB-inspired redesign of their applications and websites.  I can dream, can’t I?

Nagisa Oshima and the Japanese New Wave

May 3, 2009 § 1 Comment

Miyuki Kuwano and Yusuke Kawazu in "Cruel Story of Youth/Courtesy

The recent Oshima retrospective at the American Cinematheque in Hollywood–continuing at LACMA–was a bracing reminder of the Japanese New Wave, which lasted much longer than the French one– from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s–and whose directors included Shohei Imamura, Seijun Suzuki and Hiroshi Teshigahara. Unlike their French counterparts, who mostly began as film critics, most Japanese New Wave directors  came up through the studio system, serving traditional apprenticeships before rebelling against the restrained filmmaking styles of their elders (Ozu, Mizoguchi) .

No one pushed the envelope more than Oshima, who in his rejection of tasteful indirection also depicted an amoral new generation of Japanese–mods and punks, gangsters and juvies–flailing their way through life in a developing superpower. The post-war images of genteel city dwellers in the black-and-white films of Ozu give way to Oshima’s blasts of 1960s neon, bouffant hairdos and stylish outfits, showing the world just how much had changed in Japan during the 50’s.

In “Cruel Story of Youth,” a pretty, aimless high school girl takes up with a sadistic but handsome petty criminal, with predictably tragic results. In “Pleasures of the Flesh,” a besotted young university student’s obsession with his high school tutee leads him to commit murder on her behalf, a crime that renders him both a victim of blackmail and his own bottomless appetite for self-destruction.

The films take place in the Tokyo of my childhood, whose locations–Shibuya, Yoyogi, Asakusa–I recognized with delight. I was far too young to have seen any of them when they came out and it would be decades before they were available on video, so seeing them for the first time was both a relevation and a reminder of how many decades have passed since rich Japanese men aspired to big American cars  (which they apparently used to cruise jailbait on the Ginza).  Oshima’s characters–however stupid, violent or wrongheaded–are so vivid that the screen barely contains them; in their determination to get rich, get the girl,  get revenge, they seem on the verge of bursting through the frame.

The strangest of the Oshima films I saw last weekend was “Japanese Summer: Double Suicide,” in which a hilarious, nihilistic, nymphomaniacal teenage girl hooks up with a suicidal stranger in hopes of having sex. The two wind up in a bunker of paramilitary assassins preparing for the start of a gang war. The result is an unforgettable mashup of Godot’s “Weekend,” “Waiting for Godot,” and “The Wild Bunch.” The female protagonist–ballsy, profane and unlike any other–is still making me laugh a week later.

Other directors have been compared to Jean-Luc Godard, but in this case the comparison is apt; not only do Oshima’s early films and their concerns mirror his, but both men came to filmmaking the same way, starting as critics, which made Oshima atypical in Japan and Godard typical in France. Like Godard, Oshima writes his own scripts and is a master of unexpected dialog. “She’s mute and a little crazy, but she’s nice,” says a madam about one of her prostitutes in “Pleasures of the Flesh.”

The first Oshima film I ever saw was the also the first I was aware of: “In the Realm of the Senses.” When it opened the New York Film Festival in 1976, the police shut it down; arrests were made. It caused rioting in Cannes and has never been shown in its uncensored form in Japan. When it finally came out on video in the early 90’s, I rushed out to rent it, mentioning to the cashier at Rocket Video that I had been too young to see it when it was new. “You may still be too young,” he laughed, and he had a point. What I saw was not only the first hard-core pornography of my life but also the most purely artistic film I’d ever seen, one that burned so deeply into my mind that I remember it vividly nearly two decades later. (It opened the Cinematheque retrospective, but I missed it because of a shut-down of Hollywood Blvd. for a Depeche Mode concert.)

“In the Realm of the Senses,” obsessed me for days, during which I talked about it to any adult who would listen. My tendency to ruminate on it unnerved my boyfriend at the time, who once threatened to get out of my bed if I didn’t stop describing the plot to him. (Spoiler alert: the heroine, a prostitute swept up in a amour fou, cuts off her lover’s penis and carries it around in her obi for a few days, until the police catch up with her. It’s a true story that took place in the 1930s.)

Eventually I stopped talking about the film, but I’ve never stopped thinking  about  its amazing power. Oshima’s psychological fearlessness, coupled with his superb visual and writing styles, are keys to his greatness. His work puts him head and shoulders above most of today’s directors, even the best of whom care more about “likeability” (both their characters’ and their own) than depicting life in all its beauty, brutality and complexity. In a time of increasingly inane and boring cinematic pablum, it’s a relief to know that–at least on DVD–there are brilliant alternatives.

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