Debating the death of the author becomes much more interesting when the author is alive — and standing right in front of you.
Inaugurating a series of Japanese film screenings hosted by the Council for East Asian Studies, experimental director Takahiko iimura came to campus this weekend to discuss his works. Three screenings were held on Friday and Saturday, focusing on his works from the sixties and seventies.
References to French critical theory flew fast and furious as graduate students taking part in the discussion questioned iimura’s directorial choices. Attendance at this event was slim, especially when contrasted with his visit in 1966, when Yale students almost started a riot upon being turned away from his screening because seats were sold out, iimura said.
The polite, earnest reception might have been disappointing when compared to immura’s screenings in New Haven during the sixties, but the small group of film students and scholars came ready to appreciate his challenging offerings. Beginning the series with the controversial iimura was a bold move; intellectual, demanding and often frustrating, iimura’s avant-garde productions leave no room for passive viewing.
“In iimura’s work, we see a rigorous philosophical examination of media that are so directing, so controlling of modern experience,” said Jonathon Hall of UC Irvine, a professor of film and comparative literature who mediated discussions between iimura and students. “He is someone who is willing to take the time and effort to deal with contemporary issues.”
The issues addressed in immura’s films vary as widely as the forms in which they are presented. iimura’s subjects range from semiology (the study of signs and symbols) to ritual to post-colonial thought processes; he addresses these subjects in works that range from the totally abstract to the mind-numbingly realistic. Most of the films shown this weekend were made during the sixties and seventies, but it would be impossible to define all them as adhering to any one style. iimura was modest and understated when reflecting on the diversity of his work.
“The years passed,” iimura said to his audience after one film. “I changed. My interests changed.”
Judging by the films shown this weekend, iimura’s interests changed a lot, and often. If Saturday afternoon’s “Camera, Monitor, Frame” was a video essay, Saturday night’s “White Calligraphy” was film dada (iimura cited the dada movement as an early influence). In “White Calligraphy,” Japanese characters are flashed across a movie screen, jumping rapidly from one fleeting symbol to the next. Once the film commences, someone picks up the projector and carries it around the theater, flashing the characters onto the audience, the walls and sometimes back onto the screen. Saturday night’s showing was accompanied by musician Michael Pastel.
“The audience participates in the creation of ‘White Calligraphy,’” said Pastel, who played flute, drums and various other instruments during the performance. “The more willing they are to act as primordial witness to the act of creation, to see order brought out of the chaos, the more they will appreciate this film.”
The pace of the “Observer/Observed” screenings on Saturday afternoon picked up after the video essay “Camera, Monitor, Frame,” when a grad student objected to the choices made in the video. Citing contradictions internal to iimura’s works, the viewer started criticizing iimura’s films right in front of their creator, name-dropping Foucault in the process. The previously sleepy room of film students and professors came alive. Someone made an offhand reference to Derrida, and the (seemingly) homeless person sitting behind me woke up.
In the ’60s, iimura’s work was noted for challenging cinematic conventions and it drew large, inquisitive audiences. Today’s climate might be different, but the work remains as audacious as ever.
The Japanese film series will continue on Oct. 18 with “Forget Love for Now” (Koi mo Wasurete) by Shimizu Hiroshi, Oct. 25 with “Street of Violence” (Boryoku no Machi) by Yamamoto Satsuo, and Nov. 1 with “A Storming Drummer” (Arashi o Yobu otoko) by Inoue Umetsugu. All screenings will be held in the Whitney Humanities Center Auditorium at 8 p.m.