This year’s Festival du Nouveau Cinema (FNC) provided a substantial number of documentaries on cinema as part of its “Histoire(s) du Cinema” sidebar. POV caught four titles on this subject and together they elucidate the problems as well as the formal, philosophical, and even emotional potential of cinema on cinema.
While an entertaining and able addition to this canon, Arata Oshima’s The Sion Sono (and yes, Oshima is the son of Nagisa) would have better served by further exploring the ambiguities of its subject, maverick director Sion Sono or with a cinema verité approach a la Rafi Pitt’s electric Abel Ferrara: Not Guilty, which followed the eccentric director on a couple rambling drunken nights. Instead what we have is a glimpse of Sion Sono in a variety of roles over 2014-15, when he made the whopping amount of five feature films.
We see Sono on set during the making of The Whispering Star. We see interviews with him before and after, drunk and questionably sober. We see him in his studio surrounded by his paintings, living his version of a quaint domestic life with actress Megumi Kagurazaka, playing a show with his rock ‘n’ roll band, performing public performance art, and touring a quasi-retrospective art installation he designed. All this is intended to present an overview of Sion Sono as an artist defined by his endless prolific multitudes. During a formal awards ceremony, he is asked for his philosophical motto. “Quantity over quality,” he replies. Oshima’s documentary fittingly expresses and justifies this droll –and yet very serious – credo by confronting us with Sono’s insane myriad of projects punctuated by his surprisingly pensive ponderings regarding his life, art and philosophy.
But the film still feels like a cursory glance rather than a real submergence into an artist’s mind and work. Showcasing Sono’s variety of talents almost provides an excuse to not go any deeper, taking at its philosophical core inspirational platitudes about Sono’s prolific energy. There is a very revealing moment when Sono lightly criticizes Oshima for focusing on him while he was smoking a cigarette rather than concentrating on the more interesting going-ons in the environment around him. Instead of letting moments and insights reveal Sono to him, Oshima relies and revels in hero-worship to guide him. But what is the easy path is also one of the least rewarding.
As well, Oshima never pursues Sono’s revelation about the recent films he made commercially in the Japanese industry: he states on-camera that it is only for the most part the independent films that he himself writes that he works hard on. The year Oshima followed Sono around to make a paean to his independent spirit was a terrible time to choose, as it was the year when his films completely lost their distinctive style and personality. I have not had the opportunity to watch The Whispering Star, but all of the other 2015 films – including one that he directed from an old script – are pretty much unwatchable dreck. Hopefully he will disprove it, but it’s hard not to get the feeling from those films that Sono is another anti-establishment figure who lost everything that made his films glimmer–“A Sion Sono Film”–when going commercial for the mainstream Japanese film industry.
In terms of obvious territory left unexplored, Oshima is content to consider Sono as anti-establishment, an anomalous figure in Japanese culture and leave it that. This is particularly strange as Oshima’s father is the most internationally renowned anti-Establishment Japanese director! The tradition and genealogy of counter-cultural Japanese cinema is so obvious in this specific case that it is frankly unbelievable that it’s completely ignored.
It would be difficult for a film like The Sion Sono not to be entertaining, and it definitely succeeds at that. But it is evident that the necessary attention, patience, and sensitivity to artfulness required for a portrait of an artist–even if that artist a genre filmmaker—is notably absent. The documentary’s lack of depth is substituted by adolescent platitudes that ring hollow.
Ross Lipman’s Notfilm, also unfortunately relies on platitudes–or at the very least some halfbaked superfluous commentary. Lipman’s “kino-essay” details the events and characters surrounding Samuel Beckett’s first and last foray into the world of cinema, Film (1965) which stars Buster Keaton (!).
But once the doc gets going, Film’s fairly extraordinary events and starts to rely on Lipman’s research and interviews, it becomes compelling. It is hard not to be immediately riveted by any anecdotes about Samuel Beckett or Buster Keaton. And there is no question as to the value of the interviews Lipman conducted with many of Beckett’s friends and colleagues, including Grove Press publisher Barney Rossett in what must have been one of his last interviews.
Seeing the restored test footage shot by legendary cinematographer Boris Kaufman (Jean Vigo’s cameraman and brother of Dziga Vertov) of Film’s original opening is a real pleasure as is hearing Beckett’s lyrical Irish voice in rare tapes Rossett gave to Lipman. It is a shame that Lipman felt compelled to include ponderous pseudo-profound musings front and center in his doc, accompanied by a rote and predictable Mihaly Vig soundtrack.
Steven Okazaki’s Mifune: The Last Samurai is a documentary biopic by the numbers, a complete trifle made for western audiences. The English voice over is performed by Keanu Reeves, and there are requisite interviews with Steven Soderbergh and Martin Scorsese. While, we hear from his collaborators, a number of enthralling anecdotes about Mifune, his unintentional entrance into acting, and his relationship with Kurosawa, the film has a complete allergy to depth of any kind. We hear about “tension between Kurosawa and Mifune” in the later period of their career, but nothing more. Okazaki has made an enjoyable enough diversion with enough worthwhile talking heads to make it watchable, but nothing more.
A work of true devotion, Seifollah Samadian’s 76 Minutes and 15 Seconds With Abbas Kiarostami, was a balm for the soul in more ways than one. It certainly worked wonderfully as an antidote to the problematic elements of the other documentaries at the festival. Samadian was a close friend and collaborator of Kiarostami’s, and it shows. Compiled from home video footage of Kiarostami at work – like Sono, in a variety of roles (though no rock’n’ roll band here) – whether it is taking photographs, touring the landscapes he has used for “sets,” collaborating with old and younger friends, shooting footage for Five, and so on. It is difficult to express what an absolute gift it is to see the process of a genius, to glimpse the movements of his mind, his playfulness and endless energy. This is a documentary made with complete humility: Samadian lets everything unfold as it should, bestowing us with many golden moments in turn. Those moments are of course most rewarding if one is familiar with Kiarostami’s work – so make this an excuse to become familiar with his work, if you haven’t already! There could be no more fitting tribute to Kiarostami’s tragic passing earlier this year. And there could be no more fitting a final sequence than in this doc. Impossibly moving.