A collection of various documents, such as transcriptions
of conferences, readings, discussions.
documents – reading
The critic as a lone wolf:
François Truffaut and Nagisa
By Philip Cheah
The late 50s was a curious time. It was the true globalization when
the New Wave began both in the East and in the West. The French New Wave
had as much impact as the Japanese New Wave.
Isn't it any wonder that two
of my favorite film critics are the directors Nagisa Oshima and Francois
Truffaut. Their two books have been constant reference points whenever
I have felt uninspired. "Cinema, Censorship
And The State" (MIT Press, 1992) is a collection of Oshima's film
criticism since he began contributing to various publications from 1956. "The
Films In My Life" (Penguin, first published 1975)
is Truffaut's own compilation of writings from 1954–58. Both books cover
their journalism before and after they became filmmakers.
imparts a crucial lesson for any young critic, that it is important to
be subjective. It's a lie whenever someone accuses a critic for not being
objective. As Truffaut said: "Art is not scientific. Why should
criticism be?" What he means is that if a critic cannot enter subjectively
/ emotionally into a piece of work, how can he engage the art? But Truffaut
proves that one can always relentlessly think about what one loves, or
Reading the book today, one realizes that many of
his observations still ring true. For instance, that up to a certain
stage in film history (probably till the late 50s), "intelligence
stayed behind the camera, it didn't try to be in evidence on the screen".
Instead "films have become
more intelligent — or rather, intellectual — than those who look at them".
For this reason, Bollywood (Indian musical epics) has become a big trend
because it still commands a mass audience and it still maintains an intelligence
level similar to the audience. For this reason also, Hollywood is still
a dominant force because so much of that cinema has been recycled ad
Truffaut also notes something that lies deep in
our hearts: "The
public's desire to see a film — its power to attract — is a stronger
motivation than the power of any criticism". Here, he reminds us
that while criticism appears to be feared or reviled, it has no collective
power. This is because critics don't operate as groups and sadly, this
has been particularly true since the 90s when critics were co-opted as
advertising mouthpieces or when the most interesting critics started
losing their jobs because they were too intellectual for their audience.
critic as a lone wolf is what Nagisa Oshima demonstrates time and time
again, both in his writing and in his films. Oshima's example is that
in the end, the critic must be true to his art and his ideals. As he
says: "I am independent, and for that reason I am positively
full of rebellion." It's his vow not to be bought out or to sell
Yet to reach this point, Oshima had to hit rock bottom
and that's what makes the writing in the book such riveting reading.
It is filled with Oshima's despair, disillusionment and even self-hatred.
As he said: "Ever
since that time in my youth when I realized that I was a coward and weak,
my main concern has been how a weak person like myself can continue to
protect himself and survive in this world". Yet of course, we know
that Oshima wasn't a coward. In his writings and in his cinema, he has
consistently been vocal and courageous in going his own way.
may be most remembered for his groundbreaking sex film masterpiece, "In
the Realm of the Senses" (1976), but most people fail to see that
film's politics and the trajectory of his cinema that led to that film.
Growing up in the post-war years of Japan, Oshima had strong feelings
against the American occupation. So did many of his generation's peers.
You can see that seething anger and disenchantment in all of his early
films from "Cruel Story about Youth" (1960) to "A Study
about Japanese Bawdy Songs" (1967).
makes the point that cinema became too smart after a certain point,
Oshima makes a generational argument. He argues that, "At
some point, however, people stop seeing films. I don't know about other
countries, but in Japan this happens to everyone after adolescence".
observed that it was the young disenchanted post-war generation that
gave the impetus for the New Wave. It was also the growing up of this
generation that almost lost the ground for the New Wave. During the
50s, Oshima had to continually exhort and remind his readers that they
had a role to play.
Trained as a lawyer, Oshima's other
important contribution to cinema was his fervent protests against censorship.
To this day, "In the
Realm of the Senses" has never been shown uncut in Japan. Oshima
has been the rallying point for many Asian critics who have faced similar
censorship woes. In fact, many foreign critics don't realize just how
onerous the censorship burden is in Asian film.
in his writings, particularly from 1963–65, when he visited Korea and
Vietnam, Oshima reflected on the horror of war and the horrifying images
of war. He pointed out: "There is something else I want to
say to you people of 'good sense'. Have you ever put yourself in the
place of the youth who was decapitated? The position of a youth whose
life of 10-odd years was tragically cut short? Inspite of that, will
you still cover your eyes? What I am trying to say is that closing your
eyes to cruelty is itself cruel". In many ways, "In the Realm
of the Senses" is also directed at the 'people of good sense'. It's
an attack on hypocrisy. During his trial for obscenity, Oshima makes
his case: "Isn't it ludicrous that the same Japanese who are unable
to see something in Japan are able to see it in a foreign country? Why
is something that is not considered 'obscene' in a foreign country is
considered 'obscene' here? Isn't Japan one of the advanced countries?
Isn't Japan part of the free world?"
Finally, what Oshima leaves
us with is that critics must do their jobs with conscience. In today's
media when the censorship word is diluted with euphemistic phrases
such as 'edited' or 'reduced scenes', only the critics of conscience
can see through that.
Philip Cheah is co-editor of the Asian rockmagazine BigO,
devoted to music and film, and director of the International Singapore