Reeling in Nagisa Oshima’s “The Ceremony”

Monday, June 29, 2009

Jose Lopez (photo: Reid Rosefelt)One of the first jobs I was given after I started at New Yorker Films in 1976 had to do with Nagisa Oshima’s “The Ceremony.” Office Manager Jose Lopez told me that there had been some complaints about our 16mm prints. Some people had voiced concerns that the reels were out of order. Jose told me watch all of them, see if there was a problem, and if necessary, fix them.

Death by Hanging I had only seen one film by Oshima before, and that was “Death by Hanging.” This was about a convict who somehow survives hanging, but loses his memory. As the law requires him to be aware of his crimes, the officials stage a rape and a murder. They are so enthusiastic in their reenactment that they actually kill a girl, the first of many crimes. The only other thing I knew about Oshima is that the rape in “Death by Hanging” wasn’t an unusual occurrence in his films. I can’t find the quote but I remember reading something like, “Oshima without rapes would be like John Ford without Monument Valley.” I did find this from Audie Bock: “In every Oshima film at least one murder, rape, theft or blackmail incident can be found, and often the whole of the film is constructed around the chronic repetition of such a crime.”Nagisa Oshima

So in my case, the “crime” was that some fool had screwed up the order of the reels and it was up to me to fix it by chronic repetition. Still, if I was going to have to watch a movie six times, you can imagine my relief that it would be an Oshima film and not a snooze-fest like Danielle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub’s “Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach” or four hours long like Jacque Rivette’s “L’amour fou.”

The Ceremony“The Ceremony” is a family saga that spans generations, and its story is told through a series of family gatherings and rites--weddings, anniversaries, f unerals, and so on. The actual title of the film is “Ceremonies.” Oshima said about the film: “Ceremonies are a time when the special characteristics of the Japanese  spirit are revealed. It is this spirit that concerns and worries me.” If you see this movie, you will sure as hell agree he’s got a lot to be worried about, because it is one weird movie, even if you don’t have to watch it over and over and over.

The CeremonyBecause the film went from ceremony to ceremony, I had sympathy for those who watched it and weren’t completely sure it was out of order. I didn’t have any script, but  after a single viewing, there didn’t seem to be any question in my mind. By any standard—narratively, artistically, formally—it seemed to me that “The Ceremony” wouldn’t make sense unless reel three played before reel two.

At that point, I got curious to see what the critical response had been to the 16mm screenings. It turned out the fakakta print had been getting rave reviews. This didn’t surprise me. At that age, I often praised certain classic films when I had absolutely no clue what they were about or why I was expected to like them.*   I had various ways of dealing with those situations, most often by reaching into my toolbox of Academic jargon.  So if people were secretly bewildered by our screwed up print, I could see how they might cope with that by applauding its meta-narrative anti-temporal whatever.

Anyway, I explained to Jose my logic for re-ordering the reels and he gave me the go-ahead to change all six prints.


And that was that until a few months later, when Oshima’s “In the Realm of the Senses” was scheduled to premiere at the New York Film Festival. 

 Eiko Matsuda and Tatsuya Fuki in "In the Realm of the Senses"

“In the Realm of the Senses” was the first art film I knew of that featured hard-core sex scenes. Since then Catherine Breillat, Vincent Gallo, Lars von Trier, Larry Clark, John Cameron Mitchell, and others have made this ho-hum for the artsy-fartsy crowd, but then people got very worked up about whether Oshima was exploiting his actors. The movie was based on a real-life story and I don’t think I’m giving anything away to say that it had a notorious castration scene. Gerard Depardieu in "The Last Woman"1976 was a banner year for castration movies.  Gérard Depardieu, walked around naked through much of Marco Ferreri’s “The Last Woman,” often with an authentic boner, before going DIY and slicing off his own schlong to prove a point to Ornella Muti. (Criterion, this film is calling your name!) I’m sure there was a third penisectomy that festival season, but I can’t remember what it was. (Cineastes, can you help me out?)

Anyway, at the last minute, the US Customs refused to let the print of “In the Realm of the Senses” into the country. With Oshima set to be in attendance and a crowd of A-listers expected, a replacement was urgently needed. Festival Director Richard Roud asked for “The Ceremony,” and Dan sent our one 35mm print over immediately. On the night of the screening of “The Ceremony,” I was walking out after the previous film, Alain Tanner’s “Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000,” one of our upcoming releases. As you can imagine, there was no movie I wanted to see less than “The Ceremony.” But something came to my mind and in a very casual way I turned to Jose and asked:

“Did you ever fix the 35mm print of ‘The Ceremony’?”

Jose’s face turned ashen.

With “The Ceremony” set to begin screening in minutes, I rushed up to the projection booth. Jose and I explained the situation to the projectionist. If I tried to tell you how tightly wound and jittery this guy was, you wouldn’t believe me. He took his job extremely seriously, and it was a matter of life and death to him that every detail be rehearsed and that there would be no leeway for mistakes. He was quivering with nervous energy before I arrived to send him bouncing off the walls with fear.

It was entirely possible that the 35mm print would be just fine. In any case, I had just made the changes a month or two before and I remembered them well.  Unfortunately this wasn’t a 16mm print like the ones I’d fixed.  There were only four reels in the 16mm prints, but there were seven reels in the 35mm print. I had to keep calm. I started a few reels in and began looking at the beginning and endings, until I was sure.

“It’s in the wrong order,” I said.

I felt like I had killed the projectionist. But I refused to let his freakout affect me; I had a job to do.

“Take these two reels and put them before this one.”

The projectionist looked like he wanted to cry. But I was 22 years old and the many castastrophes I would live through in the movie business were still far ahead.

“Don’t worry,” I said.

And then I went home.

After the screening, Roud approached Oshima gingerly.

“Mr. Oshima, were the reels in the right order?”

Oshima looked at him like he was out of his mind.

“Of course,” he said.