Two Sides of the Pacific: Sixty Six and Branded to Kill
By Lewis Klahr
The Mutual Films Session this month [March 2019] presents two great works of pop/experimental film, which were realized respectively in Tokyo and in Los Angeles – Branded to Kill (1967), from the acclaimed Japanese filmmaker Seijun Suzuki (1923-2017), and Sixty Six (2015), from the U.S.- born teacher and auteur Lewis Klahr (1956-present). The pairing grew out of an exchange with Klahr, who discusses the connections between the films in the following introductory text. The screenings are dedicated to the memory of Suzuki, as well as to that of Jonathan Schwartz, an American experimental filmmaker and friend to Klahr who passed away in October of 2018.
- Aaron Cutler and Mariana Shellard (curators of the Mutual Films Session)
I first saw Seijun Suzuki's films in the late 1980s in iconic experimental musician John Zorn's revelatory screening series “Dark Side of the Sun”, which was held at the Collective for Living Cinema in downtown New York City. Zorn curated programs with his extensive collection of Japanese VHS tapes (back then he was living part of the year in Japan) and showed several programs of films by Suzuki, one of which included Branded to Kill. The VHS tapes had no English subtitles and I don’t speak Japanese, so I could not understand the dialogue in the films and therefore could only guess at the storylines. It was actually very exciting to watch narrative films in this dream-like, story-free way. In particular, I was mesmerized by Branded to Kill’s frenetic pace, visual style and genre coordinates. The film’s relentless, raw pulp energy convinced me that I had just experienced a godhead of pure pop vision! Branded to Kill became an immediate favorite and a touchstone reference work for me.
It was several years later when I finally saw Branded to Kill in a movie theater with English-language subtitles. To my great surprise, the increased narrative clarity did nothing to dispel the film’s dream-like intensity. In fact, following the specifics of the crime story made the film's use of discontinuity fully available and revealed Branded to Kill to me as a fully blown, mind-bending work of Surrealism.
It is this sense of shared surrealism that made me suggest a double bill of Branded to Kill and my collage-based feature Sixty Six. Discontinuity is also central to Sixty Six and a hallmark of all of my collage films. In Suzuki, I recognized a fellow traveler who, like me, valued the thrilling sense of surprise that startling juxtapositions create.
To cite a clear and simple example: In an early action scene in Branded to Kill where the hitman Goro Hanada (played by frequent Suzuki star Joe Shishido) is protecting a client from assassins in a car, Hanada shoots through the windshield to kill his adversaries, but the windshield glass doesn't break or show any sign or evidence of the bullet having passed through. In effect, this image is both building and destroying its own fictive illusion.
In Sixty Six, such paradoxical illusionism is the bedrock of my elliptical, associative collage aesthetic. For instance, in the chapter Erigone’s Daughter, the blond female protagonist is cobbled together from various photos of different blondes cut from 1960s and '70s era Portuguese foto-romans. (These were included in the Portuguese magazine Crônica, which I purchased on a visit to Lisbon to attend the IndieLisboa International Film Festival around 2010). I'm asking the viewer to understand that this is the same character – the connecting link is her blond hair—even though it is clear that she is not the same actor. This paradoxical illusionism places the audience both simultaneously inside and outside of Erigone’s Daughter’s fictive universe; I am equally excited about what this neither/nor half-state of engagement can communicate to a viewer about both life and storytelling.
Additionally, Branded to Kill and Sixty Six share the usage of cinematic genre forms as a starting ground that allows for and catalyzes their leaps into cine-poetry. In Sixty Six, the crime film is one of several film genres (both experimental and narrative) that I employ as its twelve individual short films (or chapters) unfold to form one unified and continuous feature-length work across a 90-minute-long duration. Some of the genres that Sixty Six evokes include melodrama with Lip Print (Venus), color flicker films with Saturn’s Diary, elliptical narrative with Ichor, sci-fi with Lethe, and still life with Ambrosia. Trust me, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
One other key point of contact and contrast: Branded to Kill was created in the aesthetic foment of extensive experimentation that characterized 1960s entertainment filmmaking, while Sixty Six is an artist-filmmaker’s backwards gaze at the 1960s, the decade of my childhood, from the cultural and historical vantage point of the recent present. Although I'm optimistic that the two films will inform each other in surprising and unforeseen ways, I'm not entirely sure how Branded to Kill and Sixty Six will play together as a double feature. However, should the pairing prove to be a bit of a non sequitur, this would be completely in line with the spirit of risk-taking and convention-smashing that imbues both films.
Los Angeles, January 2019