Earlier this year the video essayist :: kogonada told the Nashville Scene that he’s “been wanting to do a larger project on [Japanese director Yasujiro] Ozu, but it always feels like I’m killing the thing I love.”
Not long after reading David Shields’s Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, still high on its rallying cry for emotion over narrative, concision over Great American Novel bloat, I came across :: kogonada’s work. In his visual essays I discovered the cinematic version of what Shields called “the folk tradition in action: finding new uses for things by selecting the parts that move you and discarding the rest.”
:: kogonada’s works are often called “supercuts,” a term he dislikes. According to Filmmaker, he prefers “essay,” “bricolage,” or “sushi.” His early videos, often no longer than a minute or two each, string together the formal tics of directors: Stanley Kubrick’s fondness for one-point perspective, Wes Anderson’s repeated use of overhead shots. The first :: kogonada essay I really loved collects shots of Ozu characters walking through passageways. He so skillfully sequences and juxtaposes these images that the piece captures the intimacy of people watching.
“I’m less interested in documenting every example of a particular technique in the work of a director,” :: kogonada has said, “than I am putting together something that is both attuning and visually interesting.” If this is his goal I think he succeeds every time. :: kogonada never tries to mimic or distill a filmmaker’s vision: he reassembles that vision until it becomes his own.
Though :: kogonada has appeared at screenings of his work and granted interviews, his real name is unknown. He once told an interviewer, “I’ve always preferred a bit of anonymity.” As far as I can tell, only The Creators Project’s Jonathan Poritsky has attempted to decode :: kogonada’s pseudonym, suggesting it’s a play on frequent Ozu collaborator Kogo Noda. “No comment,” came the sly reply. “(And what about the ‘a’?)” Better yet, I want to ask, what about the colons? Are they meant to be a frame? Is some SAT-style verbal analogy being proposed? Form : content :: kogonada : cinema?
“My father,” :: kogonada told Filmmaker in 2014, “passed along an aesthetic mindset.” He would find pieces of wood and explain to his son the beauty of their form. In the family home his father still displays rocks or pieces of bark he finds aesthetically pleasing. For :: kogonada, this was his father’s way of reiterating “our responsibility to attend to the form of things.”
“Later,” :: kogonada continued, “I’d read McLuhan and Sontag warning about content blinding us to form, and it resonated with me. Forms matter.”
Speaking of Susan Sontag: she once told an interviewer that she writes “partly in order to change myself so that once I write about something I don’t have to think about it anymore. And when I write, it actually is to get rid of those ideas.”
In this space two months ago I wrote about Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill and issues of writing across gender in fiction. It felt rewarding to “get rid” of my ideas about men writing women, but with it came an ache, a fear that I also rid myself of the pleasure I once found in Dressed to Kill. To do my writing justice I had to re-watch certain scenes repeatedly, pick apart the narrative, let De Palma invade my space and I his.
Reviewing :: kogonada’s films for this essay elicited the same dread of waning enthusiasm, of swapping pleasure for ideas. I began to fear that writing about what stirs passion is the fastest way to kill that passion.
The easiest way to keep :: kogonada alive would be to not write about him at all. The second easiest would be letting other people write about him instead.
The New Yorker: “The Nashville-based film artist :: kogonada makes short films for Criterion that are so quiet and rapturous that you feel a jolt when they’re done: they are over before you want them to be over. Whether exploring Robert Bresson’s relationship to hands or neorealism, :: kogonada is a philosopher of the lens.”
Filmmaker: “:: kogonada brings a precision, delicacy and poetry to film studies.”
Nashville Scene: “His thematically linked montages … go beyond list-making and shot-gathering to become entrancing, hypnotic works in themselves.”
“Words,” :: kogonada has said, “are biased toward ideas and abstractions. If you want to delve deep into theory, texts are the perfect medium. … However, when I’m making visual essays, I treat words as supplementary. I want to challenge ideas through an aesthetic arrangement.”
And yet his work has grown wordier. In “What is neorealism?,” one of the first :: kogonada films to incorporate voiceover narration, he champions Italian director Vittorio De Sica for embracing a cinema “in which in-between moments seem to be essential, in which time and place seem more critical than plot or story.” “Trick of Truth” defends director Nobuhiko Obayashi’s claim that his 1979 cult classic House, with its cartoonish gore and surrealist imagery, is really “a fantasy with the atomic bomb as a theme.” “Auteur in Space” insists that Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris is “a call to remain human in the face of the unknown, in the face of technological progress. More than ever poetry matters.”
Words, ironically enough, have freed :: kogonada to edit even more associatively and suggestively, to meditate on concepts that montage alone cannot accommodate. They have inspired :: kogonada to resist their biases with the most graceful aesthetic arrangements of his career.
There is getting rid of ideas and there is killing the thing you love, but there is also this, from the poet and essayist Adam Kirsch: “[S]ince all serious readers engage in this same process of shaping themselves in response to what they read, criticism is also capable of a unique kind of intimacy, and even, despite appearances, vulnerability. For the critic’s assertions are always, read truly, only propositions, impressions, requests for assent. This is how it seems to me: does it seem that way to you too?”
Here is what I want you to do:
Dim the lights. Draw the blinds. Find a comfortable position. Start with one of the best, maybe “Ozu // Passageways” or “Hands of Bresson” or “Linklater // On Cinema and Time.” Watch it. Then watch it again. This time, really look.
Do you see it, too?