JUSTIN ISIS on film with Rebecca Gransden

JUSTIN ISIS on film with Rebecca Gransden

What film, or films, made the first deep impression on you?

The Symbolist, Expressionist, and allegorical elements of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (both the original, and the tinted, Giorgio Moroder-soundtracked version) immediately seized my attention, existing as they did in their own world, separate from conventional dramatic films. The combination of ‘futuristic’ themes (robots, industrial machinery, dystopian cityscapes) with medieval images of Death, crucifixions and church interiors produced an aesthetic that seemed uncanny and oddly timeless; as a child it wasn’t immediately apparent to me when the film had been made, or what, if any, relation it had to other films. It seemed to stand completely apart from time, a hermetic artform of its own. This quality made me want to rewatch it, while I quickly lost interest in most other narrative films. 

Very often film is one of the ways we first come into contact with a world outside that of our direct experience. Which films introduced you to areas of life away from the familiar circumstances you grew up in?

My father, an Italian national, was fond of Pasolini, and he introduced me to Italian cinema with films like The Gospel According to St. Matthew and The Decameron. These films struck me as both more ‘down to earth’ and more remote than those I was used to: also more human. The treatment of the sexual theme seemed markedly different from the alternately puritanical and salacious depictions in American and broader Anglosphere cinema. Although still recognizably genre pieces (religious pictures, comedies, etc.) they made most other genre films seem rigid and conventional.

What films first felt transgressive to you? Do you remember being secretive about any films you watched growing up?

I’ve never seen a film I would consider ‘transgressive.’ The act of editing film or video scenes into a sequence is sort of like a soft, warm, velvet-gloved hand taking your own and escorting you on a little retinal tour. To film war, murder, etc. is to aestheticize, to soften it. Moving images are the comfortable Victorian furniture of the 20th century. The ‘replayability’ of film caricatures all events that could be considered ‘transgressive’ and turns them, literally, into period pieces. Given that we now live in the 21st century, I can’t imagine how anyone could consider these ‘filmed theater’ video edited sequences ‘transgressive’, alarming, etc.

Are there any films that define your formative years?

Bunuel’s early films Un Chien Andalou and L’Age d’Or struck me as amusing when I was a teenager, and represented the sort of direction I thought all films should have taken. The ability to present striking images in sequence, with the thematic connective tissue requiring constructive assumptions on the part of the viewer, seemed much more compelling than the strategies used in almost all traditional narrative films. To put it another way, the ability to video edit slices of film into a sequence approximating a theatrical performance seems like the most uninteresting tangent that film has taken in our universe. I assume there are other universes or timelines in which most films resemble the early Bunuel works.

As an older teenager I found modern films such as René Laloux’s Gandahar and Tarsem Singh’s The Cell interesting to the extent that they allowed for the presentation of imaginative artistic images. I didn’t care at all about the narrative sinews (thriller plots, space adventures, serial killer intrigues) lifted from commercial fiction that studios seemed to require to bind these images together. In general, music videos struck me as much more interesting than almost all narrative films, and still seem this way to me.  

Can you talk about the influence film has had on your writing?

The influence has been mostly negative, as I’ve tried to move further and further from ideas of visualization, which I consider mostly an impediment to the expansion of interesting writing. In general, I wish writers were LESS influenced by film than they seem to be; or at least that they were more influenced by films which depart significantly from the ‘filmed theater’ model. Writers who seem to want to write a commercial screenplay in prose strike me as the least interesting sort. The same goes for all attempts at translating cinematic terminology to prose. I don’t think in ‘scenes’ or ‘arcs’ or worry about character ‘reaction shots’ or anything similar, although I’m aware this terminology is common among the sort of workshop-influenced class that makes up the Neo-Passéist publishing industry.

Do you use film as a prompt or direct motivation for your writing?

Certain images or association blocks from films recur in my memory, but rarely form a direct impetus to writing. 

What directors, film movements, or particular actors have been an influence?

Edmund Yeo, evidently the most interesting/important Malaysian filmmaker of his generation, has been a long term friend to me. His award-winning films have adapted stories from Yasunari Kawabata and Natsuo Kirino, and most recently he has produced a film version of Banana Yoshimoto’s novella Moonlight Shadow. Our sensibilities perhaps don’t overlap entirely, but we share an emphasis on atmosphere over plot, and some thematic similarities. More broadly, directors like Bunuel, Iwai and Tarkovsky have produced work I find interesting.

Have you ever made a film? If so, has the process of doing that had an influence on your writing?

Early short film collaborations with Edmund Yeo, for which I both wrote scripts and acted. These were more experiments than anything, and I believe the director has disowned them. All were enjoyable to make, but there was little impact on my writing except to confirm that I wasn’t particularly interested in producing the sorts of scenarios that tend to be ‘filmable.’ 

Thinking about the places you’ve lived, are there any environments that are cinematic? Have you lived anywhere that has been regularly depicted onscreen? If so, has this had an influence on your perception of the place, or how you’ve depicted it in any of your writings?

Tokyo has been depicted on screen countless times, but mostly in ways that serve to exasperatingly ignore its daily rhythms and general atmosphere. I’m thinking of something like Gaspar Noe’s overrated and pointless Enter the Void, which makes both Tokyo and DMT seem slow and boring, when both are anything but (I wish Leos Carax had been kept away too, as his short work “Merde” is equally embarrassing, and a waste of the location shoot).

Japanese films like the Rina Sakurai vehicle Girl’s Life, or even the sentimentality of Hitoshi Ohne’s Sunny, which depicts the late Heisei period with a modicum of accuracy, seem more interesting to me than most attempts to depict Tokyo ‘artistically.’

Nicolas Roeg has filmed Australia in ways that seem interesting to me. Or Stephen Johnson’s Yolngu Boy.

Here again though, the depiction of these places seems to accord very little with my everyday experiences of them. Reality does not seem ‘filmic’ or ‘cinematic’ to me. 

Are there films you regularly return to, and do you know why?

I’ve mostly stopped watching them altogether, as the aforementioned video edited narrative format seems less and less interesting to me as the years go by. With this said, I’d rather watch a film than watch a Netflix streaming series, as the ‘Golden Age of Television’ leaves me unmoved, and the ability to recreate Victorian-style narratives in tediously elongated televisual form seems curiously retrograde.

What films have roused a visceral reaction in you?

My viscera have been rather perturbed any time I have had to endure anything from the execrable Wes Anderson. The Steven Spielberg/M. Night Shyamalan, etc. school of commercial filmmaking, with its diabetic emotions and heroic children, also harms my viscera to the extent that I am forced to seek immediate alcoholic relief. 

Are there films that are reliable for inspiring your creativity?

When I watch them at all, I prefer them to be as out-of-context as possible, so that moments of drama or emotion stand isolated. Really there is no overriding logic. The reliquarian nature of YouTube seems more interesting than most of these films in their original contexts. Hopping between filmic fragments, watching endings without having seen beginnings, etc. seems more productive and inspiring than sitting through a full, linear two hours of anything. Imagine snippets of Fellini segueing into the climax of Macross: Do You Remember Love? followed arbitrarily by scenes from Żuławski’s On the Silver Globe.

Which of your writings would adapt most successfully to film?

Everything I write is designed to be unfilmable, in the sense that I consciously avoid the kinds of pacing and ‘mental movie’ formats which would lend themselves to cinematic representation. At most, I think I could tolerate an opera or some kind of ballet piece: a blind, ecstatic, unrepeatable dancing. Writers are closer to dancers or weight lifters (the two are united in ballet) than they are to cinematographers or petty dramatists.

I note that my definition of ‘success’ here is probably different from most. I’m sure Kenneth Anger (is he still alive?) could pull off something that would approximate parts of my novel Invariant, especially if he were given access to an animation studio and a fairly large budget. Video games would be another option. 

Can you give some film recommendations for those who have liked your writing?

The films of Shunji Iwai strike me as similar in atmosphere to my writing: Swallowtail Butterfly, April Story, Hana & Alice, etc.

Toshiaki Toyoda’s Blue Spring is another film that seems to occupy some of the psychic landscape of my writing.  

Justin Isis is a Tokyo-based writer, artist and occultist. His works include I Wonder What Human Flesh Tastes Like (Chômu Press, 2011), Welcome to the Arms Race (Chômu Press, 2015), and Divorce Procedures for the Hairdressers of a Metallic and Inconstant Goddess (Snuggly Books, 2016). He has edited a number of anthologies including The Neo-Decadent Cookbook (Eibonvale Press, 2020) and Neo-Decadence Evangelion (Zagava, 2022).

Rebecca Gransden lives on an island. She is published at Tangerine Press, Ligeia, Expat, BRUISER, and Fugitives & Futurists, among others. Her books include anemogram., Sea of Glass, Creepy Sheen, and Figures Crossing the Field Towards the Group.