Three Scenes of the 1970s

In the Realm of the Senses

Three Scenes of the 1970s

By Adrian Martin

From Metrograph Vol. 12, Winter 2018.

Three chronicles of going to the cinema, during which the setting had as much impact as the film itself.

the palais theater

1. In the Realm

In 1977 I was 17, not yet old enough to legally attend the Melbourne International Film Festival. And certainly not old enough to view the uncensored print of Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses (1976), a Japanese film already notorious for its unbridled—and sometimes unsimulated—sex scenes. But there I was, unaccompanied, bravely queuing up with thousands of strangers outside the enormous, old-style Palais theater, very early on a Saturday morning, to see this ultra-special event, in 35mm celluloid on a vast, loud screen.

The feeling of engaging in an illicit adventure both before and during the screening was overwhelming; I was convinced that the cops would bust in at any second and drag me—only me—whimpering from the theatre.

Near the end of the session, as the genitals of Kichi (Tatsuya Fuji), voluntarily strangled to death, are tenderly severed and brandished by his enthusiastic lover, Sada (Eiko Matsuda), we all heard a blood-curdling scream, issuing from a distressed audience member up in the highest seats of the picture palace. Emergency service was required for this suitably transgressed spectator.

Afterwards, in the nearby back streets of the suburb along which I walked home in a daze, an even stranger apparition seized the world, this one more in tune with the Georges Bataille–style surrealism and eroticism of the film just witnessed. Parked cars, with no one visible in any seat, rocked gently or violently back and forth, as if seized by a magical will. Clearly, some spectators, unfazed—or perhaps incited—by the final castration scene had raced to their mobile bedrooms to live out the movie before its credits had even stopped rolling.

I made it home safely that day, avoiding police arrest for my crime against state restrictions over my delicate consciousness. But I had to wait 23 years before seeing In the Realm of the Senses again in any form but the pathetically dubbed and cut video version that circulated for decades. On screen, fully restored and re-released, I saw that Oshima’s film had lost none of its hushed, riveting power.

But in 2000 there was no scandal: no public figure made a fuss over it; the cops were not called in; nobody screamed; the empty cars in nearby alleyways sat forlornly still. As a wise man said: “Only those who lived before the revolution know life’s sweetness.”

The feeling of engaging in an illicit adventure both before and during the screening was overwhelming; I was convinced that the cops would bust in at any second and drag me—only me—whimpering from the theater.

2. Anamorphosis

As hard as it is to imagine from the viewpoint of today, Jacques Rivette’s Céline and Julie Go Boating (1974) was enough of a commercial success in Melbourne cinemas of the mid-to-late 1970s to create space for the release of an even more experimental film hailing from the Rivette “family”: namely, Eduardo de Gregorio’s Sérail (aka Surreal Estate, 1976). Argentinean-born de Gregorio had been a script collaborator on Céline and Julie Go Boating, always present during shooting to provide any dialogue or extra ideas needed on the spot.

Re-seen today, Sérail loses none of its strangeness. A British novelist (Corin Redgrave) in France is drawn in by a sprawling, atmospheric, mostly empty manor where two mysterious women (Bulle Ogier and Marie-France Pisier from Céline and Julie Go Boating) spin stories and adopt fake identities. Lurking in the background is none other than Leslie Caron, perhaps more of a Mabusean manipulator than she is letting on.

But what happened to the ending? From the ‘70s, I retain an absolutely vivid memory of the final shot: we are serenely looking at this haunted house from an exterior, distant vantage point when, suddenly, it is as if (pre–David Lynch) a lens is removed from the camera, utterly warping the image. It’s a beautiful flourish: this film about how fiction devours life itself auto-destructs at the end, its fragile illusion going up in smoke.

However, when I test this recollection out on friends around the world, no one can confirm it—and the visual effect is definitely not included on the director-approved DVD edition of Sérail. (De Gregorio himself died in 2012.)

I am forced, finally, to accept the hypothesis of another Melbourne cinephile from those years: it was probably the cinema’s projectionist, anxious to set up for the next session (of an altogether different film), who yanked off the anamorphic lens that would have been necessary to unsqueeze the print of the widescreen Sérail.

In this instance, at least, I am grateful that the projectionist’s intervention—his personal contribution to the unwritten, global history of ”expanded cinema“—was perfectly in tune with the meta-fictional conceits of the film itself.


3. The Ciné-fils

At the very end of the ‘70s, I attended what must have been one of the last “children’s Saturday matinees” scheduled at a suburban cinema situated far from Melbourne’s center—and most certainly the last to screen an old, classic Western, a ritual that had been slowly dying out across the decade. Ten years previously, when I was a child, my father had often taken me to the cinema to watch Westerns, old and new.

But here was my golden opportunity, as a young cinephile, to see Howard Hawks’s mythic Rio Bravo (1959), the film beloved of critics from Robin Wood to Serge Daney, projected on the big screen.

I was the only adult present. Just before the screening started, several parents dropped off their very young kids at the cinema door. These children tolerated about one minute of this ancient movie before deciding to run around the aisles, shouting and playing.

Except for one small boy, who detached himself from the group… and silently came to sit next to me. At intermission (it’s a relatively long Hollywood film), he looked up at me and plaintively inquired: “Do you like this film, Mister?” I answered, as enthusiastically but also as pedagogically as I could: “Yes, I sure do! It’s great!”

The film started again, and the boy silently stayed in his seat for the duration, eyes fixed on the screen. At the end, when the lights went up, he said “Bye, Mister,” and walked out into the street where one of his parents was waiting to pick him up. •

Adrian Martin is a film critic based in Spain.

Rio Bravo