2018년 8월 8일 수요일

What Jane Has Taught Us about the Primates... and Us-- A Special Interview with Professor Jae Choe, Distinguished Professor of EcoScience at Ewha Woman's University

In order to explore some of the issues touched upon in the documentary Jane and to improve our understanding of Jane Goodall's pioneering achievement as a primatologist, I have sought out a special interview with Professor Jae Choe (Choe Jae Chun), one of the best-known scientists currently working in South Korea and a powerful voice for environmental conservation, biodiversity and animal rights. 

Professor Choe received a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology at Harvard University under the supervision of Edward O. Wilson and Bert Hölldobler, and had taught at Harvard as well as University of Michigan before returning to Seoul National University in 1994 as a professor of biological sciences.  Since 2006 he has been in charge of the newly created EcoScience program at Ewha University as Distinguished Professor of EcoScience at Ewha Woman's University. 

Professor Choe has also been one of the most successful popular advocates of science in South Korea, having authored and translated more than fifty Korean-language books on the topics ranging from evolutionary biology, ecology, and life sciences, in addition to six academic books and countless articles in English, including The Evolution of Social Behavior in Insects and Arachnids (Cambridge University Press, 1997), The Secret Lives of Ants (Johns Hopkins Press, 2012) and Encyclopedia of Animal Behavior (Second Edition, Academic Press, forthcoming in 2019), for which he served as the Editor-in-Chief.

Finally, as the first director of the National Institute of Ecology, he has extended multiple invitations to Jane Goodall (the country is now one of the regular stop-overs for her global itinerary) for a series of highly successful conscious-raising programs of public lecture and forum.  

The interview was conducted in July 30, 2018, at the EcoScience Laboratory located in the Ewha Woman's University campus, Seoul, Korea. The version uploaded here has been edited for clarity and brevity, but the conversational, informal tone of the actual discussion is preserved. The contents of the interview herein are copyrighted to Kyu Hyun Kim and Jae Choe, and may not be reproduced without their explicit permission. 
 Professor Jae Choe (left) with the interviewer,
at his EcoScience Laboratory at Ewha.
 

Abbreviation: Q indicates the interviewer (Kyu Hyun Kim) and J refers to Professor Choe.

Q: I am honored to have you as the interviewee in discussing the National Geographic documentary Jane, Jane Goodall's life, and questions about primatology and animal sciences in general. Aside from Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey studied gorillas and Birute Galdikas worked on orangutans. Perhaps this is a politically insensitive question, but why were the acknowledged pioneers of primate studies all women? 

J: You are correct, we must be careful about answering this question, given we are in the Me Too era. Having cautioned you, though, Irven DeVore (1934-2014), one of the first American anthropologists appointed in Anthropology Department (at Harvard University) for studying primates (in his case, baboons), once claimed that male scientists in the field were actively constrained by the primate males.

Goodall's great achievement was that she studied the chimpanzees up close. As someone who had studied primates myself-- our team has been studying Javan gibbons in Indonesia for ten years now--, I can vouch for just how difficult and frustrating studying primates  could be. 

By the way, the documentary does not show in detail the process of Goodall struggling to obtain the Ph.D. degree, but she did receive much criticism for her "intimate" and "close" studies of chimpanzees, that her approach lacked objectivity and scholarly distance. This criticism might have made sense applied to studying insects or other animals, but for primates whose social behavior was so complex, without the kind of up-close approach that she employed, all we could learn would have been their basic behavioral patterns, what food they eat, under what circumstances they mate, and so on. And then based on those raw data, we would have had to speculate on the meaning of their behaviors anyway, and that would not have been in any way more "accurate" or "objective" than what she accomplished.

Q: I see.  It would have been like an alien ethnologist recording human behavioral patterns, like when we brush our teeth, how many minutes a day we make noises into our smartphones, and so on, and based on those observations trying to figure out what we "think." (Laughter)

J: Exactly. 

Q: So at that time, no one even thought of primates as the creatures who could be so much like us, with "minds" of their own?

J: That's right, no one did.  Anyway, going back to your initial question, and seriously answering it beyond Professor DeVore's initial suggestion, the consensus among us primatologists is that female researchers in these circumstances have patience-- knowing how to wait--, and commitment-- their capacity for paying less attention to matters other than the object of their observation. I was actually unhappy about the latter view, thinking that it was vaguely putting down female scholars. But, as you know, I was conducting fieldworks in Central American jungles, and I have never lasted longer than six months at any given point.  All of my female graduate students for primate studies at Ewha had lasted longer than eleven months.

Q: In the jungle?!

J: Yup.  

Q: That's amazing.























J: As mentioned in the documentary, the paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey (1903-1972) was the one who had sent Goodall, Fossey and Galdikas to study primates. It is clear that he had an idea that studying primates would help us understand early humans.  Moreover, I think he knew that female researchers could get the works done, whether he openly acknowledged it or not.

When Goodall finally discovered the now-famous episode of chimps using hay straws to capture the ants, she sent the report to Leakey. His response to her findings was that "We now have to redefine what tools are, or what humans are, or accept chimpanzees as humans." So that was the breakthrough moment in her research.

Leakey was also instrumental in guiding her, who did not even have a bachelor's degree, to get the Ph.D. so that she could get her own research funds.  The grueling "vetting" process Goodall had to endure to qualify for the Ph.D. degree from Cambridge is, I suppose, less cinematic for the purpose of the documentary, but the fact that she successfully defended all of her research in an academic setting, despite the relentlessly denigrating and skeptical treatment it had received, is a stupendous feat in my opinion.

Q: Her evaluation committee members, I suppose, were sticklers for the proper protocol for research and so forth…

J: Right. And Goodall was told that nothing she had done was "right" by those standards. One of her advisers, the zoologist Robert Hinde (1923-2016), later visited Gombe and had the opportunity to observe Goodall's work firsthand, and he came around to acknowledge how little he and his generation of scholars knew about the chimps.  


Q: It is very moving to listen to this story, as it is indeed one of those moments in which science makes an advance, as the guardians of the old paradigm admits that it is time for new ideas to come to the fore.

J: Absolutely.

Q: We have already broached this subject above through discussing how Goodall came to receive Ph.D. degree, but what is your thought about the problem of anthropomorphism, of projecting human qualities to other species of animals?

J: Oh, it is a serious problem, no doubt. If you are a dog or cat owner, you are convinced that your dog or cat is a genius who perfectly understands everything you tell it. (Laughter) However, this problem is by no means confined to the lay people. Academic researchers must be careful about letting "wishful thinking" intervene in interpreting animal behavior.

At the same time, it is only in the astonishingly recent years-- a few decades ago, really-- that we have come to even consider that non-human animals are capable of thought. Robert Hinde was careful to tell Goodall to modulate her statements. For instance, Goodall was describing the behavior of a young chimp "Fifi" toward its infant sibling as "being jealous," and Hinde advised her to state, "Fifi behaved in such a way that if she had been a human child, we would say she was jealous."    



The field of studying animal behavior, ethology, gained much legitimacy since its pioneers, Konrad Lorenz (1903-1989), Nikolaas Tinbergen (1907-1988) and Karl von Frisch (1886-1982) won the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine.

Q: When was this?

J: 1973.

Q: Holly Molly!  It was really recent. 

J: That's right.  Von Frisch is most famous for studying the "dance" communications of the bees, and his premier disciple was Martin Lindauer (1918-2008), whose student was in turn my adviser at Harvard, Bert Hölldobler. Lindauer was supposed to have met von Frisch as the latter was about to pass on, and the former supposedly asked his teacher, "Do you really believe that animals think?" And von Frisch's response was, allegedly, "You know as well as I know that animals think. Our mission is to find the ways to tell the rest of the world that  they do."  
   
Q: Wow…

J:  Since then our technologies and methods have progressed so much that this type of once-challenging way of thinking has become more widely accepted.  I must also point out that the students these days are very sensitive about anthropomorphism.  I certainly have been subject to accusations of "excessive anthropomorphism" in my Korean-language books, especially popular books for the general readers. Yet, I am fully convinced that the readers for these books do not take my "metaphoric" uses of human terms for the ants at face value.  Regrettably, some of these criticisms tend to be just showing off that they know the score, rather than thoughtful responses to the contents or approaches of my books.

Q: I believe I am not wrong to believe that the proportion of the South Korean population who accept and love animals has greatly increased in the last decade and a half or so. In your view, has this development helped or hindered the growth of various fields studying animals?

J: Talking about South Korea, we are not quite there yet in terms of this newfound sensitivity and awareness actually helping the scientific research on animals. But there is no question that the general awareness has been greatly expanded.  My student's generation might benefit from this. 

As you probably have heard about it, we have successfully returned to the sea five dolphins then confined in major entertainment facilities [in 2013], Seoul Mayor Park Won Soon getting actively involved, despite political criticisms. From the viewpoint of the environmental and animal-rights activism, it was a stunning success. Jedol and other four dolphins are still alive and well in the sea near the Jeju Island, and tourists flock to the island to see them.  I think Korean people, especially those of younger generation, increasingly refuse to consider it their "rights" to keep these beautiful, intelligent animals in miserable conditions, only so that the latter could serve as a small component of their family entertainment. 

Q: It is an incredibly heartening development.

J: Yes indeed.

Q: As the documentary shows, chimpanzees are in many ways "like us" but not necessarily in a benevolent, idealized way.  Goodall had to protect her son, Grub, from other chimps because they were known to grab the young of other families and eat them.  And yet "Flo" could be such a patient, loving and devoted mother to her own children.  So the messages that these primates send us are in fact much more complex than we initially might think.

J: Yes, Goodall herself went through a period of agonizing re-thinking once she had encountered the evidence of a vicious inter-species warfare.

Ultimately, it is difficult to underestimate the significance of Goodall's innovation to the way we scientifically think of animals and human beings by implication.  Let me branch off a bit into the territory of "what would it have been like without her contribution?"  

Japan is one of the five major nations dominating the field of primate studies-- U.S.A., Germany, United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Japan-- and their team began studying chimpanzees in East Africa only a year or so later than Goodall. They have a long tradition of studying apes because Japan is the only nation among the five that has native species they could study within their own territories. Yet, it has taken longer for them to adapt their research to evolutionary sciences and other global trends. Psychological approach to the animal behavior was predominant in the early phases of ethology, and this tradition survived much stronger in Japan, until recently.  

Seen in this context , Goodall's innovation becomes apparent.  She did not approach the chimps as "just like other animals," or try to study them confined in a lab.  What Japan did not have then was a fresh perspective provided by someone like Goodall. Of course, we must not forget that Japanese researches, especially those based on decades of patient, meticulous observation and data accumulation, have since made enormous contributions to the primate studies.





















Q: Can you tell us some of the most interesting directions in ethology/animal sciences?

J: This might surprise you, but many among the primate studies are turning toward studying… dogs.

Q: Dogs?!

J: Yes. If you point a finger toward a certain direction, a dog gets that we are pointing toward that direction, right?

Q: Yes!

J: Well, chimpanzees don't. They just look at the tip of your finger.

Q: Really?! (Laughter)

J: The interesting thing about the dogs is not their IQ, or their brain capacity, but they understand us. The latest theories about the human-canine relationship suggest that, instead of humans domesticating dogs, dogs approached us on their own. We still do not know that how our inherently "obscure" communications make sense to dogs but not to other supposedly more intelligent animals. This line of inquiry has new implications about the way we understand "intelligence," helping us move away from the simplistic approach that tries to assign, for instance, the equivalence of human age to animals in terms of intelligence, as in, say, "a chimpanzee has the equivalent IQ of a six year old human."

Q: The last question I would like to ask you is, what is your new book project? (Laughter)

J: Well, I have an excellent title (Laughter). It's called They Know. "They" here refer to animals, of course. The book is about the animal-human relations, focusing on my argument that animals are aware of human beings, and our behavior. When we purposefully hurt them, when they know their lives are in jeopardy due to human action, animals do show awareness of that fact, sometimes in startlingly direct, and heartbreaking ways.  

Q: God, I will be so looking forward to reading it.

J: We shall see how it turns out.

Q: Thank you for a mind-bogglingly educational interview!  

Only She Saw How Much They Were Like Us-- JANE (2017) Film Review

JANE. A National Geographic Studios/Public Road Productions Co-Production, U. S. A., 2017. 1 hour 30 minutes. Aspect Ratio Various (mostly 1.85:1). Screenwriter & Director: Brett Morgen. Music: Philip Glass. Cinematography: Ellen Kuras. Archival Photography: Hugo Van Lawick. Editor: Joe Beshenkovsky. Producers: James Smith, Tony Gerber. Archival Producer: Jessica Berman-Bogdan. Animation Director: Stefan Nadelman.

CAST: Jane Goodall, Hugo Van Lawick, Hugo Van Lawick. Jr. ("Grub") 



 As this new documentary on the pioneering primatologist Jane Goodall opens, we see footages of exotic-looking caterpillars crawling across the screen. With Goodall's primly accented narration in the background, we see her twenty-six year-old self, blond hair bound in a ponytail, unassumingly clad in short pants and khaki shirts, sauntering around in what is today's Gombe National Park in Tanzania. She occasionally glimpses at the camera and favors it with shy, knowing smiles. Goodall, in these precious time-capsule records, taken by her first husband, the Dutch nobleman and nature cameraman Hugo Van Lawick, is a hauntingly ethereal presence, looking so unspoiled and innocent that one is momentarily thrown for a loop. The uncanny sense of an entirely new perspective taking shape, of someone fearlessly, or rather innocuously traversing into what had hitherto been forbidden to the mankind, is palpable. In the course of their activities and married life together, Van Lawick produced nearly 140 hours of 16mm film footages recording every imaginable aspect of Goodall's research and chimpanzee behavior, a very small portion of it had been incorporated into the fifty-minute-long 1965 National Geographic's "wildlife documentary" Miss Goodall and the Wild Chimpanzees, narrated by Orson Welles.

The documentary, directed by Brett Morgen (The Kid Stays in the Picture [2002], Chicago 10 [2007] and most recently Cobain: Montage of Heck [2015]), almost immediately displays its color, that it is not at all going to be like Miss Goodall and the Wild Chimpanzees, or for that matter the Nat Geo's usual nature docus, despite its prominent company logo. Jane is first and foremost an exploration of Jane Goodall as a young, fearless and, as she herself is quite ready to admit, ignorant-in-the-ways-of-academia researcher, bereft of even a bachelor's degree, commented on with the wisdom of hindsight but not much irony by her octogenarian self of today. As such, it includes a surprising amount of personal details about her life, with her former husband Van Lawick's camera voraciously, and at times lyrically and heartbreakingly, taking in the extraordinary texture and feel of the experiences she, her family members and her students had had studying the African chimps.

For sure, Morgen and Goodall do not censor themselves regarding the difficulties, disappointments and dark aspects of her findings and their seismic impact on the world. Jane does a great job showing how the global media responded to her works, to the observation, for instance, that chimps could manipulate tools-- the now-famous behavior of using hay straws to catch termites-- and to her femaleness and youth as if they were defining character traits (as you could easily imagine, more than one "Me Tarzan, You Jane" jokes were printed as news headlines reporting on her research). Goodall herself had to have her perhaps almost unconscious idealization of the chimps as creatures "just like us, only not as evil" painfully challenged when they at one point engaged in a vicious tribal warfare. However, she was certainly not naïve about their nature, as when the Van Lawicks had to build what amounted to be a large cage to protect her infant son Hugo, affectionately called "Grub," since, as Goodall readily acknowledges, the chimps are meat eaters and would sometimes grab and eat the young of other family members.  



Jane also quietly details the dark episode of a polio epidemic that decimated a large number of chimp population at one point, and Goodall's controversial decision to put one of the oldest chimps, heartbreakingly deteriorating from the incapacitation of his legs, to death. She fiercely defends her decision against the view that she should have let "the nature take its course." Indeed, Goodall has been accused of treating the Gombe chimpanzees "too much like humans," giving them names such as "Greybeard," "Flo" and "Frodo," instead of serial numbers identifying them as specimens, for instance. It is clear, though, that Morgen and the elder Goodall are fully aware of the dangers of "Disney-fying" these wild animals. Jane's defense of her pioneering research work remains measured, thoughtful and resolutely non-ideological. At no point does she come off as the kind of animal activist who resorts to emotional blackmail or guilt-trip based on people's bourgeois consumption habits to push her agenda. She remains, despite the controversies about methodologies and other matters she had to endure, and the positively superhuman amount of public advocacy she had engaged over the last fifty years, a scientist first and foremost, and the documentary never really loses sight of that core fact.
  
Jane's team of editors and archivists has done a superb job of restoring and integrating Van Lawick's decades-old footage (which he shot for the National Geographic Society) into the newly lensed and animated sections recreating Goodall's field notes, illustrations and news headlines (Jane is, among its numerous honors received, the 2018 winner of the Best Documentary Eddie Award given by the American Cinema Editors Association). Some stylistic choices are rather obvious, such as the "chimp war" footages being presented in black and white, but those come with the territory, I suppose. Compared to, say, those of Alexandra Dean's Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, Jane's stylizations comes off as less ironic if no less sophisticated.

The great advantage the film enjoys in relation to similar works is Philip Glass's propulsive score, whose simultaneously contemplative and exultant music adds enormously to the quasi-spiritual, out-of-this-world quality of the archival footages. It is also a perfect complement to the lilting, poised but strong and committed narration from Goodall herself.  



In the end, the most important choice Morgen made was to refuse to make Jane a story of "Jane and Her Chimps." This is not a "nature documentary" as you usually imagine one to be, as, even though you could learn a lot about chimp behavior and would certainly be exposed to some extraordinarily beautiful and stunning shots of the African chimps in their natural habitat, it is solidly focused on Goodall as a young female adventurer, a loving but imperfect (and therefore most human) mother, a fierce public advocate, but ultimately, a scientist who, following her instincts rather than academic conventions, helped the mankind redefine the meaning of its own "humanity." 

  

2018년 6월 11일 월요일

SORCERER's Existentialist Spell- Interview with Professor Steve Choe, Associate Professor of Critical Studies, San Francisco State University


A very special guest who can help us understand Sorcerer is Professor Steve Choe, Associate Professor of Critical Studies in the School of Cinema, San Francisco State University. Professor Choe has authored two academic books, one on German cinema, entitled Afterlives: Allegories of Film and Mortality in Early Weimar Germany (Bloomsbury, 2014), and the other that looks at the relationship between violence and ethics in New Korean Cinema, Sovereign Violence: Ethics and South Korean Cinema in the New Millennium (University of Chicago Press, 2016).  His newest project is on the cinematic oeuvre of William Friedkin, for which he had conducted extensive interviews with the director. 

 Courtsey of The Chronicle of Higher Education.


The following discussion with Professor Choe took place on June 5, 2018, at Berkeley, after the screening of the 40th Anniversary Special Edition Blu Ray (UK eOne edition) of Sorcerer reviewed in the previous blog entry. It has been slightly edited for brevity and clarity. The discussion content is copyrighted to Professor Steve Choe and may not be reproduced without his express permission.

Abbreviation: Q indicates Kyu Hyun Kim, S indicates Professor Choe.

Q: OK, we have just watched Sorcerer, which I have not seen since the VHS days. Not surprisingly, it was an amazing experience. We are extremely fortunate to have Professor Steve Choe with us here.  This is the third time you have seen this film.  Anything new that jumped out to you this time around?

S: I saw it for the first time without any particular investment, and then for the second when I had started the project on William Friedkin, for which I decided to watch all of this films chronologically. Oh, I did show it to my class last Fall, so this is actually the fourth time.

Q: Wow!  Can you tell me a little about the student response?

S: In the context of a class devoted to Friedkin, the student responded more enthusiastically to Sorcerer than to his other films.

Q: That's a surprise. Other films including The Exorcist?

S: Yes, including The Exorcist. The students had built-in expectations about that film and many of them found it not quite what they had in mind. Sorcerer and Cruising, though, definitely had a surge of interest in recent years, in places such as UK and Europe. [UC Berkeley's] Pacific Film Archive had shown both films with Friedkin in attendance about four years ago, for instance.

Q: Can you tell me more about the student response to Sorcerer?

S: They were quick to point out how the last part of the movie turned "weird" for them. As is the case with The French Connection, the protagonists experience the falling away of their original objectives and satisfying their obsessions, just getting the job done, becomes their single-minded goal. The desaturation of color, the close-up on Roy Scheider's face superimposed on the bizarre, alien-looking landscape through reflections on the windshield of the truck, confusing soundtracks in which you hear a plainly dead character laughing, and so on: all this recalls for the viewers earlier moments from the film and almost summarizes the film itself, and its theme of male obsession.

The extreme extent to which Scheider's character would go to get the job done, certainly resonated with the students. The concluding scene of the sequence, in which Scheider is carrying the box of unstable dynamite, wobbling like a zombie, entirely lit by the blazing petrol fire: my students found the scene powerful.

Q: I suppose one could provide a more conventionally "academic" interpretation of the sequence as a metaphor for madness of American capitalism and so on. Certainly, Wages of Fear seems to encourage that sort of approach. Can we tell a bit about the differences between Wages of Fear and Sorcerer?

S: In Wages of Fear we have an absurdist ending. Friedkin did not care for that ending and had no desire to replicate it. Wages of Fear is just as gripping as the Friedkin film, in my view, but in the latter, we have an ending that connects with The French Connection, with Charlie Parker music in the background, a kind of film noir ambience, and then these two gangsters from New York, figures from the Scheider character's past, appearing at the end, that emphasizes uncertainty or the continued flow of the narrative, rather than providing a resolution of any kind.  I feel this is a very '70s variation on the classic mode of filmmaking, but with an element of failure incorporated into it. It is different from the classic noir tropes.

Q: Like a Raymond Chandler ending, we know the system is corrupt, the police is corrupt, the big money is corrupt, but the individual hero, Philip Marlowe, retains his integrity-- he floats above all this morass and will survive to face another day. That's not what happens here.

S: Exactly. Friedkin shows a point of view perhaps more accurately put as agnostic than nihilistic. There is no suggestion of the faith that the human spirit will in the end conquer the adversity.  So this renders his characters, even his chosen heroes, rather unsympathetic.

Q: You don't think that is a problem.

S: No. I think this is a very valid artistic point, an observation about the humanity, more precisely the nature of humanity. In that sense, I believe Sorcerer is a strongly humanistic film. It might not make you feel elated and satisfied at the end, but then, neither does human life at all times.



Q: Could we talk about a point that we discussed earlier [during the screening, and incorporated into the Blu Ray review], that in this film Nature seems pretty determined to kill the characters.

S: Yes, Nature is hostile, but also machines, most importantly trucks, seem to be alive and monstrous as well. The hierarchy of humans controlling nature and machines is subverted, unlike in the Clouzot film.  There is Otherness to the nature, an impenetrable quality. You mentioned the scene in which the tree branches appear seemingly out of nowhere to "attack" the truck drivers.  Tangerine Dream's ambient score also adds to this scene, highlighting terror and mystery.

The first thirty to forty minutes of the film seemingly sets up generic information and character buildup that appear to lead to a conventional storytelling style, but then again, once the location moves to this fictional Latin American country, these elements are pretty much discarded.  The only thing remaining as a meaningful character trait is that they have survival skills-- and are good with machines. They are truly reduced to basic essence of humanity, as human animals with certain skill sets that may or may not be useful for survival.

Q: They are all stripped of social positions and relations, political ideologies and so on.

S: Yes, in a way Friedkin is still continuing with documentary approach. He is still "capturing reality," taking conventionally conceived characters and filming them as if the world is just unfolding around them for the very first time. 

Q: The director as God is absent.

S: He sets the table up, but refuses to guide the characters.

Q: How about comparisons with Werner Herzog?

S: The hostility of Nature is certainly a similar feature of Herzog's Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo.  They are similar in that both refuse to give much credence to the idea of human "specialness." There are clear limitations on what human beings can know and do. It is quite interesting, as Friedkin is not indifferent to the question of faith… he just approaches faith from a deeply agnostic point of view. 

In that sense, I note a similarity with Park Chan-wook's works, although their cultural backgrounds are quite dissimilar (I am not talking about their ethnic differences). I think Park is intensely interested in the irreconcilable contradictions in the human being that nonetheless are "real," and Friedkin is, too.

Q: How would you characterize Friedkin's relationship with New American Cinema?

S: There was the Vietnam War, Nixon was impeached in 1974, and the New American Cinema reflected that mood. Friedkin was iconoclastic even then, but he debuted as the Production Code died out in '60s and was also influenced by theater, the idea of theater as the heterotopic space, wherein the world outside could be mirrored but in a different way. A sizable number of his movies are intensely theatrical, and even the opened-up films often feature sequences that are essentially set in one room as a self-contained world: Regan's bedroom in The Exorcist, for instance, the hotel room in The Bug, or the apartment in The Boys in the Band.  It also functions as an allegorical representation of the movie theater itself. 

Let me ask you a question.

Q: Oh, OK. (Laughter) 

S: What did you think of Sorcerer as a remake?

Q: Well, when I first saw Sorcerer I have not seen Wages of Fear, despite the latter's venerable classic status.  When I caught up with the latter, I really loved it, but again, as we talked about, I felt that "nihilistic" ending felt almost tacked-on, or even made more sense as the protagonist's dream.  Now I look back on these two films, they are very different from one another… in many ways Sorcerer is the more stereotypically "European" film than Wages of Fear (Laughter). Now that I have seen it again with you, I can see the connection with The Exorcist much more clearly, as [as I mention in the review] it strikes me as a horror film without the supernatural evil. The world, or that particular country, or that particular jungle, including the river and the oil well, is a malevolent presence, the source of horror.  

S: Interesting! When I asked Friedkin, he disavowed that this is a remake, and strongly asserted that it was just another adaptation of the original source novel.  I feel that this notion that Sorcerer is a remake of the Clouzot film has hindered proper appreciation of the former, because there is a built-in prejudice that the remake must be inferior to the original.

The movie's title-- very briefly shown on one of the trucks-- comes from a Miles Davis album. I think Friedkin sees filmmaking like playing jazz music: the conventions are there, maybe rhythmic patterns or harmonies are shared, but you can write a different piece of music on the same source. His films are improvisational in that sense, I believe.



Q: Can you tell me about editing of the movie?

S: The bridge sequence, for instance, is done in a strikingly distinct way from a conventional Hollywood film. Cuts are very quick. Friedkin certainly did learn much from Hitchcock. The narrative content is fairly simple, but there are rapid shifts of close-ups from faces to ropes to the windshield of the truck, sometimes from subtly different angles.

Q: So the editing replicates our perception of an in-the-moment experience.

S: Yes, it gives one just enough time to have an impression of what is going on, but he cuts away from what you have earlier called "proper resolution" of a particular scene. The end of the bridge sequence almost looks like as if some frames are missing: you just barely get to see the truck moving to the safety and the scene jumps to another scene in a totally different environment, without any indication of how much time has passed.

Q: But it is radically different from you know… just confusing editing, like in a Michael Bay film. (Laughter)

S: Right. But cutting too quickly sometimes makes it difficult for the viewers to fully grasp the scene, or whatever meaning it carries. They might feel alienated as a result.

Q: I can totally see that. Maybe it also comes from agnosticism, because he does not want to play God to the viewers, tell them something he really doesn't know.

S: Perhaps. He told me an interesting story about visiting Europe and seeing the Shroud of Turin with his wife. And he says the experience moved him and his wife to tears, even though they remain agnostic Jews.

Q: Wow. He wants to believe then? To have faith?

S: I think he is aware that he has no access point to the kind of faith like, for instance, New York Catholics have. 

Q: It is remarkable that even after the commercial failure of Sorcerer and Cruising, Friedkin went ahead and still made a diverse and substantial array of films.

S: Yes, he reinvented himself as an independent filmmaker after 1990. I agree that many other filmmakers would have quit after what he had to go through in late '70s and '80s. We must not discount just what an astronomical hit The Exorcist was, and how shocking and innovative The French Connection was, in early '70s. In my view, Friedkin is a true American auteur, who works within the system but retains a strong personal vision, closer to Terence Malik, perhaps, and in my view more "independent" than Spielberg or even Scorsese.

For me, one of the reasons that The Exorcist still remains a great horror film, despite my student's professed disappointment in its efficacy as a scare-fest, is that Friedkin meticulously depicts all scientific methods to determine what is going on with Regan.  All scientific diagnoses fail in the end, however. The brutal reality of possession is the only "explanation" that remains at the end.  I see this as an exercise of deep critical thinking on the filmmaker's part, rather than what a conventional horror film does, that is, to begin with the a priori premise that there is God and there is Devil and going from there.     

Q: Would you say the age of filmmakers like William Friedkin is gone and will not come back again?

S: Certainly not in the form construed today as big-budget commercial filmmaking. That will be very difficult, if not entirely impossible, in the American film industry today. You know, as you have pointed out, perhaps New Korean Cinema of the early '00s has in fact been continuing the paths blazed by Friedlkin and American filmmakers of his generation. We shall see if the global impact of New Korean Cinema could generate some interesting cross-generational references and ultimately new types of filmmaking that engages with the concerns of the New American (and Korean) Cinema from new angles and perspectives.

Q: Dang, time passes so quickly!  I have one final question. Any American film that you have seen recently that reminded you of Sorcerer or a Friedkin film?

S: You know what, Friedkin recommended The Killing of the Sacred Deer to me. He saw it and was impressed by it. And I agree, it does resonate with his films.

Q: Thank you so much for the great discussion!  We should do this again, with a different movie sometime soon.

S: Yes, it was really wonderful to talk about Sorcerer and William Friedkin in such a friendly setting.