Donald Richie Interview: Conversation with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Writing, Film, and Japan: An Expatriate's View: Conversation with Donald Richie, writer and film critic, 9/21/01 by Harry Kreisler

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You mentioned books and movies [as] formative experiences for you. Tell us about going to the movies -- the Sigma, I think, was the name of the theater.

The Sigma was the theater, yes.

I guess the movie house was a place that brought the world to you, is that the way it was?

I guess you could say so. What happened was that sometimes I was, from a young age, put in the [theater to watch] movies because they kept me quiet and they kept me entertained, and they got me out from under the feet of my parents. So from a very early age, I went to the movies and I soon grew to prefer the life of the movies to my own life. The reality that the movies offered was preferable to the reality that I was experiencing. I became a child movie addict. I would go in with great pleasure and I'd never look at what was playing -- what was playing was unimportant. The fact was that I was entering a new world, an environment where not only was it much more attractive than my life was ordinarily, but also I could manipulate it to an extent by coming and going, and by looking at scenes or not, which I could not in my own life. I was subjected to my own domestic life. But I discovered a kind of power at the movies.

When I started to learn how to read, I discovered the same kind of power. I could create an environment that I didn't have, and I could order this environment in the way that I couldn't in my actual life. Then, when I learned to write, I learned that I could do this not only for myself, but for other people. I could create whole things that were believable, at least to myself, at that point. And in this way, I began to wield an authority and a power that I had not had before. In other words, every child goes through this. Some pick football and some pick the library. I picked the library.

So, both in words and in the images on the screen in movies, you were presented with alternative realities that you could choose to do things with in your own mind. Is that fair? In a way it sounds like you were empowered by these experiences.

Precisely. That's the word.

What was it about your own environment that was wanting, do you know?

Well, obviously, that I wasn't empowered. I mean, no child is empowered. That's why teenagers act the way they do, all this "cool" business is signs of an empowering they don't have. In my case I was ... I don't know if I was less empowered than anybody else my age during those years. But anyway, empowering the child was not one of my parents' concerns.

What sort of things did you learn at the movies that empowered you?

One learns a great deal from the movies. One learns comportment, one learns philosophy, one learns metaphysics, and one learns the meaning of life. I suppose that when one goes to the movies, it sort of seeps in through osmosis, and one learns a lot without knowing it -- even the latest violent flick, one does still does learn something. If you go to a film that thinks, then you learn a great deal more. I think this is true of the appeal of the films. I think that people approach films not only as an escapist drama of one kind or another. These are the great cathedrals of learning. People learn things.

I remember in high school, some girls watched how June Allyson went down the steps, which was very graceful. And soon they were all doing it. Betty Grable taught me how to make eggs. You do use it for learning. I mean, role models: Gary Cooper taught me always to be noble and honest. And Johnny Weismuller taught me how to yodel and go through trees! You learn things, right?

You talk in your most recent collection about a moment at the film where a bad projectionist was screwing up the showing of Citizen Kane, and --

That's what I thought, yes.

... what you thought, correct. And then, tell us how you responded to that experience as it was happening. And what was chaos, in a way, turned into order for you, I believe.

Well, seeing Citizen Kane was one of the great and seminal experiences for almost everybody in my generation, at least, anybody who went to the movies. I had wandered into the Sigma Theater again; again, not looking at the marquee, having no idea. And the film started, and it was some old guy who was in bed dying. It's the way that RKO films often started, so this did not surprise me. But then all of a sudden, on came the newsreel. And then I realized that our projectionist, who had a reputation for drinking, had been at the bottle again, and he had put the newsreel on after the movie had started. So I sat through that. And then I wondered, also, that he must have mixed up the reels, because the time structure was quite different from the steady plotting, narrative chronology that I had grown to expect. It wasn't until the film was ending that I'd realized that the man was dead sober and this was all intentional. So I didn't leave the theater; I sat through it again. In fact, I was late for supper that night because I'd seen Citizen Kane three times that day. It had the effect of dropping the scales from my eyes. It made me see. It made me not only see Charles Foster Kane's life, but also see my own life by contrast, and also give me an idea of the extraordinary power of film and what film could do. I'd never seen a film which was "all film" the way that Citizen Kane was.

So in this case, on a number of levels, it affected me and all of us who saw it -- philosophically, metaphysically, technically, cinéastely -- on all of these levels, I walked out a new person. I became a filmmaker. I was so intrigued at the possibilities that I went to my father and said I wanted a camera. How old was I? Seventeen? And my father got me a 8-mm camera. I went out the very next Sunday and invented the documentary. I'd never heard of it, but I took pictures of the church and people coming out. I was going to call it Small Town Sunday. I started my film career hands-on, thanks to Citizen Kane.

And that movie and other movies, what else should we know about what movies can do for us, beyond empowering us?

Oh, movies can do anything that life can do. They can move you, they can teach you, they can make you meditate, and they can make you dream. They can do everything that life can do. They're a simulacrum. This is their great power.

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