The skinny Japanese guy in the wide-collared shirt and fedora smiled at me. He was sucking down cigarettes in a single pull, his lived-in teeth grinning as he drank my cheap whiskey in my East Hollywood flat. He motioned around my living room, a shrine to the ‘70s American New Wave cowboys who influence my every move. Posters of Warren Oates' films, Peckinpah's, Monte Hellman's, line my walls. The fellow on my couch waved his hands in reverence to the art. He looked at me and squinted, poking me in the chest. "You. Warren Oates." My guest didn't speak English. He thumped his own chest. "Me. Sam Peckinpah." Now I knew how Jane felt. I swooned. Like the royalty he was, the guy motioned with his hand around my living room. "Me, Peckinpah. You, Oates." I liked where this was going. One of the greatest living filmmakers was comparing our blossoming friendship to one of the most magical love stories in cinema. "Me. Sam Peckinpah. You. Warren Oates." he repeated, again and again. Finally, he leaned in real close, breathing smoke and liquor at me like a fucking dragon. I waited. A few heavy beats passed before Sion Sono grinned wide at me and finished his diatribe. He said, "You. You fuck Warren Oates."
Who knows what the man meant with his broken English? Coming from him, it could feasibly be literal, a command to put up or shut up with my hipster zeitgeist bullshit. I like movies about existential masculine archetypes attempting to reconcile themselves in the modern world. I like Sion Sono movies. So fuck ‘em. From a gonzo professor of cinema, there’s really nothing more counter-culture than meaning it for real. I’d met Sono when he was casting his English-language debut, which has yet to be made. That was a few years ago. Already a huge fan of his, I knew he'd previously made a film with English in it, Hazard. It had been lost to the annals of no-budget, limited-distribution filmmaking that is commonplace these days. Luckily, Sono's prolificness belies the occasionally overlooked piece. As a cinephile, there are fewer joys than finding a filmmaker whose oeuvre is so extensive, so varied, that you'll be stuck to your couch for ages, tracking down PAL and region-free videos. While many of us know Sono's work through his breakout, Suicide Club, his films range from guerrilla (Hazard) to sheer epics (Love Exposure) to psychological character studies (Cold Fish). He often matches the absurdity and biting sincerity of other master filmmakers, whether they be Korine, Von Trier or Hitchcock. His commitment to the surreal state of man, a punk rock responsibility, also jibes with Tarantino, The Coens and a true maestro, Luis Buñuel. When he showed up in Hollywood to meet with a bunch of snotty, snooty, snickering young actors, I put on my best sneer and held on tight to his coattails. Ever the gentleman, Sono let me drive him around to dive bars and underground clubs a few times.
I haven't seen Sion in a few years. Thank goodness he keeps making films, at the breakneck pace of about one a year. In that respect, he's just like Woody. Even though he's made a film about a teenager with a never-ending erection, he's far less of a lech. His latest release, Why Don't You Play In Hell?, is his verse in the ongoing eulogy to 35mm filmmaking. As his peers buy revival movie theaters and staunchly commit to only screen celluloid, write open letters to Kodak and shoot blockbusters on film, Sono's flick is genuinely about the protracted death of 35mm. Sono has managed to viscerally illustrate the end of an era, to make the death of 35mm a real thing, spraying its blood and guts all over us. Why Don't You Play In Hell? never wavers from its humor, rooted in the Sisyphean task of making movies. Sono's film sets up that bygone era where gumption and idealism were the hottest fuel we could burn to shoot a flick. It fast forwards to these days, when his movie team of cinematic cowboys, not so much wannabes as never-beens, finally get their shot, days late and many dollars short. In a Faustian bargain to beat them all, there's a catch. They're working for the yakuza, and their dream of a cinematic melee becomes a wake-up call.
From the metaphor of the mob to the actual blood on the lens, Sono wants us to believe that making films is a violent, illogical and largely futile endeavor. It is. It rarely succeeds. Most flicks that get made very genuinely suck. For a film to be good is the rarest, trumped only by its finding an audience. It begins in a time when shooting a movie, on film, was the sign of success. In the world of independent cinema, just rolling a camera is considered a victory. After all those years of finding a story you want to tell, making friends you want to work with, scrounging together a budget and having to rebuild each of them as they perpetually fall apart, just getting on a set is often the top of the mountain. These days, it's still next to impossible, but infinitely easier in the Internet and Technology Age. Purposefully or not, Sono has gone meta. The movie's got its watchers, and we get the benefit of viewing both the process and its bloody conclusion, in which we, gleefully, are complacent. Why Don’t You Play In Hell? is both the chicken and the egg. We don’t know whether art is imitating life or reality has actually become a cinematic bloodbath. Why Don’t You Play In Hell? may lament these twilight days of celluloid, and yet it never wavers in its optimism. Film production as we know it may be in cardiac arrest, but the rhythm of the film defibrillates over and over. Our heroes succeed, an era late and many yen short, they manage to not just shoot a flick, but do so in spite of their circumstances. Sono’s thesis applies to the smallest indie all the way to the studio system, with the caveat that we still couldn’t expect a mainstream institution to allow for this much viscera.
The last time I saw Sono was at a screening of his films, a small retrospective here in Hollywood. It was packed, appropriately, and a small group of the programmers, producers and distributors ended up at Canter’s Deli. It was late at the overhead-lit Jewish diner, and Sono drank Heineken while eating a plate of free pickles. He had a translator with him, but outside of a random business-person or press inquiry, she didn’t have much to do. He’d look over at me and smile with his mouth closed, maybe make a head motion to something I couldn’t place. Like the rare few of his ilk, it was apparent that even in his natural habitat, without cultural or linguistic limitations, he was an observer. He took it in, with the overt duty to judge it, to spit it back out, because that’s his gig. I was probably staring at him, the least qualified person at the table. Just a fan, puppy-eyed and hang-dogging. Towards the end of the night, after more than more beers, Sono ended up standing on the booth bench, still wearing his hat and sunglasses. He shook a bottle at me and told the table, “Noah Segan. Sex cowboy.” It’d be nice to let that be an ego trip, a statement of truth, like being knighted. But it wasn’t. It was a mandate. Like his movies themselves, Sono shouted what he wanted, not exclusive to what he saw. With his most recent film, he does the same. Am I a “Sex Cowboy”? Of course he is. You knew that. The story and characters in Why Don’t You Play In Hell? are movies and filmmakers. But just like The Author, the film isn’t about what it is, but what it will continue to be. As 35mm exits its cell and walks the green mile, Sion Sono’s latest film stands not as a last meal or final statement, but as the executioner itself. It may die, but it'll take you with it.