We meet for an interview, but it's really strange: he doesn't recognize me, nor I him, though obviously we've been at hundreds of the same off-the-wall, esoteric movies in the twelve years he's lived in Cambridge, since he left a job in Boulder as film critic for the Colorado Daily.
Chris Fujiwara now works in electronic publishing, but he's kept up his appetite for cinema. His newly published Jacques Tourneur - The Cinema of Nightfall (McFarland & Company) is an estimable combination of consummate research and keen critical judgment. It's also the first book study ever of the "cult" filmmaker of the subtle, intelligent horror classics, The Cat People (1942), I Walked with a Zombie (1943), and Curse of the Demon (1958), and the masterly film "noir," Out of the Past (1947).
Martin Scorsese, who adulates Tourneur, liked the manuscript so much that, without knowing its author, he volunteered an enthusiastic foreword, praising the book for being "thoughtful and scholarly."
Where has Fujiwara been all this time about Boston? He's done small-magazine reviews, written for the Tripod Website, played bass with the now-defunct rock band, Cul-De-Sac. However, he admits that he's not been very skillful at pushing his critical talents; he's never auditioned for the Phoenix or the Globe. My conversation with him reveals a soft-spoken, very nice person, who becomes excited, and passionately articulate, about things outside him that grab his attention, but who stops short of any kind of self-promotion.
In fact, Fujiwara seems kindred in spirit to the French-born filmmaker Tourneur, who was shy and self-effacing, and perhaps too decent a person to shove himself into the studio spotlight. That's a key reason why, despite his luminous talents, Tourneur is little known today except by cinema experts.
"He was reserved, modest, lived within himself," Fujiwara explains. "The few people who knew Tourneur well all say that he didn't have enough of the social sense to really get along in Hollywood."
Tourneur made movies about people who lurk in the shadows, something he did himself, as the son of Maurice Tourneur, the outgoing, highly regarded film director (The Last of the Mohicans, etc.), who arrived from Paris to stand tall in 1920s Hollywood. "Maurice was very much the big man, masculine, a powerful person, " Fujiwara says. "French critic Serge Daney has theorized that Maurice had already taken the movie image for himself. Jacques was almost challenged to do the opposite." Tourneur fils worked with less overtly dramatic images, had his actors speak in low, undemonstrative voices, even when talking about love, passion, death. He used music sparsely. And he concealed his own personality.
Fujiwara: "Jacques seems to have taken pains to remove himself from the surface of the films. But in his remoteness, there's a special kind of poetry and beauty, and also in the mystery of his characters, in what isn't being expressed. Instead, Jacques concentrated on the lighting and especially on the soundtrack, which, to many people, is almost an invisible part of the film. What characterizes his work is a very distinctive way of muting sounds, yet getting you to notice them, listen to them: water rippling in a brook, the wind, quiet sounds that come from far away."
Originally, Fujiwara had planned a three-filmmaker book, also on Lang and Renoir, "to see how European directors brought a different sensibility to Hollywood, a different sense of formal rigor, and an ambivalence to traditional American genres." Researching, he got more and more obsessed by Tourneur, narrowing his scope as there were already major studies of the others. Crisscrossing America, Fujiwara watched everything he could locate in archives, from Tourneur's short fiction films for MGM in the 1930s to expert westerns such as Canyon Passage (1946), from AIP quickies such as The Comedy of Terrrors to late-career televison assignments such as Night Call (1963), a legendaryTwilight Zone.
"He said that he never turned down an assignment, yet Tourneur wasn't a populist director," Fujiwara says. "But he was a very human director. There's a real compassion, something I became more convinced of the more films I watched.
"Tourneur seems never to have been completely at home in America, and lots of his films are about outsiders, about being 'strange' in a place. They have a similar emotional quality to the books of Marguerite Duras: both are concerned with people remote from each other and themselves, who inhabit weird, distant realms. Yet Tourneur allows us a kind of nostalgic connection with his characters, even to fall in love with them."
Fujiwara's next book project, to be co-authored by A. Scott Hamrah, is an alternative history of cinema, a corrective to stultefied canons such as the AFI Hundred Greatest American Movies as to what are filmic masterpieces.
I nudge Fujiwara for an example of his icon-smashing revisionism. He smiles mischievously, and makes a pronouncement: "They're both studies of marriage and liberation, but Experiment Perilous by Tourneur is ten times better than Juliet of the Spirits by Felllini!"
(Boston Phoenix, October, 1998)