Pico Iyer, Telluride Interview
PICO IYER and MARK DANNER INTERVIEW
MD: I’ve been just been looking at various past equivalents of this thing we have to do, which I gather I’m meant—be a conversation that introduces you to people at Telluride, rather than a discussion of films necessarily. So I’m just looking at your sort of biography and I thought I knew your work well, and I found out that there’s about twenty times more of it that I Knew. So.
PI: Much more quantity than quantity perhaps, but yes!
MD: Well, I’m dubious about that-but I thought I’d take as a point of departure the rather remarkable point where- we are in history, you know we’re about to be out there up in the mountains in a kind of intellectual wonderland looking at films from around the world, with people from around the world, and indeed I look at what you’ve written and the international crossing of borders, the elimination of borders not soiled, but souled ... and I think I agree with everything and yet we seem to be in this moment that is completely politically contrary to that. And it’s fascinating to me how perfect it seems to be in its opposition. Um, I was just looking at – just a moment ago at a quotation, where you say, “for more and more of us, home has less to do a piece of land—than you’d say—with a piece of soil than a piece of soul.” Which I think it’s such a beautiful quotation, but it makes me think of covering the Trump campaign in a famous moment in Palm Beach where he was railing against cosmopolitan intellectuals, and of course at the moment I’m talking to you he’s leaving rallies at which people are being told to go back where they came from. I’m just wondering, you know given your preoccupations, and indeed your very name which I wonder if you could talk about – I didn’t know you were named after that Pico, um, how you feel at the present moment? Is this a strange aberration in history, or has something turned?
PI: Well, I suppose we are also talking on the same day that Boris Johnson ascends to the Prime Ministership here in England. HE is the product of my High School, but certainly not of my sensibility. But I think a part of me, to answer your question, feels like of course nationalism is on the rise everywhere, but I think that’s partly because it’s on the run. In other words, people are so unsettled by the fact that borders are eroding quickly that they are trying their best to erect as many walls as possible, I think most of my work has been based on the assumption that individuals and cultures are wiser than governments and corporations. In other words, governments and corporations are defined by division, and either or sensibility, and competition. But individuals and cultures I think are more nuanced, and we’re seeing the things that join us and can slip under the wall or around the wall. So my sense is incrementally, as individuals, the people who assemble at the festival for example this year, if you compare that – how the festival would’ve looked 35 years ago, I’m sure the filmmakers there were international as much then as they are now. But if you look at the audience, I wouldn’t be surprised if one in every three, or one in every two couples just features people from very different backgrounds, nations, races or religions. In other words, on a person by person basis, I think we’re crossing boundaries so quickly, my friends, colleagues and our partners, as often than not in the urban world, from countries radically different from our own, and we’re often living in places not our own. Whether unintentionally as refugees or in a more privileged way like those of us at the festival. That’s moving so quickly that all the politicians are trying to pull us back into the past, and back into the countryside, I'm not sure that the future is going to be defeated so easily. I was not far from where you’re sitting in Marin, a couple of years ago and somebody was saying to me, well maybe I don’t think so fondly about Islam. And suddenly lo and behold my daughter marries a gentleman from Iran and my granddaughter is half Iranian and perhaps Islamic. How can I not love my granddaughter? So the rise of all these factional leaders is certainly no course for celebration, and as you know, in some cases, they have good reason to be impatient with global cosmopolitans who see the world from 38,000 feet, but every city I know, and every meal I eat, and every film I see it’s so much more interesting because it is more diverse, than when I was a kid I don’t—I think the world is moving in one direction and nothing is going to pull it back. And I’m sure the films that we’ll be watching are an illustration of that.
MD: Well, we’ll talk about that. I wonder if you can say a word—I’m fascinated, I’ve always knew you simply as Pico Iyer and I looked you up, and there is your full name. Your name is fascinating and beautiful, and I’m curious if you could say a word about it and what your parents were thinking.
PI: Yes, thank you, well so my parents were both products of British India, born in Bombay, educated in Oxford, on their way to California, and beyond all that, professors of comparative religion and philosophy. So when I was born, I became inheritors of four names, each of which inherently speaks for a different tradition. My first name is Siddharth, which is the Buddha’s name, my second name which turned out to be a very globally convenient name because it can pass for so many places, Pico comes from the Renaissance heretic philosopher Pico Della Mirandola, so a heretic catholic, um Raghavan which is my third name—
MD: And a child prodigy should be said.
PI: Who owed a huge amount before expiring at a very early age [laughs]
MD: Yeah. And a polymath.
PI: Yes, yes and I like the fact that Oration on the Dignity of Man was the title of his book, cause it’s not a bad title for any book I might wonder out. And my third name is actually my father’s name, which is a classic Hindu name, and it belongs very precisely to certain part of South India. So not entirely inadvertently, my parents prepared me for a global world. And a world in which by the time I was 8 years old, I was this funny little hybrid with an Indian face, an English voice, and an American green card, and probably dreams of moving to Japan. But I’ve noticed how more and more of the children have names like Maya, and Tara, and all these names which wonderfully belong to many cultures, and again all the wars in the world are not going to diminish the number of Mayas in the world who are dating guys from the other side of the world.
MD: Did you—when did you make the decision—or did it just come naturally from your parents to use Pico, rather than Siddharth.
PI: [laughs] Well in 1957 England, Siddharth would instantly have become Sid or something much worse. Um, shocking to me to remember that all the time I was growing up in the early '60s in England, I never even saw a dark-skinned kid from anywhere. So Siddharth wouldn’t be so exceptional and hard to pronounce today, but it certainly was then. So actually from birth, my parents called me Pico. It’s more fun, it’s more affectionate, and certainly easier to spell.
MD: I must say that Pico—as I said I was shocked to discover this, Pico was a little bit of a hero of mine.
PI: Oh, I’m really happy about that, because you’re the relatively rare xxx to identify that connection.
MD: Yeah, he was a fascinating figure, a Platonist and mystic, to xxx up to the values of humanity, basically did the clearest statement of the Renaissance. I mean he was an incredible figure really. So I must tip my hat to your parents, the creativity of your name, I feel like my own children I did much worse than they did. They did a wonderful job.
PI: Well, the reason I moved to America as a young boy was that my father was recruited by a Think Tank in Santa Barbara, which is very much committed to a global community, and a post-national world, and that was actually a theme on which he wrote quite a bit .So, I supposed he named his son after his hopes for the future. And his son willy-nilly inherited some of those hopes, and tried to bring them to a new generation.
MD: That goes well with my next question, which was I always find, when I look back at what I’ve written, that I think “good heavens, how did I end up writing these things I wrote.” I mean I never would’ve planned it, and the subjects seem disparate, and I wonder—just how conversation leads one to think, given your parents, given your very name, that the subject that you’ve taken on, which I’m hoping you can characterize in a little bit, were almost predetermined in a way. Or has a kind of logic about it. Do you—
PI: Absolutely, exactly. And in fact, that’s a theme I’ve been writing about quite a lot recently, the ways in which when we’re young, we tend to define ourselves against our families, to rebel against them when you’re in your teens, and presume that defining yourself means turning on your own ground and not owing anything to inheritance. And of course, as you get older and older, you look in the mirror at a certain point and you see you’ve become your parents. And that there’s no escaping it. And you become that destiny. And if you and I were having this conversation thirty years ago, I was a disciple of Emerson and New World possibility, and I’d just say we completely forge our future out of nothing. And now I would say more or less what you said in your question, and say yes I am fate, and the victim of my ancestry, and that defined by the name I was given. It’s funny you know I’ve written a couple of novels, and there’s always a strange superstition about what name you give a character in a novel, because that seems to define anything that might happen to that character. And I also think that with a certain kind of writing, the subconscious is drawing from the future as much as from the past, so if you’re a piece of fiction and you’re thinking about two people you know in real life, and in your novel, you have them separate, you hesitate because you realize that if you hadn’t hesitated in your novel, you might wake up three weeks later and they’ve hesitated in life. So with that kind of mysterious logic, you’re probably right, my parents were probably scripting my entire future in giving me that name. And when you ask me to characterize what I’ve been writing about all these years, I suppose it would be celebrating crisscrossing of cultures, first externally, because my first book was about how the cultures of ten different nations in Asia took in aspects of the East—of the West, and in some ways made it their own. And it was about the dance, the dance, the romance between cultures, and the dance between illusion and projection between cultures. So that the Californian perhaps goes to Nepal in search of antiquity and the life of spirit, and simplicity, and the Nepali is reaching out to the Californian in the hopes of grabbing opportunity and modernity and the moment---
MD: [unintelligible) 16:17
PI: Exactly, so it began – Video Night in Kathmandu the title sort of put that, and then I suppose the next stage, was to see how that plays out in individuals, where there are more and more of us, and in some ways can’t see things in black and white terms, because we are black and white, and when our last president came into the White House, or when I read xxx Smith or Malcolm Gladwell I see this borne out all around me, beyond anything I could’ve imagined. That certain of those distinctions, are falling away because are everything and nothing. And, but I suppose to this day—because I don’t belong to any one culture, but I move between cultures, I feel often I belong in the passageway of the conspiracies between cultures, one thing that my life prepared me for was seeing the dreams the East projects upon West, and West upon East. But I think what intensified that a bit biographically, was that after I moved to California as a little boy I started flying back to school in England, and so by the age of nine I was commuting every three months, between sometimes 15th century boarding schools in England, and my parents’ yellow house in the heart of hippie California, and so I think that probably defined a lot of my living and my thinking. Which is, in those days, seeing how California dreamed of England, how England dreamed of California, trying to balance this one culture England, where were being trained to believe in nothing, and this other culture young fresh California in 1968 which was encouraging me to believe in everything. So I think in that sense, most of my writing has been about trying to put hope and realism into the same sentence, and into the same framework. And I think England schooled me in the importance of realism, even in the same season as California was telling me never to give up on possibility.
MD: It’s a—whatever anyone can say about it, it’s an ... combination.
PI: Yes, and much better than the other way around. So I’m eternally grateful to my parents in that way too, because I think I got a solid ... education in England, and in those days, you can imagine in 1960's and 1970's, every little English boy had only one dream, and that was to be in California in the middle of the summer of love and all those freedoms and so, and the envy of my friends when I would go back to California in the holidays. And one tiny but slightly relevant detail is that often I would have to fly back to school in April and I would be going on the Los Angeles to London planes, and it somehow, many times I was flying back the day after the Academy Awards, and for a little boy it was so exciting because all the British technicians who would win awards for cinematography and sound effects would be on the same plane waving their little gold statuettes as nine-year-old Pico stepped in. So I think growing up in England also was a xxx in the glamour of Hollywood and we were sort of incarcerated in this ancient all-boys school where nothing seemed more liberating than films, and the worlds films opened up to.
MD: It leads rather naturally to the films that we’re
talking about. I wonder—I’m fascinated if you look at some of these films, The Makioka Sisters would be a good
example. It’s obviously a very Japanese film, but what does that mean, very
Japanese. Back to the question of mixing and international, because obviously
it has enormous power cross-culturally. But is it a Japanese film, in a way
Japanese films today aren’t?
PI: So I would—I – the Ozu film I chose is deeply Japanese I would say, insofar as it is all about silence and absence and the slow erosion of tradition. When I first arrived in Japan, I loved Kurosawa films, and I couldn’t get on with Ozu films because as you know, they look as if they’re about nothing happening. After a while in Japan, I realized I could begin to understand why many of my friends and neighbors find Kurosawa much too full of action and violence and commotion, and think that Ozu is sort of the repository of the Japanese spirit. The Makioka Sisters is interesting because it’s a more popular film, so I think it’s implicit in your question. It’s a celebration of a Japanese classic that’s been very palatable to international taste. And I remember living in New York when that film came out, and Pauline Kael greeted it with this rapturous review about it, the most fun film of the year almost. And it is—it’s extremely accessible, and in that way I would say it’s not typically Japanese. He probably had an international audience in mind when he made it, certainly he had a popular modern Western influence Japanese audience in mind. The more I lived in Japan, the more I loved the Ozu movies where, when this camera just absolutely stationary looks at an empty room. There is almost more emotion than where there are lots of people in a room.
MD: And I was going to say about Makioka Sisters that it is one of the very few examples of a great film being made of a very great novel, I mean, there are just not that many examples that one can give of that kind of transformation I think.
PI: I absolutely agree, and in its way, it’s extremely faithful to the novel, but I’d say, it’s much easier to take in than the novel. It speeds the novel up. And somebody interested in Tanizaki story might usefully be pointed to the film rather than to the novel.
MD: I was going to go to your comment about women I suppose as an emblem of the nation and paradoxically an image of someone fighting against odds to survive. Did you notice that as a commonality in many of the films you chose after the fact.
PI: After the fact, exactly. And then I think back on it, I realized how almost to a fault, so many east Asian filmmakers and writers move in that direction. I mean if you think of—you mentioned (Junichiro) Tanizaki or (Yasunari) Kawabata, the Nobel Prize winning Japanese novelist, again and again, they’re fixated on women, um, both in this slightly predatory sense of the male gaze, but also as an emblem of a country that they want to Romance and protect. But yes, it was a complete coincidence, but it is the coincidence that maybe speaks for an aesthetic tendency, in those qualities—in those countries, and of course, that’s not true of my film Mr. and Mrs. Iyer but, that has a grace I think of dealing with just the issue that you mentioned about all those borders, but I’m tempted to say, from a very subtle feminine perspective that’s not dealing in in both capitals, but in nuances. So although it doesn’t have a woman at its foreground it’s not a film that many a man would’ve been able to make.
MD: It’s an interesting, how that’s become an almost perilous statement to make in current critical discourse, that the uh, that there’s an enormous amount of battling having to do, at the same time one is fascinated with women artists and noticing them and analyzing them more, but actually distinguishing characteristics that are gender-based, as I know well from Berkeley, is a very perilous business.
PI: yes, very very perilous [laughs]. Actually the one who should really speak to that is Aparna Sen, the director of the film, and I actually sent some questions to her recently and one of which was, to what extent she thinks that she’s giving voice to a female perspective, or just a human perspective. But I absolutely agree with you. Among the Japanese writers and filmmakers, they’re definitely guilty of objectification and much too strong divisions between the genders.
MD: Well, it’s fascinating how all of these things have been thrown into question, you know it’s not as if these questions haven’t been contested in the last thirty years, but suddenly it’s become this new urgency, and as I said peril attached to them. I wonder if you can say a word about a film I’m very eager to see, which is the North Korea documentary. As you may know, we seem to find ourselves with a president who has confessed to have fallen in love with the leader of North Korea, which is a very strange situation to be in. It used to be important that Americans have a larger or a deeper familiarity with what that country is like. You know it well, and can you say a little bit about how the film reflects the North Korea that you know?
PI: Yes, I first visited North Korea in 1990, and I most recently went there to investigate the film industry, which as you probably know, in North Korean terms, it’s flourishing and they have this huge film studio in the middle of the capital, Pyongyang, and the former leader Kim Jong-Il is said to have had the largest private movie library in the world, 20,000 titles. And he wrote a 370 page entirely unreadable book on the art of the cinema, so in this recent trip, I actually got to see a North Korean film screened by a North Korean director in a plush screening room in the midst of this deserted ghost town that is their film studio. And insofar as the whole of North Korea is photoshopped and basically a film set, and just really one director or dictator’s vision superimposed upon a nation of 25 million, still somehow seems to be a metaphor for everything that’s going on there. When you step into the subway system when, as a tourist, which I’ve done a couple of times, quite often somebody next to you – a local, will turn to you and strike up a conversation in English—“hello, how are you? How are you enjoying your trip?” And it’s hard for us to realize, that those are actors who are being obliged by the government to pretend to be a regular human being so as to make an impression on –
MD: Whoa, that’s incredible.
PI: Yeah, I mean, so it’s really the capital—the capital not just of fake news, but of fake humans. You see these glittering skyscrapers nearly all the apartments in them are empty, but then you see 105 story tourist hotels, the largest in the world, but it still hasn’t opened to admit any tourist. So the whole place is not just a Potemkin city, but really the creation of a mad director. What I love about the film that we’ll be showing is that to some extent, it’s entirely silent, it uses footage indoors, and shot in most cases I think by North Korean directors, and yet it’s the most devastating indictment of the society. Just through silence, no words, no explanations, and (Vitaly) Mansky just masterfully shows us the face of a little girl and the silent long ... across these ghostly, empty streets in Pyongyang, and it’s more poignant and more heart-breaking than any film you can imagine. So it’s wonderful that he captures North Korea by not saying a word, and in a very emotional way, the problem with North Korea is we see it only in terms of its leader, and only in terms of its deranged ideology, but this film somehow by refraining from words, gives us human faces of North Korea and that’s sadder than anything any polemicist could device, and you know Vitaly Mansky who made this, recently made a film about Putin and it deploys part of the same tactics, which is using just neutral documentary film footage to devastating effect. Precisely because it’s not tilted in any direction, it frames an indictment that’s withering.
MD: I feel like we’ve come very naturally to the beginning of this conversation which had to do with the movements and changes of society and the classes that from time to time, happen between those movements and the people who lead them, notably our current president, the new prime minister of Great Britain, and others who are adopting a rather anti-Cosmopolitanist – they would call it—outlook. I wonder if you can say a last word about how the movement of history is reflected in these works. Umm, and the difference between that and the leaders that I mentioned.
PI: I think the movement of history is towards fluidity and away from fixity, and away from hard-and-fast divisions into something much harder to simplify and categorize. I love what you said about - -that the division between genders is eroding and not only is it ever more perilous to talk about what is male or female, but of course so many people around us more and more are in a transitional state, or embracing both of those genders or neither, in just the same way as I was mentioning our last president who by his very presence exploded simple talk of black vs. white because he was both and he was neither. And I think history has been moving so quickly, and we’re so much in the thick of it, that it’s easy to take for granted how much, in certain ways, the world has moved forward, in my lifetime. And the fact that it moves forwards so quickly is what’s throwing so many people on the defensive, because they don’t know what to do with a world that’s changing faster than their capacity to comprehend it. But so much of what we take for granted, let’s say in the West now, whether it’s Civil Rights, the rights for the LGBT community, the erosion of those male and female divisions that you were talking about, that’s all happening in my lifetime. If you and I were talking in the 1960's, this would be a very very different kind of conversation .So no advance happens without pushbacks, and the distance, and people terrified of the unknown, but I see the forward—I see the march of history moving forwards. And every now and then I think the United States is clearly going through a bad patch, and England no less so, but like you, I’ve traveled quite a bit and I’m always reminded when I’m in China or India or parts of Africa how life is getting much better very quickly for more and more people, it’s easy to forget that if we get too caught up in our own local problems. So, I think things like climate change are really terrifying challenges before us, but socially I’m less unsettled.
MD: Well, beautifully done and on an optimistic note, I’ll see you in Telluride.
PI: Thank you so much Mark, and thank you for taking the time to do this. And thank you Jason for recording it. And enjoy the rest of your days.
JS: Thank you both!
MD: Thank you, and enjoy Edinburgh.
PI: Thank you! And enjoy Milos’ home!
MD: I will [laughs]