Bruce Yonemoto, Norman Yonemoto. Green Card: An American Romance. 1982. Video (color, sound), 79:15 min. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase. © 2022 Bruce Yonemoto. Courtesy Electronic Arts Intermix, New York

Bruce and Norman Yonemoto’s Green Card: An American Romance screened here October 26–November 9, 2022. The video is no longer available for streaming. Join us for the next Hyundai Card Video Views screening, beginning November 16, 2022.

Bruce (b. 1949) and Norman Yonemoto (1946–2014) were born in California’s Silicon Valley to a Japanese American mother shortly after her release from Tule Lake internment camp, and a Japanese American father who had recently completed a wartime tour of duty in the US Army. After moving to Los Angeles, Bruce and Norman forged a singular path in the nascent field of video art during the 1970s. Combining experimental approaches to the new medium without shying away from the visual codes of the film and television industries, they collaborated with a range of artists and counterculture luminaries including Mike Kelley, Mary Woronov, Spalding Gray, Susan Tyrell, and the Cockettes’s Goldie Glitters. The Yonemotos addressed complex questions about the Asian American experience, unfixing rigid notions of race and identity within an approach as rooted in popular culture as it was in underground sensibilities.

Green Card: An American Romance is the third and final installment in the Yonemotos’ Soap Opera Series, following Based on Romance (1979) and An Impotent Metaphor (1979). Satirizing 1980s Los Angeles and the city’s burgeoning art scene, Green Card betrays the Yonemotos’ fascination with the melodramatic clichés of American soap operas and the films of Douglas Sirk, drawing on the vernacular of Southern California’s entertainment industry. The video tells the story of Sumie Nobuhara, a Japanese artist studying in the US, who must pursue a green card marriage with an American surfer/filmmaker in order to secure her path to an artistic career, instead of returning home to a conventional domestic life in Japan. Examining an immigrant experience lived directly in the shadow of Hollywood, Green Card explores the mass media’s construction of cultural identity and ideals of romantic love. Using non-actors, the video revels in the absurdity of making work at the crossroads of everyday life in Los Angeles and the mythic dreams produced in the city’s studios.

Recently, Bruce Yonemoto spoke about Green Card with pioneering curator, art historian, and community leader Julie Ault, the author of forthcoming book Hidden in Plain Sight: Selected Writings of Karin Higa who in 1999 organized the Yonemotos’ first survey, Bruce and Norman Yonemoto: Memory, Matter and Modern Romance, at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. Join us in November for the next installment of the Hyundai Card Video Views series, which highlights videos from the collection to consider artists’ engagement with a technology that has become central to our daily lives.
—Stuart Comer, The Lonti Ebers Chief Curator of Media and Performance

Bruce Yonemoto. Photo: Donal Ferguson

Bruce Yonemoto. Photo: Donal Ferguson

Julie Ault: The beginning of your film references Douglas Sirk’s 1959 movie Imitation of Life, using the rousing namesake score. What was the nature of the affinity you and Norman felt with Sirk and filmmaker Ross Hunter, who produced Imitation of Life?

Bruce Yonemoto: Douglas Sirk is very gay-friendly, you could say. Because, of course, his leading star, who wasn’t in Imitation of Life, was Rock Hudson. Sirk was very aware of Hudson’s double life. And in All That Heaven Allows, Hudson has lines that almost directly refer to him being gay. It’s fascinating to watch. Hudson’s performances were very stiff in a way, but he was a heartthrob and a screen idol at the time. Ross Hunter was gay, though I don’t know whether he was out then. I love his films. One of our major works, Made in Hollywood, was loosely based on the Hunter film Tammy Tell Me True.

A still from Bruce and Norman Yonemoto’s Green Card: An American Romance, 1982

A still from Bruce and Norman Yonemoto’s Green Card: An American Romance, 1982

BY: Norman was a product of film schools. He went to UCLA but then ended up going to the American Film Institute, and he wanted to make Hollywood films, he wanted to make movies. I went to Otis Art Institute to get my MFA in the late 1970s, when it was still a Los Angeles city school. It was the most diverse of the art schools. I was able to study closely with Germano Celant, the critic and art historian who coined the term Arte Povera. He was an amazing teacher. It was so inspirational to me. And I must trace back many of my works to Arte Povera. One of the reasons I decided to do a soap opera series is because Celant wanted us to examine our influences outside of art school in our lives.

JA: Well, between you and Norman, Hollywood and Arte Povera created an exciting mix. My mother and grandmother were devoted to the afternoon soaps, so I grew up with Days of Our Lives, Guiding Light, and The Young and the Restless. There is a beautiful snapshot of you and Norman as kids with the family television and one with a TV lamp.

BY: Of course, television was so formative. Our parents were media freaks, and as a family, we would go see a movie every week. And they got early TVs and, then, a color TV. And so I was just a TV kid.

JA: The acting in Green Card is quite notable. Jay and Kyoko, in particular, seem beautifully naturalistic. They both have empathetic voices that drew me in. They make passionate soliloquies. Watching the film, I sensed a community at work, that the film’s characters reflect an actual circle.

BY: Yes, most of the actors were from Otis. And Gary Lloyd, the Gary character, was one of the professors. Obviously, he was a complete narcissist, so he comes across that way. I found him very entertaining. I mean, he would try to seduce a rock.

A still from Green Card: An American Romance

A still from Green Card: An American Romance

JA: Pasolini often worked with non-actors. He said he chose an actor “for what he is,” not to interpret or transform himself. That method seems relevant here.

BY: Yes, they’re all people I have a relationship with, and I know who they are and how they act. So I write these scenes around that in many ways. For me, [Robert] Bresson was an influential filmmaker. His 1959 film Pickpocket is one of my favorite films. The pickpocket is a non-actor, and he is amazing.

JA: Were there communities or contexts where you found affinity? Or were you outliers? Yours and Norman’s early video work starkly contrasts with the prevailing art video of the time.

BY: The New York experimental film community rejected the narrative part of our work. We could not get grants initially because people thought, “This is commercial.” Every time they saw two people speaking on the screen together, they said, “This is not experimental.” I love experimental work that was trying these very strange, independent things. And so that’s always been a resource for us. You almost have to refer to these experimental films to break away from the dominant Hollywood film language. And so I understand that reaction. But there just weren’t too many people working like us. We were different.

Los Angeles, Hollywood, is a one-industry town. You have to face that everyone is supported by the film industry here. Particularly at that time. These creatives were arriving from New York, tired of performance art and experimental theater, and wanted to make money. They were getting older and wanted creature comforts: a house, a boat, and a pool. And so they came out here and got sucked up by the industry and the money. But they were very open to and interested in working with us. We worked with Ron Vawter, Mary Woronov, Patricia Arquette, Greg Mehrten, and Michael Lerner on Made in Hollywood in 1990 and, later, with Susan Tyrrell in Japan in Paris in L.A. in 1996.

Younger artists from New York who came out to California and went to CalArts would stay in CalArts’ bubble and study with the professors there, who were fantastic. But they were not part of the Hollywood community at all.

A still from Green Card: An American Romance

A still from Green Card: An American Romance

JA: At the beginning of Green Card, we see that you dedicated the film “to Issei of all nationalities, past, present, and future.” And I wondered whether your parents were Issei (the first generation of Japanese to emigrate to countries in North or South America).

BY: My grandparents were the Issei. My parents were born and educated in the United States. But two of my father’s brothers, older brothers, half-brothers actually, were Kibei (Japanese Americans born in the US who returned to America after receiving their education in Japan). And so there was friction, especially in the American concentration camps.

JA: One of the themes of Green Card is longing, immigration, and freedom. The perception of America as the place of freedom. And the mythology of the American dream, a mythology that is as current and potent as it was in 1982. “Issei of all nationalities” eloquently affirms wide-reaching camaraderie.

BY: Immigration is, of course, a hot-button issue even now. It’s sad how the US government’s anti-Asian exclusion acts successfully stopped any immigration from countries such as Japan. It can definitely happen again.

JA: The film’s protagonist, Sumie, says, “I want to stay in America; I came here to be free. I love America.” Jay suggests, “Well, maybe, in a way, you’re marrying America.”

BY: Sumie is a Shin-Issei, which means a new immigrant. Even now, Japan’s culture is so restrictive, particularly toward women. There are still elevator girls. Even in anime, the portrayal of women is, like, little girls or hostesses. And so, of course, Sumie is trying to get out of that culture.

JA: You thematize details around patriotic clichés: Sumie begins her story recalling a magical Christmas Eve with her Japanese and American friends. We see Sumie and Jay amid America’s majestic nature, rugged mountains, and gushing waterfalls. Jay and Sumie get married on the fourth of July. The ambiguity between artifice and “the real” is ongoing. Sumie and Jay’s marriage is both mock and genuine. Green card marriages subvert conventional structures, which the film does, too—using the soap opera as a decoy. I think of Sirk again and how effectively he deployed the popular genre movie for complex social analysis. Green Card does something similar.

One of the mandatory elements of a soap opera is a sexual or romantic betrayal. There’s a pivotal scene in Green Card where Sumie witnesses Jay’s betrayal when she finds him and Francis in bed. Francis repeatedly caricatures Sumie in a brutally racist way. It’s shocking. You took the scene to the limit.

BY: There are still so many racist portrayals, and I don’t know when it will change. I think it has to be a concerted effort. I do think people are more cognizant. Their reaction, like your reaction, is very heartfelt. But I was reading an article about a lantern festival in Monterey, California, based on a festival started there around 1910 by Chinese immigrants. Later, the locals killed the Chinese people and drove them out, but these white people still put on the festival and still do yellowface, with costumes and makeup. And they were doing it every year until last year. Such things like that are still going on.

To tell the truth, Julie, things haven’t changed much for Asian American artists. I hope that Asian American artists will soon have their moment in the sun.

Media and Performance at MoMA is made possible by Hyundai Card.

Major support is provided by MoMA’s Wallis Annenberg Director’s Fund for Innovation in Contemporary Art.

Generous funding is provided by the Lonti Ebers Endowment for Performance and the Sarah Arison Endowment Fund for Performance.