Sunday, February 24, 2008

I Had to Laugh

"Destined to a future diet of Euroschlock where rootless characters pass through sanitized and anonymous environments of international expense-account hotels, airport lounges and offices, make love in anonymous golden cornfields as the Eurowheat waves gently in the breeze and speak to one another in any one of half a dozen badly dubbed tongues."

--Vincent Porter worrying about the future of European co-productions in 1985, quoted here.

All things considered, the prospect of plenty of Euroschlock isn't so bad at all--and is it always so anonymous, so impossible to see rooted to specific nations, particular regions, specified collective interests or desires?  The Euro co-production does represent one of the toughest puzzles but I suspect one can sort out the sediments given the time, tools, and inclination ... 

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Checking In

My computer crashed over the past week, so my electronic life is a bit jumbled at the moment.  I was able to salvage (most of) my files, which is the most important thing.  Apologies for any scatterbrained or delayed correspondence.  Things should, let's hope, be back to normal by next weekend.

Recent home viewing includes Michael Mann's Ali, Alfred Vohrer & Edgar Wallace's College Girl Murders ('67), and Jess Franco's The Sexual Story of O ('84).  That last reminds me in more than a few ways of Borowczyk's Love Rites, though it was as uncomfortable for me to sit through as, say, Bigger Than Life (a great film I don't want to revisit for a long time) or The Last House on the Left.  I am a total squeamish wuss, and frequently just can't handle long passages of people dominating and torturing (in some way or another) other people.  Even when it's highly expressionistic, or highly psychological.  Or, sometimes, blood in general is just too hard.  (One day I'll steel myself for another go-round with Perfumed Nightmare and its group circumcision scene...)  

The Mann is pretty good and I'm glad I caught up with it.  Sooner or later I'll write something about his work.  College Girl Murders struck me as low-grade competent autopilot; I think it counts as my first krimi film though.  Any thoughts on the films in question?

Friday, February 15, 2008


“Planet of slums, an apt appellation. Right about now, we are crossing a planetary threshold: half of the world’s population lives in cities. This number, more than 3.2 billion, “is larger than the total population of the world in 1960.” By 2020, the number of people living in slums will be more than 2 billion. A single mega-city like Mexico City or Mumbai will soon have a larger population than the estimated urban population of Earth at the time of the French Revolution. Not only those who occasionally allow themselves to wonder about the fate of this emerging world of near starvation, bare-life, and effective non-existence with respect to representation and political economy, but even almost all of those who passionately warn of the horror that exists and the horror to come, believe that the existence of these huge masses of people is somehow extra-economic. While massive poverty is at times acknowledged to be caused by the contradictions of capitalism (particularly the structural adjustment imposed by the World Bank and the IMF in coordination with Euro-American foreign policy and military power in order to service debt), even most radical critics of capitalism believe that the existence of the slum dwellers, what Davis calls “the informal proletariat,” is really outside of and external to capital’s productive base. The slum people in Karachi, Jakarta, Maputo, Kinshasa, among hundreds of other cities, along with the rural poor whose traditional ways of life have been demolished by agribusiness and the money-system and who provide, as it were, the raw materials for slums (in the form of those who migrate to cities), are, from the prevailing economic point of view across the political spectrum, extra people—so much slag thrown off by the world-system. Economists are fond of pointing out that the entire African continent only accounts for about 1% of the world’s economic activity. How many times have we heard that Africa could cease to exist and it wouldn’t make any difference to capitalism? But, and here we must pause to wonder, what kind of economic operation is it when people’s (indeed a continent’s) sole function is to be rendered as data, statistics, information, that can be rendered as “meaningless” or as “a potential threat to stability?” Isn’t this a new moment of planetary organization when humans can, from an economic and representational point of view, be reduced only to the bodies that underlie information or a set of concepts or images—a new order of accounting? This data-crunching reduction and/or mantel of sheer invisibility, this brutal calculus that renders human biomass into a mere substrate for information, is symptomatic of the qualitative transformation of the cinematic mode of production into the world-media system, now organizing attention on a global scale in two distinct registers: that of the enfranchised, who are to “understand” and/or dismiss huge swaths of the planet in a few lines of symbols or in a couple of isolated images as they make their daily movements, and that of the radically disenfranchised, who must attend to this dissymmetrical order of representation through a continuous and lifelong struggle for sheer survival as they make their way through a life in which they count for next to nothing. Like the more familiar relationship to the image of the first-world spectator, this latter relationship too must properly be cast as a new form of work: just being there, staying alive to be counted in the spectacle or not, to be constructed in the world-media system as an infinitesimally small bit of the reasons required to build walls around countries, fund new weapons programs and surveillance technologies, institute new adjustment programs, and launch political campaigns and wars in the high-intensity illumination of the spectacle. This is work, mere survival beyond the frame of representation, to become a standing reserve of information, just as it is also work for the global spectator who must be constantly enjoined to see and therefore produce the world and itself in accord with capital’s accounting. The human has become the medium for information; put another way, the medium is human, despite the fact that human potential is foreclosed by its function.”

-- Jonathan Beller


The 2008 Election run-up has been an exciting one so far, in terms of mainstream journalistic indeterminacy. Who's gonna get it? The Democratic primaries, in particular, have shown us a remarkable jumbling of image-concepts for whom we are supposed to voice our approval. All of the sudden we have a potential first female president and a potential first black president. And for a while we had a white Southern man, too, who strangely enough was perhaps the most progressive of the three--indeed, if he was, it was because our racist, sexist system permitted him to be. Obama has to walk the tightrope to prove he's neither a sellout nor a "danger." Clinton has to be strong enough to prove she could, well, castratingly lay the smack down on whomever "deserves it" (i.e., Iraqis, Iranians, etc.) yet not so overpowering as to make poor little male Democrats and independents feel the threat of that castration extend to them and theirs. It's a vicious system, and I do feel a twinge of sympathy for Obama and Clinton for having to do what they do, and face the obstacles they face in our political process.

But the fact remains that none of them are progressive, none of them will come close to the "transformative change" we actually need to "heal this country."

Obama, in addition to gaining momentum by the day, has been cast as the progressive candidate. Clinton is the establishment candidate for the Democrats. I am still scratching my head over what is so progressive about Obama and his policy proposals. I can believe he has private, progressive ideals--Clinton probably has some of those, too. But publicly he's nothing but feel good maxims, a chain of well-delivered aphorisms and affirmations and promises. He's got the celebrities in his corner--Will.I.Am and Scarlett Johansson, for starters, not to mention the hot "crush on Obama" woman. But everyone who's getting behind him, all the young, well-educated, pro-change people who make up my peer group ... don't ever give me any insight into what is precisely appealing about his candidacy in terms of the changes they want to see happen. I know: "Obama is the future, the new, the change, the shit, the hope, the audacity of that very hope cuz he sticks it to The Man, and to top it off, perhaps he's even the messiah [thanks Tram]." The problem is that The Man, an image, a metaphor, is actually very real, whereas Obama's assault on the same social powers that people sometimes group (really or jokingly) as The Man is purely or almost purely symbolic.

What I am curious about, and have not yet tried to find out about, is how the Latino (esp. Mexican/Chicano) communities feel about Obama--who isn't getting the Latino vote, as commentators dutifully inform us--using "Yes, we can!"/"Sí, se puede" as a slogan. The hard work of organizing and demonstrating that Latinos and other immigrant groups have put into the struggle against "illegal alien" crackdowns is now appropriated by a candidate whose first point in his plan for immigration is to secure the borders.

* * *

Provided she is on the ballot in November, I plan on voting for a black, Southern woman--Cynthia McKinney. I am not trying to play the card of authenticity, as though she's "realer" than Obama, than Clinton, more black, more feminist. I am not trying to facilitate a rupture between these communities, so that I or people like myself can spew codedly racist or misogynist criticisms against the mainstream candidates and defensively console ourselves because we support a black woman politician ("so we can't be racist!"). My goal in this case is not to help divide & conquer disempowered groups on the illusory basis of supporting their less mainstream elements in a bid for appropriated authenticity.

It is not that the Green Party is my ideal of ideals, either, but insofar as my third-party protest vote will mean anything, I want it to mean that I endorse a shift leftward towards the equitable, more ecologically sound, anti-racist, anti-sexist, queer-embracing limits of the system I'm voting in. One doesn't "vote" for revolution, changes in the mode of production, or revolutionary wealth distribution parties, right? But one can cast a vote for social democracy, environmentalism, certain checks on corporate power, certain policies for urban renewal and reform--reform, and life, not murder--for immigration. I do not think our system can be reformed, but this does not mean I oppose the limited but real, and helpful, reforms that are sometimes offered by the system.

The system will kill us, and it is dying itself in its slow destructive symbiosis with the thing we call industrial civilization. But while it approaches its destructive obsolescence, some of its tools are still worth using, and some of those tools--political and electoral tools--may still reap benefits for the communities it is harming most deeply, and the generations to come who will pay for our and our parents' mistakes.

This is why I'll be voting for McKinney, and why I urge people to do the same.

* * *

I cannot express how viscerally frustrating it is to me to see so many people I know and respect, allies and comrades, who are taking the kool-aid and jumping on Obama's bandwagon.

I am not referring to people who will vote for Obama. I am not referring to people who would compaign for Obama. If I were living in a swing state, I'd think long and hard and might end up doing both, myself. My issue is not with casting a vote, even casting some optimism, Obama's way. My issue is with the wholesale buying of the image, casting even pragmatism itself aside and pretending that this is the ideal candidate, whose actions will deliver us from the nightmare that liberals delude themselves into thinking is purely the result of Reagan and the two Bushes. (This all applies to Clinton-supporters too, but since Obama is the "progressive" one, the "youth" one, I think it applies more comprehensively to him and his side.) Obama, the man with a trigger-finger on Pakistan (Clinton has Iran) is going to be our savior? And speaking of the savior to our national nightmares, one pithy essay from Qlipoth makes for fascinating reading and expresses some of what I wanted to say better than I'm able to.

But to question the Obama machine sometimes invokes fierce retorts from his supporters, as though the very idea that asking for anything more progressive might be desirable is unfathomable. Or as though the idea of anything more progressive in existence could be unfathomable. I've been dressed down before for it, and I've stomached enough of the mainstream, tunnel vision Democrat blogs to know how things operate in those communities, where huffing & puffing about "effecting change" is best put into action when US policy sees bombing Afghanistan and Iraq as a form of "humanitarian" and "feminist" liberation.

Barack Obama's an inspiring orator, true. But even his 2004 Democratic National Convention address was not, if you ask me, the highlight of that event. That was Al Sharpton--and I don't care if he's supposed to be "crooked" or "shady," when it comes to policies and pragmatic change within the system, Sharpton's realism is up there with Kucinich's hard work as one of the few--very few--buoyant aspects of the Democratic Party en toto. About "the black vote," which has favored Obama so mightly in '08, Sharpton said this:

Mr. President, as I close, Mr. President, I heard you say Friday that you had questions for voters, particularly African-American voters. And you asked the question: Did the Democratic Party take us for granted? Well, I have raised questions. But let me answer your question.

You said the Republican Party was the party of Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. It is true that Mr. Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, after which there was a commitment to give 40 acres and a mule.

That's where the argument, to this day, of reparations starts. We never got the 40 acres. We went all the way to Herbert Hoover, and we never got the 40 acres.

We didn't get the mule. So we decided we'd ride this donkey as far as it would take us.

Insofar as we can constitute 'the black vote' as a demographic monolith, black voters will end up choosing whoever they think is right for them, for America, for any number of things. Just like any other discernible voting bloc. But it is imperative that we talk to each other about the ways in which are asked not only to hedge our bets for pragmatic reasons, but are encouraged to rip out the hedges for wholly idealist illusions. Not everyone sees, has seen, Obama as the one worth supporting for change. And not all of us will float along in the course of this election in a subdued manner.

However faintly visible the struggle may be in the media (broadly defined), we still have the option to pass over one type of candidate ...

... for another ...

(H/t to the folks at Qlipoth, again, for the McKinney video. Forty minutes long, but worth it.)

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Oh, the Baltimore Police

The Wire territory, but real. The above video isn't about tough love; it's not about turning adolescents into adults by means of showing them that life isn't easy, that respect for people is a necessity. It's about power, pure and simple, and a grade-A jackass whose overdeveloped upper body sure feels strong when he's using it on a skinny 14-year-old. The news stories say he's been suspended to administrative work, with pay, since the video (from last year) recently surfaced on YouTube.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Kyle Canterbury

I. Atelier Canterbury

Kyle Canterbury is a teenager whose work in video art has been very highly acclaimed by Fred Camper and Jonathan Rosenbaum. I think the "prodigy" line is most strongly worked when there's money to be made, status and a status quo to enforce. That's why Canterbury, a video artist but not one coming from the art world, probably doesn't have too many people fawning over him. But I would stress that Canterbury is the real thing.

Fragments from a Room is one of my favorites. Like Brakhage in Text of Light, Canterbury pushes the indexical potential of photographic images to their breaking point, or sollubility; colors bleed into each other, pixels eat away at the integrity of a line or a color field; when the 'vertical roll' reimagines each image so that even a 'shot' no longer seems quite like a shot. (The seminal work on the vertical roll, as far as I know, remains the video of the same name by Joan Jonas. But Fragments from a Room is pretty fascinating, and were I to ever teach a course covering these grounds, I'd love to screen both back-to-back.) The diffusion of the image into pixels and other video idiosyncrasies makes for an underlying foundation of Canterbury's work, but from there it goes in a lot of different places--ghostly b&w images of George W. Bush and war bombings (A Video), abstract Klee-like squares in Color Shifts, Gehr-like excavations of space. And though it's sometimes easy to spot what Canterbury is doing in terms of avant-gardists before him, the work never feels like retread (or hero worship). Instead I get the sense of artisanal devotion to craftsmanship--at any time Canterbury is traveling (relatively) worn paths, he's experimenting. He's learning the tradition he's claimed for himself, more than simply aping the masters of experimental film & video (which is what I would have done if I were his age trying to make poetic film or video). It's difficult to extrapolate that kind of judgment from more or less abstract works, admittedly, but I think what ensures the "innovative" feeling of the videos is that they are never predictable. At most they are working in an identifiable strain. Should Canterbury continue on this path I expect that the proportion of his work that feels totally new and strange will grow.

To top it all off, Canterbury is the kind of cinephile who will list Nick Ray's Party Girl and Kubelka's Arnulf Rainer as among his favorites. That's my kind of cinephile.

II. Ten Videos: 1

The great thing about Ten Videos: 1 is how alive it is despite its simplicity. Pulsing at a few different rates at any given time (the pulse of the video image, the pulse of the 'framed' image whose rhythm varies), with black, neon blue, fiery orange as the three main colors, it's almost eerily active for such a deliberately constrained image, whose only captured activity seem to be the movements of (Canterbury's own?) hands.

A spectrum comes into being in this short piece:

- a spectrum from the captured, indexical 'thing' (which exists on several levels: the monitor and its surroundings which do not appear very clear to me, or the framed image on the screen--both very square, but both also existing in three-dimensional perspectival roundness of space) -

- to the bristling boxes of the video signal on my own television or computer monitor. (An "organicized grid," I'm tempted to call it.)

Ten Videos: 1 gets its energy from the sliding up and down this spectrum, or more specifically, the allowance for the viewer to shift from looking at something captured to looking at the medium of capture itself. In this, the video calls to mind, slightly, even Gehr's Serene Velocity. One's perception awakens, whets itself. In the context of the discs of Canterbury's work, it's a matter of seeing new thing after new thing, but also a host of allusions.

This scanty piece has taken me a very long time to write, and unfortunately it is because I have not been satisfied with the words I've written and deleted and re-written. (I'm still not, but I've been meaning to publish this for so long that enough is enough.) Let it stand not as the careful and more critical analysis I had planned to provide, but a place-holder, a simple letter of recommendation. The lengthier analysis will come at a later time, when I've been able to focus and reflect on the work itself. For now I have tried to give a sense of what excites me about these videos: how they're experimental in a way that seems fresh but also cognizant of history. As someone who is interested in the idea of tradition and yet who also believes in the shedding of certain traditional ideas hoisted upon us in cinema (and art), Canterbury's work provides great promise, in addition to its immediate pleasures and excellence.

Sometimes ...

... events tempt one to take a rather dim view of human nature. Is it best to ride out contempt, like a storm (because it is not a natural & constant state of being, at least not for me), or to fight against it, overcome it like an adversary?

To all who read EL: thank you for bothering with my little public notebook. It means much. And thanks for reading this deliberately, contemptibly cryptic note. A new post coming soon, I think ...

Saturday, February 09, 2008

A Girl & a Gun ...

I haven't seen it since its release, nor did I keep up with the sequels, but I thought Resident Evil was a really fascinating movie, for the ways in which it handled 'the image' and the idea of 'textuality.' (At the time, I was both in a phase of my cinephilia when I was trying to "figure out" Hollywood and get a good, definable grasp on it, and it was also around the time I got my first serious doses of continental theory--Baudrillard, the simulacrum, oh snap!) Six years later, I am--I hope--less inclined to slobber over the appearance of a film for merely demonstrating the Cliff's Notes version of a pomo guru's most famous book. Still, the memory of Resident Evil retains its positive associations in my head: at the time I thought it was a solid genre film but "updated" in the way it was formed, in the way it formed images that were pure and whose indexicality seemed a footnote at best, the way it referenced its ur-text (the videogame I never played) rather than seemingly adopting it. (Oh, perhaps I still think the exact same thing about it now that I did in '02--I'm just less easily impressed by my assuredly quite brilliant interpretation.)

Why do I return to this particular film? It's not really to reminisce on a younger, more innocent me. I'm instead looking at it as a periphery or a tangent on something else that interests me at the moment--the melding of certain national or regional 'influences' in contemporary action cinema. I'll save my main thoughts on this for something in the future. But I want to point out that the iconographic similarity of Mira Sorvino in The Replacement Killers ('98) and Milla Jovovich in Resident Evil has, I think, an interesting and oblique history. In Antoine Fuqua's film, which came as part of the HK-US talent-money cool fusion of the 1990s, there is the barest semblance of 'character' to Sorvino's "style" (dirty blonde, dark clothes, skin, hip boho hi-tech criminality)--she is given motivation and a history of some sort, and her self-presentation comes from somewhere suggested inside the extraneous "world" of the film-narrative. But while it's history, while it is character development, it's pretty thin (as is a lot of the HK cool), and intentionally so.

What happens with a very similar "look" in Resident Evil is that it seems to manifest primarily to satisfy an ideal: no history but the realization of an image. No 'causality,' but the conditioning of the onscreen content to the demands of the world outside the vacuum: the image of cool, the image of the girl with the gun, an exemplary image of a perfect (unrealizable) image. I will have to see the film again to really decide if this is the case, or if memory has warped too much. These are preliminary notes.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008


"Mrs. Obama quickly got back on her talking points, stressing party unity. But her unguarded answer was similar to what we heard from Obama supporters in e-mail messages that we received after endorsing Mrs. Clinton. Many of those readers said they would not bother to vote if Mr. Obama lost the nomination. That is not the way democracy is supposed to work.

"Among the Republicans, as Mr. McCain has pulled ahead, he has been shrilly attacked by Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter, who have said they’d rather lose the White House than have a nominee who does not pass all of their litmus tests. That is not the way democracy is supposed to work. Their claim that Mr. McCain is not a conservative (based largely on his willingness to actually talk to Democrats) is ludicrous, but it’s damaging to a party bloodied by eight years of the politics of George Bush and Karl Rove.

"There has been much wrong with this campaign: too much money spent on advertising, too many soft-money donations. There is still a chance, at least, to save the race from leaving the country even more divided than in the Bush years. Any candidate, and any party, presuming to unite this country must first unite their own. That is how democracy is supposed to work."

--Pravda (italics mine).

We need major healing in this country. We need to work for the politics of the new. My candidate worked hard to effect transformative change. Let's unite, not divide.

Outside of economics, strictly, I think the biggest achievement of the Bush Administration, 2000-2008, has been to work on a bipartisan effort with the media to pummel our country into a deeper acceptance of idiocy and insubstantiality, and to silence or marginalize those who would speak up in protest. Do so few really notice that all the candidates are using GWB's playbook from 2000? Heal, unite, bring good & honor back to the Oval Office. We're being branded and herded like cattle, and the vehicle for doing so is simply a narrative with a promised endpoint. Have your preferences--express your individuality in the form of your consumer choice for the presidential candidate--but please, folks, do it on our terms.

It's a vicious pattern: politics and marketing moving ever closer together, becoming indistinguishable, stimulated and even produced by the media and academia. Debord may have been a cranky and tyrannical avant-gardist prone to ridicule, but he was nevertheless right, and his condemnatory diagnosis was spot on. The first response: don't stay quiet.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Presenting Yourself to the World

"The mistrust between Chinese and Western critics reached its fountainhead as Hong Kong cinema was obsessively reduced to “1997 syndrome,” where inevitable political crisis licensed inevitably narrow critical approaches. Yet this mistrust on both parts was grievously, vehemently misplaced, for 1997-ism was not a reification of the Western mind but the quite real, deadeningly repetitive textual neurosis of HK films themselves. As culturalism and genre studies were exhausting themselves, a neatly-packaged and ever-intensifying historicism arrived on everyone’s doorstep with a deadline tied in a bow. Time and again, from Alfred Cheung’s arty noir On the Run (1988), to pop action films such as Police Story 3 (1992), The Bodyguard from Beijing (1994), and Rock n’ Roll Cop (1994), to Clara Law’s Farewell China (1990), Autumn Moon (1992), and the Australian-made Floating Life (1996), to Shu Kei’s Hu-du-Men (1996, above) and A Queer Story (1997), to Fruit Chan’s The Longest Summer (1998), to Stanley Kwan’s Hold You Tight (1998) and The Island Tales (2001), 1997-ism was reductively positioned by Hong Kong filmmakers as a singular macro-lens through which all psycho-socio-political affects could be managed and contained; it was a pretext repeated so often it became subtext, then text itself. We would do well, then, to chastise less the befuddled Western critic than the self-centered provincialism of HK directors, who repeatedly bathed postcolonial hysteria in action-film sweat or art-film style, and rarely bothered to investigate philosophical, aesthetic, economic, or intellectual problems beyond HK’s borders. In “A”-level action films like Police Story 3 or Bodyguard from Beijing, populist entertainment quality, as mandated by HK’s triad-run film industry, instantly sanctified provincialism, where “meaning” is an off-hand remark and “theme” a slight reference theorized out of all proportion. Even Allen Fong’s Wuniu: Dancing Bull (1990) and Evans Chan’s uniquely cerebral 1997 treatise To Liv(e) (1992), the only two HK features I can recall that posit intellectual characters, are consumed with provincial politics, as are Ann Hui’s Boat People (1983) and Ordinary Heroes (1998), and Jacob Cheung’s dully humanistic Cageman (1992), a few of the rare HK films in memory that address sociopolitical problems.

"After select HK genre filmmakers emigrated to Hollywood, the inauthentic hybrid forms poised to ensnare incoming opportunists smugly trumped the inauthentic subjectivity of the Western critic. The aesthetic compromises to which John Woo or Jackie Chan submitted were so madly inevitable that no dose of exilic-transnational-nomadic-postcolonial-diasporic rhetoric could soothe them, and we even longed for the nationalism to which Chinese critics were afraid to reactively cling. But because they are mere “entertainers,” HK action directors were liberated from the burden of moral courage reserved for non-genre auteurs; for the entertainer, selling out is art. If it was cowardly for John Woo to make Windtalkers (2002), for postcolonial Sammo Hung to debase himself in the cookie-cutter cop show Martial Law (1998), for Ronny Yu to whore in adolescent horror franchises, and for a Disneyfied Jackie Chan to become a high-kicking spokesman for Hefty Ultra-Flex lawn-and-leaf trash bags, only the deluded would dare ask for better. Postcolonialism may forgive the subaltern for imitating their oppressors, but these are privileged, wealthy filmmakers, not slaves, day laborers, or the bourgeoisie! A depressed Chow Yun-fat now resenting his double-barreled Hollywood caricatures (i.e., Bulletproof Monk [2003]) or a dejected Ringo Lam being downgraded to direct-to-video B-movies would have been bittersweetly satisfying had they come five years earlier — but now, who cares? Expatriate auteurs such as Polanski and Bertolucci persisted in Hollywood by selling only half their souls — but because émigré HK filmmakers were invited to the West not for their dramatic skills but only to fetishize action choreographies, they had sold half their souls already. Corrupting the other half came easily.

"Now, years after the ’97 immigrant crisis, the transnational problems of distribution and appropriation remain intact, as evidenced by Beijing and Nike, but it, circuitously, has taken a back seat to the new method of production. Treacherous Hollywoodites are today redundant in the process of demoralized transnationality, an affect no longer tacked on by vulture-like distributors but ingrained by Chinese filmmakers who now trade sophisticatedly their own international commodity value. The resultant bogus multiculturalism of synthetic confections such as Naked Weapon (2002) or Twins Effect (2003) fosters greater cultural ineptitude than the multilingualism of the international co-productions that dominated Italy in the 1960s, and betrays a lazy misunderstanding of Anglicism equal to Westerners’ violent corruptions of Chineseness. (This laziness largely stems from incredible English-language “performances.” But honestly, even talented HK actors such as Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung Chiu-wai have, by international standards, fairly narrow ranges, even if few will reveal the secret.) This multicultural “synthesis” is actually unsynthetic, insofar as the fabric, by showing its seams, instructs you how to unstitch it. Warning signs of this stitching were evident in Tsui Hark’s Time and Tide (2000), which heralded the technological heights and ideological nadirs of HK filmmaking on the cusp of its conservative tourism: a gloss of gratuitously enigmatic stylization following Wong Kar-wai and Johnnie To; dubbed bilingual performances (here, in Spanish rather than English) that nonsensically plead for multicultural cachet; the inclusion of a peripheral lesbian character to satisfy de rigueur, post-’97 gay tokenism; the relegation of veteran actors (here, Anthony Wong) to supporting roles, and the commercial advancement to the forefront of well-connected pop idols (Nicholas Tse) whose thespian merits begin and end with deluxe hairstyles; and, to rationalize all that has preceded it, a climax that restates the glowing values of pregnancy and the safeguarding of the nuclear family."

-- Andrew Grossman, "Against Pleasure, Against Identification: Feminism, Cultural Atheism, and theTragic Subject (Part One)" - here.

* * *

"Take the new Shanghai Museum, which was opened in 1996. It is designed to resemble a giant ting, an antique Chinese bronze vessel. The obvious visual message here is that in the city's pursuit of modernity, Chinese tradition is not forgotten. But there is also something else. Consider the experience of entering the museum. In the exhibiting walls, we find the rare artworks that the museum is famous for expertly displayed: the ancient bronzes, the Sung and Yuan painting. But what also catches the attention is how ostentatiously clean the museum is, not a common experience in Shanghai. There always seem to be some workers polishing the brass on the railings or the marble on the floor. Even the toilets are kept meticulously clean. The dirtier the streets around it, the cleaner the museum. And suddenly you realize that the museum does not think of itself as being part of a local space at all, but as part of a virtual global cultural network. The Shanghai Museum is not just where artworks are being shown in Shanghai; it is also where Shanghai shows itself off in its museum, with its image cleaned up and in hopes that the world is looking."

--Ackbar Abbas, "Cosmopolitan De-scriptions: Shanghai and Hong Kong," Public Culture 12(3), 2000; p. 782.

Speculations on the Waiting Game

"There are photographers who encourage war because they produce literature.

"They seek out a Chinese who looks more Chinese than the others; in the end they find one. They make him adopt a typically Chinese pose and surround him with chinoiseries. What have they captured on film? One Chinaman? No ... the Idea of what is Chinese."

-- Sartre, "From One China to Another" (Eng. trans.)

Sartre mentions in his essay the movement from the eternal time of old China and the irreversible time of the new China; and in-between, a time of waiting. This is nothing other than the process of modernization, I think; and the philosopher's concern is with the poor under the processes of this modernization. Though we understandably tend to think of the West as the social force whose imperialistic ambitions have tyrannically tried to enforce linear, progressive time on the world--the same time, everywhere, regulated, rational--I think it is worth noting that for most of the history of 'the West,' its denizens by and large were never in on linear time. Time was cyclical (agricultural) for much of history, and indeed was characterized by its own sort of waiting--waiting first for Christ's Second Coming, and then secondly (telescopically) waiting for the promise of modernization's fruits. 'The Western Man' has been waiting for his promised dessert for some time now. The rational, linear time of progress had little to do with common human experience in the West, I think, until fairly recently. If the regions and peoples who comprise the non-West came later to the table, it is only because of the particularity of Western masters coercing their own first, and their more distant 'subjects' after.

It's this 'waiting' that signifies an important aspect of our mutual human condition in modernity. A pre-modern form of waiting would be seasonal, cyclical; it would "take as long as it needs to." Modern waiting is waiting for a point on the time table (a spot on the grid). Or it is waiting for a condition that is promised when a certain grid coordinate is reached--only that condition is constantly deferred, manipulated, dispersed.

The philosophical, political, and experiential significance of certain kinds of ennui in cinema rest upon this yearning for a promised condition (or an arrival at a given, conceivable, pre-arranged destination). The real, materially effective facts of this 'modernizing mission' are the substrate to, I think, at least some kinds of contemplative cinema. In Still Life we see a city slowly transforming before our very eyes: it is an open and obvious comment on social and historical change. But the meandering journeys of its two main characters, who are for most of the film just a few steps behind their comparatively more urban-progressive objects (in more modern contexts than their rural home region, I take it), exist as a kind of "waiting game," a slow pursuit of a goal, precisely because of the real sociohistorical facts of the surrounding society in which Jia has placed his story.

In another Still Life--Sohrab Shahid Saless' 1974 Iranian film--we see the remnants of a slightly older conception of time in the elderly railroad worker, whose isolation is punished by the demands of a society that has outpaced him.

In yet another Still Life--Harun Farocki's documentary on advertising photography--we see so much care placed into the appearance of the commodified object: this is the promise to the consumer, the perfect thing whose value you shall acquire when you pay money (i.e., the expanded duration of the transaction involves the earning, the buying, and the consumption). It's as though the purchase of goods is one of the grand narratives of waiting, one of the ultimate ends, justifications, for a specifically modern boredom. "The Idea of what is..."

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Shine a Light On

Below are screen captures (and enlargements) from two consecutive shots in an important scene in Ishmael Bernal's Manila by Night (1980).