Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Random Thoughts No. 1: Asian film as an evening class, a symptom of crisis, and constructed meditation.

Every now and then I feel like writing about film itself, rather than review any particular movie. So here is the first in a series of rambling ruminations.

Shelly Kraicer offers an insightful overview of Chinese film in an online Cinemascope article: "Lost in Time, Lost in Space: Beijing Film Culture in 2004."

If African film master Ousmane Sembene can visualize cinema as an "evening class" whereby audiences are taught approaches to the social concerns of the day, Kraicer visualizes cinema "as a symptom of crisis; films as alarm bells, summoning us to rethink the way we live." Outlining how the People's Republic of China is a "society living asynchronously, without a vital link to its past or a sense of its own future" due to a Cultural Revolution that, within a mere decade, left a "still unexamined raw wound," Kraicer lays bets on the cinema arts to provide "criticism, guidance, reconstruction, and/or consolation" even as they entertain "for distraction or denial."

I have come to think that there are some forms of visual acuity that are fundamentally philosophical. That is to say, that there are as many ways to look at a piece of film as there are ways to believe in film. Trust me, though it might seem to the contrary, I did not come easy to the work of many of the Asian filmmakers. I used to be a special effects and action man. Why a thirst for one kind of cinema subsumes another or morphs into another is, perhaps, too personal to admit; but, only underscores for me the wondrous transformational quality of film, not only in itself as a medium, but upon the individuals who watch them.

Last year around this time I began reviewing the online critical work of Doug Cummings whose website I find so professionally executed that it grants his personal opinions added valence. Cummings, in turn, credits the influence of Andre Bazin, co-founder of the Cahiers du cinema and, considered by some, to be the "high priest of realism."

In a profile written for Sight and Sound (which is, unfortunately, no longer online), Peter Matthews capsulized some of Bazin's concerns in such a way that it made me wonder just how influenced or, more importantly, in what specific ways were Asian directors influenced by the works of the French New Wave? I'm sure countless ink has been spilled on that very topic, and I look forward to the confirmations and refutations that earmark any inquiry.

But here are some random thoughts. "Like a mathematical asymptote," Matthews writes, "filmic representation is always doomed to fall a little short of its goal. But if cinema never quite merges with life, that's what allows it to be an artform whose mission is to reveal life. Bazin concedes that there is no art without artifice and that one must surrender a measure of reality in the process of translating it on to celluloid. The cinematic staging of the real can be carried out in untold ways, so it would be more suitable to speak of 'realisms' than of a single definitive realist mode."

I've begun to notice how many Asian filmmakers propose a form of alterity as a suggestion of identity and alternate realities as a reflection of "this" reality (and I apostrophize that purposely tongue-in-cheek as a comment upon the Western presumption of reality). Thus, if it is true that the "cinematic staging of the real can be carried out in untold ways", and I have no doubt that it can, if not must, then how are we to train our visual acuities to recognize which reality is being cinematically staged, and how successful a director is in his or her own enterprise? The filmmaking process, let alone the filmviewing process, is (as Matthews further states) "inevitably contaminated by human subjectivity. Individual films and filmmakers carve up the unbroken plentitude of the real, imposing upon it style and meaning." Matthews fails to include the audience but they are guilty of the same.

But here is what truly caught my attention in Matthews' profile of Bazin. Acknowledging Bazin's dislike of montage because "montage can only cheat on our experience since it is an art of ellipsis" Matthews then proceeds to describe how "in the name of higher realism" Bazin "celebrated the long, uninterrupted take for its capacity to simulate the most elemental aspect of nature--its continuousness."

!!! Shades of Tsai Ming-Liang! Shades of Joe! Shades of Wong Kar-Wai! Shades of Kore-eda!

"Since everything in the film frame can be seen with equal clarity," Matthews explains, "the audience has to decide for itself what is meaningful or interesting."

And thus, around these directors who have decided to play with the depiction of reality as a static long shot or a documentarian's capture of the moment, it is the filmviewer's state of being that will truly measure the film's efficacy. Comparable to certain tenets of Buddhism. Of meditation.

Cinematic reality as constructed meditation.

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