Unknown Pleasures

Jia Zhang Ke’s Unknown Pleasures drifts entropically as it chronicles the desultory, unfulfilled lives of young people in a Chinese provincial backwater. Long shots, long takes, natural lighting, flat affect, disjunctive edits, and elliptical narration have almost become cliches of a certain sort of international art cinema. But here, as in his earlier, and equally remarkable Xiao Wu — I still haven’t seen Platform, said to be the best of his films — Jia makes the style really work: not only does it mirror the anomie and hopelessness of the characters (form matching content), but it also performs a subtle yet incisive political critique.

In trading Maoism for capitalism, Jia suggests, China has merely substituted one form of tyranny with another. Instead of the totalitarian frenzy of mass mobilization, contemporary China in Jia’s eyes now offers only random drift and impoverished imaginings; gangsterism and currying favor with the bureaucracy are sometimes capriciously rewarded, but most people find themselves doomed to passivity and empty consumption, even if they are lucky enough not to be victims of social predation. Jia’s style establishes and embodies the topography of such a world.

In one telling moment of Unknown Pleasures, one of the protagonists describes to his girlfriend the opening scene of Pulp Fiction, which he has seen on video, and which for him only signifies the distant allure of a glamor he can never hope to attain. The point is precisely that we never get to see anything like Pulp Fiction in the actual world of Unknown Pleasures. Even when the protagonists plan a bank robbery, there is nothing exuberant or crazy or Tarantinoesquely tongue-in-cheek about it; instead, it just goes stupidly and humiliatingly awry. By the end of the film, the characters have nothing left to lose; but they certainly don’t experience their situation as any sort of freedom or release. Instead, they are trapped in a world in which only money talks, even if there isn’t much that money can buy.

Jia Zhang Ke’s Unknown Pleasures drifts entropically as it chronicles the desultory, unfulfilled lives of young people in a Chinese provincial backwater. Long shots, long takes, natural lighting, flat affect, disjunctive edits, and elliptical narration have almost become cliches of a certain sort of international art cinema. But here, as in his earlier, and equally remarkable Xiao Wu — I still haven’t seen Platform, said to be the best of his films — Jia makes the style really work: not only does it mirror the anomie and hopelessness of the characters (form matching content), but it also performs a subtle yet incisive political critique.

In trading Maoism for capitalism, Jia suggests, China has merely substituted one form of tyranny with another. Instead of the totalitarian frenzy of mass mobilization, contemporary China in Jia’s eyes now offers only random drift and impoverished imaginings; gangsterism and currying favor with the bureaucracy are sometimes capriciously rewarded, but most people find themselves doomed to passivity and empty consumption, even if they are lucky enough not to be victims of social predation. Jia’s style establishes and embodies the topography of such a world.

In one telling moment of Unknown Pleasures, one of the protagonists describes to his girlfriend the opening scene of Pulp Fiction, which he has seen on video, and which for him only signifies the distant allure of a glamor he can never hope to attain. The point is precisely that we never get to see anything like Pulp Fiction in the actual world of Unknown Pleasures. Even when the protagonists plan a bank robbery, there is nothing exuberant or crazy or Tarantinoesquely tongue-in-cheek about it; instead, it just goes stupidly and humiliatingly awry. By the end of the film, the characters have nothing left to lose; but they certainly don’t experience their situation as any sort of freedom or release. Instead, they are trapped in a world in which only money talks, even if there isn’t much that money can buy.

Time of the Wolf

Michael Haneke’s Time of the Wolf is a powerful film, and a thought-provoking one. Haneke’s films have always been about imagining the worst — or close to it — and savagely dissecting the pretensions and hypocrisies of bourgeois life. But Time of the Wolfmoves in something of a different register than Benny’s Video or Funny Games or The Piano Teacher. The view is more detached and contemplative, though this certainly doesn’t mean it is more optimistic or hopeful.
Some sort of (unspecified) catastrophe has emptied the cities, poisoned the water and food supply, and left people to wander nomadically about the countryside, or to gather wherever shelter can be found. Many wait by the railroad tracks, hoping for redemption or rescue in the form of a train that never comes.
Haneke’s brilliance comes in the film’s everydayness. Time of the Wolf doesn’t depict the descent into utter savagery that you might expect. Yes, people are murdered for no reason, and some ugly squabbles develop; but on the whole, the film is as far from the extremes of dystopia as it is from the idyllic. People form groups, and these groups have hierarchies and power relations, and bigotry and sexism rear their heads; but for the most part, everyone gets by and has enough to eat, and there are instances of compassion as well as greed, and quarrels are usually resolved without violence. Conditions are unpleasant, but they are still, largely, livable.
By frustrating our melodramatic, dystopian expectations, and instead instilling in us a sense of the routinization of misery, the everydayness of discomfort and deprivation, Haneke makes a film that in retrospect is far more disturbing than a facile Lord of the Flies expose of human beings’ innate savagery would ever be. Civilization hasn’t collapsed in Time of the Wolf ; what we get instead is a social order without the comforts that privileged people have in our own, but with much the same blend of obedience, complicity, half-assed conformity, half-assed rebellion, smugness, and despair.

Michael Haneke’s Time of the Wolf is a powerful film, and a thought-provoking one. Haneke’s films have always been about imagining the worst — or close to it — and savagely dissecting the pretensions and hypocrisies of bourgeois life. But Time of the Wolfmoves in something of a different register than Benny’s Video or Funny Games or The Piano Teacher. The view is more detached and contemplative, though this certainly doesn’t mean it is more optimistic or hopeful.
Some sort of (unspecified) catastrophe has emptied the cities, poisoned the water and food supply, and left people to wander nomadically about the countryside, or to gather wherever shelter can be found. Many wait by the railroad tracks, hoping for redemption or rescue in the form of a train that never comes.
Haneke’s brilliance comes in the film’s everydayness. Time of the Wolf doesn’t depict the descent into utter savagery that you might expect. Yes, people are murdered for no reason, and some ugly squabbles develop; but on the whole, the film is as far from the extremes of dystopia as it is from the idyllic. People form groups, and these groups have hierarchies and power relations, and bigotry and sexism rear their heads; but for the most part, everyone gets by and has enough to eat, and there are instances of compassion as well as greed, and quarrels are usually resolved without violence. Conditions are unpleasant, but they are still, largely, livable.
By frustrating our melodramatic, dystopian expectations, and instead instilling in us a sense of the routinization of misery, the everydayness of discomfort and deprivation, Haneke makes a film that in retrospect is far more disturbing than a facile Lord of the Flies expose of human beings’ innate savagery would ever be. Civilization hasn’t collapsed in Time of the Wolf ; what we get instead is a social order without the comforts that privileged people have in our own, but with much the same blend of obedience, complicity, half-assed conformity, half-assed rebellion, smugness, and despair.

Code 46

Michael Winterbottom’s Code 46 is a film of sonic and visual textures. It’s science fiction, depicting a world in which genetic screening is the key to everything, including what jobs you can get, where and when you are permitted to travel, and — most important? — who you can have (reproductive) sex with. There are also wall-sized video screens, and everything is protected by personal (spoken) passwords and fingerprint scanners.
But the world of the film is largely recognizable, despite the high technology. Locations alternate between dense urban landscapes, with skyscrapers, anonymously bureaucratic offices and medical facilities, crowds, subways, and security checkpoints (these parts of the film were shot in Shanghai), and seemingly endless deserts (shot in Dubai). Like Godard’s Alphaville and Abel Ferrara’s New Rose Hotel, there’s no fancy F/X, but rather a sense of how the future is already immanent, and imminent, in the present of when the film was shot and first seen.
Winterbottom’s images are flat, with ambient lighting; the camera is often handheld, though less skittery than handheld camerawork often is. Everything in this world is polygot: the people are ethnically and racially mixed (though white privilege has clearly not been altogether effaced), whether the locale is supposed to be Shanghai, Seattle, or the Arabian peninsula, and they speak an English mixed with scraps of other languages (mostly Spanish and French, though Arabic and Mandarin are suggested as well). The music, usually warm techno, creates a dreamy ambiance, one of longing and semi-detachment: sadness filtered, softened, and distanced through a calming antidepressant haze, perhaps.
This is the same sense of floating displacement, the same wavering affect (partly calm and partly vaguely nostalgic, neither sincere nor ironic, but giving a sense that indifference has become a sort of engagement), that we get in other pomo/internationalist films, like Lost in Translation or Last Life in the Universe, or any number of films by the likes of Johnnie To and Wong Kar Wai and Shunji Iwai. Films like these are exploring, and articulating, the sensory feel, and the unfamiliar affects — at once frenzied and cool — of the new post-televisual, transnational multimediascape that we are starting to find ourselves living in.
Nomadic displacement is a positive condition in all these films — it is primary, rather than being seen as the negation of some supposed sense of place, or of rootedness.
What distinguishes Code 46 from these other films is that it shows how the “society of control” is inextricably interwoven with the sense of possibility that comes from decentered flows. For instance: access to everything is regulated by a series of personalizing markers (password, fingerprint, various sorts of permissions that can alter from one moment to the next –you are free to travel for the next 24 hours, but you will be blocked after that). These markers determine whether you can remain “inside” (in the metropolis) or whether you are relegated to the “outside” (which seems to be mostly desert. Inside is much more secure, and materially comfortable, than outside. But both inside and outside are nomadic and decentered, both seem to involve a life of slipping and sliding between alternatives, with nothing that is definitive. There’s a rigid binary, which is a real distinction, but the conditions on both sides of the binary are structurally homologous — both are exemplary instances of postmodern drift.
Genetics is the key to all this: it is the way people are coded. Travel restrictions have to do, for instance, with genetic susceptibility to various diseases that are dangers in various parts of the world. And most important, people with similar DNA are prohibited from having sex (the film is unclear when it comes to nonreproductive sex, whether this be because of contraception or because of same-sex encounters). The drama of Code 46 comes from the fact that the two protagonists (played by Tim Robbins and Samantha Morton), are genetic siblings even though they have never met before — their mothers were clones of each other.
It all works quite oddly in the film. Their life circumstances are so dissimilar, that it would seem their mutual attraction is due to the genetic similarity of which they are both unaware. Yet the film also implies that, due to this dissimilarity of backgrounds and characters, there is nothing psychologically incestuous about their relationship. Indeed, Code 46 seems absolutely devoid of any Freudian overtones (or undertones), even thought it is ultimately about incest. Which in itself is a remarkable accomplishment, suggesting how fully & successfully the film has thought itself into its “postmodern” sensibility.
Of course, this has to do not only with the look and feel of the film, but also with the characters of the protagonists. I adore Samantha Morton, and this film is no exception. The camera dwells on her face in closeup, but her face is too alien for this to work in the traditional “feminine mystique” kind of way. She seems alien, abstracted, withdrawn, as if all her attention were turned inwards, except that this “inwards” is nothing that I could possibly recognize by analogy with my own sense of interiority. She isn’t “mysterious” at all, but just sort of not there… elsewhere? or not anywhere? If anybody embodies a “posthuman” affect, simultaneously cool and intense, it is she. Watching her is like being somehow induced to empathize with something that is entirely beyond my (emotional or intellectual) comprehension. There is nothing blank about her; the blankness I feel watching her on screen is entirely mine.
Robbins, on the other hand, I usually do not like, and again Code 46 is no exception. Unlike Morton, he is all too comprehensible. He seems fussy and a bit condescending, and I’m not convinced that this is all because of the character he is trying to play. It’s as if he doesn’t really fit into this film, or into the world of this film. But perhaps this is the point. There’s absolutely no chemistry between him and Morton, despite the fact that we are supposed to see them as a doomed, tragic romantic couple. But this mismatching is not to the detriment of the film; it seems precisely right, for an emotional connection that isn’t “plausible,” and that isn’t explicable in terms of depth psychology, nor even in terms of unconscious kinship/similarity (nothing in the film makes them seem like siblings, any more than like amour fou lovers).
Not everything in Code 46 works; there are problems in terms of the plot, as well as in terms of certain aspects of the film’s world that are left overly vague. But the film does have an opacity, a kind of affectively charged resistance to the usual sorts of categorization, that I found powerful.

Michael Winterbottom’s Code 46 is a film of sonic and visual textures. It’s science fiction, depicting a world in which genetic screening is the key to everything, including what jobs you can get, where and when you are permitted to travel, and — most important? — who you can have (reproductive) sex with. There are also wall-sized video screens, and everything is protected by personal (spoken) passwords and fingerprint scanners.
But the world of the film is largely recognizable, despite the high technology. Locations alternate between dense urban landscapes, with skyscrapers, anonymously bureaucratic offices and medical facilities, crowds, subways, and security checkpoints (these parts of the film were shot in Shanghai), and seemingly endless deserts (shot in Dubai). Like Godard’s Alphaville and Abel Ferrara’s New Rose Hotel, there’s no fancy F/X, but rather a sense of how the future is already immanent, and imminent, in the present of when the film was shot and first seen.
Winterbottom’s images are flat, with ambient lighting; the camera is often handheld, though less skittery than handheld camerawork often is. Everything in this world is polygot: the people are ethnically and racially mixed (though white privilege has clearly not been altogether effaced), whether the locale is supposed to be Shanghai, Seattle, or the Arabian peninsula, and they speak an English mixed with scraps of other languages (mostly Spanish and French, though Arabic and Mandarin are suggested as well). The music, usually warm techno, creates a dreamy ambiance, one of longing and semi-detachment: sadness filtered, softened, and distanced through a calming antidepressant haze, perhaps.
This is the same sense of floating displacement, the same wavering affect (partly calm and partly vaguely nostalgic, neither sincere nor ironic, but giving a sense that indifference has become a sort of engagement), that we get in other pomo/internationalist films, like Lost in Translation or Last Life in the Universe, or any number of films by the likes of Johnnie To and Wong Kar Wai and Shunji Iwai. Films like these are exploring, and articulating, the sensory feel, and the unfamiliar affects — at once frenzied and cool — of the new post-televisual, transnational multimediascape that we are starting to find ourselves living in.
Nomadic displacement is a positive condition in all these films — it is primary, rather than being seen as the negation of some supposed sense of place, or of rootedness.
What distinguishes Code 46 from these other films is that it shows how the “society of control” is inextricably interwoven with the sense of possibility that comes from decentered flows. For instance: access to everything is regulated by a series of personalizing markers (password, fingerprint, various sorts of permissions that can alter from one moment to the next –you are free to travel for the next 24 hours, but you will be blocked after that). These markers determine whether you can remain “inside” (in the metropolis) or whether you are relegated to the “outside” (which seems to be mostly desert. Inside is much more secure, and materially comfortable, than outside. But both inside and outside are nomadic and decentered, both seem to involve a life of slipping and sliding between alternatives, with nothing that is definitive. There’s a rigid binary, which is a real distinction, but the conditions on both sides of the binary are structurally homologous — both are exemplary instances of postmodern drift.
Genetics is the key to all this: it is the way people are coded. Travel restrictions have to do, for instance, with genetic susceptibility to various diseases that are dangers in various parts of the world. And most important, people with similar DNA are prohibited from having sex (the film is unclear when it comes to nonreproductive sex, whether this be because of contraception or because of same-sex encounters). The drama of Code 46 comes from the fact that the two protagonists (played by Tim Robbins and Samantha Morton), are genetic siblings even though they have never met before — their mothers were clones of each other.
It all works quite oddly in the film. Their life circumstances are so dissimilar, that it would seem their mutual attraction is due to the genetic similarity of which they are both unaware. Yet the film also implies that, due to this dissimilarity of backgrounds and characters, there is nothing psychologically incestuous about their relationship. Indeed, Code 46 seems absolutely devoid of any Freudian overtones (or undertones), even thought it is ultimately about incest. Which in itself is a remarkable accomplishment, suggesting how fully & successfully the film has thought itself into its “postmodern” sensibility.
Of course, this has to do not only with the look and feel of the film, but also with the characters of the protagonists. I adore Samantha Morton, and this film is no exception. The camera dwells on her face in closeup, but her face is too alien for this to work in the traditional “feminine mystique” kind of way. She seems alien, abstracted, withdrawn, as if all her attention were turned inwards, except that this “inwards” is nothing that I could possibly recognize by analogy with my own sense of interiority. She isn’t “mysterious” at all, but just sort of not there… elsewhere? or not anywhere? If anybody embodies a “posthuman” affect, simultaneously cool and intense, it is she. Watching her is like being somehow induced to empathize with something that is entirely beyond my (emotional or intellectual) comprehension. There is nothing blank about her; the blankness I feel watching her on screen is entirely mine.
Robbins, on the other hand, I usually do not like, and again Code 46 is no exception. Unlike Morton, he is all too comprehensible. He seems fussy and a bit condescending, and I’m not convinced that this is all because of the character he is trying to play. It’s as if he doesn’t really fit into this film, or into the world of this film. But perhaps this is the point. There’s absolutely no chemistry between him and Morton, despite the fact that we are supposed to see them as a doomed, tragic romantic couple. But this mismatching is not to the detriment of the film; it seems precisely right, for an emotional connection that isn’t “plausible,” and that isn’t explicable in terms of depth psychology, nor even in terms of unconscious kinship/similarity (nothing in the film makes them seem like siblings, any more than like amour fou lovers).
Not everything in Code 46 works; there are problems in terms of the plot, as well as in terms of certain aspects of the film’s world that are left overly vague. But the film does have an opacity, a kind of affectively charged resistance to the usual sorts of categorization, that I found powerful.

Bruce Almighty

Jim Carrey doesn’t really cover any new ground in Bruce Almighty (2003), but the film reaffirms the comedic genius that was his in the first place. The film marks Carrey’s return to the bread-and-butter that originally made him famous, in contrast to his more “serious” efforts to extend his acting range (which efforts have varied from the dismal —The Majestic — to the utterly sublime — Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind).
Given divine powers, Carrey’s character Bruce (a disgruntled TV news reporter) goes off on a power binge whose utter narcissism is only matched by its infantile pettiness and lack of imagination. Unable to conceive the divine decadence of a Nero, Caligula, or Heliogabalus, Bruce contents himself with driving a new sports car, parting the Red Sea (a la Cecil B. DeMille) in a plate of tomato soup, and getting revenge by pulling a monkey out of a bully’s ass and causing his newsroom rival to babble as if he had breathed in a tankful of helium. Never has self-indulgence been so lacking in grandiosity. Bruce doesn’t have the manic energy of Ace Ventura; but like Ace and so many other Carrey characters, he is driven by an unconscious whose sole contents seem to be fifty years of television. No wonder the urges that roil in his raging id are nothing more than cheap special effects and lame one-liners. Above all, Bruce is characterized — like so many other Carrey personae — by a cringe-worthy need to ingratiate himself with everyone, and especially with his stereotypically whiny and long-suffering girlfriend (a role played, appropriately enough, by the sitcom queen herself, Jennifer Aniston).
I suppose my remarks are sufficiently snide that they could be read, in Adornoesque fashion, as a critique of the terminal mediocrity of American popular culture (a culture that is basically televisual, even when it is being enacted in the movies). But I don’t mean it that way at all. There is nothing mediocre about Jim Carrey. If you ignore the sappy moralizing and self-congratulatory complacency in which Bruce Almighty is wrapped, and focus just on Carrey’s physical and verbal performance, you will find it (as always, when he does comedy) utterly astonishing. It’s a miracle of embodiment. Every grimace, every twitch, every inflection, every pause conveys the predicament of the character — his narcissism without a self to be narcissistic about, his desire for recognition by others without any sense of otherness to pin that desire onto, the utter saturation of his inner experience by bland, public generalities: in short, the predicament of the quintessential postmodern “man without qualities” — every grimace, twitch, inflection, and pause of Carrey’s incarnates this predicament with energy, grace, intensity, and precision: so that nothing could be more profound and singular than the utter absence of depth and singularity that Carrey is depicting.
“If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise” (Blake).

Jim Carrey doesn’t really cover any new ground in Bruce Almighty (2003), but the film reaffirms the comedic genius that was his in the first place. The film marks Carrey’s return to the bread-and-butter that originally made him famous, in contrast to his more “serious” efforts to extend his acting range (which efforts have varied from the dismal —The Majestic — to the utterly sublime — Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind).
Given divine powers, Carrey’s character Bruce (a disgruntled TV news reporter) goes off on a power binge whose utter narcissism is only matched by its infantile pettiness and lack of imagination. Unable to conceive the divine decadence of a Nero, Caligula, or Heliogabalus, Bruce contents himself with driving a new sports car, parting the Red Sea (a la Cecil B. DeMille) in a plate of tomato soup, and getting revenge by pulling a monkey out of a bully’s ass and causing his newsroom rival to babble as if he had breathed in a tankful of helium. Never has self-indulgence been so lacking in grandiosity. Bruce doesn’t have the manic energy of Ace Ventura; but like Ace and so many other Carrey characters, he is driven by an unconscious whose sole contents seem to be fifty years of television. No wonder the urges that roil in his raging id are nothing more than cheap special effects and lame one-liners. Above all, Bruce is characterized — like so many other Carrey personae — by a cringe-worthy need to ingratiate himself with everyone, and especially with his stereotypically whiny and long-suffering girlfriend (a role played, appropriately enough, by the sitcom queen herself, Jennifer Aniston).
I suppose my remarks are sufficiently snide that they could be read, in Adornoesque fashion, as a critique of the terminal mediocrity of American popular culture (a culture that is basically televisual, even when it is being enacted in the movies). But I don’t mean it that way at all. There is nothing mediocre about Jim Carrey. If you ignore the sappy moralizing and self-congratulatory complacency in which Bruce Almighty is wrapped, and focus just on Carrey’s physical and verbal performance, you will find it (as always, when he does comedy) utterly astonishing. It’s a miracle of embodiment. Every grimace, every twitch, every inflection, every pause conveys the predicament of the character — his narcissism without a self to be narcissistic about, his desire for recognition by others without any sense of otherness to pin that desire onto, the utter saturation of his inner experience by bland, public generalities: in short, the predicament of the quintessential postmodern “man without qualities” — every grimace, twitch, inflection, and pause of Carrey’s incarnates this predicament with energy, grace, intensity, and precision: so that nothing could be more profound and singular than the utter absence of depth and singularity that Carrey is depicting.
“If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise” (Blake).

Elephant

Gus Van Sant’s Elephant (2003) is a beautiful film, so languidly quotidian, and yet so dreamily gorgeous, that its utter naturalism verges on the surreal. It’s about an ordinary day at a suburban high-school; the day’s everyday banality is not so much disrupted as continued by the Columbine-style massacre with which the film concludes. The camera floats from student to student, with long tracking shots following one or another kid down the hallways or across the grass, looping backwards and forwards in time so that the same events are captured several times from several viewpoints. Van Sant (or his camera) is clearly in love with these boys (and to a much lesser extent, girls), but in a relaxed way: without any of the voyeuristic smarminess of a Larry Clark. The film is about teenage awkwardness and grace (which coexist in all the characters, in different proportions), and it is wonderfully attentive to the life of the body, to bodies in motion, with their microscopic habits and routines and glitches and disruptions, their momentary tropisms and encounters.
The film is, for the most part, devoid of moralization about the killers. It emphatically refuses to condemn the supposed disinterest, or pomo affectlessness, of today’s youth; if anything, Elephant is about the emotional richness, in its very confusion and unclarity, of this supposed affectlessness.
Elephant‘s only false step is a scene in which the two teenage boys who shoot up the school receive guns, ordered on the Net, via UPS, while a fatuous documentary about Hitler plays on a disregarded television. The scene is not presented as an explicit explanation or motivation, but it’s the one place where lazy stereotypes replaces the film’s otherwise passionate investment in quotidian detail, in how the characters live moment to moment.
Much more interestingly, Elephant hints that internalized homophobia is involved in the genesis of the violence (a theme that is explored more fully in Dennis Cooper’s equally beautiful, though far more oblique, “Columbine” novel My Loose Thread, which is the only work I am aware of in any genre that bears comparison to this film).

Gus Van Sant’s Elephant (2003) is a beautiful film, so languidly quotidian, and yet so dreamily gorgeous, that its utter naturalism verges on the surreal. It’s about an ordinary day at a suburban high-school; the day’s everyday banality is not so much disrupted as continued by the Columbine-style massacre with which the film concludes. The camera floats from student to student, with long tracking shots following one or another kid down the hallways or across the grass, looping backwards and forwards in time so that the same events are captured several times from several viewpoints. Van Sant (or his camera) is clearly in love with these boys (and to a much lesser extent, girls), but in a relaxed way: without any of the voyeuristic smarminess of a Larry Clark. The film is about teenage awkwardness and grace (which coexist in all the characters, in different proportions), and it is wonderfully attentive to the life of the body, to bodies in motion, with their microscopic habits and routines and glitches and disruptions, their momentary tropisms and encounters.
The film is, for the most part, devoid of moralization about the killers. It emphatically refuses to condemn the supposed disinterest, or pomo affectlessness, of today’s youth; if anything, Elephant is about the emotional richness, in its very confusion and unclarity, of this supposed affectlessness.
Elephant‘s only false step is a scene in which the two teenage boys who shoot up the school receive guns, ordered on the Net, via UPS, while a fatuous documentary about Hitler plays on a disregarded television. The scene is not presented as an explicit explanation or motivation, but it’s the one place where lazy stereotypes replaces the film’s otherwise passionate investment in quotidian detail, in how the characters live moment to moment.
Much more interestingly, Elephant hints that internalized homophobia is involved in the genesis of the violence (a theme that is explored more fully in Dennis Cooper’s equally beautiful, though far more oblique, “Columbine” novel My Loose Thread, which is the only work I am aware of in any genre that bears comparison to this film).

Fahrenheit 9/11

I’ve finally gotten to see Fahrenheit 9/11. Michael Moore has said he has no problems with anyone downloading his film for free — and so I did.
I got my copy via BitTorrent; the file you need to open in a BitTorrent client in order to get started is this. (I don’t know how long this url will be good, but if it isn’t, you can easily locate a copy elsewhere via Google, or Suprnova). The quality of this copy of the film is not great — it was made by somebody videotaping it off the movie screen — and 8 minutes are apparently missing, a segment about the Patriot Act, but it’s good enough to get the general idea of what Moore is doing.
The film is now also available for download directly in various formats from archive.org (link via BoingBoing) — I don’t know if this is the same copy I viewed, or if it is better.
In any case: It strikes me that all the people who are arguing about whether Moore’s arguments hold water, or if they are flawed in some way, are simply on the wrong track. Fahrenheit 9/11 isn’t a film-essay, or political commentary via film, in the manner of Jean-Luc Godard or Chris Marker. It’s a piece of rabble-rousing agitprop. I mean this descriptively, not pejoratively. Moore is making an emotional or affective film, not an intellectual one. There’s room in the world for both. In terms of actually having a political effect, an affective film is arguably more valuable than an intellectual one.
(Think of everything Noam Chomsky has written post-9/11: usually he is right on an intellectual level, but his essays are totally off the mark affectively. Chomsky remains so unable to comprehend why so many people, myself included, were freaked out and terrified and crushed and upset by 9/11, regardless of our disapproval of the frequently vile foreign policy of the US government — Chomsky remains so incapable of grasping this, that his writings are utterly worthless for all of their intellectual insight, and accuracy as to what the US has actually done to the rest of the world. Moore, in contrast to Chomsky, understands how people feel, and shares these feelings).
So: Moore’s film is about feelings, not about analysis. And to this extent, F9/11 is pretty successful. Trying to convey artistically just how loathsome George W. Bush actually is, and how harmful and destructive his administration’s policies have been, is a thoroughly worthy endeavor. And Moore succeeds to a considerable extent in doing this (though I am inclined to agree with my mother that, if anything, the film understates just how awful and despicable Bush actually is). And to the extent that the film sets the record straight, by refuting some of the Big Lies that Bush and his administration have systematically deployed over the last three and a half years, it is doing an important civic service.
So it’s in F9/11‘s own terms, as an affective staging rather than a critical analysis, that I see both the film’s successes and its failings. The successes have to do with Moore’s ample demonstration of Bush’s callousness, and his fundamental upper-class agenda. And especially with the segment where Moore shows us Marine recruiters in action, and thus drives home the way in which the new volunteer armed forces are largely a miliatry of the poor, driven into the Service because they can’t find any other sort of decent job. And shows how Bush et al are betraying these young men and women, by having them risk life and limb for no good reason beyond power lust and greed. A Marxist analysis would no doubt back up all that Moore is saying here, but he isn’t pretending to make such an analysis; he is showing effects rather than causes, and he is leading us to feel the affects of these effects.
The weaknesses of the film, however, are also located in this affective register. The film is pretty xenophobic for one thing: not just America-centered (which is fine, since that is simply how the film is addressed, and where its hoped-for political effect is located), but perilously admitting, and making positive use of, the idea that people from other parts of the world are sort of “funny” and not really like “us.”
There’s also a kind of “personalization” that I found both irritating and lame. Moore spends far too much time trying to trace personal links between the Bush family on the one hand, and the Saudi royal family and the Bin Laden family on the other. What this does is to mystify power relations, by turning the everyday functioning of capital into an arcane conspiracy of family connections and nepotism. Presumably Moore does this, at least in part, because personal graft and corruption are easier to envision than are, for instance, the very abstract workings of international monetary flows. But in a very real sense it trivializes what has been going on. It’s not that Dubya’s policies don’t help make his Dad even more millions than he had already; but to turn this into his central motivation is to ignore such things as the workings of class (Marx always emphasized that it was not a matter of capitalists being individually bad people, but of the consequences of a full-fledged social and economic order of things), and the fundamental ideological investments of the neoconservatives on one hand, and the Christian fundamentalists with whom Bush is allied on the other. It’s not because a few Saudis sit on the Carlyle Group’s Board of Directors that the Bush administration is trying to convert the United States into a one-party theocratic police state, with wealth redistributed to the wealthiest 5% of the population from everyone else; and it’s not just in pursuit of Halliburton profits that the Bush administration has allowed its delusive fantasies of world domination to drag us into a quagmire of escalating misery and mortal danger, and to recruit more fanatical cadres for Al Qaeda than Bin Laden himself ever could have done.
These limitations are serious ones, precisely because the issues in question need to be injected into popular consciousness and public debate, rather than just being left for discussion in narrow academic and blogging circles (such as the ones that I inhabit). Moore ends up being not much more than the left’s answer to Rush Limbaugh; and though we certainly need one — and though it is good that the left has gotten at least some foothold in documentary film, given how completely the right dominates talk radio and cable news — it’s not enough.

I’ve finally gotten to see Fahrenheit 9/11. Michael Moore has said he has no problems with anyone downloading his film for free — and so I did.
I got my copy via BitTorrent; the file you need to open in a BitTorrent client in order to get started is this. (I don’t know how long this url will be good, but if it isn’t, you can easily locate a copy elsewhere via Google, or Suprnova). The quality of this copy of the film is not great — it was made by somebody videotaping it off the movie screen — and 8 minutes are apparently missing, a segment about the Patriot Act, but it’s good enough to get the general idea of what Moore is doing.
The film is now also available for download directly in various formats from archive.org (link via BoingBoing) — I don’t know if this is the same copy I viewed, or if it is better.
In any case: It strikes me that all the people who are arguing about whether Moore’s arguments hold water, or if they are flawed in some way, are simply on the wrong track. Fahrenheit 9/11 isn’t a film-essay, or political commentary via film, in the manner of Jean-Luc Godard or Chris Marker. It’s a piece of rabble-rousing agitprop. I mean this descriptively, not pejoratively. Moore is making an emotional or affective film, not an intellectual one. There’s room in the world for both. In terms of actually having a political effect, an affective film is arguably more valuable than an intellectual one.
(Think of everything Noam Chomsky has written post-9/11: usually he is right on an intellectual level, but his essays are totally off the mark affectively. Chomsky remains so unable to comprehend why so many people, myself included, were freaked out and terrified and crushed and upset by 9/11, regardless of our disapproval of the frequently vile foreign policy of the US government — Chomsky remains so incapable of grasping this, that his writings are utterly worthless for all of their intellectual insight, and accuracy as to what the US has actually done to the rest of the world. Moore, in contrast to Chomsky, understands how people feel, and shares these feelings).
So: Moore’s film is about feelings, not about analysis. And to this extent, F9/11 is pretty successful. Trying to convey artistically just how loathsome George W. Bush actually is, and how harmful and destructive his administration’s policies have been, is a thoroughly worthy endeavor. And Moore succeeds to a considerable extent in doing this (though I am inclined to agree with my mother that, if anything, the film understates just how awful and despicable Bush actually is). And to the extent that the film sets the record straight, by refuting some of the Big Lies that Bush and his administration have systematically deployed over the last three and a half years, it is doing an important civic service.
So it’s in F9/11‘s own terms, as an affective staging rather than a critical analysis, that I see both the film’s successes and its failings. The successes have to do with Moore’s ample demonstration of Bush’s callousness, and his fundamental upper-class agenda. And especially with the segment where Moore shows us Marine recruiters in action, and thus drives home the way in which the new volunteer armed forces are largely a miliatry of the poor, driven into the Service because they can’t find any other sort of decent job. And shows how Bush et al are betraying these young men and women, by having them risk life and limb for no good reason beyond power lust and greed. A Marxist analysis would no doubt back up all that Moore is saying here, but he isn’t pretending to make such an analysis; he is showing effects rather than causes, and he is leading us to feel the affects of these effects.
The weaknesses of the film, however, are also located in this affective register. The film is pretty xenophobic for one thing: not just America-centered (which is fine, since that is simply how the film is addressed, and where its hoped-for political effect is located), but perilously admitting, and making positive use of, the idea that people from other parts of the world are sort of “funny” and not really like “us.”
There’s also a kind of “personalization” that I found both irritating and lame. Moore spends far too much time trying to trace personal links between the Bush family on the one hand, and the Saudi royal family and the Bin Laden family on the other. What this does is to mystify power relations, by turning the everyday functioning of capital into an arcane conspiracy of family connections and nepotism. Presumably Moore does this, at least in part, because personal graft and corruption are easier to envision than are, for instance, the very abstract workings of international monetary flows. But in a very real sense it trivializes what has been going on. It’s not that Dubya’s policies don’t help make his Dad even more millions than he had already; but to turn this into his central motivation is to ignore such things as the workings of class (Marx always emphasized that it was not a matter of capitalists being individually bad people, but of the consequences of a full-fledged social and economic order of things), and the fundamental ideological investments of the neoconservatives on one hand, and the Christian fundamentalists with whom Bush is allied on the other. It’s not because a few Saudis sit on the Carlyle Group’s Board of Directors that the Bush administration is trying to convert the United States into a one-party theocratic police state, with wealth redistributed to the wealthiest 5% of the population from everyone else; and it’s not just in pursuit of Halliburton profits that the Bush administration has allowed its delusive fantasies of world domination to drag us into a quagmire of escalating misery and mortal danger, and to recruit more fanatical cadres for Al Qaeda than Bin Laden himself ever could have done.
These limitations are serious ones, precisely because the issues in question need to be injected into popular consciousness and public debate, rather than just being left for discussion in narrow academic and blogging circles (such as the ones that I inhabit). Moore ends up being not much more than the left’s answer to Rush Limbaugh; and though we certainly need one — and though it is good that the left has gotten at least some foothold in documentary film, given how completely the right dominates talk radio and cable news — it’s not enough.

Last Life in the Universe

Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s Last Life in the Universe was the last film I managed to see at this year’s Seattle International Film Festival. And I’m really glad I caught it: it was one of those rare films that, like the early works of Godard, or certain works by Wong Kar-Wai, made me excited about the potentialities of cinema. Or, to put the point a bit less pompously: not only was it a good film, but it renewed my sense of film in general, by making me feel that all sorts of things are possible, that the form has not exhausted itself, that cinema still needs to be invented, and still can be.
(There’s a link to Wong Kar Wai, in that his frequent cinematographer, Christopher Doyle, also did the camerawork for this film. But Ratanaruang’s sensibility is very different from Wong’s).
The plot, in itself, isn’t particularly original or surprising: a nerd meets a voluptuous woman who renews him sexually, and expands his enjoyment of life. But this familiar set-up is barely more than a pretext.
For one thing, the characters are weirdly quirky. The nerd, Kenji (Tadanobu Asano) is a Japanese man living in Bangkok and working as a librarian for the Japan Society. He is obsessively neat and tidy, and he is always trying to commit suicide, but never succeeding, because the doorbell rings or the phone rings or people come by and stop him. The woman, Noi (Sinitta Boonyasak) is Thai, works as a “hostess” (i.e a prostitute) and is the opposite of neat: her house is a virtual pigsty, with unwashed dishes, stuff all over the floor, etc. They are brought together when siblings of both are killed: Kenji’s brother by the yakuza, and Noi’s sister in a car accident after they have quarreled.
For another thing, Ratanaruang is more concerned with cinematic action and grace than with naturalistic plausibility in terms of plot. He moves effortlessly between comedy and melodrama, dwelling on instants when nothing dramatic is happening beyond the revelation of the characters, and moving the plot through absurdist twists and turns.
But what makes Last Life in the Universe great goes beyond the quirkiness of the characters and the plot twists; it has to do with the style of the film. Nearly every set-up is surprising and unexpected, in terms of camera placement, framing, or colors. The result is a strange kind of distancing: not any sort of alienation-effect, but an effort to take us outside the characters, so that we can view them, and their world, from an angle we’ve never experienced before. (Can an “angle” be “experienced”? I may be writing clumsily here, but the film actually convinced me that such a thing is possible). Rather than “identifying” with the characters, we are led to feel affectionately about them from a distance, as if we were friendly visitors from another planet (or as if, I am tempted to say, we were cinema spectators).
Also, continuity is frequently violated, because Ratanaruang is more concerned with emotional expression than with literal narrative coherence. When Noi falls asleep with her head in Kenji’s lap, for instance, the clothes she is wearing change from one shot to the next; including one series of shots where she is wearing the clothes her sister had on when she died (a death that Kenji witnessed; and it was this now-dead sister upon whom Kenji had first had a crush).
Other times, the film just takes off into the stratosphere. When Kenji, with his obsessive neatness and cleanliness fetish, insists on cleaning up Noi’s house, all of a sudden there’s a scene where we don’t actually see him cleaning; instead, we see the books and papers and other objects scattered all over the floor magically flying back, en masse, to their places in the cabinets and shelves. Noi first looks startled and uneasy that this is happening; but then she starts dancing, gracefully, in the midst of the flurry. Books and papers flit and twirl around her, as if in a gentle whirlpool. The camera observes, coolly, from a middle distance.
It’s unclear whether Noi and Kenji ever actually get it on; it’s implied that they do, once, but the camera does not show it. And the end of the film makes it undecidable how much of what we have seen has actually happened, and how much is fantasy (Kenji’s probably, but perhaps Noi’s as well).
Last Life in the Universe doesn’t exhibit either the exhilaration of early Godard, nor the melancholy romanticism of Wong; but it has an affect of its own that is as moving and impressive as either of these. It’s a kind of pleasurable coolness and lightness, sometimes flickering with quicksilver rapidity, other times mellowly dwelling on minute details (more for the sheer enjoyment of them than for any further significance they might have). Call it a sort of playful aestheticism, detached enough not to be momentous or anything, but adhesive enough to make you feel glad you are alive.

Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s Last Life in the Universe was the last film I managed to see at this year’s Seattle International Film Festival. And I’m really glad I caught it: it was one of those rare films that, like the early works of Godard, or certain works by Wong Kar-Wai, made me excited about the potentialities of cinema. Or, to put the point a bit less pompously: not only was it a good film, but it renewed my sense of film in general, by making me feel that all sorts of things are possible, that the form has not exhausted itself, that cinema still needs to be invented, and still can be.
(There’s a link to Wong Kar Wai, in that his frequent cinematographer, Christopher Doyle, also did the camerawork for this film. But Ratanaruang’s sensibility is very different from Wong’s).
The plot, in itself, isn’t particularly original or surprising: a nerd meets a voluptuous woman who renews him sexually, and expands his enjoyment of life. But this familiar set-up is barely more than a pretext.
For one thing, the characters are weirdly quirky. The nerd, Kenji (Tadanobu Asano) is a Japanese man living in Bangkok and working as a librarian for the Japan Society. He is obsessively neat and tidy, and he is always trying to commit suicide, but never succeeding, because the doorbell rings or the phone rings or people come by and stop him. The woman, Noi (Sinitta Boonyasak) is Thai, works as a “hostess” (i.e a prostitute) and is the opposite of neat: her house is a virtual pigsty, with unwashed dishes, stuff all over the floor, etc. They are brought together when siblings of both are killed: Kenji’s brother by the yakuza, and Noi’s sister in a car accident after they have quarreled.
For another thing, Ratanaruang is more concerned with cinematic action and grace than with naturalistic plausibility in terms of plot. He moves effortlessly between comedy and melodrama, dwelling on instants when nothing dramatic is happening beyond the revelation of the characters, and moving the plot through absurdist twists and turns.
But what makes Last Life in the Universe great goes beyond the quirkiness of the characters and the plot twists; it has to do with the style of the film. Nearly every set-up is surprising and unexpected, in terms of camera placement, framing, or colors. The result is a strange kind of distancing: not any sort of alienation-effect, but an effort to take us outside the characters, so that we can view them, and their world, from an angle we’ve never experienced before. (Can an “angle” be “experienced”? I may be writing clumsily here, but the film actually convinced me that such a thing is possible). Rather than “identifying” with the characters, we are led to feel affectionately about them from a distance, as if we were friendly visitors from another planet (or as if, I am tempted to say, we were cinema spectators).
Also, continuity is frequently violated, because Ratanaruang is more concerned with emotional expression than with literal narrative coherence. When Noi falls asleep with her head in Kenji’s lap, for instance, the clothes she is wearing change from one shot to the next; including one series of shots where she is wearing the clothes her sister had on when she died (a death that Kenji witnessed; and it was this now-dead sister upon whom Kenji had first had a crush).
Other times, the film just takes off into the stratosphere. When Kenji, with his obsessive neatness and cleanliness fetish, insists on cleaning up Noi’s house, all of a sudden there’s a scene where we don’t actually see him cleaning; instead, we see the books and papers and other objects scattered all over the floor magically flying back, en masse, to their places in the cabinets and shelves. Noi first looks startled and uneasy that this is happening; but then she starts dancing, gracefully, in the midst of the flurry. Books and papers flit and twirl around her, as if in a gentle whirlpool. The camera observes, coolly, from a middle distance.
It’s unclear whether Noi and Kenji ever actually get it on; it’s implied that they do, once, but the camera does not show it. And the end of the film makes it undecidable how much of what we have seen has actually happened, and how much is fantasy (Kenji’s probably, but perhaps Noi’s as well).
Last Life in the Universe doesn’t exhibit either the exhilaration of early Godard, nor the melancholy romanticism of Wong; but it has an affect of its own that is as moving and impressive as either of these. It’s a kind of pleasurable coolness and lightness, sometimes flickering with quicksilver rapidity, other times mellowly dwelling on minute details (more for the sheer enjoyment of them than for any further significance they might have). Call it a sort of playful aestheticism, detached enough not to be momentous or anything, but adhesive enough to make you feel glad you are alive.

Goodbye Dragon Inn

Goodbye Dragon Inn is Tsai Ming-liang’s most minimalist film. All of Tsai’s films chart heartrending emotional disconnections with beautiful, motionless or slow-moving long takes. But Goodbye Dragon Inn pushes this to something of an extreme, as if Tsai were trying to see how much could be said, and felt, out of how little.
The movie chronicles the last screening in a decrepit, soon-to-be-torn-down old-style (big) movie theater. The film being shown is Dragon Inn, a classic King Hu martial arts film from the 1960s.
It’s raining hard outside, and part of the theater is flooded: a motif that is repeated in most of Tsai’s films.
There are very few patrons, and most of them aren’t paying attention to the film. Men cruise one another, moving from seat to seat, or pissing in adjacent stalls in the bathroom, or passing one another in narrow corridors somewhere in the theater’s innards. But nobody ever connects, nobody picks anybody else up; there just doesn’t seem to be any sexual spark.
Other patrons lounge in the seats, feet up on the seats in front of them, loudly chewing nuts or other snacks.
The ticket-taker, who who has a club foot, cooks her dinner in an electric pot, walks through the theater, picks up trash, cleans up the bathrooms, and goes to visit the projectionist, who is absent from his booth. (We presume that she likes him, but that the feeling isn’t reciprocated).
There are no more than six or ten lines of dialogue in the entire 81 minutes of the film (aside from the dialogue and narration of Dragon Inn itself, which we hear in snatches). In the absence of talk, there’s an extraordinary concentration upon duration, and upon bodies.
Duration: Goodbye Dragon Inn makes us feel the passage of time, the density and weight of its moments, one added to another, while nothing happens, or what happens happens with extreme slowness. There’s one shot where the ticket-taker comes to the projection booth, and sits there waiting for him to return (which does not happen). She is motionless, and the shot is also motionless. Lots of cigarettes are heaped in an ashtray, and another cigarette, on the edge of the table, is still burning, the only sign of life. So we know that the projectionist is around somewhere, even though we don’t see him. Finally the ticket-taker gets up and leaves, and finally there’s a cut to the next shot.
There’s also the moment when Dragon Inn ends; the lights in the theater go up, and the few remaining patrons leave, except for (what looks like) one old man who remains in his seat. (I say “looks like” because it’s an extreme long shot, showing the whole theater from the stage, and it’s hard really to tell). The camera holds on this scene of near-emptiness, the movie theater emptied of cinema, for what seems like a long time, until Tsai finally cuts to some final shots of the ticket-taker and the projectionist separately cleaning up and going home.
These shots are fascinating — and not in the least boring — they are filled with a kind of tension, precisely because there is so little to see. Drained of activity and of change, the shots solicit our gaze. Instead of looking at action sequences, such as those that fill Dragon Inn, we find ourselves looking at something that is normally invisible, normally hidden by the very facts of action and movement: the passage of time itself.
But what’s truly mesmerizing and intense about Goodbye Dragon Inn is the bodies present in the theater. The men pass each other in an arrested dance, scarcely exchanging a word, making gestures that are withdrawn as soon as they have been sketched out. The club-footed ticket-taker painfully limps her way down corridors and up and down stairs; even when we cannot see her, we hear the clip-clop of her slow passage. These people scarcely seem to have any more life within them than do the celluloid figures in the film they are not watching; their only substantiality comes from the way Tsai’s camera dwells on them, projects them in turn to us. (Indeed, two old men, who seem to be the only audience members actually watching the movie, are the very actors who starred in Dragon Inn some forty-odd years previously). Tsai points up both the ghostliness of cinema, and the way that cinema nonetheless substantializes, and physicalizes, what it projects as two-dimensional shadows.
Goodbye Dragon Inn is not without humor (which comes from the incongruity of its characters’ non-connections), but mostly it expresses a discreet and poetic melancholy. Film is commonly said to preserve what otherwise dies and vanishes; but film in the classic sense is itself now in decline, as it is increasingly displaced by the new multimedia, as well as by new forms of consumption (multiplexes of small theaters instead of the old movie palaces, not to mention videos and DVDs viewed at home). Tsai seeks to memorialize this decline itself, as if what film most beautifully preserved were its own slow process of decay.

Goodbye Dragon Inn is Tsai Ming-liang’s most minimalist film. All of Tsai’s films chart heartrending emotional disconnections with beautiful, motionless or slow-moving long takes. But Goodbye Dragon Inn pushes this to something of an extreme, as if Tsai were trying to see how much could be said, and felt, out of how little.
The movie chronicles the last screening in a decrepit, soon-to-be-torn-down old-style (big) movie theater. The film being shown is Dragon Inn, a classic King Hu martial arts film from the 1960s.
It’s raining hard outside, and part of the theater is flooded: a motif that is repeated in most of Tsai’s films.
There are very few patrons, and most of them aren’t paying attention to the film. Men cruise one another, moving from seat to seat, or pissing in adjacent stalls in the bathroom, or passing one another in narrow corridors somewhere in the theater’s innards. But nobody ever connects, nobody picks anybody else up; there just doesn’t seem to be any sexual spark.
Other patrons lounge in the seats, feet up on the seats in front of them, loudly chewing nuts or other snacks.
The ticket-taker, who who has a club foot, cooks her dinner in an electric pot, walks through the theater, picks up trash, cleans up the bathrooms, and goes to visit the projectionist, who is absent from his booth. (We presume that she likes him, but that the feeling isn’t reciprocated).
There are no more than six or ten lines of dialogue in the entire 81 minutes of the film (aside from the dialogue and narration of Dragon Inn itself, which we hear in snatches). In the absence of talk, there’s an extraordinary concentration upon duration, and upon bodies.
Duration: Goodbye Dragon Inn makes us feel the passage of time, the density and weight of its moments, one added to another, while nothing happens, or what happens happens with extreme slowness. There’s one shot where the ticket-taker comes to the projection booth, and sits there waiting for him to return (which does not happen). She is motionless, and the shot is also motionless. Lots of cigarettes are heaped in an ashtray, and another cigarette, on the edge of the table, is still burning, the only sign of life. So we know that the projectionist is around somewhere, even though we don’t see him. Finally the ticket-taker gets up and leaves, and finally there’s a cut to the next shot.
There’s also the moment when Dragon Inn ends; the lights in the theater go up, and the few remaining patrons leave, except for (what looks like) one old man who remains in his seat. (I say “looks like” because it’s an extreme long shot, showing the whole theater from the stage, and it’s hard really to tell). The camera holds on this scene of near-emptiness, the movie theater emptied of cinema, for what seems like a long time, until Tsai finally cuts to some final shots of the ticket-taker and the projectionist separately cleaning up and going home.
These shots are fascinating — and not in the least boring — they are filled with a kind of tension, precisely because there is so little to see. Drained of activity and of change, the shots solicit our gaze. Instead of looking at action sequences, such as those that fill Dragon Inn, we find ourselves looking at something that is normally invisible, normally hidden by the very facts of action and movement: the passage of time itself.
But what’s truly mesmerizing and intense about Goodbye Dragon Inn is the bodies present in the theater. The men pass each other in an arrested dance, scarcely exchanging a word, making gestures that are withdrawn as soon as they have been sketched out. The club-footed ticket-taker painfully limps her way down corridors and up and down stairs; even when we cannot see her, we hear the clip-clop of her slow passage. These people scarcely seem to have any more life within them than do the celluloid figures in the film they are not watching; their only substantiality comes from the way Tsai’s camera dwells on them, projects them in turn to us. (Indeed, two old men, who seem to be the only audience members actually watching the movie, are the very actors who starred in Dragon Inn some forty-odd years previously). Tsai points up both the ghostliness of cinema, and the way that cinema nonetheless substantializes, and physicalizes, what it projects as two-dimensional shadows.
Goodbye Dragon Inn is not without humor (which comes from the incongruity of its characters’ non-connections), but mostly it expresses a discreet and poetic melancholy. Film is commonly said to preserve what otherwise dies and vanishes; but film in the classic sense is itself now in decline, as it is increasingly displaced by the new multimedia, as well as by new forms of consumption (multiplexes of small theaters instead of the old movie palaces, not to mention videos and DVDs viewed at home). Tsai seeks to memorialize this decline itself, as if what film most beautifully preserved were its own slow process of decay.

The Forest

The Forest (literal translation of French title: The Silence of the Forest), directed by Didier Ouenangare and Bassek ba Kobhio, is supposedly the first-ever feature film from the Central African Republic. (Bassek ba Kobhio is Camerounian, and made several films there, including an excellent deconstruction of the myth of Albert Schweitzer, Le grand blanc de Lambarene). It’s a powerful, but strangely divided movie.
The first half of The Forest works as political satire. Gonaba, the protagonist (played by Eric Ebouaney) has idealistically returned to the CAR after getting an excellent French education, because he wants to help improve his country. But what he has found instead is corruption, stagnation, empty concern with pomp and ceremony, and all the other political ailments of so much of contemporary Africa. He’s concerned with injustice — opposing the racist contempt in which the majority of the CAR regard the Biaka people (the so-called “Pigmies”) — but also pompous, condescending, and colonialist-minded (his girlfriend tells him she likes him because he has “the body of a black man and the mind of a white man”).
All this changes in the second half of the film, when Gonaba flees into the jungle and joins a Biaka community. He arrives thinking he will teach them to read and write French, thus raising them up to equality with the rest of the country. But instead of teaching them, he learns from them: he “goes native,” joining their group, being initiated into their ways, and marrying (and having a child with) a Biaka woman. In this portion of the film, the satirical knowingness of the first part totally dissolves. Instead we get a Rousseauian vision of “noble savages.” All the Biaka roles are played by Biaka people who are not professional actors, and much of this section of the film displays, in almost an “ethnographic film” manner, their customs and rituals.
Eventually, Gonaba is forced to leave and return to “civilization”: but we are meant to feel that he learned a more honest and authentic way of life from the Biaka.
The trouble with this is, of course, that the idealized vision of “noble savages” is itself a European racist and colonialist point of view: it’s just the flip side of the dismissal of “savages” as primitive, ignorant, and not-quite-human. The “noble savage” view, just as much as the flat-out racist view, effaces the social and individual reality of the people thus characterized. And usually, as in this film, it uses the vision of “noble primitives” merely as an enabler for the “civilized” person’s self-discovery.
So it’s strange, and more than a little distressing, to see an African film that, after critiquing the Euro-colonialist mindset, ends up adopting that mindset itself. I wish I could convince myself that the filmmakers were self-conscious about this irony; but I can find no evidence that this is the case.

The Forest (literal translation of French title: The Silence of the Forest), directed by Didier Ouenangare and Bassek ba Kobhio, is supposedly the first-ever feature film from the Central African Republic. (Bassek ba Kobhio is Camerounian, and made several films there, including an excellent deconstruction of the myth of Albert Schweitzer, Le grand blanc de Lambarene). It’s a powerful, but strangely divided movie.
The first half of The Forest works as political satire. Gonaba, the protagonist (played by Eric Ebouaney) has idealistically returned to the CAR after getting an excellent French education, because he wants to help improve his country. But what he has found instead is corruption, stagnation, empty concern with pomp and ceremony, and all the other political ailments of so much of contemporary Africa. He’s concerned with injustice — opposing the racist contempt in which the majority of the CAR regard the Biaka people (the so-called “Pigmies”) — but also pompous, condescending, and colonialist-minded (his girlfriend tells him she likes him because he has “the body of a black man and the mind of a white man”).
All this changes in the second half of the film, when Gonaba flees into the jungle and joins a Biaka community. He arrives thinking he will teach them to read and write French, thus raising them up to equality with the rest of the country. But instead of teaching them, he learns from them: he “goes native,” joining their group, being initiated into their ways, and marrying (and having a child with) a Biaka woman. In this portion of the film, the satirical knowingness of the first part totally dissolves. Instead we get a Rousseauian vision of “noble savages.” All the Biaka roles are played by Biaka people who are not professional actors, and much of this section of the film displays, in almost an “ethnographic film” manner, their customs and rituals.
Eventually, Gonaba is forced to leave and return to “civilization”: but we are meant to feel that he learned a more honest and authentic way of life from the Biaka.
The trouble with this is, of course, that the idealized vision of “noble savages” is itself a European racist and colonialist point of view: it’s just the flip side of the dismissal of “savages” as primitive, ignorant, and not-quite-human. The “noble savage” view, just as much as the flat-out racist view, effaces the social and individual reality of the people thus characterized. And usually, as in this film, it uses the vision of “noble primitives” merely as an enabler for the “civilized” person’s self-discovery.
So it’s strange, and more than a little distressing, to see an African film that, after critiquing the Euro-colonialist mindset, ends up adopting that mindset itself. I wish I could convince myself that the filmmakers were self-conscious about this irony; but I can find no evidence that this is the case.

The Last Train

The Last Train, by Alexei German Jr. (the son of the Alexi German who directed the utterly brilliant and nearly incomprehensible Khroustaliev, My Car), is a sublime film. It takes place during World War II, among German soldiers on the Russian front. The protagonist, a German doctor, arrives at the front in the bitterness of winter, as a blizzard is starting up, and just as the German troops are withdrawing. He is a man without family or friends, and a personality that is massively uningratiating; he is essentially alone. As the German withdrawal proceeds, he’s simply forgotten about and left behind. The film has almost no plot, aside from that. It’s shot gorgeously, in black and white Cinemascope: sometimes in deep focus, sometimes not, and sometimes with wide-angle or telephoto lenses. Most of the film takes place in the snow, with different shades of white predominating; sometimes snowfall or fog nearly blanks out the picture. Sometimes shots ring out, and people fall down dead. Other times the doctor and other characters engage in grotesque, absurdist dialogues or monologues. In any case, people move slowly in the snow and in the cold. The soundtrack is dominated by nearly ubiquitous coughing: it would seem that all the characters have colds, or incipient pneumonia, or worse (if there is such a thing as worse). Everyone is doomed. There is no redemption or salvation at the end. Sitting in the theater, chilled by what I saw and heard, I entirely forgot that outside it was sunny and 80 degrees.

The Last Train, by Alexei German Jr. (the son of the Alexi German who directed the utterly brilliant and nearly incomprehensible Khroustaliev, My Car), is a sublime film. It takes place during World War II, among German soldiers on the Russian front. The protagonist, a German doctor, arrives at the front in the bitterness of winter, as a blizzard is starting up, and just as the German troops are withdrawing. He is a man without family or friends, and a personality that is massively uningratiating; he is essentially alone. As the German withdrawal proceeds, he’s simply forgotten about and left behind. The film has almost no plot, aside from that. It’s shot gorgeously, in black and white Cinemascope: sometimes in deep focus, sometimes not, and sometimes with wide-angle or telephoto lenses. Most of the film takes place in the snow, with different shades of white predominating; sometimes snowfall or fog nearly blanks out the picture. Sometimes shots ring out, and people fall down dead. Other times the doctor and other characters engage in grotesque, absurdist dialogues or monologues. In any case, people move slowly in the snow and in the cold. The soundtrack is dominated by nearly ubiquitous coughing: it would seem that all the characters have colds, or incipient pneumonia, or worse (if there is such a thing as worse). Everyone is doomed. There is no redemption or salvation at the end. Sitting in the theater, chilled by what I saw and heard, I entirely forgot that outside it was sunny and 80 degrees.