'High, low and in between': the 2005 Melbourne International Film Festival and Jia Zhang-Ke's The World.
Jia Zhang-ke's evocative description of Beijing's World Park serves well, perhaps too much so, as both a summing-up of the central preoccupations of his most recent and most accessible film, The World, and the overriding experience of such an event as the 2005 Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF). The curiosity that the people of Beijing--and China--feel for the world in Jia's film, while never quite being able to truly venture out into it, seems eerily similar to that which might motivate audiences to visit and binge on such a simulated smorgasbord of globalized 'unknown pleasures' at cornucopian festivals like MIFF.
This comparison is both apt and, of course, somewhat disingenuous. Many of the films that feature on the international film festival circuit are genuine products of their national cultures, even reflections of the complicated and circumscribed nature of such identities in a globalized world. It is also true that The World, Jia's first film to deal with the modern, somewhat dystopic urban milieu dominating contemporary Chinese experience, is about such seemingly contradictory feelings of solitariness and inclusiveness, global culture and the endlessly localized ways of living it. The characters in The World wander through the World Park as both a miniaturized simulacra of the 'earth's greatest hits'--or the great human-made edifices anyway--and as constant reminder of all that they don't, and perhaps cannot, experience. A droll comment by one character about the superiority of this version of the world--it still has its Twin Towers--pinpoints both what is comforting and most disturbing about it. Jia's extraordinary fluid rendering of this environment contributes significantly to this somewhat schizophrenic response; at times one almost perceives that we are indeed in Paris, Rome, etc., at others the combinatory, miniaturized and diluted nature of this nightmare of urban design is all too apparent.
The World also has much to say about the place of China in the contemporary world as both a kind of epicentre and as always one step removed, part of the grid of globalized communications but not quite able to clearly register the distinction between direct and mediated experience, the brighter possibilities of consumer culture and the bleaker realities of day-to-day existence which have not yet caught up with the 'logic' and sterilized comforts of global consumer culture, or the World Park. The Chinese characters in Jia's film--there are also visitors from Russia and elsewhere, but most arrive from the provinces and hinterlands outside the city--are both 'worldly' and endlessly solipsistic, tripped up by the sights and sounds offered by this global theme park. As global tourism becomes one of the key 'states' of modern existence, it also becomes all the more difficult to determine whether one is truly 'in' or 'outside' of the world. This is the key dilemma that Jia's characters face: Do new media technologies and the facades of the World Park inculcate them into or distance them from the modern world? Are they in fact the embodiment of this world or a rather tawdry copy? A sadness often creeps into the film as characters try to connect physically or try to articulate their place in the world; the ubiquitous mobile phone acting as both a strong symbol of interconnection and isolation. All of these contradictory and uncertain states provide a useful analogy for the experience of MIFF itself. Both a communal and somewhat solipsistic experience, the links between films are often inexact, the spectator struggling to make sense of the co-existence or equivalence of the works on offer, the deeper qualities of one film against the wider banalities of another (the Taiwanese/ Chinese art films versus the bulk of featured Asian genre films, for example).
One of the dominant experiences promoted by this year's MIFF was one of drift, a floating, almost boundary-less quality that linked together many of the festival's most interesting and provocative films. Such a feeling is common when viewing so many films en masse, but several significant films addressed this less-than-clear demarcation between worlds, periods, terrains and even individual works in a more direct, and sometimes profound, fashion. This is, of course, one of the key themes addressed by The World, and is supported by the extraordinary tracking shots that move characters through space and out from the tawdry backstage rooms of the park and into its relatively pristine, but disturbingly underpopulated exteriors. Such an uncertain drift between worlds and states also encapsulates the film's relationship to the musical; characters are at their most expressive and trapped when performing their essentially 'inauthentic' numbers. Nevertheless, they still hold a much more strongly 'integrated' function than the garish 60s Chinese pop inserted into the world of Tsai Ming-liang's The Wayward Cloud; an ultimately disturbing film where nothing quite fits together or moves in a fluid fashion.
In many ways, the most profound film presented at MIFF in 2005 was Gustav Deutsch's World Mirror Cinema. It was certainly the film that had the most to teach and show us about film history. Consisting of three 'distinct' 30 minute sections, Deutsch's film could have lasted for only half an hour or kept playing all festival. Proceeding, somewhat fancifully, from three street scenes outside of cinemas in Vienna, Surabaya and Porto, respectively, at three different points in time between 1912 and 1930, the film provides an extraordinarily novel approach to the fragmentary nature that defines the remnants and common experience of early cinema. Rather than insisting upon the melancholy singularity of individual films, or the wreckage of fragments of decaying footage that dominates early cinema's legacy, World Mirror Cinema stiches together early film history and its artefacts as a massive force of historical continuity, a web of pictorial and social connections. All three parts begin with a pan across a relatively bustling streetscape, gradually honing in on individual figures who emerge from and into this environment. Partly due to the imperfection of the actual footage--which allows for both the recognition and misrecognition of bodies and faces--the film then incessantly dissolves in and out of these figures and into other footage from that and slightly later (or in some cases earlier) periods. By matching the image--the shape and some features of face, posture, etc.--with others from the archive Deutsch suggests that rather than offering a disconnected, almost random set of 'documents' isolated and set and adrift in the vast 'sea' of the past, the archive actually contains an extraordinary historical and social fabric or web. In Deutsch's great, but gently dissolving montage of early cinema footage he points towards both our connection to, rather than separation from, the past and the possibilities offered by actually looking at the images of the past as images rather than just images of things and events.
The film also beautifully incorporates fictional footage into this phantasmagoria by moving 'into' the film posters and titles advertised and plastered on the cinema marquees and walls. In these moments Deutsch's film suggests the possibilities for such an expansive and truly observant film history that can incorporate the social practice of going to the movies, the movies themselves and their historical documentation and circulation. World Mirror Cinema further emphasizes such a set of fluid connections by moving from Vienna to Surabaya to Porto (though it is somewhat limited in terms of what it can actually say about these eras and places by what is ceded to archival memory).
This is somewhat problematic, at times, as although the footage of Vienna summons up the spectre of World War one, the footage of Surabaya is too crowded by the haunted memory of colonialism and can't adequately communicate or even fully suggest the ultimate persecution of the Chinese population we see. Still, one can now only dream of a cinema--like that in Surabaya, Java, now Indonesia--that would show Fritz Lang's Die Nibelungen and Tod Browning's The Unholy Three side-by-side.
The films of Mitchell and Kenyon (marketed under the title Electric Edwardians) provided a similar but less rich encounter--at least intellectually--with early film history. Whereas Deutsch's film was an extraordinary act of recontextualization and recategorization, the presentation of these recently restored relics of the Edwardian age provided more conventional pleasures. This was not helped by the oddly bucolic live accompaniment by In the nursery, which, while bringing the experience into the digital age, relied on rather bland approximations of the popular music of the era, albeit digitized. The most remarkable aspect of these films are their relatively candid--if somewhat posed--view of working and middle class Britons, mostly on the street or at play. The other extraordinary aspect is their volume. The discovery of films shot by one company between 1900 and 1913 does provide the opportunity for something close to the kind of continuity and connection that World Mirror Cinema insists upon. By placing the films--all quite short in duration--into various categories like 'workers', 'high days and holidays' and 'youth and education', the compilation both mimics the ways in which films and photographs were commonly grouped in the early years of the twentieth century and provides a portrait of a 'lost world'. In this regard, the project of this compilation is very different to that of Deutsch. By showing us an endless stream of oddly dressed and posed figures from another age, the compilation seems mostly concerned with intimating their 'strangeness', mortality and the gulf of time and representational practice that isolates us from them. These people and places do look familiar, but the dominant feeling one has while watching them is of the disappearance of people, places and customs in the subsequent one hundred years. The spectre of World War one hovers over this footage in a way quite different from the Vienna section of World Mirror Cinema.
Cinema's effort to reflect upon its own history and circulation was the subject of a mini-spotlight in this year's MIFF. Most fascinating in this regard were those films that attempted to give some sense of the kind of archival context or framework that made the presentation of World Mirror Cinema and the films of Mitchell and Kenyon possible. Although a little too uneven in its presentation and somewhat paltry in its revelations, Henri Langlois: The Phantom of the Cinematheque was nevertheless a necessarily extended and symptomatically unkempt portrait of the great archivist/curator/raconteur. Most fascinating in its blow-by-blow account of the 'Langlois affair' (revolving around the sacking of Langlois and its relation to the political upheavals of Paris in 1968), and slyly--though perhaps unconsciously--revealing use of poor quality archival footage (perhaps these were indeed taken from Langlois' 'collection'), this exhausting, though a little less than satisfyingly exhaustive, portrait of the cofounder of the cinematheque Francaise pinned its analysis on Langlois' 'necessary' characterization as equal parts genius and madman. An even more extreme portrait of the madness lying at the heart, or end, of excessive cinephilia--is there another kind?--was Channel Z: A Magnificent Obsession. Loaded with fabulous clips of films screened, promoted and resurrected by the legendary Los Angeles' cable station, Xan Cassavetes' documentary portrait of chief programmer Jerry Harvey provides an unsettling portrait of obsessive and ultimately destructive movie-love. Although the key effect of the film is to make one want to see many of these films (again), and to become almost as impassioned as its central subject, it also provides a salutary lesson in the dangers of prioritizing and pursuing a mediated world over all other human interactions. Both films provide portraits of damaged but heroic (much more problematically and murderously so in the case of Harvey) figures. Though both films make enervating if somewhat discomfiting viewing for any film buff, they do provide a very welcome antidote to the movie-nerd nightmare of Cinemania shown at MIFF a few years back.
A palpable sense of drift and the uncertainty that often accompanies it is a common sensation and textual characteristic of many of the key films circulating--or floating--on the international film festival circuit. Such a fluid relation between the past and present--and different notions of context--was also addressed in three of the other most evocative films at MIFF: Mercedes Alvarez's The Sky Turns (along with World Memory Cinema my favourite film of the festival), robin Campillo's They Came Back and Michael Haneke's Cache/ Hidden. They Came Back is novel variation on the zombie film, showing the everyday disruptions that occur when the 'recently' deceased return to a French town. Initially welcomed by most of the inhabitants, they eventually become restless and strive to return to the place they have mysteriously arisen from. In its quiet evocation of a world where disappearance, uncertainty and mortality--not adequately mourned or registered--are everyday facts of life, and where life and death are inexactly policed and demarcated realms, They Came Back provided a soulful, if perhaps a little too muted meditation on the contemporary human condition. In contrast, Hidden finds a wonderfully unsettling visual analogue for such uncertainly demarcated realms. Partly detailing the ramifications and long buried memories of the Algerian War, the film opens--and returns to--a 'surveillance' image of a French street that appears on screen, full-frame. It is initially almost impossible to make out that this is a video image, a recording that emanates from the world of the film rather than 'simply' showing us that world. It is only when the image is broken, paused and rewound that we realise we are watching a very ordinary' taped image of the exterior of the characters' dwelling. Such serious playfulness with the status and purpose of mediated images is part-and-parcel of Haneke's cinema, but here rather than pointing to rather rudimentary theorizations of media-effects and in a way not so dissimilar to The World's damaging simulacra) it truly unsettles our understanding and ability to grasp onto what is going on. In our realization that what we are watching is an 'image'--a rather mundane one at that--historical, cultural and referential certainty starts to fall away.
But all of these global preoccupations with the fabric of modern experience were at their best and most transcendent when they also focused on the experiential details of everyday existence. Despite the claims it makes for film history as a massive repository of historical memory, the most extraordinary moments in World Mirror Cinema are reserved for the (mis)matching of human faces and movements between scraps of archival footage. Similarly, despite its moving insistence on the continuities of everyday human experience across time and within the same Spanish village, The Sky Turns actually 'turns' upon the gently shifting arc of moon and sun, cosmic but quotidian observations of the passing of everyday life. The World is also preoccupied by the small miscommunications that plague and gradually distance its group of characters from one another; while Alex Gibney's grippingly 'argued' Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room gains its greatest charge from the ludicrous, but scarily real blow-by-blow insider account of the practice of hypothetical accounting. But for me the most moving moment of MIFF revolved around an even smaller gesture. Lovingly documenting a fairly tortured life, Be Here to Love Me: A Film about Townes Van Zandt's final moments show a brighter, more playful Townes trying on various hats and mugging for the camera. Over these silent, gently comic images are poignantly draped the strains of one of the visionary songwriters most melancholy but steadfast songs, 'High, Low and in Between'. Not too bad a description for one of the best instalments of MIFF for some time.
I don't know why we can't be brothers here, I know we should be. Answers don't seem easy, And I'm wondering if they could be. (2)
(1) Jia Zhang-ke interviewed in Valerie Jaffee, 'An Interview with Jia Zhangke', Senses of Cinema no. 32, July-Sep.04: www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/04/32/jia_zhangke.html
(2) The final lyrics of Townes Van Zandt's 'High, Low and in Between', 1972.
Adrian Danks is Head of Cinema Studies, School of applied communication, RMIT University, President and Co-curator of The Melbourne Cinematheque and Editor of 'CTEQ: Annotations on Film' (published: Senses of Cinema).
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|Title Annotation:||words with movie directors|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2006|
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