Thursday, November 20, 2008

A brief text on Synecdoche, New York, just for fun:

The creation of the need, and the desire, to see things again is part of the method of Sans Soleil, and also, perhaps, its real subject. What Marker means to communicate to us is the solitude of the film editor at his machinery, his reverie over the footage he’s shot… the scenes he watches over and over again. He wants to explain… how images are replayed as memories, as obsessions, and as the troubled dreams of travelers.

The creation of the need, and the desire, to see things again is part of the method of Synecdoche, New York, and also, perhaps, its real subject. What Kaufman means to communicate to us is the solitude of the film writer at his machinery, his anxiety over the words he’s written, the words he reads over and over again. He wants to explain how memories are replayed as images, as obsessions, and as the troubled dreams of artists.

Sans Soleil seems… to be generating its own questions in the audience, like: Where are we now? Is this a film about Japan? About Guinea-Bissau? These stupid questions (which are also the sort we might ask of a bad, incoherent film), strangely, help pull us along through the movie: we keep following the subject, feeling that it’s almost in our grasp if only the speeding images would slow down a bit, if only those passages that look and sound like summations would allow us to linger before they rush us on to new information, new syntheses. And the stupid questions turn out to be the right ones. Sans Soleil is the diary of a return, a return which induces – naturally – retrospection, reverie, the need to account for the distances travelled in coming back: a review of notes from other places…

Synecdoche, New York seems to be generating its own questions in the audience, like: Where/when are we now? Is this a film about America? About Charlie Kaufman? These stupid questions (which are also the sort we might ask of a good, incoherent film), strangely, help pull us along through the movie: we keep following the subject, feeling that it’s almost in our grasp if only the speeding ideas would slow down a bit, if only those passages that look and sound like summations would allow us to linger before they rush on to new ideas, new syntheses. And the stupid questions turn out to be the right ones. Synecdoche, New York is the diary of a constant present, a present which induces – naturally – retrospection, nausea, the need to account for the distances traveled in standing still: a review of ideas from other places…

Several random thoughts:

We might consider Synecdoche, New York an essay film, not a narrative film.
Charlie Kaufman wants to be Woody Allen.
Charlie Kaufman is smarter, and more interesting, than Woody Allen.
If the act of creation is fear of a blank page, then Synecdoche, New York is the largest blank canvas Kaufman could find. He must fill it up.
He is afraid to fill it up.
Kaufman craves rejection and fears recognition
Kaufman craves recognition and fears rejection

(The above italicized texts are from a Terrence Rafferty article on Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil in Sight and Sound magazine, autumn 1984. My variations on his words, and how they relate to Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche New York, are in the non-italicized font.)

Saturday, November 1, 2008

24 City

“…given that there are different ways of writing History, your film should really be considered more as an archaeology of cinema in Foucault’s sense, not in the usual sense of an archeology that examines traces from the past to establish the factual genesis of things, but one that uses different moments and monuments as the basis for constructs that may seem questionable. It deals with essential relations even though these are not found purely in the world of anterior facts, like a sequence of events.”

“Cinema has this archive aspect because it’s about recording. That’s why, you say, there ought to be equality and fraternity between reality and fiction in cinema. Because it’s both things together, cinema can bear witness. Even independently of the war news, a simple 35 mm rectangle saves the honor of reality, you say; every film is a news document. Cinema only films the past, meaning what passes. It is memory and the refuge of time.”

Youssef Ishaghpour in conversation with Jean-Luc Godard

“An experienced event is finite – at any rate, confined to one sphere of experience; a remembered event is infinite, because it is only a key to everything that happened before it and after it”

Walter Benjamin on Proust

“…we backed away from that moment again and again, circling it, stalking it, until we had it cornered and began to tame it with words.”

Ian McEwan, “Enduring Love”

In my mind, there isn’t as much of a distinction between documentary and fiction as there is between a good movie and a bad one.

Abbas Kiarostami

The cinema is particularly well suited to notions of remembrance – the act of filming is in fact the capturing of moment, a kind of embalming; a film is, at the very least, a record of its own making, particular to that time and that place. Most importantly, it is something that we can return to, revisit, rewatch (and now rewind). We think of newsreels, the home movie (now the home video), the snapshot, a family album consisting of fragmented shards of experience. This is personal, yes, but also a part of history – a history not (only) of dates and facts but infused with the experiences of those who have passed through it and remember. I think this is what Jonathan Rosenbaum is referring to when he says that Jia Zhangke “has been able to create works of historical relevance partly because he considers this theme from the vantage point of a socialism that, far from being theoretical, is part of a complex lived experience.”

24 City is Zhangke’s latest chronicle of a country in transition, recounting roughly the last 50 years of Chinese history through personal interviews with former workers at a military factory, designated “420”, that is being torn down to make way for a new, state of the art living and recreational facility – the titular 24 City. But far from a recounting of dates or numbers, it is a personalized recounting, as each interviewee digresses into stories of girlfriends, mentors, parents, their travels, etc. Hanging over the proceedings is the ominous presence and structuring absence of Mao, the Cultural Revolution, Tiananmen Square, the gradual shift towards a free market capitalism, and modern dislocation.

The film features 8 or so interviews, with recurring punctuation between each segment – the screen will fade to black and Zhangke will play a pop song or display text on the screen. We also see the occasional scene of the factory being demolished and the construction of 24 City (the name 24 City is derived from a popular poem about the city of Chengdu, where both the factory and the new development are located). We sit through several interview segments before Zhangke’s formal strategy becomes clear – that is, we are gradually, with each successive interviewee, traveling forward in time, inexorably marching towards present day, a place were memories and the “now” finally catch up to each other and begin to intertwine. The first interviewee recounts tales of his foreman, a tough man who demanded that the workers use their tools until they were ground down into nothing – there could be no waste. The retired worker becomes nostalgic for the past and laments that he has not visited his elder in some time. We follow him to the foreman’s home and witness their encounter – two elderly men, reunited after decades, their way of life vanished and their usefulness gone. It is a bitter sweet moment, and the palpable sense of solidarity belies any criticisms of an oppressive Communism. We then see a woman on a bus who recounts tales of growing up with her mother, also a factory worker, and their inability to travel to their maternal grandparent’s home. This is the first, but not last, mention of a geographical isolation that ruptures the familial unit. The woman laments the impossibility of travel, but also that the size and demands of the factory, coupled with economic depression and lack of jobs, compelled workers from all over the country to travel to Factory 420. We also hear the tale of woman who, while on a ship en route to 420, looses her child while the ship is at port for a designated rest period. Despite a frantic search period, the boat cannot, or will not, deviate from its time table and departs, the child now lost (forever?). This action is justified in as much as we are told that the factory was doing very important work, supplying military armaments to the front line against “American Imperialists”. One can only assume that this is happening during the Korean War, when China was providing arms to North Korea, although there are also some allusions to the Sino-Japanese War as well. Part of Zhangke’s strategy is this withholding of detail; things are not spelled out, nor do we ever get a date or reference on screen. His intention seems, reasonably enough, to record the passing of time from specific personal experiences, recounting the macro through the micro.

A man seated at a bar speaks about growing up in the factory – due to its immensity, the grounds had their own school, shopping, movie theatre, etc. The children did not often mingle with the townspeople, and when they did it was usually to fight. He begins to speak of first love and his eyes turn away from the camera as he drifts away into a silent repose – a memory unable to be articulated in words. We gradually come to our last two interviewees, and the film has completed its trajectory into the modern. A young television newscaster recounts his few days of work in the factory; the back breaking tedium and repetition is too much to handle and he leaves, despite the disappointment to his parents. A young woman speaks about her mother, and that witnessing her working conditions brought her to tears. Her dream – to save enough money to buy her parents a condo in the new 24 City (the young woman is a “personal buyer”, a shopper for rich women who are too busy, or lazy, to purchase things for themselves).

Perhaps I’ve gone to long without mentioning that three of the eight interviews that make up the bulk of the film are actually reconstructions using actors (Zhangke regulars Lu Liping and Zhao Tao, as well as superstar Joan Chen.) I must confess that the recreations blend so seamlessly with the actual interviews that, with the exception of Joan Chen’s segment, I couldn’t tell which was which. This has led some commentators to reject Zhangke’s entire project, the notion being, I assume, that he has tipped his hand and that we must view the entire film as a fiction. This is a simple and easy way of sidestepping the entire point of the film, at least in as much as what I take the film to be about. You’ll forgive the long quotes at the start of this piece but it seems important to at least attempt to grapple with the complex issues of film, history and cultural memory/identity. As the 20th Century’s most popular art form, how can we not recognize that movies play an integral part in how we construct a narrative of the past, present and future? Joan Chen’s interview segment involves her recounting her arrival at 420 and the bestowing of her nickname, “Little Flower”. Of course, Little Flower is the 1980 film that made her name as an actress, so Zhangke is dabbling in a kind of mobius strip that circles back on itself continuously: an actress playing a woman named after a character made famous by the actress. As a narrative conceit the idea is perhaps too cute, too self consciously winking at the audience. But Zhangke has been blurring the line between “Fiction” and “Documentary” for some time now, and he is aware of Chen’s own complicated relationship with China. Her character is the only one to blatantly mention the aftermath of the Great Leap Forward, although not by name – she casually recalls family members returning from the countryside where they had been relocated only to find that their home was now overcrowded. Chen herself began her acting career in propaganda films after being “selected” for the job. The point being that, far from some idiotic notion of cinematic “quoting” or similar nonsense, Zhangke is incredibly interested in teasing out that thin line where filmed narratives threaten to supplant our own identities and personal narratives. In a very real sense, most of our ideas on World War II and “The Greatest Generation” have been formulated for us by films. Our knowledge of late 60’s radical uprisings comes from Godard et al, while the birth of our nation and the forward march of expansion has been laid out, quite explicitly, by Griffith and Ford.

It’s interesting to me that critics have read the film as a paean to communism and, conversely, as an ode to capitalism and modernization. Zhangke has no interest, I think, in either extreme, and it is to his credit that no party line is established. Instead, we see people living, with all the complexity that comes with it. We see faces, gestures, emotions – the solidity of the human, not the opaqueness of facts and figures. The camera is locked to a face, and we come to know it in the time that it is on screen. Much as Zhangke’s The World is about the state of modern communication, linking us together as it simultaneously enables increased isolation, it is also, like Still Life and 24 City, about a kind of literal and metaphoric displacement. The Three Gorges Dam is a marvel of human engineering and ingenuity, but that might be little comfort to an estimated one million people forced to relocate while their home are flooded; similarly, the sleek steel and glass structures of 24 City might be beautiful, and even become a home to the people who can afford it, but this might be little comfort to the thousands of people who no longer have a job at Factory 420. The forced relocations of city dwellers to the countryside is now reversed – the ideologies are different, but the human cost remains the same. A great leap forward indeed.

In the most recent issue of the essential film journal Cinemascope, critic Michael Sicinski lays out a fascinating deconstruction of the recent Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony. He makes several comments that strike me as particularly relevant to the film at hand. I’ll quote briefly: “with (director) Zhang Yimou at the helm, the entire world fell in line, panel by panel. This, in a sense, was the ideal endpoint for the display as a whole, since if one theme could be said to predominate, it was, of course, the total and unproblematic absorption of the individual into the anonymous mass.” He continues, “When we watch Yimou and his cultural assembly line, it is vital that those masses appear as remote as possible, lest we grasp the late-capitalist punchline. Those are the faces of production; their congealed labour power surrounds us every moment of the day; we are little more than anonymous, identical nodes of congealed consumptive power…”. Jia Zhangke gives these sweeping historical, political, and economic tidal waves a name, a face and a memory – we must rail against anonymity. Truly, the personal is the political, and we would all do well to remember that.