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Table of Contents 2018 vol.3 no.1

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2018, vol.3, no. 1

Table of Contents  2018 vol.3 no.1

Film and Media: Through and Beyond the Senses

edited by Małgorzata Radkiewicz, Marta Stańczyk (Jagiellonian University)

 

Fotografują się w atelier. Reżimy ciała w radzieckiej fotografii studyjnej [Polish]

Oksana Gawriszyna

Oko artysty. Fenomenologia zmysłów w filmie Młyn i krzyż Lecha Majewskiego [Polish]

Iwona Grodź

The body of the viewer and immersive audio-visual art. The somatic character of new Japanese experimental film

Agnieszka Kiejziewicz

Historical insight into The Danube Exodus cinematic installation by Péter Forgács

Kamil Lipiński

Boundaries are (but) a blur: Computer-generated imagery and the formation of seamless filmic space

Maciej Stasiowski

Prosthetic Memory and the New Civil Rights Cinema of the 21st Century

Patrycja Włodek

Tactile epistemology: sensoria and the postcolonial

Marta Stańczyk

 

Varia

Prayer Wheels for the Other: Haunted by the Images: the film works of Tian Zhuangzhuang book review

Maciej Stasiowski

Film and Media: Through and Beyond the Senses – Editorial

Małgorzata Radkiewicz, Marta Stańczyk

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2018, vol.3, no. 1, pp. 1.

 

Małgorzata Radkiewicz

Jagiellonian University

 

Marta Stańczyk

Jagiellonian University

 

 

 

Film and Media: Through and Beyond the Senses

 

The annual NECS conference that took place in June 2017 addressed the topic: Sensibility and the Senses. Media, Bodies, Practices. The program included diverse perspectives and subjects of research, showing different attitudes and exploring various fields of studies. Many of them still need to be explored and examined in detail, which poses a huge challenge for researchers dealing with film and various media.

Both theory and practice of film and media deal with such issues as perception, interaction, and involvement through human body and senses. Contemporary theory has turned toward embodiment as a major “figure of thought” and as the main mode of cognition. However, approaching visual culture and its various devices (analogue, electronic, digital ones) only through senses may not be sufficient in the era of post-humanity and dynamic technological development. Moreover, hybridization and specialization of media bring up questions and challenges that make us go beyond human senses and their limitations.

Preparing the following issue of “TransMissions”, we combined paper that examine various theoretical approaches to sensual perception and sensory experience of film, photography and media. All authors tried to explore either new possibilities of creation and usage of film and media or of analysis and interpretations, in terms of phenomenology, affects, prosthetic memory etc. Each paper, in different ways, shows that the new phenomena of media communication must be followed by both analytical and critical theoretical reflections that will address complex issues of relations between media and (non)human sensual organs.

 

 

Fotografują się w atelier. Reżimy ciała w radzieckiej fotografii studyjnej [Polish]

Oksana Gawriszyna

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        TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2018, vol.3, no. 1, pp.2-12.

Oksana Gawriszyna

Rosyjski Państwowy Uniwersytet Humanistyczny w Moskwie

 

 

Fotografują się w atelier. Reżimy ciała w radzieckiej fotografii studyjnej[1]

Streszczenie

Na przykładzie fotografii studyjnej artykuł przedstawia transformację praktyk kulturowych w Rosji w pierwszej połowie XX wieku. Jakkolwiek scenografia i ustawienie postaci na zdjęciach studyjnych są zainspirowane doświadczeniami „kultywowanych” ciał przedstawicieli klas uprzywilejowanych, to na początku XX wieku ten rodzaj fotografii staje się powszechnie dostępny. W rezultacie zdjęcia z tego okresu odzwierciedlają obrazy ciał „hybrydowych”, w których doświadczenie cielesne modeli łączy się z normami fotografii studyjnej. W przypadku sowieckiej fotografii studyjnej ten typ obrazów wpisuje sie w dynamikę procesów modernizacyjnych. Jednocześnie analiza zdjęć z lat pięćdziesiątych wskazuje na ugruntowanie się porządku „hybrydowego”, który jednak ujawnia rozdźwięk między symbolicznym porządkiem kultury sowieckiej a codziennym doświadczeniem cielesnym.

The article looks at the cultural transformation in Russia in the first half of the 20th century as manifested in studio photographs. Although the setting and posture in studio photography were taken from ‘cultivated’ bodies of privileged social groups, by the early 20th century it was readily available for everyone. As the result we see a variety of hybrid bodies, combining familiar bodily practices of models with prescriptive norms of the studio. These images can be read within the conceptual framework of modernization. Soviet studio photographs continue along this line. However, increasingly by the 1950s one registers hybridity of a different sort, which signals a rupture between a symbolic order of Soviet culture and everyday experience.

 

Słowa kluczowe: sowiecka fotografia studyjna, ciało, norma kulturowa, hybrydyzacja

 

Kiedy zostaje na ciebie nakierowany obiektyw, plecy same się prostują.

Z przypadkiem podsłuchanej rozmowy

Sztuki wizualne, w tym również fotografia, przedstawiają epokę sowiecką w sposób niepozostawiający wątpliwości. Rozpoznajemy ją w pewnych wzorach, zaczerpniętych z codzienności detalach, sposobach fotografowania. Materiał, na który chciałabym zwrócić uwagę, znajduje się na peryferiach sowieckiej kultury wizualnej. Jednak właśnie owa peryferyjna pozycja pozwala postawić pytania o reżimy ciała w kulturze radzieckiej, które na podstawie innych, popularniejszych źródeł nie dają się tak jednoznacznie sformułować.

Na tle już istniejących znaczeń i praktyk kulturowych pojawiają się te, które rozpoznajemy jako sowieckie, sądząc, iż za tym określeniem kryje się pewna treść ideologiczna lub odwołanie do doświadczenia kolektywnego, wychodzącego poza ramy ideologii. Fotografia to jedna z tych sfer, w których prowadzone są aktywne poszukiwania nowych języków wizualnych,[2] przy jednoczesnym istnieniu starszych konwencji. Styl fotografii studyjnej okazuje się konstrukcją wyjątkowo stabilną. Na zdjęciach z lat trzydziestych wciąż pojawiają się rekwizyty i tła z czasów przedrewolucyjnych (w latach dwudziestych takie ujęcia były jeszcze bardziej rozpowszechnione). Wpływ fotografii studyjnej widoczny jest również w metodach pracy profesjonalistów wykonujących zdjęcia indywidualne i grupowe w scenerii zakładów pracy i instytucji edukacyjnych. Czy jest to cecha specyficzna dla fotografii radzieckiej? Co kryje się za tymi praktykami?

Fotografię studyjną wyróżnia ścisła konwencja, na którą składają się: określony zestaw póz, sztuczne oświetlenie, namalowane tło, rekwizyty. Nie nalezy jednak mówić o tym typie fotografii jako bardziej inscenizowanym lub archaicznym w porównaniu z innymi jej rodzajami, lecz przeciwnie – podkreślać, iż umowność, szczególnie widoczna w fotografii studyjnej, jest właściwa dla natury całego medium. „Realność”, „prawdziwość” fotografii to cechy charakteryzujące nie obraz, a mechanizmy percepcji. Czynniki, które sprawiają, że odbieramy zdjęcie w określony sposób i nadajemy mu znaczenie, są liczne, płynne i należą do różnych porządków, na przykład technicznego, estetycznego czy władzy. Badaczowi fotografii zależy natomiast na pokazaniu specyficznego charakteru umowności wizerunku na konkretnych przypadkach.

Cechy obrazu, wspólne dla wszystkich rodzajów omawianej sztuki, związane są z pojmowaniem jej jako praktyki wizualnej społeczeństwa nowoczesnego – nowego antropologicznego porządku miejskiej „współczesności”.[3] W swojej pracy na temat dziewiętnastowiecznych sposobów postrzegania Jonathan Crary dowodzi, że wynalezienie fotografii było jednym z elementów zasadniczej zmiany praktyk wizualnych, jaka miała miejsce w latach 1820–1830. Mimo iż w teoriach optycznych tego czasu widzenie indywidualne staje się przedmiotem bacznej uwagi, opisywane ono jest jednak w kategoriach, które obejmują pomiar i porównanie, dlatego też podmioty spojrzenia stają się wzajemnie zastępowalne, a widzenie podlega uniwersalizacji.[4] Masowe powielanie obrazów fotograficznych sprawiło, że większość populacji świata zachodniego stało się nosicielami tego nowego, zuniwersalizowanego spojrzenia. To właśnie do rejestrowanych na kliszy obrazów odnoszą się pojęcia „świadectwa” oraz „dokumentu”. Nieprzypadkowo nowe medium szybko staje się narzędziem różnorodnej państwowej kontroli nad ciałami – policyjnej, psychiatrycznej czy medycznej – gdyż związek fotografii z różnorodnymi strategiami władzy jest o wiele ściślejszy, niż jesteśmy przyzwyczajeni myśleć. Jak zauważa John Tagg: „rzeczywistym jest nie tylko przedmiot fizyczny, ale także system dyskursywny, w którym obraz gra określoną rolę”.[5]

Fotografia studyjna całkowicie wpisuje się w ów reżim wizualny współczesności. Stwarza ona możliwość posiadania i reprodukcji własnej podobizny przez osoby dotychczas tej możliwości pozbawione. Jednak już sposób prezentacji postaci w fotografii studyjnej jest dość tradycyjny. Wzorcem staje się ciało „arystokratyczne”.

W XIX wieku tak same ciała, jak wyobrażenia o nich ulegają zasadniczej transformacji, który to proces wpisuje się w powstanie reżimu „współczesności”. Stulecie to cechuje ustanowienie podstawowym modelem ciała „uniwersalnego”. Nowej kategorii nie należy rozumieć jako przydatność do różnorodnych zadań – chociaż to okaże się jednym ze skutków – lecz jako wartość możliwą do przypisania wszystkim ludziom. Przyjmuje się bowiem, że każde ciało może zostać scharakteryzowane za pomocą tych samych, uniwersalnych kategorii, co na przykład ma miejsce w rozwijającej się wówczas intensywnie medycynie. Należy zaznaczyć, że pojęcie uniwersalności nie zakłada identyczności ciał, jednak różnice nabierają znaczenia dopiero wewnątrz określonego systemu wartości nakładanego na ogół. W powyższym schemacie ciału uniwersalnemu przeciwstawione zostaje to wyróżniające się, dla którego odrębność stanowi zasadniczy warunek istnienia. W efekcie na samym ciele właśnie zostają zapisane różnice, przede wszystkim socjalne. Stanowe, „arystokratyczne” ciało należy do wyróżniających się. Właśnie ten typ poddał analizie Norbert Elias w pracach poświęconych rycerstwu i arystokracji dworskiej w Europie.[6] Badacz opisał stopniowy proces postępującej „kultywacji” ciał przedstawicieli klas uprzywilejowanych, zaczynając od ograniczenia w publicznych sytuacjach różnorakich form wydalania substancji biologicznych jak siąkanie czy spluwanie, a kończąc na wprowadzeniu skomplikowanych norm zachowania.

Ciało arystokratyczne staje się synonimem wyrafinowania, poddawane zostaje długotrwałym i uporządkowanym praktykom dyscyplinującym – nauka norm właściwego zachowania w różorodnych sytuacjach jak na przykład taniec, fechtunek czy jazda konna – kształtującym w efekcie całościowy kod. Co szczególnie ważne w kontekście naszych rozważań, jest to jedyny rozwinięty kod cielesny rozpoznawany przez inne grupy społeczne i służący dla nich za punkt odniesienia. Z tego punktu widzenia nie można mówić o różnych kodach cielesnych.. Kulturę cielesną ma tylko jedna grupa, inne są jej pozbawione – podobnie jak za towarzystwo uważa się dobre towarzystwo, a za człowieka uznaje się osobę przyzwoicie ubraną i dobrze wychowaną. Dlatego też nie przez przypadek wzorcem dla fotografii studyjnej stało się ciało arystokratyczne. Idea ciała uniwersalnego nie tylko zastępuje ideę ciała wyróżniającego się, lecz również to wyróżniające się zostaje włączone do grona wzorców uniwersalnych.

Idea ciała uniwersalnego realizuje się także na innych niż fotografia obszarach. Nauki przyrodnicze i społeczne były podstawowym źródłem nowej wiedzy o ludzkim organizmie, popularyzowanej przez higienistów. Organizowali oni wykłady, a także publikowali w prasie artykuły propagujące nowe zasady pielęgnacji i hartowania oraz ćwiczenia gimnastyczne.[7] Równolegle popularnością cieszyły się „podręczniki dobrych manier”, lansujące wśród szerokiego kręgu odbiorców praktyki cielesne kultury szlacheckiej.[8] W rezultacie wzorce tak na poziomie dyskursów, jak i konkretnych praktyk ulegały krzyżowaniu i hybrydyzacji. Na przykład stosowany wobec ciał „arystokratycznych” wymóg utrzymywania właściwej postawy nie był związany z ideą zdrowia i wpływu pozycji kręgosłupa na funkcjonowanie organów wewnętrznych. Określenia „postawa prawidłowa” albo „postawa naturalna” nie miały praktycznie sensu w kulturze arystokratycznej. Istotne jest jednak, że oba dyskursy – dotyczący dobrych manier i zdrowia – zorientowane były na normę, a postawa ciała w jednym i drugim najczęściej określana była przez wskazanie wad. Podobnie wysoki poziom regulacji charakteryzuje dyskurs moralny, równie rozpowszechniony w XIX wieku, który zaczyna utożsamiać ze stanem moralności postawę. Jej wady u człowieka zaczynają być interpretowane jako świadectwo zepsucia moralnego. Schemat ten okaże się aktualny również w sowieckich normatywnych wyobrażeniach o ciele. Opieranie się o ściany, rozwalanie się na krześle czy trzymanie rąk w kieszeniach uważano za zachowanie niepożądane jeszcze w latach osiemdziesiątych.[9]

Podobne efekty praktyk hybrydowych można zaobserwować również w fotografii studyjnej. W tym wypadku nie można mówić jednak o mieszaniu się wzorców, lecz o skomplikowanym procesie włączania do normy, swoistej „przymiarki” odrębnej kultury cielesnej.

Poza. Fotografia studyjna wzoruje się na portrecie malarskim, stąd podobnie jak on odnosi swoje kody do norm ciała arystokratycznego. Najbardziej charakterystyczną oznaką tego mechanizmu jest postawa, którą winny utrzymywać postaci. Decyduje tu jednak już nie norma arystokratycznego kodu cielesnego, lecz reżim sprowadzający wszystkie ciała do jednego wzorca. Fakt, że staje się nim ciało arystokratyczne – jak już wskazywałam – nie jest przypadkowy, ale też nie wydaje się kluczowy. Ciało arystokratyczne staje się bowiem jednym z możliwych sposobów uniwersalnego kształtowania. Znaczenie paradygmatu ciała wyrafinowanego nie zatraca się całkowicie, stale towarzyszy mu natomiast kontrola, potrzeba doprowadzenia ciała do normy – jeżeli fotografia przedstawia kilka osób, ich rozmieszczenie jest bardzo charakterystyczne: para czy też grupa tworzy zazwyczaj dwupoziomową kompozycję. Postaci rzadko się dotykają, a jeżeli ma to miejsce, najczęściej oznacza pokrewieństwo. Na portretach indywidualnych równie często spotyka się pozycję siedzącą, jak stojącą, ale w większości przypadków obecny jest element służący za podparcie dla ciała. Ludzie występują w swoim najlepszych, odświętnych ubraniach. Czasem, aby osiągnąć pożądany efekt, używane są studyjne rekwizyty. Dla wielu osób fotografowanie się w studiach w drugiej połowie XIX i na początku XX wieku jest doświadczeniem „cudzego” ciała.[10]

Spojrzenie. Oglądając ówczesne zdjęcia studyjne współcześni widzowie często zwracają uwagę na wyraz twarzy: pełen napięcia, niekiedy prawie szalony, zwłaszcza dzieci mają nierzadko półotwarte usta. Błędem byłoby jednak na tej podstawie wnioskować o stanie psychicznym osoby na zdjęciu. Owego szcczególnego wyrazu nie należy tłumaczyć też niezwykłością sytuacji czy też długim czasem naświetlania. W fotografii studyjnej ciało traktowane jest integralnie,[11] twarzy nie podkreśla się nadmiernie i – w odróżnieniu od pozy – nie pracuje się z nią. Istotne jest kanoniczne ustawienie spojrzenia do kamery, które nie przewiduje jednak spotkania wzroku portretowanego i widza. Warto przy okazji dodać, że z twarzą i spojrzeniem od początku pracuje fotografia artystyczna – stosując jednorodne tło, modelowanie twarzy światłocieniem, skierowany poza kadr wzrok – a następnie kino. Obecność tych „dziwnych” wyrazów twarzy w fotografii studyjnej wskazuje na mieszanie się praktyk cielesnych. Człowiek o „arystokratycznym” ciele powinien bowiem umieć kontrolować nie tylko postawę, ale i wyraz twarzy i być przyzwyczajony do stanowienia obiektu spojrzenia.[12]

Tło. Horyzont, meble i rekwizyty – kapelusze, cylindry, laski, czasami także płaszcze, książki czy bukieciki kwiatów – odgrywają ważną rolę w fotografii studyjnej. Co więcej, ciało o doskonałych manierach nabiera pełni znaczenia tylko w odpowiedniej scenografii. Jest ona umowna, odsyła nie tyle do rzeczywistości, co do symbolicznego języka portretu. Z czasem tworzące ją przedmioty stają się coraz bardziej eklektyczne. Malowana tapeta, pełniąca funkcję tła, wiąże się z praktyką wypoczynku na łonie przyrody oraz podróżowania, które przez długi czas pozostawało przywilejem nielicznych. Dlatego też za tło najczęściej służą motywy egzotyczne: tropikalny las, stylizowane na antyczne ruiny, szczyty górskie itd. (zdarza się także wykorzystywanie motywów lokalnych). Zdumiewa stałość skojarzeń łączących fotografię z przyrodą – tradycja fotografowania się z kwiatami (bukiety w wazonach czy kwiaty w doniczkach) na tle tropikalnych lub kwitnących krzewów i drzew przetrwała niemal do naszych czasów.

Należy jednak podkreślić, że właściwy fotografii studyjnej reżim cielesny nie tylko utrwala się na światłoczułej błonie fotograficznej, ale także odciska się w ciałach. O ile początkowo pozy ustawia fotograf, o tyle stopniowo ludzie zaczynają odtwarzać postawę i kontekst z sytuacji fotografowania poza studiem.[13]

Do bardziej szczegółowej analizy wybrałam kilka przykładów sowieckiej fotografii studyjnej. W pewnym sensie można uznać je za reprezentacyjne, a precyzyjniej mówiąc należą one do jednego gatunku, jednak każdy przedstawia określony punkt na osi hybrydowych praktyk cielesnych. Równie ważne jest to, co łączy te ujęcia (należy zauważyć, że samo wykonanie zdjęcia w studiu nie jest niezbędnym warunkiem do zaklasyfikowania go jako fotografii studyjnej), jak i to, co czyni je wyjątkowymi (znaczącym może okazać się każdy szczegół).

Wybór fotografii studyjnej jako obiektu analizy w kontekście kultury ciała wydaje się trafny w szczególności dlatego, że pozwala sproblematyzować granicę między „sowieckim” i „przedsowieckim” okresami. Charakterystyczna jest swoista dziedziczność w procesach transformacji praktyk cielesnych (widoczna również w stylistyce ujęć) okresów przedrewolucyjnego i przedwojennego. Poczynając od pierwszych lat XX wieku,[14] coraz częściej spotyka się fotografie, na których ciała poddane są ewidentnie nienaturalnemu dla fotografowanych reżimowi, co zdradza ubiór, ale nawet częściej poza. Wynika to stąd, że krótki czas przygotowania do zdjęcia znacząco utrudnia precyzyjne ustawienie postaci. Na postawę składa się nie tylko ogólny zarys sylwetki, pozycja kręgosłupa (pleców), ale i też ułożenie poszczególnych części ciała jak głowa czy ręce. W pozie nabiera znaczenia każdy szczegół i zauważalne są nawet drobne odchylenia od norm.

Nieprecyzyjne „trafienie w postawę” dobrze widoczne jest na dwóch pierwszych zdjęciach. Pierwsze z nich[15] pochodzi jeszcze z okresu przedrewolucyjnego, z około 1910 roku. Przedstawia młodą kobietę ubraną w odświętną sukienkę, której elegancję podkreśla rzadko spotykany przedmiot – kobiecy zegarek w charakterze broszki. Mimo słabego stanu zachowania fotografii dobrze widoczny jest entourage studia, w którym tło ma imitować eleganckie wnętrze. Interesująca jest tu korelacja między stolikiem z bukietem kwiatów namalowanym na tapecie i tym, o który opiera się kobieta  na pierwszym planie. Rośliny pełnią tu funkcję nie tylko ozdoby, ale i atrybutu niewinności. Samo ustawienie postaci jednak zdradza doświadczenie cielesne nieprzystające do wykreowanego w studiu otoczenia. Kobieta na zdjęciu ewidentnie nie jest przyzwyczajona do pozowania. Ma lekko opuszczoną głowę, co wystarcza by zmienić wyraz całej pozy, a także stworzyć wrażenie chmurnego spojrzenia. Celem tej obserwacji nie jest podkreślenie wyższości osób posiadających konkretną kulturę cielesną, tylko ujawnienie norm obowiązujących w fotografii studyjnej oraz skomplikowanych stosunków pomiędzy nimi i człowiekiem w studiu.

Na drugim, pochodzącym z 1935 roku zdjęciu[16] nie widać studia jako takiego – za tło służy kotara, studyjne meble zastępuje zwykłe krzesło. Z pewnością jednak także w tym przypadku przygotowywano się pieczołowicie do wydarzenia, jakim był akt fotografowania. Wizerunek odtwarza kompozycję charakterystyczną dla podwójnego portretu studyjnego. Kobieta prezentuje się odświętnie, jednak uroczysty charakter jej ubioru potraktowany jest w sposób uproszczony, główną ozdobą czyniąc biały kołnierzyk bluzki. Strój mężczyzny ma z kolei na celu podkreślenie jego statusu społecznego; zwraca na niego uwagę zwłaszcza teczka, którą postać trzyma w ręce. W kontekście fotografii studyjnej przedmiot ten zmienia się niemal w atrybut.

Na zdjęciach z pierwszej połowy XX wieku trudno znaleźć rażące odstępstwa od póz normatywnych, dają się jednak zauważyć liczne drobne rozbieżności, na przykład w kierunku spojrzenia, ułożeniu rąk czy korpusu. Na ową dynamikę normy i odchylenia od niej wpłynęły skomplikowane procesy społeczne, które ukształtowały ciała „nowych mieszczan”. Przemiany urbanizacyjne zachodziły w Rosji (i nie tylko tam, oczywiście) już przed rewolucją, a kontynuowane były także po niej. Do analizy polityki ciała w kulturze sowieckiej lat dwudziestych i trzydziestych szczególnie użyteczne jest zastosowanie koncepcji „procesu cywilizacji” Norberta Eliasa.[17] Zdaniem niektórych badaczy najbardziej charakterystyczny sowiecki typ antropologiczny stanowią niedawni chłopi, w krótkim czasie przechodzący cielesną i społeczną transformację, która u przedstawicieli klas uprzywilejowanych przebiegała przez stulecia. Niemniej należy podkreślić, że w Rosji problematyka nabywania nowej kultury cielesnej – przyswajania zasad higieny i kontroli nad ciałem – była obecna także przed rewolucją, oraz że jeszcze w drugiej połowie XIX wieku procesy te przebiegały z opóźnieniem w porównaniu do krajów zachodnich. Nie oznacza to deprecjonowania specyfiki kultury sowieckiej, pozwala jednak zadać pytanie, jak w wariancie sowieckim wyglądał „proces cywilizacji”, jaka była w nim rola państwa oraz elit, jakie obierano wzorce i gdzie miały one źródła oraz o sposób przekazywania tych norm.

Ciekawym komentarzem do sowieckiej fotografii studyjnej jest typologicznie bliski drugiemu analizowanemu przeze mnie zdjęciu obraz Fiodora Bogorockiego Fotografują się w atelier (1932)[18]. Artysta dobrze oddaje tu eklektyczność fotografii studyjnej – egzotyczne tło, spojrzenia w różnych kierunkach, nieco spiętą pozę kobiety. Na płótnie najciekawsza jest jednak figura marynarza-rewolucjonisty, postaci często występującej w pracach Bogorockiego z tamtego okresu (Marynarze w zasadce, 1927–1928; Braciszek, 1932). Pojawienie się takiego bohatera na fotografii rodzinnej jest, jeżeli nie całkiem niewiarygodne, to przynajmniej dziwne. Malarz przypuszczalnie świadomie zamienia wzorce symboliczne – norma cielesna zastępowana jest przez normę ideologiczną. W tym kontekście niezwykle ważne jest, że artysta łączy styl fotografii studyjnej z ideą normatywności, oraz że stosowane przez niego zastępowanie norm wydaje się skuteczne. Pozwala to przypuszczać, iż w kulturze radzieckiej każdy pozytywny wzorzec – niezależnie od źródła, z jakiego jest zapożyczony – nabiera pozytywnego znaczenia ideologicznego.

Nieco inny przykład „przyswajania” wizerunku studyjnego, włączania go do radzieckiego porządku społecznego przedstawia trzecie ujęcie pochodzące z 1929 roku.[19] Biorąc pod uwagę pozy, ubrania, buty i fryzury kobiet, a także ogólną kompozycję grupy, zdjęcie bliskie jest wzorcowi. Dobrze zachowana jest także scenografia. Nic nie charakteryzuje ani samego zdjęcia, ani ukazanych na nim osób jako przynależnych do kultury sowieckiej, jednak z poświadczonego stemplem podpisu na odwrocie dowiadujemy się, że fotografia przedstawia grupę pracownic moskiewskiej fabryki Izolator. Charakterystyczna jest także forma inskrypcji – pełna data wykonania, sposób zapisu danych osobowych (nazwisko i inicjały).[20]

W sowieckiej kulturze cielesnej istotne jest nie pochodzenie wzorca, lecz stopień jego normatywności. Świadomość tego mechanizmu pozwala inaczej spojrzeć na tezę o powrocie wartości „burżuazyjnych” oraz znaczeniu idei „kulturalności” w połowie lat trzydziestych.[21] Bardziej niż z powrotem, mamy tu do czynienia z kontynuacją, gdyż analogiczne normy higieny, dobrych manier, poziomu wykształcenia czy codziennych zachowań funkcjonowały już w latach dwudziestych, chociaż możliwość ich realizacji znajdowała się poza zasięgiem większości społeczeństwa. Proces ten nie polegał również na uprzywilejowaniu wartości burżuazyjnych jako wyróżniającego się, dynamicznego wzorca. Przeciwnie, ówczesna idea kulturalności zakłada znaczną redukcję tego, jak rozumiano bycie kulturalnym. Co więcej jest to redukcja podwójna – w XX wieku wyobrażenia o ogładzie zostają sprowadzone głównie do powierzchowności; stylu ubioru czy sposobu wysławiania się. Z drugiej strony idei kulturalności lat trzydziestych i okresu późniejszego brakuje zdefiniowanego w sposób kompletny kanonu wyrafinowania. Zarówno w stosunku do wyglądu, jak i wykształcenia oraz manier wystąpienie jednego elementu wystarcza, by zostać zinterpretowane jako realizacja całego wzorca. Przykładowo elegancję reprezentuje pojedynczy detal – u kobiet zazwyczaj są to broszka albo naszyjnik, koronkowy kołnierzyk czy fryzura.[22]

Wielu badaczy zwraca uwagę na nową tendencję, jaką w połowie lat trzydziestych staje się dążenie do normalności; nie w sensie normatywności lecz w znaczeniu zwyczajnego, powtarzalnego stylu życia. Nie można jednak zapominać, że nawet w rozumieniu ideału owa normalność odnosi się do niepełnego wzorca i jest skorelowana z kategoriami prawidłowości, oceny oraz opinii zewnętrznej.

Zakończę te rozważania analizą ostatniej fotografii – wykonanej, jak wskazuje podpis u dołu, w Odessie w 1956 roku.[23] Ponieważ właściciel nie przekazał dodatkowych informacji, musimy polegać na samym wizerunku. Ujęcie to zdaje się w pełni oddawać specyfikę sowieckiej fotografii studyjnej, którą cechuje występowanie nieprzystających do siebie elementów. Jednak w odróżnieniu od poprzednio omawianych zdjęć, w tym wypadku owe cielesne i wizualne hybrydowe znaki nie oznaczają już transformacji, zmiany. Należałoby raczej odnotować, że został tu ustalony pewien porządek, w którym dziwna niedokończoność wizualnych i cielesnych gestów nabiera znamion normalności. Przypuszczalnie, na co wskazuje podpis w rogu, nie jest to pojedyncza fotografia – w widocznym na niej zaimprowizowanym studiu mogły zostać wykonane portrety innych osób. W takim wypadku sama sytuacja fotografowania czyni człowieka członkiem określonej grupy, co stanowi wyróżniającą cechę sowieckiej fotografii studyjnej, zwłaszcza powojennej. Funkcjonalnie ten rodzaj rejestracji na kliszach wykazuje podobieństwo do spisu nazwisk na odwrocie trzeciego z omawianych zdjęć. W powojennej sowieckiej fotografii studyjnej[24] istnieje specyficzny gatunek będący szerszą reprezentacją owego mechanizmu. Składają się nań tablice pamiątkowe wykonywane dorocznie lub na okoliczność wręczania dyplomów w placówkach oświatowych wszystkich szczebli. Portrety indywidualne wraz z podpisami (zawsze w określonym porządku – nazwisko i inicjały) tworzą zbiorową kompozycję. Albumy sowieckich obywateli wypełnione są zestawieniami, na które składa się zdjęcie indywidualne oraz grupy lub klasy.

Analizowany wizerunek został wykonany na klatce schodowej, która pełni funkcję wspomnianego zaimprowizowanego studia. Najprawdopodobniej po lewej stronie znajduje się będące źródłem światła okno. Kwiat w doniczce, ustawiony na wysokim kwietniku przybranym nieodzowną serwetką, zastępuje malowane tło z tropikalną gęstwiną. Uroczystego charakteru fotografii nadają reprezentacyjne schody i odświętność stroju kobiety, która nosi broszkę, buty na obcasie i trzyma w ręku małą torebkę. Jednak znów reprezentacja eleganckiej cielesności ulega tu ograniczeniu. Sukienka jest nieco pomięta, włosy nie zostały starannie ułożone, rajstopy nie pasują do wyjściowej sukienki. Należy jednak podkreślić, że ani specyficzna sceneria ani wygląd kobiety nie są niedostateczne w kontekście kultury sowieckiej. Podobnie jak wystąpienie jednego elementu jest tu traktowane jako równoważne z pewną wzorcową całością, tak tego typu zdjęcie może funkcjonować jako pełnowartościowa fotografia studyjna.

Wreszcie spojrzenie – kobieta patrzy w obiektyw, przez co widz spotyka się z nią wzrokiem. Niewątpliwie widoczny jest tu wpływ innych stylów portretowych, takich jak fotografia amatorska, które zwracają uwagę na indywidualny wyraz twarzy. W rezultacie zdjęcie dokonuje podwójnego adresowania. Efektem studyjnej sytuacji fotografowania jest neutralne, „publiczne” spojrzenie, podczas gdy ukierunkowanie wzroku kobiety wskazuje na prywatny, osobisty charakter obrazu. To zresztą kolejna cecha charakterystyczna sowieckiej fotografii studyjnej, która częstokroć odzwierciedla doświadczenie indywidualne.

Podsumowując, należy podkreślić, że wyróżnikami fotografii studyjnej w ogóle, jako specyficznej formy reprezentacji wizualnej, nie są sceneria studia ani osoba wykonującego zdjęcie profesjonalisty, lecz założenie – tak przez fotografa, jak i modela – wysokiego stopnia normatywności w wyobrażeniach o ciele i orientacji na wzorzec. Z kolei cechą specyficzną dla fotografii studyjnej obszaru sowieckiego jest istnienie wyraźnie zaznaczonego wzorca, przy jego jednoczesnej ograniczonej realizacji. Charakterystyczny dla tego kręgu kulturowego jest również złożony sposób budowania tożsamości postaci na zdjęciu, w ramach którego określenia „kolektywne” i „osobiste” („publiczne” i „prywatne”) nie przeciwstawiają się sobie, lecz wzajemnie się określają.

Tłumaczenie: Anastasia Nabokina

 

 

[1] Artykuł z książki Империя света: фотография как визуальная практика эпохи „современности”, (Москва: Новое Литературное Обозрение) (2011). Tłumaczenie z języka rosyjskiego Anastasia Nabokina.

[2] Zob. artykuły Р. Сарторти, Е. Доренко, Г. Орловой, Е. Деготь, Б. Гройса w: Советская власть и медиа, red. Х. Гюнтер, С. Хэнсген, (С.-Петербург: Академический проект) (2005), s. 145–227.

[3] Dobrym wprowadzeniem do zagadnienia jest książka Quetina Bajaca: Q. Bajac, LImage révélée. Linvention de la photographie, (Paris: Gallimard – Découvertes) (2001).

[4] J. Crary, Techniques of the Observer. On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century, (Cambridge: MIT Press) (1990).

[5] J. Tagg, The Burden of Representation: Essay on Photographies and Histories, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press) (1993), s. 4.

[6] N. Elias, O procesie cywilizacji. Analizy socjo- i psychogenetyczne, tłum. T. Zabłudowski, K. Markiewicz, (Warszawa: Wydawnictwo W.A.B.) (2011).

[7] Zob. na przykład: В.П. Жуковский, Гигиена семьи и обиходной жизни доктора, (С.-Петербург) (1893).

[8] Zob. na przykład: zbiór porad i wskazówek na różne okazje w życiu rodzinnym i publicznym: jak zachowywać się w towarzystwie na chrzcie, imieninach, ślubach, jubileuszach, proszonych obiadach, balach, rautach, spacerach, w teatrze, na maskaradach itd. (А. Якобсон, Правила светской жизни и этикета. Хороший тон, Типо-Литография, (С.-Петербург) (1889). Reprint: (Москва: РИПОЛ), (1991)).

[9] Jak pokazuje O. Bułgakowa, ważnym pośrednikiem w przyswajaniu i utrwaleniu tych wyobrażeń było kino. Zob. О. Булгакова, Фабрика жестов, (Москва: Новое Литературное Обозрение) (2005).

[10] Oczywiście istnieje również wiele zdjęć osób, których kultura ciała w studiu i poza nim nie różniły się. Jednak to właśnie przypadki niedopasowania jaskrawo uwidaczniają reżim cielesny fotografii studyjnej. Zdjęcie studyjne kogoś o arystokratycznej kulturze cielesnej jest w jakimś stopniu tautologią. Nieprzypadkowo w tym środowisku rozpowszechnia się fotografia amatorska, gdyż jego reprezentantom szczególnie łatwo przychodzi odejście od zwyczajowych póz.

[11] Za zwrócenie uwagi na ten fakt wyrażam wdzięczność Konstantynowi Bogdanowowi.

[12] Por. О.Б. Вайнштейн, Денди: мода, литература, стиль жизни, (Москва: Новое Литературное Обозрение) (2006), s. 145–148.

[13] Szczególnie interesujące są pozy przyjmowane na przedrewolucyjnych fotografiach grupowych, kiedy nie było możliwości kontrolowania ustawienia każdego człowieka – niektórzy zachowują cielesny kanon w całości, inni zmieniają ją całkowicie lub częściowo.

[14] Temat ten wymaga dodatkowej analizy, gdyż rosyjska fotografia studyjna w ogóle jest słabo zbadanym obszarem.

[15] Zdjęcie z archiwum rodzinny Batałowych (Samara). Dzięki uprzejmości autorki artykułu.

[16] Zdjęcie z archiwum rodziny Woroncowych. Dzięki uprzejmości autorki artykułu.

[17] N.S. Timasheff, The Great Retreat. The Growth and Decline of Communism in Russia, (New York: E.P. Duton & Company) (1946); V.S. Dunham, In Stalin’s Time. Middleclass Values in Soviet Fiction, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) (1976); C. Kelly, Refining Russia. Advice Literature, Polite Culture, and Gender from Catherine to Yeltsin, (New York: Oxford University Press) (2001); О. Булгакова, Фабрика жестов…, dz. cyt.

[18] Tę pracę, jak i inne obrazy Bogorockiego, można zobaczyć na stronie wirtualnego muzeum Masłowka – Miasto Malarzy (Масловка – Городок Художников): http://www.maslovka.org/modules.php?name=Content&pa=showpage&pid=73 (dostęp 20 lutego 2018)).

[19] Zdjęcie z kolekcji autorki artykułu, kupione na pchlim targu niedaleko stacji Mark w Moskwie w 2007 r. Dzięki uprzejmości autorki artykułu.

[20] Podobne zdjęcia zostały przedstawione na wystawie „Fotografia i dokument. 1880–1950” w ramach Fotobiennale 2006.

[21] S. Fitzpatrick, “Becoming cultured. Socialist realism and the representation of privilege and taste”, [w:] tejże, The Cultural Front. Power and Culture in Revolutionary Russia, (New York: Cornell University Press) (1992); В.В. Волков, “Концепция культурности, 1935-1938 годы: Советская цивилизация и повседневность сталинского времени”, Социологический журнал 1–2 (1996), s. 203–221; Н.Н. Козлова, “Социально-историческая антропология”, (Москва: Ключ-С) (1999), s. 151–169.

[22] Por. „jeżeli Rosjanka zapragnie wyglądać szykownie, to nie pójdzie ani do krawca, ani do sklepu po ubranie, tylko skieruje się prosto do fryzjera” (О.Б. Вайнштейн, “Улыбка чеширского кота: взгляд на российскую модницу”, [w:] Женщина и визуальные знаки, red. А. Альчук, (Москва: Идея-Пресс) (2000), s. 38).

[23] Zdjęcie z archiwum rodziny fotografa Olega Jakowlewa. Publikowane dzięki uprzejmości autorki artykułu.

[24] Rodzaj kolażu fotograficznego nie jest nowy, pojawia się on już w XIX wieku.

Oko artysty. Fenomenologia zmysłów w filmie Młyn i krzyż Lecha Majewskiego [Polish]

Iwona Grodź

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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2018, vol.3, no. 1, pp. 13-26.

 

Iwona Grodź

Uniwersytet im. Adama Mickiewicza w Poznaniu

 

 

 

Oko artysty. Fenomenologia zmysłów w filmie Młyn i krzyż Lecha Majewskiego

 

Abstrakt

Tematem artykułu jest tajemnica widzenia „zaszyfrowana” w filmie Lecha Majewskiego Młyn i krzyż (2010) oraz obrazie Pietera Bruegla z 1564 roku: Droga krzyżowa, który był dlań inspiracją – analizowana w różnych kontekstach, odsłonach, planach, poziomach, relacjach. Tajemnica widzenia dzieła sztuki rozumiana jest bardzo szeroko, ale przede wszystkim jako „wartość dodana” do tego, co pierwotnie podlegało oglądowi, analizie, zestawieniu. To, co jest wypowiedzią metatekstową wobec, zarówno wypowiedzi malarza, jak i reżysera. Jest także autorską interpretacją wskazanego materiału wizualnego.

The subject of the article is the mystery of vision “encrypted” Pieter Bruegel’s 1564 painting: The Way of the Cross and in inspired by it Lech Majewski’s film Mill and Cross (2010) where he analyses Bruegel’s painting . in different contexts. The practice of seeing a work of art is understood very broadly, but above all as “added value” to the primal act to viewing, analysis, compilation. It is a metatextual statement to both the painter’s and the director’s works. It is also an original interpretation of the indicated visual material.

 

Słowa kluczowe: zmysły i kino, Lech Majewski, Młyn i krzyż, Pieter Bruegel

Keywords: senses and cinema, Lech Majewski, Mill and cross, Pieter Bruegel

 

 

 

To zadziwiające, że obraz jest trwalszy od ciała, ślad trwalszy od życia, tak jakby całe skomplikowane królestwo tkanek, komórek, cząsteczek i atomów wzrastało jedynie, aby się rozpaść, a ślad, zaledwie kilka reakcji elektromagnetycznych na cienkim pasku taśmy – trwa[1].

Czyż sztuka nie jest najbliższa tajemnicy poznania wszechrzeczy? Lech Majewski powiedział niegdyś, że wierzy filozofom, który twierdzą, iż to właśnie dzięki artystycznym przekazom „dosięgamy gwiazd”, zbliżamy się do metafizyki[2]. Do tego, co dla „oka pasywnego” – a więc takiego, które może być „widziane” przez innych – ukryte, a dla „aktywnego” – widzącego – jawne. Nie jest novum stwierdzenie, że oko zostało okiełznane, ujarzmione właśnie przez artystów, dzięki sztuce, która oku patrzącemu przydała świadomości, przemieniła w oko widzące i rozumiejące, w końcu – w oko miłujące[3]. Spowodowało to też bardzo ważne rozdzielenie ról w „dramacie widzenia” oraz zjawisko tzw. wymienności perspektyw, które zachodzi między:

  1. artystą‒autorem, którego oko jest zawsze okiem aktywnym, ale ukrytym w artystycznym przekazie lub za nim;
  2. bohaterem/bohaterami świata przedstawionego dzieła sztuki, którego/których oko – w zależności od zajmowanej pozycji czy etapu wewnętrznej przemiany – może być aktywne i ujawnione albo pasywne, również ukazane;
  3. widzem/widzami, którego/których postrzeganie może być pasywne, bo świadomie projektowane/modelowane (przyjęcie roli bohatera, choć będącego poza światem przedstawionym dzieła) albo aktywne i ujawnione (wejście w rolę „powtórzonego” artysty).

Wymienność perspektyw w dziele sztuki jest przedmiotem zainteresowania m.in. teoretyków zajmujących się zjawiskiem autobiografizmu, biografizmu i autotematyzmu[4]. W niej „zaszyfrowana” jest też metafizyka, gdyż to właśnie w ruchomych granicach między: „ja” empirycznym, porte-parole i „ja” sylleptycznym[5] – ukryte jest „oko metafizyczne” artysty‒autora. Magdalena Podsiadło przypomniała te trzy typy wypowiedzi autobiograficznej i wyjaśniła je, odwołując się do literaturoznawczych badań Ireny Skwarek i Jerzego Smulskiego[6]:

  1. porte-parole – „wycofanie się autora z diegezy i umieszczenie w niej swojego reprezentanta”, tworzy się wówczas relacja nazwana: „związkiem podobieństwa”, objawia się ona przede wszystkim w świecie fikcji, a preferowaną formą jest: „wyznanie”[7];
  2. „ja” empiryczne – „będzie dążyć do zachowania tożsamości między bohaterem, narratorem oraz bohaterem”, powstaje wówczas „związek tożsamości”, typowy dla dokumentu, filmowej awangardy, dla których preferowaną formą jest „świadectwo” (głównie za sprawą wprowadzenia do filmu samego reżysera)[8];
  3. „ja” sylleptyczne – „będzie starało się wprowadzić osobę autora do opowiadania, a równocześnie zaprzeczyć jego tożsamości z twórcą”, tworzy się wówczas „związek autentyczności towarzyszącej niepodobieństwu”, typowy dla filmowej fikcji łączonej z rzeczywistością, standardowo przybiera on formę „wyzwania”[9].

Tematem artykułu jest więc przede wszystkim tajemnica widzenia – „zaszyfrowana” w filmie Lecha Majewskiego Młyn i krzyż (2010) oraz obrazie Pietera Bruegla z 1564 roku: Droga krzyżowa, który był inspiracją dla reżysera – analizowana w różnych kontekstach, odsłonach, planach, poziomach, relacjach. Tajemnica widzenia dzieła sztuki rozumiana jest bardzo szeroko, ale przede wszystkim jako „wartość dodana” do tego, co pierwotnie podlegało oglądowi i analizie. Artykuł jest zatem wypowiedzią metatekstową wobec zarówno wypowiedzi malarza, jak i reżysera. Jest także autorską interpretacją wskazanego materiału wizualnego.

***

W kontekście omawianego filmu ważny jest niewątpliwie temat, a więc podjęcie zagadnienia percepcji sztuki i zmysłowego aspektu jej odbioru, który mniej lub bardziej łączy się z zagadnieniem autotematyzmu. Magdalena Podsiadło zauważyła, że „Artystyczna biografia – prawdziwa bądź fikcyjna – otwiera się na losy twórcy poddającego ją interpretacji. Nawet jeśli narracja nie odsłania autora dokonującego aktu wypowiadania, postać artysty staje się sygnałem kierującym uwagę odbiorcy w stronę twórcy filmowego obrazu”[10]. Często bywa tak, że „(…) dzieła i życiorysy konkretnych artystów zostały zagarnięte przez osobiste doświadczenie twórcy kinowego (jak w biografiach filmowych Szpilmana czy Caravaggia)”[11] – pisała Podsiadło. Wówczas „Losy reżysera i bohatera łączą się w subiektywnej interpretacji autora, tworząc złożoną, dopełniającą się wzajemnie wypowiedź na temat sztuki”[12]. To przypadek Młyna i krzyża[13]. Wspólnota twórców ujawnia się wówczas, gdy przyświecają im te same idee, np. artystycznej wolności, wiary w moc sztuki i wpływania za jej pośrednictwem na widzów[14]. Takie ustalenie przypomina o podwójnym kodowaniu na każdym poziomie dzieła artystycznego. Artysta‒reżyser (podmiot utworu) staje przed „wyzwaniem”, jakie stawia mu inny artysta. Mamy więc do czynienia z relacją: „oko aktywne artysty‒malarza” kontra „oka aktywne artysty‒reżysera”, dla którego to pierwsze było inspiracją, a więc zamieniło go także w odbiorcę. Tutaj ujawnia się kolejna podwójna płaszczyzna: oko aktywne, ale ukryte przechodzi metamorfozę i staje się okiem pasywnego, bo już ukrytego (modelowanego) odbiorcy. Artysta staje się również bohaterem – w Młynie i krzyżu pojawia się oko pasywnego, widzianego porte-parole: malarza (postać ze szkicownikiem w filmie) i reżysera (można założyć, że w jakiejś mierze jest nim młynarz). Takie spojrzenie umożliwia więc wskazanie dodatkowo oprócz – oka metafizycznego artysty – także oko metafizyczne bohatera filmu i oko metafizyczne projektowanego widza. Każdorazowo poszczególne role muszą być zestawione z innymi, żeby w sferze ich przenikania się można było zobaczyć tajemniczą nić związku-porozumienia, a więc:

  1. „oko” bohatera: bohater–artysta; bohater–inny bohater; bohater–widz.
  2. „oko” odbiorcy: widz–artysta; widz–inny widz; widz–bohater.

Uzasadnia to konieczność zadania pytania, czy sztuka komunikuje się z siłą wyższą. Odpowiedzi na nie udzielić może zaproponowanie spojrzenie na film Majewskiego przez pryzmat sensualny, uznanie, że to poznanie zmysłowe może uwrażliwić odbiorcę na pogłębione doznanie estetyczne, dzięki któremu możliwe są nie tylko przyjemność, ale i wyzwolenie, owa metafizyka. Potwierdza to także reżyser, który w 2002 roku przy okazji realizacji innego filmu: Ogród rozkoszy ziemskich (2004; dzieło zainspirowane obrazem innego znanego malarza – Hieronima Boscha) wydał książkę pod znamiennym tytułem Metafizyka. Warto ten fakt odnotować, bo choć dotyczy innego artystycznego wyzwania, innego czasu i „materiału analitycznego”, uświadamia, że odbiorców twórczości Majewskiego cechuje do pewnego stopnia wiara. Przeżycie estetyczne urasta w jego filmach do rangi zbawczego, metafizycznego fetyszu. W ten sposób również film utrwala życie, przeciwdziała zapominaniu, ale też jest narzędziem obnażającym okrutny mechanizm przemijania i śmierci[15].

Młyn i krzyż Lecha Majewskiego był projektem, który zabrał reżyserowi sporo czasu. Magdalena Lebecka przypomniała, że ta „filmowa próba wniknięcia w uniwersum obrazu Pietera Bruegla Starszego Droga na Kalwarię (olejny obraz na desce, obecnie znajdujący się w wiedeńskim muzeum Kunsthistorisches Museum), tylko na etapie postprodukcji zabrała reżyserowi aż dwa lata”[16]. Lebecka zauważyła, że „Można by przypuszczać, że eschatologiczna wizja Boscha wytyczyła drogę Majewskiego do Bruegla. Jednak tej hipotezy reżyser nie potwierdza. Przyznaje natomiast, że Petera Dziwnego zawsze zaliczał do artystów dla siebie najważniejszych”[17].Z propozycją współpracy, po obejrzeniu Angelusa (2001), pojawił się Michael Gibson – „uznany autorytet w dziedzinie flamandzkiego malarstwa”[18], który pragnął zrealizować film edukacyjny, dokumentalny na podstawie wydanej w wersji polsko-angielskiej książki Bruegel. Młyn i krzyż[19]. Ostatecznie jednak powstał filozoficzny esej, a więc gatunek, który dawał większe pole do pracy wyobraźni.

 ***

Ironista, w przeciwieństwie do metafizyka, który wierzy w istnienie prawdziwej natury, zarówno świata, jak i człowieka, utrzymuje, że człowiek jest jedynie „pozbawioną ośrodka siecią przekonań i pragnień”[20].

 

Od wieków przyjmuje się za prawdę twierdzenie, że sztuka to jedyna sfera, a artysta to jedyna ludzka istota, która może „działać przeciw nicości ziemskiego świata”[21]. Immanentnie przyznaje się jej pierwiastek metafizyki, a więc czegoś, co jest ponad fizyką, naukową możliwością wyjaśnienia zjawisk dzięki wierze w rozum, doświadczenie czy choćby zmysły[22]. Takie podejście umożliwia również wspomniany obraz Droga krzyżowa, od lat skłaniający do stawiania kolejnych pytań, przykładowo, dlaczego cierpienie Jezusa jest na obrazie Bruegla niewidoczne? Dlaczego zostało celowo ukryte? Jak uzasadnić użycie aż siedmiu perspektyw w obrazie?[23] Wskazać można przecież punkt widzenia: malarza, jego mecenasa, młynarza, sprzedawcy chleba, płaczącej grupy kobiet, Weroniki, Estery, tłumu ludzi. Polifoniczność spojrzeń jest niespotykana i może odsyłać do zmian sposobu widzenia, które w nauce zainicjowały odkrycia choćby Mikołaja Kopernika (De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, największe zdarzenie naukowe epoki, ogłoszono w 1543 roku)[24].

Warto kilka uwag poświęcić samemu obrazowi malarskiemu. Powstał on w czasie gdy filozofia nowożytna dokonała rozdzielenia nauki i metafizyki. Był to czas kontrreformacji i panowania katolickiej Hiszpanii we Flandrii. Gibson przypomniał jednak, że za dwa lata sytuacja miała się odmienić: „w sierpniu 1566 roku zwolennicy reformacji przystąpili do kontrataku i Flandrią wstrząsnęła fala brutalnych, masowych napaści na kościoły katolickie. W oczach protestanckich kaznodziejów malowidła i rzeźby kościelne były równoznaczne z bałwochwalstwem: w trakcie zaledwie trzech tygodni lud Flandrii, doprowadzony do ostateczności, zdewastował w całym kraju ponad czterysta świątyń, niszcząc rzeźby i paląc niezliczoną liczbę malowideł”[25]. Tak więc historycy sztuki dość jednoznacznie sugerują, że Bruegel wprowadził do swoich dzieł elementy narodowościowe, o wyraźnie historycznym znaczeniu[26]. Ponadto zrezygnował z jednej perspektywy na rzecz wielu punktów widzenia, a więc wielu płaszczyzn w obrazie. Pisała o tym szerzej Maria Rzepińska: „Zdarzenie główne jest zawsze umieszczane tak, że bardzo trudno w pierwszej chwili je odszukać. Czytelność akcji w jego obrazach jest w ogóle utrudniona z góry przez wprowadzenie owych »równouprawnionych« w skali grup i epizodów, rozrzuconych po całej płaszczyźnie obrazu, nie poddanych ani hierarchii umownej, ani perspektywicznej. Aby odczytać wizualnie takie obrazy, jak Przysłowia flamandzkie, Zabawy dziecięce czy Walka karnawału z postem – trzeba wodzić okiem po kolei po różnych strefach obrazu i oglądać każdy epizod. Jest to inny sposób percypowania niż ten, jakiego wymagają obrazy typu włoskiego czy też obrazy flamandzkie przed Boschem – stworzone wyraźnie dla oglądu całościowego”[27]. Dlatego tak trudno jest nam dostrzec Jezusa na obrazie Droga krzyżowa, choć znajduje się na przecięciu przekątnych obrazu. To paradoks niewidzenia cierpienia, jego „przeoczenia”, zbagatelizowania, choć dotyczy najważniejszej postaci. Czy chodzi o „beznamiętność” czy „bezradność” bohaterów z obrazu[28]? To kwestia godna uwagi. Hiszpanie okazali się bardzo okrutni i obojętni wobec protestantów – Flandrów, tak jak postaci z obrazu malarskiego wobec męki Jezusa.

Zaproponowana we wstępie metafora oka sugeruje istnienie szeregu wątpliwości, typu: która z postaci obrazu i filmu „widzi” albo jest częścią „historii/narracji drogi” (1), „młyna” (2), „krzyża” (3)? Przypomnę, że zwykle droga symbolizuje trud i zmianę. Młyn – oznacza życiodajny „przemiał” (przemianę) i ziemskie, rutynowe życie. Krzyż odsyła do idei ofiary i cierpienia. Następne pytanie to: którzy z bohaterów w końcu są mediatorami między wskazanymi opowieściami? Przynajmniej na kilka niejasności można odpowiedzieć już na tym etapie[29].Jakie zatem wydarzenia widzą poszczególni bohaterowie utrwaleni w obrazie i filmie? Malarz przede wszystkim cierpienie Jezusa? W filmie jego ogląd jest szerszy, bo – jak sam mówi – postępuje jak pająk, ogarnia wzrokiem szerszy horyzont, dysponuje większą wiedzą, dystansem. Dostrzega więc także cierpienie innych, przykładowo Matki Boskiej i zgromadzonych wokół niej kobiet. Może w tajemniczy sposób (gest ręki) porozumiewać się z młynarzem. Podobnie większym horyzontem postrzeżeniowo-poznawczym względem obrazu dysponuje mecenas malarza, młynarz, sprzedawca chleba i Weronika, choć nie do końca zwykli ludzie (tłum), którzy w filmie zajmują się po prostu swoimi sprawami, a uwiecznieni w obrazie wpatrują wytrzeszczonymi oczami w przestrzeń przynależną potencjalnym, przyszłym widzom. Niewątpliwą tajemnicą owiana jest także perspektywa Jezusa. Nie jest ona dana odbiorcom – jego twarz jest niewidoczna, a ofiara początkowo niezrozumiała. Zgodnie z monologiem wewnętrznym Matki Boskiej, który słyszymy w filmie, Jezus rozumiał, co to znaczy „nie widzieć” zmysłami rzeczywistości i żyć w ciemności: „Nie rozumiem. Kiedy dorastał, jego życie było pisane ognistymi literami na niebie. Obwieszczał, kto ma umrzeć, a kto żyć. (…) Dorósł i wszystkich zadziwił. Bez draśnięcia. Doszedł do bram nieba. Ogień przeznaczenia oświetlał mu drogę. Jezus przyniósł płomień losu. Rozjaśnił, wszystko zależało od niego…”. Po scenie ukrzyżowania natomiast słyszymy z offu: „Nie urodził się bez powodu. Wniósł jasność w ten świat, zagrożenie dla głupoty, rutyny, zwyczaju, ludzi żądnych pieniędzy, władzy, pustych słów. Rutyna i przyzwyczajenie odniosły zwycięstwo. Nie rozumiem tego”. Niezwykłość syna Boga polegała właśnie na tym, że miał on moc zgładzania ciemności, którą w jego czasie stanowiły obrazy (niebezpieczne, bo jednoznaczne, wyuczone schematy poznania albo „wizualne pułapki” stworzone przez cudze postrzeganie), a nie ich brak. Chrystus „rozjaśniał” świat. W ten sposób przeciwdziałał stereotypowemu postrzeganiu, rutynie, skostnieniu.

Kulista, a więc tradycyjnie doskonała budowa oka pozwalała zrozumieć mechanizm odwróconego widzenia. Tajemnicę obrazu ukrytego jakby pod powiekami, widocznego dopiero po jakimś czasie. Widzieć to rozumieć, ale nie spontanicznie, a często poprzez wyuczenie, „zaprogramowanie”. Dlatego w oczach patrzącego „gnieździ się” ciemność. Obraz uobecnia się nieświadomie w swoim rewersie na siatkówce. Dopiero w wyzwolonej głowie rodzi się rozumienie–widzenie. Tak jak metafizyka rodzi się niejako po zanegowaniu fizyki, a więc tego, co poznawalne. Na tak określonej granicy można rozpocząć poszukiwania oka artysty, bohatera i widza zarówno w obrazie Petera Bruegla, jak i filmie Lecha Majewskiego. To nie tylko granica wyobrażona w postaci prostej linii, ale także ukryta za życiodajnym młynem (przywodzącym na myśli wieżę Babel pomieszanych języków, nie tylko werbalnych, ale i wizualnych) i uwikłana w „niedoskonałość” naturalnej pajęczej sieci.

***

 Prawda jest tym, co wyklucza się wzajemnie,
a fizycy dopowiadają, że dobra teoria musi zawierać swoje przeciwieństwo
[30].

O ile Bosch jest wizjonerem i prorokiem,
to Bruegel – filozofem najwybitniejszym wśród malarzy.
A także uważnym obserwatorem
[31].

Poszukiwanie „oka” autora‒artysty w filmach o sztuce, o artyście, a więc w relacji artysta–inny artysta wiąże się z sytuacją podwójnego kodowania. Korespondencja między malarzem renesansowym– Pieterem Brueglem Starszym– a współczesnym reżyserem filmowym jest niewątpliwie fascynująca, ale i obarczona wieloma trudnościami. Przede wszystkim trzeba pamiętać, że malarz dysponuje okiem aktywnym/widzącym, ale chodzi o świadomość podstawową, umożliwiającą mu, po pierwsze, kopiowanie widzianej rzeczywistości ze wszystkimi jej fizycznymi i metafizycznymi właściwościami (stąd element zdziwienia), po drugie – tworzenie parabolicznych jej interpretacji. Takie możliwości są typowe dla autorskiej strategii świadka. Oko drugiego, tj. reżysera filmowego, przez swą wtórność jest bardziej świadome; Lech Majewski nie tylko widzi, rozumie, ale także kreuje, stwarza nowe sytuacje nadawczo-odbiorcze, np. zmienia czas, miejsce akcji, medium i narzędzia, służące kreacji obrazu. Na tym etapie ważna jest również pamięć o znaczeniu dla wizji reżyserskiej inspiracji pomysłodawcy całego przedsięwzięcia, współtwórcy scenariusza Młyna i krzyża Michaela F. Gibsona, który przyjmuje rolę narratora, choć w skończonym materiale nie słyszymy jego głosu. Innym artystą, z którym współpracował Majewski, był autor zdjęć – Adam Sikora. Zarówno Gibson, jak i Sikora realizowali autorską strategię artysty‒kreatora[32]. Tak powstał wideo-fresk, który można oglądać w nowej przestrzeni – w muzeum.

W relacji artysta–bohater ponownie ważne jest podwójne ujęcie, a więc pamięć zarówno o autoportrecie Bruegla ukrytym w obrazie Droga Krzyżowa, jak i autobiografizmie „zaszyfrowanym” w filmie Młyn i krzyż. Sprawę komplikuje trudność utożsamienia reżysera z konkretną postacią w obrazie czy filmie. Dlatego warto wskazać kilka osób i bliżej przyjrzeć się ich punktom widzenia. Przykładowo młynarz – ma szeroką perspektywę, mieszka na górze, ale działa wyraźnie „na rozkaz” malarza. Obrazuje strategię świadka, co najwyżej pomocnika lub psychoterapeuty artysty. Ten z kolei każdorazowo postrzega coś innego. Dysponuje „okiem ruchomym”, „żywym”, bo „wieloperspektywicznym”. Przykładowo jako malarz widzi cierpienie Jezusa – ziemskie, pozornie bezsensowne. Jako sprzedawca chleba dostrzega znaczenie pracy młynarza i wartość wypiekanego chleba. To też rodzaj cierpienia – ziemskiego, potrzebnego, bo sprowadzającego się do konieczności produkowania mąki, tego, co jest skojarzone z codziennością, dobrobytem i bezpieczeństwem. Spoglądając na świat przez pryzmat młynarza, artysta‒reżyser widzi, ale tylko to, co jest związane z życiem doczesnym, nie dostrzegając cierpienia Jezusa. Z uwagi na to jednak, że młynarz jest „artystą” w swoim fachu, ma władzę niczym ziemski bóg. Można się zastanowić, czy tak naprawdę nie jest ślepy, jedynie „udając” widzenie, lecz jest też kreatorem (ziemskiej) rzeczywistości.

Przejścia w filmie na wyższe piętra wtajemniczenia umożliwia kilka postaci, przykładowo malarz to porte parole reżysera, który przestaje być tożsamy już tylko z młynarzem czy sprzedawcą chleba. To przejście umożliwia „perspektywa pająka”, a więc większa świadomość obrazu nieruchomego i ruchomego (film) oraz jego znaczenia, symboliki, możliwości interpretowania, możliwego we wszystkich wymiarach: długości, z którą wiąże się czytanie od lewej do prawej życia jak Księgi (tę perspektywę jako pierwszy zasugerował analizując Drogę krzyżową Gibson); wysokości, która sugeruje wielość możliwych odczytań symboliki na osi wertykalnej obrazu, np. przydanie tajemnicy i znaczenia skale, na której stoi młyn, a która jest – w sensie fizycznym – najbliżej nieba; głębi, z którą wiązać można wielość planów na obrazie, a w filmie zabieg zwany kompozytowaniem; ostatecznie też czasowości obrazu, z którą wiąże się zabieg symultanicznego przedstawienia na jednym malowidle wydarzeń rozgrywających się w różnym czasie i przestrzeni, a w przypadku filmu – dowód na możliwość „wskrzeszenia”, dzięki nowym mediom, starego obrazu w nowej czasoprzestrzeni.

Na koniec pozostaje zasadnicze pytanie, kim jest tak naprawdę Jezus w obrazie malarskim, a następnie filmowym. Według Biblii Mesjasz to Syn Boga. W obrazie, przynależnym do sfery profanum, jest zwykłym człowiekiem. W filmie, który obecnie zatracił już niemal swoją materialność, stał się czystą kreacją wyobraźni, medium wirtualnym, jest przede wszystkim synem rozpaczającej kobiety, dzieckiem. To dzięki emocjom, takim jak miłość oraz wrażliwości i pamięci innych, staje się postacią ze sfery sacrum. W ten sposób mamy do czynienia ze swoistym paradoksem. Postaci, które w rzeczywistości nie zostały dostrzeżone, z czasem nabrały znaczenia. Film przypomina i utrwala ten fakt. Staje się w tym sensie medium metafizycznym.

Oko artysty‒reżysera ujawnia się w ostatniej scenie, w której kamera znajduje się w muzeum w Wiedniu. Kamera filmuje wnętrze sali, wiszące na ścianie malowidło Droga krzyżowa. Następnie powolnym ruchem zaczyna oddalać się od tego miejsca. Obraz jest wyraźny, ale im dystans jest większy, tym on staje się mniejszy. W końcu niknie z naszego pola widzenia. To oddalenie się ujawnia znaczenie upływu czasu, przemijania, zapominania, znikania obrazów (stopniowo nawet tych utrwalonych, uznanych arcydzieł), a wraz z nimi ludzi, tematów, spraw, konfliktów, jak w wirtualnej przestrzeni nowych mediów, ale też przestrzeni kreacji nowych światów.

Oko zmysłowe malarza‒bohatera‒Bruegla ujawnia się w jego autoportrecie „ukrytym” w obrazie. To oko przerażone i przerażające, bo widzące czas i jego upływ w niejako jednocześnie. W filmie takie oko jest porównane do oka pająka, oka przyrody: żywej, dzikiej, doskonałej w swojej niedoskonałości, bo zdolnej do precyzyjnego kopiowania rzeczywistości, a nie jej kreowania. To w tym oku – jak w sieci – jest „gniazdo” – początek, bezpieczeństwo, życie, ale i śmierć, jeżeli uświadomimy sobie, że to też pułapka, a więc krzyż dla „złapanego”.

Oko zmysłowe widza/widzów to otwarcie na zmianę, to wybór własnej drogi, a więc wyrwanie się z „ziemskiego młyna” zdarzeń, spraw, sensów na rzecz możliwości, jakie dają inne spojrzenia. Tajemnicą jest więc konieczność podjęcia wyzwania, trudu zmierzenia się z niewiadomą, wolnością w widzeniu i rozumieniu. W takim oku fizyką jest wielość obrazów, swoisty młyn obrazów, z których trzeba się wyzwolić, przejść przez etap wymienności perspektywy, a więc: młyna, drogi i krzyża widzianych przez malarza i reżysera. Następnie znaleźć się w oku obrazu, na krzyżu. Ponownie wejść w ciemność.

Obraz malarski jako – niedoskonała, ale istotna poznawczo – kopia wyobrażenia rzeczywistości, wskazuje dość jednoznacznie, że nie ma świata bez mitu, a więc też potencjalnie ukrytej w nim deziluzji. Dlatego każdy widz, prędzej czy później, zadaje sobie odwieczne pytanie: czy widzi to, co wie na temat świata, czy to, co pojmują jego zmysły? Każdorazowo mamy więc przed sobą wybór: czy percypowany obraz „otwiera” tylko nasze oczy (zmysłowe poznanie), czy także nasz umysł (wiedza)? Gdzie jest prawda widzenia, obrazu, przeznaczenia[33]? Czym jest w końcu tzw. omyłkowa prawda (falsetruth)[34]? Czy koło życia, przysłowiowe koło fortuny, jest w stanie ją obnażyć[35]? Metafizyka Młyna i krzyża ujawnia się także w momencie stawiania takich pytań przez jego twórców.

Bibliografia

Achtelik Aleksandra, „Drugie oblicze Lecha Majewskiego, czyli powieść Metafizyka”, Postscriptum 1-2 (2003).

Bakuła Bogusław, Człowiek jak dzieło sztuki. Z problemów metarefleksji artystycznej, (Poznań: Wydawnictwo WiS) (1994).

Balbus Stanisław, „Interdyscyplinarność – intersemiotyczność – komparatystyka”, w: Intersemiotyczność. Literatura wobec innych sztuk (i odwrotnie), red. Stanisław Balbus i in., (Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN) (2009).

Balbus Stanisław, Intersemiotyczność a proces historycznoliteracki, (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Naukowe UJ) (1990).

Białostocki Jan, Bruegel – pejzażysta, (Poznań: Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN) (1956).

Biedrzycki Krzysztof, Wariacje metafizyczne: szkice i recenzje o poezji, prozie i filmie, (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Universitas) (2007).

Bobowski Sławomir, Między świętością a potępieniem. Martin Scorsese i religia, (Wrocław: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Wrocławskiego) (2007).

Cembrzyńska Patrycja, „Pajęcza sieć obrazów Lecha Majewskiego”,Tygodnik Powszechny, 6:96-100 (2011).

Czapliński Przemysław, „Wyliczanka”, czyli gry Greenawaya [“Drowning” – which is Greenaway’s game], w: Poloniści o filmie [Polish philologists about the film], red. Marek Hendrykowski, (Poznań: Wydawnictwo UAM) (1997).

Czekalski Stanisław, Intertekstualność i malarstwo. Problemy badań nad związkami międzyobrazowymi, (Poznań: Wydawnictwo Naukowe UAM) (2006).

Gibson Michael F., Majewski Lech, Bruegel. Młyn i krzyż, (Olszanica: Wydawnictwo Bosz) (2010).

Gwóźdź Andrzej (red.), Filmowe światy. Z dziejów X muzy na Górnym Śląsku, (Katowice: Wydawnictwo Śląsk) (1998).

Hendrykowski Marek, „O podmiotowym charakterze wypowiedzi filmowej”, w: Studia z poetyki historycznej filmu, red. Alicja Helman, Tadeusz Lubelski, (Katowice: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Śląskiego) (1983)

Kuśmierczyk Seweryn, Zagubieni w drodze. Film fabularny jako obraz doświadczenia wewnętrznego, (Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Skorpion) (1999).

Lebecka Magdalena, Lech Majewski, (Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Więź) (2010).

Lebecka Magdalena, „Sprawozdanie z produkcji filmu Lecha Majewskiego Młyn i krzyż”, Kino, 1:88 (2009).

Lech Majewski, http://www.lechmajewski.art.pl/recenzje.php?id=41/, data dostępu 6 września 2018.

Majewski Lech, „Alchemik”, rozm. Magdalena Lebecka, Film&TV Kamera 2:4-15 (2007).

Majewski Lech, „Algorytm natury”, rozm. Piotr Zawojski, Opcje 3:36-41 (2011).

Majewski Lech, „Bruegel ma zawsze widownię”, rozm. Tadeusz Sobolewski, Gazeta Wyborcza (Duży Format) 10:14-17 (17.03.2011) (2011).

Majewski Lech, „Collage sztuki i technologii”, rozm. Magdalena Lebecka, FilmPro 1:71-77 (2010).

Majewski Lech, „Okradanie śmierci”, rozm. Grażyna Arata, Kino 3:25-26 (2004).

Majewski Lech, „Sztuka, która umożliwia zadomowienie”, rozm. Anna Bielak, Maria Lisok, Ekrany 1-2: 78-82 (2010).

Majewski Lech, „Szukam rajów”, rozm. Jerzy Wójcik, Rzeczpospolita 59:A9 (2004).

Majewski Lech, „Wierzę filozofom, że sztuka komunikuje się z siłą wyższą”, rozm. Anna Fuksiewicz, Kino 2:15-17 (2011).

Majewski Lech, Metafizyka, (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Literackie) (2002).

Marczak Mariola, Poetyka filmów religijnych, (Kraków: Wydawnictwo: Arcana) (2000).

Młyn i Krzyż, http://www.themillandthecross.com/, data dostępu 6 września 2018.

Nowakowski Jacek, W stronę raju. O literackiej i filmowej twórczości Lecha Majewskiego, (Poznań: Wydawnictwo UAM) (2012).

Podsiadło Magdalena, Autobiografizm filmowy jako ślad podmiotowej egzystencji, (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Universitas) (2013).

Rorty Richard, Przygodność, ironia i solidarność, przeł. Wacław Jan Popowski, (Warszawa: Wydawnictwo W.A.B.) (1996)

Skwarek Irena, Dlaczego autobiografizm? Powieści autobiograficzne dwudziestolecia międzywojennego, (Katowice: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Śląskiego) (1986).

Smulski Jerzy, „Autobiografizm jak postawa i jako strategia artystyczna. Na materiale prozy współczesnej”, Pamiętnik Literacki 4 (1988).

Zajdel Jakub, Lech Majewski – pejzaż po burzy, w: Autorzy kina polskiego, tom 3, red. Grażyna Stachówna, Bogusława Zmudziński, (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Rabid) (2008).

Zawojski Piotr, Poezja kamerą (za)pisana. Od Wojaczka do KrwiPoety (i Szklanych ust), strona internetowa: www.zawojski.com/2008/11/24,data dostępu 6 września 2018.

 

Przypisy

[1] Lech Majewski, Metafizyka (fragmenty), http://www.lechmajewski.art.pl/ksiazki.php?id=11, data dostępu 6 września 2018.

[2] Zob. Lech Majewski, „Wierzę filozofom, że sztuka komunikuje się z siłą wyższą”, rozm. A. Fuksiewicz, Kino 2: 15-17 (2011).

[3] Por. Georges Bataille, Historia oka, oprac. Tadeusz Komendant, (Gdańsk: Wydawnictwo Słowo/Obraz Terytoria) (2010).

[4] Por. Maria Czermińska, „Postawa autobiograficzna”, w: Studia o narracji, red. Jan Błoński, Stanisław Jaworski, Janusz Sławiński, (Wrocław: Wydawnictwo Zakład Narodowy im. Ossolińskich) (1982); Marek Hendrykowski, „O podmiotowym charakterze wypowiedzi filmowej”, w: Studia z poetyki historycznej filmu, red. Alicja Helman, Tadeusz Lubelski, (Katowice: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Śląskiego) (1983); Magdalena Podsiadło, Autobiografizm filmowy jako ślad podmiotowej egzystencji, (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Universitas) (2013).

[5] Magdalena Podsiadło, „Trzy typy wypowiedzi autobiograficznych”, w: tejże, dz. cyt., s. 107: „Sygnały autobiograficzne stanowią grupę powracających chwytów, tematów, motywów i sposobów prezentacji, które zapraszają odbiorcę do autobiograficznej lektury. (…) Projekt «ja» zawarty w filmie determinuje kompozycję świata przedstawionego, stopień fabularyzacji prezentowanej historii, posługiwanie się fikcją albo dokumentem, subiektywizacją, kreacją czy strategiami obiektywizującymi, a także wyznacza odbiorcy odmienne zadania autobiograficzne do rozwiązywania”.

[6] Przywołują oni najważniejsze przejawy postawy autobiograficznej. Zob. Irena Skwarek, Dlaczego autobiografizm? Powieści autobiograficzne dwudziestolecia międzywojennego, (Katowice: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Śląskiego) (1986), s. 30; Jerzy Smulski, „Autobiografizm jak postawa i jako strategia artystyczna. Na materiale prozy współczesnej”, Pamiętnik Literacki 4 (1988).

[7] Magdalena Podsiadło, „Trzy typy wypowiedzi autobiograficznych”, dz. cyt., ss. 108 i 119-126.

Czasami te typy występują w postaci czystej, ale zasadniczo o wiele częściej dochodzi do ich łączenia, swobodnego przechodzenia, przenikania.

[8] Magdalena Podsiadło, ss. 108 i 112-118.

[9] Por. Magdalena Podsiadło, ss. 108 i 126-133. Magdalena Podsiadło zauważa, że w twórczości Lecha Majewskiego dominuje: „ja” sylleptyczne oraz forma „wyzwania” rzucona odbiorcy (por. Pokój saren. Opera autobiograficzna, M. Podsiadło, s. 110).

[10] Magdalena Podsiadło, s. 94.

[11] Magdalena Podsiadło, s. 94.

[12] Magdalena Podsiadło, s. 95. Magdalena Podsiadło w tym kontekście wymienia następujące filmy: Andriej Rublow (1966, Andriej Tarkowski); Pogarda (1963, Jean-Luc Godard); Wszystko na sprzedaż (1968, Andrzej Wajda), Po drodze (1979, Márta Mészáros) itp.

[13] Zob. oficjalna strona filmu Młyn i krzyż: http://www.themillandthecross.com/, data dostępu 6 września 2018. Pozostaje pytanie, dlaczego akurat ten film został wskazany jako ważny dla ogólniejszego zagadnienia doświadczenia zmysłowego. Zarówno obraz, jak i za jego pośrednictwem film „dotyka” i opowiada o „sytuacji na granicy”: tego, co poznawalne i tajemnicze, pewne i wątpliwe, obiektywne i subiektywne, artystyczne i rzemieślnicze/codzienne, a więc fizykalne i metafizyczne jednocześnie.

[14] Zob. oficjalna strona Lecha Majewskiego, http://www.lechmajewski.art.pl/wiadomosci.php, data dostępu 6 września 2018. Stan badań na temat twórczości Lecha Majewskiego sprowadza się przede wszystkim do dwóch książek: naukowej monografii Jacka Nowakowskiego W stronę raju. O literackiej i filmowej twórczości Lecha Majewskiego (Poznań: Wydawnictwo Naukowe UAM, 2012) i popularyzatorskiej publikacji Magdaleny Lebeckiej Lech Majewski (Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Więź, 2010); a także licznych artykułów wyszczególnionych w bibliografii do artykułu. Wybrany film doczekał się zasadniczo nielicznych analiz.

[15] Lech Majewski w swojej Metafizyce zanotował: „Chronologia? Czemu nie. Ostatecznie jakieś siły uporządkowały nasze egzystencje dziwnymi «przed» i «po», mamiąc nas logiką przyczynowo-skutkową, a my, zagubieni i osamotnieni, wierzymy, że wczoraj poprzedziło dzisiaj, a jutro zastąpi wczoraj, jakby nie rozumiejąc, że jutro i wczoraj są złudzeniami potwierdzonymi jedynie rozpadem materii, jedynym zegarem wszechrzeczy, ową energią ciała, lecz nie ducha” (zob. Lech Majewski, Metafizyka, dz. cyt.).

[16] Magdalena Lebecka, „Młyn i krzyż – Bóg wstrzymał oddech”, w: tejże, Lech Majewski, dz. cyt., s. 157.

[17] Magdalena Lebecka, ss. 157-158. Dalej czytamy, że „Jeszcze przed wyjazdem z Polski, ponad trzydzieści lat temu, przygotowywał inscenizację Króla Edypa Sofoklesa dla «Teatru Studio» Józefa Szajny. Tę antyczną tragedię zinterpretował, posługując się właśnie kluczem brueglowskim. Spektakl, jak wiele innych pomysłów artysty, nie został zrealizowany. Silna fascynacja autorem «Pór roku» jednak przetrwała. To był potencjał czekający na impuls z zewnątrz” (zob. Magdalena Lebecka, s. 158).

[18] Magdalena Lebecka, s. 158.

[19] Zob. Michael F. Gibson, Lech Majewski, Bruegel. Młyn i krzyż, (Olszanica: Wydawnictwo Bosz) (2010).

[20] Richard Rorty, Przygodność, ironia i solidarność, przeł. Wacław Jan Popowski, (Warszawa: Wydawnictwo W.A.B.) (1996), s. 126.

[21] Por. Przemysław Czapliński, “Wyliczanka”, czyli gry Greenawaya [“Drowning” – which is Greenaway’s game], w: Poloniści o filmie [Polish philologists about the film], red. Marek Hendrykowski, (Poznań: Wydawnictwo UAM) (1997).

[22] Najprościej rzecz ujmując: „Projekt metafizyki jest absolutny. Chodzi o wyjaśnienie bytu (dlaczego jest?) i poznanie jego istotnych właściwości (czym jest?), np. istoty czy przyczyn, relacji koniecznych, co może stanowić podstawę dla wypracowania kryteriów wiedzy pewnej. Według niektórych koncepcji metafizyki, jej przedmiot leży poza obrębem doświadczenia. Dlatego metafizykę krytykuje się z pozycji sceptycznych, empirystycznych, pozytywistycznych i scjentystycznych” – Kazimierz Leśniak, „Wstęp”, w: Arystoteles, Metafizyka, (Warszawa: PWN) (1983), ss. xii-xiii.

[23] Lech Majewski wielokrotnie wspominał eksperyment, który wykonała przed przystąpieniem do realizacji filmu, a który polegał na komputerowym wyeliminowaniu z obrazu wszystkich bohaterów i przyjrzeniu się pustemu krajobrazowi. Okazało się, że nie można dostrzec go w przedstawiony sposób używając statycznego „oka” (na przykład kamery). Podobne zdolności ma tylko „oko” żywe, ruchome, a więc ludzkie (Zob. materiał dołączony do filmu na DVD).

[24] Z jednej strony odkrycie ruchu Ziemi przydało jej znaczenia i zasugerował możliwość istnienia wielu tajemnic, które są jeszcze niewyjaśnione, zbliżyło też do człowieka i jego ziemskich spraw, choćby w tym sensie, że wiedza na jej temat „pozwoliła się okiełznać”. Z drugiej strony sprawy ziemskie przestały być już tak oczywiste, stałe i niezmienne, jak się początkowo wydawały. Ruch nadał Ziemi „walor filmowy”, a ten przyczynił się do myślenia o niej także w kontekście metafizyki. Obraz rzeczywistości, jaki dzięki takiej wiedzy powstaje, jest kompromisem: iluzją zmysłów „przefiltrowaną” przez pojmowanie rozumowe.

[25] Michael F. Gibson, Lech Majewski, Bruegel. Młyn i krzyż, dz. cyt., s. 20.

[26] Pisała na ten temat Maria Rzepińska, Siedem wieków malarstwa europejskiego, (Wrocław: Wydawnictwo: Ossolineum) (1986), s. 198.

[27] Maria Rzepińska, ss. 200-201.

[28] Zob. Jacek Nowakowski, „Kalwaria raz jeszcze – Młyn i krzyż”, w: tegoż, W stronę raju. O literackiej i filmowej twórczości Lecha Majewskiego, (Poznań: Wydawnictwo UAM) (2012), s. 220.

[29] Próba analizy tajemnicy wielości perspektyw w obrazie Droga krzyżowa znajduje się także w filmie dokumentalnym, który powstał przy okazji realizacji filmu Młyn i krzyż–Lech Majewski. Świat według Bruegela (2009, Dagmara Drzazga; zob. informacje na temat filmu: http://www.filmpolski.pl/fp/index.php?film=4223549, data dostępu: 6 września 2018): „to, między innymi, chce nam powiedzieć wielki malarz i filozof: najważniejsze wydarzenia dzieją się w chaosie codzienności, niezauważane przez współczesnych”.

[30] Magdalena Lebecka, „Młyn i krzyż – Bóg wstrzymał oddech”, dz. cyt., s. 160.

[31] Lech Majewski, „Collage sztuki i technologii”, rozm. Magdalena Lebecka, FilmPro 1: 71-77 (2010).

[32] Patrycja Cembrzyńska w kontekście wystawy prac Majewskiego w Muzeum Narodowym w Krakowie (01.04-05.06.2011) pisała: „Czy Majewski chce powiedzieć, że artystyczna kreacja nosi boskie znamię? Raczej mimochodem przypomina jedną z najstarszych mitologii sztuki, świadom, że mit artysty-kreatora, podobnego bogom, jego własna epoka poddała dekonstrukcji. Zresztą filmowy Bruegel wybiera na swojego «nauczyciela» nie Boga, który gwarantuje wsteczny sens tego, co stworzone, a pająka. Nie ma bowiem początku dzieła, nie powstaje ono ex nihil, tylko w sieci obrazów, którą artysta-pająk może cierpliwie, z mozołem tkać; to wątkiem, to osnową łączyć się z dziełami przeszłości” (zob. Patrycja Cembrzyńska, „Pajęcza sieć obrazów Lecha Majewskiego”, Tygodnik Powszechny 6: 99 [2011]).

[33] Zob. Michael F. Gibson, Lech Majewski, dz. cyt., s. 111.

[34] Zob. Michael F. Gibson, Lech Majewski, s. 112.

[35] Zob. Michael F. Gibson, Lech Majewski, s. 113.

The body of the viewer and immersive audio-visual art. The somatic character of new Japanese experimental film

Agnieszka Kiejziewicz

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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2018, vol.3, no. 1, pp. 27-42.

 

Agnieszka Kiejziewicz
Jagiellonian University

 

 

 

The body of the viewer and immersive audio-visual art. The somatic character of new Japanese experimental film

 

Abstract

The author of this article aims at presenting the somatic character of the audiovisual experiments created by the Japanese directors after the year 2000. Focusing on their postulates, stating that the experimental film should “touch the viewer” and can “be felt,” the author analyses the chosen installations, audiovisual performances and screenings to show how the corporeality of the spectator becomes a part of the film. Moreover, the artists discussed in this article employ different methods of creating the somatic character of their works. The author mentions such artists as Takashi Makino, Rei Hayama, Kazuhiro Goshima and Ai Hasegawa, especially emphasizing the techniques they use to contemplate the possibilities of interacting with the body of the viewer. They combine live music and projection of audio-visual materials on several surfaces, edit the filmed sequences during the screening, depending on the reactions of the public, and prepare the viewer to understand the installations by providing them with elaborate technical descriptions or dilemma charts. In the presented article, the author reconsiders the meaning of the appearance of the viewer for the new Japanese experimental filmmakers, wondering why the directors are playing with the boundaries of audience’s understanding and are balancing between offering a comforting audiovisual spectacle and disturbing the viewer’s perception.

 

Keywords: Japanese audiovisual experiment, new avant-garde, Takashi Makino, Rei Hayama, Kazuhiro Goshima, Ai Hasegawa

Introduction

The directors of new Japanese experimental film, a phenomenon that has developed rapidly since 2000[1], are primarily focused on the viewer’s perception and their place in the process of “being touched” by the work of art[2]. They wish to influence the observer, initiate changes in their perception (for example, opening them up to new forms of visual art), and underline the significance of “feeling the film.”[3] Here, the main concern of the artists is, using terminology introduced by Luke Hockley in his Somatic Cinema[4], “the body of the viewer.” This means that screenings of their films (or displays of audio-visual installations in galleries), are designed to be perceived by all of the senses, to immerse the viewer into the audio-visual spectacle. They are often accompanied by ‘dilemma charts’, instructions, to-do lists and models that can be touched, or surroundings to be discovered. The corporeality of the observer becomes a part of the performance – one of the elements of the scenography, a lens filtering the picture, or even another screening surface.

The artists discussed in this analysis employ different means of fulfilling these schemes. For example, Takashi Makino combines live music and projection of audio-visual materials on several surfaces with simple 3D technique, called Pulfrich effect. Moreover, Hayama and Makino edit the filmed performances during the screening, depending on the reactions of the public and their personal feelings. Kazuhiro Goshima[5], another artist covered in this article, prepares the viewer to understand his installation by providing them with complex technical descriptions to be learned before the performance/screening. Ai Hasegawa[6], a biologist and computer graphics animator, even invites the viewer to contemplate the possibilities of their body. By offering false biological theories supported by convincing audio-visual material, anatomic models and dilemma charts, Hasegawa invites the viewer to undertake a game of imagining possible future scenarios for humankind. According to the artists, their works – using Hockley’s words to summarize the aims of the new generation of experimental audio-visual directors – are designed to enable the viewer to “experience the immersive qualities that are part of cinematic experience.”[7]

Moreover, the somatic character of the majority of the new Japanese audio-visual experiments can be made even more visible by comparing the directors’ achievements and goals with Hockley’s theory. He points out that experimental film often manifests “the shift from considering ‘viewer, screen’ and instead asserts the primacy of the ‘viewer-screen’ paradigmatic relationship as the key way through which to better understand the cinematic experience.”[8] In the optics of representatives of the new Japanese experimental movement, accepting the leading role of this new relationship allows for focussing on – again using Hockley’s term – “mindfulness.” If understood as “a practice of bringing one’s attention to bear on the present moment,”[9] it situates the process of the viewer gaining awareness (of their body or another aspect chosen by the artist) in the center of the artistic pursuits of the Japanese experimental directors. Writing about the somatic aspects of cinema, Hockley proposes perceiving film as “a type of transitional object”[10] and cinema as a “transitional phenomenon” . This corresponds with the point of view of moving pictures manifested by the directors[11]. For example, Takashi Makino perceives the moment of screening as a “creative collaboration with filmmaker and audience, in which each act of watching gives birth to a new cosmos”[12], and as “an act of true creativity.”[13] In his view, a film screening can initiate the process of transition of the viewer from one mental state to another – designed by, or at last expected, the director.

In considering the boundary-breaking works of this young generation of Japanese directors and their creative approaches to inter-media concepts, as well as their fascination with new technologies, their work can also be classified as “expanded cinema.”[14] Introducing Le Grice’s definition[15], it can be seen that these new Japanese experiments expand the boundaries of film and performance, going further than the experimental artists of Japan’s 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. After the year 2000, the ‘expanded’ character of the new wave of Japanese experimentation is intangibly connected to the emergence of new technologies, such as computer processing of images or the use of 3D. However, although primarily aimed at offering an experience distinct from live-action popular films[16], this expansion is often created with consideration of the position of the viewer.

This article will examine how these award-winning Japanese artists of the new avant-garde movement invite the viewer to immerse themselves in their installations and screenings, to transgress the boundaries of the body, religion and political views, and contemplate “film as a film.”[17] The audio-visual installations described in this article were chosen from different thematic areas, and represent artists with diverse views on the problem of the somatic character of their works. However, they all share the same approach to developing the concept of the new avant-garde movement, agreeing that the need to immerse the viewer should shape their artistic pursuits.

Toward The Tactile Visions

After several solo projects and collaborations with people from outside the world of art[18], members of the Collective [+] group[19] Rei Hayama and Takashi Makino decided to work together. This resulted in an audio-visual performance they call Toward The Tactile Visions[20]. The project, which had two screenings (the first in Chiang Mai, Thailand, on May 12th 2018, and the second in Bangkok on May 15th 2018[21]), workshops and meetings with audiences, was put together with Arnont Nongyao[22] and curated by Pathompong Manakitsomboon. Toward The Tactile Visions was designed to bring together the areas of interests of the artists to create an inter-medial experience for the viewer.

Here, it is worth mentioning the objectives and backgrounds of the artists before we present, later on, the connections between their different styles. Rei Hayama[23] studied at the Department of Moving Images and Performing Arts at Tama Art University,[24] but her films have also been screened abroad, including in the Netherlands, Slovakia, Germany, Belgium, and the USA[25]. Hayama’s films are deeply inspired by her childhood memories of living in a forest with her parents, where she was able to experience close contact with nature and observe the life cycles of particular species. She was inspired by birds the most, so in her films one can find many references to these “mysterious creatures,”[26] as she calls them. Hayama connects the creative process to her moods, describing it in this way: “I’m making films like making a forest. This is what I feel through my creative thought process; the feeling tells me how the fiction and reality is like a house and nature, and how we traverse between these two worlds again and again.”[27] The core concept of Hayama’s pictures is the act of transformation (often into a bird)[28], but she also references other symbolic figures: men, children, memory and nature. The filmmaker uses them to explain the relations between technological development and the longing for the past, when people existed closer to nature[29]. What’s more, the artist claims to take the perspective of “a bird’s-eye view,”[30] which she explains in her manifesto: “[…] I think about the thing that has been lost or neglected from an anthropocentric view of the world. I attempt to fall off from the arbitrary illusion of human’s »height«, transport nature into the space of human’s thought by the temporal art that makes time for thinking about what we are, and what is the relationship between human and others. My works are based on an allegorical plot, and it told by poetic writings and symbolical images such as recorded body action. There are some key factors often appear in work such as bird’s eye viewpoint, forest, pretend (play), the non-human leading character.”[31] In this case, it can be seen that Hayama seeks to avoid the anthropocentric point of view and gives voice to the animals instead, in an attempt to deliberate their gaze upon the human world[32].

In contrast to Rei Hayama, Takashi Makino[33] rejects decipherable visual forms and symbols, focusing on the abstract. He debuted in 2004 with a short film, EVE, which pointed the way ahead for the artist’s further development. As the filmmaker has indicated, he is searching for the best and most intimate way to show the tremendous character of the cosmos and make the liminal experience of ‘touching the void’ as palpable as possible. Makino’s pursuits stem from an accident he suffered when he was young, and a series of visions he then experienced. Subsequently, he found that film works for him as a tool for explaining his feelings, and similarly to Hayama, bring back memories and make them accessible to viewers[34]. To create, as he calls it, the “perfect film,”[35] Makino tests the viewer’s ability to understand his experimental visions of whirling shapes and colours. While explaining his choice of the artistic means, the director observes: “None of the creatures that exist in the world are born of their own volition; when they first achieve awareness, they find themselves adrift in chaos. It is only by creating cosmos that they are able to overcome the fundamental meaningless and fear of existence”[36].

The third member of the Toward The Tactile Visions project, Arnont Nongyao, experiments with the connections between sound and moving pictures, and considers film as an illustration of sound. Nongyao is a debutant, who had his first solo exhibition, entitled Another Sound, at the beginning of 2018[37]. As he describes his own objectives, his main aim is “exploring an approach to communications and the concept of life passing-on through sonic and visual mediations.”[38] Nongyao contributed to Toward The Tactile Visions mostly by adding sound to the filmed footage, using his previous experience of working on Another Sound. On the project, he considered sound samples to be a unique language that helped him communicate with his fellow artists, getting around the Thai/Japanese language barrier that forced them to communicate through experimental compositions[39]. It’s worth indicating that Nongyao’s performances are very similar to Makino’s: he shows films, mostly of whirling shapes and colours, on surfaces other than normal screens, accompanied by live music. The artist also works with scripts that can be modified on the fly during the screenings, based on live observation of the audience’s reactions.

The pictures and sounds included in the final version of Toward The Tactile Visions clearly bear a resemblance to previous works by Hayama, Makino and Nongyao individually. As the artists indicate on the event’s Facebook page[40], they aim to show the relationship between the medium and the emergence of “the consciousness and awareness of cinema as the real cinematic event.”[41] They also emphasise that contact with experimental/expanded cinema “contaminates”[42] the viewer – creating the ability to connect his body to the sound and image he experiences. Toward The Tactile Visions was designed with the purpose of teaching audiences about the diversity of possible cinematic forms that differ from narrative cinema. In their description, the artists also use the term “to touch” experimental cinema, and this idea underlines the somatic character of their work.

The first screening took place at Chiang Mai University Art Center, with the venue being a giant white cube that allowed the artists to project the films on every wall in the room. Later, the group discussed how the location significantly influenced the way they modified the event, and how the screening itself went totally differently than the second one in Bangkok. Apart from the displays of cameras and musical instruments placed around the venue, other items related to the film were set out. Among these were branches without leaves, specially prepared by Hayama to underline the theme of nature in the film. Moreover, the artists used their bodies as parts of the scenography, freely moving around the white cube and casting shadows on the screens. Some of the images in the film are Makino’s ‘noisy supernovas’ – colourful collages, changing from deep rose to blue, or light dots moving down the screen. Between the whirling abstractions, various distorted, enlarged shapes of recognisable items emerge, such as parts of plants, tools, animals and even people recorded during their daily routines. It is significant here that the artists are visible to the viewers throughout the screening, sometimes even stepping in front of the screen, continuously engaged in the process of creating the performance. It is worth noting that because of the shape of the venue, the second screening at the Alliance Française center in Bangkok was restrained to one big screen, with some additional effects projected onto the walls closest to the screen. Explaining the differences between two venues and their influence on the project, Hayama observed:

“At Alliance Française center, we did perform at the normal cinema. It was a very interesting contrast to our previous performance at Chiang Mai University. At Alliance Française center, we felt sort of limitation of the space for our performance because the space is well designed for screening cinema. In the end, we decided to add two small stand screens on both sides of the main screen. I put one guitar in front of the main screen, and the long strip of clear 16mm film was going through the string. The film strip was run through the middle of the audience to where the projector set and kept making a sound of the guitar. (At Chiang Mai University, I set the black film strip went through the tree branch instead of the audience. And the tree gradually made a scratch on the film during the performance.) Their audience could hear the image and see the sound. It also made the audience noticed the film and the situation of cinematic space.”[43]

The postulate of allowing the viewer to ‘touch’ the film was also fulfilled in another significant way. A projector was pointed at the audience, displaying images on the backs of the viewers’ heads and faces, making another screen out of their skin. As such, observers were also able to follow the images on their bodies and the bodies of the other audience members. The immersive character of the screening was reinforced by this attempt to make the viewer the center of the picture, liberating the picture from the confines of screens. The colours and movements of the projected images let the audience feel as though they were floating in a sea of pictures.

In Toward The Tactile Visions, these three artists came together to merge the styles and objectives known from their previous works. The visual collages of Makino, the focus on the environment and living creatures of Hayama, and the search for experimental sounds by Nongyao, were all brought together to fulfil the postulates of haptic cinema.

This May not be a Movie

Kazuhiro Goshima[44] began his film experiments slightly before the increase in popularity of this kind of artistic activity that occurred in 2000[45]. This visual creator debuted as a freelance media content designer in the mid-1990s, but soon gave up the commercial market and devoted himself to new forms of expression as an experimental filmmaker[46]. In his work, Goshima is mostly focused on the role of light and shadow, which in his hands shape not only recognizable images but also have the power to make their surroundings come alive. For example, in his 2013 Shadowland, the shadows are the “breath of the city” that gives the metropolis its unique identity[47]. From early on, Goshima has also been interested in playing with viewer’s perceptions. Using sudden close-ups and sudden disappearances of objects[48], experimenting with movement and the viewer’s position[49], or connecting sounds with blurry pictures, he makes audiences guess the final shape of the presented scene[50]. However, even though Goshima has been busy deliberating on the position of the viewer from the beginning, his first work engaging the viewer’s body could be said to have a somatic character, and appeared in his portfolio in 2014. This is an audio-visual installation entitled This May not be a Movie.

Analysing Goshima’s film, it is worth starting with Le Grice’s article Problematising the Spectator’s Placement in Film[51], which launched a polemic against Christian Metz’s paper The Imaginary Signifier[52]. Le Grice comments on the theoretical approach Metz manifests toward the role and condition of the viewer of experimental film. Following Metz’s findings, Le Grice focuses on the mechanisms of identifying viewers, while encountering (using Metz’s terminology) “inhuman sequences” in avant-garde films that “eliminate the portrayed character or even eliminate all photo-recording.”[53] He makes the observation (which could be useful when analysing Goshima’s films), that viewers might “identify with the camera.”[54] He says that this means identification with the mechanism, as well as the “authority behind the narrative order.”[55] Nevertheless, Le Grice tries to explain the place (and situation of the body) of the viewer trying to understand experimental films in which there are no narrative patterns visible. He concludes that “[…] it is necessary to assume that the spectator must produce an auditory and specular construction for the film which is not directly that of the film presented – the spectator must be expelled from the film text in order to produce the conceptual construct as an act of the symbolic.”[56]

The situation of the viewer explained above seems to describe the shape of the projection and the viewer’s identification process, as designed by Goshima in This May not be a Movie. Here, Goshima raises the question of what a film is, and at which point the viewer starts perceiving the sequence of moving pictures as a consistent film production[57]. As he pointed out in an interview for The Japan Times[58], he used the Japanese term dōga, translated into English as ‘movie’, ‘film’, ‘motion picture’, or even ‘cinema’. However, in the Japanese language dōga is comparable to the term eiga (which also translates as ‘film’). It is thus perceived as meaning ‘motion picture’ – expressing different content and emphasising that the work, as Goshima sees it, is “composited from still frames.”[59] Explaining the reasoning behind his work, the author says: “When you think about the fuzziness of meaning of the wider application of eiga in its broad conceptual sense, you realize that it is the product of multiple mechanisms. I created one mechanism that pushes it to its limit in one direction, and by doing so I hoped to expand the breadth of its conceptualization. That’s why although the title is »This May Not Be a Movie«, its real message is »It’s possible to alter the meaning of ‘movie’ any number of times«.”[60]

This May not be a Movie is in fact an audio-visual installation, built out of screens, fibre-optic cables, a lattice, am image sensor and a movie camera, situated in the center of a small room. For their first glimpse, it gives viewers no hints about its purpose or the meaning of the images displayed. The blurry, colourful images on the screen are pictures of several hundred lines of light that appear after changes in the brightness of each pixel on a piece of 4×5 inch film[61]. This is accompanied by an explanatory movie[62], from which the viewer can learn that behind the displayed images are the simple sequences of a Japanese man waving two white flags, running or riding a bicycle, as well as three people walking. This technical addendum explains the technological process and allows viewers to better understand the concept. However, it is impossible to fully experience the installation, as well as depict its meaning, without engaging with these additional materials. Here, Goshima seeks to show the viewer how the optical illusion of seeing a film works, stating that the amount of information the observer receives “exceeds the reality.” The director states that such experimental art can power the imagination and leave room for new interpretations of the objects so viewed. In this case, he re-examines the relationship between the viewer’s perception and the medium, focusing on the lack of identification of the observer with the presented pictures. Instead, he offers a pure description of the technological process, which reveals the boundaries of the viewer’s perceptions and its constraints. It can be stated that the center of Goshima’s installation is not the process itself, but the observer, whose body receives a new position – an imperfect lens that distorts the original picture.

The Mother of species

The last project described in this article was designed by Ai Hasegawa, a biologist and visual creator, who speculates on possible future scenarios and combines audio-visual art with her scientific background. So far, Hasegawa has presented such installations as the widely-discussed (Im)possible Baby[63], and The Extreme Environmental Love Hotel[64], in which she tackles socially important topics such as biotechnological modifications to human genomes, and environmental issues. Similar themes also appear in her 2013 installation I Wanna Deliver a Dolphin[65].

The artist approaches issues of overcrowding, overdevelopment, and environmental crisis through presentation of an alternative, even grotesque form of human reproduction – delivery of  endangered species[66]. Giving birth to animals (such as a dolphin, tuna or shark) could, according to Hasegawa’s speculation, satisfy humankind’s need to reproduce, as well as its need for nutrition[67]. The idea for her I Wanna Deliver a Dolphin audio-visual installation emerged when the artist turned thirty and she started thinking about having her own children. In an interview for an online magazine, Shift, she said that “I had turned 30, and was at an age when I would have to seriously think about having children. At the same time, there was a lot of news coverage surrounding environmental issues. Such news reports made me think about overpopulation and the food problem, and I thought, »are more humans necessary? Would children be happy being forced into this deteriorating world?«” In this case, it can be pointed out that I Wanna Deliver a Dolphin was a result of the author’s consciousness of her bodily changes, and a need for sharing that awareness with a broader audience.

As an example of an ideal species for becoming a human baby, the artist chose the Maui’s dolphin, which has the right size to be grown in a human placenta. Combining a highly suggestive fragment of film showing the birth of a dolphin and its first moments, with footage of a human mother and a model of a placenta displayed next to the screen, Hasegawa tricks the viewer into considering the possibility of the depicted situation. The scientific descriptions that accompany the screening seem to suggest the possibility of the process, further legitimized by technical details[68]. What’s more, the author presents a ‘dilemma chart’ and invites the viewer to consider whether they would like to deliver an endangered species. It’s worth pointing out that the project asks the question from a non-western, non-male perspective, which fact was especially praised by the jury of the 2014 Core 77 Design Awards[69]. The dilemma chart that accompanies the film is designed for female viewers to follow,[70] and in doing so imagine themselves in the situation presented on the screen. Here, the observer, tricked by the mock technical details designed to convince viewers of the truth presented on-screen, is invited to reconsider the abilities of their body. Moreover, the artist questions the motivation and morality of the viewer in imagining the possibility of giving birth to an endangered species, only to eat it for its unique, luxury meat. It is significant that while approaching the installation in the exhibition space, the viewer is not informed that the dolphin is a robot (and that the whole birthing process is simulated by an actress). The simulation is also enhanced with various graphic details, such as blood filling the birthing pool.

Following the primary aim of expanded cinema, Hasegawa pushes the boundaries of the relationship between audiences and audio-visual material, as well as encouraging immersion in the projection and a response to questions of a moral and even religious character. Here, the body of the viewer is a transmitter of meanings, which seems to be perfectly illustrated by a quotation from Vivian Sobchack’s Carnal Thoughts: “the film experience is meaningful not to the side of our bodies, but because of our bodies. Which is to say that movies provoke in us the »carnal thoughts« that ground and inform more conscious analysis.”[71]

Conclusion

The appearance of the body of the viewer – exposed to a cacophony of sounds, colours and the insecurity resulting from seeing controversial or thought-provoking content – becomes the reason for creating such encounters in moving pictures as those presented by the Japanese experimental directors discussed in this article. They are checking the boundaries of audiences’ understanding, continuously balancing between shocking and comforting them. What’s more, the artists are often genuinely interested in receiving feedback from their audiences, and they collect opinions on the emotional states the viewers reached during the screenings – becoming something like researchers on human perception. The somatic character of these new Japanese audio-visual experiments could be a subject of further interest, as these three directors at least are not stopping pursuing new methods of fulfilling their postulates. As such, it can be assumed that in the next few years the list of experiments, following their achievements presented in this article, will be expanded.

 

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Makino Takashi (ed.) Plus Documents 2009-2013, (Tokyo: Engine Books) (2014).

Marks Laura U., The Skin of the Film. Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses, (Durham: Duke University Press) (2000).

Metz Christian, “The Imaginary Signifier”, Screen 16:2 (1975), pp. 14-76.

Rees Al, History of Experimental Film and Video, (London: Palgrave Macmillan) (2011).

Rei Hayama, http://reihayama.net/, date accessed 14 June 2018.

Ross Julian, “Interview: Takashi Makino”, Filmcomment (2014), http://www.filmcomment.com/blog/interview-takashi-makino/, date accessed 15 June 2018.

 

Sas Miryam, Experimental Arts in Postwar Japan: Moments of Encounter, Engagement, and Imagined Return, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press) (2011).

Shaneen Marianne, “Takashi Makino’s 2012”, BOMB – Artist in Conversation Magazine 130 (2015), http://bombmagazine.org/article/2000042/takashi-makino-s-em-2012-em, date of access 13 June 2018.

Shift. Japan-based international online magazine features creative culture, http://www.shift.jp.org/en/archives/2016/02/ai-hasegawa.html, date accessed 11 June 2018.

Sobchack Vivian, Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture, (Berkeley: University of California Press) (2004).

The Japan Times, http://www.japantimes.co.jp/culture/2015/02/05/arts/kazuhiro-goshima-sheer-amount-information-4k-exceeds-reality/#.VvmZ4kcoN8h, date accessed 28.03.2016.

Toward the Tactile Visions, https://web.facebook.com/events/2087048401511185/, date accessed 10 June 2018 [event’s webpage].

Toward the Tactile Visions, https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCcglLozI4B7M0IZS81hDj1g, date accessed 15 June 2018 [performance video recording, excerpt].

Wro Art Center, http://wrocenter.pl/pl/ai-hasegawa-jp-i-wanna-deliver-a-dolphin/, date accessed 18 June 2018.

Vacheron Joel, “Kazuhiro Goshima: After the Metabolic Cities”, 12th Biennial of Moving Images in Geneva, (JRP | Ringier, Centre St-Gervais, Genève) (2007).

Youngblood Gene, Expanded Cinema, (New York: P. Dutton & Co., Inc.) (1970).

 

 

Notes

[1] The new Japanese experimental film movement first emerged in 2000 as a continuation of the artistic attempts of previous generations of Japanese independent filmmakers. Artists such as Rei Hayama, Takashi Makino, Shinkan Tamaki, Kazuhiro Goshima and others not mentioned in this article, all wanted to revive the artistic means that seemed to have long disappeared since the video revolution of the 1980s, and the development of multiplex cinema in Japan in the 1990s. For more on the subject, see for example: Agnieszka Kiejziewicz, “The technologies of experimental Japanese filmmakers in the digital era”, Transmissions: the Journal of Film and Media Studies 1:1 (2016), pp. 99-114.

[2] See: Takashi Makino (ed.) Plus Documents 2009-2013, (Tokyo: Engine Books) (2014), pp. 4-7, 14. In a manifesto published by Collective [+], together with a short lexicon of their works, the artists underline the importance of influencing the viewer and inviting them to contemplate experimental and expanded works. Explaining the purposes of their artistic pursuits, the artists often use the phrase “to touch the viewer” – relating the act of communication between the creator and the observer to senses other than sight.

[3] See: Marianne Shaneen, “Takashi Makino’s 2012”, BOMB – Artist in Conversation Magazine 130 (2015), http://bombmagazine.org/article/2000042/takashi-makino-s-em-2012-em, date of access 13 June 2018. Summarizing Makino’s aims and achievements, Marianne Shaneen observes that Makino describes the screenings as “creative collaboration with filmmaker and audience”. Also, she points out that his art is “[…] an embodied, perceptual engagement with the continually transforming materiality […]” which generates “sensations of sublime transcendence—an inspiring model for experiencing everyday realities, as well as cinematic ones”.

[4] Luke Hockley, Somatic Cinema: The relationship between body and screen – a Jungian perspective, (New York: Routledge) (2014), p. 1.

[5] The artist’s website, see: Kazuhiro Goshima, http://www.goshiman.com/hp/04profile_e.html, date accessed 28.03.2016.

[6] The artist’s website, see: Ai Hasegawa, http://aihasegawa.info/, date accessed 15 June 2018.

[7] Luke Hockley, p. 6.

[8] Luke Hockley, p. 7.

[9] Luke Hockley, p. 7.

[10] Luke Hockley, p. 7.

[11] In the optics of the Japanese experimental artists discussed herein, the transitional character of cinema is related to the postulate that a film screening should change the viewer – develop their perception, initiate metaphysical reflection upon reality and teach them to read the meaning behind the experimental forms. As Takashi Makino points out: “While the audience experiences the film’s visual and sonic display, nonetheless, they are free to dwell into their own imagination. What fascinates me most about film expression is the potential for what is presented on the screen to collide with each individual viewer’s emotional landscape, and the new ‘image’ created inside the viewer’s mind resulting from this collision.” More, see: Makino Takashi, http://makinokino.exblog.jp/, date accessed 15 June 2018.

[12] Marianne Shaneen.

[13] Marianne Shaneen.

[14] Malcolm Le Grice, Experimental Cinema in the Digital Age, (London: Palgrave) (2001), p. 273.

[15] Malcolm Le Grice, pp. 273-274. Le Grice offers the following definition of expanded cinema: “The concept of Expanded Cinema was part of this [during the 1960s – author] general move by artists to break old artistic boundaries, explore cross-media fusions, and experiment with new technologies but, most importantly, to challenge the constraints of existing art discourses.”

[16] Makino states that Hollywood films predetermine certain images should be perceived – for example, those rendered in 3D. According to him, experimental cinema can offer an individual approach to the viewer that doesn’t determine the patterns of their reception; therefore it stands against mainstream cinema. For more, see: Ross Julian, “Interview: Takashi Makino”, Filmcomment (2014), http://www.filmcomment.com/blog/interview-takashi-makino/, date accessed 15 June 2018.

[17]See: Malcolm Le Grice, p. 275.

[18] For example, Takashi Makino has worked with musicians and composers, such as Jim O’Rourke. Moreover, Hayama was often accompanied by her sister, who helped with filming natural landscapes (for example, in the film Their Bird [2010-2012, 8 mm film and video, 13 min]).

[19] Currently, [+] is working more as a screening organizer group, not a group of artists pursuing the similar aesthetic objectives. For the project Toward The Tactile Visions, Hayama and Makino collaborated as individual artists, not the members of [+], what seems to be significant from the point of view of the mentioned directors. That decision of creating an independent project had not only the financial implications, but also allowed inviting Arnont Nongyao to the joint project.

[20] The only public information about the project was published on the Facebook event’s site. See: Toward the Tactile Visions, https://web.facebook.com/events/2087048401511185/, date accessed 10 June 2018 [event’s webpage].

[21] Excerpts from video recordings of the performances can be checked out on the Internet, see: Toward the Tactile Visions, https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCcglLozI4B7M0IZS81hDj1g, date accessed 15 June 2018 [performance video recording, excerpt].

[22] See: IFFR, https://iffr.com/en/persons/arnont-nongyao, date accessed 17 June 2018. Arnont Nongyao (1979) is an experimental filmmaker from Thailand. He is mostly focused on searching for experimental sounds and vibrations – which he then incorporates into his films. So far, he has directed such films as: Mr. Weirdo and Anomalous Space (2003, short), A Perfect Disaster (2004, co-director), All the Chapter of the Song You Ate Me (2006, short), Anonymous (2013, documentary), Drink Sky On Rabbit’s Field (2014, short), Sound Inventing & Inside Inventor (2015, short), and Ghost Rabbit & The Casket Sales (2015, short).

[23] Biographical information and the Rei Hayama’s objectives were also presented in the author’s article, “Literary inspirations in Japanese audiovisual experiment. Rei Hayama’s film art”, Problems of Literary Genres 61:1 (2018) [in print].

[24] Light Cone, https://lightcone.org/en/filmmaker-2639-rei-hayama, date accessed 14 June 2018.

[25] Rei Hayama, http://reihayama.net/, date accessed 14 June 2018.

[26] Monica Delgado, José S. Hinojosa, “Interview: Rei Hayama”, desistfilm, http://desistfilm.com/interview-rei-hayama/ (2014).

[27] Monica Delgado, José S. Hinojosa. The quotation is presented in its original form.

[28] Hayama Rei, Private conversations with Rei Hayama (2017-2018), [interviews in the author’s own archive].

[29] Hayama Rei.

[30] Monica Delgado, José S. Hinojosa.

[31] Rei Hayama.

[32] However, it should be pointed out that the artists also take inspiration from western literature (for example, the poetry of Paul Valéry), films such as Béla Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies (Werckmeister harmóniák, 2000), and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s works, as well as the performative art of Ana Mendieta.

[33] Fore more about Takashi Makino, see: Kiejziewicz Agnieszka, “Enter the metaphysical cosmos: the visualizations of the universe in Japanese experimental cinema”, Maska. Anthropology Sociology Culture 29 (2016), pp. 147-156.

[34] Marianne Shaneen.

[35] Marianne Shaneen.

[36] Light Cone, Makino Takashi. Still in Cosmos, http://lightcone.org/en/film-7445-still-in-cosmos, date accessed 17 June 2018.

[37] Arnont Nongyao, http://www.arnontnongyao.com/arnontnongyao.com/Another_Sound.html, date accessed 15 June 2018.

[38] Arnont Nongyao.

[39] Arnont Nongyao.

[40] Toward the Tactile Visions, https://web.facebook.com/events/2087048401511185/, date accessed 10 June 2018 [event’s webpage].

[41] Toward the Tactile Visions.

[42] Toward the Tactile Visions.

[43] Agnieszka Kiejziewicz, Conversations with Rei Hayama (2018), [the interview with Rei Hayama, the material in the author’s archive].

[44] I wrote about the role of the technologies used by Goshima in his films between the 1990s and 2016 in an article: Agnieszka Kiejziewicz, “The technologies of experimental Japanese filmmakers in the digital era”, Transmissions: the Journal of Film and Media Studies 1:1 (2016), pp. 102-104.

[45] Kazuhiro Goshima, http://www.goshiman.com/hp/04profile_e.html, date accessed 28.03.2016.

[46] Agnieszka Kiejziewicz, “The technologies…”, pp. 102-104.

[47] Agnieszka Kiejziewicz, “The technologies…”, pp. 102-104.

[48] For example, in such films as Uncertain camera (2009), or In the forest of shadows (2008).

[49] For example, in Relative position (2012).

[50] For example, in Looking and listening (2014).

[51] Malcolm Le Grice, pp. 172-183.

[52] Metz Christian, “The Imaginary Signifier”, Screen 16:2 (1975), pp. 14-76.

[53] Malcolm Le Grice, p. 177.

[54] Malcolm Le Grice, p. 179.

[55] Malcolm Le Grice, pp.179-181.

[56] Malcolm Le Grice, p. 183.

[57] Kazuhiro Goshima, http://www.goshiman.com/hp/04profile_e.html, date accessed 28.03.2016.

[58] The Japan Times, http://www.japantimes.co.jp/culture/2015/02/05/arts/kazuhiro-goshima-sheer-amount-information-4k-exceeds-reality/#.VvmZ4kcoN8h, date accessed 28.03.2016.

[59] The Japan Times.

[60] The Japan Times.

[61] Kazuhiro Goshima.

[62] The explanatory movie was also posted on YouTube, see:  これは映画ではないらしい THIS MAY NOT BE A MOVIE, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E4i-3Pc6nCE&feature=youtu.be, date accessed 17 June 2018 [Kazuhiro Goshima’s technical details explanation film].

[63] Ai Hasegawa, http://aihasegawa.info/, date accessed 15 June 2018.

[64] See: Shift. Japan-based international online magazine features creative culture, http://www.shift.jp.org/en/archives/2016/02/ai-hasegawa.html, date accessed 11 June 2018. The (Im)possible baby project is another example of Hasegawa’s speculative design. It was created to “stimulate discussions about the social, cultural and ethical implications of emerging biotechnologies that could enable same-sex couple to have their own, genetically related children.” The artist analyzed the DNA data of a lesbian couple, and comparing their genotypes, visualized the look of their potential children (two girls). Hasegawa used these simulation models to create a set of fictional photos, showing the unique moments that could have happened (for example, family meals and celebrations). The results were presented around the world as photo exhibitions, as well as in a 30-minute documentary, made with the help of the Japanese national television, NHK.

[65] I Wanna Deliver a Dolphin was also exhibited in Poland, thanks to the artist’s cooperation with the Wro Art Center in Wrocław. See: Wro Art Center, http://wrocenter.pl/pl/ai-hasegawa-jp-i-wanna-deliver-a-dolphin/, date accessed 18 June 2018.

[66] Ai Hasegawa.

[67] Ai Hasegawa.

[68] See: Ai Hasegawa. The technical details, presented together with the film and model, are as follows: “To make it possible for a human mother to deliver a dolphin from her womb, there is a need to synthesize »The Dolp-human Placenta«. The usual human placenta interacts to pass from mother to baby oxygen, carbon dioxide, nutrients, hormones, antibodies (Immunoglobulin Gamma, IgG) and so on. The Dolp-human placenta blocks the delivery of IgG to the baby. The placenta originates from the baby’s side, which in this case is a dolphin, and not from the human side. This avoids the ethical and legal difficulties associated with reproductive research involving human eggs. The decidua is formed by implantation of the egg. Usually, foreign cells in the body (for example from other individuals) are attacked by the immune system, but inside the decidua they are tolerated. However, even though the decidua accepts cells from other individuals, non-human cells would still be attacked. In the dolp-human placenta’s case, it has been modified to distinguish mammal from non-mammal cells, making it even more tolerant” [excerpt].

[69] Ai Hasegawa. The Core 77 Design Awards are awarded annually to the best practitioners of such areas of design as open design, interaction, design concepts, consumer products, visual communication, and so on.

[70] Reading the provided dilemma chart, viewers can find questions such as: Can you take responsibility for another person’s life? How about an animal child? Do you think your child is going to have a happy life in this world?

[71] Vivian Sobchack, Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture, (Berkeley: University of California Press) (2004), p. 60.

Historical insight into The Danube Exodus cinematic installation by Péter Forgács

Kamil Lipiński

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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2018, vol.3, no. 1, pp. 43-58.

 

Kamil Lipiński
Adam Mickiewicz University

 

 

 

Historical insight into The Danube Exodus cinematic installation by Péter Forgács

 

 

Abstract

The article examines the wide-screen installation The Danube Exodus: Rippling Currents of the River (2002-2006) by Péter Forgács. Forgács designed it in collaboration with the Getty Team and the Labyrinth Project in heterotopic terms that revert events in time and space using various mutual juxtapositions, generated by viewers on a tactile interface. The expansion of cinema into museum spaces from the 1990s is understood as an open, work-in-progress mode of exhibition that entangles spatial arrangement. The film at the heart of the installation begins by placing two heterotopic journeys of exile in comparative context: Slovakian Jews being ferried along the Danube to Jerusalem, and the resettlement of Bessarabia Germans to Polish territory, also via the Danube. This comparative study of migratory aesthetics reflects the contemporary drive to fill the white spaces on the map of Europe. This article retraces the contexts of the immersion of this haunting journey from the past in new intersections that move from a description of the specificity of found footage to wide-screen panorama.

 

Keywords: found footage, heterotopia, spacing, wide-screen panorama, comparative study, exhibition

 

Introduction

In an article entitled Beyond the White Cube, Peter Weibel outlined the need for a “colonial remix” seen from the point of view of global culture, to demonstrate alternative ways of remapping visual culture

 

[1]. In discussing spatial analysis, we shall present various ways of reading The Danube Exodus: Rippling Currents of the River as an example of relocating the cinematic experience to an expanded environment, enriched with a haptic experience via user interface. To begin with, my interest is in conceptually nailing down the concept of heterotopia introduced by Michel Foucault, and to propose it as a new perspective of interpretation, building upon the writings of Victor Burgin and Gertrud Koch. Foucault’s concept could contribute to demonstrating how film fragments are interspersed within complex installations, derived from various times, as a mirror reflection of society. Having discussed the philosophical framework of heterotopia, I would then like to focus on the historical events outlined by The Danube Exodus: Rippling Currents of the River, to reveal how the juxtaposition of vision inscribed in the visual horizon of the fragmentation of images can be understood in terms of cinematographic heterotopy. Analysing the philosophical premises, let us investigate how the heterotopic journey introduces the history of the Eastern European region and situates its concerns within the broader, more current European high-cultural revival of amateur chronicles.

The second part of this essay offers an insight into the parallel timelines employed in The Danube Exodus to examine the similarities and differences between them. Insight into the archival found footage used in the film enables us to observe several overlapping narratives, derived from various periods, to build up a powerful wide-screen vision of Eastern Europe across the centuries. The installation provides heterotopic insights into the emerging interactive display used in The Danube Exodus project. Using various angles, this wide-screen panorama shows the ways in which we contest the primacy of monocular vision in the era of “polycentric vision”, restored by media archivists in numerous forms[2]. This installation presents the imaginative potential of various historical pieces of evidence that open up the circulatory, fragmentary horizon of contemporary aesthetics.

The concluding section presents a brief analysis of the ways in which we could interpret the immersive mode of The Danube Exodus’s historical storytelling, as inscribed in the manifold visual documentation. This visual journey, in situ, provides an insight into the visual testimonies of the past and lets us rethink the differences between ‘exile’ and ‘resettlement’ as two different strategies of movement, or displacement, in the era of genocide. The installation unfolds different modes of using “interactive memory strategy”, composed of moving images and stable documents, to mirror the wider circulation of “diversified representation“ in galleries at the beginning of the 21st century[3].

A heterotopic grid

Before we discuss The Danube Exodus, a glimpse at cinematic transformations will provide some useful aesthetic premises for the inscription of cinema in the art gallery, because – as Raymond Bellour famously observed – “cinema can also be reinvented, an another cinema, by other means.”[4] The principal drive of the media landscape emphasizes excessive concern on placing the viewer in new spaces that enrich the wider discourse with the conceptual collage of historical narratives. Since the 1990s, Victor Misiano has stressed the emergence of the role of the “curator-mediator”, which is marked by curatorial cooperation. This contributes to the drawing of a new face for museums, which “…opens up into its network of trustees, their affiliations with multinational corporations, and finally the global system of late capitalism proper, such that what used to be the limited and Kantian of a restricted conceptual art expands into the very ambition of its reach and is transformed into a cognitive mapping itself (with all its specific representational contradictions)”[5]. This modus operandi shifts the insistent promotion of the artist as designer, contemplation over function and the openness of the aesthetic resolution. In this respect, one could map out capitalism and adopt DJs and computer programmers as forms leading towards direct physical experience, relying upon the recombination of works with other pre-existing products that themselves rely upon re-appropriation, quotation, and parasitism. Therefore, one could argue, as Jean-Christophe Royaux did, that “…we can find cinema after cinema in most of the works of the post-minimalist generation”[6]. In developing his arguments, Royaux uses his concept of the “cinema of exhibition” to outline the ways in which one can “designate the particular forms of syntax of the exhibition”[7]. In tracing the transformations of moving images in gallery art and museums, Victor Burgin sought also to reaffirm that “the concept of heterotopia to real external places, he nevertheless arrives at his discussion of heterotopias via a reference to utopias – places with no other substance than that of representation: material signifiers, psychic reality and fantasia”[8]. Bringing forth this point of view, bear in mind that Michel Foucault laid out the premises of heterotopia in Des espaces autres in his lecture at the Cercle d’études architecturales, wherein he situated this perspective at the intersection of what’s real and what’s imaginary. In Foucault’s view, there are six relations between discursive, heterogenic spaces of heterotopia, with two of them being particularly worth applying as a method and form of interpretative explanation. In particular, Gertrud Koch lists the third and fourth principle of building a “heterotopic grid” that spans both painting, sculpture, architecture and photography[9]. Foucault’s concept defines the extension of the idea of the dispersion of knowledge and implies “juxtaposition in one single, real place, several places that are themselves incompatible”[10]. Among notable examples of these concepts, Foucault lists theatres, cinemas and gardens. In turn, according to the fourth principle of heterotopy, there is the possibility of making temporal juxtapositions, of “layers of time” – epochs called ‘heterochrony’ by Foucault. Inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of nihilism, Foucault pointed out the necessity of death in every culture (the end of life, decay and disappearance). These interspersed cultural lines present the ways in which “…our experience of the world is less that of the long life developing through time than that of the network that connects points and intersects with its own skin”[11]. In this sense, this heterotopic grid can be conceived as a spatiotemporal framework to demonstrate the evolutionary course of historical events, and the need for thinking in terms of a ‘set of relations’ that ‘delineate sites’ and co-create our presence as a ‘configuration’. Oscillating primarily between utopian and dystopian qualities, heterotopia aims at “indefinitely accumulating time” in museums and galleries[12]. These spaces build “…the counter-sites, a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites, all the real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested and inverted. Places of this kind are outside of all places, even though it may be possible to indicate their location in reality”[13]. In this respect, social reality reflects an inverted society. Although it never becomes a real space, it does, however, have its roots in real spaces. This dimension of signifiers embodies ‘distorting mirrors’, and discovers the space of the ‘other’ as a space illusion that encapsulates “the dreams and desires of society”[14]. Inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche’s idea of perspectivism and parallel interpretations of history, Foucault argued that heterotopia entails “…in this way a sort of perpetual and indefinite accumulation in an immobile place, this whole idea belongs to our modernity. The museum and the library are heterotopias that are proper to western culture of the nineteenth century”[15]. Heterotopia considered as an atlas of singularities is an archive that, as a mobile ship, has all of these traits. Georges Didi-Huberman suggested that it can be adopted in various contexts on the epistemological, aesthetic and political levels.

Inspired by Foucauldian thinking, Victor Burgin argued that this concept could be extended in many ways to a nascent “cinematographic heterotopia” as a utopian society – “out of time”. In Burgin’s discussion, this concept is extended by reference to Félix Guattari’s post-media aesthetics to describe “media-based imagery”, which relies upon the ‘ecology of mind’ (écologie de l’esprit) and infiltration of subjectivity by the media. This immersion in manifold representations explains the ‘recycling’ desire for exploration and the re-use of existing aesthetic forms. Specifically, these works can be used as a figure of parataxis derived from rhetoric to describe situations “…in which the relations are not given, but deduced”[16].

Expanded space

Further insight can be gained by examining the tactile interface used in the installation that allows viewers to navigate the found footage journeys of the refugees escaping the heterotopic ship. In The Danube Exodus, two timelines can be found, as well as additional historical context that acts as an information carrier under the influence of contact with the body’s surface. When viewing the installation, audiences can choose between three main narrative threads: the boat captain, the Jewish exodus, and the German exodus. In this circular environment, touch determines the selection of images on the screens. Through this tactile mapping of the stories, we can select particular variants of the stories that demonstrate the experience of spatiality, and the flows of moments and memories presented in the context of new configurations. Visitors can select one of eighteen three or five-minute sequences from different ethnic areas, enriched with interviews. The four-and-a-half hour film-strip, composed of five ninety-minutes films, that is used in The Danube Exodus is understood as a metaphor of relativism seen in five split-screens, which emphasizes the incongruence of two reconstructions. This impression of an ‘enlarged’ installation relies upon entering into the dialogue between the recipient and the represented subject, which represents the three main threads (the captain, the Jewish exodus, and the German exodus). The use of an immersive interactive menu system draws attention to the travel experience, directed and dictated by touch displays. These histories, displayed on a five-screen panoramic display, reflect the specific configuration of the mobile camera and present the way that cinema inherits the concept of the mobile eye (l’oeil mobile) from modern painting. “Polyvision” exceeds the frontality of one of several different screen, while continuing to bring dramas and scripted places into play”[17]. Putting in motion specific segments allows the viewers to immerse themselves between two realms of overlapping historical narratives in a heterotopic fashion: the journey between Slovakia and Haifa, and in parallel, the journey of the deported Germans to Poland.

These two journeys provide an interesting account of two possible ways of thinking about migration and re-settlement in historical narratives with multiple points of view. The two main historical narratives receive additional context sourced from the special collection of the Luigi Ferdinando Marsili Research Library – an early eighteenth century six-volume encyclopaedia about the Danube. In explaining the origins of the encyclopaedia, Zaia Alexander and Marsha Kinder stated that it was executed “On the commission of Holy Roman (Hapsburg) Emperor Leopold I, an Italian military engineer prepared a map of the country recaptured from the Turks – Hungary. In addition, there were three huge leather-bound albums in each volume concerning different aspects of the region, especially the richness of the flora and fauna of the Danube river and the breadth of Marsili’s interests”[18]. This web-like narrative encompasses not only a hyphological narrative, but also two forms of scores interpreted in terms of the span of the river itself, and some if it is included as complementary audio-visual material for the two main journeys.

An archival journey

Briefly introducing the aesthetic context in which The Danube Exodus project emerged, let’s note that Forgács primarily initiated his research by collecting and reconstructing private, archival and visual diaries derived from various sources. Forgács mainly collected this footage by publishing an announcement in certain journals, and on the basis of the responses, assembled “…pre-existing images, regrouped and overworked by artists engaging the viewer in reflection […] on the history and film of occidental clichés”[19]. Some of these conceptual solutions for restoring sound and images date back to the late 1970s, drawing inspiration from the film Private History by Gabor Bódy and Peter Timar.

Forgács began his work in the neo-avant-garde environment, where he experimented with multifarious audio-visual forms with sound effects, commentaries and montage. Later, he was invited to edit the fourth themed issue of the Infermental international video journal. From the late 1970s onwards, Forgács also worked with Group 180 as a recitativo, in which he created commentaries on juxtaposing sound and image. Inspired by Sándor Kardos’s Horus archive, in 1983 Forgács then began – with the help of the Budapest Photo & Film Archives Foundation – collecting found footage from the 20th century. After gathering materials and interviewing the families of the survivors, Forgács juxtaposed a variety of visual documents, such as family photos and official diaries.  In 1998 he built a story shedding new light on the paths of resettlement caused by the Holocaust. The Danube Exodus presents two separate spaces in its story, located in two crucial sequences in the various configurations of its 40 hours of material controllable through the tactile interface. The film gives interesting insight into the 60-minutes of 8 mm film made by the boat’s captain, Nandor Andrásovits. The film was lent to Forgács by the captain’s widow, who documented his travels around Europe. Forgács and the Labyrinth Project used the film as “found footage for a newly-edited narrative that incorporates resonances and ironies within these historic encounters”, collected together at the Cultural Research Institute in Budapest. This narrative was navigated by the touch-screen interface to revive them during art exhibitions. This work includes forty-nine minutes of outtakes from the Jewish voyage that Forgács received from historian-archivist Janos Varga, who originally inherited the material from Andrásovits’ close friend Zelan Pathanazy[20]. In brief, Forgács presented a vision of a Jewish-German exodus based on two separate stories, both, however, being connected.

The escape project for fear of anti-Semitism was implemented by the president of the orthodox community in Bratislava Aron Grünhut on two borrowed ships to Palestine. The first of the two journeys shown in the film presents the vicissitudes  of 608 Slovak Orthodox Jews escaping from Bratislava in 1939, on an extraordinary, epic journey along the Danube to the Black Sea towards Palestine. This amateur documentary provides insight into the on-board life of refugees on their two-month journey, and it could be interpreted as the embodiment of a heterotopia set on a spaceship. The focus is primarily on Noemi Julia , a steamship previously used by holidaymakers cruising the Danube. The journey of the Slovak and Hungarian Jews from Bratislava through Central Europe along the Danube River, via Romania and Bulgaria to Palestine, included several hundred people from a large community which had been assigned to extermination by the Nazis. This migration presents the spatial displacements aboard the Queen Elizabeth as it travelled along the river Danube from Slovakia to the Black Sea, with the ultimate goal of Haifa in Palestine. The total length of its journey was 1446 km Given the British restrictions on Jewish emigration and entry to Palestine, each of the refugees was restricted to taking a fifty-kilometer bag for the Danube cruise of 1446 kilometers.  In the beginning, their route led on the Danube waters crossed the territory of Bulgaria. Despite the British protests, a group of refugees managed to enter the vessel Noemi Julia in the port of Sulima on the Black Sea and sail to Haifa after eighty-three days. Most of the presented scenes abound with a positive resolution. We observe scenes showing the wedding on the ship and, to a large extent, the rather joyful atmosphere of everyday customs and prayers. However, some scenes are accompanied by moments of fear when drinking water is lacking. Each passenger was assigned two glasses of water daily, and all passengers suffered from sea sickness during a storm. The documentary of Nándor Andrásovits presents in an intimate light the journey by ship across the Black Sea and then towards Palestine. In the final part, we can observe how the Jewish group, when finally arriving in Haifa on the ship Noemi Julia, is arrested by the British government in order to clarify the matter. Fortunately, after a month they are released and can enjoy freedom in Palestine. Thus they became a part of 500,000 Jewish settlers living under the British Mandate. Based on the reconstruction of archival materials, Forgács asks in this documentary work about the fate of a select group of history of the Chosen People returning to their spiritual capital. . In Forgács’s vision, this collision of narratives demonstrates a microhistory of fleeing Jews reminiscent of the history of repatriation of the Chosen People to the Promised Land. It is worth noting that, in general, during World War II, seventy-seven thousand people escaped from the Third Reich through the Danube. . This exilic movement reflects the Jewish return to the promised land as a fortunate escape from the phantom of genocide that was spreading across Europe.

The German resettlement   

The second of the two journeys of inquiry presented by Forgács was filmed by captain Andrásovitz the following year, in 1940. The narrative illustrates the voyage of natives of the Bessarabia Germans who tried to escape their resettlement by the Red Army to Third Reich. Accepting the proposition to be resettled in occupied Poland in accordance with the agreement between Hitler and Stalin, the refugees decided to abandon their homeland themselves. Andrásovitz’s ship was then chartered to resettle the Bessarabia Germans displaced from Romania at the turn of October and November 1940 resulting in the Soviet Annexation of Bessarabia. As a part of the wider narrative of the Holocaust, this footage is a record of the seven-week repatriation  of 93,000 German farmers (Volksdeutsche), escaping along the Danube by boat. The Soviets paid the Third Reich in wheat and coal, and promised to pay compensation to the displaced upon arrival. Initially, the Germans were transported by carts to the river jetties, where the Erzsébet Királyne ship, led by Commander Nandor Andrásovits, and one of the twenty seven transport vessels waited for them. Erzsébet Királyne took 600 passengers during each trip. . The cruise began at Reni and led to Semlin, where the Germans were examined. Then they were transported to Galati and then to Russe. From there, they were transported by train to Prague and to camps in the Third Reich. The action ended on November 16, 1940. Some of the Bessarabian Germans were later settled in the lands of Poles expropriated by the Nazis. In the final part of the history, Forgács introduces a micro-narrative about one anonymous relocated family in 1942 to Kościan, near Poznań. At some point, Polish owners appear there, asking for the return of the precious violin, probably the Stradivarius brand, left there because of a rush when leaving the house. However, they leave without the violin. The Bessarabian Germans in 1945 left the territory of Greater Poland and went to the West towards Frankfurt.

The difference between these two journeys lies in the emotional approach that Forgács takes, given that the deportation of the Jews and Germans are separate, albeit related stories. In the first story, the Jews enjoyed the journey, dancing, and singing, as they had saved their lives from the threat of extermination. In contrast, the Germans Exodus is shown in a nostalgic light, with the farmers mourning the loss of their homes and estates in exchange for unsure promises of abandoned territory. In contrast to the Jewish happiness, the Bessarabia Germans regretted leaving their homes and estates. These remote stories can be seen in terms of “intensities”, according to which “stupefaction, terror, anger, hatred, pleasure and all the intense emotions are always displacements within a place”, and present “the term emotion into motion that leads to its own exhaustion, an immobilizing motion, an immobilized mobilization”[21]. According to Forgács, this story builds an intimate insight into their lives and differences in their motives not only at the historical level, but also in the assigned fate of exile to which they were condemned and had to conform.

The dual nature of the installation

Let us return to the question of how The Danube Exodus can attempt to answer questions about the nature of cinematographic heterotopia, showing the dual nature of the installation between the real and imaginary spaces, which create a space for “openness inaugurating dialogue”[22]. Let us also note that heterotopia can be used as a starting point for thinking about this complex installation, which spans film, interactivity and use of a website designed by the Getty’s Design Team and the Labyrinth Group. The installation can be perceived in terms of “constellation” as the “horizontal textual organization of objects which brings into play a different definition of cinema, one that is minimal but sufficient, as a set of ways of passing from one (any) element to another”[23]. It should be emphasized that along with the emergence of the forms of “expanded cinema”, this extended narrative (traceable from the 1960s) characterises both “emancipation or extension within the field of exhibition, and they also reflect a collective need to imagine other kinds of relationship with the spectator (a tunnel, a ‘touch screen’)”[24]. Moreover, interactivity has enriched mental activity with, in this case, the ability to touch and play with the film, making it possible to shape the images projected in the installation. In a similar manner, this form of “haptic perception is usually defined by psychologists as the combination of tactical, kinaesthetic and proprioceptive functions, the way we experience touch both on the surface of an inside our bodies”[25]. Some insight into the theoretical articulation of touch aesthetics is given in Walter Benjamin’s writings, in which he stresses the relationship between optics and tactility assigned to the realm of copies (Abbild), which thereby demand contemplation, absorbed attention and a fixed gaze that sees into the distance and demands to be looked at. The installation’s value is brought about through the dominance of the copy, which brings the masses closer to the reality in exchange for losing the aura, the cult value associated with the original, optical image (Bild). This double recounting and documenting of reality engages in an interplay between the context of art and the language of science, as well as demonstrating how “techniques and practices come and go from the laboratory to the atelier and vice-versa”[26]. In other words, the interface designed by the Getty Team and the Labyrinth Group presents a transmedia journey that covers five screens (each of which is two meters high and three meters wide), creating a fifteen-meter-wide panorama. Perceptually immersed in this panoramic view, “the audience is immediately surrounded on all sides by a three-dimensional interior, the faux terrain, which is imperceptibly connected to the two-dimensional visual action and often makes the visual frontier untraceable”[27]. Interestingly, panorama considered as a form of “popular entertainment lost their importance after 1900, however, their principles have survived the cinematic camera’s pan and static shot movements”[28]. The Danube Exodus’s expanded view demonstrates that “an entire world is in the flux as if one is inside a train, where the fragments of the outside view are “seen through the window”[29]. More specifically, the Getty Team and the Labyrinth Project have designed a wide-screen panorama that covers both a “circular” environment and “panoramic” cinema.

This polycentric vision of narrative visual culture permits entry into dialogue and stimulates the movement of circular panoramas, hovering on the edge of the many visual shreds of evidence. Note that the multi-layered, non-linear storyline designed by Labyrinth for the interface could be compared to a hyper-textual rhizome, vaguely inspired by Jorge Luis Borges’ The Garden of Forking Paths. In particular, the Jewish Exodus of refugees can be used as an illustration of the return home of the ‘chosen ones’, while the journey of the Bessarabia Germans presents a vision of homesickness and a feeling of permanent loss. This spatial decoupage of two different historical stories shows the mutual similarities and differences between them. In this installation’s circulation, the images in-between the screens could be compared to Bruno Latour’s concept of “circulative reference”, as a method of “drawing things together”. Building on the principle of sustainability and formal changeability, the kinaesthetic nature of the work makes an impact on the status of stable artefacts in the dynamic and liquid architecture of work-events. Through selection of maps and variants of the presented history, viewers can manoeuvre between the paths of history, primarily between movement and Taoist no-movement . This interplay between photography and cinematic movement enables us to juxtapose images in different spaces and times, interpreted as a potential process under construction, an ‘any space’, fundamental to Deleuzian time-images. One can see in this interactive installation how “the digital and visual interface is at the same time divided between aesthetics and operability”[30]. More specifically, Laura Mulvey suggested that the audio-visual universe could now be “halted or slowed down or fragmented”[31]. Therefore, Raymond Bellour probably argued that these kinds of installations “may seem to be the effect of so-called ‘crisis’ within cinema and the difficulties of contemporary art of which installations are probably the most vivid manifestation”[32]. From this angle, the juxtaposition of images can be perceived as “one of the effects of the games of visible figures. The efficiency of the cinema out of is that “the works make speak, and make speeches about them”[33]. In other words, this sensual formation arises from the fact of the interlacing fragments of micro-narrative inscribed in the context of dialogical inter-spaces of the refugees’ flight, which allows for a meandering within the audio-visual journey. The soundtrack to The Danube Exodus can be described as heterotopic, as it combines different musical traditions that owe much of their power to the hypnotic, mesmerizing score by Tibor Szemzö, which draw on the composition of the rhythm of the narrative and solemn music, “in harmonic tones”, with bells, the rhythm of marching soldiers, “occasional voices and the sound of water”[34]. These musical noises are combined with natural ambient river and waterfront sounds by McKee of Earwan Productions, the mechanical rhythms of the ship’s engines, regional music, the songs and prayers of the refugees, and the voices of the Captain and his crew. The virtual space of the interface entangled in the visual dimension of the film’s projection contributes to the production of an environment in which we can encounter displaced pieces of film (the internet, the media and so on), but also the psychical space of a spectating subject that Baudelaire first identified as “a kaleidoscope equipped with a consciousness”[35]. Significantly, kaleidoscopic circulation of images “hinges on fragmentary, circular and repetitive short sequences in response to which the viewing subject as a subject of signifier may come into being on Mobius band of impressions and imaginations”[36]. This perspective particularly represents the specific orientation towards a post-medium condition resulting in the emergence of “expanded space beyond the confines of the movie theatre” within the gallery and museum. To explain this drive to recycling games with representations, Victor Burgin argued that being immersed in a spatial environment, “visitors of art galleries have encountered a wide range of works that make more or less direct reference to the cinema – from works by artists that manipulate existing footage from mainstream films in order to isolate and explore cinematographic conventions”[37]. The Danube Exodus interactive project creates a situation in which “moving image work relies on loop and reprise, on para-tactical elements rather than on continuous temporal progress”[38]. This specific narrative proceeds in a different order, in accordance with the touch-screen images immersed in the “spaces and moments of the story” to present a wandering “new spatiotemporal structure of difference constructed by new telecommunication techniques”[39]. Visitors can easily decide which parts of the story will be seen and in what order, as we become not only visitor and witness, but also creator. This dialogue, even if highly illusive and insufficient, seems to provide an insight in to the archival footage used, that could be used as a function of experimental, laboratory study in order to revive fragments of moving pictures reconstructed in the more accessible way for a contemporary perceptual needs of the viewer. In Robert Simanowski’s view, “the mapping is a perfect symbolic form of our time, not primarily for its realization to the database paradigm of the endless and unstructured collection of data records, but for its modus to turn the data to us to explore”[40].  Thus, in The Danube Exodus one can enter into a dialogue with works based on navigation, dictated by an interactive menu created by the viewer via the touchscreen interface. More specifically, the sequencing and composition of the narrative permit forward movement without the possibility of returning to the previous sequence. This passing between the spaces of history enables viewers to enter into narrative passages and navigate between them in a one-way direction. And according to Heraclitus, this “irreversibility of history” shows that no one can enter the same river twice…

Conclusion   

Let me note very briefly that the importance of The Danube Exodus lies rather in the questions and difficulties that emerge from spatial, non-linear, deconstructed stories in the light kinaesthetic juxtapositions aboard the ship. Observing the vicissitudes of the refugees seen in the film footage lets us reiterate Hannah Arendt’s long-lasting diagnosis “that the symbol of the twentieth century of the people deprived of their rights and refugees deprived of the homeland, confirms it with amazing accuracy”[41]. If we accept this remark, we can open up a renewed dialogue with representations of migratory aesthetics derived from the past, and point out the role of the relocation processes in order to rethink art cinema. This perspective seeks application of Foucault’s claims, conceived in terms of the heterotopic grid, as a way of perceiving a manifold visual interpretation of the archives as a fruitful tool for historical research. The Danube Exodus project provides an interesting account of the perspectives of interpretation of “Holocaust-effects” as ways of seeing an experience by means of “repetition and obscuration”[42]. An audience immersed in this installation can embark on a metaphorical journey within the imaginary geography of historical Eastern Europe, as seen through the prism of “immersive strategies of panoramic installation”[43]. Through this “fusion of horizons”, one can see a curatorial drive to recombining and reading interdiscursive areas because, as Gregor Stemmerich puts it, “the basic idea of a work of art should be an integrated part of a situation, place or location – not in order to harmonize the relationship between the artwork and its surroundings and evoke complex issues, possibly interconnecting various discourses related to it that would normally be barred from consciousness”[44]. The importance of found footage archives lies in the how the combination of signifiers of Western and Eastern cultures produces a vision of found footage heterotopia. This provides insight into the way we think about the juxtaposition of story immersed within a wide-screen narrative, rediscovered post-mortem. In particular, this mapping of specific elements of spatial graphics allows us to immerse ourselves in an unexplored atmosphere of forgotten history, viewed through the prism of “integrated humanities”. The use of amateur chronicles is a particular method by which we can understand found-footage heterotopia, comprehending it as a place in which the history of Eastern and Western technology, amateur filmmaking and the professional model of curatorship intermingle, not being ideologically invisible. However, found footage re-entangled in an art installation partially loosens the narrative, to rediscover overlapping ontologies and the way in a “material form in which they are presented as archives in the form of installation”[45]. The question is, however, whether this project preserves the principle of aesthetic historicity, which relies upon the premise of correspondence and metamorphosis defined by Jacques Rancière as having three features. Primarily, the sentence, the episode, the image is isolated to express its nature and the tonality of the collection. Furthermore, it provides the possibility of correspondence, through which all manner of signs of nature come into resonance or dissonance. This “combination of characters coincides vaguely with the object or develops in the form of significant living”[46]. If we accept these premises, the migration of peoples looking for recognition by inscription in their situation are placed in a context “making it possible to transform the artificial into something living, and the repetitive into something unique”[47]. The installation’s multi-screen projection, connected with the interface of this heterotopic installation, reflects The Danube Exodus’s formal complexity and mobilizes the imagination. More specifically, circulation of images increases the role of amateur, private archives in reviving the collective memory. The Danube Exodus panoramic installation can be read plurally, comparatively challenging us to play, however vertiginously, within the screens. Art cinema considered as “ghost visions” could provide a direction toward thinking about alternative ways of returning to the historical event by filling the ‘white space’ in the history of refugees’ journeys across the map of Europe.

References

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Bellour Raymond, “D’un autre cinema”, in La Querelle des dispositifs: cinéma, installations, expositions, (Paris: P.O.L.) (2002).

Blümlinger Christa, “Culture de remploi- questions du cinema”, Trafic 50 (2004).

Burgin Victor, “Possessive, Pensive and Possessed”, in The Cinematic, (London & Cambridge, Whitechapel) (2006).

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Burgin Victor, “The Time of Panorama”, in Situational Aesthetics. Selected Writings by Victor Burgin, ed. Alexander Streitberger, (Leuven, Leuven University Press) (2009).

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Habermas Jürgen, Staatsbürgerschaft und nationale Identität: Überlegungen zur europäischen Zukunft, (St. Gallen: Erker) (1991).

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Notes

[1] Peter Weibel, “Beyond the White Cube”, in: Contemporary Art and the Museum. A Global Perspective, ed. Peter Weibel, Andrea Budensieg, (Ostfidern: Hatje Cantz Verlag) (2007), p. 143.

[2] Ella Shohat, Robert Stam, “Narrativizing Visual Culture, Towards a Polycentric Aesthetics”, in: Visual Culture Reader, ed. Nicholas Mirzoeff, (London & New York: Routledge) (1998), p. 46.

[3] Kristian Feigelson, “The Labyrinth. The Strategy of Sensitive Experimentation. A Filmmaker of Anonymous”. in: Kinokultura, http://www.kinokultura.com/specials/7/feigelson.shtml (date accessed 20.05.2018).

[4] Raymond Bellour, “D’un autre cinema”, in: La Querelle des dispositifs: cinéma, installations, expositions, (Paris: P.O.L.) (2012), p. 168.

[5] Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or the cultural logic of late capitalism, (Durnham: Duke University Press) (1991), p. 157.

[6] Jean-Christophe Royaux, “Towards a Post-Cinematic Space-Time”, in: Brillo Box Illuminated, ed. Sarra Arrhenius, Magdalena Malm, Christophe Ricupero, (Stockholm: IASPIS) (2003), p. 110.

[7] Jean-Christophe Royaux, p. 110.

[8] Victor Burgin, Possessive, Pensive and Possessed, in The Cinematic, (London & Cambridge, Whitechapel) (2006), p. 199.

[9] Gertrud Koch, Die Verkehr der Illusion. Der Film und die Kunst, der Gegenwart, (Berlin: Suhrkamp) (2016), p. 224.

[10] Michel Foucault, Of other spaces, trans. Jan Miskoviec, “Diacritics” 16:11 (1986), p. 24.

[11] Michel Foucault, p. 22.

[12] Michel Foucault, p. 13.

[13] Michel Foucault, p. 14.

[14] Paolo Magagnoli, Documents of Utopia. The Politics of experimental documentary, (New York: Wallflower Press) (2015), p. 28.

[15] Michel Foucault, p. 13.

[16] Victor Burgin, “Interactive Cinema and Uncinematic”, in Screen Dynamics. Mapping the borders of the cinema, ed. Gertrud Koch, Volker Pantenburg, Simon Rothohler, (Vienna: Österreichisches Filmmuseum) (2012), p. 102.

[17] Raymond Bellour, “D’un autre cinema”, in: La Querelle des dispositifs: cinéma, installations, expositions, (Paris: P.O.L.) (2012). p. 166.

[18] Zara Alexander, Marsha Kinder, The Danube Exodus: The Rippling currents of the River, (Budapest: Ludwig Museum) (2006), p. 13.

[19] Sébastien Dénis, “Esthétique de l’archive”, in: Arts plastique et Cinéma, CinémAction, 122 (2007), p. 266.

[20] Zara Alexander, Marsha Kinder, p. 13.

[21] JeanFrançois Lyotard, “L’acinéma”, in: Cinéma: théorie, lectures, Textes réunis et présentés par Dominique Noguez, Revue d’Esthétique (Klincksieck: Paris) (1973), p. 365.

[22] Robert Simanowski, Digital art and meaning. Reading Kinetic Poetry, Text Machines, Mapping Art, and Interactive Installations, (Minneapolis & London: University of Minnesota Press) (2011), p. 128.

[23] Jean-Christophe Royaux, p. 110.

[24] Stephanie Moisdon Trembley, “Time as Activity”, in: Brillo Box Illuminated, ed. Sarra Arrhenius, Magdalena Malm, Christophe Ricupero, (Stockholm: IASPIS) (2003), p. 84.

[25] Laura U Marks, The Skin of the Film. Intercultural cinema, embodiment and the senses, (Durnham/London: Duke University Press) (2000), p. 162.

[26] Bruno Latour, “L’art. de faire science”, Movements 62 (2012), p. 92.

[27] Oliver Grau, “Into the Belly of an Image. Historical aspects of Virtual Reality”, Leonardo 32:5 (1999), p. 167.

[28] Victor Burgin, “The Time of Panorama”, in: Situational Aesthetics. Selected Writings by Victor Burgin, ed. Alexander Streitberger, (Leuven, Leuven University Press) (2009), p. 295.

[29] Victor Burgin, p. 295.

[30] Jean-Pierre Fourmentraux, “Introduction”, in: Images interactives. Art Contemporain. Recherche et création numérique, (Paris: La Lettre Volée) (2016), p. 6.

[31] Laura Mulvey, “The Pensive Spectator”, in: The Death in 24th Second. Stillness and the Moving Image, (London: Reaktion Books) (2006), p. 181

[32] Raymond Bellour, D’un autre cinema, op. cit.. p. 41.

[33] JeanFrançois Lyotard, “Petites ruminations sur le commentaire d’art”, Opus International, 70/71 (1979), p. 17.

[34] Leah Ollmann, The Danube Exodus: The Rippling Currents of the River, (Budapest: Ludwig Museum) (2002), p. 20.

[35] Victor Burgin, “Possessive, Pensive and Possessed”, in: The Cinematic (London & Cambridge, Whitechapel) (2006), p. 220.

[36] Gertrud Koch, “Introduction”, in: Screen Dynamics. Mapping the borders of the cinema, ed. Gertrud Koch, Volker Pantenburg, (Vienna: Österreichisches Filmmuseum) (2012), p. 104.

[37] Gertrud Koch, p. 102.

[38] Gertrud Koch, p. 107.

[39] Jacques Derrida, Christine Malabou, Counter-Path. Travelling with Jacques Derrida, trans. David Wills, (Stanford: Stanford University Press) (2004), p. 18.

[40] Robert Simanowski, p. 181.

[41]Jürgen Habermas, Staatsbürgerschaft und nationale Identität: Überlegungen zur europäischen Zukunft, (St. Gallen: Erker) (1991), p. 25.

[42] Ernst Van Alphen, Caught by History: Holocaust Effects in Contemporary Art, Literature, and Theory, (Stanford: Stanford University Press) (1997), p. 106.

[43] Ernst Van Alphen, p. 203.

[44] Gregor Stemmerich,White Cubes, Black Box and Grey Areas: venues and values”, in: Art and the Moving Image, ed. Tanya Leighton, (London: Tate Publishing) (2005), p. 64.

[45] Christa Blümlinger, Culture de remploi- questions du cinéma, Trafic, 50 (2004), p. 350.

[46] Jacques Rancière, “L’historicité de cinema”, in: De l’histoire au cinéma, ed. Antoine de Baecque, Christian Delage, (Bruxelles & Éditions Complexe) (1998), p. 49.

[47] Boris Groys, “Art in the Age of Biopolitics. From Artwork to Art documentation”, in: Art Power, (Cambridge & London: MIT Press) (2008), p. 64.

 

Boundaries are (but) a blur: Computer-generated imagery and the formation of seamless filmic space

Maciej Stasiowski

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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2018, vol.3, no. 1, pp. 59-77.

Maciej Stasiowski
Jagiellonian University

 

 

 

Boundaries are (but) a blur: Computer-generated imagery and the formation of seamless filmic space

Ever since cinema’s inception, the physical creation of fictional settings has been the province of architects, set designers, cinematographers, and – nowadays – of artists in art departments, ardent in bringing to life often impossible spaces. As far as optical illusions go, in order to exist they need not a restless eye, but a static one. But what if the space being rendered is itself fluid, dynamic by default? Braiding computer-generated imagery into live-action film footage has become progressively more robust in revealing its non-material base through texture, light reflexivity, and the way these additions interact with the pro-filmic space. Nevertheless, they too are just as reliant on a suspension of disbelief in their striving for a photographic verisimilitude. Preceded by scale models, montage juxtapositions and painterly optical illusions, digital scenography has become the next logical step in enhancing filmed footage; boosting an impression of reality, going so far as to sacrifice (or ‘dematerialize’) the physical in favour of the hyperreal.

With the help of software enabling motion tracking (to merge 3D visuals into filmed scenes), picture correction, and digital composition in the post-production stages, as well as completely digital animated previsualizations, filmmakers are now able to come up with radically new spatial environments. In this way, the innovative concept of cinematic screen space that blurs or even nullifies material borders is introduced. Seamless transitions link contradictory settings into homogenous environments, whereas uninterrupted long takes can now arise through digital ‘stitching’ aimed at achieving near-to-experiential involvement. Through this, contemporary spectacles postulate a new kind of viewer – one who absorbs visual and acoustic effects viscerally, and allows himself to become engulfed by and pulled into the filmic space.

Along with films that not only employ computer-generated imagery (CGI), but are realized with techniques characteristic of animated film (at nearly every stage of their production), a general approach in treating the representational emerges. The digital space of representation outruns traditional matte paintings with its moving, dynamic descendants, if not entire 3D scenes/environments reconstructed digitally, wrapped in photographic textures. This article sets out to investigate the poly-sensory quality of represented spaces. In their surrogate of an out-of-body experience through cinematographic strategies, editing becomes quite reluctant to tie down visual spectacle to a specific point-of-view or point-of-audition narrative. Films embroidered with CGI put forward a new mode of ‘navigating’ filmic space. They reposition their audiences in a represented space, making them willingly succumb to a multisensorial ‘flow’ of diegetic events. Eventually, even Daniel Dayan’s notion of suture, explaining the process through which the viewer is positioned in filmic locations, becomes replaced by a sensation of fluid environments, intangible settings, and floating worlds inextricable from our perceptual cues, as reproduced by digital cinematography.

Bringing Maurits Cornelis Escher back to life through the power of CGI and a lack of humble decency, if that was ever an option, might have brought about the digital revolution in cinematography we are witnessing right now. But nothing of note happened in this regard, and while Escher’s grave in Baarn is rarely frequented by production designers or digital matte artists, let alone Hollywood executives, the branch of visual special effects in contemporary productions develops precisely along the lines of his architecturally-accurate optical illusions in their progressive conquest of photographic mimesis. Drawings resembling photographs, 3D models indistinguishable from material objects, abstract graphics thoroughly intercepting indexical veracity, and – apparently – promoted animation as a main mode of filmic expression, and all in the guise of photographic textures wrapped around objects, places, and actors alike. This is the cinema of the future, and the future is now.

What this article postulates is an emerging concept of representational space in films which not only employ computer-generated imagery (CGI), but are realized with techniques characteristic of animated film. These, in turn, steer nearly every stage of their production. As digital visual special effects (DVFX), with time, have come to emancipate themselves as a category, the industry standard nowadays sees feature films often driven by the use of computer graphics integrated with the live-action footage, or substituting for portions of it. Quite often what we see on screen are not just lifelike, moving matte paintings created in Maya or 3D Studio Max, but entire 3D scenes and environments reconstructed digitally, though covered with photographic textures. “Over the past twenty years, the Visual Effects (VFX) and Art Departments have worked more and more closely, bridging the gap between real life and digital environments. Sets are now often built to incorporate green and blue screens so that they can be seamlessly extended in post-production.”

 

[1] With the dematerialization of generic film sets comes the introduction of a virtual camera whose weightless, continuous gliding over modelled landscapes presents the viewer with a novel way of taking in visual information – immersing them into the action and scene of events. Instead of resorting to the shot-reverse shot mechanism of narrative subjectivity – regarded by Daniel Dayan as the base principle of cinema, according to which the viewer projects him/herself into filmic space[2] – we are instead drawn into represented space in a cinematic version of an out-of-body experience, in which editing is quite reluctant to constantly tie the visual spectacle down to a specific diegetic perceiver. Rather, repositioning the audience in represented space forces them to succumb to a multisensorial investment in the ‘flow’ of events on screen. As all transitions are rendered seamless and digital stitches concealed, films embroidered with CGI put forward a new mode of navigating the filmic space; Dayan’s notion of suture, standing in as a means of situating ourselves in imaginary yet veritable locations, is replaced by a sensation of fluid environments, intangible settings, and floating worlds inextricable from our perceptual cues, as reproduced by digital cinematography.

Illusionism applied

Take any one of Escher’s lithographs and you’ll immediately see that creating optical illusions involves a spatial imagination and a knowledge of visual cues based on human perceptual habits, even more so of their shortcomings. Ascending and Descending (1960), for example, lures us into believing that the circular staircase is a buildable three-dimensional object, even though it remains an impossible figure, in the realms of the Möbius strip. On the slightest disruption of that accurately constructed three-point perspective – reprised under the guise of a magician’s sleight-of-hand in the Penrose stairs scene[3] from Inception (2010, Christopher Nolan) – the last step, that seemed to be conjoined with the first, suddenly drifts apart with a single swift movement of the camera crane, thus revealing a gaping fissure, previously non-existent due to the advantageous position of the assumed vantage point. Observations can be made as follows: one – the space is non-existent, because an infinite staircase is an impossible object, and two – the picture’s representational space is possible as long as we maintain the vantage point posited by Escher or Wally Pfister, Nolan’s cinematographer. The way we look at space becomes space itself – three.

This tension, which arises between the scene and the observer, or speaking more scientifically, that turns space into a (mathematical) function of the gaze, has been one of cinema’s prime features from the very beginning. Set designers, with cinematographers, are often ardent students of classical art. This pertains to ‘proper’ construction of perspectives for matte shots, just as much as it later translates into the relationship established between the represented space and the viewer. In classic cinema, as Daniel Dayan noted, “[c]amera lenses organize their visual field according to the laws of perspective, which thereby operate to render it as the perception of a subject.”[4] In order to deepen that impression of subjectivity, a variety of visual cues are being employed. Among them are “…forced perspectives [which] created the illusion of great depth. In resorting to this technique, modern art directors joined company with writers on perspective from the Renaissance and Baroque eras, whose schemes were routinely taught in American art schools.”[5] Building an optical illusion first of all requires another illusion to back it up – namely, an optically-biased environment, disguised as a space extracted directly from real life that would give no reason to the onlooker to question what they see. Since cinema’s inception, architects, set designers, cinematographers, and now art department virtuosos have become skilled in creating fictional scenes that would be impossible to encounter in real life, because in order to exist, they involve not a restless, but a static eye.

Beyond expressionist ‘Caligari’s cabinets’, filmic scenery, encompassing physical locations, set decorations and painted backdrops, has undergone a long journey to the point of redefining the entire approach to film design, brought about with the CGI revolution. Not yet at the stage when the first computer artwork was being introduced into practice (namely, John Whitney’s opening sequence to Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958)), what was considered ‘computer art’ was still, for example, largely the analogue re-filming of console displays in Tron (1982, Steven Lisberger). This eventually led to over-stated claims of the arrival of the digital age, with a mere 6 minutes’ worth of CGI in Jurassic Park (1993, Steven Spielberg). In fact, it was Toy Story (1995, John Lasseter) that arrived on the scene as the true binary Prometheus, disrupting the balance of computer-generated special effects shots versus regular footage, expanding the category of digital FX into full-length 3D animated features. In this way:

[a]gainst the backdrop of the wider proliferation of digital technologies, media and communication networks, digital or digitised practices have found their way into almost every aspect of filmmaking, including sequence pre-visualisation, blue and green screen shooting, face and body motion capture, compositing of image elements and digital rotoscoping, non-linear editing and sound mixing.[6]

Computer-generated imagery braided into live footage is reliant on a suspension of disbelief, according to which any film is assumed to be lifelike as long as it presents us with objects whose photographic verisimilitude – its indexical value – seem undeniable. As parametricism in architecture evolves into yet more advanced and elaborate forms, and with CGI as a standard in movie production, what was formerly regarded as merely a new tool to aid the design process has not only reconfigured both practices, but also introduced an innovative concept to the cinematic screen space, which blurs or nullifies material borders. With the help of software enabling motion tracking – facilitating the merging of filmed scenes and 3D visuals – picture correction, and overall digital compositing at the post-production stage, as well as completely digital animated previsualizations (being ‘storyboards 2.0’), filmmakers have been able to come up with radically new spatial environments (albeit mainly in the science-fiction and superhero genres). And while the surface might be misleading, resembling classical cinema, the ‘engine’ of present-day productions is purely digital, driving all production phases in contemporary filmmaking.

What prevails, then, is a desire for seamless visuals that reinforce the illusion that we are indeed looking at cities full of Marvel’s superheroes, and that flying beyond the galaxy’s farthest edges appears as if they’ve really been put in front of an actual camera. But both presumptions are wrong. Digital scenography – preceded by scale models, montage juxtapositions and painterly optical illusions – has come to supersede or enhance the practice of filmmaking and the usual modus operandi, subsequently dematerialising the physical borders of pro-filmic reality, blending interior and exterior barriers, and transforming the spaces depicted and the camera’s gaze into a seamless whole. Contemporary cinema has emancipated itself from the rules of classic montage. We are already being flooded with over-invested blockbusters that tend to rely very little on the viewer’s critical awareness. Instead, immersive narrative strategies (Gravity (2013, Alfonso Cuarón), Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014, Alejandro G. Iñárritu)) are preferred. These eliminate the cognitive stage of mental ‘stitching’ – along the lines of Dayan’s suture theory – of the filmic narrative, requiring from the viewer complete involvement and naïve insertion into the events depicted, rather than any intellectual distance:

Narrative cinema presents itself as a ‘subjective’ cinema. […] These films propose images which are subtly designated and intuitively perceived as corresponding to the point of view of one character or another. The point of view varies. There are also moments when the image does not represent anyone’s point of view; but in the classical narrative cinema, these are relatively exceptional. Soon enough, the image is reasserted as somebody’s point of view.[7]

Of course, filmmakers have always excelled in hiding the ‘stitches’, just like the brush strokes that might have made one suspect the painterly nature of an end credits’ sunset, or the true storage capacity of the Hangar 51 warehouse in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981, Steven Spielberg). With digital image processing, these directorial dreams have come true, although not without affecting our relationship with on-screen spaces – formerly a montage of fragments,[8] now a seamless environment in which the architecture of the material, illusory and computer generated all converge.

Pro-filmic space in pre-digital cinema

The emerging filmic space’s uninterrupted nature often (unsurprisingly) finds its central inhabitant in a character who exists on the borders between fantasy/delusion/mental illness and concrete reality. The procession of visual information – in such features as the aforementioned Birdman, Gravity, or The Revenant (2015, Alejandro G. Iñárritu) – postulates a manic, restless and slightly neurotic subject, whose incessant daydream we are drawn into, all the more to experience it first-hand. We are used to gazing at cinematic space as an imagined, otherworldly reality on a screen in whose wilderness the characters are meant to wander, struggle, or simply interact. Inside a bluescreen environment this task becomes much harder to accomplish, as far more unknowns about the represented space are introduced into the equation.

It is no longer a case of catching hold of and restoring a slice of pro-filmic reality, but rather of encoding the ‘data’ seized by the device. With the digital, to record reality is already, and simultaneously, to reconstruct it. We know of course that any representation, however slavishly recorded it may be, is always-already a (re)construction.[9]

It is a spatiotemporal collage conceived by editing, within-the-frame montage, compiled from a variety of sources, chiefly pro-filmic space, stage sets, scale models and matte paintings. Their juxtaposition creates the setting for the plot. Graphic artists, set designers and cinematographers have always been preoccupied with hiding from the viewer’s gaze any inconsistencies in the composited image, a practice originated with artisan-come-artists such as Robert…

…Mallet Stevens [who] had discovered the empirical approach of the professional designers. He began to study camera angles, which varied according to the focus of the lens employed. Intrigued by these studies, [Jean] Perrier took them up as well and developed a rational concept of film set design as a function of the position of the camera and the lenses. The graphic method that he worked out enabled him to determine which plan and dimensions of a set would produce the image desired and drawn by the designer.[10]

Such views can only propagate themselves. As Michael Tawa writes, “[t]he cinematic image is […] a manner of penetrating space. It constitutes the way in which a look perforates and advances into space.”[11] Therefore, represented space arrives on the ‘silver screen’ as an entity that has already been manipulated, enhanced and infused with digital hyperrealism, whose: “…architecture changes the sizes and proportions of real architecture. Even though buildings constructed in the studio were usually made smaller than life-size, their physical diminution was not noticeable when they were filmed with actors.”[12]

Fiction film beguiles us into accepting spaceship interiors and alien temples as instances of ‘probable’ architectural typologies. Documentaries make us alert, as they strive for verity, even though throughout history truth-seeking has been achieved through quite diverse means. Animated and experimental films are unique in this manner, as they present us with spaces that, even when originating in real life, have been intercepted in order to test the borders of our cognition; the limits of our perceptual capabilities, as in structuralist film. But apart from generic convention, CGI facilitates the coming (or designing, rather) into graphic existence of any environments of pure abstraction, the digital kin of Douglas Trumbull’s stargate-corridor in 2001 (1968, Stanley Kubrick) – a perfect example of a purely ‘retinal’ space that is brought to life on an inherently Dayanian basis of shot interchange (the fluorescent stream reflected upon Bowman’s face and helmet upon which we see the corridor as a projection).

Ambiguous space: a shortcut from animation to live action cinema

With the introduction of computers to filmmaking, the spectrum of tools allowing for processing of imagery grew considerably, facilitating chirurgical incisions, letting cuts proliferate in a more in-depth manner, while the stitched-together patient would emerge with no visible scars. Animated films, especially experimental shorts (such as the first computer films by John Whitney Sr., beginning with Catalog (1961), which introduced the idea of morphing and sequences of transformative algorithms applied to on-screen objects), have evolved into the backbone of any big-budget action film circa 2018. Thereby, special effects entered mainstream live-action cinema and thoroughly reshaped the production pipeline, emerging soon after as their own separate category. Conversely, space in animation has always been an artificial construct, along with the characters themselves (bodies, contour lines etc), the convention of background images and their own laws of physics, which come into being only when acted out.

Along with digital special effects, new stages of film production quickly caught on, such as previsualisations of more complicated sequences (fight scenes, explosions, stunts etc), and animatics – an animated version of the storyboard. As a consequence, although still regarded as a waste product, a test ‘movie’ comes into being alongside the main feature. That was the case for Gravity, which was created not unlike a typical Pixar production. The final cut of the film was decided upon in the pre-production stage. While shooting (mainly in a bluescreen environment), a ‘virtual camera’ was programmed to perform smoother movements than a physical one could. Post-production is nowadays the lengthiest gestation period in a film’s production process, and involves colour correction, lighting adjustments and the addition of special effects to accompany traditional animatronics and digital compositing. In this way, a typical film begins its life as an animated storybook, with concept art and digital previsualizations, etc, and ends up as an animated film ‘in disguise’, harnessing live action with the dexterity of a professional puppeteer. By flowing into mainstream (mainly ‘action’) cinema, it doesn’t just introduce the issue, but reinforces the problem of imagery’s ambiguous status.

Michele Pierson rehearsed this possibility in 2002, speculating that digital special effects would effectively begin to ‘disappear’ as a visual category, as CGI became a more persistent and wide-ranging presence onscreen, and as the impulse towards photorealism in digital imaging eradicated the ‘bracketing of’ and stylistic foregrounding of special effects that Pierson had identified in earlier phases of the digital effects tradition.[13]

Two examples of animated films are analysed below, examining their visual strategies (which made their way, further on, into CGI-imbued live action cinema) – extracted from two anime classics, covering distinct sequences that are explicitly pure visual transitions conjoining separate settings. One created on the brink of the digital era, the other in its midst: Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell (1995), and Satoshi Kon’s Paprika (2006). The latter is a film with computer-generated dream-reality transitions. The former features a main character in a sea-diving sequence, in which the director/animator plays around with the illusion of water reflections. As depicted, they are indistinguishable from the character and the environmental design. Meanwhile, Paprika constantly transitions its narrative between reality and dream, unnoticeably  in the course of the plot, whereas the horror of waking up is ‘smoothed out’ with the use of digital special effects: blurring, twisting, morphing of the hand-drawn imagery, and all as abruptly as the morning bugle.

Ghost in the Shell: Re-surfacing

Halfway into the story, we find Ghost in the Shell’s central character, Major Kusanagi, taking some time off in a slow-paced ocean diving sequence. As she floats towards the water’s surface, we see her perfectly reflected in the upper right corner of the screen. Cut to a frame divided diagonally by the water line – the character in the lower left half of the screen rises floats gently upwards towards her double in the upper right. Despite our knowing the scene is set underwater, there seem to be no other indications, such as a watery blue hue, wavy shapes in the drawing, or a lack of focus. Which one of the two characters is Kusanagi, and which her reflection? Of course, both are images, as there was no real actor there to begin with. Mamoru Oshii frequently plays with pictorial conventions, creating equivocal 2D settings, depicting them at a fixed angle to reinforce an optical illusion that would have been shattered if presented stereoscopically. The water’s undisturbed surface, as painted, appears indistinguishable from a mirror, or polished chrome. Thus Oshii strains the limits of representation, demonstrating how images can imply, instead of merely depicting. Apparently, in their slavish attitude to the animated forefather, the creators of the live-action remake of Ghost in the Shell (2017, Rupert Sanders), tried to achieve a similar effect using not merely a CGI’d reflection, but a genuine double for the actress[14] descending from above – an image perfectly sharp and easily mistakable for the actress ascending from below.

Paprika: jumping fences

In Paprika, the ambiguity at play concerns the gradual intrusion of the dream world into concrete reality. Director Satoshi Kon’s team uses digital effects, such as  morphing, to mark the transition from a dreaming life to a waking one. At some point in the story, Chiba, the main female character, is scrutinizing the apartment of her colleague (a former programmer). Descending to the basement, she suddenly realizes she’s wandered into a huge amusement park. She notices a doll bearing a significant resemblance to her colleague and approaches it, jumping over a fence which suddenly dissolves like a reflection in water. The barrier vanishes and Chiba finds herself in mid-air, having just jumped over the railing on the apartment’s balcony several floors above the ground. Digital embroidery makes the drawing undulate, morphing the safe space of the apartment into a vertiginous drop. Further in, Kon nullifies differences between the images shown, as the protagonist’s alter ego, Paprika, is able to use the spaces of television screens, billboards and picture frames as gateways to the ‘realities’ they depict.

By fusing characters and backgrounds, or simply treating them as items of equally artificial and abstract origin, animated film doesn’t withhold from following gradual and abrupt metamorphoses within the course (and space) of a long take. “One-shot animated films are formulated from the potential changes of the scenery, running without cutting interruptions. To overcome this narrative restriction, the singularity of the shot is mitigated by the fluency of transitions and transformations at a blank stage, and the division of the frame to support simultaneous storytelling.”[15] In both Ghost in the Shell and Paprika, the environment’s status is ambivalent, far from acting out its solid and static nature. In animation, a particular artist’s style often serves as a masking tool, preying on our habit of separating moving characters from static backgrounds, as if they were actors in actual spaces. Instead, Kon and Oshii prompt the viewer to discredit this ‘reality principle’, regarding it as nothing more than a construct, regardless of how convincing it looks and how engaging the plot. “What is notable is the extent to which the photorealist principle is adhered to even in the depiction of the most fantastical subject matter, and even within sequences which function as explicit ‘showcases’ for – and thus explicit acknowledgments of – computer-generated imagery (CGI).”[16]

In film, meaning is generally derived from the collision of two images, making montage the main rule of composition for ‘moving pictures’. In the Hollywood system this serves the principle of editing for continuity, in which “…actors’ movements are matched across cuts, and as the scene develops the shots get closer to the performers, carrying us to the heart of the drama […]”[17]. Furthermore, “…nearly all scenes in nearly all contemporary mass-market movies (and in most ‘independent’ films) are staged, shot, and cut according to principles which crystallized in the 1910s and 1920s.”[18] Post-classical style strives, as Bordwell remarks, for a sensation of intensified continuity, a “…traditional continuity amped up, raised to a higher pitch of emphasis.”[19] Cutting heightens awareness, as it requires the viewer to mentally reconstruct relationships between perceived images, especially as images tend to weaken in resemblance.[20] Thus, fragments of architectural spaces and shots of a scale model can consequently be turned into a virtual building in the audience’s imagination. Daniel Dayan summarised these rules in his ‘suture theory’ of the mental stitching together of visual information (frames, shots) into a scene, sequence, virtual environment, event… depending on the discursive approach we choose.

The evasion this account identifies is deep and pervasive: the reverse shot of the gazer […] sutures over that profound wound in our being […][;] suture, in other words, provides film spectators with the illusion of an origin for what they see. Film’s construction of seeing needs to be naturalized. More importantly, the construction of seeing needs to be naturalized.[21]

Another level – or ‘sequel’ to Dayan’s concept – comes with CGI. Seamless transitions linking contradicting environments and creating long takes with the aid of digital imagery aim at something different – involvement. “Digital imaging’s original incarnation was as a ‘special effect’, the ‘digital effects’ it first showcased in specific shots and later specific sequences of particular films […] At another level this was a way for early digital effects movies to trial visual effects artists’ capacity to integrate the digital with the pro-filmic in a convincing way, and to test out the spectator’s tolerance of the digital elements and the composited image within safe limits….”[22] We are easily fooled by impossible, illogical spatial constructions when they emerge as walked-through corridors traversed uninterruptedly, staircases and rooms that lose us in their maze, either of Escher’s or Industrial Light & Magic’s provenance. Having this principle of continuity when discussing the CGI-cast space of representation in mind, we can inspect the (in)famous incessant ‘take’ of (rather than in) Birdman as representative of this trend in transiting long takes from modernist cinema into action films, from Nostalgia (1983, Andrei Tarkovsky) to Gravity.

Birdman or (The Expected Case to Study)

It’s not an exaggeration to say that Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is nothing but Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) cut together digitally. Prior to its triumphal procession at the 87th Academy Awards ceremony, the film’s antecedents included Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark (2002), Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void (2009), and Robert Altman’s multiple prism narratives, such as Shortcuts (1993). All of these films attempted a sense of simultaneity, continuity and recreation of a life’s stream of events, and tried to bypass the shattered, montage-driven form of the world traditionally put on screen. Apart from the obvious importance of staging – the actors’ blocking, camera placement, rehearsals and the other preparatory activities that bring cinema closer to theatre – computer postproduction played a crucial part in Birdman, precisely because it made the illusion possible. Typically,

[a] shot is a single uninterrupted camera take with no perceptually detectable temporal or spatial discontinuities. Cinematic sequences are composed of a range of shots that present different vantage points on an action, event, or state of affairs for the purpose of narrating a fiction, depicting an environment, communicating a point of view […]. Shots and sequences can therefore be defined as recognitional prompts that present diagnostic information that enables viewers to perceptually recognize their content in much the same way they recognize everyday objects, actions, and events in ordinary contexts.[23]

Birdman’s famously long take – as is more frequently the case with cinematic displays of digitally-enhanced prowess – was in fact a composite of various shorter takes edited together into a single seamless transition. This further enhances the nervous, syncopated rhythm of the film as the viewer follows its central character, Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), nervously pacing the narrow corridors of a Broadway theatre and dealing with the various people and obstacles along the way. Three of the post-production tricks that made this seamless-looking feat possible are examined below, which include use of  computer software to create an uninterrupted narrative flow.

  1. Matchmoving…

…is a common means of conjoining digital imagery with filmed footage. In the film, during Riggan’s nervous pacing, the theatre’s dimly lit interiors were a perfect opportunity for making digital seams, placed so as to preserve the lighting and colour consistency of the images. Unlike the fades to black practiced by Hitchcock, the seams here are invisible, conjoined by the graphic artists at Rodeo FX. They employed a variety of techniques, including use of three time-lapse sequences and the aforementioned matchmoving – the matching of camera angles, motion, lighting etc. between two separate shots, in order to insert CGI material into the scene. Even a CG camera was used to seamlessly make a move that would tie all the unrelated elements together. All of this effort resulted in about 100 digital ‘stitches’ altogether, including transitions to fully digital backgrounds.

Current computer technology has made it easier to incorporate motion into composited shots, even when using handheld cameras. […] In post-production, a computer can use the references to compute the camera’s position and thus render an image that matches the perspective and movement of the foreground perfectly. Modern advances in software and computational power have eliminated the need for accurate placement of the markers – the software figures out their position in space. A perceived disadvantage of this is that it requires a large camera movement, possibly encouraging modern film techniques where the camera is always in motion….[24]

In Birdman, the idea was to give the impression of uninterruptedness by combining scenes that normally wouldn’t be subjected to much post-processing (it’s usually action sequences that involve bluescreen environments, supporting wires and stuntmen), such as dialogue sequences that might require colour correction, but do not involve heavy use of visual effects. In the Birdman sequence examined here, the character engages in frequent actor-to-actor interplays, only to be suddenly pulled up out of them by a crane, into an SFX display. And so, the illusion of continuity resultant from cutting together scenes shot inside a greenscreen environment, with scenes shot on location or on soundstages (such as the opening shot of Riggan levitating in his dressing room and the endless corridor walk he goes on just a few minutes later), create a consistent plane of magical-realism in the film’s diegetic space. And this magical-realist take has often been seen in the emphasis on continuity and immersion in modernist cinema’s spatiotemporal durée, in which subsequent actions are as much corporeally justified as they are metaphorically. It moulds together historically disparate periods (as seen in the works of Carlos Saura, Theo Angelopoulos, Miklós Jancsó), immersing audiences in the real-time duration of the scene (Béla Tarr, Michelangelo Antonioni, Andrei Tarkovsky), with the intention of attaining the stasis of a fleeting moment. However, CGI long-takes usually want none of that, let alone those in Birdman. Here, smooth transitions are set up between spaces and moments so as to point towards the distorted mindset of the protagonist.

  1. Photogrammetry…

…is the technique of extracting information from two images from different POVs, setting compatible points and creating a 2.5D representation of the image. It enables the determination of the position of a camera from two (or more) separately-taken shots, or photographs, and on the basis of data gathered on location, reconstruction of a 3D model of the scene. This pre-dates traditional matte painting, and gives an impression of three-dimensionality. It’s also indispensable in shots with mirrors. In Birdman, crew reflections were digitally erased. Parts of the set had to be either obscured with a bluescreen or taken out in post-production using rotoscoping, for example, in the dressing room scenes in which the large mirrors would normally reflect the film crew. Instead, the filmed reflections were replaced with CG reflections of the actors only, as well as of objects lying on a table visible in the shot.

  1. Digital compositing…

…is what allows for the illusion to play out loud. In Birdman, it ‘erupts’ sporadically, most prominently in a brief episode emphasizing an outburst of anger from Riggan, as – when walking down the street – he suddenly transforms into his audacious alter-ego, the titular ‘Birdman’ superhero character. Simultaneously, audiences are shell-shocked by the fantastical (though still convincing) images of an aerial attack on the city. Parked cars exploding, debris falling from destroyed buildings, wreckage and fire from every corner of the until-recently peaceful urban scenery. On the other hand, digital intrusions are applied to small details too. The stuntman dressed in Birdman’s costume wasn’t blessed with Michael Keaton’s chin – he received that in post-production.

This coherence in the design of each frame (as well as their flow), can also be observed on the ‘molecular’ level, as the software used privileges the manipulation of curved lines directly on screen; it favours continuous surfaces and smooth forms, let alone the fluidity of camerawork, complex shots and transitions. It can also effortlessly recreate nearly infinite zoom, and has no problem with a scarcity of interrupting cuts. This appears as “…a return to what we might describe […] as cinema’s graphic anima: Image manipulation, retouching, color timing, editing and post-production operations, all now digital, have encouraged a heightened “picturization” of films, for example, by broadening the color palette and the ways it can be manipulated.”[25] What had once been achieved with great difficulty, is now made to appear smooth. Like Birdman’s dynamics, with the film’s amplitude rhythmically changing each scene’s ‘time signature’ (an intensified continuity), speeding up then slowing down, but never grinding to a halt. These concealed incongruities mask the fact that the conjunction of heterogeneous spaces result in new viewing habits and different tasks for the viewer. And not passive reception of the information projected, but active negotiation of instances in a stream of attractions. Immersion here means surrender to the apparatus of cinematic projection.

The emergent option of eliminating all montage edits whatsoever is much less constrained than it used to be, for example in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 Rope. Moreover, the promise of seamlessness acquired by any formerly disjointed sequence of images grants the filmmaker the ability to not only sustain the illusion of a long take, but erase any barriers that would have normally been posed by material objects – be it props, set decorations or even other actors, as in the case of Gravity.

The aesthetics of the film try to replicate the protagonist’s fearful and fascinated exploration of a horizonless world through 3-D cinematography and very long takes, which together induce in the spectator an equally ambivalent sense of disorientation and weightlessness. The reduced narration and the poetic exploration of zero-gravity turns the film into a laboratory of the senses, which brings the spectator close to the bodily experience of floating, drifting, and being suspended in space.[26]

Even actors’ bodies no longer pose any obstacles to the camera’s penetrative look, as they can be substituted by CG counterparts; the formerly impenetrable borders between interior and outside space (and in metaphoric terms, between dream and waking life, inner psyche and outer reality), can now be traversed without resistance. This relegates material objects on set to the status of artistic creations (in Birdman, the creators often replaced props such as the cosmetics on a dressing table, or a framed poster, with digital doubles), generated on an ‘animator’s desk’ ex nihilo.

Images of the real world can now blend with fiction’s images of possible worlds because they are constructed and perceived in the same way. And this point surely touches on the ethics of our faith in images, particularly with respect to the documentary contract and journalistic coverage of the world’s factual events.[27]

In animated films, the attributes of material objects and physical laws have to be implied, acted out; they need to give off an illusion of corporality through texture, or usually weight, through light play and the way characters interact with the object. Dematerializing them in live-action cinema, as with actors in a bluescreen environment (or the more frequent practice of bright green Christo-like wrapping of their body parts, indicating areas of later intervention for CG artists ), pares them down to the status borne by any other object. Threads are composited into a film’s fabric (virtual camera movements, CG puppets replacing actors), and regarded as a coherent whole. “With motion capture something like the opposite occurs: here, a photo-realist image achieves the flexibility of an animated image.”[28] Altogether, this has given rise to the category of animage, which stresses the actual ‘fabric’ of the filmic spectacle, constituted not out of a montage of shots representative of real-life environments, figures, and events, but – as is frequently the case – an animated narrative encrusted with photographic ‘skins’ only in the post-production stage. “This, then, is animage: an animated image that is already no longer an image (it is no longer an impression of the world precisely), something conveyed by the privative prefix ‘a’. But animage is also – and now more than ever – an image that moves to the beat of animation.”[29]

There is an ontological shift in the represented space we perceive, which – out of a continuous flux – forms the underlying principle of most digital interventions. “In digital cinema […] there is no such thing as a still image, no punctual moment. There is only a consistent process of becoming (and unbecoming), based on the binary sequencing of zeros and ones, which creates a constant relay of appearing and vanishing, of presence and absence.”[30] This becomes evident when we compare a simple travelling scene from Birdman with a similar idea executed nearly 40 years earlier, in Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975). In both, the beholding eye – the camera – appears as a disembodied entity, traversing walls and material obstacles; in the Antonioni film it passes through the bars on a window separating the hotel room in which David Locke dies, from the courtyard outside. In Iñárritu, the obstacle covers the entrance to Riggan’s dressing room, as the crane climbs up to his balcony following a lengthy time-lapse sequence. Collaging, or making a photomontage out of disparate spaces, gives rise to the illusion of the camera’s all-penetrating gaze – the disembodied floating of the spectator’s eye is given much more than a mere ‘backstage pass’ into Riggan’s floor show, turning it into an absolute beholder. Such swift hovering about a virtual set implies a bit more than a delusion of grandeur. In fact, it reintroduces filmic space as a 3D model, in which territory we are to manoeuvre, vastly removed from the notions of classical construction, the ‘tutor code’ of cinema that dresses up and stitches together the projected show from fragments, presented to the camera’s restrained immobility.

Conclusive remarks

The Eisensteinian concept of the dominant, indicating aspects of the film frame or scene, is brought to the fore as it denotes both aural and visual layers of the spectacle. In the age of CGI, the same factors can easily be emphasised through colour correction, or elaborate camera movements (amongst other methods), meant to channel and direct the audience’s attention towards the particular element of the representation considered by its creators as the most pregnant with significance. Eisenstein writes: “[o]rthodox montage is montage on the dominant, i.e. the combination of shots according to their dominating indications. Montage according to tempo. Montage according to the chief tendency within the frame. Montage according to the length (continuance) of the shots, and so on. This is montage according to the foreground.”[31] A logical extension of this comes with a composting strategy to guide the audience’s attention. In other words, providing them with visual cues. The Soviet film director regarded lighting effects, framing, camera movements, composition of the cadre, sound, texture and other aspects manipulated by the filmmaker as a means of evoking a certain engagement on the viewer’s part, focusing their attention on specific elements of the screen’s tapestry; elements that embody the general meaning of the scene. With contemporary productions, this strategy is repurposed by means of colour correction, digitally-added lens flare, vibrant luminescence, or manipulated brightness levels.

What is the consequence of this kind of multi-aspect use of digital processing, compositing of a homogenous environment in which the look, mediated by the camera, is invisibly paired with CG additions? As in a Eisenstein’s own Alexander Nevsky (1938), the space of representation becomes coupled with vision – an aspect that, when experienced in 3D, redesigns whole shots in a way that aims at the viewer’s cone of vision.

[I]n light of the revival of 3-D images, the screen is no longer only a visual container framing the image, but has expanded into the auditorium space, further blurring the boundaries between inside and outside, in-here and out-there. It now opens up a virtual space that extends in depth, alternately thrusting itself menacingly out towards the spectators and pulling them into an enveloping embrace.[32]

Objects are thrown at us, and we intuitively dodge them just before realising we didn’t have to. That ubiquitous strategy of creating an immersive spectacle will probably soon fall into decline, both as antecedents and nemeses of Birdman quickly grow in numbers. Awareness of these strategies involving a pliant ‘interface’ raises questions about what is real and what is simulated. The next logical step for any self-conscious film made in the digital age would be to engage a thematic exploration of interruptions, blemishes, and borderline cases, in which digital intrusions into (supposedly) material reality cause an involution of the latter.

[I]t is our contention that in the era of digital cinema, the body and the senses are if anything even more central for a theoretical understanding of the film experience, whether it is the feeling of bodily presence created through digital sound, the sensory overload and profusion of detail achieved by high-definition digital images when projected in an IMAX theatre, or the ‘freedom’ to have ‘movies to go’ on portable devices and to control their sequence and flow with our hands.[33]

In this regard, Ari Folman’s The Congress (2013) and Leos Carax’s Holy Motors (2012) both raise the subject of digital alteration of what we see on screen more directly, revealing the technique, demonstrating glitches, and philosophising about the future condition of filmmaking. Such films engage – even on their margins – a discussion of digital paraphernalia, pointing to the ‘engines at work’ underneath the representations we see on screen. An example of this might be temporal masking, which results from compression, making use of “[t]he human visual system [as it] takes a while to adapt to abrupt scene changes. During this period it is less sensitive to details, and images may be represented in a coarser way.”[34] Emphasizing, at the same time, the ‘lossy’ aspects in coding visual imagery, precisely by a display of digital artefacts, that “[a]t low qualities […] become very visible and take the shape of abrupt changes in luminance and color between neighboring blocks, due to the JPEG processing that is performed independently for each block. This is why compression artifacts are often called blocks, or blocking artifacts.”[35] But the digital paradigm shift is rarely taken into consideration when talking about contemporary film. Not just because of Hollywood’s timidity in discussing face transplants for their major productions, but also due to a reluctance, maybe even inability, to pay attention to the invisible world of code behind the glossy, lossless surface. Soon, cinema may well be without any material reality outside the machine, as long as it remains armed with vast libraries of data from the physical world; a hermetic hermitage of digitized props, ready to be used and reused in any future spectacle.

Finally, as an afterthought, let us revise Dayan’s view that stitching (suture) was an automatic activity on the part of the viewer, who was critically aware of – even if accustomed to – the constructed reality they perceive, although symbolically desirous of writing themselves into the filmic space as witnessed in cinemas (in CinemaScope, preferably!). “To see the film is not to perceive the frame, the camera angle and distance, etc. The space between planes or objects on the screen is perceived as real, hence the viewer may perceive himself (in relation to this space) as fluidity, expansion, elasticity.”[36] Just like any other entrant in the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects category, Birdman and Gravity, the Ghost in the Shell live-action remake (2017, Rupert Sanders), and Ready Player One (2018, Steven Spielberg) all inevitably do just that; throwing their audiences (or should we say, their audience, as it’s unlikely that we’re speaking of a revolving cast of characters), into the midst of a DVFX hailstorm. Sooner than expected, we could find ourselves confronted with a seamless cloth of digitally composited and enhanced reality. Then, it will be our turn to rip the stitches apart.

References

Ackland-Snow Terry, Laybourn Wendy, The Art of Illusion: Production Design for Film and Television, (Marlborough: Crowood Press) (2017).

Barsacq Leon, Caligari’s Cabinet and Other Grand Illusions, (New York: New York Graphic Society) (1977).

Bertalmío Marcelo, Image Processing for Cinema, (Boca Raton, London and New York: CRC Press) (2014).

Bordwell David, ”Intensified Continuity: Visual Style in Contemporary American Film”, Film Quarterly 55:3 (Spring 2002), pp. 16-28.

Bryant Antony and Pollock Griselda (ed.), Digital and Other Virtualities: Renegotiating the Image, (London and New York: I.B. Tauris, 2010).

Butte George, “Suture and the Narration of Subjectivity in Film”, Poetics Today 29:2 (Summer 2008), pp. 277-308.

Dayan Daniel, “The Tutor-Code of Classical Cinema”, Film Quarterly 28:1 (Autumn 1974), pp. 22-31.

Dobbert Tom, Matchmoving: The Invisible Art of Camera Tracking (San Francisco and London: Sybex) (2005).

Eisenstein Sergei, “The Filmic Fourth Dimension” (1929), in Film Form: Essays in Film Theory, Jay Leyda (ed. and transl.) (New York and London: Harcourt) (1949).

Elsaesser Thomas, Hagener Malte, Film Theory: An Introduction through the Senses, (New York and London: Routledge) (2015).

Gaudreault André, Marion Philippe, The End of Cinema? A Medium in Crisis in the Digital Age, John Belton (ed.), Timothy Barnard (transl.) (New York: Columbia University Press) (2015).

Hernández María Lorenzo, “The Double Sense of Animated Images: A View on the Paradoxes of Animation as a Visual Language”, Animation Studies 2 (2007), https://journal.animationstudies.org/maria-lorenzo-hernandez-the-double-sense-of-animated-images/, date accessed 9 July 2018.

Pethő Ágnes (ed.), The Cinema of Sensations (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing) (2015), pp. 36-44.

Prince Stephen, Digital Visual Effects in Cinema: The Seduction of Reality (New Brunswick, New Jersey and London: Rutgers University Press) (2012).

Purse Lisa, Digital Imaging in Popular Cinema, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press) (2013).

Ramírez Juan Antonio, Architecture for the Screen: A Critical Study of Set Design in Hollywood’s Golden Age, (Jefferson and London: McFarland & Company) (2012).

Shimamura Arthur P. (ed), Psychocinematics: Exploring Cognition at the Movies, (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press) (2013).

Tawa Michael, Agencies of the Frame: Tectonic Strategies in Cinema and Architecture, (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing) (2011).

Whitlock Cathy, Designs on Film: A Century of Hollywood At Direction (Sydney, London, New York: HarperCollins) (2010).

Notes

[1] Terry Ackland-Snow, Wendy Laybourn, The Art of Illusion: Production Design for Film and Television, (Marlborough: Crowood Press) (2017), p. 42.

[2] Daniel Dayan, ”The

Tutor-Code of Classical Cinema”, Film Quarterly 28:1 (Autumn 1974), p. 30.

[3] Not ‘sequence’, as it is crucial to analyse this part of the film as taking place within the same interior, as well as noticing its constructed perspective which brings the illusion into being.

[4] Daniel Dayan, p. 28.

[5] Juan Antonio Ramírez, Architecture for the Screen: A Critical Study of Set Design in Hollywood’s Golden Age, (Jefferson and London: McFarland & Company) (2012), p. 63.

[6] Lisa Purse, Digital Imaging in Popular Cinema, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press) (2013), p. 2.

[7] Daniel Dayan, pp. 28-29.

[8] This has been historically motivated by the intention to optimize “… viewing positions by decomposing events into different shots, each of them showing the event part preferably from an appropriate position and viewpoint, [which] does not come for free but instead implies a reduced spatial coherence across shots that goes along with increased cost of cognitive processing.” [Stephen Schwan, “The Art of Simplifying Events”, in Psychocinematics. Exploring Cognition at the Movies, ed. Arthur P. Shimamura (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press) (2013), p. 222.].

[9] André Gaudreault and Philippe Marion, The End of Cinema? A Medium in Crisis in the Digital Age, ed. John Belton, transl. Timothy Barnard (New York: Columbia University Press) (2015), p. 65.

[10] Leon Barsacq, Caligari’s Cabinet and Other Grand Illusions (New York: New York Graphic Society) (1977), pp. 44-45.

[11] Michael Tawa, Agencies of the Frame: Tectonic Strategies in Cinema and Architecture, (Newcastle Upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing) (2011), p. 30.

[12] Juan Antonio Ramírez, p. 83.

[13] Idem, p. 24.

[14] See: Lisa Purse, p. 27. A similar discussion is conducted there on a sequence from Live Free or Die Hard (2007, Len Wiseman), in which John McClane looks past his perfectly clear reflection in a glass pane, enhanced this way to direct the viewers’ attention to the symbolic act of confronting oneself.

[15] María Lorenzo Hernández, “The Double Sense of Animated Images: A View on the Paradoxes of Animation as a Visual Language”, Animation Studies 2 (2007), https://journal.animationstudies.org/maria-lorenzo-hernandez-the-double-sense-of-animated-images/, date accessed 9 July 2018, p. 40.

[16] Idem, p. 6.

[17] David Bordwell, ”Intensified Continuity: Visual Style in Contemporary American Film”, Film Quarterly 55:3 (Spring 2002), p. 16.

[18] David Bordwell, p. 24.

[19] Idem, p. 16.

[20] The case of abstract and experimental cinema, but also the premise on which Eisenstein’s intellectual montage was founded.

[21] George Butte, ”Suture and the Narration of Subjectivity in Film“, Poetics Today 29:2 (Summer 2008), p. 283.

[22] Lisa Purse, p. 18.

[23] Noël Carroll and William P. Seeley, ”Cognitivism, Psychology, and Neuroscience: Movies as Attentional Engines”, in Psychocinematics: Exploring Cognition at the Movies, ed. Arthur P. Shimamura (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press) (2013), p. 62.

[24] André Gaudreault and Philippe Marion, p. 161.

[25] Idem, p. 162.

[26] Thomas Elsaesser and Malte Hagener, Film Theory: An Introduction through the Senses, (New York and London: Routledge) (2015), p. 124.

[27] André Gaudreault and Philippe Marion, p. 69.

[28] Idem, p. 165.

[29] Idem, p. 175.

[30] Antony Bryant and Griselda Pollock, “Editors’ Introduction”, in Digital and Other Virtualities: Renegotiating the Image, ed. Antony Bryant and Griselda Pollock, (London and New York: I.B. Tauris, 2010), p. 8.

[31] Sergei Eisenstein, “The Filmic Fourth Dimension” (1929), in Film Form: Essays in Film Theory, ed. and transl. Jay Leyda (New York and London: Harcourt) (1949), p. 64.

[32] Idem, p. 43.

[33] Idem, p. 195.

[34] Marcelo Bertalmío, Image Processing for Cinema, (Boca Raton, London and New York: CRC Press) (2014), p. 103.

[35] Idem, p. 108.

[36] Daniel Dayan, p. 29.

Prosthetic Memory and the New Civil Rights Cinema of the 21st Century

Patrycja Włodek

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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2018, vol.3, no. 1, pp. 78-88.

 

 

Patrycja Włodek

Pedagogical University of Cracow

 

 

Prosthetic Memory and the New Civil Rights Cinema of the 21st Century

 

Abstract

Memory studies are one of the most dynamically developing areas of the humanities. Although most scholars are focused on various forms of collective memories, some differ from this general trend. Alison Landsberg’s theory of prosthetic memory is one such different approach. This new form of ‘public memory’ makes it possible for individuals to be affected by events that they did not themselves experience. It works through various forms of media, such as films or experiential museums. Although Landsberg’s theory is at times not exactly precise and leaves room for doubt, ‘prosthetic memory’ can be applied to the interpretation of various contemporary movie trends, such as the new civil rights cinema of the 21st century, and can also help to redefine some of most basic cinematic devices.

 

Keywords: prosthesis, prosthetic memory, memory, retro, nostalgia, cinema, new civil rights cinema

 

 

Memory and its relation to media has recently become not only one of the most discussed topics in the realm of pop culture, but also one of the most influential. Thanks to postmodernism, ‘nostalgia film’, retro styles and other rose-tinted modes of depicting history, cinema in the second half of the twentieth century has turned not toward the future, but the past. However, unlike traditional costume dramas (which of course are still being made), new ways of depicting the past concentrate on issues such as retrospective shaping of historical narratives and the very function of memory. These subjects, which have also become the main topics of the dynamically-developing field of memory studies, divide scholars. Some see these throwbacks to the past either as a danger, or in the best-case scenario, as a sign of the end of creativity. Simon Reynolds complains about the lack of the “next big thing”

 

[1] in music caused by retromania, and Fredric Jameson and Jean Baudrillard[2] believe that looking at the past is a victory of image over reality. Zygmunt Bauman, in his last book Retrotopia, describes the fear of both the present and the future as a reason for searching for utopias in the past, which is perceived as safer and more harmonious than anything that lays ahead of us[3]. Authors such as the ones mentioned above most often see the past as an object of manipulation, as well as a tool for further manipulation. For them, looking back to the past remains a sign of real things forever lost, and can’t be of any value.

It can be assumed that such pessimistic views were based on the part of pop culture that idealizes the past and depicts it as a pastoral realm of conservative values, in order to “attempt a trans-historical reconstruction of the lost home”[4], and maintain the status quo of “the simpler times” – both politically and artistically. It is no accident that Jameson based his definition of ‘nostalgia film’ on movies such as American Graffiti (1973, George Lucas) and Star Wars (1977, George Lucas), historical and pop cultural throwbacks to the 1950s of the chaste, idealized Eisenhower era. Reynolds, too, said as much in regards to the music of that time. In fact, the Fifties and ‘the Good Sixties’ (before John F. Kennedy was assassinated) were convenient tools of the Reaganite political rhetoric of the 1980s. They were also noticeable in movies “evoking the past through the deployment of a limited iconography that erases contradictions in the past in favour of a coherency of style”[5], and used to support slogans such as ‘America’s back’ or ‘Let’s make America great again’. As such, it’s understandable that filmmakers, looking at the cosy images of bucolic suburbs introduced in American Graffiti and its innumerable imitations, and at other images of the fake past hiding any hints of social and political conflicts and not posing any challenge to the status quo, saw them as yet another tool for manipulating audiences into ideological submission.

Even though the conservative image of the past can still be found in American movies today, perception of the retro style as something amounting to nostalgic idealization became rare, not only among scholars, but also in films themselves. The subversive and progressive potential of revising and redefining the past is discussed by such authors as Marc Ferro, who proposed reflecting on counter-discourses[6] that present a counter-history, and Kaja Silverman, who “finds political potential in retro fashion”, stating that it “avoids the pitfalls of a naïve referentiality, by putting quotation marks around the garments it revitalizes”[7]. According to Silverman, as well as Elizabeth Guffey[8] and others, history can be depicted in pop culture not only nostalgically, but also nonchalantly, ironically and/or critically, and can therefore become a tool not for sustaining, but challenging the status quo. It could, at the very least, diversify peoples’ notions of events that occurred in the recent past.

How can moviemakers achieve such goals? Of course, strategies differ depending on the genre, but certain strategies seem to have gained popularity with filmmakers as well as audiences. Among them, we can find the critical depiction of history, reversing traditional historic narratives (e.g. in American revisionist westerns), or the autothematic use of classical formulas and the filling-in of the gaps left in those narratives. For example, by introducing black American or homosexual characters to genres reserved in the mid-century for white and heterosexual characters only (as Todd Haynes does in his melodrama Far from Heaven, his 2002 take on the Eisenhower era). These strategies mostly reference shared images of the past – its mythologisation and demythologization in collective forms of memory that can be influenced by politics, media, current historical narratives, etc. Since it is almost impossible to examine exactly how movies influence our memory as individuals, media and film scholars rarely focus on individual memory, instead shifting their attention to strategies for shaping and governing collective memory built on symbols and icons, reproduced by and through other movies.

However, concepts that are predominantly focused on the perception of the past by individuals (due to media coverage), also seem to prove just how difficult it is to explore such relations more than intuitively. This is why Alison Landsberg’s theory of prosthetic memory is both unusual and difficult. It is challenging, because it focuses exclusively on the individual spectator and their reaction to cinema, something that is not popular among media and memory scholars. It is difficult because to some extent it proves that those avoiding the topic of individual media relation seem to be right.

Prosthetic memory is “…a new form of public cultural memory […] that emerges at the interface between a person and a historical narrative about the past, at an experiential site such as a movie theatre or museum”[9], and makes it possible for individuals to be affected, by way of empathy, by events that they did not themselves experience. The notion of media affecting people on their innermost private level is, of course, not new. However, it has most often been regarded negatively. For example, representatives of the Frankfurt school and  ideological criticism perceive media as tools for manipulating audiences seen as passive and mindless. On the other hand, some positive takes can be found within the reflection on queer cinema. According to Harry M. Benshoff and Sean Griffin, film might be considered queer not only if its characters are homosexual, but also when, in the very “psychological processes of looking at and identifying with characters”[10], someone finds empathy for an experience that’s very much outside their own (not necessarily only in terms of sexuality). Therefore, Hollywood cinema, in which viewers are traditionally encouraged to identify with the central characters through plot, narration and visual devices, can be used to “experience the world through other people’s eyes”[11] – not only those of the white, heterosexual men that still dominate screens, but also of women, members of ethnic and racial minorities (BAME characters[12]), and gay men and women.

Of course, it is almost impossible to accurately examine or prove that kind of influence, but even random accounts of such reactions can legitimise the aforementioned definition of queer cinema. Alison Landsberg never mentions Benshoff and Griffin’s concept, but proposes something quite similar: “[one of] the greatest powers (and pleasures) of narrative cinema [is] to produce empathy and social responsibility as well as political alliances that transcend race, class, and gender”[13], as “…prosthetic memories do not erase differences or construct common origins”[14]. However, Landsberg adds something to this equation that complicates things even more – memory. The most important question she asks is, “…to what extent do modern technologies of mass culture, such as film, with their ability to transport individuals through time and space, function as technologies of memory?”[15]

Prosthetic memory is enabled by media and allows viewers to experience something they have not themselves lived through, and that doesn’t even have to be ‘part of’ the group they identify with (for example, their gender, race, ethnicity or race). On the one hand, these kinds of memories don’t belong to any particular group. This makes prosthetic memory different from any kind of collective or cultural memory. On the other hand, these memories have the power to influence individuals, and shape or even change their point of view or life experience. They are mediated – acquired through media by watching movies or going to experiential museums, etc. At the same time, it is the bodily experience that provides the “conduit for prosthetic memory”[16]. In fact, while explaining the idea of prosthetic memories, Landsberg uses examples from science fiction cinema, including Blade Runner (1982, Ridley Scott), Total Recall (1990, Paul Verhoeven) and Strange Days (1990, Kathryn Bigelow). In these films, memory and identity can be literally transmitted through digital devices, implanted inside the body of a person who never lived them. Does that make them false, or their ‘owners’ less human? The filmmakers argue the opposite. In Blade Runner and its sequel, Blade Runner 2049 (2017, Denis Villeneuve), androids equipped with artificially-generated memories are more human than the humans themselves.

This idea is of course very tempting cinematically, and therefore pop culture constantly provides movies and TV shows based on it. Among the most recent examples are the long-running serial Black Mirror (Channel 4, 2011-2014; Netflix, 2014–), and Altered Carbon (Netflix, 2018), both of which toy with the idea of identity and self being transferred into or through a device no bigger than a pen drive. In relation to actual viewers – the real audience watching movies – it is of course much more complicated and intuitive, partly because of difficulties with how to understand the word ‘memory’ in this context. In fact, Landsberg doesn’t even define it. On one hand, she uses the term as commonly understood, which suggests that prosthetic memories, while acquired through media, are almost literally attached or implanted within the mind/body of the individual viewer. On the other hand, memory sometimes means the same thing to her as knowledge or personal experience, expanded by gathering new information about the past.

The theory is most convincing when its author describes not how media enables people to acquire memories of events they haven’t lived through, but how media helps create new memories – of experiencing certain emotions, or gaining knowledge. For example, taking part in reconstructions of historical battles (controversial as they are), will not make anyone remember the actual events, but will create mediated memories of taking part in a reconstruction. Likewise, visiting the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, which is thoroughly described by Landsberg, will not bring anyone even remotely close to what actual Holocaust survivors went through, but will create in them memories of seeing an exhibition and submitting themselves to the historical narrative it provided. Therefore, such visits will widen one’s knowledge, and through the guide narration and exhibits, allow them to see the world through someone else’s eyes. As an example, the author describes “a boardwalk-like walkway. The ground under your feet is uneven. You are walking on cobblestones – cobblestones, you learn, which came from the Warsaw ghetto”[17]. The transferential space of the Memorial Museum that surrounds visitors with real artefacts puts them in the victims’ shoes (to some extent, literally). A similar space can be found in The Warsaw Uprising Museum, where visitors can ‘experience’ some of the discomfort of the insurgents hiding in the sewers and so on. In that way, prosthetic memories could “derive from engaged and experientially oriented encounters with technologies of memory”[18].

Of course, cinema can also serve this purpose, and the idea of memory as prosthesis becomes less abstract and more easily grasped when applied to actual films and formulas. Not necessarily through the science-fiction genre, but those with the ambition to recreate the forgotten experiences of discriminated groups can give a boost to empathy and raise awareness – both public and individual – of counter-narratives and counter-memories. Landsberg herself uses the cinematic example of Rosewood (1997, John Singleton), the true story of a lynch mob that attacked African Americans in 1923 in Rosewood, Florida. Recent American cinema provides even more, non-singular examples, many of which can be found in the trend known as the ‘new civil rights cinema’ of the 2000s. The Help (2011, Tate Taylor), The Butler (2013, Lee Daniels), Selma (2014, Ava DuVernay), and others are all examples of films that deliberately aim to provide audiences with prosthetic memories in a less literal sense than described by Landsberg.

New civil rights cinema can be defined as a group of African-American-centric films that “emerge as a counterpoint to earlier Hollywood offerings that focused largely on whites”, and make “an effort to reframe the civil rights movement”[19] of the 1960s, vilified by conservative administrations as ‘the bad Sixties’. Moviemakers locate their African-American heroes in the midst of social upheavals, as in Selma, or in hostile and discriminatory communities, as in The Help. Instead of alleviating or undermining social ruptures, as nostalgia films would in order to create a vision of “…history without guilt […] that suffuses us with pride rather than with shame”[20], new civil rights cinema emphasises social injustices, racial prejudice and the urgent need for progressive movements. At the same time, it operates within the area of memory and the historical narratives shaping it.

It is fair to assume that the new civil rights cinema is targeted at a general audience, against racial divisions. Yet, in regard to both black and white viewers, it has slightly different aims and uses different strategies, as described by Landsberg. She firmly emphasises that prosthetic memory unites people by showing differences, and creates alliances “…by encouraging people to feel connected to, while recognizing the alterity of, the ‘other’”[21]. At the same time she admits that prosthetic memories can also lead to homogenous identity, as in the case of the immigrants from Eastern Europe that she examines. Newcomers, in order to become Americans, had to shake off their former identities and acquire a new, American one.

However, unification by way of prosthetic memory can also work the other way around – by reminding people of a group identity (and by extension, individual identity), and its historical role. For example, African-American actors in Hollywood traditionally played supporting or episodic roles, and were therefore excluded from the narrative. Moreover, even in movies centred on racism and civil rights violations, such as Mississippi Burning (1988, Alan Parker) and A Time to Kill (1996, Joel Schumacher), it was white characters who held the active, prominent positions within the narrative. The black characters were portrayed as too scared or weak to act, waiting to be saved. New civil rights cinema, especially Hidden Figures (2017, Theodore Melfi), Selma and The Butler, brings African Americans back to the centre of events, highlighting their agency and role in the civil rights movement (The Butler) and other prominent activities (such as the vital role played by black female scientists in the Mercury space programme, in Hidden Figures[22]). Here, it is white characters who appear as background figures. Therefore, memory is being radically shifted, and prosthetic memories ‘implanted’ in those who, for example, were too young to remember the Selma to Montgomery marches (Selma), enabling reinforcement of a group identity.

At the same time, such movies are supposed to attract white audiences as well. Just as in the case of Toni Morrison’s novels, “…while the black characters […] acquire memories that might be considered their cultural inheritance, she intends white readers to take on those memories, too”[23] by enabling empathy and ethical thinking. That means “thinking beyond the immediacy of one’s own wants and desires”[24]. How can that be achieved in a feature film? The afore-mentioned movies, The Help, The Butler and Hidden Figures, are interesting examples. On the one hand, they use careful, self-reflexive stylization and – sometimes – documentary footage connected thematically to the civil rights movement. On the other, in terms of narrative they are made in a rather conventional way. The Butler is especially characteristic of the biopic formula. However, this last feature in particular allows redefinition of ostensibly basic narrative devices in terms of prosthetic memory.

Filmmakers have in their repertoire a number of tricks that can help them to either manipulate viewers, or enable them to perceive events from their leading characters’ perspectives, and sympathize with them. Such devices lie at the very heart of classical cinema, aimed at immersion and emotional involvement. Yet, the new civil rights cinema requires from its audience something more than just the regular engagement typical of any other screening, as it “uses cinematic identification to create the conditions under which audience members can acquire prosthetic memories”[25]. That is why The Help and The Butler both employ first-person narration. This is especially emphasised in The Help, the story of black maids serving a wealthy, middle-class white woman in the suburbs of Jacksonville, Mississippi in 1963. In the first two minutes of the film it is established beyond any doubt that the black woman’s perspective will be the privileged one. In the very first scene we see a sheet of paper which will be filled with the main character, Aibileen’s (Viola Davis), words. A few seconds later Aibileen/Davis looks straight into the camera and starts talking about her experiences as a black maid. This breaking of the fourth wall is a clear violation of classic cinema’s rules, but here it’s not supposed to create distance between the character and the audience. On the contrary, she speaks directly to us, reaching outside the frame of the screen, so that we can put ourselves in her rather unfamiliar situation and ask ourselves the questions she has to answer. For example, how would we feel raising a stranger’s children, while our own are looked after by someone else?

Of course, it is no coincidence that The Help brings up such an emotional, personal issue, since it is one of the easiest ways known in cinema to manipulate someone into empathy. Still, it’s not quite enough, because a few seconds after Aibileen breaks the fourth wall, we begin to hear her in voice-over. It is she who will tell us the entire story – from her own perspective. Therefore, black audiences get a chance to identify with a representative of their own race and heritage (Aibileen’s grandmother was a house slave), while white viewers for the most part of the movie leave the privileged and familiar area of their own perspective. Interestingly, just as in Rosewood, which has been analysed by Landsberg, The Help makes even more effort, by putting a direct representative of white audiences inside the story (while strongly establishing a black woman’s point of view and emphasising the importance of her finally-heard voice). Within the story, it is a white girl from the suburban middle class, Skeeter (Emma Stone), who listens to Aibileen and the other maids describing their awful fate. She writes their stories down and has to reach beyond her own exclusively white experience, in order to guide audiences to do the same – to inhabit memories of discrimination and a new model of slavery that defined racial relations in the Eisenhower- and Kennedy-era South[26].

The Butler also privileges a black servant, Cecil (Forest Whitaker), working for decades in the White House, who like Aibileen narrates events in first-person. He witnesses successive presidents and their decisions on racial injustice, such as the desegregation of Little Rock High School in 1957. Crucially, while it’s powerful white men actually making the choices and signing the documents, Cecil’s perspective shows that in fact all of the changes began with black communities demanding their rights – such as the Freedom Riders, and those who marched on Washington with Martin Luther King. Again, while providing African-American audiences with their inheritance and collective memory, The Butler encourages white audiences to acquire prosthetic memories of that struggle, by using both a personal perspective and a sentimental plot centred around Cecil’s conflict with his son.

While Hidden Figures and Selma never introduce a first-person narrator, they also encourage the audience to see through the black characters’ eyes. Their directors use point-of-view shots, or limit the viewers’ range of knowledge by making them privy only to the knowledge the characters would have (three characters, in the case of Hidden Figures), and hence, their perspective. This encourages “mental identification”[27], the very condition that prosthetic memory needs to even occur. In Hidden Figures especially, we enter and leave the scene when characters do, and experience what they experience, even if there is no voice-over to explain exactly how they feel. Even the rather omniscient narration in Selma puts the black characters front and centre, especially Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo).

In this way, while not acquiring actual memories of the civil rights struggle of the 1960s, the audience can experience some of the characters’ emotions, understand their situation and gain some knowledge about the past, and the kind of real memories someone in their position might have had. As Landsberg says, putting oneself in someone else’s situation “might be instrumental in enabling a white person to experience empathy for African Americans”[28]. She uses another prominent example: the 1970s TV adaptation of Alex Haley’s novel Roots, which tells the story of Kunte Kinte (John Amos), a slave kidnapped from Africa in the 18th century. Roots was a ground-breaking show, as it was one of the first depictions of the realities of (the often mythologised) slavery in American pop culture. “What was new about Roots was its attempt to use the mass media to create images of slavery and, even more important, to portray a sympathetic black character with whom a white audience might identify. By granting Kunte Kinte point-of-view shots, the miniseries enabled white viewers to see through a black man’s eyes”[29].

However, the way in which Landsberg describes the influence of Roots on white audiences – and the idea of prosthetic memory – might be seen as problematic, especially from the contemporary point of view. She states that “Kunte Kinte became more than a role model. He became, in effect, a body that could be worn”[30]. In light of these words, it has to be remembered that the inhabiting of black identities is very often seen as an offensive act of cultural appropriation, especially when the “body could be worn” literally, for example as a Halloween costume. It is fair to assume, then, that due to Roots’ immense popularity dressing up as Kunte Kinte was not unusual. Given the intimate nature of memories and trauma, even within communities, prosthetic memory could be seen as a device for progress and empathy, as well as for the appropriation of elements of a minority culture by members of dominant groups.

This kind of situation is put at the centre of the conflict in Dear White People[31], in which events are catalysed by a university fraternity encouraging Halloween party guests to dress up as famous black people (media celebrities)[32]. This, of course, causes outrage among the black students and poses the wider question of the thin line between acquiring prosthetic memories through media, and the unwelcome appropriation of unique and often traumatic experiences (or memories) that belong to a different group. The question remains: who is to say that those memories (for example, of slavery and racial discrimination) “do not ‘naturally’ belong to anyone”[33]?

Of course it would be unfair to say that cultural appropriation is actually what Landsberg has in mind. She states more than once that the idea of prosthetic memories is a utopian one, aimed at the noble task of creating empathy and putting oneself in someone else’s shoes, in order to shape one’s subjectivity and political views. The actual intention of engaging audiences in current events and influencing the future by “enabling people to feel just such an engaged and experiential relationship to the past”[34] through prosthetic memories, can be found in many contemporary feature films and documentaries, on the big screen and television, all of which emphasise the immediate connection between past events and the realities of today. For example, I Am Not Your Negro (2016, Raoul Peck) affiliates the civil rights struggle of the 1960s with today’s Black Lives Matter movement, while also undermining ‘white’ prosthetic memories (for example, classical westerns depicting ‘how the West was won’), as reproducing racial stereotypes. In 13th (2016), Ava DuVernay shows how criminalization of black males and the image of the “Black Buck” (an aggressive black male), is derived from slavery and Jim Crow rights. Further, O. J. – Made in America (2016, Ezra Edelman) explains how the memory of racial injustices can deform the course of law.

These movies can force audiences to look beyond racial divisions (like those created by O. J. Simpson’s infamous case), and deal with painful memories in order to “prosthetically” acquire an unfamiliar point of view. That, hopefully, “…can make people feel themselves a part of larger histories, of narratives that go beyond the confines of the nuclear family and that transcend the heretofore insurmountable barriers of race and ethnicity”[35].

 

References

Baudrillard Jean, Simulations, (New York: Semiotext(e)) (1983).

Bauman Zygmunt, Retrotopia, (Cambridge: Polity Press) (2017).

Bordwell David, Narration in the Fiction Film, (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press) (1985).

Benshoff M. Harry, Griffin Sean, Queer Images: A History of Gay and Lesbian Film in America, (Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield) (2006).

Boym Svetlana, The Future of Nostalgia, (New York: Basic Books) (2001).

Drake Philip, “’Mortgaged to Music’: New Retro Movies in 1990s Hollywood Cinema”, in: Paul Grainge (ed.), Memory and Popular Film, (Manchester: Manchester University Press) (2003).

Gruner Oliver, Screening the Sixties. Hollywood Cinema and the Politics of Memory, (London: Palgrave Macmillan) (2016).

Guffey Elizabeth, Retro. The Culture of Revival, (London: Reaktion Books) (2006).

Jameson Fredric, Postmodernism: or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, (Durham: Duke University Press) (1991).

Landsberg Alison, Prosthetic Memory. The Transformation of American Remembrance in the Age of Mass Culture, (New York: Columbia University Press) (2004).

McGee Patrick, Bad History and the Logics of Blockbuster Cinema, (New York: Pallgrave MacMillan) (2012).

Reynolds Simon, Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past, (New York: Faber and Faber) (2011).

Silverman Kaja, “Fragments of a Fashionable Discourse”’, in: Tania Modleski (ed.), Studies in Entertainment (Bloomington: Indiana University Press) (1986).

 

Notes

[1]Simon Reynolds, Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past, (New York: Faber and Faber) (2011), electronic edition.

[2]Jameson, Fredric, Postmodernism: or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, (Durham: Duke University Press) (1991); Jean Baudrillard, Simulations, (New York: Semiotext(e)) (1983).

[3]Zygmunt Bauman, Retrotopia, (Cambridge: Polity Press) (2017).

[4]Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia, (New York: Basic Books) (2001), electronic edition.

[5] Philip Drake, “’Mortgaged to Music’: New Retro Movies in 1990s Hollywood Cinema”, in: Paul Grainge (ed.), Memory and Popular Film, (Manchester: Manchester University Press) (2003), p. 191.

[6]Patrick McGee, Bad History and the Logics of Blockbuster Cinema, (New York: Pallgrave MacMillan) (2012), p. 16.

[7]Kaja Silverman, “Fragments of a Fashionable Discourse”’, in: Tania Modleski (ed.), Studies in Entertainment (Bloomington: Indiana University Press) (1986), p. 150.

[8]Elizabeth Guffey, Retro. The Culture of Revival, (London: Reaktion Books) (2006), p. 11.

[9]Alison Landsberg, Prosthetic Memory. The Transformation of American Remembrance in the Age of Mass Culture, (New York: Columbia University Press) (2004), p. 2

[10]Alison Landsberg (2004), p. 11.

[11]Alison Landsberg (2004), p. 11.

[12]BAME – Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic.

[13]Harry M. Benshoff, Sean Griffin, Queer Images: A History of Gay and Lesbian Film in America, (Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield) (2006), p. 11.

[14]Alison Landsberg (2004), p. 9.

[15]Alison Landsberg (2004), p. 21.

[16]Alison Landsberg (2004), p. 28.

[17]Alison Landsberg (2004), p. 132.

[18]Alison Landsberg (2004), p. 143.

[19]Oliver Gruner, Screening the Sixties. Hollywood Cinema and the Politics of Memory, (London: Palgrave Macmillan) (2016), p. 226, 127.

[20]Svetlana Boym (2001).

[21]Alison Landsberg (2004), p. 9.

[22] In Hidden Figures social progress and the fight against racial discrimination are equated with space conquests and progress in science.

[23]Alison Landsberg (2004), p. 100.

[24]Alison Landsberg (2004), p. 149.

[25]Alison Landsberg (2004), p. 109.

[26] However, The Help lacks narrative consequence – in many scenes filmmakers focus on Skeeter’s (and some other white characters’) point of view. Also, eventually it is she who writes down black servants’ memories and experiences and publishes them as her book. Therefore narrative intentions from the opening scene are not fully carried trough.

[27]David Bordwell, Narration in the Fiction Film, (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press) (1985), p. 67.

[28]Alison Landsberg (2004), p. 109.

[29]Alison Landsberg (2004), p. 102

[30]Alison Landsberg (2004), p. 103.

[31] Both movie (2014, Justin Simien) and TV series (Netflix, 2017–).

[32] The same situation occurs in On My Block (Netflix, 2018), in which kids from a rich neighbourhood dress up as cholos (Mexican gangsters).

[33]Alison Landsberg (2004), p. 19.

[34]Alison Landsberg (2004), p. 143.

[35]Alison Landsberg (2004), p. 152.

Tactile epistemology: sensoria and the postcolonial

Marta Stańczyk

Download the Article

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2018, vol.3, no. 1, pp. 89-99.

 

Marta Stańczyk

Jagiellonian University

 

 

Tactile epistemology: sensoria and the postcolonial

 

Abstract

In this article the author focuses on the so called “tactile epistemology” in postolonial studies – different cognitive and representational modes that enable create subversive narrations negotiating new relations between centre and margins. Affective, multisensory, synaesthetic body is an archive of power relations, an experience of colonization and – most of all – a discoursive transgression, reversing ideology based on the Western eye. The main goal of this article is to present three most influential theoretical stances connecting sensoria with the Other. The concepts of Laura U. Marks, Milena Marinkova, and Sara Ahmed are illustrated with the examples form Claire Denis’ and Urszula Antoniak’s oeuvre.

 

Keywords: tactile epistemology, senses, embodiment, Laura U. Marks, Sara Ahmed, Milena Marinkova

 

 

 

The distance from this sentence to your eye is my sculpture.

(Ken Friedman, Fluxus score, 1971)

 

 

Will Higbee coined the term “cinema of transvergence” in order to enable film scholars to “better appreciate how postcolonial and diasporic cinemas engage, function and produce meaning within and across national and transnational positionings.”[1] Through this notion he tries to ephasize the possible inversion between centre and margin, the dynamics of differences, and the negotiation of meanings and power relations. Furthermore, the concept alters cinematic experience by changing the form of storytelling. Its focus on minorities renarrates traditional relations in movies and its deconstruction of the cinematic form constitutes the apology of différance. One of the most important methods of deploying it is, as Laura U. Marks calls it, a tactile epistemology.[2]

Affective and sensuous incentives improve subversive narrations in postcolonial prism. Body language helps in coping with dominant discourses and in expressing the experience of the other – the experience of physical and mental colonization. Marks introduced term “haptic visuality”, which highlights the meaning of defiance and a fact that receiving input is influenced by the experience of migration, exile, dispersion, eradication, etc. Such scholars as Marks, Milena Marinkova or Sara Ahmed, in their critique of the Western discourse of the other, confide in a multisensory experience and memory of senses. They link this discourse to ocularcentrism and – taking Foucauldian approach to depict mastering and objectification of others – reject gaze as a form of wielding power. We can find a cinematic depiction of this formula in Black Venus’ (2010, Abdellatif Kechiche) opening scene where the body of an enslaved heroine is being objectified by scientifical (and, therefore, disciplinary) discourse. Another cinematic example is Yes (2004, Sally Potter) – a love affair between Irish-American biologist and Lebanese chef (medic doctor before imigration) is conflicted by stereotypical views and cultural prejudices. Their bodies „remember” uneven relations between centre and margin.

For this reason scholars like Marks and Marinkowa focus on the body. The issue of embodiment is not only an individual matter, but also a map of cultural differences and power relations. Moreover, a multisenory perspective enables disrupting dominant discourses and creates a new language entangled in the postcolonial discourse. As Marinkova writes, “the tangible (in reality and in representation) becomes an uneasy witness to the impossibility of narrating incommensurable languages and experiences.”[3] Tactile epistemology provides an alternative; it supports subversion.

 

Laura U. Marks: the skin of the other

 

In The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses Laura U. Marks writes about a “turn to the nonvisual senses [which] has been in part a response to the perceived imperialism of vision, the alignment of visual information with knowledge and control.”[4] American researcher finds a negotiating potential in haptic visuality – an embodied experience can be a very useful term for describing movies and their reception in the context of dispersion: “Haptic visuality implies making oneself vulnerable to the image, reversing the relation of mastery that characterizes optical viewing.”[5] Marks reckons that this type of visuality is connected with discrediting viewing habits, enabling different level of involvement, suggesting the shift of meaning, and even giving the impression of seeing someting for the first time. This perceptive renewal is not only a matter of aesthetics, but also ethics. The body might be a foundation for the redefinition of representational system. Based-on-body encounter with the other rejects a negative tendency to annex margins which is typical for the Western ocularcentrism. It emphasizes the incompatibility of some languages and experiences rather than the illusion of the possible identification.

In Touch. Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media Marks writes about the hapticity as founded not on touch itself, but on body – viewers should stay on the image’s surface, contemplate it texture, shape, colour, etc. and feel affective resonance through them.[6] Intercultural cinema is shaped by cultural memory, fingerprints left not by the disgraced, ideological and orientalistic eye but an ambivalent sense of touch, which recalls aggresion and enables emancipation through different bodily discourses. Marks seems to agree with Jennifer Fisher who contradicts Elizabeth Grosz’s statement that touch has no memory: “touch implicates what is most clearly the performative present of æsthetic experience.”[7] It invokes memory so “[t]o describe the effects of such video [or, in general, cinematic – M.S.] works  requires paying attention to the viewer’s body, specifically what happens when the video image dissolves out toward the viewer and invites the viewer to invest all his or her senses in the act of seeing.”[8] Viewers open themselves for the experience of the other.

Haptic visuality and sensuous aesthetics create counter-memory in spite of the discourse of “empowered eye.” Marks writes about the Western type of visuality which objectifies others, and separates and masters external and internal words.[9] One cannot trust visual information and traditional techniques used in postcolonial statements as they are made of oppressive material. In a spirit of Edward Said: eyes are tools of imperialistic inclinations. Do not believe what you see – it is only an ideological discourse. It is possible to gain knowledge through physical contact,[10] but one should remember that visceral, haptic or tactile epistemology can be used arbitrally. And this is the case of Terrence Malick’s The New World (2005) where Powatan Native American tribe’s communication – or tactile epistemology – is depicted as simpler and harmonious but primitive, unsufficient and limited. John teaches Pocahontas how to speak – through knowledge he reaffirms his authority as male and “civlised” (an already ideologically and eurocentrically inflicted term).

This example shows possible limitations of haptic poetics but simultaneously it legitimizes this aesthetics by underlining the cultural and political dimension of the sensorium. Returning to Marks, “[u]ltimately phenomenology can account for how the body encodes power relations somatically. It can acknowledge that embodiment is a matter of individual lifemaps as well as cultural difference. These matters are important for understanding intercultural experience, where traumas and more ordinary histories become encoded in the body. When intercultural films and videos appeal to the different power relations involved in looking and in touching, they remind us that these power relations are built into cultural organizations of perception.”[11] Therefore tactile epistemology enables dialogue between an image and its viewer – through his or her body. Marks makes a list of possible aesthetic means – for example blurred, grained image and decaying film.[12] Phenomenological intentionality and activisation of the viewer though, is what interests her most in subversive potential of haptic visuality. Marks states that “[t]he ideal relationship between viewer and image in optical visuality tends to be one of mastery, in which the viewer isolates and comprehends the objects of vision. The ideal relationship between viewer and image in haptic visuality is one of mutuality, in which the viewer is more likely to lose herself in the image, to lose her sense of proportion.”[13] Tactility is constructed around dialogue – oscillation between identificaton and immersion, dialectical movement between surface and depth. Interaction supersedes cinematic illusion, while making place for alternative narrations or simply for the story of the other.

Claire Denis’ oeuvre helps embody theoretical approaches to sensoria and the postcolonial. The French director narrates postcolonial relations using mostly multisensory aesthetic. Films such as Chocolate (1988) show how an embodied vision develops engaged spectatorship. Denis is known for rejecting classical film conventions, using static and extended shots without many dialogues, being sensitive to the form of an image, and creating poetic, sensual atmosphere. These distinctive traits place her in the middle of haptic cinema’s concepts. The director focuses on her characters’ bodies and their relations with space. Her trade marks converge with her autobiography and political views too – raised in West Africa in few French colonies, Denis shows engagement in postcolonial issues which is perfectly depicted in her debut film.

Chocolate tells a story of a young woman, France, who comes back to Cameroon where she lived as a child. She reminisces her childhood and her family’s houseboy, named Protée. Names of these characters are significant as they unveil power relations in French colony. As a girl, France was fascinated with him who seemed to be very different from her family and other employers and simultaneously she was humiliating him transferring her elders’ condescension. Nonetheless, their proximity was starting to dissolve borders between center and margins embodied in these characters. This is a work in progress, searching – or building – an intimate relations which was not easy. There is also a counterexample – France’s mother feeling sexual tension towards Protée and, after being rejected (because of her master attitude mostly), forcing her husband to post the houseboy to outdoor duties.

In one of the sequences the father explaines France what the horizon line is: a line which does not exist in physical sense but is still recognized by everyone. It is not only a symbol of racial boundaries – the definition shows how the figure of the other operates as an embodied entity as long as the horizon line is something that is embed in space. The hapticity of Denis’ film can be shown in three short scenes. First one represents the mutual fascination and blures seemingly natural lines. Protée, France and her mother visit Nansen, a fanatical missionary – an artificial dialogue between the priest and the young woman is being intersected with strange rite de passage: Protée and France watching dead, bitten house animals when the houseboy puts a crow’s tarsus near girl’s hand and smears her arm with the bird’s blood. The director emphasises skin and touch in a close-up. Hapticity is hightened through cross-cutting with a theatrical scene (in long shot) in which, main representatives of colonial power are involved. An oscillation between optical and haptical visuality confers a texture to moving image. Viscerality of this sequence shows that real dialogue is not necessary lingual and colour of skin can be hidden. Although the second mentioned sequence presents an over-exposure of the skin of the other. In his free time Protée was trying to have a shower when he was peeped by France and her mother coming back from a stroll. This event causes a breakdown – Protée starts crying as he feels abused  and objectified by the (white) gaze. His subjectivity and embodiment are limited to the level of the skin and its colour causing internalization of being not-a-norm. There is no balance between embodiment and image in the imperial eye paradigm.

The last scene I chose to explain tactility of power relations in Chocolate is near the movie’s finale:Denis shows her deliberate use of tactile epistemology and haptic aesthetics in her films since she believes in skin as a medium of cultural memory and traumatic encounters. During the night France comes to visit Protée who is now assigned to backyard worshop. They are staring at each other silently while he grabbes a pipe and suggests her to do so too, ignoring the fact that it was hot and could burn their palms. After that he leaves and disappears in the dark. It is another example of cancelling borders between races, but also of leaving a trace; the memory makes Protée France’s eternal companion but associates it with pain. This connotation reappears in Denis’ cinema. She came back to West Africa with White Material (2009) in which the interference of bodily boundaries is shown as a ferocious, but essential attempt to break the power relations. Rape is inflicted on viewers affectively: “[w]hen vision is like touch, the object’s touch back may be like a caress, though it may also be violent, as Steven Shaviro argues – a violence not toward the image but toward the viewer.”[14] Viewers are touched and forced to ethically driven reception, in spite of a pleasurable identification.

 

Milena Marinkova: micropolitical filming

 

Marks’ theses are very influential and not only among film studies scholars. Amongst her followers, Milena Marinkova, who is known rather for her research on the ground of Canadian literature, uses the term „haptic visuality” to describe postcolonial entanglement and transnational issues in her book Michael Ondaatje: Haptic Aesthetics and Micropolitical Writing she used “haptic visuality” to desribe postcolonial entanglement and transnational issues. She argues – after Marks and Merleau-Ponty – that touch cannot be reduced to skin, but it is rather connected with embodiment. We should not locate it in one organ; it is dispersed, permeable and not isolated from the rest of sensorium. So “embodied haptic acts of proximity” transverse “the personal by social and political structures,”[15] and blur boundaries between art and reality, representation and body. Furthermore the body, being under the influence of dominant regimes, can provide a ground for redefinition of these regimes with their discourses. Marinkova notices that the embodiment of Western gaze dislocates the main direction of perception process – viewers get their attention directed to their viewing practices. For Canadian scholar, it is a matter of style: multisensory, fluid and open to non-normative connections. “Such an aesthetic forges an intimately embodied and ethically responsible relationship among audience, author, and text”[16] and it has an empowering micropolitical potential. Haptic aesthetics and embodiment are individual and collective issues, subjective and social simultaneously. Personal is political. Bodies are political. Haptic cinema can rejoice “in the exploration of the intimate space of the bodily and the microsocial space of the interpersonal.”[17]

Marinkova reconsiders an identification referring to Dominick LaCapra’s concept:

He has argued that art should invite „empathic unsettlement” by relying on the reader’s/viewer’s affective response to another but also recognizing the differences between them. This formulation is premised on the intersubjective power of affect to move and be moved, and thus transcend the boundaries of the self and encounter difference. The encounter, however, is not followed by a return to sameness through crude identification — recognizing oneself in the other and thus sympathize with them — but by the ethical recognition of the opacity and unassimilability of alterity.[18]

Canadian scholar puts an emphasis on rejecting identification as a psychological relationship with characters. Being founded on gaze, it is not neutral, and the impression of being natural is strictly ideological. Eye, contemplation, perception – those are tools of knowledge which can be a form of aggression and wielding power. Gaze colonizes others and produces subalterns; its mechanisms and intents are obscured by film grammar. Therefore, cinema requires a new language. Marinkova thinks that there is a solution from cultural usurpation of the other – the ocularcentrism and its mastering inclinations can be relinquished. “Instead of supplementing the already available knowledge, however, the tangible (in reality and in representation) becomes an uneasy witness to the impossibility of narrating incommensurable languages and experiences, and an unsettling trace of proximity that disrupts dominant discourses.”[19]

The power–knowledge dynamics can be exposed by a subversive alternation from gaze to skin, from center to margin and from imperial discourse to “Philomela’s tapestry” – new ways of expressing stories of misery and experienced cruelty. Nude Area (2014, Urszula Antoniak) can be a cinematic example of these thesis. The film starts with a quotation from Roland Barthes’ Fragments d’un discours amoureux, yet the main topic is not love but rather seduction understood as a war. The main tool in this battle is the eye – it tracks, peeps, scans, leers, ogles, scrutinizes; it imposes conditions and demands mutuality. Moreover, gaze can be accepted or rejected by the body. Seducing is violent – people try to enforce their will upon each other. In Antoniak’s film the impression of fighting for dominant position is emphasized by different cultural and ethnic background of two lovers: European, rich, liberal Naomi and Arabic, working class, conservative Fama. Naomi provokes other girl, seduces her and gets control over her using both her gaze and language. Fama is more humble, submissive – she surrenders and protects only one intimate part: her hair.

The first sequence, in which we can see  body parts washed over under the shower, is a key to the aesthetics of the film. The skin is shown in close-ups, revealed in its very tactility, and the entire scene is suggestive, erotic and sensual. Next ones are, on the contrary, very static. First we see Fama’s face in a portrait-like close-up. It appears three times anticipating three movie parts. Next we can see Naomi in a tram or rather her reflection – she is an observer, maybe even a predator. She initiates their meeting and subordinates Fama initially. In the restaurant, where Muslim girl works as a waitress, Naomi humiliates her only to prepare a spectacle of apology later. After, she dresses up like her lover, putting a wig on her head even. Naomi is avid, voracious and simply fascinated by Fama’s sensual beauty and ethnically-founded mysteriousness. During her first visit in her lover’s room Naomi touches and smells everything. The scene resembles an act of appropriation in which girl’s gaze was only a prelude to total enthrallment. Fama surrenders and open up for Naomi’s sensuous insatiability, letting her touch and smell also her hair, a tactile proof of being the other. At some point roles are changing – Fama distances herself from Naomi. She gives her a handful of hair she cut in the process of emancipation from a colonizer. The other learns how to gain empowerment – through the reversal of gaze and the exploitation of touch.

As Nude Area shows, touch and hapticity can be very ambivalent, and Marinkova evokes skeptical voices in her monography. Claude Gandelman “points at the (ab)use of hapticity in ideological discourse”[20] – marxist critics reproach haptic paradigm as an aesthetisation of political discourse. Ernst Gombrich alerts to embracing hapticity “for compromised historicist discourses”[21] and Constantina Papoulias and Felicity Callard completely reject an emancipating potential of the affect. David Howes notices that affects, tactility and multisensory apparatus advocate the “sensual” logic of the late capitalism.[22] But it is Sara Ahmed who actually presents more balanced but still very productive theses.

 

Sara Ahmed: (e)strange(d) encounters

 

One of scholars Marinkova mentions as example of having a skeptical attitude to haptic cinema is Sara Ahmed. The author of Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-Coloniality focuses on a subaltern treated as a stranger by many techniques of differentiation. Her book introduces an interesting approach to the other – being a stranger is not an ontological issue, but epistemological one. It is a matter of recognizing others and oneself in an environmental network. Ahmed – not especially interested in art works – creates a critical standpoint for “sensual postcolonialism.”

Ahmed writes that “there are some-bodies who simply are strangers, and who pose danger in their very co-presence in a given street,”[23] but she also points out at an opposing worldview, where we can find the illusion of an ultimate appropriation. Both stances develop “the fetishism of figures”[24] in which case a stranger becomes an abstraction deprived of political meaning and the particularity of an embodiment. He or she is needed only to finalize the process of an individuation. “The journey towards the stranger becomes a form of self-discovery, in which the stranger functions yet again to establish and define the ‘I’.”[25] This is not only the case of  “eye-to-eye” meetings, but also, “skin-to-skin” encounters. This “meeting is not between two subjects who are equal and in harmony; the meeting is antagonistic.”[26] Ahmed refers in the same way to colonialists’ discourse: it is “not only the territorial domination of one culture by another, but also forms of discursive appropriation: other cultures become appropriated into the imaginary globality of the colonizing nation.”[27] And thus the status of proximity – and tactility – appears ambivalent being entangled in “regimes of difference,”[28] and we should remember that “the strange encounter is played out on the body, and is played out with the emotions.”[29] To sum up, affective and sensuous apparatus may not always be a perfect method(ology), but it is essential for giving back the other his or her voice and body.

Ahmed emphasizes that viewer or reader has a “close” bond with the body of text which “demands a more responsible reading, a reading which admits to its limits, its partiality and its fragility.”[30] The impression of “being touched” reinforces not only aesthetic reactions, but also ethical ones. There is a shift of meanings and boundaries, bodily and subjective borders. As Elisabeth Grosz mentions, “It is in no sense a natural body, for it is as culturally, racially, sexually, possibly even as class distinctive, as it would be clothed”[31] – and although Ahmed writes about it as an example of a theory avoiding analysis, she agrees with the necessity of approaching bodies in their culturally inflicted matter, not only representations. It is not the surface, but the very “effect of the surface”[32] which interests her most. Skin can be a visual mark of difference and “a moment of undecidability”[33] – a gate or leakage, where the subject risks its interiority and its integrity. This thesis echoes Laura U. Marks’ statement about hapticity as a form of dissolving oneself in a contact with image. The difference is placed between antagonism and eroticism which, according to Marks, drives haptical and optical visuality, whereas for Ahmed it is all about conflict. Adding affects to haptic theories, she treats skin as a canvas “where the intensity of emotions such as shame are registered (…) the skin registers how bodies are touched by others.”[34] Touch, a “fleshy metonymym,”[35] expresses a tension between particular bodies and social space.

Although the main phenomenological reference for multisensory and haptic theories is Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Ahmed’s book correlates with Bernhard Waldenfels’ Phenomenology of the Alien.[36] German philosopher reconsiders alien-experience as a phenomenon that permeates our everyday experiences with immediate implications for the social, political, and ethical life. He draws boundaries between human beings in process of perception, bending xenological phenomenology with material one. We tend to identify ourselves through a separation from milieu – other things, people, places, etc. Our own boundaries are tantamount to the boundaries of the alien, so our relations with the other are a relation of proximity, embodied and haptic. Sara Ahmed’s writes that “to withdraw from a relation of physical proximity to bodies recognised as strange is precisely to be touched by those bodies, in such a way that the subject is moved from its place. In this sense, the stranger is always in proximity: a body that is out of place because it has come too close.”[37] The mechanism is a foundation for such semi-sociological, semi-cinematic structures as exclusion through inclusion. The concept was coined by Giorgio Agamben but Thomas Elsaesser implemented it in film studies describing one scene in Hidden (2005, Michael Haneke).[38] During dinner in Laurents’ house there is a black woman who is physically present but poignantly erased from the rest of company by her total silence. Her presence is ephasized by her skin colour as long as the film’s main topic deals with racial and postcolonial issues, and that is why she is exposed and marginalized at the same time. Her alienation is embodied and sensed by the viewers.

For Ahmed and other above mentioned scholars, thinking of skin as always exposed and touchable is paradigmatic – as in the example of Protée, Fama or Saartje. Sensuous, tactile aesthetics emphasizes the oppression of the eye as an organ of domination. Their bodies are colonized but they can find their subjectivity in the embodiment. It can have a therapeutic meaning for the previous “other,” shifts his or her cultural position, neutralizes stereotypes and creates a subversive language of transgression. It implicates a non-normative way of viewing engagement with an image – an identification is replaced by an interaction. This tactile epistemology forms a “sculpture” – an almost physical encounter. Haptic or multisensory cinema creates proximity that imposes new ways of contact with the other without usurpating rights to his or her identity.

 

References

Ahmed Sara, Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-Coloniality, (London and New York: Routledge) (2000).

Elsaesser Thomas, „Performative Self-Contradictions. Michael Haneke’s Mind Games”, in A companion to Michael Haneke, ed. Roy Grundmann, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing) (2010).

Fisher Jennifer, Relational Sense: Towards A Haptic Æsthetics, http://www.david-howes.com/senses/Fisher.htm, date accessed 20 September 2016.

Grosz Elizabeth, Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism, (Sydney: Allen & Unwin) (1994).

Higbee Will, „Beyond the (trans)national: toward a cinema of transvergence in postcolonial and diasporic francophone cinema(s)”, Studies in French Cinema 7:2 (2007).

Marinkova Milena, Michael Ondaatje: Haptic Aesthetics and Micropolitical Writing, (New York: Continuum International Publishing Group) (2011).

Marks Laura U., The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses, (Durham and London: Duke University Press) (2004).

Marks Laura U., Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media, (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press) (2002).

Waldenfels Bernhard, Podstawowe motyy fenomenologii obcego, (Warszawa: Oficyna Naukowa) (2009).

 

[1] Higbee Will, „Beyond the (trans)national: toward a cinema of transvergence in postcolonial and diasporic francophone cinema(s)”, Studies in French Cinema, 7:2, p. 80.

[2] See: Marks Laura U., The Skin of Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses, (Durham and London: Duke University Press) (2004).

[3] Marinkova Milena, Michael Ondaatje: Haptic Aesthetics and Micropolitical Writing, (New York: Continuum International Publishing Group) (2011), p. 17.

[4] Marks Laura U. (2004), p. 194.

[5] Marks Laura U. (2004), p. 185.

[6] Marks Laura U., Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media, (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press) (2002), p. 13.

[7] Fisher Jennifer, Relational Sense: Towards A Haptic Æsthetics, http://www.david-howes.com/senses/Fisher.htm, date accessed 20 September 2016.

[8] Marks Laura U. (2004), p. 189.

[9] Marks Laura U. (2004), p. 133.

[10] Marks Laura U. (2004), p. 138.

[11] Marks Laura U. (2004), pp. 152-153.

[12] See: Marks Laura U. (2004), pp. 171-176.

[13] Marks Laura U. (2004), p. 184.

[14] Marks Laura U. (2004), p. 184.

[15] Marinkova Milena, p. 4.

[16] Marinkova Milena, p. 4.

[17] Marinkova Milena, p. 4.

[18] Marinkova Milena, p. 16.

[19] Marinkova Milena, p. 17.

[20] Marinkova Milena, p. 21.

[21] Marinkova Milena, p. 21.

[22] Marinkova Milena, p. 21.

[23] Ahmed Sara, Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-Coloniality, (London and New York: Routledge) (2000), p. 3.

[24] Ahmed Sara, p. 4.

[25] Ahmed Sara, p. 6.

[26] Ahmed Sara, p. 8.

[27] Ahmed Sara, p. 11.

[28] Ahmed Sara, p. 13.

[29] Ahmed Sara, p. 39.

[30] Ahmed Sara, p. 40.

[31] Grosz Elizabeth, Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism, (Sydney: Allen & Unwin) (1994), p. 142.

[32] Ahmed Sara, pp. 42-43.

[33] Ahmed Sara, p. 45.

[34] Ahmed Sara, p. 45.

[35] Ahmed Sara, p. 49

[36] See: Waldenfels Bernhard, Podstawowe motyy fenomenologii obcego, (Warszawa: Oficyna Naukowa) (2009).

[37] Ahmed Sara, p. 49.

[38] Elsaesser Thomas, „Performative Self-Contradictions. Michael Haneke’s Mind Games”, in A companion to Michael Haneke, ed. Roy Grundmann, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing) (2010), p. 72.

Prayer Wheels for the Other: Haunted by the Images: the film works of Tian Zhuangzhuang book review

Maciej Stasiowski

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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2018, vol.3, no. 1, pp. 89-93.

Maciej Stasiowski
Jagiellonian University

 

 

 

Prayer Wheels for the Other: Haunted by the Images: the film works of Tian Zhuangzhuang book review

 

There is a sequence in The Horse Thief (1986), in which an elderly Buddhist monk spins his prayer wheel, sitting in close proximity to a flock of Himalayan vultures feasting on a corpse. Seen separate at first, in the next shot both of these activities are filmed together. On the Tibetan plateau, balance is maintained – there is place for religious practice and for ravenous devouring. As another shot supersedes the scene, we take on Norbu’s perspective. Whether he beholds the spectacle from a distance is debatable. Is he really witnessing the non-event described above, or is he just blankly staring at the horizon, as he does so often? The director intends to keep his audience guessing, beguiling them into arranging images into a coherent narrative on their own and draw their own conclusions.

Tian Zhuangzhuang’s cinema inhabits a niche that has been quite difficult to share with him. For all the facts, contexts, even story developments he decides to leave out, it offers sublime beauty that had drawn the attention of audiences worldwide, despite undergoing incredible hardships in the process of reaching them. The Blue Kite (1993), smuggled to Cannes, earned him not only a Grand Prix at the Tokyo International Film Festival in 1993, but a ten-year ban on making films. Nonetheless, in toto, his filmography – oscillating between arthouse “chamber pieces” and purely commercial ventures – remains confusing for critics and audiences alike, ever since his first “proper” films, from the robustly idiosyncratic On the Hunting Ground (1984), to his latest brash with heroic fantasy genre in The Warrior and the Wolf (2009). Thus, the director’s output puts a difficult task in front of the prospected spectator, although in no way does it match the challenge set before an academic scholar who intends to locate the entry point to his ouvré. Assuredly, Alicja Helman’s Haunted by the Images: the film works of Tian Zhuangzhuang (2016) not only sheds light on the Fifth Generation’s most enigmatic representative, but – alongside her past excursions into Chinese cinematography, Shades of Red (2010) on Zhang Yimou and Paths of Lost Time (2012) on Chen Kaige – does so with a flare that instantly turns the book into a primer of aesthetics and filmmaking language. The language, which even the Han majority of Chinese viewers found incomprehensible.

Fifth Generation directors – the first class admitted to the Beijing Film Academy after the Cultural Revolution – moved away from portrayals in which the rise of People’s Republic of China brings about liberation and prosperity to various ethnic minorities living within its bounds, toward an appreciation of their diverse cultures. In equal measure it was a struggle for linguistic innovation and unprecedented visual style. “Like their predecessors, the fifth generation favored a non-dramatic structure and depoliticized narration, but they went farther with scant dialogue and music as well as abundant ambiguities in characterization and narration.”

 

[1] Such shifts were connected to the post-Maoist revisionism, while also emerging as a critical reaction to past decades’ overtly ideological and literary plots. However, as Helman notes, even against this background Zhuangzhuang’s cinematic project remains slightly removed from his contemporaries’ pursuits, intending to capture modernity’s spirit. Instead, his films are permeated with a sense of timelessness.

This may sound somewhat paradoxical, given the fact that both his early features On the Hunting Ground and The Horse Thief take place in almost archetypal settings, whose historicity came from censors’ interventions (the date 1923, which we see in The Horse Thief’s opening credits, was meant to explain Tibet’s rural look as not yet “peacefully liberated” from its primitive condition by People’s Liberation Army in 1950), rather than stemming from events represented on screen. Haunted by the Images places emphasis on is the fact that while the director’s approach to historical cinema and, by default, to minority genre (or “minority discourse”,[2] as Yingjin Zhang termed this tendency) remains quite lush, his films don’t subscribe to an exoticism of his colleagues and forefathers from the Fourth Generation. Tian’s cinema sidesteps even this category. Engulfed by his films, we are likely to be drawn into rituals, practices, customs, which are shown in great detail, yet being given no extended explanation or commentary to actual meanings behind them. Hence, the Mongolian language in On the Hunting Ground wasn’t even dubbed for the cinemas. It is the spectator who remains a foreigner and needs to “grasp this difficulty”. Unsurprisingly, alienation reverberated also in these films’ revenues – The Horse Thief sold in 7 copies in comparison to the standard of 100 copies. Nevertheless, a modest success, as for his previous effort was distributed in two.

While admitting to Zhuangzhuang’s strategic “indigestibility”, Helman’s third detour into landscapes left by the Fifth Generation creators serves as much more than a simple biographic insight into successive, though not always successful moviemaking efforts of the Beijing native. It is a comprehensive cross-examination of films and aspects of culture, history, religion, and philosophy that silently underlie these productions. Moreover, this meticulous study has been executed without disregarding entries that don’t necessarily reflect Zhuangzhuang’s artistic niche carved out for him by Western film critics.

Unlike his filmography, the resultant portrait is diversified, yet not shambolic. “Tian…”, Helman writes, “…was the most radical [in the Fifth Generation’s] attempt at transforming the appearance of Chinese cinema. Other than his colleagues, who prolifically engaged the experiences of theory and tradition of Western film thought, [Zhuangzhuang] tried to invent everything anew, guided by his researcher and discoverer’s zeal.”[3] This “Otherness” – located, at times, geographically (Mongolia [On the Hunting Ground], Tibet [The Horse Thief], Japan [The Go Master]), otherwise, on the basis of social strata (Street Players, Rock ‘n’ Roll Kids, Li Lianying: The Imperial Eunuch) – found in Tian’s treatment of his characters and the communities they belong to and are rejected by, become the focal point of Helman’s traverse.

What discerns his most personal projects (here, among films that comprise this category, are: On the Hunting Ground, The Horse Thief, The Blue Kite, Springtime in a Small Town, Delamu, The Go Master), is the way in which he “…position[s] himself in the role of the discoverer, a traveller looking at the strange land with his unprejudiced eye, without referring to the accepted system of beliefs, […] without constraining himself to the limits of a particular genre, or his audience’s expectations.”[4] Adding, further on, that the practice most “…characteristic of him is the accentuation of documentary factors, non-conclusive nature of the plots, narrative composition that resembles a suite of images.”[5] This probably came as the greatest obstacle in truly appreciating Zhuangzhuang’s works, as the audiences – just as much as critics themselves – complained about the lack of classical storytelling. This way, Tian’s intrinsically personal creations are like poetic ethnographic studies informed by (but not entirely congruent with) an outsider’s perspective, while history rushes in as “borrowed scenery”.

Aside from the insightful analyses and historical contextualization that define Haunted by the Images, the feature that gives off a nuanced flavour to Helman’s 200-page study is the amount of space devoted to expounding the aesthetics of the Far-Eastern cultural sphere. Such moments, far from rare, are especially enriching when the author links specific traits in Zhuangzhuang’s style to distinctly oriental aesthetic philosophies of xuǎn xiàng (suspended thought), or a unifying purpose of communicating a spiritual, highly subjective reading of reality (qì yùn), which is in stark contrast to Plato’s concept of mimesis that underlies Western thought. In this light, what might appear as narrative ellipsis is revealed as compositional strategy employed to subjugate screened images to a “continuous flow of emotions” of the film’s protagonist. This confirms Yuwen’s (Springtime in a Small Town) temporal back and forth account, that blends retrospections, futurospections, as well as events that unfold in the present. In the same manner it allows the viewer to share Norbu’s (The Horse Thief) outcast perspective of misfortunes leading up to his death. This way, the author also explains how experiential and painterly – rather than ones belonging to the realm of literature – Zhuangzhuang’s films are, providing a narrative that perfectly reflects not merely the protagonists’ point of view, as, e. g., could be inferred from the fragmentary character of Tietou’s childhood memories refracting historical events of the Great Leap Forward in The Blue Kite (1993). Moreover, what is suggested in Haunted by… is the presence of a subjective “institution” proposed by Albert Laffey, namely that of le grand imagier (master of images), responsible for the dynamics of spectatorial immersion into Zhuangzhuang’s outsider habitats. In this respect, Helman traces Tian’s ethnographic “igneous intrusions” in the documentary traditions of Alberto Cavalcanti and Jean Rouch.

Traditionally articulated when representations of minority groups are involved, the theme of exclusion – in Zhuangzhuang’s films – migrates into cinematographic and editing techniques and strategies, of which the author takes note in regards to the 1986 cult film. “The Horse Thief gives a viscerally strong sense of Otherness, so strong that the audience feels nearly excluded from the spectacle whose meaning constantly eludes them. In total, it doesn’t succumb to expectations that the viewers hold toward “exotic” cinematographies, mainly presenting the oddness already tamed, rather than serving it to them in crudo.”[6]

As previously stated, imitating Zhuangzhuang’s compositional strategy was obviously not the encompassing aim on author’s behalf. Logical chapter structure combined with a well-paced itinerary of the inquiry should appeal in equal measures to Chinese Cinema buffs and newcomers alike. Film critics and occidental enthusiasts may find themselves aligned in a queue to the nearest bookstore or generating web traffic on websites listed in the book’s references list. Tian Zhuangzhuang used to defend himself from harsh criticism saying that his kind of cinema evidently lies in wait for a 21st century audience. Haunted by the Images would convince him that the wait is over.

 

Alicja Helman, Nawiedzony przez obrazy: Twórczość filmowa Tiana Zhuangzhuanga, (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Jagiellońskiego) (2016), 268 p.

The book reviewed here was funded by National Science Centre, decision number 012/05/B/HS2/04058

 

[1] Yingjin Zhang, Chinese National Cinema, (New York and London: Routledge) (2004), p. 236.

[2] Harry H. Kuoshu, “Cinema Exotica: Ethnic Minorities as the PRC’s “Internal Other””, in Celluloid China: Cinematic Encounters with Culture and Society, ed. Harry H. Kuoshu (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2002), p. 169.

[3] Alicja Helman, Nawiedzony przez obrazy: Twórczość filmowa Tiana Zhuangzhuanga, (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Jagiellońskiego) (2016), p. 4.

[4] Alicja Helman, p. 199.

[5] Alicja Helman, p. 201.

[6] Alicja Helman, p. 54.

Moving Image as Political Tool: The impact of neoliberalism on the role of the moving image in postmodern warfare

Bethany Crawford

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 1, pp. 21-36.

Bethany Crawford

Dutch Art Institute

 

 

Moving Image as Political Tool:

The impact of neoliberalism on the role of the moving image in postmodern warfare

Abstract

This research critically examines the interrelation of neoliberalism, the moving image, and postmodern warfare with the intention of determining the impact of the neoliberal influence on the increasingly important role of the moving image in postmodern warfare. Through analysis of a selection of contemporary films, this research attempts to decipher how neoliberalism is pervading culture, both in the West and abroad, and why this is important in the context of postmodern war. As image and screen-based technologies are a dominant element in contemporary culture, it is vital to understand the extent of societal manipulation delivered via these platforms to perpetuate potentially harmful political economic agendas and military incentives.

Key words: neoliberalism, post-modern warfare, warfare, moving image, moving image technologies

 

 

Introduction

 

This paper intends to evaluate the ramifications of the Western political establishments’ conformation to the politically applied neoliberal ideology on the utility and increased dependence of moving image technology in the arena of postmodern warfare, as both a weapon and a societal tool. With a focus on the modern wars that have been the consequence of the neoliberal agenda, this paper will consider the function of the moving image within this political context, with particular emphasis on cultural control. This will allow for comments on the counteractive capacity of artists’ moving image and the necessity of activating an engaged spectatorship in the face of increasingly immersive technologies and manipulative images. The intricate interrelation of neoliberal ideology, war and the film industry is a complex subject of study, as each factor facilitates and necessitates the other. Each element is historically and developmentally interwoven, with political and economic issues being a direct effect and result of motivations in conflicts and industry, and contrariwise. Due to the impact of neoliberal ideology, it has further become increasingly difficult to distinguish between these aspects in order to study their relation, as the resulting oligarchical control has amalgamated government, war and film into one indistinguishable, powerful businesses.

American hegemonic domination of the international film industry and the country’s presiding role over modern global politics and warfare certify the importance of examining the role of Hollywood and mainstream American cinema when investigating the neoliberal impact on moving image within postmodern warfare. As the U.S. government launched the post-9/11 ‘Global War on Terror’ to initiate invasions and substantial military campaigns in various locations in the Middle East, filmic endorsement was necessary in order to mobilise public support and maintain the advantageous governmental position over a society seized by fear. Two examples of films conforming to the contemporary propagandised depictions of the recent American military endeavours in the Middle East are Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper (2013) and Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty (2012). American Sniper details the exploits of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle during his four tours of Iraq, as he accumulates the 160 confirmed kills that earned him the honour of ‘America’s deadliest sniper’. The CIA hunt for Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan and Pakistan is portrayed in Zero Dark Thirty through the motivations of a young, female CIA operative, Maya. The delivery of these war films in the slick narrative characterised by mainstream and Hollywood cinema exemplifies the passive consumption and neutralisation of on-screen violence that is arguably promoting a dangerous complacency of conflict in contemporary society. The inactive spectatorship encouraged by such narratives allows for a governmentally valuable platform for simultaneously administering glorification of both neoliberal values and the military violence that comes with it. Critical evaluation of American Sniper will focus on the film’s portrayal of Arabs and Muslims as a form of mobilising and maintaining public support for military action in the Middle East through fear and misrepresentation. Examination of the characterisation of gender in American Sniper will allow study of the definition and promotion of the ‘neoliberal man’ in relation to a neoliberal state. This will lead into analysis of the function of the female protagonist in Zero Dark Thirty and the production’s associations and appropriations of feminist rhetoric. Zero Dark Thirty will further provide the basis for a dissection of the film’s formal arrangements in regards to invalidation of the impact of on-screen violence, and the resulting consequences on its commentary of militarised torture.

The neoliberal ideological model supports a process of globalisation in order to internationalise economic structures and embrace a global free market. An idealised impact of international subscription to neoliberalism would ensure a globally competitive market, increased international productivity and consumerism, and minimisation of state controls on trade and economy. This economic and financial motivation is the foundational incentive of contemporary warfare in the neoliberal age. Other than allowing for the implementation of a plunderable economic structure, globalisation has proven a valuable vehicle for delivering a dominating cultural paradigm through the international export of American film, known as ‘soft power’.[1] The impact of the cultural imperialism of globalized American cinema, in tandem with the enforcement of political and economic neoliberal ideologies, is exemplified in Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing (2012) and The Look of Silence (2014). Both films focus on the aftermath of the Western-backed Indonesian coup d’etat led by General Suharto in 1965–66, which directly resulted in the deaths of over one million people. The Act of Killing thematically centres on the influence of American cinema on a group of gangsters unrepentantly responsible for a multitude of the genocidal killings as they re-enact the massacres through various cinematic genre conventions. The Look of Silence acts as a contextualising counterpart that follows the family of one of the victims of the genocide as the younger brother utilises his role of optometrist to confront the perpetrators. Analysis of the content and formal arrangements of The Act of Killing, with notes on similar methods used in The Look of Silence, will allow for considerations on Oppenheimer’s self-reflexive deconstruction of the role of film as mode of delivery for ideological sentiments and cultural reinforcement of military and economic force, in a direct critique of the impact of globalised American cinema. Character analysis of key participants in The Act of Killing will allow the examination of the ramifications of neoliberalism on a societal level and question the rewarded personality traits under a neoliberal regime.

The increasing internationally globalised interrelation of Western political aggression with Hollywood and American mainstream cinema has necessitated calls for a counteractive utility of the moving image to provoke a politicised dissidence in spectators. As militarised screen-based technologies are rapidly evolving and leading to eventual implementation as culturally accessible technology, society is becoming progressively more dominated by screen culture and advancing immersive and interactive moving image technology which multiplies the effectiveness of passive consumption. Experiential participation in simulated and immersive visual technology allows a situation in which the penetrative ideological impact of images pervades the mind at a deeper cognitive level.[2] Through these technologies, such as video games and virtual reality, the brain is being trained to function in conjuncture with neoliberal anticipation. The pre-emptive nature of the neoliberal state, such as anticipatory military action exemplified in the invasion of Iraq, is beneficial for an Orwellian governmental control over citizens through the perpetual threat of war and constant fear.[3] These passively engaging modes of moving image utility open dialogue for an inverted employment and critique of these technologies which is represented in the provocative works of the German artist filmmaker Harun Farocki, with specific focus on Images of the World and the Inscription of War (1988) and Serious Games I–IV  (2009-10). Analysis of the formal arrangements of both Images of War and Serious Games will establish effective techniques of provoking spectator engagement with moving imaging works in direct remedial response to the encouraged passive consumption of contemporary image-based technologies. This will lead to investigation into methods of self-reflexive deconstruction of the moving image in the modern theatre of war in both Images of War and Serious Games I: Watson is Down.

 

American Sniper and Establishing the Enemy

 

Following the recent military endeavours in the Middle East, there has been an increase in anti-Islamic sentiment and Arab vilification within recent Hollywood war productions. The Arab world has assumed the role of the terrorist ‘Other’, a position formerly held by communists during the years of the Cold War. This cultural establishment of the Arab enemy beneficially maintains public support for the continuing military involvement in the Middle East. This trend is exemplified in American Sniper (2013) and will be illustrated through an analysis of the film’s use of sound and visual form.

The film sonically opens with the Islamic call to prayer eventually obscured by the mechanical sound of a military tank; this is confirmed visually as a tank appears rolling through a burned-out Middle Eastern town. The very outset of the film provides the initial connotations of an ‘us’ and ‘them’ rhetoric, the call to prayer not just providing a locational signifier (as there are mosques all over the globe), but when coupled with militarised images establishes an emotive connection between Islam and war. This is thematically continued through the duration of the film with consistent visual references to the Iraqi fighters as Muslim and the American soldiers as Christian, establishing a wrongful context of a war of religion (e.g. the scene featuring a quick cut to a suicide bomber’s lifeless hand falling whilst clutching prayer beads). The call to prayer is again used as sonic accompaniment to a climactic moment of tension by which the audience is first introduced to the main antagonist, the Iraqi sniper ‘Mustafa’. This scene further commemorates Mustafa’s first on-screen killing of a U.S. soldier, continuing the demonising association of Islam through sonic suggestion. The character of Mustafa is a cartoonish depiction of a villainous Arab, complete with an ominous, deep and throbbing leitmotif that intensifies his caricaturised evil persona.

American Sniper is punctuated throughout with a series of point-of-view shots through Kyle’s rifle viewfinder, as he tracks potential enemies in the deadly crosshairs. These shots are effectively subjective, implicating the spectator in the position of Kyle, strengthening emotional identification with the protagonist whilst simultaneously alienating and vilifying the subjects in shot, nearly always Iraqis. In one instance, after the audience is introduced to Kyle in the beginning of the film, he lines up a nefariously behaving hijab-clad female with her young child. Tracked through Kyle’s rifle viewfinder the child runs forward carrying an RKG grenade, passed to him by his mother. Not only is this sequence subject to the criminalising effect of the viewfinder POV, but the shot then quickly cuts to a scene of Kyle as a young boy shooting his first deer. This rapid transition infers a moral relation between the shooting of a deer and that of an Arab, effectively animalising and dehumanising the ‘Other’.

 

American Sniper and the Neoliberal Man

 

Eastwood’s American Sniper successfully advocates contemporary neoliberal-influenced prescriptions of gender. The attributes of the idealised self-disciplined individualism of the neoliberal man easily fulfils the ‘Hollywood hero’ prototype that Kyle profitably conforms to—a design unchanged since the early days of Hollywood that reinforces the conservative notions of gender and masculinity. Corresponding to these traditionally masculine character criteria is valuable in maintaining multitudes of young men signing up for armed service with aspirations of achieving similar cinematically hyper-masculine heroics. Kyle’s character is fundamentally a microcosm of the model conservative, neoliberal American state. He emphasises the desirable qualities of a neoliberal subject—exhibiting resilience, a constant pre-emptive anticipation, and an individualised self-reliance—that are admirable character traits necessary to thrive under neoliberal implications.

The film is an unadulterated celebration of masculine violence and individual merit within its very premise—a production solely dedicated to heralding the heroic sacrifices of ‘America’s deadliest sniper’. This congratulatory stance concerning ‘honourable’ violence is established early in the film through a sequence depicting an incident from Kyle’s youth. As a young Kyle and his family sit around the family table, his authoritative father delivers an analogical lesson on good and evil through the categorisation of an individual into a sheep, a wolf or a sheepdog. He refers to sheepdogs as “those who have been blessed with the gift of aggression and the overwhelming need to protect the flock” whilst condemning his young sons to turn out as anything other than a noble and protective sheepdog, and ultimately congratulating young Kyle on finishing a fight. This in essence is the summation of American Sniper’s attitude to violence, and eludes to the violence in Iraq as being a justifiable retaliation (a potentially dangerously misinforming connection of the invasion of Iraq to 9/11.)

Kyle embodies the impulsive and enterprising self-confidence rewarded under neoliberal individualism. On several occasions in the film, he instinctively recognises the correct course of action, even breaking rank in order to follow his intuition. The pinnacled climax, in which Kyle finally kills his nemesis Mustafa, is one such occasion. Kyle is repeatedly told to hold fire so as not to give away their position, under the commanding officer’s assurance that the distance between Kyle and Mustafa would render it an impossible shot. Kyle, however, is confident of his gifted marksmanship and takes the shot anyway, to great success. His character further displays the resilience desired in a prosperous neoliberal subject, an ability to speedily re-cooperate which negates any danger of dependence on anyone or establishment other than the self. This is illustrated in his ability to return immediately to the battlefield moments after his close friend ‘Biggles’ is shot, and his lackadaisical attitude to his girlfriend’s infidelity and their consequential breakup early in the film.

 

Neoliberal Women and Feminism in Zero Dark Thirty

 

Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty was widely commended for its depiction of a dynamic female CIA agent accountable for arguably one of the greatest U.S. military victories in post-9/11 conflict. Some have even hailed the production a ‘feminist epic’—a claim that typifies current assumptions of female representation being the centrally significant issue of the feminist struggle, over endeavours for redistribution of power.[4] Aspirations for female representation over redistribution are commonly understood as a prerogative of post-feminism, arguably defined as a neoliberalised feminism.[5] Zero Dark Thirty provides exemplification of the current trend of appropriating feminist rhetoric to provide credibility to the contemporary military agenda.

Zero Dark Thirty’s gender representations within its central character, Maya, largely comply with the postfeminist ideal. She epitomises individualism, manifesting as a deeply driven ‘lone wolf’ character that is utterly devoted to her career. She is single-mindedly motivated to ensure the death of Bin Laden, which becomes an individually driven pursuit as her superiors move on to more imminently demanding issues of national security. This crusade eventually comes to fruition with Maya reaping the rewards of her dedicated individual labour, through the killing of Osama bin Laden at the hands of the navy SEALS under her direction. Early in the film, Maya is complimentarily referred to as a ‘killer’ in her field. As men primarily dominate this field of expertise, this statement resonates as an empowering accomplishment for her as a woman, but the violence of the term ‘killer’ provides potential insight to her success as a consequence of adopting traditionally masculine traits. Her aggressive ambition and quickly learned immunity to brutal violence align her with conventionally understood aspects of the ‘alpha male’. This encouraged female adaption to a more masculinised archetype in order to succeed in the workplace is a negation of foundational aspects of the feminist struggle and is characteristic of post-feminism. Maya’s character exhibits the self-surveillance and regimented self-discipline expected of an efficient post-feminist woman. Her slender and well-groomed appearance confirm that however engrossed she is in her vocation, she is still attentive to her physical presentation. Throughout the film she maintains an emotionally restrained persona, only exhibiting an aggressively emotive response when her superiors impose obstacles to the fervent pursuit of her goal. She appears to be constantly monitoring her own behaviour, contrastingly highlighted next to the relaxed and natural demeanour of her male co-agent. Maya’s unswayable individualism and inherently capitalist temperament is confirmed through the competitive acquaintance between her and her fellow female CIA agent, Jessica. Their initial meeting is an icy exchange, which later develops into a guarded friendship. This lack of establishing a sense of sisterhood or even a natural friendship is testament to the postfeminist severance of the necessity for a socialised unification of women that was prevalent in second wave feminism.

 

Neutralising Violence and the Brutality of Torture in Zero Dark Thirty

 

The narrative of Zero Dark Thirty presents a confirmation of the constructive outcome of employing enhanced interrogation techniques (“EITs”, commonly known as torture.) The director, Kathryn Bigelow, and the writer, Mark Boal, worked closely with the CIA to ensure a ‘realistic’ interpretation of the CIA manhunt for Osama bin Laden, leading many critics to decry it as pro-torture propaganda. Not only does the film provide justification for the military use of torture through the storyline, it further nullifies the brutality of the violence depicted through specific methods of camera work and structural form that increase viewer identification with the perpetrators of the violence and dampen the impact of its cruelty.

The entire film is shot with a minimum of four cameras for each scene, allowing the final product to provide a fully immersive exposure of the viewer to the characters, narrative, and location. Each scene cuts relatively quickly amongst the differing angles of the various cameras, with one camera delivering an active, seemingly handheld perspective. This shot appears almost as POV and forms an informal viewpoint that provides a subjective platform for the viewer. The resulting mode of experiential presentation strengthens viewer empathy with characters and gives the viewer a sense of their own personal presence within the narrative. This method acts as an effective vehicle to fortify the validation of state-sanctioned violence that is established in the plot through the spectator’s enhanced feeling of camaraderie with the characters performing the violence.

The diluted effect of the violence depicted in the film’s early displays of torture can further be contributed to discerningly utilised camera work. The scenes mostly deliver abstracted images of the imposed brutality—an example of another advantageous employment of the active, handheld camera perspective. The constant transition between the camera angles also provides a manipulating distraction from events unfolding within the narrative and ensures they don’t always stay in shot. In the opening scene, in which the detainee is water-boarded, there are frequent cuts to the shot of Maya as the passive witness. These interruptions in the representation of the torture mitigate the director’s claim of a ‘realistic’ and ‘unbiased’ exploration of the use of EITs in the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

 

The Globalised Impact of American Cinema

 

The Act of Killing provides testimony to the globalised influence of the passively consumed American cinema, detailed in the previous section, and the impact of cultural imperialism both through its filmic structure and its narrative political content. The premise of the film encompasses a selection of perpetrators to re-enact their involvement in the killings, through performative conformation to the American movie genres that they adulated. This construct establishes a surreal reflective critique as the killers talk about learned killing techniques from these American films that they then feedback into re-enacted imitations adhering to those specific genre conventions. The idolised violent heroics portrayed in the Hollywood films they admire act as reconfirmation of their own heroism. This can be exemplified in the previous study of American Sniper, Kyle being celebrated for his abundance of valiant assassinations as they were all justifiable kills due to the victims’ undeniable status of ‘bad guys’. The Indonesian perpetrators are similarly convinced of the undoubtedly villainous nature of the ‘communists’ they killed, thus they are heroes worthy of filmic commemoration also.

The Act of Killing utilises a self-reflective employment of screens throughout the production which act as a visual exposition of the critical historical and current involvement of film within the events depicted.[6] Throughout the production there are scenes of Anwar re-watching the re-enactments on a television set. This provides an opportunity for objective viewing of his actions, but yields little emotional response. The distancing and de-contextualising impact of screen-delivered images is highlighted in a scene that features the main character’s participation on a National television talk-show. The sequence cuts between formats, altering the perception of the viewer. Some frames are from the talk-show production itself, implicating the spectator in the position of a member of the Indonesian public watching the show on their televisions. Other shots return to the cinematic format of the film, which depicts the interview taking place and the studio cameras capturing the action. The most interesting frames refer to the previously mentioned method of featuring the images on a television screen within the frame.  One instance of this method that is particularly provocative features many different small screens depicting the image of Anwar as he talks on the show, as the footage is viewed by the programme operators. The shot zooms in a small screen showing a black and white image of Anwar as he speaks with the host, and a larger coloured screen with the same image. The visual impact of the dual television screens provides a comparable image of Anwar, perceivably far more sinister in the small black and white screen than on the larger, coloured screen. This comparative framing of the differently formatted images is resonant of the previously shown extracts of the anti-Communist government propaganda film that was essential viewing for all school-aged children and portrays the evil deeds of the communists in the same effectively vilifying black and white. The shot illustrates the power of framing in altering content and further alludes to the thematic considerations of time central to both The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence. The viewer apprehends the same image of Anwar in the antiquated format of black and white and again in modernised full colour, thus referencing past and present and highlighting that although many decades have elapsed since the genocide, neither Anwar nor his rhetoric have altered.

 

Neoliberal associations with Psychopathy

 

The central characters in The Act of Killing illustrate not only the neoliberal ideological impact on personality development, but also, critically, the personality traits rewarded under such conditions. The gangsters and paramilitary personnel that perpetrated the genocidal killings in the mid-60s are shown to have risen to positions of political and economic power due to their active role in the massacres. As this was a western-backed coup d’etat with neo-imperial motivations, those who helped facilitate the overthrow were rewarded capital power in the newly established highly corporate and international-business-friendly state. The characters in the film exhibit the psychopathic features that excel under neoliberal regimes—traits that are comparable to the desirable modern attributes of successful corporations and businesses.[7] The cut-throat emphasised individualism that propels a successful neoliberal subject has habitual connotations to psychopathic behaviours that are exhibited strongly in nearly all the characters featured in The Act of Killing, although analysis will be streamlined to focus on the characters of Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry.

Anwar Congo provides the foundational character in the film and is responsible for directing the narrative production that re-enacts the differing methods of killing under various Hollywood genre conventions. The arc of the film follows his journey of altering moral awareness, from the unrepentant pride of his direct role in the killings to his seemingly empathetic epiphany. This is highlighted in a scene near the beginning of the film in which he dances the cha-cha on the rooftop where he used to kill ‘communists’—a post re-enactment of his murderous actions. This location is then revisited at the very end of the film, where this time Anwar violently retches as he describes again his killing of ‘humans’. It can be argued that Anwar Congo is representative of learned psychopathic behaviour, perpetrating violence and brutality that was continuously rewarded with the implementation of the new regime and therefore never explicitly considering the implications of his actions. Throughout the film it is evident that Anwar is lacking in any form of self-awareness; his inability to grasp the situation is frustratingly highlighted formally, with punctuations in the film of Oppenheimer playing back the footage of the re-enactments for him. The viewer is able to watch Anwar’s reaction to the footage—often frowningly studious—which alludes to a potential moment of realisation, only for it to conclude with a voiced disapproval of his clothing or inauthentic acting. In the film, he confesses to being plagued by nightmares, even dedicating a scene in the re-enacted production to his night terrors, but he doesn’t seem to have the emotional depth to fully understand the cause. Anwar’s unadulterated conviction in his behaviour during the genocide is arguably the result of his ability to deflect responsibility by imitating some of his favourite on-screen gangsters and military heroes, illustrated in his learning of some basic empathy through the same filmic language.[8] In this line of reasoning it is feasible that Anwar learned these desensitised, psychopathic traits as a survival tool which he has continued to manifest through its beneficial recompense in the proceeding administration.

Adi Zulkadry appears a third of the way through the film and features in the narrative re-enactments of the killings. A character analysis of Adi beneficially provides comparative understanding of Anwar’s potentially ‘learned’ psychopathy through establishing Adi’s inherent and firm character correspondence to traits understood to be undeniably psychopathic. Adi exhibits a clear understanding of the immorality of the ‘65–‘66 genocide. At one point during a re-enactment he attempts to coach his fellow perpetrators: “Listen, if we succeed in making this film it will disprove all the propaganda about the communists being cruel and show that we were the cruel ones…it’s not about fear, it’s about image. The whole society will say…they lied about the communists being cruel.” His intellectual capacity seems to be greater than that of Anwar in his ability to perceive the moral injustice of his actions and understanding of how this film will be perceived. This awareness fortifies the fact that he possesses the psychopathic ability to feel no remorse or empathy; this is further highlighted in a scene in which Adi and Oppenheimer are talking in a car. Oppenhiemer clarifies that under the Geneva Convention the Indonesian genocide is definitively classified as war crimes. Adi defensively replies that the definitions of right and wrong in war are susceptible to change, further arguing that war and mass killing is just part of the organic behaviour of people and always has been. This talent for intellectually manipulating concepts of justice to comply with his own individual agenda is a further example of psychopathic behaviour.

 

Active Spectator Participation in Artist Moving Image

 

Passive consumption of the moving image and the inactive spectator participation encouraged by mainstream cinema maintains film as the definition of a capitalist ‘product’. The emancipation of both film and the viewer from the capitalised process of production and mass consumption is arguably exemplified in artist moving-image works that endeavour to actively engage viewers, thus ensuring the film is realised through the mutual labour of both filmmaker and spectator-turned-producer.[9] This collaborative intellectual provocation of active spectatorship counteracts the neoliberal influence within mainstream and Hollywood cinema, detailed previously. Instigating active engagement with moving-image works can be achieved through formal considerations in both the moving-image work and the environment in which a viewer is exposed to the work. These constructive modes of deliverance are demonstrated in the works of the German artist filmmaker Harun Farocki, illustrated through formal analysis of Serious Games I–IV and Images of the World and the Inscription of War.

Serious Games comprises four moving-image installations, each detailing varying facets of the interrelationship between video game technology and the military. The installation is intended to be spatially experienced, allowing an immersive and participatory active engagement with the work and space, in direct contention with the virtual and video game technology depicted in its content. This environmental encouragement of movement ensures the spectator maintains a level of corporeal awareness whilst engaging with the moving-image works, which arguably functions as a form of Brechtian distanciation.[10] The spectators’ autonomous engagement with both the form and content of the installation provides a platform for an individuated apprehension of the work. This self-determining perception of the work further develops the installation to be experientially comparable to an expanded model of ‘montage’ and undoubtedly exceeds the limitations of a singular work in ensuring the participatory role of the viewer. The coupling of images in this manner is a technique Farocki described as ‘soft montage’; it allows the spectator to develop and question ongoing associations, informing “a general relatedness, rather than a strict opposition or equation.”[11] The impact of the ‘soft montage’ requires the spectator to assimilate the images and engage in a process of spatial editing, implicating the viewer as collaborative producer.

The activating method of montage is evident in the majority of Farocki’s work, including his seminal film essay Images of the World and the Inscription of War. This single screen work utilises a more conventional linear mode of montage, reminiscent of early montage methods employed by filmmakers such as Eisenstein, using cut up and re-appropriated archival images delivered through a thematic and rhythmically repetitive image track. This technique provokes the viewer to infer significance from between the images and successfully nullifies the potential didacticism associated with political film or the documentary genre. The laboured viewing required of the spectator in Images of the World encourages a broader contextual consideration of the images.[12] Another process utilised to certify spectator engagement with Images of the World is in the soundtrack, featuring a neutral female voice over. The objectivity of the narration negates the possibility of emotive manipulation of the viewer when apprehending the images, instead behaving symbiotically with the images to inspire a greater degree of autonomously produced questioning in the viewer.

 

Using the Form of the Moving Image to Deconstruct the Relationship of War and Images

 

In ‘Towards a Third Cinema’, Getino and Solanas call for revolutionary filmmaking to harness the communicative power of the moving image in order to counteract the “culturally penetrative” neo-colonial and consumerist films generated by the ‘System’.[13] This form of filmmaking would mobilise the spectators into being the reactionary, active citizens necessary to implement radical changes and a self-determining culture of the people, in contrast to the oppressive, neo-imperial culture of capitalism that caters solely to the ruling classes. This mode of revolutionary filmmaking is embodied in the works of Farocki. His moving image critiques on the increasingly dominating role of technology in contemporary society—importantly in the modern theatre of war—provide a vital self-reflexive filmic discourse. Through transitions in the formal deliverance and content of his work, Farocki’s development as a filmmaker and artist have reflected and symbiotically evolved with the technologies he scrutinised. His introspective and deconstructive examinations of image-making technology in contemporary warfare are centrally thematic to Images of the World and Serious Games I: Watson is Down. Analysis of these works will provide insights to the advancements of these technologies within the timeframe of each work and the effectiveness of artist moving image in intellectually disseminating the medium’s role in modern warfare.

Images of War utilises found photographs and documentary footage articulated into a film essay that references issues of aesthetics, visuality, and deception in the context of postmodern warfare. Farocki focuses on contemporary warfare’s fundamental endeavour to omnipotently see all, whilst simultaneously remaining hidden. It questions the problematic role of images in the theatre of war—centrally photography—and the implications of the techno-surrogate perception of the lens in terms of framing, perception, and context. Farocki utilises reoccurring motifs and sequences in the form of montage, frequently revisiting images and contextually rearranging them, thus highlighting the ease of altering the content of an image through reframing. A sequence that features repetitively in the film depicts photographs of Berber woman from Algeria, unveiled in order to photographically document their full appearance for the purpose of identity cards. When introduced to the full frame images of the women, the viewers are informed that only at home and with close family would they normally be without their veil. This implies the questionable veracity of an image portraying an already reframed facial identity of the photographed subject. As this sequence is revisited later in the film, the viewer is exposed to the same images of the women, albeit from the pages of a photography book as it’s flipped through by an on-screen reader. This alteration of context converts the content of the images, reframed once more from an operational image purposed for surveillance to a commodified image of pleasure. When the photographs reappear later in the film they are reconstructed once again, this time reframed by the hands of the on-screen reader, who alternates between covering the eyes and the mouths. As he covers the mouths of the women, only their eyes are visible, therefore revealing a more accurate portrayal of the real-life appearance of the woman through replicating what would be visible when veiled. This layered study of image de-contextualisation and restructuring highlights the deceptive nature of photography and imaging technologies.

As the military interrelation with image-based technologies has intensified and rapidly advanced, the functional capacity of these technologies has broadened. The participatory virtual worlds now utilised by the military for both training and rehabilitation purposes are the subject of Farocki’s multi-screen video installation Serious Games I–IV. In these works, Farocki explores how these immersive techniques potentially blur the spectator–participants’ distinction between fiction and reality and further the relationship of their physical body with the computer-generated images. The participant is neurologically receptive to video game imagery in a far more penetrable manner than of images perceived in films and photographs.[14] This ability to control the conscious level of comprehension of a soldier is beneficial in ensuring a highly effective desensitisation, dehumanisation of the enemy, and subconscious response in the field. This is highlighted in the first work of the series, Serious Games I: Watson is Down, a split screen installation showing an army unit involved with a video game purposed for training. Although the split screen images alternate and cut between images in conformation of the ‘soft montage’ method, they predominately subscribe to a format of one channel presenting the video game as it is played, while the other is fixed on the soldiers as they are playing. This assimilation of images—correlated with the language used by the soldiers—underscores the video game’s deconstruction of bodily and conscious separation from the on-screen virtual world. The soldiers converse with one another and refer to their avatar characters on-screen as ‘you’ and ‘I’. This hyper-subjective connection with the game is provocatively contrasted with the encouraged objective viewing of the spectator through Farocki’s activating use of both soft and spatial montage. As a soldier states “Watson just got killed”, we simultaneously see the computer-generated Watson fall from the tank and be left behind as the tank drives away and the real-life Watson lean back in his seat with a defeated sigh.

 

Conclusion

 

The research in this dissertation concludes that the most potent impact of neoliberalism on the role of the moving image in postmodern warfare is the augmentation of its societally manipulative function. Through promotive representation of ideals that perpetuate the neoliberal agenda, such as attaching false morality to military campaigns or valorising particular character traits and gender subscriptions, the moving image is a vital tool in maintaining a weak, fragmented and conformable society. This is reinforced with the encouraged consumerism of the neoliberal era, which manifests in an abundance of personal screen-based possessions that maximise exposure and alter engagement with the moving image. Oversaturation of information and images of war and violence ultimately normalise the suffering of others through establishing a desensitised society.[15]  Persistent exposure to these images preserves the perception of constant, unstoppable war, which leads to a dangerous apathy. The influence of the internet and the democratisation of image-making technology has led to a multitude of platforms to access informative content and beneficially communicative moving image, but this inundation of information exacerbates distractibility and obscures qualifiable veracity. The distancing effect of perceiving images of war and violence on screens has enhanced alienation and decreased empathy with the civilians on the receiving end of the military aggressions of the Western powers. The separating effect of the screen, combined with the effective ‘Otherising’ in largely circulated productions such as American Sniper, sustains indifference to the suffering of those fictionally perceived as enemies. This perpetuates the neo-imperial north–south divide that is maintained by the cyclical relation of neoliberal globalisation and the hugely funded technologically advanced weaponry of the wealthy Western nations.

As distinction between government, business, and industry has dissipated into a multi-corporate, neoliberal miasma, it has become increasingly difficult to discern the invested motivations of moving images in any given context. Artist moving image is not immune to prejudiced funding through gallery ownerships and private cultural funding bodies that boast corporate and political affiliations. With neoliberal privatisation, more and more aspects of society are becoming corporately sponsored, from the images and information consumed daily to educational establishments and hospitals. This fully penetrative impact of neoliberalism has arguably lead to a self-fulfilling, cyclical momentum of the applied ideology facilitated by the power of the image, comparable to the notions in Guy Debord’s ‘The Society of the Spectacle’: “for what the spectacle expresses is the total practice of one particular economic and social formation; it is, so to speak, the formations agenda…the spectacle is essentially tautological, for the simple reason that its means and its ends are identical. It is the sun that never sets on the empire of modern passivity. It covers the entire globe, basking in the perpetual warmth of its own glory.”[16]

 

References

 

Boal, Iain A; Retort (Organisation), Afflicted powers: capital and spectacle in a new age of war, (London: Verso) (2005).

Boddy, Clive et al, ‘Extreme managers, extreme workplaces: Capitalism, organisations and corporate pyschopaths’, Organization 22:4 (2015).

Debord, Guy, The Society of the Spectacle (New York: Zone Books) (1994).

Elsaesser, Thomas, Harun Farocki: Working on the Sight-Lines, (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press) (2004).

Elwes, Catherine, Installation and the Moving Image, (London & New York: Wallflower Press)(2015).

Farocki, Harun & Silverman, Kaja, Speaking About Godard, (New York: New York University Press) (1998).

Fraser, Nancy , Fortunes of Feminism:  From Sate-Managed Capitalism to Neoliberal Crisis, (London: Verso) (2013).

Getino, Octavio & Solanas, Fernando, ‘Towards a Third Cinema’, Cineaste 4:3 (1970-71).

Gill, Rosalind, ‘Postfeminism Media Culture: Elements of a Sensibility’ European Journal of Cultural Studies 10:2 (2007).

Halle, Randall, ‘History Is Not a Matter of Generations: Interview with Harun Farocki’, Camera Obscura 16 (2001).

Kapur, Jyotsna & Wagner, Keith B. Ed, Neoliberalism and Global Cinema: Capital, Culture and Marxist Critique, (New York: London: Routledge) (2011).

Michalski, Milena& Gow, James, War, Image and Legitimacy: Viewing contemporary conflict, (London: Routledge) (2007).

Nayman, Adam, ‘Find Me Guilty: Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing’. Cinema Scope Magazine. http://cinema-scope.com/cinema-scope-magazine/24-find-me-guilty-joshua-oppenheimers-the-act-of-killing/ , date accessed 10 February 2016.

Oppenheimer, Joshua & Ten Brink, Joram ed., Killer Images: Documentary Film, Memory and the Performance of Violence, (London & New York: Wallflower Press) (2012).

Ranciere, Jacques, The Emancipated Spectator, (London: Verso) (2009).

Sontag, Susan, Regarding the Pain of Others, (London: Penguin Books) (2003).

Väliaho, Pasi, Biopolitical screens: image, power, and the neoliberal brain, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press) (2014).

 

Filmography

 

American Sniper (Clint Eastwood, 2014).

Images of the World and the Inscriptions of War (Harun Farocki, 1989).

Serious Games I-IV (Harun Farocki, 2010).

The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenhiemer, 2012).

The Look of Silence (Joshua Oppenhiemer, 2014).

Zero Dark Thirty, (Kathryn Bigelow, 2012).

 

 

[1] Kapur & Wagner, p.23.

[2]  Väliaho, Pasi, Biopolitical screens: image, power, and the neoliberal brain, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press) (2014) p.82.

[3] Boal, Iain A; Retort (Organisation), Afflicted powers: capital and spectacle in a new age of war, (London: Verso) (2005) pp.101-102.

[4] Fraser, Nancy, Fortunes of Feminism:  From Sate-Managed Capitalism to Neoliberal Crisis, (London: Verso) (2013) Part II, 6.

[5] Gill, Rosalind. ‘Postfeminism Media Culture: Elements of a Sensibility’ European Journal of Cultural Studies 10:2 (2007) pp.147 – 166.

[6] Michalski, Milena& Gow, James, War, Image and Legitimacy: Viewing contemporary conflict, (London: Routledge) (2007) p.46.

[7] Boddy, Clive et al. ‘Extreme managers, extreme workplaces: Capitalism, organisations and corporate pyschopaths’, Organization 22:4 (2015).

[8] Nayman, Adam, ‘Find Me Guilty: Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing’. Cinema Scope Magazine. http://cinema-scope.com/cinema-scope-magazine/24-find-me-guilty-joshua-oppenheimers-the-act-of-killing/ , date accessed 10 February 2016.

[9] Ranciere, Jacques, The Emancipated Spectator, (London: Verso) (2009) p.66.

[10] Elwes, Catherine, Installation and the Moving Image, (London & New York: Wallflower Press) (2015) p.146.

[11] Farocki, Harun & Silverman, Kaja, Speaking About Godard, (New York: New York University Press) (1998) p.142.

[12] Halle, Randall. ‘History Is Not a Matter of Generations: Interview with Harun Farocki’, Camera Obscura 16 (2001) p.55.

[13] Getino, Octavio & Solanas, Fernando. ‘ Towards a Third Cinema’, Cineaste 4:3 (1970-71) p.1.

[14]  Väliaho, p.41.

[15] Sontag, Susan, Regarding the Pain of Others, (London: Penguin Books) (2003) p.84.

[16] Debord, Guy, The Society of the Spectacle, (New York: Zone Books) (1994) p.6.

 

 

Technology and the War on Terror: Film and the Ambivalence of Transhumanism

Tatiana Prorokova

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 1, pp. 50-61.

 

Tatiana Prorokova

Philipps University of Marburg

 

Technology and the War on Terror:

Film and the Ambivalence of Transhumanism

 

 

Abstract:

 

The War on Terror declared by the U.S. government after 9/11 resulted in the two most technologically equipped invasions the country has ever launched: the Afghanistan War and the Iraq War. American soldiers were provided with newly designed uniforms and weapons, with the best defensive armour and night-vision equipment, off-road vehicles, helicopters, and tanks. These enabled them to dominate the enemy technologically and guaranteed success in combat, minimizing the risk of injury and death among Americans. Film responded to these changes, playing with the issue of technology in war. In analysing Bigelow’s war drama, The Hurt Locker, which focuses on U.S. military actions in Iraq, and Favreau’s sci-fi Iron Man, which raises the problem of Afghan terrorists and thus implicitly deals with the Afghanistan War, this article looks over the role of technology in war and investigates the blurred boundaries between humanity and machinery in the era of technology. Additionally, the article examines Bay’s Transformers and its sequels to see whether war machines possess humanity.

 

Key words: The War on Terror, technology, machine, transhumanism

 

 

Introduction: Film and the War on Terror

 

The terrifying terrorist attacks on 9/11 and the consequences they entailed have made the opening of the twenty-first century frightening and disquieting for the whole world—specifically for the United States. The U.S. government’s War on Terror has resulted in multiple military operations, the longest of which are the interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. The two wars in the Middle East can be considered a continuation of the long military history of the United States but, undoubtedly, they are especially noteworthy due to the novel techniques used in the conduct of warfare. The Afghanistan War and the Second Gulf War turned into the two most technologically advanced wars the United States has ever launched. Indeed, the variety and abundance of newly-designed uniforms, arms, equipment, gadgets, and vehicles strikes one’s imagination. The U.S. demonstrated its indisputable readiness to fight the enemy, thus avenging the deaths of thousands of innocent people on 9/11 and protecting the country’s foundational values of freedom and democracy. Whether these interventions were successful or worth it are complex questions, but one can say without demur that the United States counted on their soldiers’ obvious technological superiority over the enemy for the success of these military intrusions. As James S. Corum aptly puts it, “At the centre of modern U.S. military culture lies a belief in technological determinism: that technology is a central factor in warfare and that the country with the best technology is bound to win”; in terms of military planning, such an attitude is perhaps, as the scholar himself puts it, ‘wrong’.[1] Nevertheless, this idea vividly illustrates the so-called American cultural belief in the unconditional power of technology to guarantee unreserved superiority and dominance to its possessor.

American cinema is teeming with examples of this faith in technology—in its unlimited power and ability to defeat the enemy—no matter how strong, ruthless, and insidious that enemy may be. Whether one distinguishes between films about wars that actually took place and science-fiction films that depict endless fights between humanity and aliens, robots and monsters, or whether one considers the two genres together, taking war films in general as one broad media category, one can find multiple cinematic examples that appeared long before the War on Terror that deal with the issue of technology in war. There is obviously a long chain of sci-fi films: from James Cameron’s Aliens (1986) to James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984) to Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day (1996). Additionally, Hollywood dwelled on the importance of technology in films about real wars, which became especially prominent from the era of the Vietnam War onward, from Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) and Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987) to David O. Russell’s Three Kings (1999).

Technology has become an integral part of war: the battlefield is no longer considered the territory of humans as machines have started to play a significant role there, too. The two recent interventions in the Middle East, however, have clearly foregrounded the leading role of technology that, in turn, explains the impulse of the cinema of the War on Terror which unites films about the two wars with the sci-fi films that were released in the era of the War on Terror and to various degrees either explicitly or implicitly reflects it, showing the grotesque capabilities of technology in the twenty-first century. Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker (2008), Peter Berg’s Lone Survivor (2013), Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper (2014), along with Jon Favreau’s Iron Man (2008), Iron Man 2 (2010), Shane Black’s Iron Man 3 (2013), Michael Bay’s Transformers (2007), Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009), Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011), and Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014), Shawn Levy’s Real Steel (2011), Ridley Scott’s Prometheus (2012), Peter Berg’s Battleship (2012), and Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim (2013) constitute a cluster of films that celebrate the new warfare and the era of new military technology.

The reason for this overt interest in technology and its role in war that action films and war dramas demonstrate is stipulated by the transformed nature of war. The ‘new’ war of the twenty-first century is peculiar due to the existence of the so-called faceless enemy which has been an impossible target for the U.S. and its allies since 9/11. It is thus unsurprising that when dealing with the problem of the global war, cinema vehemently attempts to present possible solutions for winning the war and eradicating terrorism. What 9/11 films have explicitly demonstrated is that the enemy is so elusive and strong that to win the war U.S. soldiers have to be technologically transformed. In other words, humans can never win the war on their own—in the twenty-first century we particularly strongly need advanced technology. Advancing this idea, action, sci-fi, and war films challenge the concept of the human body, suggesting that the ‘normal’ body is no longer needed, for it is not capable of successfully performing a military task. While terrorists are portrayed, in some way, as ‘freaks’, which ‘assures spectators that terrorism can be overcome’,[2] positive characters frequently, literally or metaphorically appear as superheroes who have to ‘com[e] to terms with their abilities, powers and bodies.’[3] Andrew Schopp makes an interesting observation, claiming that 9/11 induced the belief that “risk must always be managed, even if at some level we know that such management is impossible”.[4] One, therefore, might argue that the new, technologically advanced soldier skilfully turns the ‘impossible’ mission into a real one and, what is even more important, an accomplishable task.

The cinema of the War on Terror thus proposes an intriguing shift that war demands: the transformation of human participants into machines. Being overtly transhuman in their nature, these films not only approve of ‘cyborgization’, i.e. the ‘process of changing a human into a cyborg’,[5] but they see it as the only option that is available for the military today. The demand for a so-called transhuman, i.e. ‘a being which due to technological augmentations boosts its body and mind abilities far beyond the standards’,[6] foregrounds the power of technology and sees it as the only means to win the War on Terror. Some more explicitly than others, the cinematic examples that this article analyses demonstrate a crucial shift in the image of a soldier/fighter, thus overtly commenting on the problem of humanity and machinery that exists in times of war. But most importantly, they question the ability of humans to defeat the enemy, celebrating the power of machines.

 

The Rise of Technology

 

When one talks about the predominance of technological progress in the twenty-first century, one should of course realize that technology appeared much earlier than in the time of the War on Terror. Significantly, starting from primitive technologies from the far past and finishing with the high technologies of today, technology has always given privileges to its owner, facilitating social, political, economic, and educational development. Thomas J. Misa draws attention to ‘the several technologically marked historical epochs, such as the Bronze Age . . . [and] the Iron Age’.[7] Indeed, technology emerged when the first metal tools were created and widely applied. With the lapse of time, technology was improved and refined to such an extent that it now defines the status of its possessor and dictates the order in the world both in terms of military and economic domination. Richard Li-Hua claims:

 

Technology means state power to both developing and developed countries. Technology is regarded as a strategic instrument in achieving economic targets and in the creation of wealth and prosperity in developing countries, while technology is taken as an important vehicle to get large profits in developed countries. The effective use of technology is perhaps the most important issue faced by both developing and developed countries, and will undoubtedly become even more critical in years to come.[8]

 

Technology is therefore equated with power, and vice versa. Analysing Paul Virilio’s War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception, Mark Lacy underscores a crucial observation made by the scholar:

 

Society is transformed by technologies that allow military leaders, police and policymakers to see the enemy before they arrive at the castle walls, before enemy ships arrive on the beaches, before the bombers arrive over our cities, before the terrorist arrives at the airport terminal.[9]

 

Daniel Sarewitz pinpoints the characteristic of technology as a manipulator and argues that “Power is the projection of human intent over other people, animals or things. Technology magnifies intent and makes it more reliable”.[10]

Yet, when considering the role of technology in war and its influence on modern warfare, it becomes clear that technology has stimulated progress on the battlefield, which allows one to define the war of the twenty-first century as a new, technologically advanced war that is more difficult to predict and at the same time easier yet harder to fight. Still, Sarewitz accentuates the ambivalence of the use of technology in war and the ultimate guarantee of superiority, accepting the idea of the ‘absolute supremacy in military technology’ of the U.S. as demonstrated in the Iraq War, but foregrounding the ambiguity of ‘the technology-power nexus’ and claiming that ‘the proximal objectives enabled by a technology—killing a soldier or destroying a building, for example—say little if anything about the power of that technology to facilitate broader outcomes, for example the compliance of one society to the will of another.’[11] Indeed, noticeable technological superiority on the battlefield may not and does not guarantee the same status in the political arena, yet it arguably plays in favour of the better-equipped side.

How does technology modernize war? Using the example of visual technology, Jose N. Vasquez contends that it ‘chang[es] the experience of war in dramatic ways’.[12] With the help of technology, soldiers are able to control the territory of the enemy and are more capable of protecting their own; they are able to fight at any time of the day and night, and they can reach the enemy from nearly every position—a feat which was hardly imaginable decades earlier. Vasquez speculates that “Conceptualized as ‘cyber warriors’, ‘cyborgs’, and ‘digital soldiers’, the futuristic war fighters once thought of as purely science fiction are gradually becoming reality”.[13] This fascinating observation prompts me to address the issues of humanity and machinery as well as their relations in the modern times of technology and war. Is the widespread dependence on technology in the army a sign of technological self-enslavement, and can this tendency be characterized by the assumption of Antoine Bousquet that the development and improvement of technology is “nothing less than an attempt to insulate the system from uncertainty by creating a perfectly controlled and perfectly stable . . . artificial world”?[14] Do soldiers turn into machines, thus becoming science-fiction superheroes in the real world? Can we speak about a phenomenon such as ‘human machines’ or does humanity remain important even in perhaps the most unattainable, unimaginable, equivocal, and savage state—in war?

 

Humans or Machines? The Hurt Locker and Iron Man

 

Who are the soldiers of the twenty-first century, humans or machines? And whose victory is ultimately expected? Film provides a detailed and fascinating overview of the issue. I would like to focus on Bigelow’s war drama The Hurt Locker, which deals with the actual war in Iraq and Favreau’s action film Iron Man, which touches upon the issue of the war in Afghanistan.

The opening scene of The Hurt Locker, which immerses the audience into the world of a technologically advanced war, is the most memorable. Spectators are forced to see the action through the eyes of a robot driving through a street in Baghdad. As the picture is distorted, we realize that it is not a soldier but a robot that provides the overview of the locality. The camera moves and reveals a unit of soldiers arriving and taking their positions and then returns to the robot, thus making it evident that the mechanical character is as important to the operation as the human soldiers. The picture is distorted several times more before the director reveals that the robot is operated by a soldier. With the help of the robot, the soldiers find out what kind of bomb is planted nearby, and therefore are able to plan their further actions. They fasten a small cart to the robot and send it back to the bomb but, dramatically, the cart breaks on its way, demonstrating the imperfection of technology, and a sapper has to continue carrying out the operation. The audience observes Staff Sergeant Matt Thompson (Guy Pearce) being dressed in a special suit designed to protect him from the blast wave. The camera lingers for an instant and, as soon as the helmet is on and carefully fixed, the soldier is ready to perform the mission. The scene is fascinating as it arguably raises the issue of the human and robotic characteristics of the modern soldier. The suit makes him look rather unnatural, as if he himself is another technological innovation of the U.S. army. As he raises his head to see a helicopter, the audience is forced to see through his eyes and although the picture is not as heavily distorted as it was in the scene filmed through the robot’s camera, there is still something that disturbs our vision, i.e. the helmet’s transparent plastic visor; although the visor allows us to see everything, it makes the picture blurry enough to realize that we are looking though a barrier and there is a black frame around our field of vision. The soldier, therefore, represents a human being locked inside a technological product; he becomes part of that technology—a robot that breathes. What makes the ‘robot’ ultimately a human is his dramatized death as the bomb is activated by one of the locals. Trying to escape the fatal ending, the soldier runs as fast as the suit allows him, but he is finally caught by the blast wave. As he falls down in slow motion, spectators notice the transparent part of the helmet covered with blood from the inside.

The soldier is substituted by a new sapper, which is a rather regular case in the army as newcomers take the places of those who die. However, such a ‘conveyer belt’ system allows for another interpretation, namely that just as a robot, machine, or gadget can break down and then be substituted, so can a human being, with the crucial difference that unlike a technological product, a human-being cannot be repaired. There are multiple scenes in the film where a new sapper deactivates a bomb, but I would like to underscore their importance to our understanding of the issue of humanity and machinery. The changing scenes—from the normal human interaction to the transformation of a soldier into a sapper who visually resembles a robot—are disturbing. Additionally, they reveal the ambiguity of the main character’s (Sergeant First Class William James, played by Jeremy Renner) nature. His fearlessness and calmness that often resemble indifference elevate him beyond an average human-being, thus hinting at his supernatural or hi-tech abilities that will allow him to stay alive, no matter what happens. At the same time, his care for a local boy as well as the presence of his wife and baby at the end of the film show James as a rather conventional human who has feelings. The film’s ending, however, contradicts this characterization as we observe smiling James in a sapper’s suit walking towards his next mission in Iraq, which he has volunteered for. He therefore gives up his ‘human’ life, choosing one enabled by technology. Thus, Bigelow’s words that The Hurt Locker reveals “dehumanising and humanising aspects of war” can, indeed, be interpreted in terms of the war and its constituent parts’ (one of which is undoubtedly technology) ability to not only control but also suppress the human side, turning soldiers into machines, both psychologically and physically.[15]

The story of Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), the main character of Iron Man, is somewhat reminiscent of the story of the sappers from The Hurt Locker. Considering the issue of the Afghanistan War and American participation in it, Iron Man is an apt example of an action film that explicitly deals with the duality of a war participant. Tony Stark, a wealthy businessman, creates an iron suit that he puts on every time the world is in danger. At the beginning, the film makes the story as plain as possible: there is a human-being inside of a highly technological, practically indestructible iron suit that accurately resembles the shape of a human body. Every time Tony communicates with somebody, he uncovers his face so that the audience is always aware that it is a human that interacts, takes decisions, argues, smiles, in short, performs all the actions that are typical of people. However, there is a nuance that is not to be neglected, namely that the suit is bonded to Tony (or is Tony bonded to the suit?) with the help of an electromagnet that was installed in Tony’s body when he was captured in Afghanistan, and later improved into a powerful reactor by Tony himself. What at first looks like Tony’s hobby later turns into an addiction that connects him and the suit so tightly that both the audience and Tony himself have difficulty distinguishing when Tony is a human and when he is a powerful superhero. Tony, whose high-tech weapons have guaranteed power and dominance to their possessors and fear to the ones at which they are targeted, now himself turns into such a high-tech weapon. Indeed, in the course of all the three parts of the film, Tony fights terrorists, criminals, and other bad guys, posing danger to them only when he is reincarnated as Iron Man.

In Iron Man 2, Tony goes as far as declaring: “I am Iron Man. The suit and I are one”.[16] Tony’s general condition, however, worsens as the suit negatively influences his health and it becomes clear that if Tony does not stop being Iron Man, he will simply die. The generator that is mounted right in his chest and that figuratively stands for the heart of Iron Man, is slowly killing Tony and, thus, Tony’s powerful second self. Therefore, the question of whether to remain as Iron Man or to return to ordinary life should be rather easy to settle in such a situation; Tony, however, tries to figure out a way to continue being a superhero. Although Tony’s human qualities (such as devotion, his desire to protect his dearest ones, his ability to love, his patriotism, and his decision not to speculate and purely gain profit from his arms business, but to care for the well-being others) construct Tony as a human superhero; his robotic side also gets a lot of attention. We often find him in his laboratory where he creates all kinds of technologically advanced gadgets and robots. The laboratory is literally the place where Tony feels at home, surrounded by all the iron constructions and creatures that communicate with him. Tony, therefore, is presented as someone who gets more and more involved in the world of technology, inevitably alienating himself from the world of humans.

Tony’s addiction to the iron suit strengthens in Iron Man 3, where virtually at the beginning of the film he feels a physical and emotional bond to it, suffering from ‘anxiety attacks’[17] any time he does not wear it and feeling comfortable and protected each time he is inside it. One can speculate that the reason for his fear of vulnerability is virtually a consequence of the events of The Avengers (2012), in which he was very nearly killed. Tony becomes even more involved in the world of machines that are, indeed, living creatures for him. Thus, we observe him placing the uncharged suit on the sofa in a way that he thinks the iron suit would find comfortable; showing compassion in the scene where a boy breaks off the suit’s finger, assuming that the suit can actually feel the pain. Tony stops sleeping, which represents his inconceivable physical endurance; he acknowledges that his suits are ‘part of’[18] him and, indeed, this is how he is finally perceived by his girlfriend Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), who, although struggling to accept the technological self of her boyfriend, upon finding the helmet, holds it close to herself thinking of Tony, as she assumes this is the only bit of him left after the brutal fight.

The Iron Man trilogy, therefore, is an important work that raises the questions of machinery and humanity in war. Unlike The Hurt Locker, however, it provides a radically different answer to the question: who wins? Tony Stark’s humanity apparently wins over the technological, mechanical self of Iron Man as, at the end of the third part, we observe Tony throwing his generator into the ocean, thus demonstrating his acceptance of humanity and rejection of the robotic side for good. The same happens to the U.S. army (that with Tony’s help became largely equipped with iron suits, turning into the most frightening army on the planet) when Tony takes the decision to liquidate all the robots that he created. Iron Man, therefore, makes a clear appeal to the audience: it is easy to fight against the enemy with the help of technology; however, it can also become our enemy as it deprives us of our humanity, turning us into machines that are not able to enjoy the privileges of human life.

 

Transformers: Humanity in Machines

 

Investigating the transformation of humans into machines, I inevitably address the opposite issue, namely whether machines in war can possess humanity. To examine the problem, I have chosen to analyse a recent series of films that are primarily concerned with machines, demonstrating the flourishing of the technological era and, as a result, of technological progress; the film series in question is Michael Bay’s Transformers and its sequels.

The four films released so far can and should be treated as one story of relations between robots and human-beings. The film’s most apparent message is that technology today is much cleverer, less biased, and somewhat more humane than humans themselves. The Autobots are arguably represented as the only truly good characters in the film (perhaps with the exception of a small group of people that includes Sam (Shia LaBeouf) and his friends). Their reason for being on Earth is to protect the human race from the evil Decepticons. They exist as a small group of robots that resembles a family in which everyone is ready to help, protect, and care for each other. More than that, their desire to save people (who in the course of the film do not seem to be very thankful for this, preferring to exploit the robots rather than treat them as equals or accept their technological superiority) stands for the robots’ ability to feel love, devotion, responsibility, and compassion. There are a number of scenes in the film when, by means of contrasting a robot and a human, the director shows a tremendous difference between the two, accentuating humanity in robots and a certain inhumanity in a humans. For example, in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, we witness an Autobot pining because his friend Sam has to leave him to go to college, whereas later in the scene, Sam fails to say, ‘I love you’[19] to his girlfriend, which provokes a tense dialogue between the two. Thus, it is easier for a robot to express emotions rather than for a human.

All the robots in Transformers and its sequels represent a specific race—a race of ‘intelligent mechanical beings’[20], as they call themselves. Indeed, their intellect and thinking abilities are striking, but what is more fascinating is their uncanny resemblance to the human race. First, the robots look very similar to humans: they have a body, limbs, a head, and a face. The robots are not clumsy despite their huge size; when they fight, they can literally feel pain; when they get a punch in the face, they spit out liquid that looks very much like a mixture of blood and spit; as mentioned earlier, they can cry; they also can propagate, as we witness in a scene in which multiple cocoons are revealed; finally, robots grow old and suffer from typically human health problems. Their inner qualities are peculiar too: the robots are humanly superior, as unlike people they all possess moral qualities and very often are shown judging humans, making them behave and act better. “It’s inhumane is what it is!”[21] complains a robot that Sam locked outside in the rain. Indeed, according to Transformers, these are machines that possess humanity, whereas human beings do not.

This interpretation, however, may change dramatically if we consider Terence McSweeney’s suggestion that Transformers is a vivid projection of 9/11 in which the Decepticons stand for real terrorists.[22] In this case, the Autobots represent humans who fight against terrorists. But then it remains unclear who the real people in Transformers are. Therefore, I propose examining the film not as a pure metaphor of the world after 9/11, but in terms of its treatment of technological progress. In this case, the film sends a clear message that machines could develop into such highly intelligent creatures that they will become more perfect than humans in all aspects.

 

Conclusion: Humans. Or Machines?

 

In a time of high-tech wars, the question whether humanity and machinery have become equal or whether one prevails over the other remains a complex issue. Despina Kakoudaki interprets “the tendency to imagine the artificial body as a mechanical, rather than organic, entity” in terms of neutralization of ‘human vulnerability’.[23] Arguably, this is a pivotal aspect to consider when dealing with the issues of humanity and machinery. Vulnerability, or perhaps also victimization, therefore, are not to be treated as purely physical aspects (although they are, indeed, here); as The Hurt Locker, the Iron Man trilogy and the Transformers series illustrate, emotions are one of the most crucial characteristics that define humanity. Thus, those who can feel are considered humane whether or not they are humans or machines. Technological progress, indeed, changes humans. While technology develops into more and better products, humans transform as well. The complexity of the issue will hardly ever allow anybody to provide a single answer to the problem of humanity and machinery. The analysed cinematic examples, however, do not give up on the human race, but underline the difficulty of remaining true humans in the era of technology.

 

References

 

Bousquet Antoine, The Scientific Way of Warfare: Order and Chaos on the Battlefields of Modernity, (London: Hurst & Company) (2009).

Corum James S., Fighting the War on Terror: A Counterinsurgency Strategy, (St. Paul: MBI Publishing and Zenith Press) (2007).

Holden Lisa, and Fran Pheasant-Kelly, “Freak-Show Aesthetics and the Politics of Disfigurement: Reconfiguring the Cinematic Terrorist in the Post-9/11 Era”, in Reflecting 9/11: New Narratives in Literature, Television, Film and Theatre, ed. Heather E. Pope and Victoria M. Bryan (New Castle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing) (2016).

Iron Man (Jon Favreau, Paramount Pictures) (2008).

Iron Man 2 (Jon Favreau, Paramount Pictures) (2010).

Iron Man 3 (Shane Black, Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures) (2013).

Kakoudaki Despina, Anatomy of a Robot: Literature, Cinema, and the Cultural Work of Artificial People, (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press) (2014).

Lacy Mark, Security, Technology and Global Politics: Thinking with Virilio, (London: Routledge) (2014).

Li-Hua Richard, “Definitions of Technology”, in A Companion to the Philosophy of Technology, ed. Jan Kyrre Berg Olsen, Stig Andur Pedersen, and Vincent F. Hendricks (Malden: Blackwell Publishing) (2009).

McSweeney Terence, The ‘War on Terror’ and American Film: 9/11 Frames per Second, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press) (2014).

Michalczak Rafał, “Transhuman and Posthuman – On Relevance of ‘Cyborgisation’ on Legal and Ethical Issues”, 25th IVR World Congress Law Science and Technology, Paper Series 084: C (2012).

Misa Thomas J., “History of Technology”, in A Companion to the Philosophy of Technology. ed. Jan Kyrre Berg Olsen, Stig Andur Pedersen, and Vincent F. Hendricks (Malden: Blackwell Publishing) (2009).

Purse Lisa, Contemporary Action Cinema, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press) (2011).

Sarewitz Daniel, “Technology and Power”, in A Companion to the Philosophy of Technology, ed. Jan Kyrre Berg Olsen, Stig Andur Pedersen, and Vincent F. Hendricks (Malden: Blackwell Publishing) (2009).

Schopp Andrew, “Interrogating the Manipulation of Fear: V for Vendetta, Batman Begins, Good Night, and Good Luck, and America’s ‘War on Terror”, in The War on Terror and American Popular Culture: September 11 and Beyond, ed. Andrew Schopp and Matthew B. Hill (Madison: Rosemont Publishing) (2009).

Tasker Ivonne, The Hollywood Action and Adventure Film, (Chichester: Wiley Blackwell) (2015).

The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow, Summit Entertainment) (2008).

Transformers (Michael Bay, Paramount Pictures) (2007).

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (Michael Bay, Paramount Pictures) (2009).

Transformers: Dark of the Moon (Michael Bay, Paramount Pictures) (2011).

Transformers: Age of Extinction (Michael Bay,Paramount Pictures) (2014).

Vasquez Jose N., “Seeing Green: Visual Technology, Virtual Reality, and the Experience of War”, in An Anthropology of War: Views from the Frontline, ed. Alisse Waterston (New York: Berghahn Books) (2009).

 

 

[1] James S. Corum, Fighting the War on Terror: A Counterinsurgency Strategy, (St. Paul: MBI Publishing and Zenith Press) (2007). p. 117.

[2]Lisa Holden, and Fran Pheasant-Kelly, “Freak-Show Aesthetics and the Politics of Disfigurement: Reconfiguring the Cinematic Terrorist in the Post-9/11 Era”, in Reflecting 9/11: New Narratives in Literature, Television, Film and Theatre, ed. Heather E. Pope and Victoria M. Bryan (New Castle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2016), p. 200.

[3] Ivonne Tasker, The Hollywood Action and Adventure Film, (Chichester: Wiley Blackwell) (2015). p. 180. My italics.

[4] Andrew Schopp, “Interrogating the Manipulation of Fear: V for Vendetta, Batman Begins, Good Night, and Good Luck, and America’s ‘War on Terror”, in The War on Terror and American Popular Culture: September 11 and Beyond, ed. Andrew Schopp and Matthew B. Hill (Madison: Rosemont Publishing, 2009), p. 261.

 

[5] Rafał Michalczak, “Transhuman and Posthuman – On Relevance of ‘Cyborgisation’ on Legal and Ethical Issues”, 25th IVR World Congress Law Science and Technology, Paper Series 084: C (2012), p. 2.

[6] Rafał Michalczak., p. 4.

[7] Thomas J. Misa, “History of Technology”, in A Companion to the Philosophy of Technology, ed. Jan Kyrre Berg Olsen, Stig Andur Pedersen, and Vincent F. Hendricks (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2009), p. 9.

[8] Richard Li-Hua, “Definitions of Technology”, in A Companion to the Philosophy of Technology, ed. Jan Kyrre Berg Olsen, Stig Andur Pedersen, and Vincent F. Hendricks (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2009), p. 18.

[9] Mark Lacy, Security, Technology and Global Politics: Thinking with Virilio, (London: Routledge) (2014), p. 79.

[10] Daniel Sarewitz, “Technology and Power”, in A Companion to the Philosophy of Technology, ed. Jan Kyrre Berg Olsen, Stig Andur Pedersen, and Vincent F. Hendricks (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2009), p. 308.

[11] Daniel Sarewitz, pp. 309-310.

[12] Jose N. Vasquez, “Seeing Green: Visual Technology, Virtual Reality, and the Experience of War”, in An Anthropology of War: Views from the Frontline, ed. Alisse Waterston (New York: Berghahn Books, 2009), p. 87.

[13] Jose N. Vasquez, pp. 88-89.

[14] Antoine Bousquet, The Scientific Way of Warfare: Order and Chaos on the Battlefields of Modernity, (London: Hurst & Company) (2009), p. 11.

[15] Quoted in Lisa Purse, Contemporary Action Cinema, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press) (2011), p. 162.

[16] Iron Man 2 (2010, Jon Favreau).

[17] Iron Man 3 (2013, Shane Black).

[18] Iron Man 3 (2013, Shane Black).

[19] Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009, Michael Bay).

[20] Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011, Michael Bay).

[21] Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011, Michael Bay).

[22] Terence McSweeney, The ‘War on Terror’ and American Film: 9/11 Frames per Second, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press) (2014), p. 139.

[23] Despina Kakoudaki, Anatomy of a Robot: Literature, Cinema, and the Cultural Work of Artificial People, (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press) (2014), p. 69.

Unseen war? Hackers, tactical media, and their depiction in Hollywood cinema

Marta Stańczyk

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 1, pp. 62-77.

Marta Stańczyk

Jagiellonian University

 

 

Unseen war? Hackers, tactical media, and their depiction in Hollywood cinema

 

 

The geeks have emerged in politics.
(Tim Jordan, Activism! Direct Action, Hacktivism and the Future of Society)

The feelings of vulnerability, fear of the unknown, and embarrassment that feed the hysterical reaction to hackers also lead to the fetishizing of hackers in popular culture.
(Tor Ekeland, Hacker Madness)

Abstract

 

Emerging controversies about WikiLeaks’ contribution to Donald Trump’s electoral triumph and the ongoing persona-non-grata status of Edward Snowden highlight the notion of hacking in the modern world. Hackers used to be dualistically stereotyped on one hand as black hats, criminals and cyberpunk/cypherpunk hidden figures, and on the other as whistle-blowers, open access activists and hacktivists whose actions are potentially subversive. Film coverage of hackers and their tactics shows a paranoid and militarized vision of the world, with grey eminence often depicted either as a threat, or as survivors. Hence, from WarGames (1983, John Bedham), TRON (1982, Steven Lisberger) and Hackers (1995, Iain Softley) to The Fifth Estate (2013, Bill Condon), Live Free or Die Hard (2007, Len Wiseman) to Jason Bourne (2016, Paul Greengrass), hacking seems to have emerged as the avant-garde of militarized social space—as its main weapon and fundamental defence. Pop culture feeds itself with this ambiguity as long as it accommodates the dualistic needs of its receivers: a countercultural anti-hero becomes a scapegoat while a general sense of insecurity predominates. Distrust in technology and underground experts is simultaneous with redemption narratives about disclosing corporate/state/elite conspiracies and is heavily influenced by current non-cinematic events. This paper is an examination of hackers’ cultural impact and their connection with tactical media through subversive actions. It becomes essential to decode their manipulated or simplified public image, especially with ongoing progressive politicization of hacking and its significance.

 

Key words: electronic civil disobedience, hack, hacker, hacktivism, tactical media

 

 

Introduction

 

Surfacing controversies about WikiLeaks’ contribution to Donald Trump’s electoral triumph, the commuting of Chelsea Manning’s sentence, or the ongoing Edward Snowden’s persona-non-grata status highlight the notion of hacking in the modern world. Hackers were stereotyped as black hats, criminals, and cyberpunk hidden figures for a long time, until the media and popular culture emphasized the potential subversiveness in their actions as whistle-blowers and free software and open source (FOSS) activists. Nowadays, on the one hand, they more often tend to be depicted as the last men standing; maybe antisocial, but driven by the virtuous ideological motives of a desire for justice, patriotism, anti-globalist protests, a sense of freedom, etc. On the other hand, with their excellent coding abilities, they are a part of information warfare (IW), threatening the inner harmony of social life and protecting citizens’ privacy. Film coverage of hackers and their tactics redistributes a paranoid and militarized vision of the world, with hidden figures often depicted either as a potential threat, or as survivors; either as a weapon in the fight against plutocracy, or as a technocratic nightmare.

“Hackers induce hysteria. They are the unknown, the terrifying, the enigma. The enigma that can breach and leak the deepest secrets (…). You feel vulnerable and it feels as though what happened is black magic”[1]; this quotation shows that the elaborate nature of hacking practice can cause its pathologization and even demonization. Rejecting such a perspective, this paper tries to locate hackers in a more neutral, objective discourse and to decode the biased opinions which fuel cinematic depictions of programmers pushing back the frontiers of technology. My case studies of movies together with real events and their media coverage are influenced especially by Tim Jordan’s research on hacker culture, community, ethics, and political agenda. He describes hacking as the act of computer intrusion, but he simultaneously accentuates that this intrusion does not have criminal motivations—its core is a tech-savviness. A good hack is original and autonomous; an activity is more important than the results, it extends the regular computer usage and is made in a joyful atmosphere, but “[h]acking has become associated in the mass media with illicit computer intrusion rather than with innovative uses of technology. This has led to the definition of cracking, a term many hackers use to refer to unwanted entry into computer systems by explorers or criminals”.[2] This differentiation has led Jordan to distinguish three fundamental notions about hacking: “there is the hacker who breaks into computer systems; the hackers who write software; and hacking as the essence of twenty-first century creativity”.[3]

Today hacking is often more of a cultural than a technological asset; it “is the way of understanding what is possible, sensible, and ethical in the twenty-first century”[4], therefore it becomes essential to decode its manipulated or simplified public image, especially with the ongoing progressive politicization of hackers and their significance. First of all, they are treated as a threat to social and private security due to the state engagement of hackers in cyberwar, IW and the sabotaging of other countries. Secondly, their actions are legally prohibited. Thirdly, hacking is by nature political due to its subversive use of media and reversing of power relations. And finally, hackers increasingly frequent collaboration with social activism has initiated hacktivism; hacking “turns into a form of ‘warfare’ (…) hackers engage in to advance their political agendas”.[5] Jordan describes hacktivists as “political activists, most often associated with the alter-globalisation movement, who utilize hacking techniques to create grassroots activist political campaigns. Hacktivists produce both ephemeral electronic civil disobedience actions (…) and try to create infrastructures of secure anonymous communication often to support human rights workers”.[6] So, hackers can be both agents of difference and change, and criminally-inclined “black hats” or crackers. Moreover, Hollywood cinema accentuates the tension between cyberterrorism and hacktivism; narratives fluctuate from these taking advantage of the militarization of cyberspace and paranoiac spirits (especially since 9/11) to redemptive ones that disclose corporate/state/elite conspiracies. Hence (cinematic) hacking seems to emerge as the avant-garde of militarized social space, its main weapon, and a fundamental defence. Pop culture feeds itself with this ambiguity as long as it accommodates the dualistic needs of its audience—a countercultural anti-hero becomes a scapegoat while a general sense of insecurity predominates.[7]

 

They’re stealing the Internet![8]

 

Hacking culture emerged in the 60s within American universities, but only two decades later did cinema find a formula for depicting computer geeks. In the 80s—with its hi-tech excitement, youth culture, and popularity of the IBM PC and other technological gadgets (e.g. the fetishized Power Glove[9])—the faith in information technology’s limitless potential and the sense of overriding fun were all-pervading. Although in Superman 3 (1983, Richard Lester), a hacker constructed a supercomputer in order to defeat the protagonist, coding had previously been used primarily as a tool of entertainment for movie characters (Revenge of the Nerds [1984, Jeff Kanew]; Weird Science [1985, John Hughes]). In TRON (1982, Steven Lisberger) Master Control’s predatory needs were justified by the real-life villain’s greed and in Electric Dreams (1984, Steve Barron) the PC and the protagonist were rivals over a woman. Even in WarGames (1983, John Badham) a military central computer appeared to be not maleficent but wrongly programmed. However, these optimistic narratives simplified hacking itself, presenting it as a movie gimmick rather than a process requiring professional skills. Depictions of hacking in 80s Hollywood cinema were often misunderstood and misleading. Repeating a random command such as “Access database” seemed to be sufficient for breaking into any system, thus making coding skills redundant.[10]

In the 90s modern angst emerged. There were still some gimmick hacks (as in Jurassic Park [1993, Steven Spielberg] or Universal Soldier: The Return [1999, Mic Rodgers][11]), sci-hack flicks (the absurd The Lawnmower Man [1992, Brett Leonard]) and genre recreation of hacking motives (for example, the corporate thriller The Net [1995, Irwin Winkler], comedy Office Space [1999, Mike Judge], and heist movie Sneakers [1992, Phil Alden Robinson]), but some Baudrillardist movies were indicative of the sense of paranoia: Johnny Mnemonic (1995, Robert Longo), The Thirteenth Floor (1999, Josef Rusnak) and especially The Matrix trilogy (1999, 2003 and 2003, The Wachowskis). Hackers began to be perceived as a threat for common citizens whose lives were affected by information technology to the point where it became an immanent element of their day-to-day reality. The Ashley Madison data breach,[12] the Sony Pictures Entertainment hack,[13] Silk Road’s embezzlement,[14] or Celebgate[15] all are scandals which undermined cybersecurity and net neutrality.

Hackers—although they should be called crackers for their criminal inclinations— occurred as hidden figures thinking only about their profits and capitalizing on their digital supremacy by preying on the malfunctions of omnipresent technology. Moreover, cybercrime gangs and state-backed hackers[16] joined the information warfare (which is defined as a “conflict or struggle between two or more groups in the information environment”[17]). In the case of cyberwarfare particularly, computers and networks are main targets and are struck by cyberattacks, espionage (depicted and revealed in Snowden [2016, Oliver Stone] or Jason Bourne [2016, Paul Greengrass]), sabotage (the disruption of equipment which is shown in Live Free or Die Hard [2007, Len Wiseman] among others), or DDoS attacks (the Distributed Denial-of-Service attacks that finds their most iconic representation in Hackers [1995, Iain Softley]). In 2009, President Barack Obama declared America’s digital infrastructure to be a “strategic national asset”.[18] On the one hand, cyberwar is often safer and reduces losses in people and infrastructure, as was the case of the American attacks on Iraqi communications networks in the Gulf War. On the other hand, it encourages illegal actions. During the aforementioned war, Dutch hackers stole information about U.S. troop movements from U.S. Defense Department computers and tried to sell it to the Iraqis, who thought it was a hoax and turned it down. Nowadays such an offer would be taken more seriously. Other threats are for example viruses and worms such as the infamous Stuxnet, “the world’s first digital weapon”,[19] which installed a rootkit on Windows OS. This was later believed to be an effect of American-Israeli cooperation against Iran’s nuclear facilities.[20] As Eugene Kaspersky, founder of Kaspersky Lab, said, “[t]he term ‘cyber-war’ is used by many to describe the situation, but that term—which implies that there are two equal, known enemies duking it out—is outmoded. With today’s attacks, you are clueless about who did it or when they will strike again. It’s not cyber-war, but cyberterrorism”.[21]

The threat seems ominous; therefore, in this situation hackers have commonly been criminalized, especially after the September 11 attacks, when the sense of paranoia became predominant. “Since 9/11, however, many liberal democratic states around the world have adopted legislation that ‘…paves the way for a far more permissive environment for electronic surveillance…’, and the online surveillance of activist communities as a way of policing social movements and stifling political protest is a growing concern for activists under traditionally repressive regimes and in Western democracies alike.”[22] The persecution of hackers, for example Fidel Salinas[23] and Jeremy Hammond[24], or Barack Obama’s attitude towards Edward Snowden show a state-based hysteria about any hack regardless of its motivations.[25] But whistle-blowers and hacktivists undermine the social trust in law and order, exposing state and media misuses: infiltration, invigilation, gatekeeping and hacking itself.[26] Moreover, as is written on the “Exposing the Invisible” webpage, “[p]eople are newly empowered to uncover hidden information, expose corruption and bring the truth to light”,[27] taking advantage of their anonymity and subverting power relations.

 

Hack the planet!

 

Hackers are often more socially accepted, as represented by the popularization of hacking conferences (H.O.P.E., DefCon), makerspaces, Hackathons and the Internet Protection Movement. There are even training courses for hackers that end with the certificate of Ethical Hackers.[28] FOSS’ flagship products—Firefox and GNU/Linux—“have both significant symbolic effects (in providing the ability of FOSS methods to create complex, stable programs) and market effects (providing significant alternatives of quality and freedom to commercial dominance)”.[29] Hackers engage themselves in fighting for social change not only through free software and open source principles The threat posed on the digital freedom was an inspiration for acts of electronic civil disobedience (ECD).[30] More and more social activists appropriate the tactical media manifesto written by Geert Lovink: “Tactical media are media of crisis, criticism and opposition. This is both the source [of] their power, (‘anger is an energy’: John Lydon), and their limitation. Their typical heroes are the activist, nomadic media warriors, the prankster, the hacker, the street rapper, the camcorder kamikaze; they are the happy negatives, always in search of an enemy. (…) [C]onsumers use the texts and artefacts that surround us (…) ‘tactically’. That is, in far more creative and rebellious ways than had previously been imagined.”[31]

Hacktivism can be understood as “activism! running free in the electronic veins that enliven our 21st-century, global socio-economies”.[32] Digitally-founded social actions are “a qualified form of humanism”[33] and they aim to create the space for “netizens”,[34] nevertheless hacking is conducted mainly by people with excellent coding skills who try to inspire social change by translating political thought into code. The most notorious groups in the United States are Anonymous and LulzSec. Julian Assange has been posting classified documents on WikiLeaks to call for “privacy of the weak, transparency for the powerful”.[35] In 1996, the Critical Art Ensemble recognized the politicization of cybersphere. In 1998, the Electronic Disturbance Theatre shared FloodNet, which was a tool enabling acts of (electronic) civil disobedience. And in 1999, the CULT OF THE DEAD COW (cDc) launched the Hacktivismo group, whose main goal was fighting for access to information as an expression of human rights. The group explained their mission in “The Hacktivismo Declaration” and “The Hacktivismo FAQ”. A few paragraphs from the latter should be evoked here as a representative of hactivists’ goals and hacker culture:

Q: What do you mean by the word “hacktivism”, then?

A: The provenance of hacktivism winds back to Omega – a longstanding member of the cDc – who started using it as a joke to describe on-line protest actions. Oxblood appropriated the word and began using it with a straight face; then many journalists, fading stars of the Left, and eventually script kiddies picked up on it, all claiming to know what hacktivism meant. It has been a noun in search of a verb for some time now. Oxblood once defined hacktivism as “an open-source implosion”, and now he’s added “disruptive compliance” to its range of description.

Q: What the hell are you talking about? I’m just looking for a simple answer here.

A: Hold your kimono, cupcake. O.K., hacktivism is the use of technology to advance human rights through electronic media.[36]

This short excerpt from cDc’s FAQ emphasizes not only the mission and motivations of Hacktivismo and similar groups, but also their slightly anarchistic, ironic style, anonymity linked with peer recognition and alternate, partly hidden communicating platforms such as IRC. It is the “performance of technology”[37] that interested the movie industry. Hacking has an allure which spread not only among whitehats involved in cybersecurity or computer geeks, but also film producers. However, hackers are still stereotyped and treated as public enemies because of their abilities, common illicitness and anonymity symbolized by Guy Fawkes’ mask.

 

Hollywood OS: bio-digital jazz[38]

 

“Most hackers do it for the challenge, thrill, and social fun. (…) [I]t [hacker culture] reconfigures technology and social relations by subverting the rules, laws, and social norms regarding the use of technology. It works in opposition to monopolistic, capitalist, statist regulation and perception of the new technologies.”[39] Hacker culture, while maybe not as cyberpunk or cypherpunk as in Hackers, has risen from a vivacious cleverness and striving for intellectual challenges amongst students, especially from MIT. The Social Network (2010, David Fincher) is a contemporary movie that redistributes that sense of adventurous experiments with emerging technology. Hackers have their ethics inspired by the notions of information sharing, freedom of inquiry, unlimited availability of (digital) tools and democratic ideals, in sheer opposition to cybercrimes, cracking, and all black hat activities.[40] Simultaneously, media depictions of hacking are frequently unjust, although not always deliberately.

As Cory Doctorow from MIT Media Lab points out: “[t]he persistence until now [until the premiere of Mr. Robot, 2015–, series – M.S.] of what the geeks call ‘Hollywood OS,’ in which computers do impossible things just to drive the plot, hasn’t just resulted in bad movies. It’s confused people about what computers can and can’t do. (…) The worst thing about WarGames [in which a teenager broke into NORAD’s mainframe, nearly causing a nuclear escalation – M.S.] – and its most profound legacy – was the reaction of panicked lawmakers. (…) The CFAA took an exceptionally broad view of what constitutes criminal ‘hacking,’ making a potential felon out of anyone who acquires unauthorized access to a computer system”.[41] Stephanie Schulte says that “the release of the film ‘WarGames’ helped merge Cold War anxieties with those involving teenage rebellion”.[42] Relatively soon after its premiere, public opinion, IT specialists and lawyers were surprised by the so-called Morris worm (1988), but this was cinema itself that strengthened law related to cybercrimes, causing penalisation (and even criminalisation) of young programmers—as was evident during the Obama administration—and had its peak in Aaron Swartz’s suicide after he was charged with thirteen felonies, the result of using his own script to download files from the JSTOR repository.[43]

Swartz’s story was depicted emphatically in The Internet’s Own Boy (2014, Brian Knappenberger). Modern documentaries are actually very committed to legitimatising hackers’ actions, but mainstream Hollywood cinema is still abundant in iniquitous representations. Hack flicks distort the image of hackers, their personality and hacking itself, which is reduced to fast typing and simply playing a game (Hackers, TRON, or Masterminds [1997, Roger Christian]). Hackers use multiple windows whose abundance is representative of the hacker’s skills; they talk with personified viruses,[44] they give nonsense explanations in which they merge random parts of IT vernacular[45] when locked in their mother’s basement with a myriad of screens, wires and bobbleheads (provoking wisecrack comments from the old guard, like John McClane in Live Free or Die Hard). The sole process of hacking is compressed and reduced to erratic typing from which multidimensional visual data or Nmap graphics emerge in order to cover the boring truth about the nature of coding. Hollywood representations eliminate not only the wearisome writing of lines of illegible code, but also software and hardware parameters or social engineering that are necessary to gain access to most accounts. Hackers are not modern sorcerers, although their depictions show the contrary. One of the most frequent and absurd sentences in hack flicks is “Hack the mainframe!”[46], hackers have supernatural computer intuition (as Stanley in Swordfish [2001, Dominic Sena]) and they are often vindictive masterminds (which is the case of Skyfall [2012, Sam Mendes], Untraceable [2008, Gregory Hoblit], GoldenEye [1995, Martin Campbell], Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol [2011, Brad Bird] and so on). And even if they are shown in a more psychologically-motivated way, filmmakers annihilate realism with a high level of aestheticization. For example, in Takedown (2000, Joe Chappelle) the process of hacking is shown through multiple exposures in which the protagonist is merely engulfed by code. Similar poetics are used in Hackers, in which film characters’ faces are changed into screens with mathematical equations on them. The film adds to that the transformation of New York into optical fibres and an embodied virus that is a half-naked man with long hair. And while Blackhat (2015, Michael Mann) tries to show code’s architecture through a simple figuration of links, wires, optical fibres and electrical impulses, TRON and TRON: Legacy (2010, Joseph Kosinsky) create autonomous worlds on the grid where duels, races and power games take place. No wonder Mr. Robot, with its social engineering, legitimate use of IT tools and jargon (ShellShock bug, onion routing, tor networking, rootkit, etc.), or accurate representations of hacker culture (more realistic and down-to-earth than the cyberpunk universe developed in Hackers) has gained words of approval not merely from critics, but also from programmers, cybersecurity professionals, and even Anonymous.[47]

The image of computers as black boxes or magical crates is dangerous [48] and leaves viewers awed when confronted with someone who recognizes deep technological structures, especially in the age of total digitalization and web 2.0. Hackers could be depicted in an even more “analogue” way—as they are in heist movies (Sneakers, The Italian Job [2003, F. Gary Gray], Swordfish, or Coin Heist [2017, Emily Hagins]), where they are often only a small part of crooks’ operations—but the black hat image remains. Hackers as antisocial, alienated, predominantly male[49] hidden figures seem to threaten society with their menacing invisibility and immanence (related to technological immanence itself). People’s privacy is identified as being most vulnerable to cyber activity; hence the popularity of ghost hacking’s motive has risen, resulting in such movies as Ghost in the Shell (1995, Mamoru Oshii, and 2017, Rupert Sanders), Inception (2011, Christopher Nolan), Source Code (2011, Duncan Jones) or even The Lawnmower Man and Johnny Mnemonic. The whistle-blowers’ activities which exposed many state or corporate abuses of privacy were a turning point in the social image of hackers, or rather hacktivists. Their pursuit of their own vision of justice, patriotism (as shown by Oliver Stone in Snowden) and freedom has gained them support as watchmen and as the last men standing.

Hackers with their subversive potential have become pop cultural icons, as is apparent in their biopics and cameos. Steve Jobs and Silicon Valley’s moguls are not the only epitome of information technology because filmmakers depict net activists juxtaposing the open source movement[50] with the corporate establishment. Takedown tells the story of Kevin Mitnick. Although based on a book by Tsutomu Shimomura, Mitnick’s main antagonist in real life, the hacker is shown ambiguously. This more understanding perspective was inspired by another book, The Fugitive Game by Jonathan Littman. Shimomura and Mitnick are shown as equal in skills and means, but with different goals. The first works for big corporations as a cybersecurity specialist, while the latter, although intrusive and invasive to the privacy of others, fights for freedom of information. The real Mitnick refused to acknowledge his crime as cracking and rather think of it as the effect of social engineering. He is now a white hat, a security consultant and pop cultural icon (appearing in Emmanuel Goldstein’s documentary Freedom Downtime (2004) and Werner Herzog’s documentary Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World (2016) or as the inspiration for the main protagonist of the comic book Wizzywig). Edward Snowden (Snowden, Citizenfour [2014, Laura Poitras]) or Julian Assange (Australian Underground: The Julian Assange Story [2012, Robert Connolly], The Fifth Estate [2013, Bill Condon]) are other heroes of public interest who are followed by (for the time being, only in documentaries) stories about such hacktivists as Jeremy Hammond, Aaron Swartz and so on. Even without any real characters, movies recreate Zeitgeist, conspiracy theories, the sense of living in a tech-illusion, or just a deep contempt for the unseen mechanisms elaborated by corporations or states. It remains valid regardless of narrative structure. Popular types of characters include programmers and hackers working in big, exploiatative companies (e.g. Antitrust [2001, Peter Howitt]),[51] disadvantaged rebels using computer skills as their only weapon against elites (e.g. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo [2011, David Fincher]), people treated as a tool in cybermanipulations and living in dystopias blurring the line between reality and VR (e.g. The Matrix trilogy but also the less obvious One Point O [2004, Jeff Renfroe, Marteinn Thorsson] and the already mentioned TV series Mr. Robot[52]).

Another popular narrative arc is old versus new, in which the old guard that can be called ‘a Timex watch in a digital age’, is confronted with digital era challenges. But this conflict is artificial and maybe even vaguely compensating. Popular culture has begun to acknowledge the omnipresence of hacking and put it in the context of warfare. Unseen war is not only the set of tactics related to IW: nowadays hackers are a synecdoche of socio-political conflicts and predominant power dynamics.

 

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[1] Tor Ekeland, “Hacker Madness”, Limn 8 (2017), https://limn.it/hacker-madness/, date accessed: 22 July 2017.

[2] Tim Jordan, Activism! Direct Action, Hacktivism and the Future of Society, (London: Reaktion Books) (2002), p. 120.

[3] Tim Jordan, “Hacking and power: Social and technological determinism in the digital age”, First Monday, 14:7 (2009), http://firstmonday.org/article/viewArticle/2417/2240, date accessed: 22 July 2017.

[4] Tim Jordan, Hacking: Digital Media and Technological Determinism, (Cambridge–Malden: Polity Press) (2008), p. 1.

[5] Annika Richterich, Karin Wenz, “Introduction: Making and Hacking”, Digital Culture & Society 3:1 (2017), p. 8.

[6] Tim Jordan (2009).

[7] This article describes Hollywood cinema and American cases of hacking due to the range of the phenomenon, but other countries with notorious hackers recreate their stories in pop culture, e.g. 23 (1998, Hans-Christian Schmid) and Who Am I. No System Is Safe (2014, Baran bo Odar) succeeded in German box office and Deutschland 83 (2015–) is a national TV hit due to the fame of Chaos Computer Club and Klaus Koch.

[8] Jerry Holkins, Mike Krahulik, “Penny Arcade”, http://pennyarcade.wikia.com/wiki/July_16,_2007, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

[9] Kung Fury (2015, David Sandberg), an homage to the 80s poetics, had a wide web advertising, for example video Kung Fury: Hackerman – How to Hack Time in which we can find grid, computer disk (“First off you need a lot of ram… at least 256 kb” which is commented: “But remember – with great processing power came great responsibility”) and even the Power Glove, a pre-haptic accessory for the Nintendo Entertainment System (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KEkrWRHCDQU, date accessed: 1 April 2017).

[10] One of the YouTube users commented accurately the compilation of the 80s hack flicks: “The fast track method to become an 80’s computer hacker. You’ll need… 1) – A can of Pepsi 2) – A poster of Michelle Pfeiffer on the wall 3) – A pair of Walkman headphones around your neck 4) – A nervous friend looking over your right shoulder 5) – A desk lamp …Now type the words ‘Access database’. Wait for the response ‘Access denied’, and simply reply with ‘Override’. Congratulations, the world is now your oyster.” 97channel, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rUGQHdYUIEo, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

[11] In Universal Soldier: The Return alleged supercomputer creating its army has a rather primitive way of communicate his rebellious nature: “Hello Dr. Cortner. I’m ready when you are. But, on the other hand… fuck you!”

[12] S. Kumar, “How Ashley Madison hack hurt everyone, not only cheaters”, Fortune, http://fortune.com/2015/08/20/ashley-madison-hacks-cybersecurity/, date accessed: 1 April 2017. The case was mentioned in Mr. Robot by Michael whose wife asked for divorce after his romances had been disclosed.

[13] Andrea Peterson, “The Sony Pictures Entertainment hack, explained”, The Washington Posthttps://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-switch/wp/2014/12/18/the-sony-pictures-hack-explained/?utm_term=.b7f9226e319d, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

[14] Nicole Hong, “Silk Road Creator Found Guilty of Cybercrimes”, The Wall Street Journal, https://www.wsj.com/articles/silk-road-creator-found-guilty-of-cybercrimes-1423083107?mod=WSJ_hp_RightTopStories, date accessed: 1 April 2017. The scandal and other abuses connected with Dark Web were depicted in documentary Deep Web (2015, Alex Winter).

[15] Jason Meisner, “Chicago man plead guilty to ‘Celebgate’ photo hacking”, Chicago Tribune, http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/breaking/ct-celebrity-photos-hacking-plea-met-20160927-story.html, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

[16] Danny Palmer, “What’s the difference between state-backed hackers and cybercrime gangs? Nothing at all”, ZDNet, http://www.zdnet.com/article/whats-the-difference-between-state-backed-hackers-and-cybercrime-gangs-nothing-at-all/, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

[17] Isaac R. Porche III, Christopher Paul, Michael York, Chad C. Serena, Jerry M. Sollinger, Elliot Axelband, Endy Y. Min, Bruce J. Held, Redefining Information Warfare Boundaries for an Army in a Wireless World, (Santa Monica–Arlington–Pittsburgh: RAND Corporation) (2013), p. XV.

[18] The White House, Office of the State Secretary, Executive Order on Improving Critical Infrastructure Cybersecurity, https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2013/02/12/executive-order-improving-critical-infrastructure-cybersecurity-0, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

[19] Kim Zetter, “An Unprecedented Look at Stuxnet, the World’s First Digital Weapon”, Wired, https://www.wired.com/2014/11/countdown-to-zero-day-stuxnet/, date accessed: 8 April 2017. The cyberattack was depicted in documentary Zero Days (2016, Alex Gibney).

[20] Ellen Nakashima, Joby Warrick, “Stuxnet was work of U.S. and Israeli experts, officials say”, The Washington Post,  https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/stuxnet-was-work-of-us-and-israeli-experts-officials-say/2012/06/01/gJQAlnEy6U_story.html?utm_term=.920c5dae260b, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

[21] David Shamah, “Latest viruses could mean ‘end of world as we know it,’ says man who discovered Flame”, Start-up Israel, http://www.timesofisrael.com/experts-we-lost-the-cyber-war-now-were-in-the-era-of-cyber-terror/, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

[22] Sonja Hohenbild, Shahriar Khonsari, Heather McMullen, and Kalea Turner-Beckman, “The Internet protection movement”, New Media Activism, http://wpmu.mah.se/nmict11group4/the-internet-protection-movement/, date accessed: 8 April 2017.

[23] Andy Greenberg, “Hacker claims feds hit him with 44 felonies when he refused to be an FBI spy”, Wiredhttps://www.wired.com/2015/02/hacker-claims-feds-hit-44-felonies-refused-fbi-spy/, date accessed: 8 April 2017.

[24] Jeremy Hammond, “Jeremy Hammond’s Sentencing Statement”, Indymedia UK, http://www.indymedia.org.uk/en/2013/11/513761.html, date accessed: 8 April 2015. His case and political agenda were shown in The Hacker Wars (2014, Vivien Lesnik Weisman).

[25] Jeff Mason, Mark Felsenthal, “Obama Disses Snowden, Says No ‘Wheeling and Dealing’ Or ‘Scrambling Jets To Get A 29-year Old Hacker”, Business Insider, http://www.businessinsider.com/obama-not-scrambling-jets-to-get-29-year-old-hacker-2013-6?IR=T, date accessed: 1 April 2017. China, not especially legitimate for respecting human rights itself, called hypocritical – Joe Mullin, “Obama says he can’t pardon Snowden”, ArsTechnica, https://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2016/11/obama-says-he-cant-pardon-snowden/, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

[26] One of the latest leaks applied to revealing CIA hacking tools: “VAULT 7: CIA Hacking Tools Revealed”, WikiLeaks, https://wikileaks.org/ciav7p1/, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

[27] Exposing the Invisible, https://exposingtheinvisible.org/, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

[28] Rebecca Slayton, “The Paradoxical Authority of the Certified Ethical Hacker”, Limn 8 (2017), http://limn.it/preface-hacks-leaks-and-breaches/, date accessed 22 July 2017. Slayton writes that CEH “sought to appropriate the technical savvy associated with hackers and the U.S. military and intelligence agencies while distancing itself from the untrustworthy and morally suspect image of hacking” but she also quotes Swartz’s statement about CEH “alumns”: “Some ‘IT pros’ may find a few techniques to secure against well-known attacks, but the underground is always 10 steps ahead.”

[29] Tim Jordan (2009).

[30] Critical Art Ensemble, Electronic Civil Disobedience & Other Unpopular Ideas, www.critical-art.net/books/ecd, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

[31] Geert Lovink, “The ABC of Tactical Media”, nettime (1997), http://www.nettime.org/Lists-Archives/nettime-l-9705/msg00096.html, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

[32] Tim Jordan (2002), p. 119.

[33] Geert Lovink (1997).

[34] The paradigm of DIY is substituted with DIWO – Do It with Others – which emphasizes common goals and inclusive operations.

[35] Julian Assange, Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet, (New York–London: OR Books) (2012), p. 7.

[36] CULT OF THE DEAD COW, The Hacktivismo FAQ, http://www.cultdeadcow.com/cDc_files/HacktivismoFAQ.html, date accessed: 22 July 2017.

[37] Douglas Thomas, Hacker Culture, (Minneapolis–London: University of Minnesota Press) (2002), p. xx.

[38] “It’s a bio-digital jazz, man” is a quote from TRON: Legacy.

[39] Pramod K. Nayar, An Introduction to New Media and Cybercultures, (Malden–Oxford Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell) (2010), p. 100.

[40] At least in their literal, official meaning because hacktivists describe legal system as biased, corrupted, and serving elites.

[41] Cory Doctorow, “Mr. Robot Killed the Hollywood Hacker”, Technology Review, https://www.technologyreview.com/s/603045/mr-robot-killed-the-hollywood-hacker/, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

[42] Stephanie Ricker Schulte, Cached: Decoding the Internet in Global Popular Culture, (New York–London: New York University Press) (2013), p. 28.

[43] Declan McCullagh, “From ‘WarGames’ to Aaron Swartz: How U.S. anti-hacking law went astray”, C-Net, https://www.cnet.com/news/from-wargames-to-aaron-swartz-how-u-s-anti-hacking-law-went-astray/, date accessed: 8 April 2017.

[44] In the 4th episode of Mr. Robot’s season 1, few members of society watch Hackers which is criticised by Romero: “Hollywood hacker bullshit. I’ve been in this game 27 years. Not once have I come across an animated singing virus.”

[45] For example, in CSI: Cyber (2015-2016) there is a very absurd dialogue: “I’ll create a GUI interface using Visual Basic. See if I can track an IP address.” “I’ll distract her. You ping her IP.” See also: Nick Cannata-Bowman, “Why ‘CSI: Cyber’ Fails in Terms of Accuracy”, The Cheat Sheet, http://www.cheatsheet.com/entertainment/why-csi-cyber-fails-in-terms-of-accuracy.html/?a=viewall, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

[46] “You won’t find the nuclear launch codes hidden in anything attached to Defense.gov” (Robert Evans, Caleb Eldon Brinkman, “5 Hacking Myths You Probably Believe (Thanks to Movies)”, Cracked, http://www.cracked.com/personal-experiences-1262-5-hacking-myths-you-probably-believe-thanks-to-movies.html, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

[47] Chancellor Agard, “Why USA Network’s ‘Mr. Robot’ Is The Most Realistic Depiction Of Hacking On Television,” International Business Times, http://www.ibtimes.com/why-usa-networks-mr-robot-most-realistic-depiction-hacking-television-2020213, date accessed: 9 April 2017. Sam Esmail hired many consultants (for example Michael Bazzell and Kor Adana) to help screenwriters with technological details. It can be seen in television that showrunners give much more attention to programming “anthropology.” There are still TV series as CSI: Cyber or Scorpion (2014–), but next to them we can observe shows that depict computer environment with reverence – Halt and Catch Fire (2014–), Sense8 (2015-2018), Person of Interest (2011-2016), and so on.

[48] The sense of insecurity is fuelled by narratives about the machines’ rebellion – as in The Matrix Trilogy, TRON and TRON: Legacy, WarGames: The Dead Code (2008, Stuart Gillard) or Storm Watch (2002, Terry Cunningham) – and almost omnipotent antagonists who use advanced technological devices in simplified way – for example in Live Free or Die Hard the villain left all country in despair with two clicks, in Eagle Eye (2008, D.J. Caruso) the offender used an everyday technology to trace and monitor her victims, and even in Sneakers characters had an ultimate weapon for hackers – a universal key which can break into all software.

[49] The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, based on first part of Stieg Larsson’s trilogy, can initiate a new trend.

[51] Geert Lovink called them “the Army of Software” and appealed to them for rejecting Finazism (see: Franco Berardi, Geert Lovink, “A call to the Army of Love and to the Army of Software”, Net Critique, http://networkcultures.org/geert/2011/10/12/franco-berardi-geert-lovink-a-call-to-the-army-of-love-and-to-the-army-of-software/, date accessed: 8 April 2017).

[52] Elliot’s mental illness emphasises the schizoid character of modernity which is best depicted in the last episode of the first season – Elliott is standing in front of neon American flag in Times Square full of society supporters after talking with projections of his mind.

The nuclear technology debate returns. Narratives about nuclear power in post-Fukushima Japanese films

Agnieszka Kiejziewicz

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 1, pp. 117-131.

 

Agnieszka Kiejziewicz

Jagiellonian University

 

 

The nuclear technology debate returns.

Narratives about nuclear power in post-Fukushima Japanese films

 

 

Abstract

The presented article revolves around the widespread debate on the Fukushima catastrophe in Japanese cinematography and the artists’ responses to the incident. They give the viewers clues on how to understand the reasons and results of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, as well as how to perceive nuclear technology after the catastrophe. The author analyses the chosen post-Fukushima films, points out the recurring depictions, and deliberates on the ways of presenting nuclear power. The analysis starts with a brief comparison of post-Hiroshima and post-Fukushima cinematography. The author then focuses on activists’ art in the form of anti-nuclear agitation (Nuclear Japan, 2014 by Hiroyuki Kawai) and pictures that can be classified as shōshimin-eiga: Kebo no kuni (The Land of Hope, 2012) and Leji (Homeland, 2014). The third part of the article puts emphasis on the description of the catastrophe as a “new beginning”, as Takashi Murakami presents it in Mememe no kurage (Jellyfish Eye, 2013). The debate on nuclear technology also appears in the remake of the story about the best-known Japanese monster, Godzilla, reactivated by Hideaki Anno in the post-Fukushima film Shin Gojira (New Godzilla, 2016). The last part of the paper presents the Western point of view and covers analysis of films such as Alain de Halleux’s Welcome to Fukushima (2013), Doris Dörrie’s Grüße aus Fukushima (Fukushima, My Love, 2016) or Matteo Gagliardi’s Fukushima: A Nuclear Story (2015).

Key words: Fukushima, nuclear power, post-Fukushima film, Japanese cinema, catastrophe

 

Introduction

 

The widespread debate on the Fukushima catastrophe, the future of the Japanese reactors, and the suffering, fears, and social problems the nation has to face have also influenced Japanese cinema. The artists’ responses to the incident and the aftermath that is still felt have resulted in a cinematic wake that happened surprisingly quickly after the catastrophe. The narrations about nuclear power, even though considered as a taboo that should not be violated while the memories of the tragedy are still alive, are constructed so as to face social fears; they give the viewers (also around the world) clues on how to understand the reasons and results of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, as well as how to perceive nuclear technology after the catastrophe.

The recurring pictures that can be found in most of the post-Fukushima films are depictions of the off-limits exclusion zone, guarded by the government because of high-level radiation. The artists also underline the contrast between the silence in the zone and the hustle and bustle of the temporary houses and schools occupied by the victims. Nuclear power itself is presented in two ways: neutrally, for example in Leji (Homeland, 2014) by Nao Kubota or Kibō no kuni (The Land of Hope, 2012) by Sion Sono, or in the form of activist art and anti-nuclear agitation (Nuclear Japan, 2014 by Hiroyuki Kawai). It is almost impossible to find positive commentaries about nuclear power in post-Fukushima films; however, the catastrophe can be described as a “new beginning”, as Takashi Murakami presents it in Mememe no kurage (Jellyfish Eye, 2013). The debate on nuclear technology also appears in the remake of the story about the best-known Japanese monster, Godzilla, reactivated by Hideaki Anno in the post-Fukushima film Shin Gojira (New Godzilla, 2016).

The primary purpose of this paper is to analyse the narrations about nuclear power in Fukushima-related Japanese films in the context of the directors’ personal points of view on the issue and the impact of their works on Japanese society. As can be perceived, observing the catastrophe through subjective lenses is almost unavoidable as the authors of the aforementioned films are not only distant observers. They combine personal experiences with the national trauma they are part of. Due to this fact, the presented article aims to deliberate on the problem of how Japanese filmmakers have presented nuclear technology since 2011, while linking their works to the films that emerged after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. Another point of focus presented in this paper is how the audience understands the aforementioned films about the tragedy and why they are gaining popularity in Japanese society. Moreover, it is also worth focusing on the impact the pictures may have on collective memory, as will be discussed later. The examples of the films presented in this article were chosen because of their popularity and significance for the development of the nuclear technology debate.

 

From Hiroshima to Fukushima

 

The massive and immediate destruction caused by nuclear energy and the fact that the source of this annihilation is human-made traumatizes the collective memory beyond any measurable limits. What is significant in the case of nuclear disasters is the fact that its results function in two visual orders. On the one hand, pictures of untouched landscapes juxtaposed with sudden, total destruction bring to mind apocalyptic visions of the End of Times which are known from Western depictions. On the other hand, the invisible radiation and lack of immediate results (or, in other words, “immediate victims”) have no simple visual representations; this traumatizes the imagination the most[1]. The visible effects of the destroyed surroundings of these catastrophes are extended in time by the menace of nuclear contamination that will also affect society in the future[2]. The impact of the nuclear catastrophe on the Japanese nation, happening twice in a relatively short period, put the filmmakers in a situation in which they try to present on the screen a tragedy that is impossible to understand. David Deamer observes that “Each atom bomb film overcomes the spectre of impossibility in its way; each in its own way creates a singular encounter with the nuclear attacks […]”.[3]

Visions of the apocalypse derived from Western culture influenced the rise of the post-Hiroshima subgenre of Japanese cinema: hibakusha. Narratives which can be classified under this term introduced the topic of the atom bombs and explored the meaning of “Hiroshima” for the post-war generations[4]. The critical potential that characterized the hibakusha films, the emphasis on the sociological context of the catastrophe, and the variety of other genres combined with the determinants of the subgenre allows it to be connected to the post-Fukushima cinematic wake. It should be pointed out that the earliest on-screen depictions of the destruction caused by nuclear power were dominated by the three genres which also appear most often in the case of the March 11 incident: contemporary drama, monster movies, and documentary[5]. For example, analogies can be found between Ito Sueo’s Hiroshima Nagasaki ni okeru genshi bakudan no eikyō (The Effects of the Atomic Bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki,1946) and Hiroyuki Kawai’s Nuclear Japan (2014) documentary films, both of which are described in the next part of this article. Both films use original footage and capture with scientific precision the tragedy of the Japanese nation. However, when Kawai restrains himself from providing a plethora of drastic pictures of mutilated bodies, Sueos’s footage shows the drama without euphemisms. The second part of the very first post-bombing documentary[6] devoted to Nagasaki presents narrations about the tragedy of particular people which can also be found in the film from 2014. The post-Hiroshima style of producing dramas, like Shindo Kaneto’s melodrama Genbaku no ko (Children of Hiroshima, 1952) or Shohei Imamura’s Kuroi ame (Black Rain, 1989), both of which emphasize sentimentalism and focus on the emotions of particular people, can be found in Kibô no kuni (The Land of Hope, 2012) by Sion Sono. It should be underlined that the differences found in the films mentioned above are intangibly connected to the nature of the two catastrophes: genocide in the case of the World War II events and a tragedy initiated by an unfortunate series of natural factors.

In terms of the impression on American society, March 11, 2011 is also compared to the events of 9.11[7]. It was Takashi Mikuriya who first suggested that the sengyo (the long post-war period in Japan) ended with the Fukushima disaster. Furthermore, Mikuriya proposed another term, saigo (literally: next, after), to describe the time “after the catastrophe”.[8] The new era, in the opinion of the Japanese researcher, has the potential to become more democratic, thus a period full of hope and peace[9]. Barbara Geilhorn and Kristina Iwata-Weickgenannt, deliberating on the artistic pursuits related to the nuclear disaster of March 11, point out in their publication that “Fukushima forced artists across the genres to reconsider the relationship between art, representation, and live experience”.[10] The experience of the disaster and the analysis of the emotions accompanying the traumatic events appeared not only in film but also in literature and performing arts. Here, it is worth mentioning the artistic pursuits on the grounds of Japanese theatre and the plays of Oriza Hirata and Toshiki Okada: the former, in his play entitled Sayonara (Good bye, 2011), uses a female android as a metaphor for the failure of the human-technological understanding which resulted in the Fukushima disaster[11]. On the other hand, Okada’s theatre, defined as “musical theatre with ghostly apparitions”[12], aims to criticize Japanese cultural norms, society, and politics. His Jimen to yuka (Ground and Floor, 2013) performance “depicts a group of people experiencing an intense post-Fukushima malady”,[13] which metaphorically comments on the failure of the Japanese political system[14].

 

Activist art or searching for the ultimate solution

 

The controversy arising around the catastrophe that appeared due to the social accusations of the negligence of the government resulted in the emerging activist movement. While searching for the ultimate solution to the problem, both in the West and in Japan, the filmmakers strive to answer whether it is necessary to rely on nuclear energy in future technological development. It should also be underlined that the activists define nuclear power as unequivocally wrong and postulate that its use should cease.

One of the most publicly visible activists who uses film as a medium to communicate his postulates is Hiroyuki Kawai[15]. This professional lawyer who decided to become a documentary filmmaker was born in Manchuria, China, but he mentally tied himself to Japan after he graduated from the University of Tokyo in the 1970s. His interest in lawsuits against nuclear power plants reached its peak after Fukushima, but even before the tragic events of March 2011, he was deeply involved in the fight to eradicate nuclear power from Japan[16]. Kawai admits that his main purpose is to protect the environment, especially from the tragic nuclear disasters that have long-term effects on natural habitats. Analysing how to reach a wide audience and not satisfied with the number of people attending his lectures, the activist realized that explaining his objectives with a movie would be the best way to popularize his ideas.

Nuclear Japan, released in 2014, was to answer the question that had been asked by the director many times: Has nuclear power brought happiness to the Japanese nation? The documentary goes back to the seven hours before the catastrophe and the camera’s eye accompanies a group of firefighters. They accomplish different tasks, from looking for missing people after the tsunami, to the disposal of radioactive materials. However, their efforts are only presented to underline the message conveyed by the author. At every step, he stresses that if it had not been for the nuclear disaster, many more lives could have been saved[17] and, consequently, he accuses the Japanese government for its faulty decisions. In his work Kawai combines footage illustrating the efforts of the public services and the pain of civilians with interviews with experts (e.g. Tetsunari Iida, the director of the Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies) and, as he refers to on his website, “facts and evidence”.[18] Moreover, the documentary offers a wealth of technical information on how the reactors function, nuclear policy in Japan, and safety regulations[19]. However, even though the author tries to present his findings in the most objective way possible, he cannot help avoiding subjectivization of the matter.

Kawai presents only a one-sided point of view, demonizing nuclear power and providing the ultimate solution to the problem: “to halt nuclear power plants all over Japan[20]”. The director perceives his movie as a tool that helps to convey his ideas and bring them to a wider audience, not only to those in academia. It should also be underlined that thanks to the complexity of the presented issues and the unique footage of the testimonies provided by the victims, the film was considered as evidence during the trials related to the catastrophe[21]. Even though the event has an obvious tragic meaning, the message Kawai tries to convey can be read as a positive look at the future of the nation. He observes that “the Fukushima disaster has increasingly forced the courts and the judges to expose the lies of the government and the nuclear industry, as well as take responsibility for the huge damage caused[22]”. Kawai creates an analogy to the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, comparing the government reactions, commentaries, and actions taken. It is visible that the director has a feeling that the catastrophe, paradoxically, helped to raise the tabooed issue of the post-nuclear trauma. Consequently, Kawai perceives himself as a representative of a new movement that will shed some light on the safety of nuclear energy in Japan.

 

Screening the zone, preserving the memories

 

The catastrophe and form of post-Fukushima societal order in Japan are also vividly presented in dramas. In this category, under the label of the shōshimin-eiga[23] genre, there is a plethora of poetic pictures that aim to not only show the destruction, despair, and lack of hope, but also the preservation of collective memories, as well as on the discourse on the future of the nation. The lightly fictionalized narrations, depicting the tragedy of particular families, are designed to challenge viewers’ emotions and, in the case of foreign audiences, make them familiar with the problems of Japanese society. It can be observed that the message proposed by the authors of the post-Fukushima dramas conveys more neutral meaning than in the case of Kawai’s documentary. Under the genre of drama, it is the story of the suffering and pain that matters the most, not the strict anti- or pro- nuclear point of view of the author.

One of the first post-Fukushima drama films, and, at the same time, one of the most appreciated by foreign critiques[24], is Kibō no kuni (The Land of Hope, 2012) directed by Sion Sono. The picture received the NETPAC Award for Best Asian Film at the 37th Toronto International Film Festival. The author focuses on presenting the histories on two families uprooted from their home cities, who strive to fight back for their lost safety by adjusting themselves to the new reality. Sono pays great attention to showing what has happened to the mental condition of the protagonists since the traumatic experiences and the extent to which it is possible to overcome the trauma. The feeling of the constant danger of radioactivity causes the families to develop neuroses, compulsive behaviours, and anxieties. For example, Izumi Ono (Megumi Kagurazaka), the wife of Yoichi Ono (Jun Murakami), is obsessed with protecting her body from contact with radioactive objects or places. When she realizes that she is pregnant, Izumi not only covers her whole house with aluminium foil, but also compulsively checks the radiation level on a Geiger counter—everything to protect her unborn child. By showing three generations of protagonists fighting for survival, the director undertakes a discourse about the future of the country[25]. Even though it is a farmer Yasuhiko Ono (Iaso Natsuyagi) and his wife Chieko Ono (Naoko Otani) whose fight is depicted in the most dramatic way, it is the child yet to be born that will bear all the consequences of the situation. The actions taken by Izumi to protect her child, depicted in an almost humorous way, show the desperate attempts the Japanese people undertook to preserve their health. In this case, Sono demonstrates that it is impossible to escape the fate and every desperate attempt seems to be grotesque in the face of the inevitable consequences of the radiation.

Leji (Homeland, 2014) by Nao Kubota is another film about the results of the Fukushima catastrophe that was mostly appreciated abroad. Even though the director has more documentary pictures than fictionalized dramas on his account, he made a feature film to discuss the post-catastrophe issues. However, the critics observed that Kubota’s film differs from the aforementioned Kibō no kuni in terms of the presentation of emotions. The critics accused the director of creating a narrative which “perversely refuses to engage on a dramatic or emotional level, or to look its unavoidable political context in the eye”.[26] The picture, screened in 2014 at the Berlin Film Festival, mostly explores the toxic relations between the characters, thus resembling Shohei Imamura’s narrations about the dark blood ties that led to the tragedy in the rural, apparently idyllic setting[27]. Kubota focuses on the topic that returns in almost every post-Fukushima drama: the ancestors’ attachment to the land. Here, the Japanese concept of furusato, a mythologized picture of a traditional birthplace situated in the beauty of nature, appears as a lost part of Japanese culture. The characters are trapped in the world between—it is impossible to return to the cradle because the furusato is lost and, at the same time, they cannot start new lives. Their longing for the lost safety leads them to transgressive behaviour, as in the case of Soichi (Seiyo Uchino), who spends his days loitering around the entertainment district, unable to find a new job[28].

Manifesting a literal-minded approach to constructing a plot that resembles documentary films, the director especially focuses on the daily routines of the people influenced by the catastrophe[29]. Paradoxically, the most striking scenes in the film are not those presenting the dynamic actions of the characters, but the ones depicting rural labour or food preparation. There, Kubota emphasizes the attempts of the protagonists to maintain social order, even though, together with the houses, the bonds of the family have been destroyed.

 

Monsters reactivated

 

Cultural anxiety about radiation and the fear of nuclear fallout appeared on Japanese screens right after World War II. Among the science fiction films featuring a variety of monsters, mysterious creatures, and physically changed people, the greatest popularity was won by Ishiro Honda’s Godzilla series. Except for its similarity to Ryūjin—the deity of the sea that appears in the scriptures of the ingenious Japanese religion, Shinto—the dragon-like creature that emerged from the ocean symbolized the fears of the sudden development of deadly technology and the results of its use in warfare[30]. The appearance of the monster emerging from the water was described in the first film of the series, Gojira (Godzilla, 1954), as the result of the H-bomb experiments[31]. What is more, Honda’s films, especially the first one, bring together unnamed fears of a mystery that comes from ‘the outside’. As Toni A. Perrine observes in her publication concerning the cultural anxieties of the nuclear age, both the appearance of nuclear energy and the cinematic Gojira can be perceived as acts of “transformation of matter into an unimaginable destructive force”.[32]

It is not surprising that the rubber monster came back to screens again after the Fukushima catastrophe and its symbolic connections to the destructive power of nuclear energy were reactivated. Shin Gojira (New Godzilla, 2016), directed by Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi, at the same time breaks with both the familiar schemes from the previous productions and the references to the canonic appearance of the monster. However, what is most significant in terms of researching the ways in which the Fukushima disaster is depicted in Japanese film is that Gojira is no longer a result of nuclear experiments. It comes with a tsunami wave, earthquakes and radiation, but the origins of the creature remain unknown. Furthermore, the role of the Americans in the narrative has changed: in the newest production, they are the most important allies in the deadly fight[33]. It is also worth mentioning the focus on the reactions of the catastrophe victims presented in Anno and Higuchi’s film. As happened on the streets of Japanese cities, in Shin Gojira the people measure the radiation and share information on social media websites. Also, the bitter portrait of the government and the news resembles real life: the officials, under the burden of bureaucracy, are unable to cooperate and the transmitted meetings are filled with clichés and jargon[34]. The nuclear debate in the newest Gojira film is concluded with optimism: even though severe damage was done to the metropolis and uncountable deaths resulted from the officials’ reluctance, the monster is finally defeated. It turns into a concrete monument, remaining in the heart of the city as a testament to the victims of the tragedy.

It is also interesting yet surprising that the appearance of a monster in post-Fukushima narration can be found in Takashi Murakami’s film Mememe no kurage (Jellyfish Eye, 2013). The director’s debut, although kept in the light comedy tone, raises a question that was overlooked in other productions: how can children’s trauma after the catastrophe be minimized? Even though the tragedy that hit Japanese society is not explicitly named, the viewer realizes that the young Masashi Kusakabe’s (Takuto Sueoka) father died because of a catastrophe somehow related to nuclear power. Together with his mother, the youngster moves to a rural area—escaping both the damaged environment and the painful memories. However, soon it turns out that the children in the village are obsessed with a smartphone app that allows them to control fantastic (animated) pet monsters and organize ‘dog fights’ between the creatures. Here, the director uses comedy to tell a story about mysterious scientists who study how to control catastrophic forces by manipulating students’ emotions[35]. The pets, called F.R.I.E.N.D.S., are vessels that transmit the feelings of their little masters to the control centre. The fact that the children put a lot of energy into the game leads to the birth of a huge monster that tries to destroy the area.

The film was negatively reviewed and the ending was considered naive; it was also dismissed for its camera work and ragged special effects[36]. It was also observed that the coming-of-age story mixed with philosophical themes of fighting with trauma, evil, and self-limitations was incomprehensible for younger viewers and too infantile for adults[37]. However, Murakami’s film resembles his artistic pursuits: as a contemporary painter and sculptor, he is recognized for combining high art with pop-cultural aesthetics[38], which is also visible in the visual style and plot of his debut. The author tried to introduce a fresh style of talking about the Fukushima catastrophe—a remedy for the children’s trauma hidden under a layer of family cinema. Even though it was too soon to combine the painful memories with cute animated characters, Murakami’s film remains a unique and thus creative and brave way of presenting the catastrophe in Japanese cinema.

 

From the Western point of view

 

Fukushima-related narrations and the nuclear technology debate since 2011 have appeared not only in Japanese cinema. A critical comment on the catastrophe also comes from Western directors, among who should be mentioned Alain de Halleux’s Welcome to Fukushima (2013), Doris Dörrie’s Grüße aus Fukushima (Fukushima, My Love, 2016) or Matteo Gagliardi’s Fukushima: A Nuclear Story (2015). Through their works, these filmmakers from abroad share their compassion and feelings of being greatly moved by the tragic events. It is worth mentioning here that Doris Dörrie, the author of Kirschblüten – Hanami (Cherry Blossoms, 2008), was motivated by the fact that she felt a strong connection with the Japanese nation. She visited Fukushima right after the tragic events and almost anthropologically gathered the testimonies of the victims, which she later used in constructing the plot of her film. Dörrie’s Fukushima revolves around the problem of mutual understanding between Western and Japanese culture, which was also a central subject in Kirschblüten…. In the post-Fukushima narrative, the relation that emerges between a young German woman, Maria (Rosalie Thomass), and the elderly geisha, Satomi (Kaori Momoi), casts new light on the collective experience of an entire generation of Japanese people who suffered the catastrophe and the fear of radiation[39]. When the women protagonists by chance move in together to the Satomi’s partly destroyed house in the closed Zone, a subtle bond develops between them. Depicting Maria’s struggle to understand a different culture while trying to be helpful in rebuilding the retired geisha’s life, the director aimed to emphasize how difficult it is for foreigners to cope with unfamiliar traditions. In one of the interviews, Dörrie admits that her main purpose was to answer the question: Can the Westerner, who does not understand Eastern mentality and culture, in any way help Japanese people?[40] Even though the narrative revolves around the post-catastrophe trauma, the central part of the film is the relations, based on the author’s autobiographical references, between women symbolizing disparate cultural backgrounds.

Documentary insights can also be found in the films presenting the catastrophe from the Western point of view. Here it is worth mentioning the pictures by Alain de Halleux and Matteo Gagliardi, who combine their original footage with scientific explanations of the causes of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster and personal commentaries. The first author visits the city of Minamisōma, situated 25 kilometres from the reactor, in order to present the everyday struggle of the population of that area. Many of the inhabitants want to be evacuated, while others wish to stay in their homeland and rebuild the city; this results in increasing conflict within the community. Moreover, the Tepco company, which is financially responsible for compensation, refuses to pay their fines; this forces the victims to search for funds globally[41]. The author uses the contrasting Eastern characters of a Zen master and a samurai as a metaphor of the two attitudes towards the rebuilding of a new social order after the tragedy. From this perspective, the victim can choose the course of action in Halleux’s film: he can either accept his fate and stay in his furusato, or fight for a better future for the next generations. The purpose of Halleux’s film was to present the problem to international viewers to encourage financial support from the worldwide community.

However, while the Belgian director restrains himself to the presentation of interviews with victims that were mostly recorded two years after the incident, it is Gagliardi who demonstrates a greater diversity of cinematic techniques. In his film, this Italian filmmaker combines footage recorded when the events started with animated sequences, fragments of TV programs, and experts’ commentaries. Gagliardi balances the need to remain objective against the personal emotions and assessment of the journalist Pio d’Emilia, who experienced the fear of being in Japan during the catastrophe. The Italian Sky TV reporter decided to leave Tokyo the day the earthquake struck and move to the areas affected by the tsunami with the intention of being the first foreign observer to document the tragedy[42]. Except for an unreleased interview with the former Japanese prime minister, Naoto Kan, which casts new light on the government’s actions[43], Gagliardi’s film also offers a unique approach to the understanding of the viewer’s perception. The animated manga-style sequences are used to make the material more comprehensible and visually attractive.

Taking into consideration the examples presented above, it can be observed that a post-Fukushima current also appeared in the West and these foreign filmmakers have added new insights into the discourse about nuclear power. The narrations provided by Western filmmakers could also be starting points for further academic research, such as comparisons of films by authors from distinct cultural backgrounds, analysis of the approach to nuclear energy, as well as the techniques and genres chosen to cover the issue.

 

Conclusion

 

The nuclear power debate that returned after the Fukushima catastrophe has not faded in film-making. Even though the Japanese films concerning the issue seem to be more appreciated abroad, filmmakers such as Takashi Murakami and Hiroyuki Kawai consider deliberating on the problem to be part of their artistic missions. Possible answers to the questions of whether the Japanese nation should rely on nuclear energy in the future are presented by the directors in documentary or family cinema form, thus aiming to give the viewer a way to understand the complex causes, results, and political issues related to the tragedy. Others, such as Sion Sono and Nao Kubota, try to show the problems of particular members of the traumatized society to a wider audience and, as Doris Dörrie has done in the West, focus on the emotions accompanying the loss of the homeland. What is more, monster films such as the aforementioned Shin Gojira, also play a key role in presenting the problem on the screen, albeit in symbolic form. Therefore, no matter the motivation of the individual artists, it should be emphasised that there are many voices and sides in the discussion about nuclear energy. In this case, films help to express the points of view of the directors and communicate their findings to a wider audience.

As Małgorzata Sadowska observes, Fukushima deprived the Japanese people of the illusion they could use to think about atomic energy. Since 2011, it has no longer been possible to recognize atomic energy as simply bad (the bomb) or good (the power plant), as it was the latter that brought about annihilation[44]. For the people who survived the catastrophe, as well as those who observed it on TV screens abroad, cinema can become not only a source of information (in the case of the documentary productions), but also a medium that helps in understanding the influence of the catastrophe on the inhabitants of Japan.

 

References

 

Artnet, http://www.artnet.com/artists/takashi-murakami/, date accessed 17 April 2017.

Broderick Mick (ed) Hibakusha Cinema : Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the Nuclear Image in Japanese Film, (London, New York: Columbia University Press, 1996).

Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center, http://www.cnic.jp/english/?p=3424, date accessed 16 April 2017.

Cinergie.be, http://www.cinergie.be/webzine/welcome_to_fukushima_d_alain_de_halleux, date accessed 4.06.2017.

Deamer David, Deleuze, Japanese Cinema, and the Atom Bomb: The Spectre of Impossibility, (New York: Bloomsbury, 2014).

Eckersall Peter, “Performance, Mourning and the Long View of Nuclear Space,” The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus 7:2 (2015).

Fukushima A Nuclear Story [official website], http://www.nuclearstory.com/, date accessed 4.06.2017.

Geilhorn Barbara, Kristina Iwata-Weickgenannt, Fukushima and the Arts: Negotiating Nuclear Disaster, (London: Routledge, 2017).

InteriaFilm, http://film.interia.pl/wywiady/news-doris-dorrie-hold-dla-kobiet-fukushimy,nId,2347171, date accessed 5 June 2017.

Loska Krzysztof, “Tożsamość traumatyczna w filmach o bombie atomowej” [Traumatic identity in the films about the atomic bombing], in Poetyka filmu japońskiego [The Poetics of the Japanese Film], ed. Idem. (Kraków: Rabid, 2009), pp. 349 – 375.

Mikuriya Takashi, Sengo ga owari, saigo ga hajimaru [Sengo era ends, saigo era starts] (Tokyo: Chikura Shobō, 2012).

Miyamoto Yuki, “Gendered Bodies in Tokusatsu: Monsters and Aliens as the Atomic Bomb Victims,” The Journal of Popular Culture 49:5 (2016), pp. 1086 – 1106.

Nuclear Japan Official Site, http://www.nihontogenpatsu.com/english, date accessed 18 April 2017.

Nornes Abé Mark, Japanese Documentary Film: The Meiji Era Through Hiroshima, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003).

Perrine Toni A., Film and the Nuclear Age: Representing Cultural Anxiety, (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998).

Sadowska Małgorzata, “Fukushima, moja miłość” [Fukushima, My Love], Kino 2: 2017, p. 79.

The Columbus Dispatch, http://www.dispatch.com/content/stories/life_and_entertainment/2016/08/07/1-japans-latest-godzilla-movie-draws-on-1954-original-fukushima-nuclear-disaster.html, date accessed 18 April 2017.

The Hollywood Reporter, http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/review/land-hope-film-review-406354, date accessed 7 April 2017.

The Hollywood Reporter: Jellyfish Eyes, http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/review/jellyfish-eyes-mememe-no-kurage-727224, date accessed 19 April 2017.

The Japan Times, http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2016/04/12/national/flamboyant-lawyer-kawai-fighting-fukushima-victims/#.WPyZEcakJhE, date accessed 5 April 2017.

The Japan Times: Culture, http://www.japantimes.co.jp/culture/2014/03/06/films/film-reviews/ieji-homeland/#.WQeCrsakJhE, date accessed 9 April 2017.

The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/15/movies/review-jellyfish-eyes-a-childrens-film-from-takashi-murakami.html?&_r=1, date accessed 21 April 2017.

Yoneyama Lisa, Hiroshima Traces: Time, Space, and the Dialectics of Memory, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999).

Variety, http://variety.com/2014/film/asia/berlin-film-review-homeland-1201109899/, date accessed 19 April 2017.

 

Filmography

Fukushima: A Nuclear Story (2015, Matteo Gagliardi)

Gojira [Godzilla] (1954, Ishiro Honda)

Grüße aus Fukushima [Fukushima, My Love] (2016, Doris Dörrie)

Kibō no kuni [The Land of Hope] (2012, Sion Sono)

Leji [Homeland] (2014, Nao Kubota)

Mememe no kurage [Jellyfish Eye] (2013, Takashi Murakami)

Nuclear Japan (2014, Hiroyuki Kawai)

Shin Gojira [New Godzilla] (2016, Hideaki Anno, Shinji Higuchi)

The Effects of the Atomic Bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (1946, Ito Sueo)

Welcome to Fukushima (2013, Alain de Halleux)

[1] Geilhorn Barbara, Kristina Iwata-Weickgenannt, Fukushima and the Arts: Negotiating Nuclear Disaster, (London: Routledge, 2017), p. 2 – 3.

[2] Geilhorn Barbara, Kristina Iwata-Weickgenannt, p. 3.

[3] Deamer David, Deleuze, Japanese Cinema, and the Atom Bomb: The Spectre of Impossibility, (New York: Bloomsbury, 2014), p. 31.

[4] See: Broderick Mick (ed) Hibakusha Cinema : Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the Nuclear Image in Japanese Film, (London, New York: Columbia University Press, 1996).

[5] Deamer David, p. 31.

[6] Loska Krzysztof, “Tożsamość traumatyczna w filmach o bombie atomowej” [Traumatic identity in the films about the atomic bombing], in Poetyka filmu japońskiego [The Poetics of the Japanese Film], ed. Idem. (Kraków: Rabid, 2009), p. 352 – 353.

[7] Geilhorn Barbara, Kristina Iwata-Weickgenannt, p. 3.

[8] Mikuriya Takashi, Sengo ga owari, saigo ga hajimaru [Sengo era ends, saigo era starts], (Tokyo: Chikura Shobō, 2012).

[9] Geilhorn Barbara, Kristina Iwata-Weickgenannt, p. 3.

[10] Geilhorn Barbara, Kristina Iwata-Weickgenannt, p. 10.

[11] Eckersall Peter, “Performance, Mourning and the Long View of Nuclear Space,” The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus 7:2 (2015), p. 4.

[12] Eckersall Peter, p. 6.

[13] Eckersall Peter, p. 6.

[14] Eckersall Peter, p. 6.

[15] Nuclear Japan Official Site, http://www.nihontogenpatsu.com/english, date accessed 18 April 2017.

[16] Nuclear Japan Official Site.

[17] Nuclear Japan Official Site.

[18] Nuclear Japan Official Site.

[19] Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center, http://www.cnic.jp/english/?p=3424, date accessed 16 April 2017.

[20] Nuclear Japan Official Site.

[21] Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center.

[22] Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center.

[23] Shōshimin-eiga is a Japanese film and TV genre which aims at depicting of the everyday existence of the working class people.

[24] See: The Japan Times: Culture, http://www.japantimes.co.jp/culture/2014/03/06/films/film-reviews/ieji-homeland/#.WQeCrsakJhE, date accessed 9 April 2017. As it can be observed, Sono’s film was mostly appreciated by the foreign critiques, because the Japanese ones stated that it was too soon to for a fictional treatment of the national tragedy.

[25] The Hollywood Reporter, http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/review/land-hope-film-review-406354, date accessed 7 April 2017.

[26] Variety, http://variety.com/2014/film/asia/berlin-film-review-homeland-1201109899/, date accessed 19 April 2017.

[27] Variety.

[28] Variety.

[29] Variety.

[30] Perrine Toni A., Film and the Nuclear Age: Representing Cultural Anxiety, (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), p. 77.

[31] Perrine Toni A, p. 77.

[32] Perrine Toni A., p. 84.

[33] The Columbus Dispatch, http://www.dispatch.com/content/stories/life_and_entertainment/2016/08/07/1-japans-latest-godzilla-movie-draws-on-1954-original-fukushima-nuclear-disaster.html, date accessed 18 April 2017.

[34] The Columbus Dispatch.

[35] The Hollywood Reporter: Jellyfish Eyes, http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/review/jellyfish-eyes-mememe-no-kurage-727224, date accessed 19 April 2017.

[36] See: The review written by Roberta Smith, a co-chief and critic of the NY Times. The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/15/movies/review-jellyfish-eyes-a-childrens-film-from-takashi-murakami.html?&_r=1, date accessed 21 April 2017.

[37] The New York Times.

[38] Takashi Murakami’s profile on Artnet: Artnet, http://www.artnet.com/artists/takashi-murakami/, date accessed 17 April 2017.

[39] Sadowska Małgorzata, “Fukushima, moja miłość” [Fukushima, My Love], Kino 2:2017, p. 79.

[40] InteriaFilm, http://film.interia.pl/wywiady/news-doris-dorrie-hold-dla-kobiet-fukushimy,nId,2347171, date accessed 5 June 2017. The interview with Doris Dörrie was conducted by Piotr Czerkawski during the 68th Berlin International Film Festival in 2017.

[41] To read more about Halleux’s film, see: Cinergie.be, http://www.cinergie.be/webzine/welcome_to_fukushima_d_alain_de_halleux, date accessed 4.06.2017.

[42] See: Fukushima A Nuclear Story [official website], http://www.nuclearstory.com/, date accessed 4.06.2017.

[43] Fukushima A Nuclear Story. In the interview Naoto Kan admits that Japan avoided a bigger catastrophe not because of the planned government actions but thanks to sheer luck.

[44] Sadowska Małgorzata, p. 79.

War rape in the face of heroic narrative. The case of Polish cinema

Magdalena Podsiadło-Kwiecień

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 1, pp. 132-149.

 

Magdalena Podsiadło-Kwiecień

Jagiellonian University

 

 

War rape in the face of heroic narrative.

The case of Polish cinema

 

Abstract

War rape seals the status of women as passive victims and excludes them from heroic narratives. Despite women’s suffering and their active resistance against the invaders, film representations reduce their subjectivity through a narrative of shame based on silence, exclusion, or the removal of women from the real course of events, all of which dominate in Polish cinema. Phenomena that are highlighted in the text—talking about rape on one’s own terms, using it as self-defence, bearing resulting offspring, active resistance or creating an approving community—may become a way to the empowerment of heroines and reformulation of the traditional symbolic field.

 

Key words: rape, abject, Polish cinema, oral history, women

 

 

 

Piotr Zwierzchowski, in his book on heroic death, writes that “the death of a hero is decidedly a male motive. This is no different in contemporary cinema; it is men who are awarded the right to be heroes and perish in a way full of pathos. The final moments of Thelma and Louise are among scarce exceptions confirming the rule”.[1] On the one hand, it seems highly unfair that the author—in his over 200-page-long deliberations dedicated to heroic deaths—acknowledged just one film with female protagonists. On the other, the disproportion between male and female representation signals difficulty in associating heroic narrative with female experience.

Even in wartime narratives in Polish cinema, which are seemingly predestined to discuss heroism, the presence of women is troublesome, although “the participation of women in resistance against invaders was much more significant here than in the West”.[2] Natalia Jarska points out that, in most cases, the female experience does not appear in dominating narratives on war. Even if women are mentioned, these stories are stereotyped and their true experiences often left untold.[3] Especially resistant to historical narrative are experiences related to gender, the effect of which is the tendency—both among witnesses and researchers—to bypass the gender category, supposedly to guarantee the universal image of wartime events. “The symbolic allocation and social evaluation of both features («personal» to women; «objective» to men) is not random”[4] and, as a result, leads to the bypassing of the specifically female experience.

However, it is impossible to attribute rape—the most gender-determined form of wartime violence[5]—solely to the personal sphere, even from the perspective of traditional historical narratives focused on events from the battlefield. On the one hand, rape touches the private realm, while on the other, it is a manner of conducting military operations. “Rape cannot be understood as «just» a deplorable side-effect of war provoked by soldiers’ sexual frustration. Rape is, literally, a weapon of war”.[6] Hence, according to researchers, it is not only sexual violence, but also sexualized violence, for which satisfying one’s desire is neither the key nor the sole goal.[7]

Treating rape as a tool of war does not mean, however, that this traumatic women’s experience finds its place among heroic narratives. Generally sexual violence reinforces the division into active aggressors symbolically annexing new territories through women, and passive victims colonized by the invaders. Moreover, as noticed by Yana Hashamova: “the predominant Western scholarship on war rapes explores the victimisation of women”.[8] Marzena Sokołowska-Paryż adds that the reflection of academics corresponds to attempts at remembering rape victims by artists. Examples of artwork analysed by her are representations that show “the woman’s suffering visually subjugated by male aggression. The victim [is] completely dominated by [a] towering soldier figure”.[9] This method of placing emphasis shows women as passive victims of violence and thus excludes them from heroic narratives usually dominated by active battle.

Perceiving rape as a weapon, however, allows us to focus on its double-edged character. Naturally, this does not signify analogous revenge that female protagonists could take on their oppressors, but it means rape as a tool for protecting your loved ones or yourself. In most cases, film representations do not present women as passive victims devoid of agency, but as active subjects who, in a critical moment, attempt to fight and defend themselves with the means available to civilians and women. Just a glance at the film representations of war rape in Polish cinema allows us to allege that most female protagonists—due to the lack of other means of conducting war—use rape as a way of doing battle. In the films How to be loved (1962, dir. Wojciech Jerzy Has), The Columbuses (1970, dir. Janusz Morgenstern), The Ring with a Crowned Eagle (1992, dir. Andrzej Wajda), Sekal has to die (1998, dir. Vladimír Michálek), Deserter’s Gold (1998, dir. Janusz Majewski), Joanna (2010, dir. Feliks Falk), Rose (2011, dir. Wojciech Smarzowski), Manhunt (2012, dir. Marcin Krzyształowicz), and Life Taken [Zerwany kłos] (2016, dir. Witold Ludwig), the female protagonists not only fight to save their own lives but act much more heroically—they attempt to save others by scarifying themselves. In this manner, they protect their daughter (Rose), a Jewish girl (Joanna), a loved one (How to be loved, The Ring with a Crowned Eagle, Deserter’s Gold, The Columbuses), a sister (Manhunt), their family (Sekal has to die), their father (Life Taken). The female protagonists decide that the rape to which they consent is a lesser tragedy than the death of a loved one.

Paradoxically, however, the raped women, by the very fact of using rape as a tool of battle or survival, do not fulfil the principle desired in the traditional historical narrative of the “ideal Other”, or a victim as a passive subject whose “role comes down to actually being a suffering victim. The system will take care of her and make sure she remains such a victim”.[10] The female protagonist who does not accept full victimisation—not only by the oppressor but also by the dominating national narrative—chooses her own salvation or that of her loved ones above chastity, and does not fulfil the role of the “good Other”. In traditional patriotic narratives, this type of sexualized agency disagrees with the status of the unblemished victim and requires further interventions to render it again a symbol of the suffering subject. The acceptance of rape as a form of salvation is problematic in the Polish context as it contradicts the postulate of chastity. Agnieszka Morstin-Popławska mentions this when writing about forced prostitution related to rape presented in A Year of the Quiet Sun (1984) by Krzysztof Zanussi. The researcher shows that, in common opinion, “women chose work in the puffs willingly, and were not victims”,[11] hence they were undeserving of compassion. Bożena Karwowska writes about this phenomenon in a similar way when describing female camp testimonies. The authors of recollections negatively mark all sexual behaviour and expect prisoners to behave in a way incompatible with the inhumane camp conditions in which, according to them, “women should remain modest and possess a sense of shame”.[12]

Using sexuality as a weapon brings to mind the figure of the biblical Judith, “the heroic liberator of the non-heroic oppressed”,[13] whose horrendous nature was the result of a scandal consisting in the merger of such contradictions as traditionally female attributes and the ability to commit murder. However, the raped protagonists do not murder their enemies like Judith but, similarly to her, use their sexuality as a weapon. Meanwhile, as Małgorzata Czermińska argues: “in the tradition stemming from Polish romantic thinking, the victim is morally and not cognitively privileged”.[14] Thus, does the female protagonist consenting to rape remain a morally privileged victim in this dominant model of thinking about history?

The impossibility of experiencing rape, surviving, and simultaneously remaining a dignified victim is presented ostentatiously in the 2016 film Life Taken, which is dedicated to the blessed Karolina Kózkówna and is clearly addressed to a Catholic audience. In 1914, a Red Army soldier murdered 16-year-old Karolina during a rape attempt. After her death, the girl was announced a martyr, she was venerated and later pronounced blessed. The fictional story compares the fate of Karolina with the story of her pregnant neighbour Teresa, who was excluded from the community precisely because of rape. She is simultaneously the victim of a Red Army soldier and of her co-residents who persecute her and consider her to be a slut, as proven by her pregnancy. The film, whiling aiming to show the magnanimity of Karolina leaning over the victim, accidentally reveals an irreconcilable dichotomy. The title protagonist was blessed because she kept her “virgin’s purity”, defending it desperately until death. Teresa is condemned because she survived the rape, which means that she was not sufficiently determined in her resistance. Hence, the film excludes the innocence of a rape victim, especially one who survived, thus sentencing her to ostracism.

This manner of thinking about sexual violence may be related to the difference between the contemporary understanding of shame and guilt. “Shame […] pertains to a trait or feature of the person, whereas guilt pertains to an act”,[15] hence only the latter is subject to punishment. “In other times and places, things were not so: religious minorities, heretics, and people with «deviant sexuality» were punished by public shaming without a conviction for any criminal act”.[16] Even though Teresa’s behaviour can hardly be considered a crime, she is punished by public shaming, from which the film distances itself only partially.

Even though not all images of film rape bear such a clear-cut nature, most of them in fact become a story about shame which does not correspond with the heroic narration. “The narrative of the dignified victim and the narrative of shame owing to the victim’s condition are contradictory, their co-existence is almost impossible since they cancel one another out”.[17] Shame characterized by Hanna Gosk refers to complicity, which in this case is reserved for the rape victim as such who experienced it and survived. The female protagonists who use rape as a survival strategy place life above the chastity of victims, thus rendering them accomplices. The elimination of shame as a feature and not an act may take place solely through death, which in turn means absence, thus excluding the possibility of redefining the traditional heroic narrative. Hence, paradoxically, instead of becoming a testimony to heroism, film depictions of rape are a sign of its impossibility both in film diegesis and in social awareness. On the one hand, they show the renouncement of ethical norms and, on the other, incompatibility with traditional historical narratives.

 

Oral history

 

Ewa Domańska, when analysing the status of a victim who escapes the role of the “ideal Other”, shows that the victim resists victimisation when she has a chance to speak for herself.[18] Owing to their actions as well as to their survivor status, the raped protagonists do not give in to total victimisation, which at least potentially allows them to tell their story.[19] Bożena Karwowska, when writing about the figures of the victim and the survivor, indicates that only the latter has a chance to speak. The author adds that “This is also related to the complex passivity of the victim manifesting itself, for example, in her inability to (rationalize and) verbalize the experience, and thus to the fact that the victim remains mute. Regaining a voice is a survivalist gesture and thus the victim never speaks; only the survivor can speak”.[20] By remaining alive, the protagonists have a chance to speak about their experience and build a type of diegetic oral history, which—as Paul Thompson puts it—“can be used to change the focus of history itself and open up new areas of inquiry. [Oral history] can give back to the people who made and experienced history, through their own words, a central place”.[21] Ordinary citizens are called on as witnesses, various positions are presented, and this is a way to tell stories outside of dominant historical discourse. “Witnesses can now also be called from the under-classes, the unprivileged, and the defeated. It provides a more realistic and fair reconstruction of the past, a challenge to the established account”.[22] This perspective makes it possible, inter alia, to hear women’s voices and stories concerning their specific experience.

Activity based on speaking about one’s experiences restores agency and dignity to the films’ protagonists, and sometimes helps transform traditional historical narratives. Felicja from How to be loved attempts to speak, but does not do so publicly. When answering a question about wartime asked by a random co-traveller to Paris, Felicja involuntarily turns to banality—an easy lie—as if used to the fact that her testimony is usually questioned, as has indeed been the case. First, her friend did not believe her, then the underground movement, then the post-war peer tribunal, and finally “those who considered her a whore”, as disclosed to her with full cruelty by Rawicz, whom she had saved. Meanwhile, the man encountered while travelling does not hesitate to speak directly about the defeats suffered. Teresa is also a film survivor—the raped protagonist of Life Taken. The piece begins and ends with her story, which the protagonist—the witness of Karolina’s holiness—tells (which is important) in a locked house. It would seem that this is a woman’s voice about a woman, presenting the common experiences of both protagonists. Nothing could be further from the truth. Her story is followed directly by a commentary—the words of a supra-narrator—explaining how a simple girl like Karolina Kózkówna became the Church’s blessed, revered by many followers. There is no more overwhelming contrast than this between the raped Teresa, who tells her story alone, enclosed within the four walls of her house, and Karolina, who “saved her virginity” and became blessed and praised by the official voice of the Church. Teresa not only does not speak of her own traumatic experience but—similarly to Felicja from How to be loved–—is subject to trial by the community, which questions her version of events relating to the rape.

A kind of a female film story is also the voice of the protagonist of The Gateway of Europe (1999), a film by Jerzy Wójcik that is based on the autobiographical recollections of Zofia Wańkiewiczówna.[23] The protagonist, Zosia, keeps a journal in which she records the events related to her service in a military hospital during WWI. The motive of rape was added to the film by the director, which helps to deprive the protagonists of the status of soldiers for the benefit of the image of victims.[24] What seems significant, however, is the choice of a protagonist who would experience rape. The division of between the silent victim (Ira) and the one who gives testimony by writing it down (Zosia) is maintained by the director. The raped one is depicted as a passive victim, and the activity that is writing does not correspond with her status. Zosia, who is appointed the heroine of this story, must remain pure.

The remaining protagonists remain silent. The mother from the series The House (1980–2000, dir. Jan Łomnicki), who lives with her adult son, the fruit of rape, does the same. Mietek Pocięgło knows about his origins but hides this information, along with his mother, from his uncle. Joanna (the title protagonist of the film by Feliks Falk) also remains silent, accused of intimate relations with a German, and condemned by the community to which she belonged. Her loved ones will never learn that the rape on the protagonist was the price for saving a Jewish child. The discretion, which was to protect the family from the consequences of hiding a Jewish girl, is replaced by shame, excluding the protagonist from both the family and the national community. It is important that it was not the rape itself, but the feeling of shame caused by the condemnation of the community with which Joanna identified that pushed the protagonist toward suicide.

The raped nuns from the Polish-French co-production titled The Innocents (Les Innocentes, 2016, dir. Anne Fontaine) also remain silent due to the trauma they experienced and the fear of social degradation. Maryśka, the only one to know about the rape of her sister, is forced into silence by the protagonists of God’s Lining (1997–1998). Anusia dies of diphtheria, but in her family’s memory she must remain untouched: good, profoundly religious, and pure. Immediately after the rape, Anusia forces her sister to remain silent precisely due to the expectations of the community, saying: “Say nothing to anyone or I will cut out your tongue”. Right after that she surprisingly abandons her role of victim by adding: “Don’t tremble like that. You won’t die from it”. Hence, what proves more important than the rape itself is the seemingly justified fear of its discovery by the family. When, following her sister’s death and against her will, Maryśka attempts to speak about the rape, she is told off by another sister, Józia: “You invented all of the dirty and disgusting story. Don’t breathe a word of this to our parents. She was pure and she died pure. Like a saint”.

The obligation to remain silent means that the experience of rape becomes neither a heroic narrative nor an alternative narrative in the face of traditional male depictions. Even when, in How to be loved or Life Taken, the protagonists speak for themselves, they do so in isolation, thus making it impossible to include these experiences in a shared narrative. Despite the support in Has’s film for the silent heroism of Felicja, this image also becomes a representation of secrecy and experience of shame, which in fact excludes a dignified victim. Even though the protagonists do not submit to passive victimisation—they battle and survive—they are finally punished for that three times: by the oppressor, by the film community, and by the inability to exist in the national heroic narrative. The silence seals their status as victims and thus repeats the gesture of the oppressor.

 

Children of war

 

A visible sign of the said silence is the lack of representation of the progeny originating from war rapes, survival prostitution, or even illegal relationships with the enemy. In its extensive comments on events related to the 20th century wars, Polish cinema very rarely tackled the subject of the consequences of forced sexual relations. This inability was visualized in the film The Innocents, in which the trace of rape in the form of pregnancy is erased by a prioress in subsequent acts of child murders, which represents in caricature the aforementioned principle that chastity is more important for society than human life. As argued by Yana Hashamova, maternity is not only the area in which the activity of raped women is revealed, but also a chance to overcome victim status by “taking control over their lives”,[25] hence the absence of this topic makes the objectification of victims easier.

Even though intimate relations between the invaders and the invaded were a part of everyday life during the war, according to Maren Roger: “predominantly German–French intimate war relations exist in Europe’s historical awareness”.[26] This topic has been particularly poorly elaborated by historians in reference to Poland, exacerbated by serious restrictions threatening both men and women in the case of breaching of the race-mixing ban. Polish women deciding on prostitution in order to survive risked more since, for such acts, “they could receive both serious punishment from the invaders and experience ostracism from compatriots”.[27] The effect is a lack of testimonies, historical research, and images dedicated to these types of relations and their consequences, i.e. war children.

Aside from the aforementioned series (The House), war children were presented in two films: the religious Life Taken and The Innocents, both of which are removed from the Polish context. In the first film, maternity is reduced to an almost surreal fantasy. Teresa, a raped single mother excluded from the community, watches a rosy, well-fed child playing in a plush illuminated room. The child born from rape was reduced to a pathetic poster promoting maternity without any regard for social context. The film avoids answering the question of social ostracism, the poverty of the protagonist, her loneliness (Teresa is an orphan), and the psychological consequences of the sexual violence she experienced. It confirms the isolation of the mother and child, showing the protagonist enclosed within the walls of the house. Even after Kozakówna’s intercession, Teresa (as she is impure) keeps at a certain distance from other mourners forming the funeral procession.

The Polish–French co-production The Innocents shows the progeny of rape whose identity, nevertheless, remains secret. The film is divided into the French perspective, i.e. represented by the main protagonist Mathilde Beaulieu, bravely fighting for the partial opening of the convent to the world to save the pregnant nuns and the children being born there. The protagonist risks her life and is close to rape, but is spared since this fact would not correspond with the heroic narrative reserved for her. The Polish perspective equals silent Polish nuns, who are ready to sacrifice their lives and the lives of their children in order to contain the shame within four walls. On the one hand, the film introduces themes absent in Polish cinema, such as war children; its title emphasizes the fundamental problem the victims struggle with, it supports life (not sexual purity) and, above all, it includes the children of nuns in the social tissue. The nuns are freed from the burden of shame with a trick: hiding the progeny of rape among war orphans taken in by the convent. In the final scene, the children, the nuns, and their families create an idyllic community, although once again it is at the price of silence. On the other hand, rape and its consequences in the form of maternity concern only Polish women, placing them on the side of silent victims. They are freed by an active French heroine from the Red Cross who, like the director, Anne Fontaine, breaks the silence. Thus, the film consolidates the stereotypical division of almost colonial character into the passive, submissive, silent, “raped” East, and the active, heroic West.

The lack of images of maternity resulting from rape stems from the tendency to eliminate the suffering of women from authentic history by taking away their specific future—the actual continuation of their lives—for the benefit of symbolic representations. This tendency corresponds with the phenomenon that Elżbieta Ostrowska wrote about when analysing the death of women on screen. The protagonists described by the author are removed, in film, “from the realm of historical experience into the realm of the mythic”.[28] The second reason for the reluctance to represent war children is the consolidation, through their presence, of abject relations. Julia Kristeva defines abject as something that “disturbs identity, system, and order that does not respect borders, positions, and rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite”.[29] In the war child, the line between what belongs to the national symbolic community and what threatens its identity becomes blurred. Moreover, “perverse interspace”[30] combines with the feminine, the woman’s body, fertilized by the enemy, which constitutes a threat to the symbolic order of the father.

The child remains a trace of abject contamination, and its status is emphasized by the conviction of inheriting the biological features of the enemy. Even though Mietek Pocięgło. the protagonist of The House series is an oppositionist dedicated to Poland, as a rape child from the era of the Warsaw Uprising he becomes an exceptionally talented Germanist as if he’d been genetically determined and inherited the linguistic competence of the unknown father in his DNA. The protagonist’s origins are in fact the reason for his inferiority complex; he considers himself a foundling even towards those whose fathers are communist dignitaries.

As Danish researchers note: “War rape aims to devalue the women and thus the wealth of the men. A precious object is turned into an abject”.[31] The authors point out that expelling the raped woman from the community becomes a necessity, for she threatens the order of the community she belonged to.[32] “He spoiled my woman” is what the protagonist of Rose says about his raped wife, on the one hand indicating the irreversible impurity attributed to the protagonist and, on the other, thinking of his raped wife as an object. The heroine becomes guilty twice: according to ethical principles (through the loss of sexual purity), and in relation to social norms (because she divided the community).

When defining “abject”, Kristeva refers to Lacan’s psychoanalysis and points out that it is precisely “on account of that Other, a space becomes demarcated, separating the abject from what will be a subject”.[33] As discussed above, the decision of the heroines to remain silent is an act of submitting to the requirements of Lacan’s Otherthe Law, the Name of the Father—and adopting an attitude that will remove the troublesome abject from the field of view. In the films discussed, the distracted observing gaze of the Big Other takes the form of constant control over the characters by “their own people”—by members of their community. Hiding in their homes, Joanna (Joanna) and Felicja (How to be loved) are continuously bothered not only by the Germans, but also by the gaze of their neighbours, family, representatives of underground organisations, and peer courts, which become an emanation of the power of the Other.

The recalled abject dimension was perversely emphasized in the film by Has, How to be loved. Felicja’s experience is juxtaposed with the heroic fate of the man encountered on her journey. During the war, as a pilot he flew high, as opposed to the “mundane” battle of Felicja who—as she claims—was not made to fly. Moreover, the contrast between sublimity and dirt is emphasized by the man’s profession: he is an epidemiologist, a specialist in the prevention of contagious diseases.

 

Erasing

 

Erasing offspring is solely a consequence or side effect of removing abject protagonists and cleansing the historical narrative. The disappearance has either a symbolic (in the form of silence or isolation) or physical dimension (death), which is also subject to the principle of absence since, according to Elżbieta Ostrowska, cinema avoids representations of women’s deaths on screen.[34] Joanna (Joanna) dissolves in the Tatra mist, where she will surely freeze to death. Biedronka (Warsaw ’44) and Niteczka (The Columbuses) die out of frame. Rose disappears: first she is moved to the private sphere where Tadeusz takes care of her, and later she dies.

The abject is expelled beyond the symbolic and social order that is responsible for identity and order and becomes subject to the law of the symbolic Other.[35] Its principles are reproduced through depictions and methods of describing historical events in which the given community recognizes itself. Rape, as an abject, while seeking its position in the symbolic order, becomes part of this order under two paradoxical conditions. The first of these corresponds to Lacan’s order of metonymy, i.e. striving to evade the forbidden object (abject) and multiply its depictions as if in its stead. The metonymy principle, which remains outside of symbolic depiction, corresponds to absence, concealment, and lack. Another mode of expression is transforming the unwanted object into a metaphor. In historical narratives, which are strongly subjected to a patriarchal dictate, this figure is responsible for the disempowerment of women and of the deprivation of their agency. They are thus limited to metaphors: instruments that humiliate the national community, means of the symbolic castration of its male representatives or, at best, symbols of the tortured homeland. For all these reasons, women are reduced in the symbolical order to the role of passive, disempowered victims.

The order of metonymy multiplies representations according to the principle of adding or speaking “instead of”, because “the Other (…) continues to resist the speaking subject, throws a spanner in its works”.[36] Metonymical multiplication characterizes Life Taken as it depicts the fates of two women of which only the suffering of one deserves holiness, while the other is isolated and stigmatized with shame. As Felicja from How to be loved says, the protagonists who have suffered trauma “hide behind the decorations” so their place can be taken by those who possess features more appropriate for the collective narrative. Rose saves her daughter from rape; she will marry Tadeusz at the altar and give herself into his care. Zosia from The Gateway of Europe remains pure, solely becoming a witness to Ira’s suffering. In Manhunt, the sexually abused Pestka, betrayer of the insurgents, saves her younger sister, a 16-year-old imprisoned by the Gestapo for distributing leaflets. According to Nancy Isenberg, “the creation of true womanhood is always contrasted to the countervailing notion of female vice: submission is contrasted to superiority, piety to heresy and irreligion, purity to pollution, and domesticity to disorderly public behaviour”.[37] Thus, the traumatized female body is replaced with one that guarantees the retention of national order and community.

The metonymical replacement also allows us to replace the image of the raped with the image of a suffering man or his heroic act. In Rose, the death of the protagonist and the rapes she experiences become the reason for Tadeusz’s suffering and stimulus to show his indomitable attitude. In Life Taken, despite the martyr’s death of Kózkówna and the rape of Teresa, it is the suffering of the blessed’s father that takes the central place in the film and is exposed in its final sequences. In The Columbuses, Niteczka sacrifices herself for the boy called Kolumb and, in order to keep him alive, pursues the rapist. After a montage cut, Kolumb, woken from delirium, crawls up the stairs to escape the basement in which Niteczka had hidden him. Instead of her suffering we have a scene reminiscent of the path to Golgotha, at the end of which the protagonist finds the girl’s dead body. The rape scene (or rather its suggestion) in Warsaw ’44 has a similar structure. Following the scene in which a repugnant pervert, a member of the Dirlewanger brigade, inspects Biedronka from head to toe, there is a cut to the part dedicated to Stefan’s escape across the destroyed city and his dramatic reaction to the girl’s death. The story ends with the vision of the boy (who likely survived) recalling the image of the already dead protagonist. We can also find similar metonymical theft in The Ring with a Crowned Eagle, in which the rape of Wiśka leads to the death of one of her defenders. Instead of the protagonist’s story, we are presented the story of the impact of her sacrifice and indomitability on her beloved, while she herself appears as Marcin’s vision and a prick of conscience. In Sekal has to die, despite the film’s criticism of the degeneration of the patriarchal system, it is the suffering of Sekal, who is in love with Agnieszka, that is exposed—not the suffering of the girl who is raped upon his orders behind closed doors.

 

Metaphor

 

The figure of the metaphor, consisting in intensification and juxtaposition of sense, includes the female protagonists in the symbolic order, i.e. the traditional historical narrative. They are reduced to a symbol; they disappear in the allegory taken from religious repertoire. According to Hans Mayer, “Theological allegoresis and allegorical meaning relegate history. (…) Allegorisation means the annihilation of the individual”.[38] Protagonists subjected to metaphysical transgression and religious purification are transformed into religious allegory (The Gateway of Europe, Joanna), or the desexualized figure of a mother (The Ring with a Crowned Eagle). In Joanna, the protagonist actively fights for survival, but her sublimity is ensured by the final scene (stylized as the Assumption)[39] in which the protagonist becomes a victim—silent, hounded, disappearing into the whiteness of the clouds. Ira from The Gateway of Europe is returned to her friends on a horse after the rape, clothed in a red robe. On the one hand, the red of the coat reminds us of a courtesan’s clothes, on the other, of the scarlet coat of Christ insulted by Jews.[40] In both films, the protagonists are reduced to victims and disarmed, but in the religious context their images hide a certain contradiction: apart from her sublimity, Joanna is also a suicide, and Ira’s naked breast becomes the source of her shame and degradation.

The same religious context is also offered to raped protagonists by purification through desexualisation and transformation in the allegory of maternity. This principle works, among others, in The Ring with a Crowned Eagle, Life Taken, or The Columbuses, as often noted by researchers analysing the presence of women in historical narratives.[41] The escape from sexuality, however, makes it impossible to deliberate upon sexual violence and pushes it into the sphere of silence.

At the same time, however, the films discussed here present a feminine version of heroism that, in spite of the aforementioned operations, does not merely realize the victim model. At the centre of the cited stories are women who are heroic, active, and who resist the enemy, marking their presence in the historical narrative. This aspect is often overlooked due to the aforementioned strategies that downgrade female protagonists as part of the community story. Analysing the masochism of female protagonists (and potential female viewers) that dominates in film melodramas, Linda Williams pointed out that it is possible to interpret films in this genre oppositely to the victim pattern inscribed in them. According to the researcher, the pathos contained in the films does not merely lead to identification with the victim and her masochism, but is also an encouragement to “a complex negotiation between emotion and thought”.[42] War narratives with women in lead roles also welcome critical reception rather than simply identifying oneself with the position of a victim. The resistance that the female protagonists of traditional historical stories put up in spite of everything may end up forming an introduction to their taking a place in the heroic narrative, provided that the symbolic field of these stories is reformulated.

 

Without shame

 

In one of the scenes from How to be loved, the German officer shows the café employees a wanted notice which threatens anybody hiding a fugitive with the death penalty. Special words addressed to Felicja are “I would like to emphasize that, according to what is written here, you are also a person”. This short exchange underscores the relationship between subjectivity and agency. As much as the protagonist maintains her subjectivity, the context in which she has to act brings her—as she says—respect in her eyes only.

The analysed films rarely present a semblance of community which would also enable privileges from the creators of collective memory. In The Gateway of Europe, it is the group of sympathetic nuns who wash their raped friend together. We can perceive this simply as a symbolic ritual, or as an emphatic community that is unhindered by shame. In The Innocents, the women create a support group with various opinions and life goals, which—as the film suggests—allows them to abandon their traumatic experience and find acceptance in the group. Also, Felicja appeals to the community, reaching a wide audience each week through her radio program. She works on social awareness, correcting on her own the radio drama scripts by referring to her personal experiences. Instead of condemning an illegitimate child (as in the script), she points to the common nature of such events. Another voice addressed to the public is the memoirs of Ola Watowa concerning her exile to Kazakhstan during WWII, which were adapted by Robert Gliński in All That Really Matters… (1992).

Surpassing the story of shame is the condition for heroic narrative and hence the need for the creation of an alternative collective memory based on an accepting community which would award heroines instead of seeking religious redemption for them. Thus, the victim status would not degrade female protagonists and would not mark them with shame. In the Polish symbolic field, a raped woman is subject to very strong victimisation; hence, it is impossible to avoid analytical thought focused on this particular aspect. At the same time, it is worth paying attention to the elements that give empowerment and agency back to the victims: using rape as self-defence or with the intention of saving a loved one, active participation in the battle, talking about the rape on their own terms, bearing offspring, creating an accepting and empathic community, or even the status of the abject, which undermines the dominant symbolic narrative. All these aspects fail to meet the criteria that traditional historical stories require of women, hence the problem with their expression in the aforementioned depictions. In spite of victimising and disempowering film strategies, the presence of the abovementioned motifs—even if only partial—may show the direction for future depictions. Leaving the sphere of privacy, referring to the authenticity of experience, or accepting agency free from punishment: all are a path toward appreciating the specifically female experience. The process of co-creating the story of the past, in which sexual violence would not degrade its victims, is a long one because it assumes the evolution of all actors involved in the undertaking, which is involved in building a collective memory.

 

References

 

Czermińska Małgorzata, “O dwuznaczności sytuacji ofiary” / “On the ambiguity of the victim’s situation”, in: Kultura po przejściach, osoby z przeszłością. Polski dyskurs postzależnościowy – konteksty i perspektywy badawcze / Culture that has undergone hardship, people with a past. Polish post-dependence discourse – research contexts and perspectives, ed. Ryszard Nycz, (Kraków: Universitas) (2011).

Diken Bülent, Laustsen Carsten Bagge, “Becoming Abject: Rape as a Weapon of War”, Body & Society 1, vol 11 (2005).

Domańska Ewa, “O poznawczym uprzywilejowaniu ofiary (uwagi metodologiczne)” / “On cognitive privileges of the victim (methodological remarks)”, in: (Nie)obecność: pominięcia i przemilczenia w narracjach XX wieku / Absence: omissions and concealments in 20th-century narratives, ed. Hanna Gosk, (Warszawa: Dom Wydawniczy Elipsa) (2008).

Dybel Paweł, Urwane Ścieżki. Przybyszewski-Freud-Lacan / Broken Paths. Przybyszewski-Freud-Lacan, (Kraków: Universitas) (2000).

Gosk Hanna, “(Nie)obecność opowieści o wstydzie w narracji losu polskiego” / “The absence of the story of shame in the narrative of Polish fate”, in: Kultura po przejściach, osoby z przeszłością… /  Culture that has undergone hardship, people with a past. Polish post-dependence discourse – research contexts and perspectives, ed. Ryszard Nycz, (Kraków: Universitas) (2011).

Hashamova Yana, “War Rape: (Re)defining Motherhood, Fatherhood and Nationhood”, in: Embracing Arms: Cultural Representation of Slavic and Balkan Women in War, ed. Helena Goscilo, (New York: Central European University Press) (2012).

Isenberg Nancy, “Second Thoughts on Gender and Women’s History”, American Studies 1, vol. 36 (1995).

Jarska Natalia, “Women and Men at War. A Gender Perspective on World War II and its Aftermath in Central and Eastern Europe, ed. Maren Röger, Ruth Leiserowitzn (review)”, Pamięć i Sprawiedliwość. Pismo naukowe poświęcone historii najnowszej 2 (2014).

Karwowska Bożena, “«Kult ofiary» w oczach polskich pisarek emigrantek a «kult ocaleńca» w refleksji krytycznej na temat dyskursów wyzwoleńczych” / “«The cult of the victim» seen by Polish migrant female writers and «the cult of the survivor» in critical reflection on liberation discourses” in: Kultura po przejściach, osoby z przeszłością… /   Culture that has undergone hardship, people with a past. Polish post-dependence discourse – research contexts and perspectives, ed. Ryszard Nycz, (Kraków: Universitas) (2011).

Karwowska Bożena, “Zatarte sensy prozy łagrowej: Seweryny Szmaglewskiej «Dymy nad Birkenau» wtedy i dziś” / “The blurred senses of labour camp prose: Seweryna Szmaglewska «Smoke over Birkenau» then and now”, in: (Nie)obecność: pominięcia i przemilczenia w narracjach XX wieku / Absence: omissions and concealments in 20th-century narratives, ed. Hanna Gosk, (Warszawa: Dom Wydawniczy Elipsa) (2008).

Kristeva Julia, Powers of horror. An essay of abjection, trans. Leon S. Roudiez, (New York: Columbia University Press) (1982)

Laplanche Jean, Pontalis J.-B., Słownik psychoanalizy / Dictionary of Psychoanalysis, trans. Ewa Modzelewska, Ewa Wojciechowska, (Warsaw: Wydawnictwo Szkolne i Pedagogiczne) (1996).

Mazierska Ewa, Ostrowska Elżbieta, Women in Polish Cinema, (New York: Berghahn Books) (2006).

Mayer Hans, Odmieńcy / Outsiders, trans. Anna Kryczyńska,  (Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Literackie Muza) (2005).

Morstin Agnieszka, “Mocne filmy i głębokie kompleksy. Róża Wojtka Smarzowskiego wobec Jak być kochaną Wojciecha J. Hasa” / „Strong Films and Deep Complexes. Rose by Wojtek Smarzowski compared with How to be loved by Wojciech J. Has”, Kwartalnik Filmowy 77-78 (2012).

Morstin-Popławska Agnieszka, “Ziemie odzyskana – życia utracone. O Roku spokojnego słońca Krzysztofa Zanussiego” / “Reclaimed land – lost life. On  A Year of the Quiet Sun by Krzysztof Zanussi”, in: Kino polskie wobec II wojny światowej / Polish cinema and WWII, ed. Piotr Zwierzchowski, Daria Mazur, Mariusz Guzek, (Bydgoszcz: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Kazimierza Wielkiego) (2011).

Nussbaum Martha C., Hiding from Humanity. Disgust, Shame, and the Law, (Princeton: Princeton University Press) (2004).

Ostrowska Elżbieta, “Invisible Deaths: Polish Cinema’s Representation of Women in World War II”, in: Embracing Arms: Cultural Representation of Slavic and Balkan Women in War, ed. Helena Goscilo, (New York: Central European University Press) (2012).

Ostrowska-Chmura Elżbieta, “Polka – dumny przedmiot pożądania” / “Pole – a proud object of desire”, in: Ciało i seksualność w kinie polskim / Sexuality and the Body in Polish Cinema, ed. Sebastian Jagielski, Agnieszka Morstin-Popławska, (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Jagiellońskiego) (2009).

Röger Maren, “(Nie)codzienność podczas niemieckiej okupacji w zachodniej i wschodniej Europie: prostytucja, stosunki intymne i «dzieci wojny» we Francji, Belgii i w Polsce” / „(Not)everyday life during German occupation in Western and Eastern Europe: prostitution, intimate relations and “war children” in France, Belgium and Poland”, trans. Katarzyna Chimiak, in: Okupowana Europa. Podobieństwa i różnice / Occupied Europe. Similarities and differences, ed. Waldemar Grabowski, (Warszawa: IPN) (2014).

Sokołowska-Paryż Marzena, “War Rape: Trauma and the Ethics of Representation”, in: Traumatic Memories of the Second World War and After, ed. Peter Leese, Jason Crouthamel, (New York: Springer International Publishing) (2016).

Thompson Paul, The Voice of the Past. Oral History, (Oxford: Oxford University Press) (1988).

Zwierzchowski Piotr, Spektakl i ideologia. Szkice o filmowych wyobrażeniach śmierci heroicznej / Spectacle and ideology. Sketches on film conceptions of heroic death, (Kraków: Rabid) (2006).

Williams Linda, “Melodrama Revisited”, in: Refiguring American Film Genres: History and Theory, ed. N. Browne, (Berkeley: University of California Press) (1998).

 

[1] Piotr Zwierzchowski, Spektakl i ideologia. Szkice o filmowych wyobrażeniach śmierci heroicznej / Spectacle and ideology. Sketches on film conceptions of heroic death, (Kraków: Rabid) (2006), p. 184.

[2] Natalia Jarska, “Women and Men at War. A Gender Perspective on World War II and its Aftermath in Central and Eastern Europe, ed. Maren Röger, Ruth Leiserowitzn (review)”, Pamięć i Sprawiedliwość. Pismo naukowe poświęcone historii najnowszej 2  (2014), p. 505.

[3] Ibid., p. 510

[4] Bożena Karwowska,  “Zatarte sensy prozy łagrowej: Seweryny Szmaglewskiej «Dymy nad Birkenau» wtedy i dziś” / “The blurred senses of labour camp prose: Seweryna Szmaglewska «Smoke over Birkenau» then and now”, in: (Nie)obecność: pominięcia i przemilczenia w narracjach XX wieku / Absence: omissions and concealments in 20th-century narratives, ed. Hanna Gosk, (Warszawa: Dom Wydawniczy Elipsa) (2008), p. 253.

[5] We rarely encounter war images that present the rape of men (Kornblumenblau, 1988, dir. Leszek Wosiewicz). In Polish cinema, we can indicate homosexual or heterosexual survival prostitution (Kornblumenblau, 1988, dir. Leszek Wosiewicz) (Down Carrier, 1983, dir. Stefan Szlachtycz and Warsaw: Year5703, 1992, dir. Janusz Kijowski) that is related to this experience.

[6] Bülent Diken, Carsten Bagge Laustsen, “Becoming Abject: Rape as a Weapon of War”, Body & Society 1, vol 11 (2005), p. 112.

[7] Natalia Jarska, op. cit., p. 506.

[8] Yana Hashamova, “War Rape: (Re)defining Motherhood, Fatherhood and Nationhood”, in: Embracing Arms: Cultural Representation of Slavic and Balkan Women in War, ed. Helena Goscilo, (New York: Central European University Press) (2012), p. 235.

[9] Marzena Sokołowska-Paryż, “War Rape: Trauma and the Ethics of Representation”, in: Traumatic Memories of the Second World War and After, ed. Peter Leese, Jason Crouthamel, (New York: Springer International Publishing) (2016), p. 223.

[10] Ewa Domańska, “O poznawczym uprzywilejowaniu ofiary (uwagi metodologiczne)” / “On cognitive privileges of the victim (methodological remarks)”, in: (Nie)obecność: pominięcia i przemilczenia w narracjach XX wieku / Absence: omissions and concealments in 20th-century narratives, op. cit., p. 32.

[11] Agnieszka Morstin-Popławska, “Ziemie odzyskana – życia utracone. O Roku spokojnego słońca Krzysztofa Zanussiego” / “Reclaimed land – lost life. On A Year of the Quiet Sun by Krzysztof Zanussi”, in: Kino polskie wobec II wojny światowej / Polish cinema and WWII, ed. Piotr Zwierzchowski, Daria Mazur, Mariusz Guzek, (Bydgoszcz: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Kazimierza Wielkiego) (2011), p. 223.

[12] Bożena Karwowska, “Zatarte sensy prozy łagrowej…” / “The blurred senses of labour camp prose…”, op. cit., p. 263.

[13] Hans Mayer, Outsiders, trans. Anna Kryczyńska,  (Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Literackie Muza) (2005), p. 75.

[14] Małgorzata Czermińska, “O dwuznaczności sytuacji ofiary” / “On the ambiguity of the victim’s situation”, in: Kultura po przejściach, osoby z przeszłością. Polski dyskurs postzależnościowy – konteksty i perspektywy badawcze / Culture that has undergone hardship, people with a past. Polish post-dependence discourse – research contexts and perspectives, ed. Ryszard Nycz, (Kraków: Universitas) (2011), p. 94.

[15] Martha C. Nussbaum, Hiding from Humanity. Disgust, Shame, and the Law, (Princeton: Princeton University Press) (2004), p. 229.

[16] Ibid., p. 176-177.

[17] Hanna Gosk, “(Nie)obecność opowieści o wstydzie w narracji losu polskiego” / “The absence of the story of shame in the narrative of Polish fate”, in: Kultura po przejściach, osoby z przeszłością… / Culture that has undergone hardship, people with a past…, op. cit., p. 90.

[18] Ewa Domańska, op. cit., p. 24.

[19] Agnieszka Morstin compares Rose by Wojciech Smarzowski with How to be loved by Wojciech J. Has; she emphasizes the role of the subjective narrative used in the latter film as a strategy for abandoning the victim status. See: Agnieszka Morstin, “Mocne filmy i głębokie kompleksy…” / “Strong Films and Deep Complexes. Rose by Wojtek Smarzowski compared with How to be loved by Wojciech J. Has”, Kwartalnik Filmowy 77-78 (2012), p. 206.

[20] Bożena Karwowska, “«Kult ofiary» w oczach polskich pisarek emigrantek a «kult ocaleńca» w refleksji krytycznej na temat dyskursów wyzwoleńczych” / “«The cult of the victim» seen by Polish migrant female writers and «the cult of the survivor» in critical reflection on liberation discourses” in: Kultura po przejściach, osoby z przeszłością… / Culture that has undergone hardship, people with a past…, op. cit. p. 327.

[21] Paul Thompson, The Voice of the Past. Oral History, (Oxford: Oxford University Press) (1988), p. 26.

[22] Ibid., p. 28.

[23] The recollections of Zofia Wańkowiczówna were used by her grandson, Melchior Wańkowicz, to create the short story titled Hospital in Cichinicze. Based on this story, Jerzy Wójcik made the film The Gateway of Europe.

[24] Elżbieta Ostrowska writes in detail about the adaptive changes and femininity under the rule of nationalist ideology (Elżbieta Ostrowska-Chmura, “Polka – dumny przedmiot pożądania” / “Pole – a proud object of desire”, in: Ciało i seksualność w kinie polskim / Sexuality and the Body in Polish Cinema, ed. Sebastian Jagielski, Agnieszka Morstin-Popławska, (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Jagiellońskiego) (2009), p. 139-153).

[25] Yana Hashamova, op. cit., p. 235.

[26] Maren Roger, “(Nie)codzienność podczas niemieckiej okupacji w zachodniej i wschodniej Europie: prostytucja, stosunki intymne i «dzieci wojny» we Francji, Belgii i w Polsce” / „(Not)everyday life during German occupation in Western and Eastern Europe: prostitution, intimate relations and “war children” in France, Belgium and Poland”, trans. Katarzyna Chimiak, in: Okupowana Europa. Podobieństwa i różnice / Occupied Europe. Similarities and differences, ed. Waldemar Grabowski, (Warszawa: IPN) (2014), p. 77.

[27] Ibid., p. 87.

[28] Elżbieta Ostrowska, “Invisible Deaths: Polish Cinema’s Representation of Women in World War II”, in: Embracing Arms…, op cit., p. 56.

[29] Julia Kristeva, Powers of horror. An essay of abjection, trans. Leon S. Roudiez, (New York: Columbia University Press) (1982), p. 4.

[30] Ibid., p. 16.

[31] Bülent Diken, Carsten Bagge Laustsen, op. cit., p. 117.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Julia Kristeva, op. cit., p. 10.

[34] See Elżbieta Ostrowska, “Invisible Deaths…”, op. cit., p. 30.

[35] Jean Laplanche, J.-B. Pontalis, Słownik psychoanalizy / Dictionary of Psychoanalysis, trans. Ewa Modzelewska, Ewa Wojciechowska, (Warsaw: Wydawnictwo Szkolne i Pedagogiczne) (1996), p. 317.

[36]  Paweł Dybel, Urwane Ścieżki. Przybyszewski-Freud-Lacan / Broken Paths. Przybyszewski-Freud-Lacan, (Kraków: Universitas) (2000), p. 268.

[37] Nancy Isenberg, “Second Thoughts on Gender and Women’s History”, American Studies 1, vol. 36 (1995), p. 99.

[38] Hans Mayer, op. cit., p. 74 and 77.

[39] The vertical direction can be found also in such films as: The Ring with a Crowned Eagle, The Columbuses, Life Taken.

[40] Elżbieta Ostrowska describes this scene as “a feminine allegory of Poland”. See: Elżbieta Ostrowska-Chmura, „Polka – dumny przedmiot…” / „Pole – a proud object…”, op. cit., p. 148.

[41] See Ewa Mazierska, Elżbieta Ostrowska, Women in Polish Cinema, (New York: Berghahn Books) (2006), p. 15-54.

[42] Linda Williams, “Melodrama Revisited”, in: Refiguring American Film Genres: History and Theory, ed. N. Browne, (Berkeley: University of California Press) (1998), p. 49.

Eat like a Republican and you won’t get AIDS – a conversation with Barbara Hammer

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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 1, pp. 150-160.

 

Andrzej Pitrus

Jagiellonian University

 

 

Eat like a Republican and you won’t get AIDS

– a conversation with Barbara Hammer

 

 

Andrzej Pitrus: In 2009 I had the honor to speak to Jonas Mekas. Many people consider him the father of American avant-garde. Do you agree?

Barbara Hammer: I don’t agree. Should I tell you why?

Yes, sure.

I think Jonas Mekas did a lot to contribute to avant-garde film in the United States and internationally, but in terms of American avant-garde, I think we have to look to Maya Deren, and even before – to James Sibley Watson, his Fall of the House of Usher in 1928. His Lot in Sodom was shown,—I was shocked to read this—in Times Square in 1933 without any censorship at all.

Before Mekas there were many American experimental filmmakers, but he was a person  promoted their works. Of course I asked Jonas: “Do you feel more Lithuanian or American?” He answered “No, I’m not American, I’m from New York. When I go outside the city, I’m a foreigner again.”

I also asked him for his definition of experimental film and he said: “There’s no such thing! Scientists make experiments, I don’t really believe that there’s something like experimental film”. It was a difficult conversation in a way. I wonder if you agree with him?

I definitely think there’s something like experimental film. In Sanctus (1990), which is composed of moving x-rays of a human body that Dr. James Sibley Watson showed in the 50s, my experiment was to try to put a halo around the body, the skeletons, and to use secondary colors, like orange, lavender, turquoise, not red, blue and yellow. I wanted a subtle celebration of the bones and organs with these muted colors. If you look inside the interior of the body, which is mostly water, and see organs floating around, it seems very quiet and meditative. I wanted to celebrate the body, not the way we usually see it. That was an experiment, I had to do many trials, and fail, and try again, to get everything the way I wanted it… So I think there is experimental film, yes.

I was quite ‘disappointed’ with his answer, because what I do for living is teach experimental film. Should I quit my job?

Mekas replaced this idea with a notion of ‘cinema of the authors’. He said, “I’m an author, I’m a person, who, in a way, uses a camera like a pen”.

He is speaking for his own kind of cinema. He doesn’t see his work as experimental. After all, I don’t know what the word is in English… ” a writer of images”.

How do you see yourself in the tradition of the American avant-garde? In your early career you made a film on Stan Brakhage. Unfortunately I haven’t seen it. Then, you made another film about his wife, so I wonder if Brakhage is important for you and in which way?

Thank you for that question. I was very drawn to international film. When I was just 30 years old, I saw Bergman’s movie with subtitles and I thought, “Oh, here’s intellectual cinema”. Then, I went to Cinematheque in San Francisco and I saw Stan Brakhage’s Dog Star Man (1961-1964), in which he walks up a mountain to cut down a tree. It’s more than 60 minutes long, I think, and it changed my world view. When I left the cinema theatre, I saw the street around me, the lights, the trees growing, the pavement differently. That was fascinating to me. I also was taking a class where we saw everything Brakhage made up until then. An early film dedicated to Brakhage is The Song of a Clinking Cup (1972). It’s not ever been transferred from 8mm, so there’s no way you could probably see it. I’ve never shown it.

Yes, it is very hard to find.

Jane Brakhage was my thesis film, and it only exists in 16mm. We are writing some grants to get money for digitizers so it can be made available. Another film that hasn’t been released is an interview I did with her parents asking about her relationship with Stan, as well as herself of course, and this exists as a video transferred to DVD, but it hasn’t been edited, so I want to go back and work on it. I think I will call it Jane Brakhage, too or Jane Brankhage Two.

Speaking about Brakhage… Maya Deren, who’s certainly important for you, once said that his film about his baby being born was too much. I wonder if you agree with it?

This is amazing, because Window Water Baby Moving (1959) is exactly why I made Jane Brakhage, but I never knew Maya Deren had any commentary about it. Where did she say that?

I am not sure, but I have found these words of Brakhage himself: ‘It was Maya Deren’s contention that the film was a blasphemy… because it permitted men to see what they’re not supposed to see’. 

In Window Water Baby Moving he shows childbirth in a very explicit way.  And it was made in the late 50s when it wasn’t that common not only to share images of childbirth on film, but also for a father to participate in it.

We can thank him for that film and for another, when he went to the morgue to capture The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes (1971). I really objected to that birth film, especially after I met Jane Brakhage, because he shows her as an earth goddess: you see her in a bathtub with her pregnant belly and she’s celebrated as if she was on a pedestal, as if she was extraordinary in terms of mythology. So I decided I wanted to meet her. We invited Stan and Jane to the San Francisco State University, where I was a graduate student. She was so not a goddess; she was a very practical person. She collected seeds from trees in San Francisco when we were walking to the school, and she was going to plant them and see if they would grow. I made my thesis film on her and I went to Colorado, high up in the mountains in Rollinsville, and I found the most amazing woman. She wrote an alphabet of dog language. She could play on her recorder songs to the birds and they would answer her. She put out the laundry and then opened her hand without any food in it and birds landed on it. She took a walk through the snow—I was there in January—and her donkey and goats, besides her dogs, followed us on the walk. She was an extraordinary woman, who was abused in a way by Stan Brakhage.  He talked all day, she had to sit there and listen to him.

And also she had to be in his films!

And she didn’t get credit! Who shot him when he was cutting down the tree? It was Jane Brakhage, she told me.

There was a problem with his second wife, who didn’t want to be filmed. So he started making non-camera films, painting and scratching, and once he said that this was because his second wife didn’t really want to be shown, especially giving birth or having sex with him…

Well, I think he was being clever, because he did make Mothlight (1964) a year before which is a cameraless film though not hand painted or scratched; it’s a wonderful film. He takes moths and takes their wings and puts them on celluloid—16mm film—and then has it re-photographed in a lab, so you are seeing moths ‘flying’, bringing reality into projection in a way nobody had done before.

We’ve just watched Dyketactics (1974). It was made when the approach to explicit sex on the screen changed. On one hand, there’s your experimental film, and on the other there’s Deep Throat (1972), a mainstream porn flick and a feature film at the same time. Correct me if I’m wrong, but the sex in Dyketactics is said to be staged, so there’s no pleasure involved. How it is to stage a sex scene?

I think it’s wonderful to perform… In my opinion, when you’re shooting sex, it’s always staged, it’s always a performance. In terms of shooting sex without performance I guess you could put a camera on the wall and let it run for a week, and maybe you would forget it. But I think there’s pleasure in performance and there can be pleasure in a stage set, but you’re very aware of the camera being there, and besides, with the Bolex you only get 19 feet, so it’s going to stop. You can giggle and then wind it again. Anyway, I’m in the film and I’m directing it, so I know it was staged, I know it was pleasurable. I had the idea that the best shot in the film is the most intimate. The Bolex can run by itself, so you wind it and you put it between the two bodies and you just take your hand away. It shoots the scene of the two women pulling their hands up along the body. You have three-dimensionality, depth, sensuality, hand touching. If I may interject, my cinema is about connecting touch and sight. It was perfect to make the screen a sexual haptic experience, so I hope the audience feel in their bodies what they see with their eyes. My research shows that we all touch as infants before we see. For two months your eyes don’t focus. That’s why I have 110 images in these four minutes, and every image has a sense of touch in it.

Dyketactics was certainly a breakthrough and probably the first arthouse film in which an explicit lesbian sex scene is shown. But obviously, before that there were many pornographic films with both heterosexual and homosexual scenes. This was a very important and interesting moment, because in the 70s porn films went mainstream, and at the same time, there were also people who wanted to use pornography in a different way. Do you believe it is possible to use pornography in a decent, proper way and make some kind of value out of it?

When you say “a proper way”, do you mean for pleasure, for sexual arousal?

Actually no… Mainstream pornography is an exploitation of mostly female bodies and female sexuality made for men’s pleasure. But there were feminists who wanted to redefine pornography. I’m asking this question, because your film is certainly not pornography in a proper sense, but it is as explicit as some well-known, soft-core pornography films. The borderline is really obscure.

This is a fun question. We could probably talk about it for hours. I have no objection to people being stimulated in whatever way they want: visually, texturally, with their imagination or with the real thing, but I think I was very concerned that my work would not be possible to voyeur. So when you come to some other films, like Nitrate Kisses (1992), when you have four different couples making love throughout the feature documentary, I make sure that I interrupt the film. There’s the rupture, not only to show the loss of gay history, which was my intention, but also to say that this film was not made for sexual pleasure and stimulation, although it’s ok with me if you are stimulated. The whole film is about censorship of queer history, but when I looked at my own community I had to ask: what are we censoring? We’re censoring the sexual practices of old women—we never see them on the screen—or black and white couples, or young women who shave their heads and tattoo their bodies. We’re censoring sadomasochistic sex practices—this was at the time of the sex wars in the feminist community. I wanted to say: “hey, we’re not holier than you,  we have our own censorship”.

I really enjoyed your Menses (1974), because it’s so affirmative. In many films or feminist performances the problem of menstruation was shown as a kind of a curse. I don’t really know much about it, I wish I could…

I encourage students and filmmakers to make work that is gender specific.  For example, many times when I’m teaching I have young Caucasian men in my class… I haven’t seen a film of a wet dream yet! There are different expressions that our gendered bodies have, so I’m happy to tell you about menstruation.

The girls who are buying massive amounts of tampax and stuff… It is funny and affirmative. This is a kind of radical happening, but like nothing else on the subject.

I made that film because I had seen Walt Disney films. When we were children, the girls were separated from the boys to see films about menstruation. It was all about flowers, it wasn’t at all about the experience of dripping blood between your legs. There are some serious points in Menses. For instance, I researched menstruation in history. I had a slumber party and I shared my research with the young women who are in the film, and one of my sources was from the Roman author Pliny, who said that if a woman is menstruating and she touches a pregnant horse, its milk will go sour. Historically, women have been banned in different cultures during menstruation: you have to go to a house outside the village. That the impetus plus my own personal history with my mother telling me about menstruation—which she didn’t—that made me make that film.

Another film made in the 70s, Superdyke (1975), is also funny. It shows girls attacking institutions and taking over. But I wonder if experimental or avant-garde cinema is the best ‘weapon’ for an activist? Once a German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder said that he had realized the audience he wanted to address really enjoyed melodramas and Hollywood film rather than his revolutionary works. So, in a way, his avant-garde and experimental cinema made very little sense. People he wanted to reach preferred mainstream culture. You make experimental films, and you are probably seen as an activist…

I’m functioning as a visual artist.  I can make what I want if I’m self-funding my films. I think I made my films out of my own pocket for 15 years at least. So I have to be giving myself pleasure, I have to be doing what I want for the reasons that I have, and they don’t necessarily have anything to do with activism. My audience is the same as Fassbinder’s: they want a narrative, they want a lesbian happy ending. In the 70s or the 80s, the queer audience wasn’t used to experimental film any more than the straight audience. I can’t say that my films were always well attended. Sometimes they were, when my name became known or if there were a celebration and we could dance afterwards. The times were different then. The thing is, Fassbinder isn’t alive today, and I am. So I’m wondering about his change of direction. You see what I mean? If we don’t do what really pleases us, maybe we get depressed and choose an ending.

What killed him was drugs and alcohol…

But we can ask – why the drugs and alcohol?

In Women I Love (1976) you used slightly different imagery. In the early films you were explicit, and I think at that time it could be quite shocking to some people. Then, in Women I Love you opt for Georgia O’Keefe-style imagery, more metaphorical and poetical: fruits and vegetables evoking sexual organs.

You could say that the film Women I Love was in 1976, just two years after Dyketactics, and then in ‘93 I’m showing explicit sexuality again. In History Lessons in 2000 I’m showing pornography of lesbians made by men. I don’t think there’s some adverse reaction that I was having toward sexual expression. I was interested in animation, and also these were six or seven of my lovers that I had no intention of making a film about. When I started, I was just shooting our relationship without intention to put it in a film for others.  Then it seemed to me on one rainy day, when there was nothing to do but make a film, that each woman could represent a different fruit or vegetable. I only had that material that I had shot to work with, and that became Women I Love.

You mentioned lesbian pornography made by men. I wonder why it is so popular among men to watch lesbian pornography.

Well, I have to ask you that! But let me talk about History Lesson, if I may. I made three feature documentaries about ideas rather than a person or persons. These are essay films. They’re all about queer history. After Nitrate Kisses (1992), I made a post-postmodern autobiography called Tender Fictions (1995), and that was followed by History Lessons (2000). If you look for lesbian cinema when I started making film there wasn’t any and I felt that we needed to have a foundation to build our culture.  My plan was that I would take what was already there: medical films made about lesbians, educational films—‘oh, don’t let your daughter get to close to her schoolmate’—and pornography made by men. Going back to the 1920s, I found pornographic film and made a comedy out of those. My idea is that these manmade negative or fantastical ideas of what lesbian sex was like could be our history—and that became very queer as I took something that already existed, turned it around, made it malleable and flexible, and reclaimed it. That’s making queer cinema space, and I didn’t have that language for it when I made it, but I knew I wanted to make a foundation of what was there and I could do it through being humorous.

Heterosexual men would never go and watch homosexual pornography with males, but on the other hand many of them would enjoy lesbian scenes in pornography. Why?

Because if they watched male homosexual sexuality, that might implicate them, but a woman—soft, gentle and a lesbian? Maybe they could convince her to have sex with them. It isn’t threatening, it doesn’t threaten their masculine construction. You and I were brought up by our parents, school and educational system. You and I could have exactly the same feelings if we were brought up in a non-sexist environment. I think it’s possible and I think young people today are experiencing that. It’s not about me changing the world, it’s about the world changing.

Today your visit is really important. You probably know that in 2015 Poles elected a new government. Quite a disaster, I think. Our new minister of higher education once said that we had ‘to do something’ with all those gender studies, because they are not a real academic subject. I am quite concerned since I am an academic and I do deal with gender studies a lot.

Just a few days ago, there was a huge conflict over abortion. You probably know that the Polish law is quite restrictive at the moment, but there was a fight in the Polish Parliament over the right to abortion. The party called Prawo i Sprawiedliwość that has a majority there wanted to ban it completely. Even if the child is an effect of a rape or is dead, not able to live, or has severe medical issues, you cannot abort. You said once that we still have to fight for feminist issues; if we win, then feminism is not necessary. How do you see Poland in this context?

On one hand it is shocking what the government is prescribing in the legislature, and on the other hand it is amazing to the world to see the activism of the public, 24,000 on the streets, men and women. Men can be feminists too. I know more demonstrations were planned, because my Polish friends are directly involved in that. The power of the people on the streets can immediately change the minds of mostly men in the legislature to reconsider. And it did! I think it’s very successful. Feminism is certainly still necessary and not only in Poland, but in every country on this small planet. We haven’t arrived. Certainly you know that.

I think it’s successful, but on the other hand I also have some doubts about it. Maybe they really didn’t want to change the law in the first place, but just played it to make people come to the streets and protest. Abortion has always been a ‘replacement topic’ in Poland. Now they can say, “Well, we are listening to you! You will have what you want”.

I don’t think they’re that smart.

They’re not too smart in one way, and very smart in another. Well, I’m not sure if they are listening, but if they are, they are going shut Mocak down pretty soon.

That really surprises and shocks me and it’s the first time I’ve heard that so I don’t know what to say, except to listen to you and be open. Maybe that’s possible, but I have the feeling that if the legislature hasn’t changed and they really haven’t fixed the law—yet it is too soon to see—that it could become a global imperative, that people from all over Europe, Australia, the southeast Asia, the US, South America would be come to Poland to protest. I had this vision. I think it will happen if things aren’t changed.

Let’s hope so. I think that the people who protested were really honest, but the government knows the statistics: over seventy percent of Polish society does not expect change in the abortion law. They support the status quo. Yet, some Polish people are more progressive and they want abortion on demand. But only some of them.

My next question is related to a film that I really like. It’s called Pools (1981) and it’s really different, since it does not seem to have a feminist subject. But underneath there’s something, because actually it’s a film about a female architect who designed this strange palace for ‘Citizen Kane’. In this film you manipulate the film stock. What made you interested in the very substance of cinema?

I began to identify as an artist when I was 27 and when I was 30 I was taking a painting class. I thought I’d be a painter. My teacher came up to me and said, “You are more interested in movement than you are in putting the paint on the canvas”. Our subject was a woman on a motorcycle. She came right into the studio and I painted her with four arms and four legs. I’d never seen Duchamp, I didn’t know that much about art at the time. In any case, that’s what he told me and he brought in some clear film without any image on it and a projector, and he told me I could paint on the film, so I started painting and projecting the painted film onto the canvas. Then I started painting with fluorescent paint and used a black light that I would turn on and off during projection so the images would flicker. I think he was right: I used to paint all the way around the room.

In Pools though it was a different technique.  I made the film with Barbara Klutinis whose work as a still photographer who hand painted her photographs I appreciated.  We took stills during the shoot at the swimming pools at the Hearst Castel and we filmed with stop motion our hand painting of the printed black and white photographs later in my studio.  Of course, this led to some abstractions of the original photographic image.

Do you feel attached to this tradition of abstraction?

I love abstraction, but I don’t feel attached to it.

I was thinking about Stan Brakhage. His handmade films were like Jackson Pollock’s paintings in miniature…

Yes, I love many of those films. But societal injustices often pull me back from abstraction.  For example, in Snow Job: The Media Hysteria of AIDS (1986), I’m talking about media and how it has distorted the truth. For instance, I found bumper stickers in the United States that say “Eat like a Republican and you won’t get AIDS”… Really crazy things. “Don’t let your hairdresser sneeze on you”. Full of stereotypes. In 1985  I turned to a critical cinema that was led not by my body, but by my mind. There are stages in the entire body of my oeuvre and I think those changes should be considered  when an idea is addressed.

Sanctus (1990) is based on x-ray film. You discovered it in Rochester, in George Eastman House.  Before you were showing the surface of the body; here you go deeper. In a way it is a manipulated found footage film, but you use it to understand something very substantial. What was so interesting in those x-ray films to you, and why did you want to interact with stock itself?

I am using images of the basic body structure and it was intuitively right to work with the basic physical structure of film. Theme and process made a handshake. The fact that film is chemically based I love and exploit:  it can burn, you can drop acid on it, you can make the most beautiful circles just with water drops, you can throw salt on it which is a crystal formation that creates facets of light. I’ve taken film and put it through the sewing machine, then re-photographed it in Endangered (1988), where I talk about life on the Galapagos Islands being endangered and really all of us, because it is a material form.  That’s the reason, and because—approaching it as a painter originally—I want to put my hands on film stock and move it around, but now it’s digital.

The next film I want to discuss is one of my favorites: Nitrate Kisses from the early 90s. There is some kind of relationship between Sanctus and this one. In this film you combine two subjects: cinema that passes away, and lesbian sensuality and its memory. What is the link between them? The film is about something that we lose in terms of cinema, its material aspect, and also in terms of memory of lesbian history.

Both films are about loss. In Nitrate Kisses (1992) I am working with the loss of lesbian and gay history whereas in Sanctus I am interested in the loss of the healthy body due to medical practices. I was really influenced by Roland Barthes’ and Walter Benjamin’s studies of history. Benjamin says that you can understand a culture by its fragments. This is what made me think that the fragments of queer history can be brought together and made into a whole. We don’t need to have the entire bottle here to understand it. It could be broken and if we have one piece of glass, we can understand that this culture was based on heat, perhaps coal. We can surmise a lot about the culture from the fragment. Also, I like the audience to become the archeologist of the cinematic fragments. They have to make the meaning rather than me spoon feeding them with my ideology.

In A Horse is Not a Metaphor (2008) you relate to your experience with cancer. The film is very personal, so I wonder if you made it to break another taboo or just for yourself?

I think about all my films going back to Dyketactics and even before (for example, a film called A Gay Day (1973)) are to make what is not seen visible. I have never seen a film or read a book about going through chemotherapy; that’s why I made that film. And also because people don’t know about ovarian cancer, which is the kind of cancer that I have, and I wanted to share the knowledge and experiences I’ve had.  Ovarian cancer is often misdiagnosed. If you knew what the symptoms were, you would be able to survive it if you caught it in the first few stages. At the end of the film I mention the symptons: bloating, frequent urination, back pain and so on. There are many doctors who have misdiagnosed ovarian cancer saying: ‘oh, you have gastrointestinal issues’, they don’t go and take a scan where they could see that there’s a tumor growing on the ovary, remove it and go through a complete hysterectomy, which is required if you’re going to survive. I learned these things during my cancer, because I had frequent urination, but I was in Cambodia, hiking up the temples, thinking “oh, I’m drinking a lot of water, that’s the reason”. If I knew the symptons perhaps I would have caught the cancer earlier. I never thought I’d make a film on that, I didn’t mean to shoot it. My friend and fellow filmmaker Barbara Klutinis shot all the footage of me with a bald head and walking nude in the forest, my spouse shot me in the waiting room and getting the chemo dripped. Then, the last day of treatment I decided to take the camera myself because the light was so beautiful, coming through the chemistry that was hanging by the window in all those bags. That is how I got the footage. It was only maybe a year or two later that I decided to make the film. People said to me right away, ‘You’re gonna make a film about it, aren’t you?’, and I said ‘no” never thinking I’d show something as awful as going through chemotherapy.

You said that Maya Deren is a key figure in American avant-garde cinema? In what way is she still important to you?

She’s important for all of us! Back in 1972 I’m taking a film history class. I hadn’t heard of Truffaut etc. During the semester class every film shown was made by a male director. I couldn’t believe it! This class was almost over and we hadn’t seen a woman director. Suddenly on the screen there was this 15-minute black-and-white film. I knew it was made by a woman, because the images were entirely different from what a male would shoot and because she was working from the inside out. She was showing her emotions through her directing the enigmatic imagery.  I thought, “Aha! I’m sure I should make cinema now”. If they don’t show anybody for the entire year except for this one short film, Meshes of the Afternoon (1945) by Maya Deren, there’s a blank screen in terms of women cinema, and in terms of lesbian cinema, there’s absolutely nothing. Later when I studied Maya Deren I learned  she was much more than a filmmaker. She showed her films at universities, she set up lectures and screenings, she wrote theory that is just as valid and relevant  today  as when she wrote it, and she set up a distribution system, so that people could rent the films. This was really remarkable. She made films, she lectured, she distributed. What a powerhouse of a woman! I never met her. She died before I even began to think about film. If you read her writings, they continue to inspire, and as for her work, it’s incredible what she’s left us.

I also think she was very powerful, because technically the film was not only directed by her, but also by Alexander Hammid, who was her husband at that time. Whenever I discuss it with my students, they always say it’s Maya Deren’s film, they never mention Hammid. I think it shows her power. I always use The Meshes of the Afternoon as an example of great avant-garde cinema, and how to make it.

But if you look at her other works—it’s not as strong as her first work and I think that is due to  Sasha Hammid’s contribution. He was schooled in cinema in Czechoslovakia. Maya had never shot with a camera before. He was very experienced. One can only conjecture today, but I think she would talk about her ideas, what she wanted, and he would have an idea of how it could be filmed. She learned from that, but then they divorced, so she worked with a female cinematographer in her other films. They are a little bit stagey, not as fluid as Meshes. She lost more than her husband when she divorced.

Thank you very much for the conversation.

 

“Let everybody love me”. The transnational body of Elżbieta Czyżewska

Sebastian Jagielski

Download the Article

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2016, vol.1, no. 2, pp. 8-22.

Sebastian Jagielski

Jagiellonian University

 

“Let everybody love me”. The transnational body of Elżbieta Czyżewska[i]

 

Abstract

The ways to create a star personality in the Polish People’s Republic are closer to the strategy of creating stars in the Soviet cinema, where the star had to function as an power engine, as an incentive to action, than to the Hollywood system (star system). It is well illustrated by the career of Elżbieta Czyżewska: not only was she the most fascinating actress of her generation but she was also quickly transformed into a star. Czyżewska’s body used as a screen on which first the (socialist) desires and then (socialist) fears were projected, was placed – almost from the beginning of her career – in transnational contexts. She crossed borders not only on the screen: in 1965 Czyżewska married The New York Times correspondent, David Halberstam, and left for New York, or rather was forced to leave. The star’s previously ideal body suddenly appeared to be – not for “strangers” but for “us,” not outside the national community but inside it – a transgressive (since openly transnational) anti-body. This article explores (1) the phenomenon of a star in the Polish People’s Republic (“socialist star system”), (2) transgressions of Czyżewska in the West, (3) and, above all, their Polish reception.

Key words: Polish cinema, Elżbieta Czyżewska, communism, transnational, stardom, body, affect

In the state-owned film industry of communist Poland, expressing the dominating ideology was more important than fulfilment of audiences’ expectations. It was not pleasure that was important, but the educational goal; not entertainment but social involvement. Hence, it comes as no surprise that the authorities in the Polish People’s Republic were not interested in the creation of stars.[1] Even more so, since in the official discourse such a phenomenon was associated with the “degenerated” bourgeois West. Hence, there was no place for Hollywood-style stars, but there was for socialist ones (especially in the 60s, when the authorities decided to use the persuasive power of film genres for their own purposes). Their image was not supposed to be—as in the Hollywood “star system”—based on the relation to the market (star system as the sale of goods), but—as in the Soviet Union—on the relation to communist ideology. It was the stars (and film genres) that proved at the time to be the most effective carrier of ideology, especially as the public longed for somebody exceptional and unique. The socialist stars—even though just like Western ones, they shaped the behaviour of Poles, told them how to dress, behave and be—did not exist in the “blue firmament”, but “fraternised” with people, ate at milk bars, and met people in village clubs.[2]

Elżbieta Czyżewska fulfilled these contradictory expectations of the public and authorities with bravado. Not only was she the most fascinating actress of her generation (“she was visible. (…)”, Andrzej Kostenko used to say, “in our [actors’ – SJ] environment one could feel her peculiarity”[3]), but she was also quickly transformed into a star (“the only actress after the war who in such a short time achieved so much”[4], said Leon Łochowski). In the years 1960-1966, she never left the set, appearing in a few films per year and performing in theatre and TV. Everybody wanted to work with her: directors of the auteur (Wojciech J. Has, Tadeusz Konwicki, Jerzy Skolimowski) and popular (Stanisław Bareja, Tadeusz Chmielewski, Stanisław Lenartowicz) cinema. The audience loved her: in a poll by Express Wieczorny for the most popular TV actor, she won the Silver Mask twice, in 1963 and 1964, and the Golden Mask in 1965. It seems, however, that Czyżewska’s fairy-tale career did not come from nowhere. On one hand, talent, bravado, “go get it” energy, charisma and authenticity, and on the other, the embodiment of the “socialist” star type. The latter was defined—as in the Soviet Union—by social and national identity and opposition towards “bourgeois” Western identity.[5] Neither the decadent, eccentric, and sexy Kalina Jędrusik, nor the aristocratic and supercilious Beata Tyszkiewicz, and not even the delicate and mysterious Ewa Krzyżewska could have been promoted as “socialist stars”. Czyżewska, whose beauty and background were emphasised as proletariat and Slavic, was to become the ideal embodiment of the “socialist object of desire”. Czyżewska’s body—used as a screen on which first the (socialist) desires and then (socialist) fears were projected—was placed almost from the beginning of her career in transnational contexts.[6] On one hand, it was the body of a lively Soviet woman soldier (Gdzie jest generał?/Where is the General?, 1963, Tadeusz Chmielewski), on the other, a Jew in love (Niekochana/Unloved, 1965, Janusz Nasfeter), a body for a Soviet pilot (Przerwany lot/Interrupted Flight, 1964, Leonard Buczkowski), an Italian (Giuseppe w Warszawie/Giuseppe in Warsaw, 1964, Stanisław Lenartowicz), and an Australian (but of Polish decent (Żona dla Australijczyka/Wife for an Australian, 1963, Stanisław Bareja)). Czyżewska, however, crossed borders not only on the screen: in 1965, she married The New York Times correspondent, David Halberstam, and left for New York, or rather was forced to leave. The star’s previously ideal body suddenly appeared to be not for “strangers”, but for “us”, not outside the national community but inside it: a transgressive (since openly transnational) anti-body. It is true that the corporeality of transnational stars can sometimes be defined as foreign, since it causes fascination and/or fear, but these are the emotions we usually deal with—unlike in Czyżewska’s case—outside the countries of their origin.[7]

“A modern girl”

Encouraged by the success of the contest for the lead actress in the comedy Ewa chce spać/Ewa wants to sleep (1957, Tadeusz Chmielewski), in 1958 the magazine Film, together with Zespół Autorów Filmowych, announced the action Beautiful girls to the screens, aimed, as critics at the time claimed, at fulfilling the shortage of young and beautiful girls on Polish screens.[8] When the filmmakers and journalists were looking for the Polish Brigitte Bardot, a popular teenager magazine Filipinka conducted a survey among its readers: Are you a modern girl? According to Małgorzata Fidelis this image reflects the “attempts to define the national and socialist identities in the post-war Polish society” and to “build a positive image of modernity in the communist version”.[9] The genesis of the image of the “modern girl”[10] promoted by the media and officially supported by the party activists, similarly to the calls for a uniquely Polish film star, may be found in the political thaw that was accompanied to some extent by the social thaw.[11] Elżbieta Czyżewska was the result of this search. Aspiring “modern girls”, Filipinka readers—who in this figure saw a young woman who preferred foreign travel to marriage, listened to rock’n’roll and was up to date with the fashion trends[12]—could identify with the disobedient, dynamic, sarcastic and ironic girls played by Czyżewska. Young Poles took her roles—Hanka from Wife for an Australian, Marysia from Giuseppe in Warsaw, or Joanna from Małżeństwo z rozsądku/The Marriage of Convenience (1966, Stanisław Bareja)—as their dream self-portrait. In fact, however, the star image of Czyżewska, which the girls copied so willingly, was full of contradictions. It could not have been any other way since they were trying to merge communist propaganda with the influence of Western pop culture. This “magical synthesis” of opposite values, on the one hand, reinforced and consolidated the system, and on the other undermined and destabilised it.[13]

Czyżewska’s enthusiasm and charm were used to create the ideal “socialist object of desire”. This image was set to serve the ideology in two ways: firstly, they tried unsuccessfully to transform Czyżewska into a Soviet-style star; secondly, she embodied Polish-Soviet love when acting in Polish-Soviet romances. According to Oksana Bulgakova, female stars such as Lyubov Orlova in the Soviet Union “were burdened with the promotion of behaviours appropriate for men” (“crosswise identification”).[14] Female characters were considered both a visual attraction, the object of glances, and the active “ideal ego”. The splendour and charm typical of female characters in classical Hollywood cinema were in the Soviet cinema transformed into activity and social optimism, and sexual energy, as in classical sublimation, was translated to work. “Not being either a pin-up star, or Madonna, the star has to function as an energy engine, a stimulus to act”.[15] By analogy, Marysia from Giuseppe in Warsaw, a resistance activist for whom the Cause will stop at nothing, is unlike her brother Staszek, who does not care about the war at all. Both he and Giuseppe, a fugitive from the Italian army, are very good in the kitchen while the girl bravely fights the German enemy. Thus, both female and male spectators could identify with Czyżewska’s brave characters. As Iwona Kurz wrote, Czyżewska’s characters—Marysia from Giuseppe in Warsaw, Marusia from Where is the General? and Hanka from Wife for an Australian—fulfil the romantic model of “knight-lover who places his homeland above love”; however, this model in the new political situation was to serve the socialist education.[16]

Some films with Czyżewska that praised Polish-Soviet love by merging the national and sexual discourses had a propaganda function. In the melodrama Interrupted Flight, which is set in two periods, during WWII and 17 years later, her character, Urszula, falls in love with a Soviet pilot, Vovka, whom she gives a medallion—a valuable token of Polish national mythology. This prop becomes a symbolic confirmation of the friendly relations between the Poles and the Soviets. However, this friendship is clearly streaked by Polish inferiority: the educated and handsome Russian is an elegant pilot while “Sokół”, whom Urszula marries after the war, is a neglected postman-alcoholic who for years has hidden from his wife the letters from Vovka. The superiority of the Russians and the inferiority of the Poles are also visible in the comedy Where is the General?, in which the Pole is impulsive, carefree and likes to booze, while the Soviet female soldier, Marusia, is charming, hardworking and reliable. Even though the Pole calls her a “witch” and “gendarme worse than Hitler”, she will still love him. The film ends with their long kiss, which is observed with enthusiasm by the soldiers of both friendly armies.[17] It could seem that the Polish-Soviet alliance was written on the actress’s body.

Importantly, Marysia from Giuseppe in Warsaw, Marusia from Where is the General?, and Hanka from Wife for an Australian do not resemble the female “machines full of energy and optimism” from the Soviet films or Polish socialist realistic films. Paradoxically, they are closer to Doris Day’s “girls from the neighbourhood” who eagerly fulfil their duties. First, they fight the “parasites” in order to fall in love with them finally. For example in the film by Bareja, a rich Pole from Australia comes back home to buy a wife. However, Hanka, who he falls in love with, kidnaps, and holds prisoner in a villa (seen by Poles as a consumerist heaven), not only is not an easy trophy (intelligent, ironic, rational), but convinces the prodigal son to stay in Poland after the marriage. Initially, like Day’s characters, she is unsentimental and factual but later falls prey to the advances of the “erotically obsessed” “parasite”. She throws away the costume of the Mazowsze Group where she sings and transforms into a chic dame from a “bourgeois” film: low-cut fitted dress, white gloves, high heels, and a flower in her hair.

According to Miriam Hansen, the popularity of American cinema on foreign (Soviet) ground was not about “what these films showed, what they brought into optical consciousness, as it were, but the way they opened up hitherto unperceived modes of sensory perception and experience”[18]. The comedies with Czyżewska, these escapist and compensatory fantasies, proved to be so attractive for audiences not only because they offered an antidote to the sombreness of the period of “little stabilisation”, but also because they showed new energy, new corporeality and sensuality, provided guidelines how to be modern in the modernising (socialist) reality. Her girls recalled the emancipating “new woman” from the 30s, in the West symbolising “the deepest fears related to modernity”.[19] Marysia, Hanka, or Joanna from The Marriage of Convenience will initially find their emancipation as “modern women” in tight blouses and short skirts, in activity and freedom (mixing of sexual roles), in playing with their corporeality and sexuality. Marysia, in order to get the Italian’s gun, will not hesitate to use her sex appeal; hence, she is taken for a prostitute, first by Giuseppe and then by the Germans.

However, the authorities’ support for the image of “the queen of the 60s”[20]—to recall the words of Andrzej Łapicki—falls to pieces when Elżbieta Czyżewska marries an “American with a Pulitzer”. In April 1965, Halberstam published in The New York Times a text about common and state-supported anti-Semitism in Poland. A few months later the same newspaper published his article about Poland as an “exceptionally pro-Western” nation, about alienated Polish society and the communist party which “even 20 years after the war, when it was established in the country by the triumphant Red Army, is weak internally”.[21] The reactions were quick to come: texts condemning Halberstam first appeared in Kultura, Zycie Warszawy, Trybuna Ludu, and Stolica, and at the beginning of 1966 he was placed on the list of restricted persons. After her husband left, Czyżewska was questioned and continuously followed. In the end, the authorities decided that her stay in the country “was impossible”[22], even when she decided to divorce the journalist. In 1968, in order to act in Wszystko na sprzedaż/Everything for Sale (1968, Andrzej Wajda), Czyżewska came from the United States and became a victim of an anti-Semitic witch-hunt even before filming started.

In the press she was attacked as a “traitor” (“(…) why does our outstanding Polish actress betray our crucial, Polish interest?”[23]), as the wife of a “Jewish imperialist”, wife of the author of “horrible lampoons about our country” who “slandered (…) our nation”. Moreover, in April 1968 Włodzimierz Stępiński published an open letter to Andrzej Wajda in Walka Młodych demanding Czyżewska’s removal from his film.[24] “Disgusting” texts by Halberstam caused Halberstam himself to become “disgusting” and he later infected his wife, since what is “disgusting” is sticky and viscid.[25] Sara Ahmed argued, “to name something as disgusting (…) is a performative. (…) But to say something is disgusting is still to «make something»; it generates a set of effects, which then adhere as a disgusting object”.[26] Since the actress was called a “traitor” and was associated with what is “disgusting” (for the “Polish nation”), she had to recognise her social definition: “recognise her place in the position of subordination”.[27] It was precisely the refusal to accept this position of subordination from which Elka from Everything for Sale was born, a film in which Czyżewska—benefiting from the protection of the film’s fiction—“is” herself.

In Wajda’s film the actress acts like never before. She is hysterical, theatrical and at the same time authentic. As in the legendary scene of the dance at the banquet, in which she bites her lower lip and continues in lonely abandon. The director saw this dynamic dance at a Warsaw party—the dance being her “protest against the entire company—and decided to include it in his film.[28] This dance is a protest and “the intention of the protest is (…) «to disturb the spectacle» played, metaphorically speaking, on the main scene, to introduce to the field of vision the new performative language which disturbs and damages the previous one”.[29] Czyżewska’s performance, being an act of disobedience and insubordination, an act of freedom, can be seen as a narrative excess. It is delivered for the public gathered at a banquet (and in the screening room). The director emphasises the performance, on the one hand, by recording envious glances, faces and grimaces from the drawing room, and on the other, by using zooms—popular at the time—thanks to which the actress’s face can suddenly get closer (desire) and move away equally fast (rejection). The movement of the lens reflects something from the group’s reaction to Czyżewska’s unreserved expression: they revel in the fascinating and exciting images (“she looked great (…), at the time between the West [and] Poland there was a precipice, it came like from another world”[30]), and at the same time isolate, mock, exclude and stigmatise. Wajda’s film, obviously, does not mention “Halberstam’s case”, thanks to which the audience’s entire attention focuses on the film and theatre circles, since Czyżewska was ostracised long before she left Poland. As one Security Service informer reports, already in mid-1965 “in theatre all actors and employees surrounded her with a wall of condemnation. They do not speak about her otherwise than «this bitch»”.[31] Just as if Halberstam was merely a pretext for revenge for the fact that “she overshadowed (…) other actresses”.[32] Andrzej Wajda let her take symbolic revenge in his film. At dawn, a drunk and jolly elite goes on a carousel started by Elka. With satisfaction, she watches as the “artists” shout, curse, and then freeze like dummies. They become living corpses.

Due to the smear campaign in the press, even before the end of filming Everything for Sale, Czyżewska received a warrant to leave Poland immediately. What is more, at the airport she had to undergo a humiliating body search. She was treated as (transnational) waste expelled by the national body, excluded beyond its borders. She symbolised everything that in the period of the “March events” proved to be politically most suspected: she married an American of Jewish origin, thus becoming part of the anti-Zionist and anti-American obsessive propaganda of 1968. She also became suspicious as a symbol of a “modern girl”, which at the time had become politically involved, associated with the consumerist culture of the capitalist West (“the era of bust ended, (…) of bust according to Lollobrigida’s standards”, wrote a critic in Walka Młodych[33]). It is important that the attack on Czyżewska in Walka Młodych was preceded by the publication of the text Who we do not want to be, which mocked the Beautiful girls to the screens action and condemned the promoters of the “modern girl” notion. “Slowly, the criticism of misunderstood modernity”, wrote Małgorzata Fidelis, “transforms into an attack on intellectual and artistic elites which allegedly were responsible for the promotion of Western trends among the young”.[34] From here, it is only one step to the so-called anti-Zionist campaign since “similarly to the supporters of the modern girl, also the Polish Jews—the alleged Zionists plotting against the socialist Poland—were slandered (…) as agents of Western imperialism”.[35] In the image of the “modern girl”, nobody looked any more for what was socialist, but what was foreign and threatening for the socialist reality (consumerism and sex).

However, this no longer referred to Czyżewska. “Our” girl, who not long ago had embodied Polish-Soviet love, chose the West, “a Western imperialist”. We are dealing here with the “erotic betrayal of authority”. The authority seems to be a jealous lover who punishes the faithless for infidelity. It comes as no surprise when we realise what role the stars played in the Soviet Union where “the relation between the stars and authority were a part of the traditional patriarchal model”. Tatyana Okunevskaya and Zoya Fyodorova were sent to camps for flirting with foreigners. After the screening of Volga-Volga (1938), Stalin was to warn Grigori Aleksandrov, the director and husband of Orlova, “he will lose his head if anything happens to these legs”.[36] The legs of Orlova, of course. Jean Baudrillard in Seduction asks, “Is one only seeking to avenge the spell that the other exercises over you?”[37] Elżbieta Czyżewska had to pay for flirting with authority and the audience; the latter is always happy to watch the falls of those who charmed it.

The loss of aura

The American stage of Elżbieta Czyżewska’s career became sexualised and associated with destrudo. In the 60s, she offered the will to live, refreshing irony, and distance; however, since the 80s she has been associated solely with general decline, defeat, decomposition, and weakness. First, excess (of energy, talent, and success); later, a lack (of energy, talent, success). Her body—damaged by alcohol and drugs—is transformed both by the actress and by the audience of her shows into body-scandal, body-excess. Two memories illustrate this diagnosis well.

(1) In a documentary about Czyżewska, Aktorka/Actress (2015, Kinga Dębska, Maria Konwicka), Adam Holender describes an event that took place when she was still married to Halberstam: during a lavish party taking place at their house the actress “undressed completely in the kitchen and ran through the crowd of friends. Everybody was speechless. Everybody understood it since it was at the time in Vogue, but nobody knew that something like this could happen in a living room. David really enjoyed it”. From Holender’s perspective, we are not dealing with a non-conformist performance, but indecent albeit interesting excess. Excluded from acting, Czyżewska transforms her life in transgressive theatre; however, the living room—especially from a Polish perspective—is not an appropriate place to stage (and undress) oneself.

(2) The memories from the time when Czyżewska was already divorced are even more marked with sexuality on the one hand, and bourgeois indignation on the other:

She did things (…)—said Dorota Stalińska who met Czyżewska on set of Debiutantka/Debutante (1981, dir. Barbara Sass)—unworthy of a woman, actress, artist. Everybody froze with fear. And it was like this was what she wanted. She wanted to be the centre of attention at any price. Passionately stripping her wrinkled body in public (…). I was terribly embarrassed by this behaviour (…)[38].

Stalińska speaks about Czyżewska’s old “wrinkled” body even though the actress was only 43 at the time. The recollections of her compatriots about Czyżewska on emigration share one thing: embarrassment.[39] Shame is the reaction to her exhibitionism, her open corporeality. As in the scene from the banquet of Debutante: drunk architect Maria (played by Czyżewska) gives herself to a random man before the guests and Ewa, who is embarrassed for the woman, tries to separate them, causing Maria’s hysterical spasms and aggression. Monika Talarczyk-Gubała noticed that this scene resembles Elka’s rebellious dance from Everything for Sale (in Sass’s film, as in Wajda’s, the actress dances in the presence of the Master, played again by Andrzej Łapicki). That dynamic and rebellious performance, however, contained freedom and resistance, while here in the author’s opinion we are dealing only with “embarrassing masochism”. Wajda watched Elżbieta with admiration while Sass’s look is cold, ruthless, without a shadow of compassion.[40] It seems that this look is only full of sadistic satisfaction derived from exposing a female body, distorted in hysterical spasm, for public view (spectators during the banquet and in the screening room). However, Czyżewska’s performances in life and in the cinema cannot be easily frozen. Ignoring one’s embarrassment embarrasses the spectators (Holender, Stalińska, Ewa, the character in Debutante), imposing on the embarrassed woman the position of subordination (lascivious lunatic, alcoholic ending up in gutter, vulgar hysteric, etc.). Czyżewska’s performances might be an attempt to reverse the traumatising mechanisms of embarrassment. They may also be an attempt to turn the shame into power. As in the masturbation-related episode of the popular series Sex and the City (1999, Daniel Algrant), where Czyżewska played the role of a sexologist in her 60s lecturing by the sweat of her brow on the secrets of tantric sex, she masturbates her husband and the emancipated New Yorkers dutifully take notes.

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Adam Frank, when analysing the works of Silvan Tomkins, noted that there is no shame and disgust without a positive, pleasant affection:

these affects produce bodily knowledges: disgust, as when spitting out bad-tasting food, recognizes the difference between inside and outside the body and what should and should not be let in; shame as precarious hyperreflexivity of the surface of the body can turn one inside out—or outside in.[41]

The affection of disgust and shame that were a reaction to Czyżewska’s transnational body emphasise the closeness of the body that was rejected, “vomited”. According to Sara Ahmed, vomiting “involves expelling something that has already been digested, and hence incorporated into the body of the one who feels disgust”.[42] This mechanism characterises well the encounters between her compatriots and Czyżewska in New York: from closeness to distance. What was close becomes problematic, unsafe, disgusting. Hence, one has to move away. As did Janusz Głowacki after the Broadway success of the play Hunting Cockroaches on which he worked with Czyżewska; Agnieszka Osiecka after publication of White Blouse inspired by her letters; Joanna Pacuła and—a moment later—Yurek Bogayevicz.

Nobody doubted that the title character of Anna (1987) by Bogayevicz “was” Elżbieta Czyżewska. Neither the film’s scriptwriter, Agnieszka Holland, the actress’s friends (“the main character is exactly like Elżbieta”[43]), the author of The Real “Anna”: The Truth Behind the Hit Film, nor Czyżewska herself admitted that the director “stole her life”.[44] The actress told Bogayevicz the story of her meeting with Joanna Pacuła, and he promised her that she would play the lead role in the film based on this story. Czyżewska was probably hoping to repeat and expand the strategy from Everything for Sale: again, she would be herself before the camera. The director, however, quickly backed out of his promise, casting Sally Kirkland as the main character who won the Golden Globe for this role and an Oscar nomination.[45] She plays the former greatest star of the communist Czechoslovakia, Anna, who played in almost all films produced there. However, in New York, where she went—or in fact, like Czyżewska, was forced to go in 1968—nobody remembers her former successes. This situation is quickly noticed by a young Czechoslovakian actress, Krystyna, who goes there without money or a place to stay, but with Anna’s photos from the times of her greatness. The latter, living in a tenement house in Manhattan and playing episodes on Broadway, takes the girl in and helps her find her way in this new reality. Krystyna quickly becomes successful, “borrowing” Anna’s dramatic life story (childhood in orphanage, political reasons for emigration, etc.) as well as her boyfriend.[46]

The film mostly seems important due to one short, surprising, and disturbing scene. After Krystyna’s “betrayal”, the disappointed and frustrated Anna appears in the cinema in mourning clothes: a black scarf on her head and dark glasses hiding her tearful eyes. In the cinema, the atmosphere is quite different: they are just showing a comedy with Anna in the lead (a black and white film that seems to be stylised on Where is the General?). The woman confronts her own reflection, as if she were looking in the mirror, and she cannot take her eyes off the screen. The location of the projector, audience and screen, the darkness in the screening room and the stream of moving images cause the spectator to fall “into a trance-like state”[47]. Anna is enchanted by what she sees. She identifies with her own (lost) reflection, and this is a source of narcissistic pleasure. “She dissolves” in the image because this image allows her to retrieve her own subjectivity which was taken from her, appropriated by another actress. The body of Anna-the-spectator that is reflected on screen (idealised) gives a settling sense of calm and safety; however, this affective moment does not last long. From the state of illusion—a narcissistic trance caused by the soothing images—the protagonist is woken by the sight of her huge face (close-up) eaten by fire. The narration freezes, and we, the spectators, watch the frightened face of the actress and her celluloid, disappearing copy. Especially disturbing is a brief—as from a horror film—close-up of the actress’s silent scream, as if she were already dead.[48] This is the moment of the dramatic crack: Anna, who is still looking for mirror reflections, her own doppelgangers (Krystyna being one, the one who managed to escape), thought she had found herself again in the cinema (narcissistic satisfaction). However, the reflection on the screen appears to be a phantom, an apparition that disappears at the same time, thereby revealing the emptiness.

“At the height of her success in Poland the actress stopped being «Elżbieta Czyżewska»”, wrote a critic in Film.[49] Bogayevicz aptly caught what was the essence of her American period: the loss of star aura and the refusal to accept it, already indicated in Everything for Sale. The greatest star of the Polish cinema of the 60s says directly to the camera, “Why nobody loves me? (…) Let everybody love me”. In Wajda’s film, however, we see the star’s splendour, but in Bogayevicz’s only despair. In the both nostalgic and sadistic cinema scene from Anna there is, on one hand, satisfaction, pleasure, and happiness stemming from peregrinations on time lost, and on the other, pain, alienation, lack, and loss. Unfortunately, no magical process of finding oneself, coming back to oneself, is going to take place here. The actress’s celluloid face consumed by fire symbolises the end of her star aura, and the close-up of her silent scream helps to “arrest time’s flow on the edge of its waterfall’s onrush to trauma”.[50] Richard Dyer, in analysing Judy Garland’s loss of glamour that constituted her image, noted that this loss means defeat, primarily in playing one’s sexual role, in the field of femininity.[51] For that reason, perhaps, Elżbieta Czyżewska “needed to feel a star [so much]. She had to know that she had been a star in Poland”[52], even though in her own country—as a journalist of The New York Times wrote after her death—she was not welcome.[53] The national body transformed into a transnational one, which does not accept the position of subordination imposed on it by its compatriots, becomes disgusting in order to become expelled beyond the borders of the national community. Thus, the transnational body becomes marked as anti-body even though—or maybe because—not long ago it was worshipped and loved.

Translated by Amalia Woźna

References

 

Ahmed Sara, The Cultural Politics of Emotion, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press) (2004).

Baudrillard Jean, Seduction, trans. Brian Singer, (Montréal: New World Perspectives) (1990).

Bratu Hansen Miriam, “The mass production of the senses: classical cinema as vernacular modernism”, in: Reinventing Film Studies, ed. Christine Gledhill and Linda Williams (London: Arnold) (2000).

Bulgakova Oksana, “Gwiazdy i władza” / “Stars and authority”, trans. Tadeusz Szczepański, Kwartalnik Filmowy 49-50 (2005).

Butler Judith, Excitable Speech. A Politics of the Performative, (New York-London: Routledge) (1997).

Coates Paul, Screening the Face, (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan) (2012).

Cybulski Zbigniew, “W stronę gwiazd” / “Towards the stars”, interview by Stanisław Janicki, Kino 1 (1966).

Demidowicz Krzysztof, “Elżbieta Czyżewska: kochana niekochana” / “Elżbieta Czyżewska: loved unloved”, Film 6 (2001).

Dyer Richard, Heavenly Bodies. Film Stars and Society, (London-New York: Routledge) (2004).

Dyer Richard, Stars, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan) (1998).

Elsaesser Thomas, Hagener Malte, Film Theory. An Introduction through the senses, (New York-London: Routledge) (2010).

Ezra Elizabeth, Terry Rowden, “General Introduction: What is Transnational Cinema?”, in: Transnational Cinema: The Film Reader, ed. Elizabeth Ezra and Terry Rowden (New York: Routledge) (2006).

Fidelis Małgorzata, “Czy jesteś nowoczesną dziewczyną? Młode Polki a kultura konsumpcyjna w latach 60.” / “Are You a Modern Girl? Consumer Culture and Young Women in 1960s Poland”, trans. Anna Rogulska, Teksty Drugie 2 (2015).

Gańczak Filip, Filmowcy w matni bezpieki / The filmmakers in the snare of the Security Service, (Warszawa: Prószyński i S-ka) (2011).

Higbee Will, Song Hwee Lim, „Concepts of Transnational Cinema: Towards a Critical Transnationalism in Film Studies”, Transnational Cinemas 1:1 (2010).

Hopkins Ellen, “The Real Anna: The Truth Behind the Hit Film”, New York Magazine 4.01.1988.

Hudson Dale, “Just Play Yourself, «Maggie Cheung»: Irma Vep, Rethinking Transnational Stardom and Unthinking National Cinemas”, Screen 47:2 (2006).

Komendołowicz Iza, Elka, (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Literackie) (2012).

Kosofsky Sedgwick Eve, Adam Frank, „Shame in the Cybernetic Fold: Reading Silvan Tomkins”, in: Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Touching Feeling. Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity, (Durham-London: Duke University Press) (2003).

Kurz Iwona, “Między chrztem a samospaleniem. «Teatra polskie» drugiej połowy lat sześćdziesiątych” / “Between baptism and self-immolation. «Polish theatres» of the second half of the sixties”, Didaskalia 126 (2015).

Kurz Iwona, Twarze w tłumie. Wizerunki bohaterów wyobraźni zbiorowej w kulturze polskiej lat 1955-1969 / Faces in the crowd. Images of the collective imagination protagonists in the Polish culture of 1955-1959, (Warszawa: Świat Literacki) (2005).

Mazierska Ewa, “Train to Hollywood: Polish Actresses in Foreign Films”, in: Polish Cinema in a Transnational Context, ed. Ewa Mazierska and Michael Goddard (Rochester-New York: University of Rochester Press) (2014).

McHugh Kathleen, „The World and the Soup: Historicizing Media Feminisms in Transnational Contexts”, Camera Obscura 24: 3 (2009).

Negra Diane, Off-White Hollywood. American Culture and Ethnic Female Stardom, (London-New York: Routledge) (2001).

Skwara Anita, “Film Stars Do Not Shine in the Sky Over Poland. The Absence of Popular Cinema in Poland”, in: Popular European Cinema, ed. Richard Dyer and Ginette Vincendeau (London: Routledge) (1992).

Stępiński Włodzimierz, “Do reżysera Andrzeja Wajdy list otwarty” / “An open letter to the director Andrzej Wajda”, Kwartalnik Filmowy 6 (1994).

Szarłat Aleksandra, Celebryci z tamtych lat. Prywatne życie wielkich gwiazd PRL-u / Celebrities of the past. Private lives of great stars in PPR, (Kraków: Znak) (2014).

Talarczyk-Gubała Monika, Wszystko o Ewie. Filmy Barbary Sass a kino kobiet w drugiej połowie XX wieku / All about Eve. Barbara Sass’s films and women’s cinema in the 2nd half of the XX century, (Szczecin: Wydawnictwo Naukowe Uniwersytetu Szczecińskiego) (2013).

Wajda Andrzej, Autobiografia. Kino i reszta świata / Autobiography. Cinema and the rest of the world, (Kraków: Znak) (2013).

Weber Bruce, “Elzbieta Czyzewska, Polish Actress Unwelcome in Her Own Country, Diesat 72”, The New York Times 10.06.2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/18/arts/18czyz.html?_r=0,dateaccessed: 21 March 2016.

Notes

[1] See Anita Skwara, “Film Stars Do Not Shine in the Sky Over Poland. The Absence of Popular Cinema in Poland”, in: Popular European Cinema, ed. Richard Dyer and Ginette Vincendeau (London: Routledge, 1992), pp. 220-231; Iwona Kurz, Twarze w tłumie. Wizerunki bohaterów wyobraźni zbiorowej w kulturze polskiej lat 1955-1969 / Faces in the crowd. Images of the collective imagination protagonists in the Polish culture of 1955-1959, (Warszawa: Świat Literacki) (2005); Ewa Mazierska, “Train to Hollywood: Polish Actresses in Foreign Films”, in: Polish Cinema in a Transnational Context, ed. Ewa Mazierska and Michael Goddard (Rochester-New York: University of Rochester Press, 2014), pp. 153-173.

[2] Zbigniew Cybulski, “W stronę gwiazd” / “Towards the stars”, interview by Stanisław Janicki, Kino 1 (1966), p. 47.

[3] Iza Komendołowicz, Elka, (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Literackie) (2012), p. 149.

[4] Ibidem, p. 87.

[5] Oksana Bulgakova, “Gwiazdy i władza” / “Stars and authority”, trans. Tadeusz Szczepański, Kwartalnik Filmowy 49-50 (2005), p. 49.

[6] Elizabeth Ezra, Terry Rowden, “General Introduction: What is Transnational Cinema?”, in: Transnational Cinema: The Film Reader, ed. Elizabeth Ezra and Terry Rowden (New York: Routledge, 2006); Kathleen McHugh, „The World and the Soup: Historicizing Media Feminisms in Transnational Contexts”, Camera Obscura 24: 3 (2009), pp. 111-151; Will Higbee, Song Hwee Lim, „Concepts of Transnational Cinema: Towards a Critical Transnationalism in Film Studies”, Transnational Cinemas 1:1 (2010), pp. 7-21.

[7] Diane Negra, Off-White Hollywood. American Culture and Ethnic Female Stardom, (London-New York: Routledge) (2001), pp. 55-83; Dale Hudson, “Just Play Yourself, «Maggie Cheung»: Irma Vep, Rethinking Transnational Stardom and Unthinking National Cinemas”, Screen 47:2 (2006), pp. 213-232.

[8] Iwona Kurz, Twarze w tłumie…, pp. 119-126.

[9] Małgorzata Fidelis, “Czy jesteś nowoczesną dziewczyną? Młode Polki a kultura konsumpcyjna w latach 60.” / “Are You a Modern Girl? Consumer Culture and Young Women in 1960s Poland”, trans. Anna Rogulska, Teksty Drugie 2 (2015), p. 306, 321.

[10] According to Iwona Kurz, the term “girl” was commonly used in everyday speech in the 50s. This word drove out the more popular terms as “miss” or “friend” (Iwona Kurz, Twarze w tłumie…, p. 125).

[11] Ibidem, p. 119.

[12] Małgorzata Fidelis, pp. 303-306.

[13] Richard Dyer wrote about the Hollywood “star system” that the star images recalling the social meanings and values reveal, solve, integrate or disguise the ideological contradictions present in a given society and culture (Richard Dyer, Stars, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan) (1998), pp. 20-32).

[14] Oksana Bulgakova, p. 47.

[15] Ibidem, p. 56.

[16] Iwona Kurz, Twarze w tłumie …, p. 139, 142.

[17] Allegedly Elżbieta Czyżewska was ashamed to have appeared in this film (Iza Komendołowicz, p. 143).

[18] Miriam Bratu Hansen, “The mass production of the senses: classical cinema as vernacular modernism”, in: Reinventing Film Studies, ed. Christine Gledhill and Linda Williams (London: Arnold, 2000), p. 344.

[19] Małgorzata Fidelis, p. 321.

[20] Iza Komendołowicz, p. 30.

[21] Filip Gańczak, Filmowcy w matni bezpieki / The filmmakers in the snare of the Security Service, (Warszawa: Prószyński i S-ka) (2011), p. 75.

[22] Ibidem, p. 88.

[23] Aleksandra Szarłat, Celebryci z tamtych lat. Prywatne życie wielkich gwiazd PRL-u / Celebrities of the past. Private lives of great stars in PPR, (Kraków: Znak) (2014), p. 272.

[24] Włodzimierz Stępiński, “Do reżysera Andrzeja Wajdy list otwarty” / “An open letter to the director Andrzej Wajda”, Kwartalnik Filmowy 6 (1994), p. 225 (Walka Młodych 14.04.1968, p. 1, 10).

[25] According to Sara Ahmed “it is not that an object we might encounter is inherently disgusting; rather, an object becomes disgusting through its contact with other objects that have already, as it were, been designated as disgusting before the encounter has taken place” (Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press) (2004), p. 87).

[26] Ibidem, p. 93.

[27] “We do things with language, produce effects with language, (…). Language is (…) both «what» we do (…), the act and its consequences” (Judith Butler, Excitable Speech. A Politics of the Performative, (New York-London: Routledge) (1997), p. 8).

[28] Andrzej Wajda, Autobiografia. Kino i reszta świata / Autobiography. Cinema and the rest of the world, (Kraków: Znak) (2013), p. 119.

[29] Iwona Kurz, “Między chrztem a samospaleniem. «Teatra polskie» drugiej połowy lat sześćdziesiątych” /  “Between baptism and self-immolation. «Polish theatres» of the second half of the sixties”, Didaskalia 126 (2015), p. 4.

[30] Iza Komendołowicz, pp. 222-223.

[31] Filip Gańczak, p. 63.

[32] Ibidem, s. 71.

[33] “Jakimi nie chcemy być” / “What we do not want to be”, Walka Młodych 28.01.1968, p. 8. Quoted after: Małgorzata Fidelis, p. 318.

[34] Małgorzata Fidelis, p. 318.

[35] Ibidem.

[36] Oksana Bulgakova, p. 56.

[37] Jean Baudrillard, Seduction, trans. Brian Singer, (Montréal: New World Perspectives) (1990), p. 124.

[38] Iza Komendołowicz, p. 235.

[39] Meryl Streep who – as a student – performed with her in Demons directed by Andrzej Wajda sees a completely different shade of Czyżewska’s excesses: “this creature [Czyżewska] seemed to me the most fascinating woman I have ever met. She had this European style that I have not known since I grew up in New Jersey. This was femininity aware of itself, truly seductive (…), a style unknown to women in the 70s.” (soundtrack from the film Actress).

[40] Monika Talarczyk-Gubała, Wszystko o Ewie. Filmy Barbary Sass a kino kobiet w drugiej połowie XX wieku / All about Eve. Barbara Sass’s films and women’s cinema in the 2nd half of the XX century, (Szczecin: Wydawnictwo Naukowe Uniwersytetu Szczecińskiego) (2013), pp. 193-198.

[41] Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Adam Frank, „Shame in the Cybernetic Fold: Reading Silvan Tomkins”, in: Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Touching Feeling. Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity, (Durham-London: Duke University Press) (2003), p. 116.

[42] Sara Ahmed, p. 94.

[43] Iza Komendołowicz, p. 198.

[44] Ellen Hopkins, “The Real Anna: The Truth Behind the Hit Film”, New York Magazine 4.01.1988, pp. 24-29.

[45] According to Agnieszka Holland, Czyżewska herself was the reason why “this film could not have been done with her.” She behaved like Anna, she was self-destructive, aggressive, plunging into an alcohol delirium, as if aware that “the film was stealing her life” (Iza Komendołowicz, p. 269).

[46] Joanna Pacuła already in 1983, i.e. only one year after coming to New York played the lead role – thanks to Roman Polański’s recommendation – in Gorky Park (1983, Michael Apted) for which she was nominated for the Golden Globe. Those who witnessed the meeting between these two actresses claim that “Elżbieta was jealous, mainly because Pacuła was young, very energetic and quickly successful” (Ibidem, p. 198).

[47] Thomas Elsaesser, Malte Hagener, Film Theory. An Introduction through the senses, (New York-London: Routledge) (2010), p. 68.

[48] Paul Coates wrote about the relation between the close-up and suffering: “[…] the close-up, whose most common form picks out the face, isolates as suffering does” (Paul Coates, Screening the Face, (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan) (2012), p. 46).

[49] Krzysztof Demidowicz, “Elżbieta Czyżewska: kochana niekochana” / “Elżbieta Czyżewska: loved unloved”, Film 6 (2001), p. 93.

[50] P. Coates, p. 52.

[51] Richard Dyer, Heavenly Bodies. Film Stars and Society, (London-New York: Routledge) (2004), p. 163.

[52] Statement of Kinga Dębska comes from the materials promoting the documentary she co-directed: “Actress”. The premiere of the film “Actress” (documentary about Elżbieta Czyżewska), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uLPPAMFyBNM,dateaccessed 21 March 2016.

[53] Bruce Weber, “Elzbieta Czyzewska, Polish Actress Unwelcome in Her Own Country, Diesat 72”, The New York Times 10.06.2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/18/arts/18czyz.html?_r=0,dateaccessed: 21 March 2016.

[i] The paper was delivered during the international conference Polish cinema as a transnational cinema organised by the Department of the History of Polish Cinema at the Institute of Audiovisual Arts of Jagiellonian University (Kraków, 26-28 November 2015). The article in its extended version will be published in the volume edited by Magdalena Podsiadło and Sebastian Jagielski (Universitas 2017).

Sebastian Jagielski is an assistant professor of Film Studies at the Institute of Audiovisual Arts at Jagiellonian University. He is the author of Maskarady męskości. Pragnienie homospołeczne w polskim kinie fabularnym/Masquerades of Masculinity. Homosocial Desire in Polish Cinema (Kraków, 2013), and co-editor of the volume Ciało i seksualność w kinie polskim/Body and Sexuality in Polish Cinema (Kraków, 2009). His papers have been published e.g. in Studies in European Cinema, Studies in Eastern European Cinema, and Kwartalnik Filmowy. His research focuses on Polish cinema, queer cultures, queer theory, affect film theory, and star studies.

 

Reading ABC. An experiment

Andrzej Pitrus

Download the Article

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2016, vol.1, no. 2, pp. 23-33.

Andrzej Pitrus

Jagiellonian University

 

Reading ABC. An experiment

 

Abstract

The article discusses an experiment with the participation of a group of foreign students, who visited Cracow in 2015. It is not a research study in a proper sense, although it was based on methods used in questionnaire and focus group research.   The purpose of the experiment was simple: to determine how young people with little or no knowledge about Polish history and culture are able to undestand a film focused on „being Polish”. A short documentary by Wojciech Wiszniwski was shown to two groups of students: the ones who had just arrived in Cracow, and the ones who had participated in several courses on Polish culture.

Key words: documentary, cultural competence, Polish cinema, Wojciech Wiszniewski

Study or experiment?

The inspiration for this short paper came from my teaching experience as a professor of film and media studies. For almost twenty years I have been working with foreign students, most of them from Europe (Erasmus and Erasmus Plus exchange students), but also from the United States, Canada, the Far East, and Australia. My first English-language experiences were occasional lectures and seminars on Polish cinema; a few years later I started my own regular course called “Contemporary Polish Film” (split into two parts, 45 teaching hours each). The course discussed Polish cinema after 1989, with an introduction to the most important post-war movements. Last year, another course was introduced: “Masters of Polish Cinema”.

The article is by no means a research study in a proper sense, although it is based on methods (mentioned later in references) used in questionnaire and focus group research. Instead, I present and discuss the outcome of an interesting experiment conducted with the participation of my foreign students. This experiment could encourage further research; however, in this form it only helps to formulate questions and possible research directions. The purpose of my experiment was simple. Working with foreign students in a natural way makes an academic teacher question the possible influence of their teachings. Does the cultural competence of foreigners substantially change in just a few months? Simple observation obviously suggests answers. Informal conversation with student also helps, but I wanted a more systematic approach in order to see what the outcome of my efforts really is.

Surprisingly, my experiment, which was designed as a kind of “test” for a possible long-term study, concluded with unexpected observations of a more general nature.

Participants of the experiment

I am fully aware that the group of people who took part in my experiment is not representative on a large scale[1]. Yet, I was only interested in examining a particular group of people representing foreign students willing to actively learn about Polish culture and participate in it for a period of time. To observe the change, I decided to choose a “micro-readings approach” and so-called time-series design with single intervention in multiple groups (in this case, two)[2] .

The majority of participants have no previous experience in film studies. Most of them study humanities or social sciences, with some rare exceptions. In recent years, only a maximum of 15% of students declared any kind of Polish background, and even less were able to speak Polish (B1 level or above). Occasionally, some Polish students interested in cinema (but not enrolled in film studies) join the group. The study was carried out with two groups of students. One of them consisted of 20 people who spent a semester in Poland and participated in several courses on Polish culture, including ‘Polish Contemporary Film’ (June 2015). The other was comprised of 23 students who had just arrived in Poland and signed up for a ‘Masters of Polish Cinema’ course (October 2015). Two different groups were chosen to comply with the research strategy mentioned above.

Background and previous experiences

The aim of the aforementioned courses is to introduce participants to Polish film in the broader context of national culture. During the classes, several movies are shown; all with an introduction and some with live commentaries. Moderated discussion always follows the screenings. We focus on topics, characters, political and social context, and only occasionally comment on style, film form, and genre. Students from different cultural backgrounds offer their opinions and interpretations of Polish movies. Some of them are truly original and exciting, as they are based on fresh and unencumbered approaches. For example, most of the political metaphors are not easy to apprehend, as students know very little or nothing about the recent history of Poland. Yet, most of the students do try to understand the movies they watch. Instead of trying to discover the intended meaning, they look for more universal aspects of the stories.

Juliusz Machulski’a Sexmission (Seksmisja, 1984) is a very good example of this creative ‘misunderstanding’. When the movie premiered in Poland, it was considered a metaphor for a totalitarian society, and as such was drastically censored. A state without men, in fact ruled by a disguised male dictator, stood for eighties’ Poland. For today’s foreign students, Machulski’s comedy has a different meaning. Most of the students agree that it is an antifeminist satire, and some of them see the movie as a critique of political correctness.

Subject of the experiment. Criteria for selection

The experiment had to be conducted in class (2 hours and 15 minutes). Thus, a short film had to be chosen for discussion and analysis. Its focus on a Polish-oriented subject was essential. I also opted for a film that communicates with images rather than words. Although alternatives certainly exist, after few discussions with my academic colleagues I decided to choose a film in which Polish identity is thoroughly discussed. The film is also very “dense”: with only 9 minutes of running time it encapsulates many references to Polish history, culture, and language (although there is almost no spoken dialogue, and very little off-screen commentary, which makes it even more challenging).

Both groups watched the same film: a short experimental documentary, ABC (Elementarz, 1976) by Wojciech Wiszniewski. The film is recognized[3] as one of the most outstanding achievements of Polish documentary and a major influence on a generation of younger filmmakers[4]. More information on Wiszniewski and his short can be found in the booklet with commentaries written by Mirosław Przylipiak[5] that accompanies the DVD edition of the work.

Method

Students received questionnaires (more detailed description follows), and afterwards participated in a focus group. For this part of the experiment, a so-called “creative approach”[6] was applied. During the discussion and while working with questionnaires, the participants are fully aware of the purpose of the experiment. This approach is based on a “brainstorming” effect, in which a group of people who are all interested in the subjects of the study tries to “solve” the problem together. The discussion in the focus group was obviously moderated.

The film was shown three times. After the first screening students received questionnaires, and all questions were explained. Then they watched the film again and answered questions from section A of the questionnaire. Section B referred to the third screening, during which the film was freeze-framed nine times, and students were asked to comment on what they saw on the screen.

Shown below is section A of the questionnaire with some comments in italics (not included in the original questionnaire) which refer to my instructions or tips given to the students during the experiment.

Your nationality:

Do you have any Polish ancestry (parents, grandparents)?

Do you speak Polish (at least B level)?

Describe briefly the main topic of Wojciech Wiszniewski’s „ABCs”

(no more than two sentences)

Students were asked to go beyond the story, and identify “deeper” and more general meanings of ‘ABC’.

Who are the people depicted in the portraits on the walls (beginning of the documentary)?

There are pictures of Polish kings hanging on a wall in a dark corridor.

How would you describe the people in the first part of the documentary (letters A – D)?

Who are they?

First letters of the alphabet are spoken by four different individuals in four different rooms.

What is the first sentence that Polish children learn?

The sentence “Ala ma kota” (Alice has a cat) can be seen briefly in a book.

What is the first sentence children learn in your country? Write it in your own language and translate it into English.

Katechizm polskiego dziecka by Władysław Bełza  (1900)

— Kto ty jesteś?              (Who are you?)
— Polak mały                  (A little Pole)
— Jaki znak twój?            (What is your emblem?)
— Orzeł biały                  (The white eagle)
— Gdzie ty mieszkasz?   (Where do you live?)
— Między swemi            (Among my people)
— W jakim kraju?            (In what land?)
— W polskiej ziemi.         (The Polish land)
Czem ta ziemia?       (What is this country?)
— Mą ojczyzną.             (My homeland)
— Czem zdobyta?                  (How did they fight for it?)
— Krwią i blizną.          (With their blood and scars)

— Czy ją kochasz?           (Do you love it?)
— Kocham szczerze.       (I love it dearly)
— A w co wierzysz?        (What do you believe in?)

— W Polskę wierzę!      (I believe in Poland)
— Coś ty dla niej?        
(Who are you for your country?)
— Wdzięczne dziecię    (A grateful child)
— Coś jej winien?         (What would you do for it?)
— Oddać życie.             (I would give my life)

Some parts of the poem (in bold above) were omitted in the documentary.

Could you explain why?

Fragments of the famous poem were used in “ABC”. They are recited line by line by a group of children.

Name characters and situations that you identify as typically Polish.

Section B refers to nine tableaux (titles come from the author, tableaux briefly explained in italics)

Picture

A picture by Artur Grottger from the series “Polonia” can be seen briefly. A scene from 1863 January Uprising is depicted.

Group of men

Group of Polish soldiers in uniforms in an informal situation.

Group of men, women, and children

Large, multi-generational family.

Two men in a room

A Christmas priest’s visit.

Women in a passageway

Countryside women selling food in a city.

Four men

Coal merchants.

Couple

Newlyweds. This tableau resembles traditional posed marriage photographs.

Three young people in white shirts

Members of the Youth Organisation in white shirts and red ties. A white eagle without a crown can be seen on the wall.

Two boys in the countryside

Two adolescent boys in a typically Polish countryside landscape with willow trees.

The outcome

After the questions had been answered, the students participated in a moderated discussion. Some of the problematic questions were explained, others were clarified by a lecturer. Students willingly participated in conversation.

Although there were a few persons with Polish background in the October group, only two were able to speak Polish. All students identified Wiszniewski’s documentary as strange, hermetic, and difficult. Almost all tried to indicate the main topic of ABC; only a few left this question with no answer. Ten people claimed that the documentary refers to the Polish system of education, with some noticing that the director criticises stereotypes. Eleven participants of the experiment discovered a more general meaning, saying that the main topic of the film was “Polish identity” or the “Polish way of life”.

Only one person (a student from Poland) was able to recognise the pictures in the opening sequence. Others answered, “I do not know” or tried to guess (key figures from Polish history, Józef Piłsudski[7], etc.). All foreigners had problems with questions requiring actual cultural competence; for example, nobody was able to indicate the famous ‘Ala ma kota’ phrase as one of the first sentences learned by children in Poland. On the other hand, most of the participants described characters from the first part of the film (persons declaiming letters A-D) as typically Polish. In an open question about typical Polish elements present in ABC, most of the students gave no relevant answer. Some of them referred to stereotypes that in most cases were not related to the film, while obvious elements (Polish symbols, colours, references to Polish history) were generally left unnoticed, with the exception of students with a Polish background and/or the ability to speak Polish. Most of the students tried to answer the question about Bełza’s poem. While some gave no relevant answer, others referred to the nationalistic tone of the omitted fragments.

Members of the October 2015 group had serious problems with section B of the questionnaire. Only four people (including a Polish student) tried to give answers that are more detailed, while others described characters in the tableau in a very casual way. In both cases, very rarely was the true context of the scene identified.

Wiszniewski’s ABC is an example of experimental documentary. Its meaning is inherently open and somehow blurred, even for those with proper cultural competence. Yet in discussion, students did not complain about its complex form. They enjoyed its episodic and associative structure, but in most cases were not able to identify the basic components that are usually quite self-evident for Polish audiences. I was not surprised with the answers, as many participants of the class had no previous contact with Polish culture. Some of them decided to come to Krakow because of a pre-existing interest in Polish issues; however, the majority had different reasons such as curiosity or low accommodation costs, while some considered Krakow an attractive hub to visit Central Europe.

The structure of the June 2015 group was similar: it contained one Polish student, three with Polish ancestry (but limited language skills), and one who spoke Polish fluently but had no Polish family whatsoever. Obviously, it was very interesting to see if just one semester in Poland was enough to overcome the barriers of cultural competence. The expectations were high and somewhat justified as students were active participants in academic life. Most of them had learned the basics of Polish and had contact with students from Jagiellonian University. They obviously attended other courses related to Polish history, politics, contemporary issues, culture, and participated in excursions and other educational events. After the course, all students had basic knowledge about post-war cinema in Poland. They also researched the subject individually to prepare a final project: an essay on a Polish film of their choice.

The outcome of the experiment with the June 2015 group was quite surprising. Again, students identified the overall meaning of the documentary as related either to the system of education, or ‘Polish identity’. Yet, this time only four persons claimed that the meaning is more general, while 15 tried to discuss the subject of education and its manipulative influence on the younger generation. Additionally, two of the persons who saw ABC as a metaphor of national identity gave very casual answers consisting of isolated words or very short phrases rather than sentences or entire paragraphs. In one case, the reason was poor command of English. In another, an unexplained lack of involvement from an English native speaker who usually gave only single words answers or very short sentences.

The interpretations provided by other students were in many cases quite complex, while answers to other questions were not significantly ‘better’ than the ones given by the members of the October 2015 group. Some of the students were able to identify more images properly, but their general competence was no different.

Where then do the differences in the general understanding of the film come from? It seems that they were biased by what students had learned during their stay in Poland. Many movies discussed in class were made before 1989, others often related to the communist regime. Obviously, they were often discussed in a political context. Students also learned that many institutions, which they considered as politically neutral, were in fact tools of oppression in communist Poland. This new knowledge was ‘used’ to interpret the film, which otherwise seemed hermetic. The process is called ‘confirmation bias’:

Creating and testing hypotheses represents a crucial feature not only of progress in science, but also in our daily lives in which we set up assumptions about reality and try to test them. However, the lay scientist stands accused of processing his or her hypotheses in such a way that he or she is biased to confirm them. “Confirmation bias” means that information is searched for, interpreted, and remembered in such a way that it systematically impedes the possibility that the hypothesis could be rejected—that is, it fosters the immunity of the hypothesis. Here, the issue is not the use of deceptive strategies to fake data, but forms of information processing that take place more or less unintentionally[8].

My discussions with Polish students show that for Poles, Wojciech Wiszniewski’s ABC does not really deal with education. Although I had no chance to conduct a similar experiment (no questionnaires were used, only moderated conversation), none of the Polish viewers saw the documentary as a metaphor of education, and especially manipulation. They all tended to interpret the film as an experimental essay about Polish icons, symbols, and stereotypes.

Falski’s “Elementarz” as a matrix of understanding

A famous learning aid by Marian Falski (Elementarz) that inspired the filmmaker was originally published in 1910 and is still available and sometimes used in education. Although it may be criticised for its conservative approach to family, social roles, etc., its author was able to introduce innovative[9] and highly effective methods of education. Falski did not focus on the structure of the language, but instead tried to employ natural cognitive preferences of children. He used images and simple words to teach them how to read and write. He also replaced printed letters with handwriting. Many of his innovations were revolutionary, at not only the beginning of the 20th century, but also many years later.

In a way, Wiszniewski employs Marian Falski’s ideas. He intended his documentary to be ‘read’ in an analytical manner, just like the words and simple sentences in ‘Elementarz’. The director also seems to go beyond words: the only linguistic components of the film are the letters of the alphabet and Bełza’s poem. Instead, he proposes a complex kaleidoscope of images: a visual aid supposed to teach us to ‘read’ Poland.

Foreign students who were still not able to identify all components tried to comprehend the text as such with their limited and fragmented knowledge of Poland and its institutions. The result was an ‘improper’ reading of the film, probably dissonant with the intention of the filmmaker. Although the ability to identify typically Polish characters, situations, and symbols was similar, there was one other important difference between both groups: members of the June 2015 group answered the questions in section B of the questionnaire in more complex and elaborate ways. The reason seems simple: for most of them (students who were not English native speakers), studying in Krakow was their first chance to use English in academic discussions. Not only did their linguistic skills improve, but they also became more confident and self-assured. I assume they also had more willingness to understand a text that seemed so demanding not only because they wanted to really apprehend the text itself, but to legitimise themselves as individuals participating in Polish culture. Their biased understanding of the text resulted from the limited ‘tools’ they could use in the process of interpretation:

 A true confirmation bias seems to occur primarily when the hypotheses tested are already established, or are motivationally supported. In general, we may say that the confirmation bias consists in favouring expectancy congruent information over incongruent information. This may happen in different ways: (a) memories congruent with the hypothesis are more likely to be accessed than memories that are incongruent with it; (b) undue weight is given to the importance of congruent information, possibly because of the concentration on the hypothesis, and the neglect of alternative explanations; (c) those sources with information that could reject the hypothesis are avoided, provided that the person knows a priori the opinion of the source.[10]

Conclusion

Let us try to ask some questions. Did the students really learn anything about Poland? Were their opinions and judgements about our country manipulated or falsified? Is it truly possible to understand the Other (in this case Poland and Poles)? Although the cultural competence of the June group was almost no different than that of the October group, I profoundly believe that those few months the young people from all over the world spent in Krakow make deep sense. My simple experiment proves the obvious: it is not possible to fully understand the Other after just a few months. Nevertheless, it also suggests that meeting the Other is equally valuable:

there is a zone of mutuality pre-predicatively given to ‘us’: we confront each other in a situation which then permits the exchange of ideas. My fellow man is encountered as ‘within hailing range’ or within ‘speaking distance’, as available for an intimate chat, as open to a face-to-face encounter. In all of these possibilities, the Other is taken as ‘confront-able’, as ‘hail-able’, as essentially capable of approaching me in closer and closer relationships. He is already in the world moving toward me. Horizons of proximity and distance undergird the possibility of our meeting. The Other who is friendly toward me is said to be easily ‘approachable’; the Other who is rather cold, difficult to relate to, is spoken of as being ‘distant’. The communicative zone involves avenues of withdrawal outward as well as engagement inward. To communicate is to be already involved in a world whose situations are built out of such eidetic possibilities[11].

When I presented my paper based on the experiment discussed in this article at a conference, I suddenly realised that it was more of a political statement than a proper academic address. I have recently returned from Neukölln, a borough of Berlin where people of 147 nations live. Were they Others, or was I the Other? I left for Berlin in early October 2015, and returned in late November 2015. Poland had changed dramatically[12].

I revised this article in Berlin again (November 2016). Berlin had also changed: struggling with a shift in public opinion, the refugee crisis, and more (than ever) support for radical political forces.

Will Poles and Europeans still be able to meet the Other, ‘misunderstand’ them, ‘misinterpret’ them in a world with no eidetic possibilities?

References

Biocca, Frank, Prabu David and Mark West, „Continuous Response Measurements (CRM). A Computerized Tool for Research on the Cognitive Processing of Communication Messages” , in Measuring Psychological Responses to Media Messages, ed. Annie Lang (New York and London: Routledge, 2014) pp. 15-64.

Glass, Gene V , Willson, Victor L., Gottman, John Mordechai, Design and Analysis of Time-series Experiments, (Charlotte: Information Age Publishing ) (2008).

Kuc, Kamila, Michael O’Prey, The Struggle for Form: Perspectives on Polish Avant-Garde Film 1916-1989, (New York: Columbia University Press) (2014).

Merton, Robert K. , Fiske, Marjorie, Kendall, Patricia L., The Focused Interview. A Manual of Problems and Procedures. (Glencoe: The Free Press) (1956).

Oswald, Margit E. , Stefan Grosjean, „Confirmation Bias”, in Cognitive Illusions. A Handbook on Fallacies and Biases inThinking, Judgement and Memory, ed. Rudiger F. Pohl, (Hove and New York: Psychology Press,  2004).

Strauss, Erwin W. Straus, Maurice Natanson, Henri Ey, Psychology and Philosophy, (New York: Springer Verlag) (1969).

Tes, Urszula, „Declaration of Immortality – Inspirations Derived from Creative Documentaries by Wojciech Wiszniewski”,  Images , vol. XV/no. 24 (2014), pp. 145-154.

Wroczyński, Ryszard, Marian Falski i reformy szkolne w Rzeczypospolitej, (Warszawa: PWN) (1988).

Notes

[1]The problem is discussed among others by: Frank Biocca, Prabu David and Mark West, Continuous Response Measurements (CRM). A Computerized Tool for Research on the Cognitive Processing of Communication Messages [in:] Annie Lang (ed.) Measuring Psychological Responses to Media Messages, New York and London: Routledge 2014, pp. 15-64.

[2] See: Glass, Gene V. Willson, Victor L., Gottman, John Mordechai, Design and Analysis of Time-series Experiments, Charlotte: Information Age Publishing 2008.

[3] See for example: Kamila Kuc, Michael O’Prey, The Struggle for Form: Perspectives on Polish Avant-Garde Film 1916-1989, Columbia University Press 2014, p. 78.

[4] See for example: Urszula Tes, Declaration of Immortality – Inspirations Derived from Creative Documentaries by Wojciech Wiszniewski, “Images” 2014, vol. XV/no. 24 Poznań 2014, pp. 145-154.

[5] Wojciech Wiszniewski in a series Polska Szkoła Dokumentu, Warszawa: Polskie Wydawnictwo Audiowizualne, 2007.

[6] Merton, Robert K. , Fiske, Marjorie, Kendall, Patricia L., The Focused Interview. A Manual of Problems and Procedures. The Free Press, Glencoe, Illinois 1956.

[7] Józef Piłsudski (05.12.1867 – 12.05.1935) was a Polish politician; first Marshal of Poland (since 1920), and actual leader (1926–35) of the Second Polish Republic.

[8] Margit E. Oswald, Stefan Grosjean, Confirmation Bias, [in:] Rudiger F. Pohl (ed.), Cognitive Illusions. A Handbook on Fallacies and Biases in Thinking, Judgement and Memory, Hove and New York: Psychology Press 2004, p. 79.

[9] See. for example: Ryszard Wroczyński, Marian Falski i reformy szkolne w Rzeczypospolitej, Warszawa: PWN 1988.

[10] Oswald and Grosjan, op.cit., p. 93.

[11] Erwin W. Straus, Maurice Natanson, Henri Ey, Psychology and Philosophy, New York: Springer Verlag 1969, p. 101.

[12] In October 2015, right wing populist party called “Prawo i Sprawiedliwość” won the elections. Since then the liberal course of Polish economy and politics has been systematically negated.

 

Andrzej Pitrus once used to be a Patagonian cougar. Yet, now he is a media and film professor hoping to restore his true identity. He teaches at Jagiellonian University. His articles and books focus on experimental cinema, media art, and video games. In 2015, his book on Bill Viola was published. Currently Andrzej Pitrus researches German contexts of Nam June Paik’s art. He does not smoke, plays bass guitar and drinks a little too much Primitivo.

 

Rinko Kikuchi in Space: Transnational Mexican Directors’ Global Gaze

Jane Hanley

Download the Article

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2016, vol.1, no. 2, pp. 34-50.

Jane Hanley

Macquarie University

 

Rinko Kikuchi in Space: Transnational Mexican Directors’ Global Gaze

 

Abstract

Alejandro González Iñárritu and Guillermo del Toro are contemporaries and compatriots who have charted different paths in their careers as makers of major international releases. Between Babel’s realist network narrative and the science fiction spectacle of Pacific Rim, the actor Rinko Kikuchi offers one connecting thread which can provide us insight into different transnational visions of the global. Pacific Rim establishes the typical global stakes now a cliché in expensive blockbusters, which increasingly depend on international markets for profitability and cannot incorporate too much locally specific experience incomprehensible to non-U.S. audiences, however del Toro’s particular vision suggests a more complex reading of subjectivity in transnational space than the humanity vs. aliens plot may initially suggest. In this context, the figure of Kikuchi’s Mako Mori is arguably the central character in terms of the narrative despite the film apparently being framed around Charlie Hunnam’s Raleigh Becket. On the other hand, Kikuchi’s performance as Chieko Wataya in González Iñárritu’s Babel is at the centre of one story in the geographically dispersed but intersecting meditation on the relationship between the locally specific and global systems, with the Tokyo setting emphasising the alienation experienced by the character. Ultimately, Babel reproduces a sense of isolation whereas del Toro’s global aesthetic and speculative world-building underpin transgressive intersubjective, intercultural, human-machine and human-monster communions.

Key words: del Toro; Iñárritu; borders; alienation; liminality; science fiction film.

 

Introduction: Transnational Themes in Transnational Productions

 

Films which encompass transnational issues and endeavour to engage global audiences must necessarily situate themselves differently from films which cleave closely to a specific culture or subculture, co-located with the film’s projected audience. One aspect of this is the approach transnational films take to their central characters. How can their relationship to their environment be understood by different audiences, and how does this spectrum of legibility mesh with the thematic preoccupations of the film? Films provide one medium for exploring the way globalised experiences and connections produce contemporary subjectivities. This idea frames the interpretation of the characters played by Japanese actor Rinko Kikuchi in two quite different but related transnational films: Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel (2006) and Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim (2013). Del Toro and 2015 Academy Award winner Iñárritu are two of the so-called Three Amigos, along with 2014 Academy Award winner Alfonso Cuarón.[1] (The awards are worth mentioning for the way popular reception and generic conventions frame characters for the audience.) The three directors are at the centre of a recent perceived boom in Latin American cinema, a construct related to select Spanish-language works finding an international audience. All three have also made successful well-financed English-language films, though quite distinct in terms of material and reception.

While the directors are important in each other’s careers and share the same cultural moment, speaking of their work as Mexican is to apply an artificial categorisation related to an outdated concept of nationally-based film production. Their cinematic works are quite distinctive, as Peter Hutchings has pointed out.[2] Their shared context is of interest however for the ways in which their professional trajectories are informed by both their origin and aesthetics, and how these inflect their portrayal of the global. All three have been acclaimed, but Cuarón and Iñárritu have been lauded for a higher degree of perceived seriousness. In comparison, Del Toro’s most lauded cinematic achievements are positioned in opposition to his supposedly more commercial works that explicitly belong to the genres of horror and science fiction, especially when these works are in English. Hutchings remarks on this fetishizing of non-English language films, noting that in del Toro’s Spanish Civil War films the specificity of Spanish history and memory anchors the content in a national cinema, making palatable categorisation easier.[3] Of course, this Spanishness is complicated, since both The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth engage more with displacement than with belonging.[4] The former in particular is informed by Mexico’s own reception of Spanish Civil War exiles, and was originally conceived as a Mexican Revolution narrative. Neither film tells a story bounded by a particular national moment; both break barriers between the real and unreal and between memory and imagination.[5] Audiences—especially international audiences with less awareness of the particular transnational features of both the Spanish Civil War itself and the ways it is represented in these films—can more easily fit the films into the Spanish national mould. In contrast, del Toro’s English-language films with their more recognisable genre elements supposedly ‘lack significant ex-generic referents to endow them with “cultural heft”‘.[6] Geek culture may rule the twenty-first century box office, but it convinces critics and juries only rarely. Yet both films fit into del Toro’s career trajectory in its fundamental unpredictability of genre and aesthetic. Del Toro is ‘the imperfect mimic, the perpetual outsider who imitates more or less successfully but who is also an awkward, troubling presence who moves back and forth across national borders and cultural distinctions without becoming assimilated’.[7] Davies similarly identifies all del Toro’s films as ‘gleefully impure’.[8] A breadth of influences mingle together, horror merges with art, refusing genre classification. Pacific Rim’s action science fiction grew out of cult monster movies, but the narrative structure, according to del Toro himself, is essentially of a sports film.[9]

Babel and Pacific Rim

Both Babel and Pacific Rim have a transnational crew and cast, notably in their significant focus on characters played by Japanese actor Rinko Kikuchi. This is not coincidental, since Kikuchi asked Iñárritu to put her in contact with del Toro to arrange an audition after hearing that del Toro was seeking a Japanese actor for a project.[10] Nor is she the only cast or crewmember the two films have in common, reflecting the ongoing cross-fertilisation in production conditions between the three Mexican contemporaries, drawing on their long acquaintance. In addition to these transnational material conditions, various features of the stories reflect an encompassing transnational vision of a sometimes confused sort. Many performances in both films require degrees of cross-cultural roleplaying, with Babel aiming for but sometimes missing greater verisimilitude, speaking to the challenges and potential compromises involved in putting together a work of this nature. Kikuchi contends with the least of this compared to other major cast members, as she is not performing a national origin different to her own in either film. Nevertheless, her characters in both films do still suppose forms of doubling in their positioning for a global audience both in terms of aesthetic and the pairing of language and culture.

In Babel Kikuchi plays Chieko Wataya, an adolescent girl with deafness. Her performance therefore is sub-national but still cross-cultural in her portrayal of a teenager in the Japanese deaf community. Chieko is the main character in one of the four interlocking stories of the network narrative. The film switches between Morocco, Japan, the U.S. and Mexico via the plot device of the accidental shooting of a U.S. tourist (played by Australian Cate Blanchett).  Chieko’s story is the most narratively disconnected from the other three, which all pivot around the family of the U.S. couple at the core of the film whose story is the only one that reaches traditional resolution. The Japan sequences are designed to serve the film’s central themes of miscommunication and the capacity or incapacity to overcome differences via empathy. These resonances, as encoded via Chieko’s grief after her mother’s death, her general feeling of alienation, and her use of minority language (Japanese Sign Language), are only connected to the rest of the plot itself through the contrivance of her father having left in Morocco the gun involved in the shooting.

Pacific Rim is a typically explosive CGI-heavy action/sci-fi blockbuster featuring pilots of giant robot-suits (jaegers) defending Earth from invading monsters (kaiju). It was explicitly conceived and designed in tribute to mecha (the robot-suits) and tokusatsu/kaiju or monster-based Japanese cultural products. The film’s aesthetic deliberately references the effect created by such films’ live action performances in monster suits, despite relying heavily on current technology to generate the action.[11] This aesthetic and narrative DNA is obviously significant for the film’s engagement with Japanese culture and the portrayal of Rinko Kikuchi’s character Mako Mori, the only Japanese character with a substantial presence in the film. Mako is a pilot candidate for the jaegers, raised by military marshal Stacker Pentecost after losing her parents in a kaiju attack on Tokyo. The trauma occasioned by this event is the principle obstacle to Mako realizing her heroic role as a pilot via the ‘drift’, the film’s conceit of two or more pilots uniting telepathically via their memories in order to jointly control their jaegers. Both the presence of a significant female protagonist in an action-focused narrative and the exploration of linking or fusing with other people and with technology are common features in certain genres of manga and anime.[12]

Along with creating robot and monster designs that principally refer to existing popular texts, the places in which the narrative unfolds are similarly imaginary and play more on science fiction cityscapes than real contemporary cities. The shatterdome from which the Jaeger launch, the cinematic future city version of Hong Kong, and the Tokyo of Mako’s memories (informed by the Tokyo of the director’s memories of past kaiju-film urban destruction) are intertextual inventions. Future cinematic Hong Kong, in particular, where most of the action unfolds, is a purely imaginary space, the defining referents being other urban images from popular culture, even though in some instances they might imposed over real-life Hong Kong terrain. Humans do not traverse Pacific Rim Hong Kong and shape it with their bodies; it has been designed to be broken through and brought down by the destructive enormity of the kaiju. The fragments of the city respond to the future-imaginary of need and desire for both creators and audience. While Pacific Rim’s specific referents are from Japanese cultural products that achieved cult status outside Japan, the orientalising of the future has been normalised in Hollywood cinema since Blade Runner[13], and in some sense is what audiences expect from portrayals of the future. To better understand Chieko Wataya’s interaction with and situatedness within the much more realist aesthetic of the Toyko of Babel, it helps to frame this city, in contrast to Pacific Rim’s Hong Kong, as a Foucauldian heterotopia.[14] In the particular consideration of transnational cinema with varied audiences, it is useful to follow Raussert’s lead in extending Foucault’s concept via Massey’s exploration of place-as-process wherein places are discursively rather than geographically bound, existing ‘within consciousness rather than physical borders’.[15] This facilitates the application of the heterotopia not just to the theatre and the interaction of screen, experience, fictional space and real space, but also to the multiplicity of ways the spaces portrayed in film are experienced by both the characters and the audience.

Babel-Tokyo mirrors Tokyo-as-lived (with the mirror being one of Foucault’s examples, alongside the theatrical stage, both with obvious resonances for film). The cinematic reproduction of Tokyo, however, takes it out of specific time and place, and creates an unstable and constantly mutating function underscoring both the radical absence of Tokyo and the absence of the viewer themselves as they are transported into each other. Babel’s Tokyo has both intertextual referents and real referents, and a shifting significance both diegetically, for the inhabitants portrayed, and non-diegetically, for the film’s diverse viewers.

Asia as Global Space

The analysis of Chieko Wataya and Mako Mori draws together different critical threads. The first is the projection of global space in transnational films in relation to the Mexican directors’ trajectory. Deborah Shaw has extensively explored the function of the transnational in both the production and the reception of these directors’ work, noting that ‘culture is rarely, if ever, “pure” and that there is no neat distinction between “Western” and non-Western: transnational movements of people and ideas must be considered’; and that it is false to categorise films as ‘Latin American’.[16] If Mexico is having a moment, partially thanks to these three high profile directors, it is only understood as such by defining the cultural spectrum from an Anglo-American centre, since their work both in English and Spanish (or multiple languages, in this case) is understood in the Spanish-speaking world according to different definitions of mainstream film production. Shaw still sees value in contrasting directors and works that share production characteristics, even if only to highlight differences in intent and effect. It would be equally artificial to declare Pacific Rim and Babel incomparable because of their disparate apparent genres. Indeed, genres have provided as incomplete a set of working categories as national cinemas. It is productive to explore not only the divergences, but also the parallels of different kinds of cinematic space.

The second major critical thread is the analysis of Hollywood images of Asia and Asian people, drawing on Jane Park’s concept of oriental style, which reinforces Shaw’s assertion of the impossibility of a pure national or ethnic product. Cultural creation and reception are all fissures.[17] Park and Marchetti both describe the emergence of post-modern pastiche as a prevailing aesthetic mode for global blockbusters, in which Asia becomes, in Marchetti’s words, ‘an imaginary construct of past representations from other mass-mediated sources’.[18] Park makes the additional critique that the ironic mode of using racial signifiers detaches race from the history of power and actual inequality, drawing on Nakamura’s concept of cosmetic multiculturalism.[19] This charge can be levelled at Pacific Rim, but with caveats that become clear through further analysis of the film’s multicultural characters.

Some existing critical approaches to the representation of Asia, particularly Marchetti’s, start from a standpoint of considering films within the context of consumption by U.S. domestic audiences. The transition Park described in its early stages is now complete: contemporary mega-blockbusters have to make their money back in the international market. This market constraint can either further or limit creativity, and certainly produces interesting effects in terms of the varied legibility of character and space in different markets. This constraint applies even for Babel and other films at the art film end of mainstream Hollywood. Despite their more limited financial expectations, spaces in these films must nevertheless be intelligible to an extremely diverse projected audience.

In Babel, Iñárritu tries to tell a situated but global story, both accessible and inaccessible at the same time. It explores the limits of communication but allows multiple entry points for different audiences to engage with the narrative. The film pivots around a single temporal point (the shooting) that represents a crisis occasioned by and occasioning violence. The strategy is the same as in the director’s breakthrough Amores perros.[20] However, with connections between the different characters even more dispersed than in the class-variegated Mexican setting of the earlier film, the use of a dramatic pivot point is less effective. As a result of tensions between the thematic ambitions and projected global audience of the film, the images of Chieko and her movement through Tokyo are neither truly local nor disruptively specific. Shaw’s discussion of the global gaze agilely critiques Babel’s use of a tourist perspective in contrast to the art film signifiers of Carlos Reygadas’s Japón.[21] The tourist gaze provides an organizing function. Iñárritu and cinematographer Prieto’s production designer Brigitte Broch portrayed Tokyo through a pink-purple palette representing the ‘diluted blood of futuristic essence’ in contrast to Mexico’s primary red for ‘straightforward Mexican passion’, with the overall aesthetic distinctions between locations geared at enhancing, according to Prieto, ‘the experience of feeling like you are in different places geographically and emotionally’.[22] Tokyo is the now-cliché site of hyper-modernity (versus Mexico where emotions are supposedly unmediated). It is a prevailing image of that city, with the small benefit of partially disrupting the ‘classic Orientalist spectrum of progress’ which situated Asia in the past.[23] Shaw suggests that Babel’s Tokyo responds to the demands of the international art film genre and its intended audience via employment of ‘familiar and expected locations and types’, in which ‘Japan is hyper-modern, featuring the latest mobile phones, cool clubs, trendy cafés, and impressive neon-bright cityscapes’.[24] Early in the Japan sequences the film presents now-stereotypical elements of urban Japanese adolescence, such as pop music videos and arcade games.

Rinko Kikuchi’s Globalised Body

Chieko herself, and her frustrated desire for a human connection and a way to physically express her grief and guilt, partly embodies the alienation associated with technologized modernity and the failure of technology to replace human contact. She uses technological aids for the deaf to assist in interacting with her environment and communicating with people. However, here these aids do not symbolise the Asian future’s technological erosion of the human, but the character’s intimate reality, an important difference. In critiquing Babel’s reinforcement of global images of Japan, Chieko’s specific experience notably disrupts some established readings of spaces, because they are intermittently silenced as the film shifts into her sensory point-of-view. Hearing members of the audience are required to make a cognitive leap to understand the difference in Chieko’s experiences of space. She perceives only part of what the hearing viewers do. In that partial perception, non-Japanese hearing viewers may also approximate something of the partiality of their own comprehension and the spatial experiences that are opaque to those outside the deaf community.

It is also interesting to consider, following Isabel Santaolalla’s analysis of the figure of the mute woman in cinema, the connections between Chieko’s relationship to language, her physicality and her sexuality.[25] Then 25 year old Kikuchi plays a teen girl who seeks power or reconnection through sex. Babel reproduces, among other tropes, a sexualised schoolgirl as the natural vessel for situating ‘urban Japanese teenage angst’.[26] However, Chieko’s sexual agency is presented without any kind of erotic charge geared at viewers. It emerges from her feelings, initially mysterious to the viewer and only gradually revealed as her sexual gambits intermingle with other seemingly aberrant behaviours to present a panorama of performances of confusion, guilt and pain. Analyses suggesting Chieko’s character functions as a sexually available version of the classic Orientalised woman who cannot reply and is presented purely for scopophilic consumption are unconvincing. Her relationship to both language and sex is more complex. Santaolalla has outlined the close association in certain films of the normalisation (the achievement of communication, especially speech) of the mute woman with social and sexual control—even, often, sexual violence and rape.[27] At the same time, Santaolalla is careful to underline the complexity of the interrelationship between body and silence/language, allowing that both, together or apart, may offer sites of resistance and challenge. In a key moment in Babel after a flirtation is derailed by the boy’s realisation of her deafness, Chieko signs that the hearing ‘look at us like we’re monsters’, and describes her vulva as the ‘hairy monster’. Sex is an attempt to reframe her own position in the eyes of others, to challenge their assumptions, and transform her experience of her own monstrousness (her guilt over her mother’s death) into something active.

The complexity of the body-language relationship also links to the tongue’s role as the instrument of speech. Chieko does not have audible speech, but uses her hands, the instrument of touch. Her tongue, meanwhile, becomes an instrument of touch in ways that unsettle the expected pathways of communication: she licks her dentist, and later she sucks on the policeman Mamiya’s finger. The written word, which provides an alternative channel for language, is only semi-legible to viewers. It is ultimately completely obscured when her final note to Mamiya, tucked into his hand, is concealed from the audience, contents unknowable. Chieko’s physical, emotional, and auditory isolation is the ultimate form of sovereignty, but she is desperate to breach it, to connect, to be human.[28] Entanglement and messiness are pathways to community. However, ultimately Chieko does not achieve this horizontal community, and certainly not on the terms by which she sought it.

The positioning of women’s bodies as sites for performing power goes beyond the narrative to extradiegetic features. The Babel team explicitly marked futuristic Tokyo with a pink-purple palette and gave the actor purple streaks in her hair to match the colour design. Del Toro similarly marked Mako through blue and also gave Kikuchi blue streaks in her hair.[29] However, in Pacific Rim, the blue is Mako’s own grief and trauma, the ongoing influence of her memory of loss, whereas in Babel the purple is remote from Chieko’s individual trauma and merges the character with the city. If Chieko’s image stands in for the future metropolis, it is vital to consider Chieko’s physical relationship to inside and outside spaces. Bringing together the disruptive opacity of her silent experience of space and her positioning in tension with the stereotypical sexualized Japanese schoolgirl are her public and semi-public nudity and partial nudity, for example, as well the intersection between the audio and the visual, and Kikuchi’s performance oscillating between disruptive monstrousness and other forms that suggest the cultural encoding of speech and body.

Shaw has also noted that to be effective a text must recognise its own limitations and the impossibility of universalism.[30] Babel relies on emotion for audience empathy rather than interrogating the function of class in a global system in determining the range of possibilities for its characters and its viewers. Empathy for supposedly universal human emotions leaves the audience mournful, perhaps, but also helpless. This emotional universalism tends to undermine the estrangement provoked by the moments in which the character’s experience remains resolutely illegible to an “outsider” (hearing and non-Japanese in the case of Chieko) viewer. Death, grief, and familial love are legible, but they are not human experiences that provoke action out of solidarity. If Chieko finds some solace or connection at all, it is through the closeness of death in the film’s flirtation with suicide and, perhaps, the reestablishment of a family unit—order—in her father’s embrace.

Mako, in contrast, has a conventional hero narrative, as can be seen in her triumph over trauma and realization of vengeance for past losses. The film is at least equally Mako’s, and del Toro describes her story—and her childhood memory—as the film’s heart (Pacific Rim director’s commentary). The male protagonist Raleigh and his brother Yancy are the initial heroes. Raleigh is framed as an impetuous youth who audiences expect will be tempered through undergoing some drastic trial, based on conventional Hollywood narrative. Hunnam is a large white man to put on posters and do English voiceover during battles. While the story of the U.S. couple (Blanchett and Brad Pitt) clearly propels Babel, despite the prologue of Pacific Rim showing the backstory of Raleigh rather than Mako it is her story that anchors the film. After Yancy’s death and Raleigh’s departure from the program, we discover that the Beckets’ jaeger (Gypsy Danger) was drastically altered by Mako, who is also shown to have technical skills and jaeger-combat abilities surpassing those of any other pilot candidate. Mako adds to Gypsy Danger a massive sword, allowing her to enact a samurai’s revenge for the loss of her family and community as she thrusts it through the body of a kaiju in the climactic battle. In another move with shades of Babel—unexpected in a film positioned in the action blockbuster marketplace—Mako speaks mostly Japanese. Her farewell to Pentecost—sensei, aishitemasu—is untranslated.[31] The full significance of a moment easily milked for sentiment is restricted to a knowing audience.[32]

In contrast to Babel, in which a known figure—the Japanese schoolgirl—is both used to make Japan swiftly legible to global audiences and disrupted by Chieko’s relation to sexuality and to language, the character of Mako draws on types perhaps less familiar outside Japan. Del Toro said of Mako that ‘She’s not going to be a sex kitten, she’s not going to come out in cut-off shorts and a tank top, and it’s going to be a real earnestly drawn character’.[33] To the extent that the Mako-Raleigh relationship has any erotic component, it is in her gaze on his body. In contrast to the nudity Chieko uses as part of her arsenal of challenging behaviours, Mako Mori is very clothed throughout. ‘As a means to, even the substance of, a commutable persona, clothing as performance threatens to undercut the ideological fixity of the human subject’.[34] This performative element of the subject, however, is also read differently by different audiences. Chieko’s nudity and Mako’s clothing/armour link to the audience’s reading of their characters as Japanese, or more generically as Asian women.[35] Inside Japan, both characters correspond to or subvert particular aesthetic traditions (principally from manga), whereas outside Japan this intertextual reading may be less obvious. Images of Asian women outside Asia are less nuanced; they do not draw on the full spectrum of female figures from all areas of cultural production as is naturally the case inside Asia. Instead, racial and gendered characteristics are often linked together in reductive essentialism. Shingler has outlined the way this expectation requires Asian stars to vacillate between stereotypical and universal subjectivity.[36]  In terms of Asian women performing opposite white men, Marchetti described the way ‘interracial sexuality’ and the use (and generally domination) of Asian women to confirm the heterosexuality of the hero had become a part of the ‘stylistic mélange’ of contemporary Hollywood filmmaking.[37] Charlie Hunnam is an imposing physical presence in the film; however, his character’s relationship with Kikuchi’s does not unfold along these lines. He is intermittently shirtless and Mako—and the audience—look at him, but despite the film’s projection of a jocular macho environment among male jaeger pilots and support staff involving the casual objectification of women, Mako herself is not sexually objectified either by the camera or by any character, including Raleigh, within the film. This environment contributes rather to the locker room effect of the male-dominated sports world, with Mako seamlessly assuming the role of untested but talented rookie.

The two characters, rather than potential lovers, are mirrors, with matching and converging narratives. In the choreography and the mise-en-scène Raleigh and Mako, when appearing together, are framed as physical counterparts, in balance with each other.  At their first meeting, Mako awaits him on an airstrip at the Shatterdome, and the two look at each other, each holding a black umbrella. (Umbrellas are prominent visual and narrative elements in manga and anime, although the constant rain also triggers comparison to Blade Runner). This initial encounter is bookended by the final shot of the two together in the film, their heads inclined towards each other, foreheads touching, and bodies in compositional symmetry as they kneel atop a life raft at sea. Between these two framing images there are many other instances of the two characters physically mirroring each other as they converge.

Among the most significant of these are the hand-to-hand fight choreography, supposed to indicate their elite combat capabilities but also, more importantly, their combat compatibility, and the subsequent sequences of them piloting Gypsy Danger side by side, clamped into synchronised interfaces. There is a dual doubling at work, with each other and with the machine, taking to a new level science fiction’s fascination with the limits of the human and the appeal of the non-human, especially where the non-human serves as the human’s double.[38] While the first and last shots of the two together suggest their joined character arcs, the choreographed mirrored sequences support Pacific Rim’s central concept of the drift, the memory-based telepathy allowing two (or more) compatible pilots to jointly control their jaeger.

Isolation versus Fusion in the Global Gaze

The experience of the drift serves as a motif of communion in terms of contrast to the individual isolation and alienation of Babel, an important point of contrast for the two films’ presentation of globalised subjects. The fusion of characters in Pacific Rim, the ways in which they are relational and intermingled even in how they experience their memories of their own past selves, is a more challenging concept of subjectivity than that put forth in Babel, which ultimately reinforces the integrity of the individual self and the obstacles in the way of transcending our isolation. This difference is not that surprising considering their different genres, with Babel in the realist art-film vein taking emotion—emanating from the self and building on the specificity of individual experience—as its centre, whereas Pacific Rim, in the way of science fiction, engages with the limits of the human.[39] Both films use central characters—notably Kikuchi’s Mako and Chieko—to show aspects of the human response to trauma and our capacity to understand the emotional components of our reaction to external threats on a global scale.

In the context of thinking about the interconnection of threat and trauma, it is relevant to analyse the two films’ treatment of the security apparatus that is supposed to reinforce our sense of integrity against an external force. The connections between borders and enclosure and the relationship between security and exclusion in Babel are obvious, but there are several ways in which Pacific Rim‘s engagement with these concepts is more disruptive. Babel shows the profound incapacity to communicate or transcend barriers. Its representation of unequal power and its relationship to global networks has already received a great deal of critical attention, which its explicit engagement with the consequences of globalisation positively invites.[40] Pacific Rim, in contrast, has one very obvious critique of the politically-motivated folly of building a wall that cannot hold, and the central plot of coming together to face a common enemy is a simplistic cliché. To consider this cliché in the context of the critical question of global visions in contemporary transnational film, the coming together of diverse characters may represent ‘the apotheosis of the transnational qualities so often associated with del Toro, with the giant robots dependent on the support of a racially and ethnically mixed group of human beings who can interact very effectively across national differences’.[41] In practice, however, beyond these clear representations of two different immediate responses to outside threats, the ways that both bodily and cultural boundaries are represented in Pacific Rim is more interesting.

Park relates Morley and Robins’ ‘techno-orientalism’ and Hollywood’s use of Tokyo as the ‘quintessential postmodern metropolis’ in which Japanese people are machine-like, suggesting that the self-hatred of modernity is displaced onto Asia.[42] Fear of modernity as symbolised by alienation in techno-mediated Tokyo is perhaps evident in Babel. In Pacific Rim, however, the prevailing mode is technophilia. Walls are not the solution. Fusing with technology is the solution. Even fusing with and loving the enemy is the solution. Boundaries, which are comforting illusions, must be transgressed. This transgressive tendency is one of the benefits of the genre. ‘Borders and markers in the science fiction film are seen as extendable—and their contents as spilling over into each other, possibly merging’.[43] From the film’s beginning, we see that the jaeger is as much a fantasy protection as the giant coastal wall, for Yancy Beckett is ripped out of Gypsy Danger’s skull—and ripped out of Raleigh’s mind—with ease. It is clear from that moment that jaeger fighting kaiju, though the film’s primary spectacle, cannot offer a solution. Only fascination as a starting point for becoming/assuming the cloak of the kaiju can liberate humanity from its coming destruction. The jaeger alone is imperfect, incomplete and penetrable. Similarly, the human characters are imperfect, incomplete and penetrable. Mako herself loathes the kaiju. But as del Toro explains, the characters in Pacific Rim are limited types that are really all one character. The characters move through different positions in a series of dyads of love/hatred, fascination/fear, technophilia/xenophilia, reason/instinct, obedience/rebellion, and arrogance/self-sacrifice. These, however, must somehow be fused or collapsed together for humanity to overcome its obstacles.

This is not to overstate the case the film makes for fusion as a mechanism for overcoming the alienation of contemporary human subjectivity, as Pacific Rim remains a story essentially about violently expelling aliens. In Babel, crossing boundaries and understanding the other, while nearly impossible and accomplished only in extremis, allow empathy and communion. While the narrative spans the globe, however, the focus on the intimacy of individual experience as a source of empathy means an answer for the disconnection and miscommunication between people remains elusive. In Pacific Rim, empathy, communion and understanding the other facilitate destruction and exclusion; at least when the other is the monstrous alien. By focusing on the continuities in del Toro’s work, his ‘focus on liminal characters caught between worlds’, this destruction and exclusion is undermined.[44] If Pacific Rim has indeed been successful enough to trigger a Pacific Rim 2, it would be unsurprising to see greater complexity brought to this conclusion—the kaiju were pushed back and cut off, not annihilated, after all. A triumphalist representation of the sacrifice of the jaeger and their pilots for the greater good of a united humanity, given the venality and pettiness of the wider world hinted at in the film, is unlikely to remain the prevailing vision. In del Toro’s worlds, barriers, whether between races, genders, species, past and present, or reality and fantasy, are rarely allowed to stand.

References

Anker Elizabeth, “In the Shadowlands of Sovereignty: The Politics of Enclosure in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel”, University of Toronto Quarterly: A Canadian Journal of the Humanities 82:4 (2013).

Bâ Saer Maty, Higbee Will, “Moving away from a sense of cultures as pure spaces. An Interview with Deborah Shaw”, in De-Westernizing Film Studies, ed. Saer Maty Bâ and Will Higbee (London/NY: Routledge) (2012).

Carreno Victor “Travels and Borders in the Representation of the U.S.-Mexico Border: Cartographies in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel”, International Journal of the Arts in Society 4:4 (2009).

Davies Laurence, “Guillermo del Toro’s Cronos, or the Pleasures of Impurity”, in Gothic Science Fiction 1980-2010. ed. S. Wasson and E Alder (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press) (2011).

Foucault Michel, “Des espaces autres. Hétérotopies”, Architecture, Mouvement, Continuité 5 (1984).

Gilchrist Todd. “Comic-Con 2012: Pacific Rim‘s Rinko Kikuchi Says She Was Jealous of Co-Star Charlie Day”, 19 July 2012 http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/heat-vision/comic-con-2012-pacific-rim-rinko-kikuchi-charlie-day351981, date accessed 28 September 2015.

Hanley Jane, “The Walls Fall Down”, Studies in Spanish and Latin American Cinemas [Studies in Hispanic Cinemas] 4:1 (2007).

Hutchings Peter, “Adapt or Die: Mimicry and Evolution in Guillermo del Toro’s English-Language Films”, in The Transnational Fantasies of Guillermo del Toro ed. A. Davies, D. Shaw and D. Tierney (London: Palgrave Macmillan) (2014).

Jones Norma, “Review of Pacific Rim”, Film & History 44:1 (2014).

Kerr Paul, “Babel’s network narrative: packaging a globalized art cinema” Transnational Cinemas 1:1 (2010).

Kuhn Annette, Alien Zone (New York: Verso) (1990).

Kuhn Annette, The Power of the Image: Essays on Representation and Sexuality, (London: Routledge) (1985).

Locke Richard, “Globalization and its Discontents”, The American Scholar 76:2 (2007).

Lopez Aguirre Sergio, “En entrevista con la protagonista de Pacific Rim, recuerda su filmografía” Cinepremiere 9 July 2013, http://www.cinepremiere.com.mx/30555-rinko-kikuchi-habla-de-titanes-del-pacifico-babel-murakami-y-mas.html date accessed 17 March 2015.

Marchetti Gina, Romance and the “Yellow Peril”: Race, Sex, and Discursive Strategies in Hollywood Fiction, (Berkeley: University of California Press) (1993).

Park Jane, Yellow Future: Oriental Style in Hollywood Cinema, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press) (2010).

Raussert Wilfred, “Inter-American Border Discourses, Heterotopia, and Translocal Communities in Courtney Hunt’s Film Frozen River”, Norteamérica 6:1 (2011).

Santaolalla Isabel, “Bodyscapes of silence: The figure of the mute woman in the cinema”, Journal of Gender Studies 7:1 (1998).

Shaw Deborah, Contemporary Cinema of Latin America: Ten Key Films, (London: Continuum) (2003).

Shaw Deborah, “Babel and the Global Hollywood Gaze”, Situations 4:1 (2011).

Shaw Deborah, “(Trans)national images and cinematic spaces: The cases of Alfonso Cuarón’s Y tu mamá también (2001) and Carlos Reygadas’ Japón (2002)”, Iberoamericana 11:44 (2011).

Shaw Deborah, The Three Amigos: The Transnational Filmmaking of Guillermo del Toro, Alejandro González Iñárritu, and Alfonso Cuarón, (Manchester: Manchester University Press) (2013).

Shingler Martin, Star Studies: A Critical Guide, (London: Palgrave Macmillan) (2012).

Sneider Jeff “Rodrigo Prieto, ‘Babel’”, Variety 3 January 2007, http://variety.com/2007/film/awards/rodrigo-prieto-babel-1117956612/, date accessed 15 September 2015.

Sobchack Vivian. 1990. The virginity of astronauts. In A. Kuhn (ed.) Alien Zone. New York: Verso.

Tamaki Saitō, Beautiful Fighting Girl transl. J. Keith Vincent and Dawn Lawson (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press) (2011).

Telotte J.P. “The Doubles of Fantasy and the Space of Desire” Alien Zone ed. Annette Kuhn (New York: Verso) (1990).

Tierney Dolores, “Alejandro González Iñárritu: director without borders”, New Cinemas: Journal of Contemporary Film 7:2 (2009).

Notes

[1] Cuarón, Iñárritu and del Toro are the surnames commonly employed to refer to these directors in the English-speaking world, and will be used throughout.

[2] Peter Hutchings, “Adapt or Die: Mimicry and Evolution in Guillermo del Toro’s English-Language Films”, in The Transnational Fantasies of Guillermo del Toro ed. A. Davies, D. Shaw and D. Tierney (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), p.84.

[3] Peter Hutchings, p.85.

[4] The Devil’s Backbone (2001, Guillermo del Toro); Pan’s Labyrinth (2006, Guillermo del Toro).

[5] Jane Hanley, “The Walls Fall Down”, Studies in Spanish and Latin American Cinemas [Studies in Hispanic Cinemas] 4:1 (2007), pp.35-45.

[6] Peter Hutchings, p.86.

[7] Peter Hutchings, p.96.

[8] Laurence Davies, “Guillermo del Toro’s Cronos, or the Pleasures of Impurity” in Gothic Science Fiction 1980-2010 ed. S. Wasson & E Alder (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2011), p.88.

[9] DVD director’s commentary.

[10] Sergio López Aguirre, “En entrevista con la protagonista de Pacific Rim, recuerda su filmografía” Cinepremiere 9 July 2013, http://www.cinepremiere.com.mx/30555-rinko-kikuchi-habla-de-titanes-del-pacifico-babel-murakami-y-mas.html date accessed 17 March 2015.

[11] Norma Jones, “Review of Pacific Rim”, Film & History 44:1 (2014), p.45.

[12] The most obvious mecha referent that might come to mind for non-Japanese audiences, Neon Genesis Evangelion, is, according to del Toro, not a direct influence on the aesthetic of Pacific Rim in the way that some earlier mechas are (DVD director’s commentary).

[13] Blade Runner (1982, Ridley Scott).

[14] Michel Foucault, “Des espaces autres. Hétérotopies.” Architecture, Mouvement, Continuité 5 (1984), pp.46-49. The heterotopia now routinely appears in film analysis.

[15] Wilfred Raussert, “Inter-American Border Discourses, Heterotopia, and Translocal Communities in Courtney Hunt’s Film Frozen River”, Norteamérica 6:1 (2011), p.23.

[16] Deborah Shaw in Saer Maty Bà and Will Higbee “Moving away from a sense of cultures as pure spaces. An Interview with Deborah Shaw.” De-Westernizing Film Studies (London/NY: Routledge, 2012), p.236; Deborah Shaw, Contemporary Cinema of Latin America: Ten Key Films (London: Continuum, 2003), p.5.

[17] Jane Park, Yellow Future: Oriental Style in Hollywood Cinema (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010), p.199.

[18] Gina Marchetti, Romance and the “Yellow Peril”: Race, Sex, and Discursive Strategies in Hollywood Fiction (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), p.202.

[19] Jane Park, p.xi.

[20] Amores perros (2000, Alejandro González Iñárritu).

[21] Deborah Shaw, “(Trans)national images and cinematic spaces: The cases of Alfonso Cuarón’s Y tu mamá también (2001) and Carlos Reygadas’ Japón (2002)”, Iberoamericana 11:44 (2011), pp.117-131.

[22]Rodrigo Prieto in Jeff Sneider, Rodrigo Prieto, ‘Babel’. Variety 3 January 2007, http://variety.com/2007/film/awards/rodrigo-prieto-babel-1117956612/, date accessed 15 September 2015.

[23] Jane Park, p.5.

[24] Deborah Shaw, “Babel and the Global Hollywood Gaze”, Situations 4:1 (2011), p.21.

[25] Isabel Santaolalla “Bodyscapes of silence: The figure of the mute woman in the cinema” Journal of Gender Studies 7:1 (1998), pp.53-61.

[26] Paul Kerr, “Babel’s network narrative: packaging a globalized art cinema”, Transnational Cinemas 1:1 (2011), p.47.

[27] Santoallalla, pp.57-58.

[28] Elizabeth Anker, “In the Shadowlands of Sovereignty: The Politics of Enclosure in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel”, University of Toronto Quarterly: A Canadian Journal of the Humanities 82:4 (2013), pp.950-73.

[29] DVD director’s commentary.

[30] Shaw “Babel”, p.26.

[31] Jones p.46.

[32] Rinko Kikuchi does not herself consider being Japanese an essential part of her role in the film, citing instead the universalism of stories (in Todd Gilchrist, “Comic-Con 2012: Pacific Rim‘s Rinko Kikuchi Says She Was Jealous of Co-Star Charlie Day”, 19 July 2012, http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/heat-vision/comic-con-2012-pacific-rim-rinko-kikuchi-charlie-day351981, date accessed 28 September 2015). The signs of nationality in the intercultural space of Pacific Rim are empty; it is interpersonal fusion that is important.

[33] DVD director’s commentary.

[34] Annette Kuhn, The Power of the Image: Essays on Representation and Sexuality. London: Routledge, 1985) p.54.

[35] The omnipresence of the schoolgirl needs little elaboration. For an exploration of female warrior types in manga and anime see Tamaki, Saitō, Beautiful Fighting Girl transl. by J. Keith Vincent & Dawn Lawson (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011). These types are discussed mainly with reference to girls rather than women, but Tamaki’s analysis is still informative for understanding the aesthetic and narrative for the character of Mako Mori and the complexity of presenting her in a non-sexual way.

[36] Martin Shingler, Star Studies: A Critical Guide (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), p.179.

[37] Gina Marchetti, p.203.

[38] Telotte suggested that the spectatorial fascination of the double in science fiction is a narcissistic impulse that may suppose the dissolution of the desire for the other. J.P. Telotte “The Doubles of Fantasy and the Space of Desire” in Alien Zone ed. Annette Kuhn (New York: Verso, 1990).

In Pacific Rim, however, doubles—Raleigh/Mako, Raleigh/ his brother, other drift-compatible pilots, scientist/alien, the two scientists, and of course pilot/jaeger—are unstable and multiply, suggesting the fluidity and possibility of transcending the limits of the individual self.

[39] A priori definitions of the genre are problematic, but Kuhn notes that effective science fiction films have often prompted critics to zero in on the way speculative fictions can interrogate the prevailing preoccupations of their moment. Annette Kuhn “Alien”, p10.

[40] For example, Dolores Tierney, “Alejandro González Iñárritu: director without borders. New Cinemas: Journal of Contemporary Film 7:2 (2009) pp.101-117; Victor Carreno, “Travels and Borders in the Representation of the U.S.-Mexico Border: Cartographies in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel”, International Journal of the Arts in Society 4:4 (2011), pp.265-274; Richard Locke, “Globalization and its Discontents”, The American Scholar 76:2 (2007), pp.114-117, among others.

[41] Peter Hutchings, pp.95-96.

[42] Jane Park, pp.7-8.

[43] Vivian Sobchack, “The virginity of astronauts” in Alien Zone ed. Annette Kuhn (New York: Verso, 1990), p.113.

[44] Peter Hutchings, p.93.

Jane Hanley is Head of Spanish and Latin American Studies in the Department of International Studies: Languages and Cultures at Macquarie University, Sydney. Her current research project is on the influence of transnational mobility and networks and the representation of transnational experience in different popular genres. She is a member of the Editorial Committee of the Journal of Iberian and Latin American Research. Dr Hanley coordinates Macquarie University’s Spanish language courses as well teaching on topics related to travel and tourism, migration, past and present popular culture in Spain, and contemporary Mexico. Her research interests include travel writing, transnational cultural production, and gender in Spanish-language popular culture. She is also interested in curriculum design and implementation, student assessment and student experiences of learning, and is currently Director of Quality and Standards for the Department of International Studies.

Clint Eastwoods’s Letters from Iwo Jima as a transnational film

Łukasz A.Plesnar

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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2016, vol.1, no. 2, pp. 51-67.

Łukasz A.Plesnar

Jagiellonian University

 

Clint Eastwoods’s Letters from Iwo Jima as a transnational film

Abstract

We may consider Letters from Iwo Jima as a typical transnational film. Its concept is based on Eastwood’s discovery of a General Kuribayashi’s book of letters and drawings, Picture Letters from Commander in Chief, collected and translated into English by Tsuyuko Yoshida (the original title: Gyokusa soshikikan no etegami). The script for Letters was written by a Japanese-American writer, Iris Yamashita, and Paul Haggis, Eastwood’s previous scripter. Despite having been produced by American companies (DreamWorks Pictures, Warner Bros Company, Malpaso Productions, and Ambling Entertainment), almost entire movie is in Japan.

The film functions as the second panel of the war diptych, being a twin to Flags of Our Fathers. Both movies depict the battle of Iwo Jima, but from the different perspectives: Flags from the American point of view, and the Letters from the Japanese one. Shooting his diptych, Eastwood decided to “show the two sides of a battle”, presenting the consequences of war on both sides. It was a feat that had never been attempted by any other filmmaker (except perhaps Lewis Milestone in All Quiet on the Western Front). Eastwood refutes the decades when the Americans demonied the Japanese, which began at the start of the war on Pacific. The director portraits the Japanese soldiers as “young and powerless and driven to madness or suicide” human beings, who are to be pitied, not hated. He tries to escape from stereotypical images of the Japanese society, Japanese soldiers, and Japanese culture, often presented in the American cinema. Main roles are cast with the Japanese while in the earlier Hollywood movies Japanese characters were generally performed by Chinese-Americans or Asian-Americans). This makes the film more authentic.

Letters was released in Japan and was commercially successful, receiving warm reception from critics and audiences. An English-dubbed version came out sixteen monts after its Japanese premiere.

Key words: transnational film, war movies, combat movies, representation, stereotypes, suicide, Japan, Clint Eastwood

Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, two movies produced by Clint Eastwood in 2006, are atypical and unusual works. “It was the first time a director made two films at the same time about the same event, which here is the battle over Iwo Jima in 1945”.[1] According to historians, this was one of the deadliest fights in the Pacific Campaign. Over the course of 36 days in February and March, the invasion forces of 110,000 Marines fought 22,000 entrenched Japanese infantrymen. Only 1,083 Japanese survived, while 6,821 Americans were killed and almost 20,000 wounded. The Imperial Army troops were commanded by General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, “a unique man, a man of great imagination, creativity and resourcefulness”[2], a soldier who went far beyond the traditional model of a Japanese officer, and who is one of the main characters of Letters from Iwo Jima.

Originally, Eastwood planned to make one film devoted to the battle of Iwo Jima: an adaptation of James Bradley’s book about six Marines raising the American flag on Mount Suribachi. However, while the director was working on Flags of Our Fathers, he discovered General Tadamichi Kuribayashi’s book of letters and drawings, Picture Letters from Commander in Chief, which had been published posthumously in Japanese in 1992 and then translated into English by Tsuyuko Yoshida.[3] It contained the General’s letters to his wife and children, including those written on Iwo Jima. “In the letters Eastwood found a Japanese voice”, Rikke Schubart writes. “He first considered adding a Japanese point of view to Flags, but then decided on making a second film instead. A film entirely dedicated to the Japanese point of view. And so, while doing post-production on Flags, Eastwood shot Letters from Iwo Jima in 32 days”.[4] Both Flags and Letters are independent movies, but at the same time, as Leo Braudy notes, “both are tremendously enriched by their juxtaposition and should be seen as a diptych”.[5]

Apart from many similarities, we can also notice numerous differences between Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima. Firstly, Flags was shot in English with American actors, while Letters, despite having been produced by American companies (DreamWorks Pictures, Warner Bros Company, Malpaso Productions, and Ambling Entertainment), was kept in Japanese and engaged Japanese actors. Secondly, Flags was a 75 million dollar blockbuster movie, while Letters cost only 15 million dollars. Thirdly, Flags was originally aimed at an international audience, while Letters was directed above all at Japanese moviegoers. It is significant that an English-dubbed version of the film came out sixteen months after its Japanese premiere. The participation of Japanese actors speaking subtitled dialogue led to certain confusions. American spectators regarded the movie as a Japanese production. On the other hand, Letters won the Japanese Academy Award for the best foreign language film, which was an obvious paradox.

Differences between both Eastwood’s movies are not limited to the aspect of production, but go much further, referring also to the content. We could say, quoting the statement of Aaron Gerow, that Flags is “about how to remember the war, giving a new view on an incident everyone knows”, while Letters is “about listening to those who fought it, trying to create a memory tableau of something most people, including the Japanese, know little about”. Flags is also an attempt to deconstruct the Hollywood genre of war and combat films, while Letters “appears more simply as an American effort to understand the complex human beings on the other side, to tell the world that they were brave too”.[6]

Apart from the circumstances of the production process, we can list three reasons why Letters from Iwo Jima should be recognized as a transnational film: 1) adoption by the director of a Japanese point of view; 2) portrayal of Japanese soldiers—against the tradition of American war films—as simple, normal people, not as barbarians or even bloodthirsty wild beasts; 3) setting up the audience’s identification with some of the young soldiers by focusing on their individual stories and their unfolding relations.[7]

We may say that the way Eastwood builds the plot of Letters, describes its characters, and defines their motives leads him to the denial of a number of stereotypes that exist in American culture. Although these stereotypes primary refer to images of an enemy, they also relate indirectly to images of every „other”, whether racial or national. Nonetheless, the director is famous for the blunt attitude towards such stereotypes that he has demonstrated a number of times. He fought against the stereotype of a Native American as a tomahawk-wielding savage thirsty for the white man’s blood and living in the wilderness or on reservations (men) and a beautiful maiden (women) in The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976). He questioned various stereotypes of Afro Americans (as thugs, domestic workers, or a best friend of a white man) in Bird (1988) and that of an African as a naked black guy brandishing spears and fighting with their neighbours in White Hunter, Black Heart (1990). Finally, he waged a war with the stereotypes of Hispanic American women as maids, sexpots, or immigrants in Blood Work (2002) as well as with the stereotypes of Asian Americans as kung fu fighters or a technical experts (men) and prostitutes (women) in Gran Torino (2008).

The majority of stereotypes are of national nature in two senses of the word. Firstly, they frequently come into existence and are formed within a group we call a nation. Secondly, they often refer to nations. Obviously, stereotypes differ according to both their subjects and objects (for instance, Poles have quite different stereotypes of Russians than do Serbians [8], just as Jews see Palestinians completely unlike Egyptians or Saudi Arabians). I want to stress that stereotypes might sometimes be modified over the course of time, but usually they are relatively stable.

Cinema is a domain where stereotypes occur very often. We may even say that the history of film is the history of disseminating stereotypes. Rejection of national and racial stereotypes is not so easy when you consider viewers’ expectations and their cultural training as well as a filmmaker himself being trapped in the stereotype network of his own culture. However, success means something special: the transition from the sphere of national to the sphere of transnational. To paraphrase the words of Elizabeth Ezra and Terry Rowden, we may say that the key to transnationalism is the recognition of the decline of national stereotypes as a regulatory force in global cinema.[9]

I have already mentioned the extremely stereotypical images of the Japanese in the American films produced during World War II. This subject will be discussed in more detail in a later part of this study. However, it is interesting whether the images of Americans and other enemies of the Empire were equally stereotypical in the Japanese films from the same period. The answer is surprising: no. Japanese films, including war and combat movies, rarely presented or even mentioned the enemy; battles were often filmed simply from the Japanese side, showing no opposing soldiers. Even the leading propaganda movie, Kajirō Yamamoto’s The War at Sea from Hawaii to Malay (Hawai Marē oki kaisen, 1942)—made to commemorate the first anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor—paid little attention to the Americans. The main reason seems to be simple: “Japanese racism was less concerned with the denigration of others than with the elevation of themselves, with affirming their status as an allegedly superior and chosen people”.[10] As a result, on-screen Japanese soldiers were depicted as living in an exclusive world of camaraderie and racial affinity. Images of enemies were needless.

Obviously, this was not the absolute rule. A number of jidaigeki movies stirred up “a passionate hatred among the populace against Japan’s ‘historic enemy’ (shukuteki), the Anglo-Saxon powers”[11]. Some films, for instance Tomotaka Tasaka’s Mud and Soldiers (Tsuchi to heitai – 1939) and Yoshimura Kōzaburō’s The Legend of Tank Commander Nishizumi (Nishizumi senshachō den – 1940), presented the “inhuman” qualities of the Chinese, and Imai Tadashi’s Suicide Troops of the Watchtower (Bōrō no kesshitai – 1943) depicted the Korean communist guerrillas as bloodthirsty beasts (though the image of “normal” Koreans was relatively positive).

Paradoxically, the most negative image of American soldiers, politicians and culture can be found in Taku Shinjō’s For Those We Love (Ore wa, kimi no tame ni koso shini ni iku – 2007), a quite recent production about the kamikaze pilots of World War II. The movie has triggered many controversies in the United States, Great Britain, Australia, and New Zeeland as it portrayed pilots’ suicides as courageous and honourable, whereas the Allied forces, the victims of their attacks, were shown as brutal aggressors with no honour or sense of duty.

Let us return to Letters from Iwo Jima. The “soul” of Eastwood’s film and one of its main figures is the baker-turned-soldier, Private Saigo (played by pop star Kazunari Ninomiya), who has promised his young pregnant wife not to kill himself, to return home alive, and to never fire a shot. His name is symbolic, as it means “the last” in Japanese. Indeed, he is the only Japanese character who has survived the bloody slaughter on Iwo Jima. Saigo is not only a Japanese baker or soldier, but also an “everyman”, one of us, somebody who loves his family and profession, thinks about his future, and primarily wants to live. He cannot adapt to military life, he does not accept the callousness of the Japanese army based on a strict hierarchy and the absolute obedience of soldiers, and he cowers under the stare of fanatic and indoctrinated officers. He feels the absurdity of being forced into a battle in which “only death awaits”.[12] Ikui Eikoh notices that “a hero like Saigo is exceptional less in Japanese history than in the history of Japanese film”[13], because he is weak, frightened, defenceless, and lost, or using the words of Lars-Martin Sorensen because “he is … normal”.[14]

Saigo is not the only “normal”, unheroic, and rational Japanese soldier in Letters from Iwo Jima. Private Nozaki (Yuki Matzusaki), accused of treason by an over-zealous officer, and Private Shimizu (Kase Ryo) are other ones. They, as Saigo, fight the rules and customs common in the Imperial Army: absolute hierarchy, ruthless obedience, and fanaticism inspired by the highest command. In one of the few scenes in the film that take place in Japan, we see a military police officer (Kempeitai) who orders Shimizu, a young recruit, to shoot a child’s pet dog as a test of his toughness and loyalty. When Shimizu tries to save the dog, he is dismissed and sent to Iwo Jima to face inevitable death. There his comrades accuse him—unjustly, of course—of being a Kempeitai informer. Fortunately, a conversation with Saigo clears up the misunderstanding. Both soldiers notice they have very similar opinions and attitudes. They consider the war in the name of the Emperor and abstract ideas of love of the country, honour, and imperial patriotism absurd. They also feel that they are too young to lay down their lives in a doomed war. They refused to commit suicide (after the others in their platoon had all killed themselves) and decided to surrender to the Americans. Shimizu goes first but is killed by two American guards. Saigo fails to move and preserves his life.

The killing of Shimizu by American guards reverses elementary Hollywood conventions of combat films: U.S. Marines, usually presented as good guys, perpetrate a crime on a Japanese soldier, shown usually as a bad guy. This murder is committed for no apparent reason, in fear of Shimizu and the reputation of the Imperial Army. The crime makes no sense: it is a savage and purposeless act that was most often attributed to the enemies of America in Hollywood movies. Therefore, Eastwood eventually overturns repartition of values: U.S. Marines are bad guys while Shimizu turns out to be a good guy.

Shimizu has bad luck. On the contrary, Saigo is lucky. Late in the film, Saigo and other Japanese soldiers are told by their commanding officers to defend Mount Suribachi with their lives. Desperate and distraught men begin committing suicide. However, Saigo refuses to kill himself, escapes the mountains, and goes to the base of operations where he meets General Kuribayashi. The General orders Saigo to burn all the documents whilst he leads the surviving soldiers for one final nighttime attack on the American troops. Saigo, fulfilling the order, burns the military documents and buries the pouch containing thousands of letters written by the soldiers and never delivered to Japan. In the bloody assault, Kuribayashi is fatally wounded and asks Saigo for a last favour: to bury him where he would not be found. In the closing shot of Letters, we see Saigo, captured by the U.S. forces, lying amongst many wounded American soldiers. His face is turned toward the camera. As Rikke Schubart writes, “This man—no hero, no saviour, no decorated corpsman or admired general—survives. He is the future, not to honour or mourn, but to emulate. He returns to his wife and child”.[15]

This scene also contains another message reconstructed by Ian Buruma: “Lying under his army blanket”, he notes, “waiting to be taken off the island of death, Saigo is no different from the Americans lined up beside him, and yet it is unmistakably him; and that is the point of Eastwood’s remarkable movie”.[16] This construction can be, and in fact should be, easily extended. It seems to me that the director makes it clear that all national, ethnic, racial, cultural, and religious distinctions are not important because in fact we are all alike. Alternatively, in other words, differences between people do not depend on national, ethnic, cultural, and religious factors. As Mikkel Bruun Zangenberg sums up: “Eastwood seems to suggest, we are all simple human beings endowed neither with the sadistic urge to kill nor with a fervent desire to fight for some abstract notion of ‘love of country’”.[17]

However, Zangenberg in his generalization takes things too far because in Letters Eastwood portraits not only “simple human beings”, but also soldiers and civilians brainwashed by the military government and the tradition of the bushido code. Lieutenant Ito (Shido Nakamura) is a good example. He is obsessed with driving his men to honour suicide; ironically, he fails to kill himself and is imprisoned by U.S. Marines. In addition, many other officers, educated in strict military discipline and samurai tradition, are soulless, cruel, and ignorant, and seem more concerned with achieving a glorious suicidal death than defending Iwo Jima. Some of the civilians are indoctrinated too. When Saigo is conscripted into the Imperial Army, his neighbours and friends keep congratulating him and repeating that he is lucky to be chosen to die for his country.

Eastwood presents the problem of indoctrination as a conflict between simple soldiers and officers. While the soldiers are primarily concerned with survival and comradeship among themselves, the officers are caught in the trap of ideological thinking in terms of patriotism, honour, self-sacrifice, and fate. Nevertheless, not all of them are fully incapacitated by ideology, upbringing, and traditional samurai code. The director shows two senior officers who are exceptional: General Tademichi Kuribayashi and Colonel Baron Takeichi Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara).

General Kuribayashi left his post as head of the Emperor’s Palace Guard “to lead what would turn out to be the suicidal defence of Iwo Jima, with all naval air support withdrawn”.[18] After he arrived at the island, he deviated from traditional Japanese war strategy that “dictates that an island should be defended by pillboxes on the beaches”.[19] Instead, he ordered his men to hew in the rocks of Mount Suribachi 28 kilometres of tunnels and 5,000 caves, which turned the Japanese infantry positions into nearly impregnable fortress. As a human being, Kuribayashi was a caring person. He protected his men against abusive officers, ordered equal food rations for officers and simple soldiers, and shared his water. Besides, he had the best qualities of the real warrior: he was tough, manly, courteous, and good-looking.

Kuribayashi is a cosmopolitan figure. He knows the United States well because he spent five years there as a military attaché. He likes this country, has American friends, and respects American values and the American way of life. One flashback shows his memory of a banquet dinner held in his honour at Fort Bliss in the late 1920s. Sitting in the dark cave on Iwo Jima, he recalls the moment when an American officer presents him with a Colt .45 “as a token of friendship”. Rikke Schubart writes, “We understand this is a painful memory of a happy moment. Kuribayashi treasures the gun, which he wears in his belt and with which he will commit suicide. Now, 54 years old, time is testing him. The commander’s conflict is obvious to us, torn as he is between his own convictions and those of his nation. Because, alas, they are not the same”.[20] The General “is no longer an enemy. Having travelled back in time and into his thoughts, we feel that we know him and that he is now a fellow being”.[21]

Besides Saigo, Kuribayashi is the main character of Letters from Iwo Jima. Both are similar in a way; but at the same time, both are quite different. They experience internal conflict between the demands of the intrusive rationality of war (survival above all else) and the cultural obligation to die for the country and the Emperor. However, they choose different solutions. Saigo decides on life, homecoming, and meeting his newborn daughter. The General, on the other hand, chooses honour death. When he recognizes the situation of his soldiers as hopeless, he orders the general attack on the American lines telling his men to be proud to die for their homeland. Then he takes his sword and leads his soldiers on the last charge.

Kuribayashi is fatally wounded during the assault and he orders his aide-de-camp to behead him with his sword, but the lieutenant is shot before the blow. Because of his injuries, Kuribayashi cannot hold his sword, so he uses the gun. “Ironically, the American gift of friendship leads to Japanese suicide”.[22]

The Colt .45 as a tool of suicide is a symbolic requisite. On the one hand, it represents American mythology and violence (as a well-known object of the history of the United States and many cultural texts, for example numerous literary or cinematographic Westerns); on the other hand it symbolizes friendship, honour, valour, pride, and politeness (as a gift). Nevertheless, it also symbolizes death, war, destruction, and self-destruction (as a weapon). For Kuribayashi it is an important bond with his happy past, days of peace, a time of innocence. It is also a tool of suicide that differs from the traditional Japanese tool used for that purpose. We may say that the gun is an object in which elements of the American and Japanese cultures meet. Maybe, more precisely, it is an agent of westernisation of Japanese culture.

Kuribayashi is not the only character in Letters from Iwo Jima with any personal knowledge of America and Americans: Colonel Baron Takeichi Nishi is another. He is an aristocrat and an equestrian who had won the gold medal in the individual jumping event of the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles. As a well-known and rich man, he entertained Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, the famous actors of the era, at his home. His attitude to an enemy does not resemble traditional Japanese customs. Instead of killing a wounded young U.S. Marine soldier, Sam (Lucas Elliot Eberl), Nishi treats him with the last dose of morphine and reminisces about happy old days and his Hollywood friends. After the GI dies from his injuries, Nishi reads out a letter from the boy’s mother, “Remember what I said to you: always do what is right because it is right”. The letter enlightens Japanese soldiers that the Americans were just like them. Later despite bushido code and opinions of other officers, Nishi orders his infantry men not to commit suicide.

The Colonel seems to be even more cosmopolitan than Kuribayashi. He was a ladies’ man, attracted to the glamour of society life. As Ian Buruna writes, “Nishi has the hearty manners of a sporting Englishman. He is rather like the Erich von Stroheim character in Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion, a member of the international aristocracy, in home in any place where wine, horses, and women have an acceptable pedigree”.[23] However, when Nishi is blinded by an explosion and unable to lead his soldiers, he commits suicide. His cosmopolitism turned out to be a coat covering deeply hidden nationalism. I think this way because I agree with Rikke Schubart, who notes, “Letters makes it crystal clear that suicide is a perverted nationalism”.[24] This means that Kuribayashi was a kind of nationalist too. Or rather, he was loyal to the national ethos he did not share, but obeyed. In his last message to the Imperial Headquarters, he wrote, “Our ammunition is gone and our water dried up. Now is the time for us to make the final counterattack and fight gallantly, conscious of the Emperor’s favour, not begrudging our efforts though they turn our bones to powder and pulverize our bodies. I believe that until the island is recaptured, the Emperor’s domain will be eternally insecure. I therefore swear that even when I have become a ghost I shall look forward to turning the defeat of the Imperial Army to victory. I stand now at the beginning of the end. At the same time as revealing my innermost feelings, I pray earnestly for the unfailing victory and security of the Empire. Farewell for all eternity”.[25]

General Kuribayashi and Colonel Nishi are the tragic heroes in an Aristotelian sense of the term. Firstly, they face the insoluble conflict. As we already know, this is a conflict between the rationality of war and a cultural or ideological obligation to die for the country and the Emperor. Kuribayashi and Nishi have Free Will, so they can choose. Each choice, however, leads to suffering and disaster. To choose survival means to be disloyal to military oath, to the Emperor, to the State, and to the Japanese tradition, and eventually to lose everything that is of great worth: face, honour, respect, and a place in history. On the other hand, to choose self-sacrifice means to lose life on earth, worldly possessions, family, happiness, and future; in other words, everything that a human being knows empirically. Every choice is wrong. The tragic hero is a victim and a culprit at the same time. He is guilty of so-called hamartia, meaning that he has made a bad decision or miscalculation because of “poor reasoning” or an external stimulus (e.g. interventions of Gods or divine madness in ancient tragedy). I enclose the expression poor reasoning in quotation marks because a tragic hero, ex definitione, does not use “proper reasoning”; his reasoning is always poor. It results from circumstances and limited knowledge of human beings. A typical tragic hero makes a bad decision because he sees only one way. For instance, many Japanese infantrymen on Iwo Jima chose death over surrender because, as Robert S. Burrell writes, “most soldiers believed Americans massacred and tortured prisoners. In particular, the Japanese were taught to despise Marines, who purportedly had to murder their own parents to qualify for enlistment”.[26] However, Kuribayashi and Nishi were broadminded men with extensive knowledge partly based on their personal experiences. That is why they were double guilty of hamartia and thus double tragic; they must have seen more than one way out.

By building the figures of Kuribayashi and Nishi as tragic heroes, Eastwood precludes our privilege of judging their proceedings in terms of right and wrong. Certainly, it does not mean that they do not participate in the Manichean conflict between good and evil: it only means that their individual decisions do not influence the ultimate result of that eternal struggle, as it must continue until the end of our world. Kuribayashi and Nishi are only insignificant puppets in the theatre of life. They are fated to fail; in other words, they have to die.

Nevertheless, the character of Kuribayashi seems to be somewhat internally contradictory. Initially, he forbids his soldiers to use banzai charges and counterattacks, but at the end of the film, he leads his men to a suicidal assault on American lines. He likes and understands Americans. During the ceremonial banquet dinner at Fort Blass he says, “The United States is the last country in the world Japan should fight”. However, on Iwo Jima he writes the following order to his men: “Each of your shots must kill many Americans. We cannot allow ourselves to be captured by the enemy. If our positions are overrun, we will take bombs and grenades and throw ourselves under the tanks to destroy them. We will infiltrate the enemy lines to exterminate them. No man must die until he has killed at least ten Americans. We will harass the enemy with guerrilla actions until the last of us has perished”.[27]

Eastwood does not question Kuribayashi’s command. “He shows the despair of some of the Japanese soldiers who are ordered to die, admittedly, but he does not critically engage Kuribayashi’s orders to die defending the island, or his heroic character for that matter”.[28]

Aaron Gerow wonders whether Eastwood, in honouring soldiers like Kuribayachi, “may be unwittingly engaging in the same process of creating ‘heroes’ that Flags of Our Fathers criticized, albeit for another country”.[29] This is even truer because the practice of honour suicide in form of seppuku or banzai seems to be Eastwood’s most important tool to humanize Japanese characters. That praxis is also, as Robert Burgoyne notes, “the key to the film’s tragic tone and the act that carries the strongest anti-war charge”.[30] The author notices that Eastwood does not depict self-sacrifice “as a weapon, a tactic or strategy of war”, but rather “as a means of bearing witness to a cause”.[31] Such treatment of self-destruction is nothing new: Ancient Romans used it as a means of protest; ancient Israelites as a message to their contemporaries and descendants that Jews would never be “servants to the Romans, nor to any other than to God Himself”[32]; early Christian martyrs as a way to follow in Jesus’ footsteps; and present-day Buddhist monks in Tibet as a call of protest against Chinese occupation. Even Americans had an experience with something like banzai in the defence to the last man of Alamo Mission in 1836. Polish moviegoers remember the case of Michał Wołodyjowski and Hassling-Ketling of Elgin who blew themselves up in Kamieniec Podolski in 1672, which was described by Henryk Sienkiewicz in his famous novel Pan Wołodyjowski and shown in its adaptation for the screen by Jerzy Hoffman.

In Eastwood’s movie, the acts of self-sacrifice are of great importance. As Robert Burgoybe writes, “Seen as an instance of testimony—a speech act—the suicides depicted in Letters from Iwo Jima can be associated with the ‘letters’ of the film’s title. The film reframes the act in a way that emphasises the body of the soldier as a site of competing message, a text that exceeds its culturally sanctioned meanings in the coded discourses of war, becoming instead a site of self-authorship”.[33]

The first ritual suicide scene in Letters from Iwo Jima is demonstrative and moving. Let me once more quote Burgoyne: “The officer in charge … decides to disobey General Kuribayashi’s order to retreat and orders his men to ‘die with honour’ … Each soldier draws a grenade, struggles to fight back on overwhelming sense of fear and sorrow, and then blows himself up. The care, shown previously in the monochrome colours of pewter and charcoal, suddenly erupts into a sickening orange-red as the bodies of the soldiers burst open … As the camera observes each soldier’s internal agony in extended psychological close-up, the powerful sense of identification and empathy that the collective suicides elicit is countered by an equally strong sense, underscored by the character’s behaviour, lighting and sound, of suicide as profoundly ‘Other’, as transgression, as taboo”.[34]

I would like to stress that, showing the scenes of honour deaths and banzai, Eastwood deprives individual and collective suicide of connotation with something barbarian, uncivilized, and primitive. While self-sacrifice is primarily motivated culturally, it is also a question of being true to oneself and to individual values, of loyalty to commanders and soldier fellows, and of inflexibility and courage. We may acknowledge those who commit suicide as victims of traditions, ideology, or upbringing. However, we may also acknowledge them as heroes because they are able to overcome fear, to give their life to a cause and to show extremely strong will.

As I have already mentioned, in Letters from Iwo Jima Eastwood tries to escape from stereotypical images of the Japanese and to refute the decades when the Americans demonized them as a result of the war on Pacific. Since Pearl Harbor, American films have built an extremely negative image of the Japanese as aliens, traitors, barbarians, and creatures unworthy of the name of human beings. They were accused of sadism, brutality, fanaticism, perversity, dishonesty, indecency, lack of dignity, and shortage of empathy, as well as of hatred and contempt for their enemies. What is very important is that these attributes belonged to almost all of the Japanese. “On American screens”, Wang Xiaofei notes, “Japanese soldiers were repeatedly shown torturing POWs, killing civilians, and raping Chinese women. Japanese soldiers laughed when they were killing (Ray Enright’s Gung Ho! The True Story of Carlson’s Makin Island Raiders, 1943), when they were raping Chinese women (John Farrow’s China, 1943, Harold S. Buckuet’s and Jack Conway’s Dragoon Seed, 1944), or when they knew other soldiers had won a bloody battle (Lewis Milestone’s The Purple Heart, 1944). They smiled when they tried to ‘persuade’ American prisoners to speak (Edward Dmytryk’s Behind the Rising Sun, 1943 and Purple Heart). Japanese soldiers were also portrayed as sons of the jungle. They shot American soldiers in the back and they pretended to surrender only in order to kill GIs”.[35]

         Kathryn Kane notices that in American combat films, Japanese soldiers were shown as nameless and faceless, not people who could think and act as individuals.[36] They were anonymous masses specially created to be killed by American heroes. If some Japanese survived, they would probably commit seppuku (this ritual was presented in Edwin S. Martin’s Invisible Agent, 1942, in Behind the Rising Sun, Purple Heart, and in Frank Lloyd’s Blood on the Sand, 1945). Sometimes the presence of Japanese soldiers was only suggested. Xiaofei quotes the excerpt from the program to Tay Garnett’s Bataan (1943): “the Japs are totally impersonal; we don’t even see the planes—only their bombs and bullets and the damage they do”.[37]

         Ian Buruma explains why we encounter faceless enemies in many combat films: “More war movies have been about heroes, and individual differences among the enemies were irrelevant, since their villainy could be taken for granted … The whole point of feel-good propaganda is that the enemy has no personality; he is monolithic and thus inhuman”.[38]

         It is obvious that Eastwood does not use such a strategy in Letters from Iwo Jimia. On the contrary, he individualizes his characters: Saigo, Kuribayashi, Nishi, Shimizu, and even Ito. We get to know a lot about their lives, families, likes and dislikes, and systems of values. They are human beings to the core. They have their distinctive features so that they are easily recognizable by the audience. They are no more “Others”: they are like our friends and people around us.

The viewers find out a lot about the characters from flashbacks. Three of them belong to Kuribayashi (his visit to the United States as a military attaché), one to Saigo (call-up), and one to Shimizu (the incident with a pet dog and a Kempetai officer), and all are memories of a past prior to the war. They differ from the remaining fragments of the film in higher colour saturation; the scenes on Iwo Jima are almost drained of colour, restricting themselves to “an attenuated palette of pewter greys and pumice browns”.[39]

The use of flashbacks allows viewers to get into the minds of characters and to come to know their thoughts, emotions, and way of reasoning. In building such images of the Japanese characters, Eastwood breaks and deconstructs the conventions of war and combat films (although to a lesser degree than in Flags of Our Fathers). This does not mean the director ignores and rejects the whole genre’s tradition. Letters of Iwo Jima also preserves some of the fundamental tenets of combat movies. It follows the track of films such as Georg Wilhelm Pabst’s Westfront 1918: Vier von der Infanterie (1930), Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), William A Wellman’s Bastogne (1949), and Samuel Fuller’s The Steel Helmet (1951), all works that are distinguishable by a high degree of realism. However, absolute realism is impossible as combat movies contain acts of violence. As Stephen Prince writes, “the cinema cannot present violence in other than a pleasure-inducing capacity … The medium inevitably aestheticizes violence. The arousal and expression in cinema of ‘negative’ emotions—fear, anxiety, pain—typically occur as part of a pleasure-inducing aesthetic experience”. The reason is simple: “It seems likely that representations of violence on screen that are unrelentingly horrifying, nauseating, or disgusting will fail to attract viewers”.[40] Authentic images of combat violence are horrifying, nauseating, and disgusting.

Eastwood sets a high value on psychological realism. Sometimes, however, he abandons visual realism in favour of aesthetization of images that intensifies the film’s influence. This is true, among others, of battle scenes and those presenting ritual suicides and banzai. I have already mentioned, quoting Robert Burgoyne, the sequence showing the first collective suicide. This fragment is tragic and startling but it is extraordinarily beautiful at the same time. The aesthetization of death, wounds, and blood gives the audience pleasure in seeing the film. If the viewers looked at those horrors in reality, they would never feel satisfaction. Most of them would probably have to close their eyes.

I believe Letters from Iwo Jima is an almost standard example of a transnational film, both on production and plot levels. However, it does not mean it is an absolute turning point in American-Japanese cinematographic relations. As we already know, during the Second World War and the next decade Hollywood directors portrayed the Japanese as brutal and barbarian villains representing a lower and more primitive human race. However, in the mid-1950s they began to hint, in movies like Daniel Mann’s The Teahouse of the August Moon (1956) and Joshua Logan’s Sayonara (1957), that the Japanese were not so alien and uncivilized. By the 1960s, even the war on Pacific was represented as more humane and noble. As Michael Paris writes, in Frank Sinatra’s None but the Brave (1965) and John Boorman’s Hell in the Pacific (1969), “it is even suggested that some Japanese soldiers were not very different from Americans”.[41] Both films were American-Japanese co-productions, as was Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) directed by Richard Fleischer, Kinji Fukasaku, and Toshio Masuda, which was “a detailed examination of the attack on Pearl Harbor, but told with remarkable fairness”.[42] In subsequent years, a number of films appeared which were sympathetic to Japanese culture, tradition, and way of life. For example, movies such as Sydney Pollack’s The Yakuza (1975) (“the first serious attempt of Western filmmakers to depict code-driven, context-driven interactions between peoples in Japan”[43]), John G. Avildsen’s The Karate Kid (1984), Fran Rubel Kuzui’s Tokyo Pop (1988), Edward Zwick’s The Last Samurai (2003), Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2003), and Rob Marshall’s Memoirs of a Geisha (2005).

However, Letters from Iwo Jima is an exceptional film. It is the only American combat movie made from a Japanese point of view and the only in which the author tries to understand and show respect to old Japanese customs and contemporary contradictions of Japanese ego. Eastwood reveals intense empathy towards the perfect cultural strangers who, by virtue of a government decision, became enemies of the United States. However, looking at somebody as at an enemy does not mean regarding him as a being deprived of humanity: a barbarian and a wild beast. Eastwood admits the very term “enemy” to be shady. Saigo, Shimizu, Kuribayashi, Nishi, and even Ito are not enemies. They are “trapped in a narrative of the primacy of patriotism, honour, and fate”[44] and led by cynical political leaders. Therefore, the true enemies are “politicians—the ones who are never seen in battle, but who willingly send soldiers off to die for a cause whose underlying rationale is virtually inscrutable”.[45] Japanese soldiers are victims, not perpetrators. They are to be pitied, not hated.

 

References:

Braudy Leo, “Flags of Our Fathers / Letters of Iwo Jima”, Film Quarterly 60: 4 (2007).

Budd David H., Culture Meets Culture in the Movies: An Analysis East, West, North and South, with Filmohraphies (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland) (2002)

Burgoyne Robert, “Suicide in ‘Letters from Iwo Jima’” in Eastwood’s Iwo Jima. Critical Engagements with ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ and ‘Letter from Iwo Jima’, ed. Rikke Schubart and Anne Gjelsvik (New York: Columbia University Press) (2013).

Burrell Robert S., The Ghost of Iwo Jima (College Station: Texas A&M University Press) (2006).

Buruma Ian, “Eastwood War: The Battle of Iwo Jima”, Japan Focus, 5,  http://www.apjjf.org/-Ian-Buruma/2360/article.html, date accessed 28 July 2016.

Eikoh Ikui, „’Letters from Iwo Jima’: Japanese Perspectives”, Japan Focus, 2,  http://www.japanfocus.org/-Ikui-Eikoh/2417, date accessed 28 July 2016.

Ezra Elizabeth and Rowden Terry, „General Introduction: What is Transnational Cinema? [in:] Elizabeth Ezra and Terry Rowden (eds.), Transnational Cinema. The Film Reader (London and New York: Routledge) (2006)

Flavius Josephus, The Works of Flavius Josephus, the Learned and Authentic Jewish Historian, translated by William Whiston, A.M., vol. II (London: Henry G. Bohn) (1845).

Freiberg Freda, „China Nights (Japan, 1940): The Sustaining Romance [in:] John Whiteclay Chambers II, David Culbert (eds.), World War II, Film, and History (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press) (1996).

Gerow Aaron, “From ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ to ‘Letters from Iwo Jima’: Clint Eastwood’s Balancing of Japanese and American Perspective”, http://apjjf.org/-Aaron-Gerow/2290/article.html, date accessed 26 July 2016.

High Peter B., The Imperial Screen. Japanese Film Culture in the Fifteen Years’ War, 1931-1945 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press) (2003).

Kakekashi Kumiko, Letters from Iwo Jima (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson) (2007).

Kane Kathryn, Vision of War: Hollywood Combat Films of World War II (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press) (1982).

Paris Michael, “‘What Happened was Wrong!: Come See the Paradise’ and the Japanese-American Experience in the Second World War” in Repicturing the Second World War: Representations in Film and Television, ed. Michael Paris (London: Palgrave Macmillan) (2007),.

Prince Stephen (ed.), Screening violence (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press) (2000).

Schubart Rikke, “Eastwood and the Enemy” in Eastwood’s Iwo Jima. Critical Engagements with ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ and ‘Letter from Iwo Jima’, ed. Rikke Schubart and Anne Gjelsvik (New York: Columbia University Press) (2013).

Schubart Rikke and Gjelsvik Anne, “Intruduction: Know Your Enemy, Know Yourself” in Eastwood’s Iwo Jima. Critical Engagements with ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ and ‘Letter from Iwo Jima’, ed. Rikke Schubart and Anne Gjelsvik (New York: Columbia University Press)  (2013).

Sorensen Lars-Martin, “East of Eastwood. Iwo Jima and the Japanese Context” in Eastwood’s Iwo Jima. Critical Engagements with ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ and ‘Letter from Iwo Jima’, ed. Rikke Schubart and Anne Gjelsvik (New York: Columbia University Press) (2013).

Vaux Sara Anson, The Ethical Vision of Clint Eastwood (Grand Rapids, Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company) (2012).

“Tadamichi Kuribayashi”, http://www.wikiwand.com/en/Tadamichi_Kuribayashi, date accesed 4 August, 2016).

Xiaofei Wang, “Movies Without Mercy: Race, War, and Images of Japanese People in American Films, 1942-1945”, Journal of Amrican – East Asian Relations 18 (2011).

Zangenberg Mikkel Bruun, „Humanism versus Patriotism? Eastwood Trapped in the Bi-Polar Logic of Warfare” in Eastwood’s Iwo Jima. Critical Engagements with ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ and ‘Letter from Iwo Jima’, ed. Rikke Schubart and Anne Gjelsvik (New York: Columbia University Press) (2013).

Notes

[1] Rikke Schubart and Anne Gjelsvik, “Introduction: Know Your Enemy, Know Yourself” [in:] Rikke Schubart & Anne Gjelsvik (eds.), Eastwood’s Iwo Jima. Critical Engagements with ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ and ‘Letter from Iwo Jima’ (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), p. 1.

[2] Eastwood quoted from the press material for the film Letters from Iwo Jima, “Letters from Iwo Jima Production Information”, 4.

[3] Another book that influenced and inspired Eastwood was Kumiko Kakekashi’s Letters from Iwo Jima (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2007), originally published as Chipuzo Kanashiki (Tokyo: Shinchosha, 2005).

[4] Rikke Schubart, “Eastwood and the Enemy” [in:] Rikke Schubart & Anne Gjelsvik (eds.), Eastwood’s Iwo Jima. Critical Engagements with ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ and ‘Letter from Iwo Jima’, p. 174.

[5] Leo Braudy, “Flags of Our Fathers / Letters of Iwo Jima”, Film Quarterly; Summer 2007; 60, 4; p. 17.

[6] Aaron Gerow, “From ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ to ‘Letters from Iwo Jima’: Clint Eastwood’s Balancing of Japanese and American Perspective”, online: http://apjjf.org/-Aaron-Gerow/2290/article.html (accesed 26 July, 2016).

[7] See Sara Anson Vaux, The Ethical Vision of Clint Eastwood (Grand Rapids, Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2012), p. 157.

[8] The Poles consider the Russians to be the threatening barbarians, as „Asians” who want to conquer Poland and the whole Europe, as the rude, backward, conceited and always dead-drunk nationalists, poor and with no future before them. Meanwhile, the Serbs perceive Russians as the Slav brothers and the close friends.

[9] Elizabeth Ezra and Terry Rowden, „General Introduction: What is Transnational Cinema? [in:] Elizabeth Ezra and Terry Rowden (eds.), Transnational Cinema. The Film Reader (London and New York: Routledge, 2006), s. 1.

[10] Freda Freiberg, „China Nights (Japan, 1940): The Sustaining Romance” [in:] John Whiteclay Chambers II, David Culbert (eds.), World War II, Film, and History (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), p. 34.

[11] Peter B. High, The Imperial Screen. Japanese Film Culture in the Fifteen Years’ War, 1931-1945 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003), s. 421.

[12] Ikui Eikoh, „’Letters from Iwo Jima’: Japanese Perspectives”, Japan Focus, 2, online: http://www.japanfocus.org/-Ikui-Eikoh/2417 (accessed 28 July, 2016).

[13] Ibidem.

[14] Lars-Martin Sorensen, “East of Eastwood. Iwo Jima and the Japanese Context” [in:] Rikke Schubart & Anne Gjelsvik (eds.), Eastwood’s Iwo Jima. Critical Engagements with ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ and ‘Letter from Iwo Jima’, p. 210.

[15] Rikke Schubart, “Eastwood and the Enemy” [in:] Rikke Schubart & Anne Gjelsvik (eds.), Eastwood’s Iwo Jima. Critical Engagements with ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ and ‘Letter from Iwo Jima’, p. 189.

[16] Ian Buruma, “Eastwood War: The Battle of Iwo Jima”, Japan Focus, 5, online: http://www.apjjf.org/-Ian-Buruma/2360/article.html (accesed 28 July, 2016).

[17] Mikkel Bruun Zangenberg, „Humanism versus Patriotism? Eastwood Trapped in the Bi-Polar Logic of Warfare” [in:] Rikke Schubart & Anne Gjelsvik (eds.), Eastwood’s Iwo Jima. Critical Engagements with ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ and ‘Letter from Iwo Jima’, p. 220.

[18] Leo Braudy, “Flags of Our Fathers / Letters of Iwo Jima”, Film Quarterly; Summer 2007; 60, 4; p. 21.

[19] Rikke Schubart, “Eastwood and the Enemy” [in:] Rikke Schubart & Anne Gjelsvik (eds.), Eastwood’s Iwo Jima. Critical Engagements with ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ and ‘Letter from Iwo Jima’, p. 182.

[20] Ibidem, p. 184.

[21] Ibidem, p. 185.

[22] Ibidem, p. 185.

[23] Ian Buruma, “Eastwood War: The Battle of Iwo Jima”, Japan Focus.

[24] Rikke Schubart, “Eastwood and the Enemy” [in:] Rikke Schubart & Anne Gjelsvik (eds.), Eastwood’s Iwo Jima. Critical Engagements with ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ and ‘Letter from Iwo Jima’, p. 189.

[25] Tadamichi Kuribayashi, online: http://www.wikiwand.com/en/Tadamichi_Kuribayashi (accesed 4 August, 2016).

[26] Robert S. Burrell, The Ghost of Iwo Jima (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2006), p. 47.

[27] Tadamichi Kuribayashi, online: http://ww2db.com/person_bio.php?person_id=21 (accesed 5 September 2016).

[28] Lars-Martin Sorensen, “East of Eastwood. Iwo Jima and the Japanese Context” [in:] Rikke Schubart &^ Anne Gjelsvik (eds.), Eastwood’s Iwo Jima. Critical Engagements with ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ and ‘Letter from Iwo Jima’, p. 197.

[29] Aaron Gerow, From ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ to ‘Letters from Iwo Jima’: Clint Eastwood’s Balancing of Japanese and American Perspective.

[30] Robert Burgoyne, “Suicide in ‘Letters from Iwo Jima’” [in:] Rikke Schubart & Anne Gjelsvik (eds.), Eastwood’s Iwo Jima. Critical Engagements with ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ and ‘Letter from Iwo Jima’, p. 232.

[31] Ibidem, p. 232.

[32] The words credited to Elazar ben Yair, leader of Zealots defending the Jewish stronghold of Masada agains Roman army in 73. See: Flavius Josephus, The Works of Flavius Josephus, the Learned and Authentic Jewish Historian, translated by William Whiston, A.M., vol. II (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1845), s. 490.

[33] Robert Burgoyne, “Suicide in ‘Letters from Iwo Jima’” [in:] Rikke Schubart &^ Anne Gjelsvik (eds.), Eastwood’s Iwo Jima. Critical Engagements with ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ and ‘Letter from Iwo Jima’, p. 232.

[34] Ibidem, p. 234.

[35] Wang Xiaofei, “Movies Without Mercy: Race, War, and Images of Japanese People in American Films, 1942-1945”, Journal of Amrican – East Asian Relations 18 (2011), p. 18-19.

[36] Kathryn Kane, Vision of War: Hollywood Combat Films of World War II (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1982), p. 56.

[37] Wang Xiaofei, Movies Without Mercy: Race, War, and Images of Japanese People in American Films, 1942-1945, “Journal of Amrican – East Asian Relations” 18 (2011), p. 22.

[38] Ian Buruma, “Eastwood War: The Battle of Iwo Jima”, Japan Focus, 5, online: http://www.apjjf.org/-Ian-Buruma/2360/article.html (accesed 28 July, 2016).

[39]. Leo Braudy, “Flags of Our Fathers / Letters of Iwo Jima”, p. 17.

[40] Stephen Prince (ed.), Screening violence (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2000), pp. 27-28.

[41] Michael Paris, “‘What Happened was Wrong!: “Come See the Paradise’ and the Japanese-American Experience in the Second World War” [in:] Michael Paris (ed.), Repicturing the Second World War: Representations in Film and Television (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), p. 113.

[42] Ibidem, s. 113.

[43] David H. Budd, Culture Meets Culture in the Movies: An Analysis East, West, North and South, with Filmohraphies (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2002), p. 52.

[44] Mikkel Bruun Zangenberg, „Humanism versus Patriotism? Eastwood Trapped in the Bi-Polar Logic of Warfare” [in:] Rikke Schubart & Anne Gjelsvik (eds.), Eastwood’s Iwo Jima. Critical Engagements with ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ and ‘Letter from Iwo Jima’, p. 220.

[45] Ibidem, p. 220.

Łukasz A. Plesnar is a Professor of Film Studies and holds the Chair of Film History at Jagiellonian University (the Institute of Audiovisual Arts). His main research interests, besides general film history, include silent cinema, classical American cinema, theory and history of film genres (particularly Western), as well as theory of film and American culture. He is the author of eleven books and almost one hundred other publications (in Polish, English, French, and Spanish). His books focus on ontology of film, semiotics of film, history of American cinema, Western and combat films, and the image of frontier in American literature.

He is currently completing a new book on Clint Eastwood as a film director.

 

Depictions of Post-9/11 South Asian Racial Profiling in Indian Cinema

Kaja Łuczynska

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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2016, vol.1, no. 2, pp. 78-88.

Kaja Łuczynska

Jagiellonian University

 

Depictions of Post-9/11 South Asian Racial Profiling in Indian Cinema

Abstract:

Events that took place in USA on 11th September 2001 had a profound influence on the American culture, politics and society. It is very often said, that “nothing will be the same after 9/11” and in my article I would like to examine one of many 9/11 consequences, which is a shift in the image of many races and ethnicities. The attacks caused not only a great shift in homeland security, which resulted in many civil right violations, but also a return of large-scale racial profiling. The victims of such practices, apart from Arabs and people of Arabic descent, were also South Asians. In their cases “racial profiling” has become more of a “color profiling” (according to J.Angelo Corlett) which resulted in a series of hate crimes (such as the murder of Balbir Singh Sodhi) and other forms of hostility. There are many Indian films concerning the problem briefly described above, but in my article I will focus on three of them: New York (2009, Kabir Khan), My Name Is Khan (2010, Karan Johar) and The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2012, Mira Nair). All of them portray the issue of post-9/11 racial profiling of South Asians, but each focuses on a different aspect of the subject.

Key words: 9/11, USA, South Asians, racial profiling, Indian cinema, Bollywood

Introduction

 The events that took place in the United States on 11th September 2001 had a profound influence on American culture, politics, and society. It is very often said that nothing will be the same after 9/11 and this is not an overstatement. In this paper, I would examine one of the many consequences of 9/11, which is the return of large-scale racial profiling and a significant shift in the image of South Asians living in the U.S. Until the tragic events of 2001, the phenomenon of racial profiling applied mostly to African-Americans and Mexicans, who were stereotypically considered “a dangerous element” that was prone to violence and criminality. However, after 9/11 the biggest fear was raised by people of Arabic descent and all those who happen to have “Arabic” (in the broadest and most common meaning of the word) features. The problem of racial profiling of American South Asians was depicted many times in films, especially those made in India or by Indian directors. Of the plethora of titles, I have chosen three that will establish a base for my study: New York (2009, Kabir Khan), My Name Is Khan (2010, Karan Johar), and The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2012, Mira Nair). All of them portray the issue of post-9/11 racial profiling, but each of them focuses on a different aspect.

South Asian Americans

Firstly, it is necessary to explain the term “South Asians” in the title of this paper. The definition below comes from a brochure entitled “In Our Own Words” as a response to the problem of post 9-11 racial profiling by organizations such as: New York City Profiling Collaborative; DRUM – Desis Rising Up and Moving; The Sikh Coalition; United Sikhs; South Asian Youth Action (SAYA!); Coney Island Avenue Project; Council of People’s Organization; and above all SAALT (South Asian Americans Leading Together). The handbook states, “The South Asian community comprises individuals who trace their ancestry to Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka; in addition, members of Afghan and Pastun communities”.[1]

In time, similarly to other ethnic groups, South Asian immigrants have become important members of American society and worked, studied, and lived in the United States. Many of them felt like fully-fledged U.S. citizens, especially the young generations, which identified themselves both as Americans and South Asians (they had a kind of “flexible citizenship”). However, their perceptions changed in the days after 9/11, which were filled with intolerance, hatred, and prejudice. Subsequently, “flexible citizenship can be a tenuous, or even potentially dangerous strategy for Muslim immigrant youth, for transnational ties and shifting national allegiances are precisely what have come under scrutiny for Muslim Americans by the state in the era of the Patriot Act”[2], writes Sunaina Maira in her study of South Asian Muslim Youth in Post-9/11 America.

American society has essentially been divided into two groups: allies and enemies. Previous modern and progressive views on immigrants’ nationalities have ceased to exist and the world has once again become black and white. This might seem like a simplification, as it is well known that attitudes to immigrants in the US have always been paradoxical.

America is built on immigration, needs immigration, and is at the same time massively suspicious of strangers, in a perfect incarnation of what Derrida calls “hospitality”. There is always a delicate balance of hostility and hospitality in acts of welcome”. Therefore, it can be said, “the stranger-foreigner is always both desired and rejected.[3]

However, the great shift mentioned above was obvious for most Americans, and especially those whose lives totally changed after the attacks on WTC. A great description of this change is provided by the already quoted publication “In Our Own Words”:

In the eyes of the world, New York City serves as the quintessential emblem of the vibrant diversity within the United States and the gateway to the American Dream. Amid the city’s mosaic of residents – including African Americans, Asians, Europeans, Latinos, Middle Easterners, and those from the Caribbean – South Asians have long established an indelible presence in the city. Yet, after the devastating attacks of September 11th, 2001 on the World Trade Center, Muslims and anyone perceived to be Muslim became the public enemy literally overnight. New York City soon shifted to become one of the epicentres of systemic racial and religious profiling against these communities. (…) Since September 11th, South Asian community members continue to encounter government scrutiny based on their race, national origin, and religion in various arenas.[4]

Racial Profiling

Everyday impediments, harmful racial profiling, and even acts of violence that touched South Asian Americans after 9/11 were not directly and unambiguously sanctioned, or inspired by law. Even the infamous Patriot Act, an Act of Congress that was signed into law by President George W. Bush on October 26, 2001 whose full title was “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001”, consisted of many notations on tolerance and peaceful coexistence with Muslim Americans:

Arab Americans, Muslim Americans, and Americans from South Asia play a vital role in our Nation and are entitled to nothing less than the full rights of every American. The acts of violence that have been taken against Arab and Muslim Americans since the September 11, 2001, attacks against the United States should be and are condemned by all Americans who value freedom. The concept of individual responsibility for wrongdoing is sacrosanct in American society, and applies equally to all religious, racial, and ethnic groups. When American citizens commit acts of violence against those who are, or are perceived to be, of Arab or Muslim descent, they should be punished to the full extent of the law. Muslim Americans have become so fearful of harassment that many Muslim women are changing the way they dress to avoid becoming targets. Many Arab Americans and Muslim Americans have acted heroically during the attacks on the United States, including Mohammed Salman Hamdani, a 23-year-old New Yorker of Pakistani descent, who is believed to have gone to the World Trade Center to offer rescue assistance and is now missing.[5]

The same kind of thought was expressed many times by the President George W. Bush, Jr., who said in the Address to the Joint Session of Congress, delivered on 20 September 2001:

I also want to speak tonight directly to Muslims throughout the world. We respect your faith. It is practiced freely by many millions of Americans and by millions more in countries that America counts as friends. Its teachings are good and peaceful, and those who commit evil in the name of Allah blaspheme the name of Allah. The terrorists are traitors to their own faith, trying, in effect, to hijack Islam itself. The enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends; it is not our many Arab friends. Our enemy is a radical network of terrorists, and every government that supports them. [6]

Unfortunately, appeasing statements, such as this, which were ineffectual preventive measures against the outburst of violence towards Muslim Americans, did not sound convincing enough for many Americans, who desired palpable revenge. Apparently, it did not sound plausible for the government itself. For example in June 2002, Attorney General John Ashcroft announced a “Special Registration” requirement that all males from a list of Arab and Muslim countries report to the government to be registered and fingerprinted. According to the May 2011 statement by the American Civil Liberties Union, the program has never led to a single terrorism-related conviction despite tens of thousands of people forced to register. [7]

This is why, after 9/11 the security practice known as “racial profiling” began on a large, almost incomparable scale, which is, basically (according to the definition provided by Mathias Risse and Richard Zeckhauser): “any police-indicated action that relies on the race, ethnicity, or national origin and not merely on the behaviour of the individual”.[8] It might be also said that racial profiling entails racist stereotyping of those targeted[9], but that actually is not a general rule: sometimes it is just and based on statistics. For example, if the police is looking for members of a certain gang which is known to include only young Mexicans, that is the group which naturally should be targeted first in the investigation. [10]

However, the current cases of intolerance and prejudice that can be observed all around the U.S. are (in the majority) not just; moreover, according to J. Angelo Corlett, they are not really racial profiling, but rather colour profiling.[11] “So strictly speaking, not only is racial profiling not taking place in law enforcement, it ought not to, that is, so long as it is conceived in popular terms. What is really happening is colour (and/or other morphological) profiling, which is believed erroneously by many to indicate the “race” of a suspect. However, at best it is a prima facie indicator of race. At worst, it is rather misleading”.[12]

Corlett draws the attention to a very important issue. Not many people are experts at indicating someone’s race and ethnicity and what is more, even the concept of “race” itself is very problematic.[13] This is why it also enfolded people of South Asian descent, who were frequently taken as Arabs. An excellent (and at the same time gruesome) example of such mistakes was the treatment of Sikhs after 9/11, who were taken for Muslims (or even Islamic terrorists) because of their traditional headgear dastaar, which is a certain kind of turban covering their uncut hair (kesh).

The targets of their post-September 11 bias incidents have included anyone who is perceived to be Arab or Muslim. Thus, non-Arabs such as Indians, Pakistanis, and other South Asians have been affected, as have non-Muslims such as Indian Sikhs and Hindus and Arab Christians. Sikh men in particular, readily identifiable by their turbans and long beards, have borne a disproportionate burst of the violence (…).[14]

The most well-known case was the murder of Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh-American gas station owner from Arizona, which was officially acknowledged as the first of several cases across the United States that were supposed acts of retaliation for the 9/11 attacks. Balbir was murdered by 42-year-old mechanic Frank Silva Roque, who mistook him for an Arab American. “In a series of racist statements that began when the World Trade Centre collapsed, Roque announced his murderous plans and told a co-worker that he had been treated rudely at a gasoline station on University Drive by «a towel-head or a rag-head»” [15]

Racial profiling has grown to an impressive scale. The total number of reported hate crime incidents in the US decreased by over 18 percent between 2000 and 2009, but during the same period, the percentage of hate crime incidents directed towards Muslims increased by over 500 percent. The number of hate crimes against Muslims has been increasing more slowly since 2010.[16] This kind of crime also involves another, paradoxical feature: egalitarianism. It affects both affluent and poor members of society, so it does not matter if somebody is a well-educated doctor, IT specialist, shopkeeper, or unemployed. The only thing that counts is the skin colour and other aspects of appearance.[17]

American South Asian themselves listed expressions of racial profiling directed towards them:

  • South Asians are frequently questioned about their faith or national origin by government officials.
  • South Asians are often questioned by government officials about their immigration status, which is used as leverage to pressure individuals to inform on fellow community members.
  • South Asians subjected to profiling often feel being viewed as “suspects” by the general public, within their community, and even within their families
  • South Asians encounter profiling so routinely that many have altered their behaviour in an attempt to avoid additional scrutiny.
  • South Asians report that profiling has caused them to lose faith in the government’s ability to protect them in times of need.[18]

Looking for historical references to the scale of racial profiling after 9/11, it is necessary to move back to the times of Second World War, when a similar mechanism was implemented towards Japanese Americans. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the FBI arrested more than 2,000 Japanese, suspecting them of links to the attackers. On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which announced immediate evacuation of all Japanese Americans from the West Coast (many believed that Japan might soon strike there) to internment camps. 110,000 Japanese Americans (2/3 of whom were American citizens) were forced to move and as a consequence suffered great hardships and had to hurriedly sell their homes or businesses and relocate to crowded camps. Although there were more German, and Italian Americans living in the country than Japanese Americans, there was less hostility displayed towards them.[19]

Indian Cinema on 9/11 Racial Profiling

“The Western view of mainstream Bollywood is one-dimensional”,[20] writes Burhan Wazir in his article “Bollywood for Grown-ups”. Extremely differentiated Indian cinema is mostly perceived through masala-movies, produced in Mumbai, but it is a harmful simplification. Firstly, it is important to acknowledge that:

The Bombay [Mumbai is official city’s name since 1995] industry actually produces about 150-200 films a year. Feature films are produced in approximately 20 languages in India and there are multiple film industries whose total output makes India the largest film-producing country in the world. The cities of Madras and Hyderabad are homes to the Tamil and Telugu language film industries which are equally, or more prolific that the Bombay industry in terms of the number of films made per year[21].

 Secondly, masala movies, especially recently, are not the only kind of films produced in India, and also look different from what the audience was used to, with titles such as Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001, Karan Johar). The term masala movie:

Alludes to the whole range of genres and emotions that one can expect to find in a Bollywood film. It is widely accepted that the spices used release different flavours, which find their parallel in what Sanskrit scholars call Rasas or «feelings». (…) The popular Hindi film is a unique blend of different moods and itself composes a specific genre because its constitution is so fixed. From the story line to the direction, these films are entirely grounded in melodrama. (…) The characters are strong stereotypes. These films are pure escapist material, blurring out the hard-knock reality of everyday life and what they do best is to provoke a huge emotional participation from the masses, who loudly manifest their reactions.”[22]

However, contemporary Indian cinema does not entirely look the way it is commonly perceived. Many movies deal with serious political or social issues, and draw public attention to previously ignored matters. “Hindi cinema can be political about the personal. A film that explores homosexuality or religious intermarriage will have an impact. However, it will always be done through the melodramatic form of the film, which should not detract from the argument, as entertainment is the way to reach large audiences”, says Rachel Dwyer, professor of Indian cultures and cinema at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.[23] These issues can be immigration (Swades, 2004, Ashutosh Gowariker), gender-based discrimination (Chak De India, 2007, Shimit Amin), social class (English Vinglish, 2012, Gauri Shinde), teenage pregnancies (Teree Sang, 2009, Satish Kaushik), or even the problem of racial profiling after 9/11, broadly described above.

From many Indian films regarding the issue of racial profiling after 9/11, I have chosen three that depict the problem in an exceptionally interesting way. The first was directed by widely acclaimed Indian female film director Mira Nair, known for Salaam Bombay! (1988), Monsoon Wedding (2001), and Vanity Fair (2004). One of her recent films, The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2012), tells the story of a young Pakistani man who moves to USA and works in a finance company. Changez Khan (Riz Ahmed) is a skilled professional who is valued by his supervisors and has a great career ahead, but unfortunately, after 9/11 his life changes completely. As a Pakistani, he is perceived as a danger for American homeland security and this attitude is expressed many times in the film. Changez is subjected to humiliating personal inspection at airports, is called “Osama” by random people on the street, and eventually comes to the upsetting conclusion that “I didn’t have to pick a side after 9/11. It was picked for me”. Surprisingly, in opposition to the domineering tendency, the protagonist does not try to hastily westernize himself and fit into American society after what happened. He grows a traditional beard, resigns from work, and goes back to Pakistan, where he starts to work at Lahore University. Until the very last scenes of the film, the viewer does not know whether Changez is just a random victim of racial profiling or a real, dangerous fundamentalist who was recruited by terrorists. Notwithstanding, Mira Nair is convinced that Changez deserves to be heard, and expresses that by introducing the character of journalist Bobby Lincoln (Liev Schreiber), whose basic task is to listen to the main hero’s story.

Another film that depicts the problem of post-9/11 racial profiling is Kabir Khan’s New York, a seemingly typical Bollywood masala-movie, but with a very contemporary and bitter touch. Again (similarly to The Reluctant Fundamentalist), the narrative structure of the film is in the form of a retrospective. Young Indian Omar (Neil Nitin Mukesh) is arrested by an FBI agent Roshan (Irrfan Khan) for illegal possession of firearms. Soon it is unveiled that the detention was just a provocation, done in order to force Omar to inform on his best friend Sameer (John Abraham), who is suspected of terrorist activity. After a long period of persuasion, harassment, and blackmail, Omar finally agrees to report on Sameer, but only in order to prove his innocence. Unfortunately, his friend is not entirely blameless and is, in fact, preparing a large-scale terrorist attack. It may seem impossible and absurd, but in the film Sameer’s motivation is very reliably explained and related to another social problem. At some point he says, “Everything changed after 9/11, people stared at me on the street like I was a terrorist”, which is interesting, because by this point of the plot, Sameer was just a regular young American of Indian descent who was trying to start his own life with a woman he loved (Katrina Kaif). However, things changed after an illegal and accidental arrest, as a result of which Sameer landed in prison, which looked very much like Guantanamo Bay. This innocent film character was subjected to humiliation and torture such as sleep deprivation, water boarding, and music torture. In addition, that was exactly where and when Sameer met for the first time a real terrorist who, through the cell bars, invited him to join a terrorist sleeper cell in New York. After release, broken and mentally changed, Sameer decided that if he is treated a terrorist, he might as well become one and take revenge on the United States, which had treated him so horribly. This interesting plot twist suggests that to some degree it is the U.S. that is guilty in the “War on Terror”.

The third title, My Name is Khan, is definitely the most well-known, also because of the appearance of superstar Shah Rukh Khan in the main role of Rizwan Khan, an Indian immigrant suffering from Asperger’s Syndrome. After the death of his mother, Rizwan—unable to live by himself—moves to the USA to live with his brother Zakir, a successful businessman who sells beauty products. While working for Zakir, the protagonist meets a charming single mother Mandira (Kajol), and after some time marries her and adopts her son Sameer (Arjan Aujla). Their happy life is disrupted by the 9/11 attacks, which once again change their lives totally. At some point Rizwan says, “In the western world, history is marked simply by BC and AD. Now however, there is a third distinction: 9/11”. To make matters worse, young Sameer is killed due to racial hatred exhibited by his school colleagues. The happy marriage of Mandira and Rizwan is over, but the husband decides to repair the relationship by visiting the president of United States and telling him in person: “My name is Khan and I’m not a terrorist”. Rizwan starts to follow George W. Bush Jr. and seeks to meet him. Unfortunately, he is taken for a terrorist, arrested, and put in a prison, in which he experiences violence and torture. Even his condition—essentially a mild form of autism—does not help him to be released. Finally—thanks to a crew of student filmmakers—Rizwan is freed and gains the opportunity to meet the president. However, he meets not the distant and cold George W. Bush, but the warm and friendly Barrack Obama, who treats Rizwan as a hero and hails him as an example of human endurance and determination.

Conclusions

Although the films mentioned above are primarily a form of entertainment (especially New York, which is rich in songs and romance, and My Name Is Khan, brimming with great Indian movie stars), they also focus on unpopular and complicated issues related to the life conditions of South Asians after 9/11. They do it in a surprisingly comprehensive and intelligent way, trying to depict different angles of the problem simultaneously. At the same time, they also do not revert to simplifications and one-dimensional treatment of their heroes. They are subordinated to one, maybe a little naïve and idealistic rule: everyone deserves to be heard no matter what their descent, background, religion, or even the crimes they have committed.

However, the problem is that this idea is complementary to the mistakes committed by the USA itself, prior to the tragic events of 9/11. They both represent the same level of naivety and idealism that cannot possibly exist in the real world. The false delusion of a tolerant global village in which all people live happily, are proud of their decent, and can reunite in a world without borders, had fallen alongside the two towers of the World Trade Center. The world was once again reminded that the idea of modern, secularized state is impossible to achieve.

Nonetheless, it is important to emphasize that some issues highlighted by films such as New York, My Name Is Khan, and The Reluctant Fundamentalist are important and should be kept in mind. The focal point of all the movies is not only post-9/11 racial profiling, but also its consequences, such as unlawful and violent treatment of South Asians, who were arrested without any explicit charges and without respect to their human rights. This reflects reality, in which there have been many cases of people detained for several years without charges, legal counsel, or representation. After 9/11, the classic rule of presumption of innocence changed to treating suspects as guilty until proven innocent. This undermined the very foundation of law. This definitely should not be a starting point for rebuilding a country after an enormous tragedy such as 9/11.

References:

American Rhetoric, http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/gwbush911jointsessionspeech.htm, date accessed 19 August 2016.

Ahmad Munner, “Homeland Insecurities: Racial Violence the Day After September 11”, Race/ Ethnicity: Multidisciplinary Global Contexts, vol. 4, no. 3 (2011).

Chakraborty Chandrima, “Subaltern Studies, Bollywood and Lagaan”, Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 38, no. 19 (2003).

Corlett J. Angelo, “Profiling Color”, The  Journal of Ethincs, vol. 15, no. 1 (2011).

Ganti Tejaswini, Bollywood. A Guidebook to Popular Hindi Cinema (New York: Ruthledge) (2004).

Giese James R., Downey Matthew T., Mazón Mauricio (ed) The American Century: A History of the United States in Modern Times, (Cincinnati: West Educational Publishing) (1999).

In Our Own Words, http://www.issuelab.org/resource/in_our_own_words_narratives_of_south_asian_new_yorkers_affected_by_racial_and_religious_profiling , date accessed 19 August 2016.

Maira Sunaina, “Flexible Citizenship / Flexible Empire: South Asian Muslim Youth in Post-9/11 America”, American Quarterly, vol. 60, no. 3, 2006.

Ryberg Jesper, “The Ethics of Racial Profiling: Introduction”, The Journal of Ethics, vol. 15, no. 1/2 (2011).

Simpson David, “After 9/11: The Fate of Strangers”, Americastudien / American Studies, vol. 57, no. 2 (2012).

Swept Up in a Dragnet, Hundreds Sit in Custody and Ask, ‘Why?’, http://www.nytimes.com/2001/11/25/national/swept-up-in-a-dragnet-hundreds-sit-in-custody-and-ask-why.html, date accessed 22 August 2016.

Watson Institute, http://watson.brown.edu/costsofwar/costs/social/rights/profiling, date accessed 19 August 2016.

Wazir Burhan, “Bollywood for Grown-ups”, The World Today, vol. 68, no. 6 (2012).

Rediff: India Abroad, http://www.rediff.com/us/2003/sep/03sodhi.htm, date accessed 19 August 2016.

Filmography:

 New York (2009, Kabir Khan)

My Name is Khan (2010, Karan Johar)

The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2012, Mira Nair)

Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001, Karan Johar)

Swades (2004, Ashutosh Gowariker)

Chak De India (2007, Shimit Amin)

English Vinglish (2012, Gauri Shinde)

Teree Sang (2009, Satish Kaushik)

Salaam Bombay! (1988, Mira Nair)

Monsoon Wedding (2001, Mira Nair)

Vanity Fair (2004, Mira Nair)

Notes

[1] In Our Own Words, http://www.issuelab.org/resource/in_our_own_words_narratives_of_south_asian_new_yorkers_affected_by_racial_and_religious_profiling, date accessed 19 August 2016.

[2] Sunaina Maira, “Flexible Citizenship / Flexible Empire: South Asian Muslim Youth in Post-9/11 America”, American Quarterly 60:3 (2006), p. 712.

[3] David Simpson, “After 9/11: The Fate of Strangers”, Americastudien / American Studies 57:2 (2012), p. 201.

[4] In Our Own Words, http://www.issuelab.org/resource/in_our_own_words_narratives_of_south_asian_new_yorkers_affected_by_racial_and_religious_profiling, date accessed 19 August 2016.

[5] The USA PATRIOT Act, https://www.justice.gov/archive/ll/what_is_the_patriot_act.pdf, date accessed 19 August 2016.

[6] American Rhetoric, http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/gwbush911jointsessionspeech.htm, date accessed 19 August 2016.

[7] Watson Institute, http://watson.brown.edu/costsofwar/costs/social/rights/profiling, date accessed 19 August 2016.

[8] J. Angelo Corlett, “Profiling Color”, The Journal of Ethincs 15:1 (2011), p. 25.

[9] J. Angelo Corlett, p. 25.

[10] J. Angelo Corlett, p. 21.

[11] J. Angelo Corlett, p. 25.

[12] J. Angelo Corlett.

[13] J. Angelo Corlett, p. 26.

[14] Ahmad Munner, “Homeland Insecurities: Racial Violence the Day after September 11”, Race/ Ethnicity: Multidisciplinary Global Contexts 4:3 (2011), p. 341.

[15] Rediff: India Abroad, http://www.rediff.com/us/2003/sep/03sodhi.htm, date accessed 19 August 2016.

[16] Watson Institute.

[17] Ahmad Munner, p. 344.

[18] In Our Own Words.

[19] James R. Giese, Matthew T. Downey, Mauricio Mazón (ed), The American Century: A History of the United States in Modern Times (Cincinnati: West Educational Publishing) (1999), p. 527.

[20] Burhan Wazir, “Bollywood for Grown-ups”, The World Today 68: 6 (2012), p. 47.

[21] Tejaswini Ganti, Bollywood. A Guidebook to Popular Hindi Cinema (New York: Ruthledge) (2004), p. 3.

[22] The “Masala” Film Recipe, http://www.postcolonialweb.org/pakistan/literature/rushdie/takhar20.html, date accessed 19 August 2016.

[23] Burhan Wazir, p. 47.

Kaja Łuczyńska – graduated Film Studies (BA, MA), American Studies (BA), and is now a PhD candidate at Jagiellonian University. Currently working on a dissertation about post-9/11 American cinema and its connections to the interdisciplinary concept of loss. Her articles have been published in magazines such as “Ekrany”, “Ha!art” and “Fragile”. She works also as a film educator and since 2011 has written a blog, „Orbitowanie bez cukru”.

Postcolonial adaptations of classic British literature

Bartłomiej Nowak

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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2016, vol.1, no. 2, pp. 79-89.

Bartłomiej Nowak

 

Postcolonial adaptations of classic British literature

 

Abstract:

The article is an attempt of re-reading selected film adaptations of the classic British literature. The author confronts them with the images of history, British culture and ‘Others’ that are present in the literary works on which they are based. Is the gaze of the ‘center’ looking at the ‘margins’ present in the books transgressed in the movies or do the movies repeat the historical views of the authors and works unchanged despite different social and political context of the contemporary times?

For example, does Bride & Prejudice (2004), directed by Gurinder Chadha, combining the plot of Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice with the form of the Bollywood cinema, reinterpret the text of the novel and let the viewer „read” it through the eyes of the postcolonial subject? How are the themes of slavery and postcolonialism treated in Derek Jarman’s and Julie Taymor’s movie adaptations of Shakespeare’s The Tempest? Is David Lean’s A Passage to India progressive or conservative in its portrayal of the Raj?

The author points to the works of postcolonial theoreticians (such as Frantz Fanon, Edward W. Said), interpretations of the movies and analysis of the literary works on which they are based. He tries to answer the question: is the spirit of the British colonial and imperial history still present in the film culture that is product of the changing (but neocolonial) world? Can this question be answered unambiguously?

Key words: postcolonialism, adaptations, British literature, rewriting history, interpretation

In this short article, I try to analyse a few film adaptations of classic British literature and compare the images of ‘Others’ they contain with those present in the texts on which they are based. I focus on four films: A Passage to India (1984, dir. David Lean), Bride & Prejudice (2004, dir. Gurinder Chadha), and two adaptations of The Tempest (1979, dir. Derek Jarman and 2010, dir. Julie Taymor). I try to answer the question: is the spirit of British colonial and imperial history still present in film culture that is a product of the changing (but neo-colonial) world?

Let me begin with Bride & Prejudice (2004), directed by Gurinder Chadha, which combines the plot of Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice with the form of Bollywood cinema. Does this movie reinterpret the text of the novel and let the viewer “read” it through the eyes of the postcolonial subject?

Bride & Prejudice was made more than two decades after the beginning of British cinema’s ‘heritage cinema’ movement (which started with Chariots of Fire, 1981, dir. Hugh Hudson). It depicted the British Empire and the class society of the nineteenth or twentieth century and was frequently accused of being morally and socially conservative and the product of Thatcherism and its politics. Sometimes considered as a smaller part of the movement (and sometimes as a parallel phenomenon), the so-called Raj Revival cinema, which depicted the times of the British rule in India, was described by the British scholar, Andrew Higson, in the appropriately titled text Re-presenting the National Past: Nostalgia and Pastiche in the Heritage Film, in the following manner:

the imperialist fantasies of national identity found in the cycle of films and television programmes about the Raj, such as A Passage to India and The Jewel in the Crown, […] can be seen as conservative responses to a collective, post-imperialist anxiety. Retreating from the social, political, and economic crises of the present, they strive to recapture an image of national identity as pure, untainted, complete and in place. Yet like so many nostalgic narratives, they return to a moment of stability and tranquillity in the social order as they themselves chart the process of decay, the fall from this utopian national ideal […][1].

In contrast to this nostalgic cinema of the past, the socially aware movies of the decade, such as Stephen Frears’ My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1987), depicted the times of Margaret Thatcher and a society of the mixed ethnic groups and sexual orientations. Heritage cinema did not avoid topics such as homosexual orientation (Maurice, 1987, dir. James Ivory; Another Country, 1984, dir. Marek Kanievska), or the situation of women in patriarchal society (A Room with a View, 1985, dir. James Ivory); however, it treated them (at least in the eyes of some scholars) in a conservative manner.

However, contemporary movies did not forget about the changes in the national structure of modern society and this was probably the biggest difference between them and heritage cinema, which usually showed the British nation as homogenous, white, and divided only by class and gender (despite the fact that black people were part of British society as early as the 16th century[2]). The movies and TV series of the Raj Revival movement obviously showed people of colour, but not usually as the main protagonists of their own history. Salman Rushdie in the essay Outside the Whale cites the words of David Lean, director of the movie A Passage to India (1984), which was adapted from the novel written by E. M. Forster in 1924 (some twenty-three years before India gained independence from the British Empire):

 Forster was a bit anti-English, anti-Raj and so on. I suppose it’s a tricky thing to say, but I’m not so much. I intend to keep the balance more. I don’t believe all the English were a lot of idiots. Forster rather made them so. He came down hard against them. […] As for Aziz [the Muslim protagonist of the novel], there’s a hell of a lot of Indian in him. They’re marvellous people but maddening sometimes, you know…. He’s a goose.[3]

Such a statement shows that the Raj Revival movement might be seen as “a revisionist enterprise”[4]: an attempt to change history, conceal its atrocities, and show the empire as a still valuable model for the national and social future of Great Britain.

Gurinder Chadha’s movie was made more than a decade after the end of Margaret Thatcher’s rule as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Jane Austen was not popular with directors in the 1980s, but was rediscovered in the next decade when at least few movies based on her works were made. Her popularity did not end with the beginning of the 21st century but Chadha’s movie differed in more than one way from most of Austen’s adaptations. She changed the setting from 19th century Britain to modern Britain, India, and the United States. Elizabeth Bennet, the main protagonist of the novel, is now Lalita Bakshi and Mr. Darcy’s citizenship was changed to American. If the change of the name of the main heroine is justified mainly by the new setting of the story (India), the fact that Darcy is now a citizen of the United States is the result of the new world order in which the United Kingdom was replaced by the USA in the role of the main world power. It is even said in the movie when Lalita complains about Darcy’s plans to build a new hotel in India for tourists from the West: “I thought we got rid of imperialists like you!” To his words “I’m not British. I’m American” she responds “Exactly”.

It might be said that Chadha clashes here with the nostalgic atmosphere of heritage cinema. By recontextualization of Austen’s text, changing of its time and place, it no longer has the power to evoke the past. At the same time, by using British text as a background for the modern story of cultural clashes, Chadha asks questions about the meaning of nation and cultural identity, about belonging to the national whole. Two of the main characters in the movie are British Asians. Their cultural identity is compared (rather unfavourably) with the identity of Indian people (Lalita and her family), still immersed in Indian tradition.

Lalita accuses Darcy and other rich people of the West of trying to turn India into a ‘theme park’, and Chadha’s movie can be seen as a response to this type of thinking about the Orient and Eastern cultures. There are scenes in the movie that show the colourful world of Indian culture that might appeal (by its ‘otherness’) to Western audiences; for example, scenes of singing and dancing reproducing the style of the Bollywood musical movies (or ‘masala’ movies as they are called), local garba dances and mujra, etc. However, these scenes do not function in the diegesis of the movie as the Oriental attraction, but are the proof that Indian culture still pulsates with life and is much more than a picturesque place from tourist guides of neo-colonial businessmen. The final scene shows Darcy riding on an elephant, clearly being taken by the beauty of India. This might be seen as a symbolic triumph of a postcolonial culture over a neo-colonial power, even if for Western audiences this could also be a phantasmatic neo-colonial dream of wild adventures in the Eastern milieu becoming reality.

When the movie protagonists travel to London, the capital city of the United Kingdom is shown in a sequence of short cuts of landmarks such as Big Ben, Tower Bridge, or the London Eye. Among them is one that is not as known abroad, but here it is treated as just another landmark building: the gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, the Sikh temple situated in Southall. Such editing punctuates the multiculturalism of British society and the British capital city.

Combining the new vision of postcolonial and multicultural Great Britain with one of India—still honouring its traditions and withstanding neo-colonial attempts of new imperial powers to constrain its freedom by global economic forces—Chadha shows a totally different reality than the one seen in heritage cinema and the movies of the Raj Revival movement, and the fact that her movie is set in contemporary times is not the only reason for this difference. As previously mentioned, heritage cinema avoided difficult topic of ethnic diversity and—in the movies of Raj Revival—recreated the image of empire and British rule in India, but turned away from the necessity of dealing with the racist and violent atrocities of the past. When historical movies of the 1980s did touch on the topic of the violent British rule—as was the case with Gandhi, 1982, dir. Richard Attenborough, which shows the massacre of 1919 in Jallianwala Bagh, Amritsar, when many innocent people were killed after orders of the British general Reginald E. H. Dyer to shoot at a peaceful demonstration—this tragedy is shown as an aberration, as an error of one man, not the whole imperialistic system. “The moral mission of imperialism, while certainly discredited in some respects […], is also partly recuperated through an insistence on the essential rectitude of the British national character […]”, notices Bart Moore-Gilbert, author of a book analysing the works of Hanif Kureishi, a British writer, screenwriter and director who wrote screenplays for the aforementioned movies of Stephen Frears. “Whereas Attenborough clearly sentimentalises Gandhi, the more obviously ‘political’ Jinnah is an antipathetic figure, cold, rigid, aloof, and cunning, who compares badly not just with his rival but with many of the British officials.”[5] Such differences tend to show (by contrast) that the British nation did bring civilisation and gentlemanship to the allegedly uncivilised world of precolonial India.

Chadha’s movie contrasts such a presentation of history and India. It is worth noting that it is set in Amritsar, the city of the Amritsar massacre, and this tragedy had an impact on Chadha’s previous work: in her debut short movie I’m British but…, in which she presented the phenomenon of bhangra music and talked with young British Asian people about their national identity, this crime of the British empire is remembered. One of the female protagonists of this document says, I don’t think that one should forget one’s history. […] You can’t forget about events like the Amritsar massacre”. We also hear a song with the words: “Recall that it was these same foreigners | That took their rifles to us – | […] And every corner lies in witness. | O Jallianwala Bagh”. Maybe it is not a coincidence that a city that became a symbol of colonial criminality was chosen by Chadha as the setting for Bride and Prejudice, with all its critique of neo-colonialism.

Not all modern readings of British classic literature are as apparently postcolonial in their interpretations. A lot has been said and written about Shakespeare’s The Tempest and its antagonist Caliban. Alden T. Vaughan and Virginia Mason Vaughan in the book Shakespeare’s Caliban. A Cultural History notice:

In any event, scholars have wrangled over Caliban’s genesis since at least the middle of the eighteenth century. What did Shakespeare intend when he fashioned his puppy-headed monster? Was his paradigm the American Indian, for example, or an African perhaps, or Europe’s mythical wodewose? And if he had American Indians in mind, were they Montaigne’s noble savages or their ignoble opposites or a combination of both? Or, on the other hand, did the playwright shun obvious exemplars and contrive instead a creature unrelated to existing figures or types? The answer, of course, is elusive and endlessly debatable.[6]

This debate is caused by the constantly valid question of presentation: is Caliban a racist creation, based on all Western presuppositions about the alleged savageness of primitive cultures, or maybe we can say that his “rebellion against Prospero’s control—in whatever form it is represented—embodies issues fundamental to a culture’s ideology”[7]. In our context, “ideology” might mean Western faith in its superiority and supremacy over lands and people colonised through the ages.

There have been more adaptations of The Tempest, but I would like to centre on two of them: the one made in 1979 by Derek Jarman, and the other directed by Julie Taymor in 2010. Taymor did not give up the colonial and racial connotations of presenting Caliban as a black character. In the role she cast Djimon Hounsou, an actor born in Benin, Africa. It might be said that Taymor is not

bound by the post-colonial context of Tempest interpretation. She cast a black actor […] but then coated him with mud and fish scales, his own skin showing through only in a moon-like circle around his left eye. […] Whether improvised by the actor or at Taymor’s behest, her Caliban does a shockingly real impersonation of a gorilla. Taymor returned him to the status of the alien other, a primitive beast, not a human being. His only moment of human dignity is a silent face off with Prospera toward the end of the play in a scene invented by Taymor.[8]

Such moments of human dignity are completely absent from Jarman’s adaptation, but he decided to cast white blind actor Jack Birkett in the role and thus abandoned the more obvious colonial and postcolonial meanings that were important for Taymor more than three decades later. In the Polish monograph of Jarman, Małgorzata Radkiewicz claims that the way in which he is presented in Jarman’s version (of Birkett’s acting is grotesque and full of caricature) makes Prospero more delicate and subtle in comparison (despite his tyranny over Caliban and Ariel)[9]. For both Jarman and Taymor, gender issues are more important than racial ones; however, the subject of slavery, which could not disappear even from Jarman’s version, exists there behind themes of queerness and physicality. Taymor even changed the sex of Prospero and made him Prospera and Jarman spent a lot of time sexualising the sculptural body of David Meyer, who played Ferdinand. However, the theme of disobedience of the enslaved Caliban is still present in both versions and its meanings cannot be ignored despite the stereotypical savagery of both Calibans (and the whiteness of one from the earlier movie).

Frantz Fanon in his famous book Black Skin, White Masks, when writing about the image of blackness or otherness, notices:

The Tarzan stories, the sagas of twelve-year-old explorers, the adventures of Mickey Mouse, and all those “comic books” serve actually as a release for collective aggression. The magazines are put together by white men for little white men. This is the heart of the problem. In the Antilles – and there is every reason to think that the situation is the same in the other colonies – these same magazines are devoured by the local children. In the magazines the Wolf, the Devil, the Evil Spirit, the Bad Man, the Savage are always symbolized by Negroes or Indians; since there is always identification with the victor, the little Negro, quite as easily as the little white boy, becomes an explorer, an adventurer, a missionary “who faces the danger of being eaten by the wicked Negroes”.[10]

Even if these sentences are not as true nowadays as they were when these words were written (there are black comic book writers these days etc.), they show how the proper representation of otherness (or lack thereof) can affect human identity and self-respect. So how is the history of slavery treated in the adaptations of Shakespeare that are being discussed here? In addition, does this correspond with postcolonial thinking about the past or sustain the colonial ideology of race and the superiority of the Western civilisation?

Janja Ciglar-Žanić claims that: “Jarman […] locates the issues of colonization, subordination, and domination on the territory of the human body, and uses The Tempest to speak for those repressed Others, whose subordination and repression has been effected through the deployment of the dominant ideological construct of human sexuality.”[11] I suggest that this might be also the case with Taymor’s version. The unnatural cover of Caliban’s body, these “mud and fish scales”, as Alan A. Stone described them in the previously cited analysis, quite literally transfer the issue of subordination onto the surface of the human being: this cover hides the natural blackness of Hounsou’s body and forces viewers to see him through it. Part of Hounsou’s face is covered with white make-up. This might remind us of the title of Fanon’s book, already cited here: “black skin, white masks”. Despite the fact that Shakespeare’s text and previous interpretations of his play very often treat Caliban as a beast-like creature, I suggest that Taymor’s version is only seemingly similar to them. By casting a woman (Helen Mirren) in the role of Prospero and gay actor (Ben Whishaw) as Ariel, she showed that gender, body, and sexual issues are key to her interpretation of Shakespeare’s play (and this was also the case with her previous movie adaptation of the Bard of Avon’s play, Titus, 1999). “Mud and fish scales” might be read as a veil, a mask (of the whole body) and the wild, ‘primitive’ behaviour of Taymor’s Caliban as the physical, colonial stereotype that is just the normative cover behind which lies the truth about the Other which is as elusive as it is desired (this desire of knowledge and understanding of the Other is also found on Caliban’s body: Hounsou is strong, perfectly built, and indisputably attractive despite the unnatural skin cover). Obviously, this might be read as the stereotypical sexualisation of the bodies of black men, and the fact that Caliban’s sexual force is tamed now by a woman, Prospera, asks questions about the position of genders in the postmodern world: the real one and the one of Taymor’s adaptation. However, it would be deceptive to read Taymor’s movie through conservative glasses, forgetting about all the body issues that are at the same time stereotypical and transgressive. For example, questions about colonialism have to be asked differently when Prospera is no longer a figure of patriarchal power.

As Edward W. Said says in Culture and Imperialism about Aimé Césaire’s Une Tempête, which re-writes Shakespeare’s The Tempest:

The core of Aimé Césaire’s Carribean Une Tempête is not ressentiment, but an affectionate contention with Shakespeare for the right to represent the Caribbean. That impulse to contend is part of a grander effort to discover the basis of an integral identity different from the formerly dependent, derivative one. Caliban, according to George Lamming, »is the excluded, that which is eternally below possibility… He is seen as an occasion, a state of existence which can be appropriated and exploited to the purposes of another’s own development.« If that is so, then Caliban must be shown to have a history that can be perceived on its own, as the result of Caliban’s own effort. One must, according to Lamming, »explode Prospero’s old myth« by christening »language afresh«; but this cannot occur »[…] until we make available to all the result of certain enterprises undertaken by men who are still regarded as the unfortunate descendants of languageless and deformed slaves«.[12]

Does a similar attempt to regain Caliban’s history for himself show up in Taymor’s or Jarman’s movie adaptations? I have tried to suggest here that gender and race issues are equivalents in both movies and that by emphasizing the enslaving nature of gender and sexual norms, Taymor and Jarman show the core of Western culture in which the Other (regardless of the reason of his Otherness: his gender, sexuality, ethnicity, religion etc.) is tamed by norms that have to be broken, taken off like these “mud and fish scales”, to get to the true (but elusive) nature of his identity. Physicality always was one of the main reasons of intolerance and inequality: queerness and womanhood gain power in both movie adaptations of The Tempest and therefore it might be said that Jarman and Taymor contest patriarchalism: its history and its model of thinking about the Other and its place in the social structure of the past and the present. Non-whiteness is not forgotten, even if it is removed from the diegesis of Jarman’s movie. By casting a white actor as Caliban, Jarman forces viewers to ask themselves questions about power, norms, slavery etc. without connecting them directly with themes of race and ethnicity and therefore making them fundamental subjects of Western culture, significant in all kinds of contexts.

As part of this article, I would like to return to Lean’s A Passage to India. I have cited already Lean’s words about his approach to E. M. Forster’s novel. After all that has been written here about both adaptations of The Tempest, it is worth noting that both E. M. Forster’s novel and Lean’s movie can be interpreted as conservative or progressive, depending on the analysed aspect of the book or film. T. Muraleedharan in the text Imperial migrations: Reading the Raj cinema of the 1980s writes:

The most significant feature of the rewriting of history attempted by A Passage to India and Heat and Dust [another movie of the Raj Revival movement, 1983, dir. James Ivory] is the films’ neat reversal of the oppressor/victim dichotomy. Colonised India—a victim of political and economic oppression and exploitation—ends up appearing in these films as a mysterious and evil force that disrupts the middle-class domesticity of England.[13]

The most recognizable example of such a ‘reversal’ in A Passage to India is the scene in which one of the female protagonists of the movie, Mrs. Moore, during her journey to the fictitious Marabar Caves, loses breath when she becomes surrounded by a group of Indian inhabitants in one of the caves. Such an image suggests that she is a victim of the ‘aggressive, sensual […] physicality”[14] of the Indian people, while she actually is (as a British citizen) one of the imperialistic oppressors.

On the other hand, the gender politics of E. M. Forster’s text (and Lean’s movie) help to transgress the boundaries of the conservative colonial (or postcolonial) content of the book and film. Thus, once again gender politics might be key to a progressive re-reading and reinterpretation of the classic text. Leela Gandhi claims in her book Postcolonial Theory: A Critical Introduction that no one understood the colonial ‘hostility’ between British women and Indian men better than E. M. Forster[15]. This hostility was related to the national identity of Indian men and the stereotypical model of Indian womanhood that was allegedly endangered by European women and their style of living. At the same time, British women were jealous that the bond between their partners and Indian men might be homoerotic[16]. Such suspicions were the results of the Western perception of Oriental sexuality and the stereotypes of the alleged effeminacy of Indian men. Such a bond also found a place in Forster’s novel. Forster was gay and the main protagonist of his novel, Fielding, befriends a local Muslim man, Aziz, and even if their friendship does not have a clear homosexual subtext, Fielding supports Aziz when he is accused of a rape attempt by an English girl, Adela Quested. Fielding does so despite the resistance of his compatriots.

This subtext (regardless of its meaning: whether it is clearly homosexual or not) allows criticism of the colonial discourse that simplifies sexual and gender differences between the East and the West. The mythical superiority of the colonizer (who allegedly should be heterosexual because his homosexuality would ruin the cultural construct of manhood) is questioned because it is revealed that the sexual and gender discourse models of the masculine West and the effeminate East are only constructs that can be (and very often are) transgressed.

This content of Forster’s novel stays intact in Lean’s movie and therefore it might be interesting to watch his film through pink glasses of queerness. I wanted to show that even texts that are usually read as conservative might contain content that can be seen as progressive and anticolonial and that one-sided reading of cultural texts is very often problematic.

To finish this article, let me rephrase the question from the first paragraph: do postcolonial movies reinterpret classic texts of the British literature? Unfortunately, as we have seen, this question cannot be answered in a simple way. However, I have tried to show in this article that modern attempts to read the classics differently, by theory or reinterpretation, let modern cinema cope with the colonial past in a way that contests the old thinking about norms, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality.

References:

 

Bourne Stephen, “Secrets and lies. Black histories and British historical films” in British Historical Cinema, ed. Claire Monk, Amy Sargeant (London, New York: Routledge, 2002).

Chari Hema, “Colonial Fantasies and Postcolonial Identities: Elaboration of Postcolonial Masculinity and Homoerotic Desire” in Postcolonial, Queer, ed. John C. Hawley (Albany: State University of New York Press) (2001).

Ciglar-Žanić Janja, “Anti-colonial Tempest: Theory and Practice of Postmodernist Shakespearean Reinscriptions”, Studia Romanica et Anglica Zagrabiensia 42 (1997).

Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, (London: Pluto Press) (2008).

Higson Andrew, “Re-presenting the National Past: Nostalgia and Pastiche in the Heritage Film” in British Cinema and Thatcherism, ed. Lester D. Friedman (London, New York: Wallflower Press 2006).

Lamming George, The Pleasures of Exile, (London: Allison & Busby) (1984).

Moore-Gilbert Bart, Hanif Kureishi, (Manchester, New York: Manchester University Press) (2010).

Muraleedharan T., “Imperial migrations. Reading the Raj cinema of the 1980s” in British Historical Cinema, ed. Claire Monk, Amy Sargeant (London, New York: Routledge, 2002).

Nandy Ashis, The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of the Self Under Colonialism, (Delhi: Oxford UP) (1983).

Radkiewicz Małgorzata, derek jarman: portret indywidualny, (Kraków: Wydawnictwo RABID) (2003).

Rushdie Salman, Outside the Whale, https://granta.com/outside-the-whale/, date accessed 4 September 2016.

Said Edward W., Culture and Imperialism, (London) (1994).

Stone Alan A., Drowned Out. Julie Taymor’s The Tempest, http://new.bostonreview.net/BR36.2/alan_a_stone_julie_taymor_tempest.php, date accessed 4 September 2016

Vaughan Alden T., Vaughan Virginia Mason, Shakespeare’s Caliban. A Cultural History, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) (1999).

Notes

[1] Andrew Higson, “Re-presenting the National Past: Nostalgia and Pastiche in the Heritage Film” in British Cinema and Thatcherism, ed. Lester D. Friedman (London, New York: Wallflower Press 2006), p. 104.

[2] Compare with: Stephen Bourne, “Secrets and lies. Black histories and British historical films” in British Historical Cinema, ed. Claire Monk, Amy Sargeant (London, New York: Routledge, 2002), p. 58.

[3] Cited by: Salman Rushdie, Outside the Whale, https://granta.com/outside-the-whale/, date accessed 4 September 2016.

[4] Salman Rushdie.

[5] Bart Moore-Gilbert, Hanif Kureishi, (Manchester, New York: Manchester University Press) (2010), p. 76.

[6] Alden T. Vaughan, Virginia Mason Vaughan, Shakespeare’s Caliban. A Cultural History, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) (1999), p. xx.

[7] Alden T. Vaughan, Virginia Mason Vaughan, p. xvi.

[8] Alan A. Stone, Drowned Out. Julie Taymor’s The Tempest, http://new.bostonreview.net/BR36.2/alan_a_stone_julie_taymor_tempest.php, date accessed 4 September 2016

[9] See: Małgorzata Radkiewicz, derek jarman: portret indywidualny, (Kraków: Wydawnictwo RABID) (2003), p.27.

[10] Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, (London: Pluto Press) (2008), p. 112-113.

[11] Janja Ciglar-Žanić, “Anti-colonial Tempest: Theory and Practice of Postmodernist Shakespearean Reinscriptions”, Studia Romanica et Anglica Zagrabiensia 42 (1997), pp. 73.

[12] Edward W. Said, Culture and Imperialism, (London) (1994), p. 256-257. Cited in: Janja Ciglar-Žanić, p. 82-83. Said cites Lamming from: George Lamming, The Pleasures of Exile, (London: Allison & Busby) (1984), p. 107 and 119.

[13] T. Muraleedharan, “Imperial migrations. Reading the Raj cinema of the 1980s” in British Historical Cinema, ed. Claire Monk, Amy Sargeant (London, New York: Routledge, 2002), p. 150.

[14] T. Muraleedharan, p. 150.

[15] Leela Gandhi, Postcolonial Theory: A Critical Introduction, (New York: Columbia University Press) (1998), p. 97.

[16] Ashis Nandy, The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of the Self Under Colonialism, (Delhi: Oxford UP) (1983), p. 9-10. Cited in: Hema Chari, “Colonial Fantasies and Postcolonial Identities: Elaboration of Postcolonial Masculinity and Homoerotic Desire” in Postcolonial, Queer, ed. John C. Hawley (Albany: State University of New York Press) (2001), s. 281.

Bartłomiej Nowak, prior to completing his Ph.D. in Humanities in Art Studies at Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Poland, he studied film studies and computer science. His doctoral dissertation about the presentation of ethnic minorities in modern British cinema and the postcolonial content of British movies was defended in 2015. His academic research concerns, among others, cinema, ethnic and sexual minorities, gender and postcolonial issues.

Slow Expansion. Neomodernism as a Postnational Tendency in Contemporary Cinema

Miłosz Stelmach

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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2016, vol.1, no. 2, pp. 100-117.

Miłosz Stelmach

Jagiellonian University

 

Slow Expansion. Neomodernism as a Postnational Tendency in Contemporary Cinema

 

Abstract

The article presents a theoretical overview of a distinctive strand of contemporary cinema identified in the text as neomodernism (as defined by Rafał Syska). It focuses on works of filmmakers such as Béla Tarr, Aleksander Sokurov or Tsai Ming-liang and their followers and tries to present them as a part of informal postnational artistic movement developing in cinema from mid-90s onward. The aim of the article is to examine critically the journalistic and reductive category of slow cinema usually applied to auteurs mentioned above and propose term more burdened with cultural connotations and thus open for nuanced historical and theoretical studies. The particular attention is given to the international character of neomodernism that negates the traditional boundaries of national schools as well as the division of centre-periphery in world cinema shaped by the first wave of postwar modernist cinema. Neomodernism rather moves the notion of centre to the institutional level with the growing importance of festivals, film agents and public fund that take the place of production companies as the main actors in the transnational net of art-house cinema circulation.

Key words: contemporary cinema, modernism, slow cinema, postnational cinema, neomodernism

 

Abstract

The article presents a theoretical overview of a distinctive strand of contemporary cinema identified in the text as neomodernism (as defined by Rafał Syska). It focuses on works of filmmakers such as Béla Tarr, Aleksander Sokurov or Tsai Ming-liang and their followers and tries to present them as a part of informal postnational artistic movement developing in cinema from mid-90s onward. The aim of the article is to examine critically the journalistic and reductive category of slow cinema usually applied to auteurs mentioned above and propose term more burdened with cultural connotations and thus open for nuanced historical and theoretical studies. The particular attention is given to the international character of neomodernism that negates the traditional boundaries of national schools as well as the division of centre-periphery in world cinema shaped by the first wave of postwar modernist cinema. Neomodernism rather moves the notion of centre to the institutional level with the growing importance of festivals, film agents and public fund that take the place of production companies as the main actors in the transnational net of art-house cinema circulation.

Key words: contemporary cinema, modernism, slow cinema, postnational cinema, neomodernism

Introduction

 

Over the course of the last two decades, the debate over cinema and modernism has taken the form of a dialectical struggle since two distinctive theoretical standpoints emerged, of which the more traditional and still dominant is rooted in art history and literary studies of the post-war years. It is focused on tracing the signs of high modernism in cinema, locating it mostly in the field of international art film practice of both the pre-war (avant-garde and national film schools of 1920s) and post-war (New Wave and New Cinemas of the 1960s and 1970s) eras.[1] We can call this understanding of cinematic modernism “exclusive” as it refers to the language of formal innovation, auteurism, and a break with classical cinema. Lately, this perspective has been recapitulated and thoroughly explicated by András Bálint Kovács in his book-length study.[2] Kovács identifies subjectivity, reflexivity, and abstraction as basic characteristics of all modernist art[3] and finds them in the post-war films of directors such as Ingmar Bergman, Michelangelo Antonioni, Robert Bresson, or auteurs associated with French New Wave, among others.

The oppositional, “inclusive” theory of modernism in cinema was conceived as a radical departure from this discourse. Since the 1990s, many scholars (often associated with the term New Modernist Studies) have contradicted the conservative Greenbergian account of modernism as a drive toward formalism, artistic sophistication, and medium specificity. Instead, they perceived it as a cinematic expression and representation of modernity in its various forms that is not restricted to the field of high artistic practice, but rather comprises mass cultural production. Miriam Bratu Hansen’s 1999 essay, which is probably the most emblematic and influential work in this vein, calls Hollywood cinema “vernacular modernism”,[4] and this term caught on.[5] In her understanding, “modernism encompasses a whole range of cultural and artistic practices that register, respond to, and reflect upon processes of modernization and the experience of modernity, including a paradigmatic transformation of the conditions under which art is produced, transmitted, and consumed”.[6] In this sense, early comic strips and Russian socialist realist musicals are just as (or even more) modernist as Ulysses or movies by Ingmar Bergman because of the way they transform and exploit new possibilities of perception born from the spirit of modernity. In its most radical form, this “modernity thesis” tries to prove that cinema as a whole is a modern art: the product and consequence of modernity defined by its technological and industrial character.[7]

Although the two described standpoints might appear to be distinct, competing approaches to the same problem, namely cinematic modernism, I would suggest that the situation is in fact the opposite: they examine two different phenomena claiming the same designation. The disparity between them is demonstrable not simply in the choice of cultural texts they seem to be primarily interested in (“high” vs. “popular” art), but even more importantly in the way they try to position those texts. The proponents of cinema as vernacular modernism focus mostly on the social, industrial, and cultural context in which movies exist. These specific conditions make classical cinema a vital part of late 19th and early to mid-20th century modernity as it was experienced by moviegoers all over the world, since cinema according to Hansen became the world’s first “global vernacular”.[8] As a consequence, their aim is to describe a certain historical point of “paradigmatic transformation of the conditions under which art is produced, transmitted, and consumed”.

By contrast, the idea of modern cinema, as derived from Clement Greenberg’s writings and represented today by András Bálint Kovács, concentrates more on the interrelations within cinema history itself rather than its social context. It is more interested in aesthetic autonomy and internal development of specific art forms and their inherent features. Cultural, political, and social contexts obviously play an important role in this argument; however, they are mostly used as possible hypotheses explaining certain formal and stylistic devices. This line of argumentation was employed also by many authors who did not use the term “Modernism” but were highly influential and contributed greatly to the debate on the term. Key examples might be David Bordwell, who identified “art cinema” as one of the four main historical modes of film practice,[9] or Gilles Deleuze, for whom post-war international cinema of “Time-Image” was the fullest possible realization of medium specificity.[10]

Narrated in this manner, the story of modernism appears to be an evolutionary process of progressing sophistication of a given art in the search for its expressive potential. The crucial consequence of equating modernism with a set of formal qualities (instead of considering its relation to the broader cultural and social field) is the possibility of conceptualizing it as a trans-historical phenomenon. Although Kovács defined modernism as a completed historical period, his recounting of it allows for some trans-historical interpretation when he remarks, “narrative techniques, after they become accepted, remain in fact available for anyone, anywhere, anytime. Historical ‘modes of narration’, however, are conglomerates of certain techniques that are more fashionable in certain periods and in certain parts of the world than in others”.[11] This makes it possible to understand modernism as a set of artistic choices that became less frequently used in the course of 1970s and 1980s, but are still available and one day may come back into favour. This idea of recurring modernist tropes, reappearing in different periods and cultural contexts, is nothing new to modernism studies but has never been convincingly employed in film studies, where it is generally believed that high modernist cinema ended sometime in the mid-70s.

While it might be true for some particular forms of modernist film, specific to the international art cinema of ’60s, I would like to argue that its spirit survived and began reappearing in a new form around mid-90s, gaining full momentum about decade later. The whole wave of directors, led by figures like Béla Tarr, Aleksander Sokurov and Tsai Ming-liang and subsequently joined by younger filmmakers, established what I will call a neomodernist trend in contemporary cinema. This article is an attempt to sketch a historical and theoretical overview of this informal movement, taking specific note of its modernist character and transnational scope.

The eternal return

 

When John Orr attempted to explain the temporal gap between the two phases of modernism in cinema, he referred to the latter as a Nietzschean return to the modern. He described the modernist impulse as a cyclical movement, intersecting from time to time the main, linear path of cinema history: “a return to the modern in a more technically advanced form, (…) recurrence as the completion of form”.[12] Thus, the continuity of the modernist tendency might be disturbed by external (e.g. political) as well as internal (e.g. technological, such as the coming of sound) factors, but the idea and vision of the cinema behind it will be very much alive. However, his 1993 diagnosis concludes that “a second and momentous return of the modern seems unlikely”.[13] He argues that the legacy of modernist cinema has been largely absorbed and adapted into mainstream post-classical cinema and selectively reworked, sometimes in a mannerist way, by postmodern cinema.

Interestingly enough, only a couple of years after Orr wrote these words, the aforementioned group of directors emerged, who tried to avoid both of those paths through creative adaptation of the post-war model of art cinema. They presented films that might enable us to reconsider Orr’s statement about the unlikeliness of another return to the modernist impulse, such as Tsai Ming-Liang’s Vive L’Amour (1994), Béla Tarr’s Satantango (1994), Sokurov’s Mat i syn/Mother and Son (1997), Abbas Kiarostami’s Ta’m e guilass/Taste of Cherry (1997) or Bruno Dumont’s La Vie de Jesus (1997). Their affinity with the older modernist generation was instantly noticed and is still underlined by many critics who frequently try to establish a connection between these modern movies and their historical ancestors. Alexander Sokurov is regularly described as Tarkovsky’s apprentice, Tarr as heir to Jancsó‘s poetics, Dumont as a reinterpreter of Bresson’s work, and Tsai as a contemporary Antonioni, to mention only the most important names of the movement. The beginning of the following decade showed another strong group of directors (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Carlos Reygadas, Lav Diaz and others) following the same path.

Nevertheless, it’s very clear that this artistic indebtedness doesn’t make them merely imitators or “retro” artists, but rather positions them as the newest incarnation of the “tradition of the new,” to quote Harold Rosenberg’s aphoristic definition of artistic modernism. They reach for modernist formalism as well as certain narratives and stylistic and thematic patterns and use them in very idiosyncratic ways, exploring their possibilities and limitations. At the same time, it should be noted that none of the aforementioned directors constitute an organized or even informal “movement”, “school”, or “current”. They represent rather a tendency, a shared attitude toward the medium of cinema and a common sensibility. They come from different continents, generations, and cultural and historical backgrounds, yet their films, resisting both mainstream commercialism and postmodern stylistic games, bear an unmistakable resemblance to each other’s.

Although the opposition between this wave of modernism and alternative modes of the mainstream or the postmodern might be seen as evaluative, its assumptions are (or at least should be) essentially descriptive. This is also the way Kovács understood the distinction between modernism and other modes of film practice: “When we speak of ‘art films’ as opposed to ‘commercial entertainment films’, we are referring not to aesthetic qualities but to certain genres, styles, narrative procedures, distribution networks, production companies, film festivals, film journals, critics, groups of audiences; in short, institutionalized film practice”.[14] As early as 1981, Steve Neale tried to define “art cinema” not only in narrative or aesthetic terms, but also (and maybe even primarily) as an institution.[15] This is also the way the newest development of modernist filmmaking should be considered: as a certain quality of films themselves and the discourse they inhabit.

Neomodern

 

The term “neomodern” in terms of the distinctive strain of contemporary art cinema was proposed by Polish film scholar Rafał Syska, who introduced it in a series of articles and eventually a book-length study.[16] He calls neomodernism a “slow rebellion” and largely identifies it with the phenomenon of so-called slow cinema. This term—very much present in today’s film journalism and promoted by people such as Sight & Sound’s contributor Jonathan Romney,[17]—refers to a specific type of art cinema, forming a non-unified but very strong and visible trend on the contemporary festival circuit. As Thomas Elsaesser crisply explained, “slow cinema (also sometimes referred to as ‘contemplative cinema’) counters the blockbuster’s over-investment in physical action, spectacle and violence with long takes, quiet observation, an attention to detail, to inner stirrings rather than to outward restlessness, highlighting the deliberate or hesitant gesture, rather than the protagonist’s drive or determination”.[18] Other key characteristic features of slow movies include behaviourist and anti-psychological depiction of characters (very often played by non-professional actors), abandoning strict narrative causality in favour of episodic or impressionistic storytelling while still maintaining intensified continuity. As a consequence, they tend to put a greater focus on showing instead of telling, or in other words, they encourage the dominance of monstrating over narrating, to use André Gaudreault’s dichotomy.[19] Directors working in this vein usually avoid non-diegetic music, explanatory dialogue, overt dramaturgical tensions, and clear resolutions.

Many slow cinema movies, although deprived of any commercial potential, have gained critical, academic, and festival acclaim, forming a small but distinctive canon. This canon consists of all the previously mentioned directors as well as the somewhat less recognized but influential Lisandro Alonso and Albert Serra, not to mention dozens of artists who have achieved smaller acknowledgment. These auteurs are also described by Syska in his study of neomodern cinema, in which he analyses recurring thematic and stylistic tropes of the movement as well as individual artistic strategies of its most important figures.

However, why do we need a new term if the discourse on slow cinema is already well established? The answer is twofold. Firstly, this appellation might serve well as a journalistic buzzword, but its explanatory power is very limited. It reduces the entire diverse group of films to only one, quantitative aspect: slowness (measured by the average shot length, lack of on-screen movement or focus on observation and contemplation instead of action). The sluggish pace of certain works draws disproportionate attention, provoking the praise of dedicated aficionados as well as the eloquent critiques of their adversaries. As a result, the ongoing debate on slow cinema and its predominance on the festival circuit was taken over by two opposing groups exchanging arguments for and against the artistic qualities of these films, to some extent restraining more nuanced historical and theoretical studies.

Attempts to define contemporary contemplative cinema in relation to cinematic modernism, as proposed by Syska, might help us replace the ahistorical category of slow cinema with one more burdened with cultural connotations, thus opening new avenues of studies. Besides, the majority of descriptions of the movement focus mostly on its antithetic position toward mainstream commercial films. While it is obviously true that these films stand in distinctive opposition to the post-classical cinema of attractions, they should be characterized not only as a negative movement but also as a part of a positive, modernist project of developing new reflexive structures of perception and the interrelated cinematic forms most appropriate to express them. As Maureen Turim put it in relation to cinema, “high modernism is seen as philosophical and formal, restructuring temporality, spatial relationships, and pictorial representation with a dedicated seriousness that consequently limits its commercial acceptance”.[20] Neomodernism can be seen as a continuation (or even an intensification) of this self-reflexive reconsidering of the medium’s parameters such as time and space.

There is also another reason to consider the term neomodernism more carefully. Although Syska clearly puts all slow cinema’s most important figures at the centre of his argument, in my opinion the two categories should not be seen as identical. They certainly largely overlap, but not every slow movie can be called neomodernist and not every neomodernist work has to be particularly slow. The latter point might be illustrated by some of the recent works of Michael Haneke, who went through his “modernist turn” in the 2000s (thereby following the example of most of the early neomodernist directors, who began their careers with movies that cannot be put in this category, the best example of which might be the unofficial leader of the movement, Béla Tarr, whose early features were socially committed, realist dramas). From Code inconnu: Récit incomplet de divers voyages/Code Unknown (2000) onward, Haneke abandoned his earlier poetics, which evinced some postmodern characteristics, and began to focus more on formal qualities of the image, questions of subjectivity, and references to high art. Films like Caché (2005), Das weiße Band – Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte/The White Ribbon (2009) or L’amour (2012) might be described as neomodernist, although they are usually not associated with the slow cinema movement. On the other hand, some slow movies might lack modernist conceptualism and self-reflexivity.

Furthermore, the term neomodernism might serve as a link to phenomena existing outside the field of cinema. It was already used in regard to other disciplines such as fine arts, architecture and philosophy, where neomodernist tendencies that reject the fashionable influence of postmodernism in favour of the revitalization of earlier modern forms were perceived.[21] Victor Grauer proposed the name as early as 1982, when on the wider ground of art-historical periodization he advocated for a neomodern aesthetics which may be defined as a return to the most fundamental tenets of “formalist modernism”.[22]

Although “nothing is more unfashionable than a fashion that’s out of fashion”, the question of postmodernism has to be addressed briefly at this point. Regardless of whether one agrees with Umberto Eco and Jean-François Lyotard, for whom postmodernism was only a late, mannerist phase of modernism that exposed some of its features and pushed them to their limits (whilst simultaneously downplaying others),[23] or shares the view of Douwe Fokkema, who argued that postmodernist strategies express a radical break with modernist aesthetics,[24] we can roughly identify the leading formal and thematic characteristics of postmodernist cinema. These have already been described many times and in great detail and do not require another recapitulation here. However, whatever postmodernism is (or was), it is clearly contested by the neomodern directors, wishing to forgo its eccentricity, pastiche and playful intertextuality.

Reducing…

 

Although historical accounts of post-war cinematic modernism agree on the late 70s as the end date for the movement, sharp and precise periodization was never fully possible. As Turim noted, “there has never been much sense in insisting on the linearity of development of an art whose entire history coincides with modernism in the other arts”.[25] Different paradigms always co-existed (and sometimes competed) with each other; only the centre of gravity shifted over the years, when some techniques and devices become less fashionable and other means of expression replaced them. This is exactly what happened in the late 70s and early 80s and was the turning point for art-house cinema, when some key modernist auteurs passed away (Pasolini, Fassbinder) or stopped making movies (Antonioni, Bresson), while those still active moved either toward more avant-garde practice, becoming marginal figures in the industry (Godard) or, on the contrary, lost their modernist temperament and adapted to more mainstream stylistics (Wenders, Akerman).

This dwindling of 70s modernism does not mean that there is no bridge linking the two modernist formations. Just as Luis Buñuel and Carl Theodor Dreyer might be seen as a connection between pre- and post-war phases of modernism in cinema, Theodoros Angelopoulos would be the best example of a director who came from the late 1960s/early 1970s generation of art-house filmmakers and restlessly carried his modernist aesthetics into the 21st century. Rafał Syska calls him one of the few “depositaries of modernism”, consistently affirming values of high modernism in international art cinema. Unlike most of his peers, Angelopoulos continued making persistently elitist, uncompromisingly auteurist, and formally challenging works throughout his entire career. Symptomatically, a collection of essays on Angelopoulos edited in 1997 was entitled The Last Modernist.[26]

The movies of this Greek auteur already showed the direction that the next wave of modernist directors would take. If the late modernist works of Buñuel, Fellini, Godard or Fassbinder were getting gradually closer to postmodernist aesthetics and might have influenced and fertilized this current (when listing instances of postmodernism in different fields of cultural production, Frederic Jameson wrote: “in film, everything that comes out of Godard:  contemporary vanguard film and video”[27]), then neo-modernism clearly draws more from Bresson, Antonioni or Tarkovsky: the minimalist pole of modernism’s wide stylistic spectrum. While Kovács identified minimalism as one of the four most general styles of modernism in cinema (along with the naturalist, theatrical and ornamental), he noted “from 1959, stylistic austerity and reductionism became fashionable, and minimalism became the strongest and most influential trend of modern cinema”.[28]

Reducing the expressive qualities of film form and simplifying thematic or narrative layers without renouncing their sophistication and semantic potential was the main effort of many directors of the time, but if minimalism in the 1960s was the “strongest and most influential trend of modern cinema”, in the 1990s and 2000s it became an almost uncontested one. Whether it’s Tarr’s expressive aestheticism in A torinói ló/The Turin Horse (2010), Alonso’s naturalistic austerity in La libertad (2001) or Sokurov’s empathetic intimacy in Mother and Son, these and other neomodernist directors usually deny the intense emotional involvement encouraged and aroused by (neo)classical movies. In its most radical form, contemporary cinematic minimalism presents itself as a self-prescribed neoprimitivism (echoing the Bressonian call for „cinematograph” as opposed to „cinema”—a spectacle that spoiled the primal purity of the medium), as in the case of Paz Encina’s Hamaca Paraguaya (2006), Albert Serra’s Honor de cavalleria/Honour of the Knights (2006), and El cant dels ocells /Birdsong (2008).

Neomodern minimalism, however dominant, is not pure as it frequently incorporates other styles defined by Kovács, especially the naturalist. Formal asceticism in many cases goes hand in hand with behaviourism, since many slow cinema filmmakers focus on dispassionate observation of everyday routine and time’s arduous passage. Influenced by such modernist ventures as Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), they avoid conventional ellipses by showing trivial actions in their full duration and replacing any possible plot progression with intentional and intense “non-happening”. The naturalistic bent of directors like Tsai Ming-liang, Bruno Dumont, or Lisandro Alonso can be seen in the way they portray characters’ privacy and intimacy, very often exploring their physical (or even physiological) dimension.

This anti-psychological attitude, emphasizing materiality and physicality over the character’s motivation or personality, must entail not only a different set of stylistic devices but also distinct types of characters. The model heroes of neomodern cinema are not the cultured, reflexive intellectuals portrayed in the 1960s by Fellini and Bergman or the careless bon vivants of some French New Wave films. Now it is the members of underprivileged classes who get the most screen time. They are more often rural than urban, usually in a difficult economic position, and on the margins of their own society. This tendency brings a completely different sensibility to the works of, for example, Béla Tarr or Alexander Sokurov, although it hardly makes films like The Turin Horse or Mother and Son politically or socially committed works: both directors (like most neomodern auteurs) are more interested in existential and contemplative aspects of their works—and in developing a unique cinematic form to express them—than in direct political message.

Characters like these appeared rarely in proper cinematic modernism, introduced and honoured sometimes by Pasolini (in Accattone [1961] and Mamma Roma [1962]) or Bresson (in Au hasard Balthasar [1966] and Mouchette [1967]). Contemporary modernist directors, although they show real social commitment only sporadically, direct their camera lenses away from the higher or middle classes, prosperous cities and industrial landscapes, focusing more on people and places that are usually considered peripheral or marginal. What’s more—marking the difference between post-war modern cinema and its contemporary incarnation—this movement from the central to the peripheral takes place not only on the thematic level. One can even say that the shift described above is merely a reflection or consequence of the industry’s dispersion.

…and expanding

 

The silent modernist cinema, identified by most scholars with the European avant-garde movements of the 1920s, was almost exclusively restricted to just a couple of artistic „hubs”. It was mostly Germany, France and Russia (or, to be more exact, Berlin, Paris and Moscow) with their highly developed industrial base and thriving film culture, that served as capitals of high art in cinema. This situation was not unusual in the history of modern art, which was always highly concentrated in certain privileged places; at some point Greenberg even suggested that modernism is a particularly French phenomenon.[29]

In the 1960s and 1970s, at the height of the second wave of modernist cinema, France was still leading with the tremendously influential New Wave: the narrative experiments of the so-called Left Bank group and progressive cinéma-vérité documentarists. Other traditional „superpowers” of cinema also made their important contributions, putting Italian auteurs and German New Cinema filmmakers on the forefront of new aesthetics and politics in film. However, this was also the moment when the range of modernism in cinema expanded vastly. It encompassed many areas that were formerly regarded as marginal in terms of highly artistic film production. Most notable examples are some Eastern European countries (Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia all had an impact on the international art film scene) and two vital non-European movements that reached out to the Western festival circuit and art-house audience with their very original propositions: Japanese New Wave and Brazilian Cinema Novo. Kovács describes this process briefly:

The first phase of modernism was mainly an isolated national phenomenon in German, French, and Soviet cinema, whereas the second phase of modernism was a general phenomenon of global dimensions: apart from most of the European filmmaking countries, Japanese, Indian, and Brazilian new cinemas as well as the North American underground were all contributing to the second modernist movement. It was important as a global film art movement as much as a local national cultural phenomenon.[30]

It is worth noting that although he acknowledges this meaningful expansion, Kovács limits his own interests to European modernism. The subtitle of his seminal book “European Art Cinema 1950-1980” justifies this exclusion and allows him to dismiss smoothly the valid question of defining the relationship between modernism and non-Western art. Nevertheless, it has to be questioned openly: is speaking about the Japanese New Wave as a modernist movement (as in David Desser’s classical study Eros Plus Massacre[31]) evidence of global circulation of aesthetics and politics in international cinema, or is it just an expression of cultural and academic imperialism, imposing familiar categories of description on unfamiliar phenomena? Does it oversimplify our object of studies, reducing it to the role of derivative of European art cinema? Alternatively, maybe it actually enriches our understanding of it, showing relations, tropes, or possible interpretations we could otherwise miss?

This complex problem seems even more pressing in relation to the contemporary cinema of global (co)production, distribution, and reception. However, my argument is that a more synthetic approach that encompasses diverse phenomena might be helpful in some cases, if applied carefully and purposefully. Applying the wide and open term of neomodernism to the films of, for example, Apichatpong Weerasethakul is not a way of denying their intriguing cultural specificity, rooted deeply in Buddhist spirituality and philosophy, but rather an attempt to identify some typically modernist narrative strategies he uses to implement this local tradition into his filmmaking practice. This combination is not unusual for neomodernist directors, who often translate very specific cultural experiences into the more universal language of international art cinema. Because of their cultural specificity, the works of Weerasethakul are frequently described as highly “exotic” for Western audiences. However, at the same time we must remember that they are co-produced by as many as 5 European countries (Loong Boonmee raleuk chat/Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives [2010]), shown and celebrated at the most prestigious European film festivals (and honoured with the Palme d’or at Cannes 2010), and distributed all around the world through the art house circuit, while being almost ignored (and sometimes even banned, as in the case of Sang sattawat/Syndromes and a Century [2006]) in his native Thailand. Due to exhibition restrictions imposed on his films, he announced recently that Cemetery of Splendour (2015) would be the last film he shot in his homeland. This example shows that no matter how “Thai” Weerasethakul films seem, they are actually produced mostly for a European audience by European producers.

This international (or rather postnational) character of neomodern cinema can be observed also on the part of the artist him/herself. Although filmmakers from different parts of the world draw richly from local artistic traditions, they are at the same time deeply entangled in a complex global network of artistic and economic connections. Weerasethakul was educated at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he studied the films of important figures of early slow cinema in the 1990s: Tarr, Tsai, and Kiarostami.[32] Weerasethakul openly speaks about his involvement in international art film culture that overrides national or cultural divisions[33], and of his inspirations from European modernist cinema of the 1960s.[34] Now he is one of the lecturers at Sarajevo’s Film.factory: a film school founded and managed by Béla Tarr, who invited many important figures of slow cinema to form the faculty.

Unobvious connections like the ones described above lead to the vital question of neomodernism’s geography. Generally, when examining the problem of modernism, one has to ask not only when it happened, but also where it happened. In relation to modernist literature, Susan Stanford Friedman recalled Frederic Jameson’s call to “always historicize” and complemented it with her own plea: “always spatialize”.[35] The same is also valid for cinema, and the contemporary global artistic market requires new kinds of analysis. This is also why new terms are coined readily; Nicolas Bourriaud proposed the name altermodernism, defined “by rapidly increasing lines of communication and travel in a globalized world. If early twentieth-century Modernism is characterized as a broadly Western cultural phenomenon, and Postmodernism was shaped by ideas of multi-culturalism, origins and identity, Altermodern is expressed in the language of a global culture. Altermodern artists channel the many different forms of social and technological networks offered”.[36]

Contemporary neomodernist cinema completes this slow process of decentralization, progressing gradually from highly condensed pre-war European movements through the first truly global artistic trends in the age of New Waves and arriving at XXI century radical dispersion. Today, the well-established and long-celebrated national cinemas of France, Italy, or Germany seem to be somewhat exhausted when it comes to high modernist filmmaking, and the refreshing impulses most often come from countries that until recently didn’t have much art-house exposure. This brings to attention a familiar argument that will not be further developed in this article but has to be mentioned: modernist aesthetics emerge in countries where the processes of modernization are the most persistent at a given moment. Whatever the reason was, neomodernism was born at the same time in Tsai Ming-liang’s Taiwan, Abbas Kiarostami’s Iran, Alexander Sokurov’s Russia, and Béla Tarr’s Hungary; later on, directors from Latin America, Western and Eastern Europe, and the Middle and Far East all contributed to the shaping of this new tendency.

Nevertheless, it must be stressed firmly that this change is not a matter of plain relocation. The informal capital of modernist cinema did not simply move from the Paris of the 1960s New Wave to, for example, the Bangkok of Apichatpong Weerasethakul in the 2000s. There is something more to it: the capital ceased to exist and the periphery became a centre. This shift can be observed on the smaller, national level as well: for example, in the career of Bruno Dumont, who can be considered a main figure of French neomodernist cinema. Contrary to all his predecessors from the long tradition of French film modernism, Dumont lives, shoots and sets his movies mostly in rural areas of the Nord region, symbolically abandoning Paris, the city towering over all French cinema to this day.

 At the same time, the disappearance of clearly defined centres of modernist cinema production does not mean that there are no “hubs”. As always, this function is fulfilled partially by film festivals, cinema journals, and public institutions supporting and promoting film culture. However, the real revolution that made this global neomodernist movement possible was the development of an international coproduction model. Due to the large number of film funds and production or distribution companies, Western Europe remains the centre of gravity for international art cinema. European Union countries (especially France and Germany) dominated this market of cultural production, coproducing films of almost every celebrated neomodernist director from all over the world. Most of these directors began their career making locally produced films, but all the mature works of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Tsai Ming-liang, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Abbas Kiarostami, Carlos Reygadas, Eastern European directors like Béla Tarr and Alexander Sokurov, and others were made thanks to Western European funds.

Production and distribution companies like Germany’s The Match Factory or France’s Wild Bunch, big TV companies (ZDF, Arte, Canal +) and public film funds (the Hubert Bals Fund or the Council of Europe-funded Euroimages) are responsible for producing most of the films that can be considered as neomodernist. These movies are made under the supervision of European producers, largely with the international festivals and art-house audiences in mind. The influence of this economic conditioning on the aesthetic, political, and artistic qualities of works is yet to be examined, but it resolutely precludes the notion that directors from different cultural backgrounds are completely separated from the international film circuit. This complicated situation will most probably soon force us to rethink thoroughly our idea of centre/periphery relations in the field of artistic production and the institutional basis of contemporary art cinema.

Sense of an ending

 

Academic reflection comes too late, as always. The last couple of years finally brought the first scholarly monographs analysing slow cinema more closely. They include expanded overviews of the entire movement[37] as well as book-length studies of its most prominent figures: Béla Tarr, Tsai Ming-liang, and Aleksander Sokurov.[38] They were published at an interesting point of solstice, when the movement seems to have been at its most influential but at the same time probably close to its end. Neomodernism, as expected, is a slow movement. It rose to prominence slowly in the 1990s without any manifestos or glamorous successes and now we can presumably observe its equally slow decline. Symptoms are numerous.

Some of the earliest directors creating the canon of neomodernism in 1990s have now reached the culmination of their long-developed poetics. Their radical artistic pursuit led them to the point of no return. Béla Tarr quit filmmaking after the apocalyptically minimalist The Turin Horse and became engaged in other activities supporting the film industry as president of the Hungarian Filmmakers’ Association and the head of the film school in Sarajevo. Tsai Ming-liang announced that he was abandoning feature filmmaking and focusing on short forms like his series of filmed performances of “slow walking”. Each of those films pictures Lee Kang-sheng (Tsai’s long-standing collaborator) dressed as a Buddhist monk and performing an extremely slow walk in a public place. Filmed with a distanced, immobile camera and without any trace of plot, this series marks a final stage of slow cinema’s pursuit of contemplation and the void. Before Tarr and Tsai, Abbas Kiarostami made a similar shift away from feature filmmaking, realizing a series of highly experimental films in the mid-2000s but then moving back to more conventional filmmaking with his final projects completed before his death in 2016: Copie conforme (2010) and Like Someone in Love (2012) (both made notably outside Iran).

This sliding toward a more conventional mode of cinema becomes another sign of neomodernism’s demise. Some directors abandon their line of radical experimentation, trying to make their aesthetics more accessible for wider audiences by using more traditional narration (like Kiarostami, mentioned above) or TV-series formula (Bruno Dumont in the clearly self-parodistic Li’l Quinquin [2014]), or casting well-known actors (like Viggo Mortensen in Alonso’s Jauja [2014] or Juliette Binoche in Dumont’s Camille Claudel 1915 [2013] and Slack Bay [2016]).

Finally, an unexpected and paradoxical threat to neomodernism’s identity and stability might derive from its own success. Growing festival acclaim (sealed by such achievements as the Palme d’or for Uncle Boonmee… in 2010, the Venice Golden Lion for Sokurov’s Faust in 2011 and the Silver Bear in Berlin for Tarr’s The Turin Horse earlier the same year) triggered an increased popularity of neomodern aesthetics among viewers, festival programmers, and directors. Consequently, more and more weight accrues to opinions such as that of Steven Shaviro, who criticized slow cinema on his blog as “a sort of default international style that signifies ‘serious art cinema’ without having to display any sort of originality or insight. ‘Contemplative cinema’ has become a cliché: it has outlived the time in which it was refreshing or inventive”.[39]

Will this emergence of “slow-kitsch” become the end of neomodern cinema? It is possible: every film movement of great importance (and in my opinion neomodernism is such a movement) finally reaches the point of mannerist self-pastiche (some examples of slow cinema parody can be observed already, as in the case of Sergio Caballero’s La distancia/The Distance [2014]). Nevertheless, a turning point like the one we are witnessing right now is perhaps the best moment to capture the movement’s specificity and examine it more carefully. This article is a modest attempt to identify the neomodernist movement in contemporary cinema, and its aim is only to inspire more detailed studies.

References

 

Badt Karin, Interview With Winner of Cannes Festival: Thai Director Weerasethakul Speaks About Reincarnation, Huffington Post, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/karin-badt/interview-with-winner-of_b_587179.html, date accessed 17 February 2015.

Bayraktari Armando, Durand André, Norwood-Witts Scott, Neomodern Manifesto. Paintings, quadri, tabelaux, https://www.durand-gallery.com/pages/manifesto, date accessed 17 February 2015.

Beumers Birgit and Condee Nancy (eds.), The Cinema of Alexander Sokurov (London and New York: I.B. Tauris) (2011).

Bourriaud Nicolas, The Death of Postmodernism and Emergence of Altermodernism, http://www.psfk.com/2009/02/the-death-of-postmodernism-and-emergence-of-altermodernism.html, date accessed 17 February 2015.

Bordwell David, „The Art Cinema as a Mode of Film Practice”, Film Criticism 4:1 (1979).

Bordwell David, Narration in the Fiction Film (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press) (1985).

Deleuze Gilles, Cinema 2: The Time-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson, Barbara Habberjam (London: Continuum) (2007).

Desser David, Eros Plus Massacre: An Introduction to the Japanese New Wave Cinema (Bloomington: Indiana University Press) (1988).

Eco Umberto, Reflections on The Name of the Rose, trans. William Weaver (London: Minerva) (1994).

Elsaesser Thomas, „Stop/Motion”, in Between the Stilness and Motion: Film, Photography and Algorythms, ed. Eivind Røssaak, (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press) (2011).

Fokkema Douwe Wessel, Literary history, modernism, and postmodernism (Amsterdam and Philadelphia: J. Benjamins Pub. Co.) (1984).

Friedman Susan Stanford, „Periodizing Modernism: Postcolonial Modernities and the Space/Time Borders of Modernist Studies”, Modernism/modernity 13:3 (2006).

Gaudreault André, „Narration and Monstration in the Cinema”, Journal of Film and Video 39:2 (1987).

Grauer Victor, „Modernism/Postmodernism/Neomodernism”, Downtown Review 3:1-2, (1981-82).

Greenberg Clement, „Beginnings of Modernism” in Late Writings, ed. Robert C. Morgan (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press) (2003).

Han Qijun, „Melodrama as Vernacular Modernism in China: The Case of D. W. Griffith”, Scope: An Online Journal of Film and Television Studies 26 (2013).

Hansen Miriam, „The Mass Production of the Senses: Classical Cinema as Vernacular Modernism”, Modernism/modernity 6:3 (1999).

Horton Andrew (ed.), The Last Modernist: The Films of Theo Angelopoulos (Westport, Conn. : Greenwood Press) (1997).

Jaffe Ira, Slow movies: Countering the cinema of action (New York: Wallflower Press) (2014).

Jameson Frederic, „Postmodernism and Consumer Society”, in Postmodernism and Its Discontents, ed. E. Ann Kaplan (London: Verso) (1988).

Jencks Charles, The new moderns: From late to neo-modernism (New York: Rizzoli) (1990).

Kovács András Bálint, Screening modernism: European Art Cinema 1950-1980 (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press) (2007).

Kovács András Bálint, The Cinema of Béla Tarr: The Circle Closes (London and New York: Wallflower Press) (2013).

Kupfer Peter, „Volga-Volga: “The Story of a Song,” Vernacular Modernism, and the Realization of Soviet Music”, The Journal of Musicology 30:4 (Fall 2013).

Lyotard Jean-François, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press) (1984).

Menichini Marc, Interview: Apichatpong Weerasethakul Recalls His Past Films and Future Plans, Criticwire, http://blogs.indiewire.com/criticwire/interview-apichatpong-weerasethakul-recalls-his-past-films-and-future-plans, date accessed 17 February 2015.

Neale Steve, „Art Cinema as Institution”, Screen 1:22 (1981).

Orr John, Cinema and Modernity, (London: Polity Press) (1993).

Peranson Mark and Rithdee Kong, Ghost in the Machine: Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Letter to Cinema, Cinema Scope, http://cinema-scope.com/spotlight/spotlight-ghost-in-the-machine-apichatpong-weerasethakuls-letter-to-cinema/, date accessed 17 February 2015.

Romney Jonathan, „In Search of Lost Time”, Sight & Sound, 20:2 (2010).

Shaviro Steven, Slow Cinema Vs Fast Films, http://www.shaviro.com/Blog/?p=891, date accessed 17 February 2015.

Singer Ben, Melodrama and Modernity: Early Sensational Cinema and Its Contexts (New York: Columbia University Press) (2001).

Song Hwee Lim, Tsai Ming-liang and a Cinema of Slowness (Honolulu, Hawaii: University of Hawaii Press) (2014).

Syska Rafał, Filmowy neomodernizm (Kraków: Avalon) (2014).

Szaniawski Jeriemi, The Cinema of Alexander Sokurov: Figures of Paradox (New York: Wallflower Press/Columbia University Press) (2014).

Turim Maureen, „Cinemas of Modernity and Postmodernity”, in Zeitgeist in Babel: The Postmodernist Controversy, ed. Ingeborg Hoesterey (Bloomington: Indiana University Press) (1991).

[1]    See John Orr, Cinema and Modernity, (London: Polity Press, 1993).

[2]    András Bálint Kovács, Screening modernism: European Art Cinema 1950-1980 (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2007).

[3]    Kovács, Screening modernism, p. 52.

[4]    Miriam Hansen, ‘The Mass Production of the Senses: Classical Cinema as Vernacular Modernism’, Modernism/modernity, vol. 6, no. 3 (1999), pp. 59-77.

[5]    It has been used to describe, among others, Soviet socialist realist cinema (Peter Kupfer, ‘Volga-Volga: “The Story of a Song,” Vernacular Modernism, and the Realization of Soviet Music’, The Journal of Musicology Vol. 30, No. 4 (Fall 2013), pp. 530-576.) and silent Chinese films (Qijun Han, ‘Melodrama as Vernacular Modernism in China: The Case of D. W. Griffith’, Scope: An Online Journal of Film and Television Studies, no. 26 (2013), pp. 18.).

[6]    Hansen, ‘The Mass Production of the Senses’, p. 60.

[7]    Ben Singer, Melodrama and Modernity: Early Sensational Cinema and Its Contexts (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001), pp. 102-103.

[8]    Hansen, ‘The Mass Production of the Senses’, p. 68.

[9]    See David Bordwll, ‘The Art Cinema as a Mode of Film Practice’, Film Criticism, vol. 4, no 1 (Fall 1979), pp. 56-64.  The expanded version of this text formed a basis for one of the chapters in Bordwell’s famous book-length study on narration. See David Bordwell, Narration in the Fiction Film (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985).

[10]  See Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson, Barbara Habberjam (London: Continuum, 2007).

[11]  Kovács, Screening modernism, p. 59.

[12]  Orr, Cinema and Modernity, p. 3.

[13]  Orr, Cinema and Modernity, p. 12.

[14]  Kovács, Screening modernism, p. 21.

[15]  Steve Neale, ‘Art Cinema as Institution’, Screen 1 (22) (1981), pp. 11-40.

[16]  Rafał Syska, Filmowy neomodernizm (Kraków: Avalon, 2014).

[17]  Jonathan Romney, ‘In Search of Lost Time’, Sight & Sound, vol. 20, no. 2 (2010), p. 43.

[18]  Thomas Elsaesser, ‘Stop/Motion’, in Eivind Røssaak (ed.), Between the Stilness and Motion: Film, Photography and Algorythms (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2011), p. 117.

[19]  See André Gaudreault, ‘Narration and Monstration in the Cinema’, Journal of Film and Video, Vol. 39, No. 2 (1987), pp. 29-36.

[20]  Maureen Turim, ‘Cinemas of Modernity and Postmodernity’, in Ingeborg Hoesterey (ed.), Zeitgeist in Babel: The Postmodernist Controversy (Bloomington: Indiana University Press), p. 183.

[21]  For visual arts, see Armando Bayraktari, André Durand, Scott Norwood-Witts, Neomodern Manifesto. Paintings, quadri, tabelaux, accessed February 17, 2015, https://www.durand-gallery.com/pages/manifesto. For architecture, see Charles Jencks, The new moderns: From late to neo-modernism (New York: Rizzoli, 1990).

[22]  Victor Grauer, ‘Modernism/Postmodernism/Neomodernism’, Downtown Review, Vol. 3 Nos. 1&2, (1981-82), pp. 3-7.

[23]  Umberto Eco, Reflections on The Name of the Rose, trans. William Weaver (London: Minerva, 1994), especially pp. 67-68;  Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), especially chapter Answering the Question: What is Postmodernism?, pp. 71-82.

[24]  Douwe Wessel Fokkema, Literary history, modernism, and postmodernism (Amsterdam and Philadelphia: J. Benjamins Pub. Co., 1984).

[25]  Turim, ‘Cinemas of Modernity and Postmodernity’, p. 182.

[26]  Andrew Horton (ed.), The Last Modernist: The Films of Theo Angelopoulos (Westport, Conn. : Greenwood Press, 1997).

[27]  Frederic Jameson, ‘Postmodernism and Consumer Society’, in E. Ann Kaplan (ed.), Postmodernism and Its Discontents (London: Verso, 1988), pp. 13-29.

[28]  Kovács, Screening modernism, p. 140.

[29]  Clement Greenberg, ‘Beginnings of Modernism’ in Late Writings, ed. Robert C. (Morgan Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), p. 35.

[30]  Kovács, Screening modernism, p. 217.

[31]  Dyan Desser in his seminar work used the category “modernism” (as opposed to classicism) to describe New Wave movies of Nagisa Oshima, Shohei Imamura and others. Dyan Desser, Eros Plus Massacre: An Introduction to the Japanese New Wave Cinema (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988).

[32]  Marc Menichini, Interview: Apichatpong Weerasethakul Recalls His Past Films and Future Plans, Criticwire,

     accessed February 17, 2015, http://blogs.indiewire.com/criticwire/interview-apichatpong-weerasethakul-recalls-his-past-films-and-future-plans

[33]  Mark Peranson and Kong Rithdee, Ghost in the Machine: Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Letter to Cinema, Cinema Scope, accessed February 17, 2015, http://cinema-scope.com/spotlight/spotlight-ghost-in-the-machine-apichatpong-weerasethakuls-letter-to-cinema/

[34]  Karin Badt, Interview With Winner of Cannes Festival: Thai Director Weerasethakul Speaks About Reincarnation,

     Huffington Post, accessed February 17, 2015, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/karin-badt/interview-with-winner-of_b_587179.html

[35]  Susan Stanford Friedman, ‘Periodizing Modernism: Postcolonial Modernities and the Space/Time Borders of Modernist Studies’, Modernism/modernity, vol. 13, no 3 (2006), p. 426.

[36]  Nicolas Bourriaud, The Death of Postmodernism and Emergence of Altermodernism, accessed February 17, 2015, http://www.psfk.com/2009/02/the-death-of-postmodernism-and-emergence-of-altermodernism.html

[37]  Ira Jaffe, Slow movies: Countering the cinema of action (New York: Wallflower Press, 2014).

[38]  András Bálint Kovács, The Cinema of Béla Tarr: The Circle Closes (London and New York: Wallflower Press, 2013); Song Hwee Lim, Tsai Ming-liang and a Cinema of Slowness (Honolulu, Hawaii: University of Hawaii Press, 2014); Birgit Beumers and Nancy Condee (eds.), The Cinema of Alexander Sokurov (London and New York: I.B. Tauris, 2011); Jeremi Szaniawski, The Cinema of Alexander Sokurov: Figures of Paradox (New York: Wallflower Press/Columbia University Press, 2014); Only Abbas Kiarostami enjoyed greater attention from film scholars with first monographs being published already in the early 2000s.

[39]  Steven Shaviro, Slow Cinema Vs Fast Films, accessed February 17, 2015, http://www.shaviro.com/Blog/?p=891

Miłosz Stelmach is a PHD candidate at the Institute of Audiovisual Arts at Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Poland. His scholarly interests include the history of cinematic modernism, cinema of the Communist bloc, and transformations of contemporary art cinema. Currently, he is working on his dissertation on late modernist tendencies in Polish cinema of the 1970s and 1980s. He is also an editor of “EKRANy” [“SCREENs”], a scholarly journal on film and audiovisual culture.

Mexican Minimalist Cinema: Articulating the (Trans)national

Bolesław Racięski

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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2016, vol.1, no. 2, pp. 118-131

Bolesław Racięski

Jagiellonian University

 

Mexican Minimalist Cinema: Articulating the (Trans)national

 

Abstract

In the article I aim to identify and analyse the specific elements of the Mexican minimalistic cinema (minimalismo mexicano) in both transnational and national contexts.

Mexican minimalistic cinema is a relatively new phenomenon that arose in Mexico around the year 2002 and is now widely regarded as one of the most important phenomena in the world cinema. It is often considered to be a subdivision of slow cinema, since it utilises similar formal and narrative devices. While the researchers generally focus on the universal, supranational aspects of the slow films, I intend to expose how the Mexican filmmakers make use of the aesthetic and storytelling devices deriving from the slow cinema to comment on Mexican cultural traditions, current social and political issues, notions of national mythologies and history.

The first part of the article focuses on the category of „transnationality” in the context of film studies, and the basic characteristics of Mexican minimalist cinema as the transnational cinema. The last part is devoted to the analyses of „Heli” (2013, dir. Amat Escalante) and „Lake Tahoe” (2009, dir. Fernando Eimbcke) – the two examples of Mexican minimalist films that, despite their transnational appeal, are deeply rooted in national preoccupations.

Key words: transnationality, Mexican cinema, Amat Escalante, Fernando Eimbcke, slow cinema, minimalism

 

Introduction

 In the following article I identify and analyse the elements of Mexican minimalist cinema (minimalismo mexicano) in both transnational and national contexts. The most interesting aspect of the topic appears to be the question of how Mexican minimalist films utilize stylistic and storytelling strategies that are commonly identified with the transnational phenomenon of slow cinema[1] in order to comment on strictly Mexican cultural traditions, current social and political issues, the notions of national mythologies, and cinematic traditions.

I start by explaining how I understand the category of transnationality and why it seems fitting to use it in the examination and interpretation of Mexican minimalist films. The next part of the text focuses on the basic characteristics of Mexican minimalism as transnational cinema and simultaneously constitutes a revision of the most relevant characteristics of slow cinema. The last part is devoted to the analysis of two representative examples of minimalismo mexicano: Heli (2013) by Amat Escalante and Lake Tahoe (2009) by Fernando Eimbcke. These two movies, despite their transnational appeal, are rooted in national preoccupations and encompass two extremities of a wide spectrum of Mexican minimalist cinema. Lake Tahoe is rather comical in tone and its national concerns are hidden underneath an apparently simple narrative. On the other hand, Heli tells a grim and shocking story, which is clearly engaged with the current problems of Mexico.

The term “minimalismo mexicano” appeared in Mexican film criticism at the beginning of the 21st century, mainly thanks to the artistic success of such filmmakers as Carlos Reygadas (e.g. Japón, 2002), Amat Escalante (e.g. Sangre, 2005), Enrique Rivero (e.g. Parque vía, 2008), Nicolás Pereda (e.g. Perpetuum Mobile, 2009) and Fernando Eimbcke (e.g. Temporada de patos, 2004)[2]. This term does not determine a clearly structured film movement, but mainly refers to directors’ admiration for aesthetic minimalism and nondramatic narratives deprived of climaxes and focused primarily on an individual.

It is also possible to use this term in the context of the production process: the discussed films were made for a (relatively) small amount of money and mainly feature amateur actors and unknown beginners. At the same time, it is noteworthy that—as observed by Germán Martínez Martínez—the discussed term is not homogenous and refers to films of comedic character (Eimbcke’s oeuvre) as well as to those which penetrate the dark side of human existence[3]. Nevertheless, their clearly visible common features undoubtedly allow for a conceptualization of these individual films as a group. The discussed films are created on the margins of the dynamically developing Mexican film industry and—even if they sometimes appeal to the wider audience (e.g. Temporada de patos, 2004, Fernando Eimbcke)—they are mostly screened at international festivals of art cinema.

The question of ‘transantionality’

In the article “On the Plurality of Cinematic Transnationalism,” Mette Hjort accurately observes that this particular term is surrounded by an “aura of indisputable legitimacy” (by virtue of widespread „transnational arrangements in the world of contemporary filmmaking, and the undeniable transnational dimensions of earlier periods of cinematic production”), which, however, threatens to blur the definition and, consequently, render the term useless as a methodological tool. Hjort claims that „the term <<transnational>> does little to advance our thinking (…) if it can mean anything and everything”[4]. Will Higbee and Song Hwee Lim remark that the term ‘transnational cinema’ is sometimes employed in order to talk about productions created as a result of cooperation between filmmakers from different parts of the world; however, in this case the crucial aesthetic, political, and economic consequences of such cooperation are neglected[5]. Deborah Shaw also says that the problematic term “has often been used without any definition or explanation of what it meant”[6]. The prevalence and the inaccurateness of the term made some researchers question its usefulness in film studies[7].

Due to the threat of methodological uncertainty, it is helpful to consider M. Hjort’s proposal to distinguish between strongly transnational cinema and weakly transnational cinema. She writes that a “given cinematic case would qualify as strongly transnational, rather than only weakly so, if it could be shown to involve a number of specific transnational elements related to levels of production, distribution, reception, and the cinematic works themselves”[8]. Another division is the one distinguishing marked transnationality (the audience pays attention to elements of a film which prompt thinking about its transnational character) and unmarked transnationality (for example, transnationality is not visible until the production process has been analysed)[9]. The present article lacks space for a complex research on transnational aspects of production, distribution, and exhibition of minimalismo mexicano, since it is the analysis of the film text itself which lies at the centre of my attention. Nonetheless, it is important to reflect briefly upon it, in order to demonstrate that many Mexican minimalist films involve forms of the unmarked transnationality and are frequently close to being considered as strongly transnational.

Mexican minimalist cinema as the transnational cinema: production, distribution, exhibition

In terms of the production process, Mexican minimalism is largely dependent on foreign funds. Neoliberal transformations which started to take place in the national film industry at the end of the 1980s led to a situation in which the state virtually stopped supporting non-commercial films. Independent production companies gradually started to emerge (in the middle of the 1990s the art cinema market in Mexico was small, but relatively stable[10]), which, at the beginning of the current century, commenced with the financial support offered by international festivals. Carlos Reygadas and Amat Escalante’s projects are backed by the Hubert Bals Fund (Rotterdam International Film Festival), which also helps other Mexican filmmakers, such as Nicolás Pereda. On the other hand, Fernando Eimbcke was supported by the Sundance Film Festival when he was working on Lake Tahoe. In search for funds, filmmakers take abundant advantage of the possibilities offered in cooperation with other countries, e.g. Amat Escalante’s Heli is a coproduction of entities from four countries, namely Mexico, the Netherlands, France and Germany[11]. Even if certain state mechanisms created to support ambitious artistic productions have been introduced in Mexico (FOPROCINE fund, tax exemption for film investors), many authors of minimalismo are still forced to look for funds around the world.

If a film has been produced, the creators are usually confronted with an inability to release it in Mexico. As the critic Jorge Ayala Blanco observes, the total number of 75 produced films per year is inconsequential if only 45 of them are ever released to cinemas[12]. The director Felipe Cazals compares the situation of the national cinema to “an airport which is deprived of a landing strip”: films are numerous, but few of them are later shown on the big screen to national audiences[13]. As remarked by Ayala Blanco, the production of Mexican cinema is “the worst business in the world” as recovering the money is still almost impossible[14]. Therefore, minimalismo directors have always focused on the international release, which means that films premier at international festivals (Cannes, Berlinale, Sundance, Rotterdam) in order to get foreign distribution firms (Media Luna and others) and reach international audiences. They frequently appear in Mexican cinemas at the end of their journey and in a minimal number of copies, screened mostly in the Cineteca Nacionál complex.

Hence, minimalismo mexicano has undoubtedly a transnational character in terms of production, distribution, and exhibition: the films are often created thanks to international financial support with the goal of reaching audiences around the world.

Mexican minimalist cinema as transnational cinema: style and narrative

The analysis of formal conventions and themes of the discussed films reveals various common characteristics which allow them to qualify them as representatives of the same cinematic phenomenon. Regarding the formal features of the film, there are visibly reduced means of expression: a limited number of editing cuts, deliberately arranged static takes, the absence of soundtrack (which often appears only during the end credits), simplified blocking, location shooting, and inconspicuous lighting.

In regards to narrative, Mexican minimalist films usually focus on individuals, frequently lonely and excluded from mainstream social life and consumed by a poignant fatalism[15] . The stories told by the creators of minimalismo are extremely slow and frequently deprived of clear act breaks, plot twists and climaxes. De-dramatizing techniques dominate, such as pauses and long moments of stillness.

Even such a superficial description of the basic aspects of minimalismo allows it to be associated with slow cinema: a transnational phenomenon, represented by directors from various countries (e.g. China, Argentina, Hungary, Thailand), who make their films thanks to the support of foreign funds, and aim to screen them at international festivals of art cinema. Moira Weigel characterizes slow films as follows: “their narratives are nondramatic or non-existent. The scripts are minimal and repetitive, with little dialogue. They unfold in long takes, captured by still or nearly still cameras. Often the figures in the frames stay still themselves”[16]. The Mexican film movement parallels the characteristics of modernist minimalism, described by András Bálint Kovács, whose contemporary manifestations the scholar finds in slow films[17]. Matthew Flanagan writes about the themes the creators touch upon: “Many individual works by these filmmakers turn their attention to marginal peoples (low-paid manual labourers, poor farmers, the unemployed and dispossessed, petty criminals and drug addicts) subsisting in remote or invisible places”[18]. It is worth emphasising that many scholars researching the phenomenon of slow cinema devote their attention to the authors of Mexican minimalism, mainly Amat Escalante and Carlos Reygadas[19].

Therefore, even if particular representative films of minimalismo mexicano do not fulfil the conditions of transnationality in terms of production, their formal features and themes can easily be identified with a phenomenon of international character. Escalante and Reygadas (as well as Rivera, Eimbcke, Pereda, Yulene Olaizola, and others) use almost all cinematic techniques that are currently treated as artistic and cherished by programmers of international film festivals. They employ codes easily understood by audiences familiar with slow cinema. As a result, when it comes to the reception and critical interpretations of these films, they are commonly situated in the well-established art cinema traditions, compared to the (mostly European) masters of art cinema, and read as touching upon universal thematic motifs (such as notions of spirituality, religiousness, search for transcendence). As noted by Rosalind Galt and Karl Schoonover, “in mainstream film criticism, films are often lauded as universal stories in order to reduce the threat of unpleasurable difference”[20]. Although I agree with R. Galt and K. Schoonover, who argue that the “move toward the universal does not always have to be simple or naive” and “the problem of universality in art cinema is too complicated to be addressed by a simple dismissal”[21], the most interesting approach seems to be the one which shows how these transnational filmic strategies have been used to articulate the themes and problems directly related to the cultural circle in which the analysed films were made.

The cultural specificity of Mexican minimalist cinema

Minimalismo mexicano is close to being considered as strongly transnational in M. Hjort`s terms: it undoubtedly has a transnational character in regards to production, distribution, exhibition, and formal features. Nevertheless, it fulfils M. Hjort’s condition, which is “a resistance to globalization as cultural homogenization; and a commitment to ensuring that certain economic realities associated with filmmaking do not eclipse the pursuit of aesthetic, artistic, social, and political values”[22]. Mexican minimalists are mainly astute and ruthless commentators of local reality, and only later are they representatives of the transnational phenomenon of art cinema.

It is worth stressing that I perceive the application of filmic strategies and themes associated with slow cinema by Mexican directors as a parallel process and not as a process simply resulting from contact with the achievements of the slow cinema world masters. Associated with slow films, the anthropological turn of cinema, i.e. focus on an individual, started in Latin America in the 1990s and was partly a result of the search for new paradigms of national identity, different from the clearly political “third cinema”, which was concerned mainly with the collective[23]. This minimalistic, contemplative style is used nowadays by directors from the biggest film industries of Latin America. Hence, it is not surprising that it has become an exquisite language used to talk about Mexico. The director Michel Lipkes remarks that “in such a baroque and anarchistic country like Mexico, the act of contemplation is the only way to stop for a moment and to ask some bold questions about the shape of the world surrounding us”[24].

Minimalismo is at the same time engaged with the national traditions and politics of Mexican audio-visual culture. This cinematic phenomenon enters a polemic both against the excessive aestheticization and ideological simplifications of the so-called época de oro, i.e. the golden age of Mexican cinema (dating back to the 1940s, but still present in the popular discourse), as well as elitism and artificiality of both telenovelas and the latest commercial cinema inspired by Hollywood. Minimalismo—paradoxically, in the face of the lack of the local genre cinema’s foreign successes—is popular at festivals (thanks to the use of transnational filmic strategies of art cinema) and is currently the most important ambassador of Mexican cinema.

In the following part of the article, a brief analysis of two Mexican minimalist films is conducted. Its aim is to demonstrate how filmmakers use the transnational style and narrative conventions associated with slow cinema in order to engage with Mexican cultural traditions and current social and political issues. Lake Tahoe and Heli have been chosen because they can be undoubtedly considered as transnational in terms of production, distribution, and filmic strategies, and they represent two extremities of a wide spectrum of Mexican minimalist cinema. In the first film, national preoccupations are hidden underneath an apparently banal anecdote. On the other hand, Heli is clearly concerned with the current problems of Mexico, but only concretization and exposition of relevant contexts reveal the full dimension of its commitment.

Lake Tahoe: the painful transition

The narrative of Fernando Eimbcke’s second film is extremely modest: it centres upon Juan, a teenager who crashes his car into a lamp post. Most of the film shows the protagonist wandering through the dreamy town of Progreso, located on Yucatán Peninsula, in search of parts necessary for the repair of the vehicle. The story becomes more than a banal anecdote only when the audience learns that Juan is dealing with a more serious problem as he mourns his recently deceased father. In order to show this particular story, Eimbcke employs a host of conventions associated with the slow cinema. For instance, the screenplay withholds basic information about the main character, sound has only a practical function, and the l