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Friday, April 08, 2011

Misuses of Cinema (Tsai Ming-liang)

Art and Entertainment
Tsai Ming-liang: "If film is art, then the work should be an artist’s reflections, rather than something catering to the mass public. [..]  Nothing is random, and nothing should be made just for profit. [..] Film is not for entertainment only. [..] Nowadays, the number of films people watch usually exceeds the number of books they read. But what kind of movies do they watch? They are full of commercial fictions screened repetitively on TV, most of which are from Hong Kong [..] For those people, that’s what cinema is meant for: entertainment. For them, art is a far-fetched concept. [..] They announce the death of cinema because the films have no marketing value."
Lisandro Alonso says the same thing (see his interview here). It is sad that the general audience sometimes needs to be reminded that art is not a predigested commodity. But what is even more tragic is that critics who run the forefront specialized film press, also need to be reminded that "entertainment standards" (boredom, climax) cannot be used to judge art films that try to create art without these clutches of theatrical spectacle...

Tsai Ming-liang: "I came to realize that my own transformation follows closely the development of Taiwanese democracy. I struggle in the margin of the socio-political system to earn more freedom for creation, and also to search for myself. But in the end, the real constraint is never from the outside but from within yourself; little by little you begin to govern your own film as if you are the Bureau of Information yourself. We live in a frame that grounds us where lots of taboos are never to be brought up. I recently read in a book that in some countries, say, in Saudi Arabia, you cannot even show a bed in your film work! There is restriction everywhere. But the greatest restriction is imposed by yourself. Why? Because you don’t dare to challenge the established sensibility. You are obedient because you want to survive, you want to make money. Most other film directors obey these rules because they do not want their work to be banned from screening. But I think differently. In some way I am glad that some of my films were partly censored, because then you get the chance to argue, to confront authority. It makes me feel trapped if they are not censored in one way or another."
It is heartwarming to see that there are true artists who continue to believe resisting the (industrial/commercial) "system" is still necessary to art. And the most subversive artists, we don't find them in the most liberal democracies in the world... but in countries where it is actually dangerous to rebel against order and censorship! Most filmmakers in the USA, in France, in Western-Europe are so conformist in comparison, and critics from the same places, just as much complacent, dare to nitpick with filmmakers who show genuine courage to impose a counter-culture where it is never welcome. Along with Tsai Ming-liang, I could cite Jia Zhang-ke, Wang Bing, Apichatpong Weerasthakul, Abbas Kiarostami, Jafar Panahi and Mohamad Rasulov, Avi Mograbi, Tarr Béla... And this subversion is not necessarily political, or not overtly militant, like Lisandro Alonso said  (see his interview here). But certainly a cultural subversion, against the mainstream format prevailing anywhere in the world.

Tsai Ming-liang: "This is what got me into thinking about what is film, and what is imagery. When the plot is not perfectly and completely constructed, that is, when the main purpose of the movie is not to tell a story and there is no famous star involved, things are different. Under such plain and ordinary circumstances, you suddenly come to realize the true meaning of cinema. And that is exactly what I expect my own work to be. The storyline might be plain, but it is meant to carry the power of imagery, so as to reveal the essence of cinema. This concept slowly emerged from looking at Léaud’s face and Fassbinder’s Angst essen seele auf (Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, 1974). [..] It’s certainly not a comfortable film, with imagery that might actually disturb the audience. But once they accept to watch it and not to leave the theater, a transformation of their gaze might happen."
Maybe it's because he produces his own films that he's able to "pitch" a project without a clear storyline, which tagline can fit on a poster. Like he notes, the plot decadence is not new... Masters from the 60ies Modern Cinema and La Nouvelle Vague, Fassbinder or Cinéma Vérité demonstrated that films could be made without a tight traditional plot, and they gained respect with the critics. But today, these past achievements are forgotten by new critics... it's like we have to demonstrate all over again, that the mainstream mold is not an imperative for ART. That painting and photography developed an unspoken emotional relation with the public, WITHOUT EXPLICIT STORIES, for decades, for dozen generations. Now critics are grumpy and hesitant when the film doesn't walk them through the talking point they need to write an article. A cultural regression. A shame.

Unspoken storytelling
Tsai Ming-liang: "Many have argued that cinema must not be about storytelling. However, the filmmaking conventions usually presuppose that directors are good storytellers. But I never thought of myself to be a good storyteller. Therefore, I chose to be otherwise. I explored widely the early cinema classics and was stunned by many silent films. You should all see F.W. Murnau’s films, and Carl Dreyer’s La passion de Jeanne d’Arc (The Passion of Joan of Arc, 1928). Murnau’s films are extraordinary. No spoken language, just the power of the image. It was not until I’d discovered Murnau’s cinema that I’ve had the impression of perceiving the true meaning of imagery. I have explored many moments of the history of cinema and studied different approaches to cinema like formalism, symbolism, etc. But it is only after I discovered the cinema of Murnau that everything became clear."
Unspoken. Listen to him!
He admits he's not a "good storyteller", not under the conventional definition of the word, theatrical, literary. But he's a great visual storyteller! Stories are not the monopoly of words. I think we've seen enough variety in the History of Arts, enough experiments, enough breakthroughs, enough paradigm shifts... to be over traditional models. If studio directors can make films without photographic inspiration, without framing skills, without camerawork understanding, without substance or content... it should be perfectly accepted to make another kind of films, without story, dialogues or musical scores. 

Tsai Ming-liang: "Han Liang-Lu (a well-known Taiwanese writer and film critic) once told me “What is interesting about your film is that you placed all kinds of plastic items (cans, sheets) into the setting of the Louvre.” What she meant was that if I had given her a film about the glamour and the grandeur of the Louvre, she would not be able to understand. I did not place these objects intentionally; it was an instinct, because objects like water cans, plastic bottles, plastic bags, etc. are part of my everyday life and it just feels natural to put them in. On the other hand, these objects are often ugly."
You don't come up with ideas like that when you submit your scenario to economists, publicists, lawyers, investors, producers... Too many clueless people to convince about such a trivial detail, which is impossible to explain or justify. It is too futile to fight for it for days or months, thus blocking the project for nothing. Yet it's insignificant details like these that characterize the fullness of an artist's personal vision. An unspoken, instinctive, intuitive contribution that makes sense with the whole. Again, if critics were sensible to the poetry of the ordinary, they wouldn't question the unusual chances taken by creative artists.

Tsai Ming-liang: "I also paid a lot of attention to my framing. What comes first is that the framing must be good looking. However, the meaning of it should not be single-layered, but multilayered. I want it to be beautiful and sustainable to a lengthy gaze. It doesn’t serve the plot in the first place, nor does it convey any particular diegetic message. Rather, it is an image for interpretation, an image that helps the audience understand the intrinsic meaning and the inner world that I intended to convey."
This is not a transversal constant in CCC. I love Tsai's meticulous compositions and sophisticated cinematography, of course. This is probably the aspect I prefer in cinema : it's photographic aesthetic. But it doesn't mean that CCC always goes for the beauty of a shot. I've noticed that there is a certain rejection of "aestheticism" in this new filmic mode. Excessive and ostentatious beauty may appear artificial and distracting for a purely contemplative shot. But Tsai often breaks off from the impenetrable contemplative state, by breaking into a musical number, showing off an implausible tableau vivant, or by interlacing a puzzling cutaway... out of irony or facetiousness. He's not always a strict disciple of the contemplative mode. In other films however, he's one of the most ascetic representative of this mode. There is more to say there about the composition going for beauty or for the banal...

Tsai Ming-liang: "In the film industry, not everyone thinks like this. Most people are obsessed with acting, or to embody a character. [..] Lee Kang-sheng, on the other hand, is not a good actor. But this is where the ambiguity of performance comes in. Does he look like a director in the story? He doesn’t look like a director. [..] I often like to keep this ambiguity, this opaqueness, and let my films and my characters linger in and out of the real world so as to earn more freedom for my creation."
See storytelling above for the same argument applied to acting. Critics need to integrate the fact that sophisticated performances, skillful acting or so-called "realistic" method is not always the golden mean of quality evaluation in cinema. Underacting, dead-pan, understatements or even life-like clumsiness and errors can be part of a cinematographic work that seeks other channels of unspoken body language expressions. It is unconventional, kind of counter-intuitive for a critic, but it is not a fallacious argument to excuse the absence of training! This type of approach to mise en scène requires a leap of faith, a paradigm shift. It is not an "acquired taste" as detractors would like you to believe... This is a very courageous and provocative way to deal with cinematographic expression contrasting with the general culture rewarding spectacular performances.

Tsai Ming-liang: "In the end, what makes me feel most uneasy is to face you, the audience. In a way, I don’t really care about the audience. Some may say I am conceited. But the fact is that I don’t care, or better: I don’t know how to care. [..] These commercial and pseudo-democratic ideas are deeply rooted in the world we live in. "
This is very interesting to hear that. And it's against any commercial principles to be so anti-demagogic in front of his very audience (well an audience of film students). Read what Albert Serra says about the mainstream audience (here). And they are right. Art is not a commercial product designed to please an audience. You don't make art by asking your audience beforehand what they want to see in your films, to make sure you won't disappoint them when the film is finished. Unfortunately that's the mentality of Hollywood studio executive! They are afraid to take risks, and want every project to be tailor-made to satisfy the current cravings of the paying audience. I don't care what you think about the creative incentive of constraints... but you can't make art by the menu, shuffling around pre-selected items that offend the less across the board.
I think it is very ballsy and healthy for a filmmaker to admit he doesn't make films for his (or an) audience.

excerpts from On the Uses and Misuses of Cinema, by Tsai Ming-liang, National Central University in Taiwan on 26 May 2010. (full transcript at Senses of Cinema, #58, March 2011) [FRANCAIS]

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