check out this week’s the bechdel cast podcast. i chat with caitlin and jamie about PARASITE!
I wrote a piece on Nymphomaniac (2014, Director’s Cut, Vol. I and II) and on what it means to be “A Radical, Vulnerable and Agentic Body.”
check out my film review of Gook (2017) featured on nü house. opens tomorrow August 18th!
Na Hong-jin’s Definition of Evil: The Inexplicable
The Wailing (2016) aka 곡성 is Na Hong-jin’s third feature film starring the excellent Kwak Do-won, who Na has collaborated with in The Yellow Sea (2010). Na is probably most well-known for his feature debut The Chaser (2008) with Ha Jung-woo playing the terrifying serial killer, and Kim Yoon-seok playing the corrupt detective-turned-pimp trying to solve these unexplainable crimes.
With The Wailing, Na continues his theme of inexplicable evils committed by a being that appears to be fully human but from up close contains no sympathetic soul. In The Chaser, Ha Jung-woo’s character is just plainly a murderer without any rhyme or reason; in The Yellow Sea, Ha Jung-woo’s character is put on an assassination mission without knowing the reasons for why he must commit this crime, and when he finally learns the reason, he is left completely speechless by the superficiality of the incitement, thus portraying–again–evil actions without a justifiable cause. Na brings this concept into the realm of the superego by putting the face and body of the Devil himself onto our screen with The Wailing.
Freud (1919) defines the uncanny as something that is preferably concealed but is later revealed to our reaction of horror, fright, terror, disgust, etc.; the uncanny refers to what is familiar to us therefore familial; for instance, a daughter, who is completely knowable to the parents who produced and gave birth to her, love and care for her, belongs in the realm of uncanny because she is familiar (heimlich); the flipside to heimlich is unheimlich which is the stranger or the ugliness that is preferably concealed; this is when the daughter we know and love suddenly changes because she is possessed by the unknowable. The uncanny may also refer to a the “happy genius,” otherwise known as the guardian spirit of a dwelling–the possessor. Traces of heimlich and unheimlich which make up the constitution of the uncanny is found in Gokseong–the small village in Jeolla Province where the film is set (also the title of the film in hangeul).
At the crack of dawn on a rainy day, officer Jeon Jong-goo (Kwak Do-won) gets a phone call from the station alerting him of a murder case. When he arrives at the scene of the crime, he finds that a family’s been stabbed to death by a young man who sits on the edge of the maroo, skin covered in boils and the blood of his victims, with eyes glazed over as though in a trance.
Boils on the skin, mental derangement and subsequent serial killings of those around him/her are symptoms found among several murderers (victims) throughout the village. The noticeable pattern along with the rumors going about town that the suspect who is spreading this disease (or possession) is a strange Japanese fisherman (Jun Kunimura) who lives deep in the mountains, eats deer carcass raw, rapes women and curses people. These rumors start to pile up inside officer Jeon’s imaginary.
One day when Jeon and his partner break into the fisherman’s house, they find a small dwelling densely packed with photographs of the victims, candles, shaman ritual rope, and personal belongings of the villagers such as shoes and clothes. The last straw for Jeon is when he sees symptoms appear in his young daughter Hyo-jin–played by the very impressive Kim Hwan-hee–who appears to be about 10 or 11 years old. It begins with her erratic behavior; the young girl who was once so sweet to her old man suddenly throws fits; she screams and curses at her father leaving her entire family aghast but frozen in fear at the sight indicating everyone’s helplessness. Doctors have no answers. The police are useless. A spiritual intervention is the only answer for them.
In part two of the film, the child’s grandmother invites a well-known shaman named Il-gwang (Hwang Jung-min, The Unjust (2010), Veteran (2015)) who is apparently quite expensive but rumored to be the best there is from Seoul. Jeon tells Il-gwang of the situation. Jeon explains all of this to his trusty Korean shaman who assures him that he will take care of the matter–put it to rest. Il-gwang tells Jeon that what’s plaguing the town is not a person but a ghost. Jeon asks how a person he’s seen in the flesh and blood can be a ghost, and this is the difficult question he struggles with for the rest of the film, along with the more obvious questions, “Why me? Why my daughter? Why my hometown?”
Freud’s uncanny is a duality–a yin and yang, for instance, which may coexist. Yin and yang are prevalent themes in throughout the film. For instance, during his rituals, Il-gwang offers up white chickens and goats to the spirits whereas the Japanese stranger kills black chickens and goats to cast his curse.
Another spiritual force haunts the town, representing yang, and it is played by the wonderful Chun Woo-hee ((Sunny (2011) and Han Gongju (2014)) who is referred to by the film’s credits simply as “mu-myeong,” which translates into “no name.” Mu-myeong is the first witness that officer Jeon encounters at the second murder scene where a deranged woman killed her entire family then burned the house down before hanging herself. At the crime scene, Mu-myeong tells officer Jeon that the old Japanese man is a ghost who is possessing these people and driving them to commit these murders.
What’s interesting to note is how in these scenarios one person gets possessed then murders their own family members. The killings aren’t random. They are specifically towards their own flesh and blood or clan members. What does that say about the ghost’s intentions? What does that say about the ghost himself who is a spirit but in flesh and blood?
This ghost also appears to have a hobby for photography. He takes photographs of his victims in 35mm with a Minolta camera, which he seems to develop on his own at his creepy house. It nudges against the superstition that existed or still exists in tribal countries that photographs steal a person’s soul. The haunting theme that emanates from the Japanese stranger is that he is not a living person but a ghost–a dead man walking.
At Jeon’s question as to how a ghost could possibly have a body, Il-gwang tells him that when a ghost captures enough bodies for his own, he can eventually become a person albeit not a living one. This image of a strange man staring who appears to be dead or a strange man trying to enter haunts at least several people’s dreams.
Horror Genre Mashup
The epidemic throughout the town is most certainly an homage to the zombie genre. With that said, the film is not a zombie film necessarily. In fact, at one point in the movie, when a team of men who are out to hunt down and kill the Japanese man-ghost, they encounter a zombie, who was evidently brought back to life although he was initially dead just like the other victims, covered in boils and rotting away like a victim of leprosy.
At the scene of the zombie attack, the film reaches a point of satiric comedy. The men who’ve never seen a zombie before don’t know how to react to it, nor how to treat it. At first they try to help him and speak to him as if he’s a regular person, but when the zombie starts to attack the party by biting them, the men go around taking turns both beating the zombie and getting attacked himself. At least two men can’t bear the sight of another man whacking this apparently ill person with a stick and tries to stop the attack. Big mistake. The zombie then attacks the good Samaritan. It’s a likely metaphor for Korea’s clumsiness at the introduction to any Western concept. The zombie isn’t found in Korean folklore. (The closest to a zombie that Koreans might know from Chinese legends is the Jiangshi or gangshi in Korean which has its own set of cultural rules/references.)
In a way, there is perhaps almost every element of a horror film ever made in this movie; Edgar Allan Poe-inspired cats and crows, rabid black dogs, dead deer carcasses; the possession of a little girl has strong connotations of William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973); institutions are critiqued for their inability to make sense or get control of the situation such as the police and the church.
The film, of course, contains a twist in the third act, but it’s a twist on a twist that baffles not only Jeon but also the audience. The manhunt for the strange Japanese man ends when he gets thrown off a mountain hitting Jeon’s windshield. Jeon and his friends toss him on the side of the road assuming he is dead. Jeon later finds his daughter at the hospital who appears to be fine; the symptoms seem to be gone and her normal state appears to have returned.
We come to understand that Mu-myeong is perhaps a spirit if not a shaman herself when we see Il-gwang lose a vast amount of blood from his nose and vomit uncontrollably when he encounters her. Mu-myeong drives him out of the village. Il-gwang, whose hex ritual went interrupted by Jeon who could no longer bear the sight of his daughter’s suffering, tells Jeon that it wasn’t the Japanese man who is the evil spirit; it is a young woman clad in white–Mu-myeong. Jeon’s faith in people’s stories gets tested here when Mu-myeong tells him to trust in her and Il-gwang tells him not to trust her but in his words.
Jeon ultimately doesn’t listen to Mu-myeong and enters the house thus breaking whatever spell she’d cast on the house to save his family. Jeon, of course, finds that his daughter did what he’d feared this whole time and slaughtered his wife and mother to death.
Mu-myeong had warned Jeon that Il-gwang and the Japanese stranger have been plotting together (they share the same loin cloth and similar rituals). This is confirmed when a case full of photographs from the Japanese stranger’s walls are found in his possession. Given Korea’s long history of religious scammers taking advantage of the nation’s superstitious/fatalist tendencies, Il-gwang’s appearance here is the yin within his overall film presence as the yang.
Biblical themes are prominent throughout. There’s the bilingual theologian working his way towards becoming a priest working as a liaison between Jeon and the Japanese stranger. There’s the Father of the church who appears useless at the face of the epidemic and demon that is haunting the town–another indication of institutional incompetence. There’s an attack of moths on a car’s windshield that brings to mind the plague of locusts in the Old Testament. The opening shot of the film begins with a verse from the book of Luke when Jesus reappears before his disciples and asks them why they are afraid of the sight of his body, and challenging their doubtful minds. When Mu-myeong tells Jeon to wait for the rooster’s crow three times before entering his house in order to save his family, it is a clear reference to Christ’s warning to Peter that he will deny knowing Christ three times before the rooster’s crow. When Jeon finally realizes that the Mu-myeong is always clad in the victims’ clothes, he loses faith in her words and goes into the house.
Time is always unfriendly to Jeon in this film. He is temperamental and impatient when patience is of utmost necessity, and frozen stiff, speechless or bumblingly incompetent at times when his actions are completely called for. The film satirizes Jeon’s lack of faith and impatience. Doubt and faith are like yin and yang throughout the film, and they are the forces that maintain the momentum of the film.
The film ultimately confronts the audience with the same question that Jeon is faced with: which story are you going to believe? Depending on who is talking to you–a shaman, a priest, a ghost, the devil, or your daughter–your faith will be tested against the story you’ve lived your life believing in. Religion, according to Na’s film, is no different from a folk tale, a spooky town rumor, or the horror movies you grew up knowing and loving. When what occurs externally doesn’t match with what exists internally, that moment becomes the precarious point between doubt and faith. Na’s film plays with genre, religion and spirituality freely throughout but without ever letting us bring down our guard.
The first act has strong notes of Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder (2003)–everything from the misty, rain-filled blue hues, the frightening image of nature, and the slapsticky black comedy–a new quality to Na’s filmmaking which are not present in his earlier two films. The film was shot by Bong’s frequent collaborator–cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo (although he did not film Memories). The music is perhaps the film’s strongest quality, scored by Jang Young-gyu.
Reception so far has been decent. Trade reviews remark that Na’s film lacks logic. This may be true but I say that such an assessment is a cop out (we’ve all seen Magnolia). The Wailing is certainly packed with a whole lot to deconstruct but it is not inscrutable. There are plenty of signals and clues. It’s just a matter of interpreting the narrative, and it takes awhile, and that interpretation is likely to evolve. The film’s positioned to be a cult hit that’ll produce a great deal of wholesome dialogue among cinephiles but only among those who’ll bother to take the time to do it.
I needed another fix of Yoo Ah-in starring in yet another dramatic period piece, and this time by filmmaker Yi Joon-ik with Sado (2015). It stars Song Kang-ho who plays King Yeongjo, a father with mountain high expectations of his second son, Jang-jo (posthumously named Crown Prince Sado) who history writes as an insane and troubled soul that went around raping and killing people randomly throughout the palace due to his mental illness largely attributed to the deep anxiety caused by his strict father. Yeongjo’s constant disapproval and disdain for his son’s actions drove Jang-jo mad with rage.
One day, after an attempted murder of the King, Sado is captured and forced into a wooden rice crate and left inside of it for eight days straight until he dies of dehydration and starvation. It’s a dramatic epic, and pretty awesome one at that. Just listen to this music. Beautifully crafted imagery, and truly idiosyncratic performance given by Song Kang-ho. I’ve never seen an actor play a period epic blending cool and casual wit with cruelty, sorrow and passion in such balanced synchrony.
The film is ultimately a family drama. The women in the film, again, don’t have it easy. There’s tension between concubines, and among the queens, although in general, the women seem to look after one another a little better than in the Hui Bin drama…
Yoo Ah-in, in Sado, plays the grandson of King Sukjong, which he himself played in Jang Ok-Jung (2013). Yoo’s performance is excellent as well albeit I feel like I’ve seen his range already in Jang Ok-Jung. Also, great cameo appearance by heartthrob So Ji-sub.
For more info on the film, please refer to this great review on The Hollywood Reporter.
I remember what 2007-2009 looked and felt like for me. I had just transferred from a public university to a private one in 2006 for a better education, and by 2007, my parents’ business was heavily on the decline. By 2008, they were facing bankruptcy and by 2009, the house they bought in October 1999 was under foreclosure.
When the financial crisis actually hit, I was a junior in college facing an economy that offered no prospects for me. Bush was still President but Obama was campaigning and eventually won.
When I saw the trailer for THE BIG SHORT, I was most intrigued by the fact that a comedic director (Adam McCay) was making a film about finance. I was also drawn by the interesting medley of actors: Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, and pleasant surprise actress appearances by Melissa Leo and Marisa Tomei. Leo and Tomei’s screen times were very little compared to the rest of the male casts’ in this sausage fest film. Furthermore, I found it really strange that the movie’s protagonists were also part of the giant problem. Rather than being whistleblowers, they benefited off of the detriment of the crisis which hurt families of lower income the most.
There were maybe three distinct moments where actors show a sense of conflicting morale but just because they appear to struggle with their morals onscreen, does that image overpower the fact that they’ve profited a huge sum from the crisis?
The film has at least two allusions to Scorsese’s THE WOLF OF WALL STREET: 1) Gosling’s narration breaking the fourth wall 2) Margot Robbie’s cameo (she’s sitting naked in a tub drinking champagne, btw… just another dimensionless actress whose function is to literally appeal to the male gaze, as though this film is solely for the male audience…)
What worked in WOLF… is that the protagonist simply has no moral crisis or dilemma when it comes to the money game. He doesn’t care at all that he’s exploiting the working class and he doesn’t change at the end of the movie, either.
What THE BIG SHORT does, however, is to attempt humanization where no humanity can be taken from. The men who were part of this real estate bubble–the ones who contributed to it then took from the blood bath after it burst–are still bastards no matter how much the film tried to appeal to me as a human film.
Just because Gosling’s character admits onscreen that he never claimed to have been the good guy doesn’t make these characters any less villainous in my viewing. In fact it pisses me off even more that a movie with a $28 million budget was dedicated to humanizing thieves and trying to convince the ticket buying public that these guys are on our side.
The film does attempt to demystify financial talk for the viewers. Does it do it successfully? For the most part, no. But it seems to applaud itself for doing such a great job. It’s almost patronizing in this way. It’s filled with pop icons to dumb down the educational experience for the sheep colony audience.
With that said, what was most remarkable about this movie was the editing. It keeps the viewer engaged and does bring insight into the lives of working, bill paying people who were affected by the crisis. On that same note, it tries very hard to distinguish the bad finance guys from the good finance guys. This is a directing problem and in that regard, I view the movie as hypocritical on its foundation.
I’m not interested in hearing about who saw what coming and made what. Did they fight for the working people’s cause? Nope.
That’s the point of the movie. The fact that the film masquerades as a morally just story that is a voice of the people is appalling to me.
At the very least, the film does alert the viewer and say that the problem has returned and puts the onus on the audience to seek out change. Again, I take this push for moral values with a grain of salt. How can working, bill-paying, ticket buying viewers impact the financial system? It’s too tremendous of a question.
Had this excellent cast and budget been put into the story of those who did pioneer a strategy that has shown success in affecting the financial system then the audience would have tools to begin something at the very least. But what this film seems to do is simply say, this happened and this will continue to happen. It doesn’t offer any real solution. Instead it makes us laugh it off. Because it’s a comedy, right?
Linda Williams’ “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre and Excess” discusses excess in equation with the “gross” and the “perverse,” much like Foucault describes the sex-police’s view of any sexual immorality that does not fulfill reproduction as excessive and therefore perverse. I like Williams’ description of what makes genres such as the melodrama, porn and horror excessive through their added visual and aural effects for the screen.
I’ve often wondered why I avoided genre films that cause an intense bodily experience through added effects–excess effects–and it’s because, much like Mary Ann Doane’s description–I feel like my senses are being “raped” or manipulated by these kinds of films. I hate walking out of a theater with all my senses worked up, which is why I prefer films without a lot of music to “hijack” my emotions, or excessive effects that make me think about driving a fast car all day. Maybe it’s the dishonesty that offends me–walking out feeling like my body has been tricked, or like waking up after a blackout. This is kind of why I found Lucy so unpleasant. Watching something with so many effects early in the morning was overwhelming. It reminds me of the time I went to a matinee screening of Wolf of Wall Street and feeling kind of assaulted for the rest of the day. It also reminds me of the time in college when a roommate was watching The Messenger, so I had to leave the room because I absolutely hated what was going on.
The experience is similar to how Laura Marks describes the synthetic smell of jasmine in “Thinking Multisensory Culture,” and how this deprives one of accessing the real. I like staying present in my being even when watching a film. It’s a more comfortable state for me. The kinds of films that do that for me are often really slow ones, and I like being able to turn my neck in the theater to examine the entire screen to take time and notice the picture in its entirety. But that’s just me. There are plenty of people who can’t stand movies by Apitchatpong Weerasethakul but I dig them.
Williams’ connection of the three genres and how they link to ideas of excess, perverse, and gross is a lot like Marks’ connection to the truffles, the pigs and human perspiration/excrement. I’ve often thought about perfumes and how manufacturers add deer musk to them. This idea of using animal perspiration in order to please human social environments was always interesting and weird for me. It makes a point on how the use of an animal perspiration in order to mask human odor actually blurs the line between what pleases the human olfactory and offends it.
The blurry line between what pleases and offends, and how pleasure and offense are socially acquired concepts also interest me, like how white cultures hated Korean food for so long because it stinks but now they’re all about it. The rise in Korean food’s popularity is in conjunction to the country’s rise as a global economy. That offensive smell of fermented soybeans and cabbage, which was once a huge cause for alarm (there’s a story in 1960s Germany, when Korean students made soybean stew in their dorms, the authorities called fire trucks believing that the sewage pipes had burst), is now a fad, and is now in the realm of acceptable smelly foods like smelly cheeses are (has anyone ever smelled a piece of raclette?).
To critique the film Lucy a bit further, I found this line, “Do you speak English?” coming up again and again really distasteful. Even when they’re in France, the cop asks the gangsters, “Do you speak English?” not “Do you speak French?” It’s this blockbuster preference for English always–no matter what–because that’s the way to sell–and assuming that if a person has an Asian face, the question, “Do you speak English?” must always be asked by default. A language that isn’t English is like a smell that needs to be expunged or covered up with loud images, sounds and effects. These gangsters are speaking a language we don’t understand or care to understand; the audience won’t understand or care to understand. Let’s make a million police cars tumble over one another so that people can forget about their irrelevant language.
Even after Lucy acquires all these new skills, and while knowing full-well that she is in Taipei, she walks around with a gun demanding to speak only to people who speak English. Otherwise, they’re shot to death. So bizarre. Crazy. When I saw that scene in the trailer in theaters, I knew I didn’t want to pay to go see this movie. A scene like that celebrates exceptionalism. How Luc Besson and his producers don’t see the danger in that is depressing to me.
Having Choi Min-sik star in a film that is set in Taipei is also weird. Much like how kimchi and dwenjang are part of white fetishism/fad, the star of Old Boy is now part of the perfume club. But why is there a Korean g sitting around in Taipei? Why not his own country? It’s another one of those–“Oh, they’re all the same–doesn’t matter”–kind of moviemaking pull: “Taiwanese, Korean–same face, same thing.” There’s no explanation for this displacement. Even while conducting business in Taipei, Choi’s character speaks Korean. He’s linguistically impotent–no Mandarin, no English, no French–just a violent Korean thug. I found this bit distasteful, too, not to mention irresponsible.
If I have to dig for merits to the film, I’d say the effects were really interesting. They were avant-garde, and exploring something we don’t know yet, and imagining a future. I enjoyed the interruption shots of the mouse trap/mouse, and the predator/prey. These random intercuts show the versatility of the moving image as a medium in order to express mood.
These kinds of avant-garde techniques are present in The Last Angel of History. The film reminds me of videos I’ve seen at museums that play with sound and image for a new experience. The film itself is in line with what the black musicians like Sun Ra, George Clinton and others were attempting with futuristic sounds and experiences. This reference to the future as a return to something is infinitely fascinating to me. I think there’s something there to explore with regards to excess, too, and the excess’ history in relation to sci-fi and sensationalism. It’s something I’ll be thinking about.
I read about female genital mutilation (FGM) in an anthropology class as a freshman in college, and what I recollect the most is that one of the main purposes of FGM is to make sex unpleasant for girls in order to prevent infidelity—essentially, perform a painful circumcision on women for an ideology that suits the dominant group—the patriarch. But notice how in Ousmane Sembene’s Moolaade (2004), polygamy for men is the norm at the village in Burkina Faso; women must remain faithful to one man and not enjoy sex, but men can have more than one wife and enjoy sex.
While reading Althusser’s “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatus,” I thought a lot about what causes harmful/oppressive traditions and practices to continue in spite of being inhumane. Althusser notes ideology’s “reproduction of production” and the agencies that allow this production to perpetuate. While watching Moolaade, I kept wondering why the male elders in the film persistently remained ignorant to the problems that were arising from the practice of FGM as a ritual for young girls in the village. As Althusser might put it, the male elders’ ideology does not “correspond with reality,” and as agents of reproducing the product of their ideology, they must uphold tradition (protect their ideology) and all of its rituals including FGM. For instance, when news spreads that the girls have run away from the “purification” ceremony, the men simply say that the girls must return to the ritual and have the performance done. When news spreads that two of the girls committed suicide at the well to avoid the circumcision, the men simply move on from the topic and avoid discussing it (meanwhile, the women of the village all gather in the night by the well to stand vigil). When Binetou dies from the performance, the men remain firm in their stance and express no remorse for the death of yet another young girl. While doing so, they cite Allah, and say that a man’s word trumps that of a woman’s, and so Colle must undo the Moolaade. Althusser’s diagnosis of a hurtful practice continuing in spite of its harms would simply be that this village is performing what any other Ideological State Apparatus (ISA) would perform, and that is protecting the actions and agents that produce the State’s ideology by putting it to practice, thus allowing this ideology to regenerate, perpetuate and reproduce.
Jacqueline Bobo writes in “The Color Purple: Black Women as Cultural Readers” that “traditions are made, not born.” Similarly, Althusser argues that ideology is a concept that is universally present in the minds of individuals and as a collective: “Ideology has no history.” If this is true, then it introduces the possibility that a new idea that gets upheld as an ideology can also permeate through groups and enter the collective consciousness to become the new ideology; as Bobo puts it, “When an articulation arises, old ideologies are disrupted and a cultural transformation is accomplished.” In Moolaade, this articulation begins with Colle first claiming a Moolaade for the girls who ran away, and protecting them. Then Colle is beaten in public before everyone in the village including the male elders. The transformation happens in the form of encouragement from the women standing by for Colle, telling her not to give up or fall down; this begins to materialize a new ideology by disrupting the old ideology; the tears shed by Amasatou while watching her mother get beaten is another disruption of the old ideology, where she would have done anything (buy new clothes, get her genitals cut) so that she could marry Ibrahima—a wealthy man of a respected family. This breakdown of the old spirit leading to an awakening for all of the village women is finalized in the film through the death of Binetou, one of the youngest of the group of girls who fled the ceremony.
When the women arrive at the center of the village—at the site of the phallic-looking mosque—where the women’s confiscated radios burn, the women confiscate the Exciseuses’ knives and throw them into the same fire; the women no longer need the radio to inform them of what is right and wrong; they hold that information internally, they have a voice to express what they believe in, and the willingness to put those beliefs into action. Furthermore, when the Exciseuses give up the knives, they become allies with the mothers—even for a moment; the mothers who suffered pain and loss stand together with the women who performed FGM and killed their daughters while upholding an old ideology: “An articulation results from a coming together of separate discourses under certain specific conditions and at specific times” (Bobo, 105).
Althusser says that an ideology “recruits.” Ideology functions through “interpellation” or “hailing.” It catches the attention of the subject through a Subject (mirror effect). In Moolaade, the Exciseuses finally recognize themselves in the mothers who suffered child loss and pain, and most especially in Colle—a martyr figure (like Christ, as Althusser might put it). The women in the village who previously stood with the Exciseuses later come to tell Colle that they “felt the blows” when Colle was being beaten before them, thus hailing them towards a new ideology. This cross recognition leads to what Bobo calls a “cultural transformation.” Bobo is not naïve, though. She says, “[Cultural transformation] is always in the process of becoming.” Ideology—new or old—can only exist when there are agents who keep it in function, and allow it to materialize.
In the second to last scene, when Amasatou tells Ibrahima that she is and always will remain a “Bilakoro,” her stance is as important as Ibrahima’s decision to accept her for what she is without trying to fit her into the outdated ideology—one that silenced and ignored the women’s cries against FGM; the union of these two will put the new ideology into motion through practice. Sembene’s maleness as a filmmaker is important for this film. The two men who express their support of the women’s ideology—Ibrahim and Colle’s husband—do so by physically walking away from the shade where the male elders sit; they each come to terms with leaving behind what ideologically defined their masculinity in order to find union and happiness with the women in their new ideology. This recognition from agents of the patriarch is also noteworthy. This alliance is also part of the articulation that Bobo describes, and part of the unity that must be “strengthened.”
(Originally published on UCLA’s FTVDM Bulletin.)
*There is a new film out entitled Sembene! (2015) which recently played at the AFI Film Festival. Check your local theaters to find play dates.
According to Christian Metz, the cinematic apparatus is a false—or imagined—existence that causes perception and is itself a perception, but ultimately an illusion. Because of this, Metz often compares cinema to the mirror, which functions essentially as a reflector or an identifier, hence Metz’ title of this essay: “The Imaginary Signifier.”
To Metz, cinema is a type of identifier for the spectator, which in turn develops the viewer’s ego; since the viewer can identify a person in the film, although the viewer him/herself is not necessarily in the film, the basic fact that the viewer and character (and actor) are both persons allows the cinematic apparatus to work in developing a viewer’s ego. Metz makes a point that the viewer can identify with both the character in the film and with the actor of the film without necessarily seeing the actual reflection of the viewer’s own body in the film: “The spectator is absent from the screen: contrary to the child in the mirror, he cannot identify with himself as an object, but only with objects which are there without him” (48).
Metz also refers to the camera and projector as literal/physical forms of the cinematic apparatus, but in all of his comparisons, there is a consistent duality at play: Metz discusses cinema’s effect of being both “projective” and “introjective,” and it being like a “phantom” or fictional tale yet with enough verisimilitude so that the viewer can gauge a sense of identity while viewing it (49-51). Ultimately, however, Metz doesn’t view the cinematic apparatus as any one thing with a single function; according to Metz, the cinematic apparatus is like an organic, living system or machine that has many parts and functions that work in numerous ways: “Chain of many mirrors, the cinema is at once a weak and a robust mechanism: like the human body, like a precision tool, like a social institution. And the fact is that it is really all of these at the same time” (51). So the cinematic apparatus, according to Metz, is not restricted to just the subject (viewer) and object (reflection), but rather it becomes a spectrum of perceptions through which the viewer can find numerous identifications through it, and this spectrum is in constant flux, but ultimately, a type of mirror, and therefore defined as kind of living illusion for the viewer.
In “From the Kaleidoscope to the X-Ray: Urban Spectatorship, Poe, Benjamin and Traffic in Souls (1913),” Tom Gunning modifies the notion of the apparatus by emphasizing this very point that Metz makes, and he compares the cinematic apparatus to the kaleidoscope—a tool that moves patterns and colors for the viewer, thus shifting and changing the perspective with every movement through every moment. Gunning whittles down cinema to the world of the spectator, comparing it to something lavish, colorful, patterned and alive; aside from the kaleidoscope, he also compares it to a glitzy shopping mall, or a glittering city street; he repeatedly uses the phrase “visual delight” throughout his descriptions of cinema and what it is for the spectator (4-5). According to Gunning, because cinema never fails to be “moving,” “shifting,” “transforming” or “bustling,” it is a constant “visual delight” to the spectator (7). To Gunning, cinema is like moving particles in high heat in a dense space much like a city, and one that contains endless “fascination” through its movement for the viewer who is pleased by the sight. Like it is for Metz, to Gunning, the cinematic apparatus is like a living form, and one that engages the viewer.
Thomas Elsassaer also brings up the notion of pleasure within the cinematic apparatus but from the perspective of the film’s characters, in particular the ones found in New German Cinema and most especially in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s films. Elsassaer is more interested in the motives of the characters within Fassbinder’s films, and that is ultimately the pleasure of being seen. For instance, in gangster films such as Gods of the Plague and American Soldier, the characters are driven primarily by their wish to “play their roles ‘correctly’” (47). According to Elsaesser, the character’s role becomes an identity, and both the role and cinema create spectators; having spectators is the character’s ultimate wish: “…to be, in Fassbinder, is to be perceived…” (47). Having a spectator means that there is an audience, and characters take comfort in that because it confirms their existence. But the spectator must also be motivated to focus its viewership on the spectacle; and so, “…Fassbinder answers by showing the imaginary always constructing itself anew” (47). Much like Metz’ and Gunning’s comparisons, the cinematic apparatus is also alive for Elsassaer.
Elsassaer examines the German psyche behind this type of exhibitionist motive, comparing Fassbinders’ characters to the mental state of working-class members who supported Hitler during his reign; whereas the bourgeois had a direct and visible connection to Hitler’s regime, the working-class’ support was not as visible; therefore, the working-class made conscious efforts to exhibit their support openly and in an obvious manner; being seen was a way of survival: “Fascism in its Imaginary encouraged a moral exhibitionism, as it encouraged denunciation and mutual surveillance” (49). If their support was not visible to the state, they might be misconstrued as being insubordinate or against the regime, which had dire consequences during Hitler’s reign. This feeling of a limited gaze not being enough to confirm a real existence is found in Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, where the two main characters—Emmi and Ali—are all both participants and themselves the objects of the gaze, and typically one of disapproval, e.g. when Emmi first enters the bar, she stares at the prostitutes and the foreign workers, who in turn stare back at her with curiosity and mild scorn for her age; once Emmi and Ali get together, the entire community containing Emmi’s coworkers, family, shopkeeper, and some members of Ali’s community—the prostitute/bartender and his coworkers—pass judgment on the union, calling it “unnatural” or doubting that it would last at all; when Ali and Emmi go to a public space such as a café or restaurant, the staff stare at them wordlessly and disdainfully.
At the start of Emmi and Ali’s relationship—which blossoms before the gaze of many witnesses at a bar that Emmi wanders into out of curiosity and in order to get out of the rain—Emmi and Ali find that having only each other is enough; when Emmi goes to work and tells her coworkers a white lie that a foreign man offered to buy her coffee, her coworkers pass judgment on a fellow elderly woman who began seeing a Turkish man and became a town pariah for it; to this, Emmi responds that perhaps that woman doesn’t need anyone but her man. Eventually, though, both Emmi and Ali grow tired of each other’s limitations, and at some point, they even stop speaking to each other, but only gaze at each other; this does not lead to any resolutions in the strain in their relationship, but only drives them further apart. The only way that the couple is finally able to find reconciliation is later at the bar again, where Ali asks Emmi to dance with him as he’d done when they first met, he does so in the presence of many viewers. Having this community gaze is what gives Emmi and Ali pleasure in their relationship again, as it reaffirms that their relationship is in fact real.
Whether the gaze from their community is one of disapproval or not is not the issue; what matters to them is whether they both exist as individuals and as a couple in the eyes of the community. But the question is, what happens after the music stops? Fassbinder answers this question by not letting the couple finish their dance: Ali collapses in pain and is taken to the hospital where he is diagnosed with a stomach ulcer, which has the potential to continue returning throughout Ali’s lifetime. According to Elsassaer, this ending is apt, as the couple now have each other functioning on a basic need and therefore not at all disgraceful as the community might regard; Ali is in need of a nurse and Emmi makes herself available as such, but through Ali’s illness, the couple also satisfies their need of a constant, and bona fide gaze, which is the doctor, who Elsassaer refers to as “an institutionally benevolent, sanitized father-figure” (48). No longer are they under the scrutiny of judgment, but the couple is legitimatized through Ali’s illness giving everyone involved a functioning and acceptable role; “role,” as mentioned earlier, is what gives characters a sense of identity, thus, both Ali and Emmi find a sense of identity in the end.
Elsassaer concludes his point on the gaze that “for the German cinema to exist, it first had to be seen by non-Germans,” thus referring to German cinema’s need to be seen in order to be felt legitimized by spectators (52). To Elsaesser, the cinematic apparatus is a reaffirming gaze that brings comfort to the character knowing that he/she is in existence; the viewer is the legitimizing gaze—the bona fide one, much like that of the doctor in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul—and behaves as the object that provides meaning for not only the character in the film, but also the filmmaker and the film itself thus bringing comfort and pleasure.
(originally posted on a student bulletin board for FTV215B at UCLA’s FTVDM site by author on 9/30/2015.)
I’d say that the victor in the new German film Victoria by Sebastian Schipper is the filmmaker himself. Victoria is an Adopt Films release (in the US; sales agent is The Match Factory) that runs 138 minutes. It was shot in one take. Of course, the concept of a one take film is not new. We’ve seen it before, and not too long ago; Alexander Sokurov shot Russian Ark (2002) inside one museum with more than 2,000 actors, but what makes Victoria such a feat is that it wasn’t shot in one space with rehearsed actors and lines. Schipper filmed Victoria in various locations throughout Berlin (albeit all of which were within proximity to one another) and the actors improvised all the lines and actions based on Schipper’s 12-paged script.
During the Q&A after the Melnitz Movies screening last night at James Bridges Theater, Schipper told audiences that trusting in actors is the biggest learning curve he accomplished during this shoot. Schipper, who is himself an actor and was in another well-known German film–Run Lola Run (1998) mentioned that if it weren’t for his lead actor Laia Costa’s cool, fun and lax approach towards such a high pressure shooting schedule, the anxiety would have taken him over.
What impressed me the most about this film is the scale of production. For a movie with such a simple story line, it is quite full of events. SPOILER ALERT: There’s a piano scene, there’s a shoot out, there is vomiting, there are police cars and choppers, there is a hotel room, there is screaming, crying, laughing, kissing and nudity. On the one hand, I can imagine any other young and ambitious filmmaker wanting to do something like this right out of graduating UCLA or Tisch. On the other hand, the scale of this movie does make it indeed a movie-going experience.
What was most stunning to me was the ending, and I could not look at the screen without my mouth open. Watching Victoria walk away from all the events of her night towards her future was to me so unbelievable. And that’s exactly, as Schipper put it last night, how the filmmaker himself felt after he watched the final cut of the movie–a movie that he took three takes in order to accomplish, and a movie that he was able to edit with each time with the actors and the production itself, and not in post.
Victoria is a movie that shocks and moves. I thoroughly enjoyed it.