Saturday, March 19, 2005

Slow Down

Time to try to get back to the movie blogging. First up - Tsai Ming-Liang's Goodbye, Dragon Inn. (This is somewhat obscure, but it's available on DVD and might get screeneed around the country - it is not entirely impossible to find. If it matters, I am not going to skimp on details - I could say "plot details" but as we shall see, that might not be the word. Anyway, if that sort of thing matters...)

All right then. You can check out the position of this film on my best of the 00s list. Second best Taiwanese film of the decade! It’s a good one. What makes it a good one? That is harder to answer than I wish I were. I was challenged, recently, to defend it - the usual complaints were aired: "it's so slow, there's no point, nothing happens." That provokes a small crisis. It's a problem because films like that, films paced like that, are very hard for me to defend normally. I am happiest when I can defend a film intellectually - I can't deny that I am most comfortable talking about films on rational, analytical grounds. And the truth is, I think I can defend Goodbye, Dragon Inn on those grounds - I can work out the logic of it, the themes and structural felicities and so on - it's just that with films like this, slow, minimalist films, those analytical points almost seem to be floating free in the air. Because the markers of conventional aesthetic and intellectual values are so subtle, it is easy for those who don't see them to say that they aren't there, and that the film's defenders read them into the film. And - in films like this - those doubts sometimes gain some footing.

But I see them, all the things this film does. I get it. And that creates the temptation, to fall back on some variation of the "I must be smarter than you" defense, or worse, the “I am more sensitive than you, Philistine!” defense - both vile, disgusting habits. But it's hard not to. This type of film - minimalist art in general, probably - creates this problem. It is as if you either can see what is going on in this type of art or you can't - if you don't see what is going on, without thinking about it, you won't see it when someone explains it to you. Because that kind of subtlety gets right down next to what you are - it is close enough to blankness, emptiness, that it is a real question whether there is anything there. Whether the film does show you anything, or if it simply reflects what you want to be there.

Obviously, I think it is there (the value); I think this film is as dense as any Miike or Imamura or David Lynch film. Visually, intellectually, emotionally, spiritually. One reason is that I think art is fractal, like maps and Mandelbrot sets - when you move closer or further away, there is just as much information in them. A movie like this, where things don't seem to happen on the story level, contains as much information as any conventionally dense film, just placed differently. The placid surface conceals or mutes the complexity of the film - though even saying that implies something wrong, implies that the surface does not itself create specific and valuable artistic effects. But...

The film itself? I say, it is as dense as any film you are likely to see, in even the most conventional sense. It's just not all stated explicitly. What happens?

It is set in a movie theater - a huge, sprawling movie theater, with halls and attics and storage rooms surrounding the screening room. King Hu's Dragon Inn is playing to either a packed house or a handful of lonely men more interested in cruising than the swordplay on screen. A woman with a limp walks around, sweeping floors, spying on the film or the projectionist, flushing toilets. One man in the audience tries to pick up another man in the theater - then tries the men's room - then tries the storage rooms, which are full of men, silently wandering among the boxes. 40 minutes into the film, there is a line of dialogue - "this theater is haunted. There are ghosts here." "I am Japanese" replies the man we have been following - probably the only words he knows in Chinese. He goes back to the movie, and is annoyed by a woman eating nuts. The film ends and 2 men meet in the lobby - one is Miao Tien, who has been playing the father in Tsai Ming-liang's films for more than a decade. (He was a ghost in the last one.) The other is Shih Chun - one of the stars of King Hu's Dragon Gate Inn (Miao also appeared in King Hu's film.) "They have forgotten us," he says.

It fits in with Tsai's career. The long takes, of people sitting still - or walking along a corridor - climbing stairs - or standing at a urinal - watching the film playing on screen; sexual longing, the need for connection, but no connection. It has Tsai's brand of comedy - using those long takes to lull you, then slowly springing a joke on you (2 men stand beside each other in a long row of empty urinals; they stand there for several minutes. A third man comes in, and stands beside one of them. They stand there for several minutes. A man emerges from a stall behind them, washes his hands. They stand there for several minutes. Someone inside the stall reaches out and closes the door. The three men at the urinals stand there for a few more minutes. Another man comes into the room, walks up to the threesome standing together, reaches between them and takes a pack of cigarettes from the shelf above them. They keep standing there. It's in the timing. Trust me. If you've recently read some Beckett, you will understand. If you have seen enough Tsai, you will understand Beckett.) At the very end, the star of the film (of all of Tsai's films) appears for the first time, for 2 or 3 scenes. But he's playing the projectionist, so his presence has permeated the film. Outside, it rains.

That's what happens. Digging into it a bit - you have, basically, two characters, the the Japanese guy and the gir. These two move through the theater, driven by their desires, which are somewhat over-determined - she is working, but she is also looking for the projectionist, who avoids her. He is cruising, but he is also just trying to stay dry (and take a piss, maybe). These are powerful enough motivations, and interesting in their own - but Tsai skips the conventional story you might make out of these elements, and structures what is there in ways that give it its own depth. Take the patterns of presence and absence he creates - the cycling of the people in the space, the play of perception and time. Consider the role of the projectionist - framing what happens, controlling the plot, such as there is, in a way, yet absent - not seen until the end. Consider the circulation of objects - the steamed bun the woman eats, the food she offers to the projectionist then takes away. Consider the function of the film being screened, and of the actors from that film watching it. The effect is to create a series of displacements - the film, the actors, the woman and projectionist - the sense of different times occupying the same space created by the shifts from crowded areas to empty areas, or by the comparison of King Hu's film and its actors - who, again, are also Tsai Ming-liang's actors. (Miao Tien is almost as important to Tsai's work, as Lee Kang-sheng.) Miao and Lee certainly evoke Tsai's other films - in which they usually play father and son. Here, neither is on screen much - in fact, their presence (especially Lee's) is specifically withheld - and they have no interaction in the film. But that is part of the significance of the film, part of its language - to offer and deny possibilities of connections - to play off previous relationships, even if just by denying them. (Or by using the Japanese man as a kind of surrogate for Lee.)

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