Category Archives: FILM

‘The first image he told me about was of three children on a road in Iceland, in 1965.’

He wrote me: coming back through the Chiba coast I thought of Shonagon’s list, of all those signs one has only to name to quicken the heart, just name. To us, a sun is not quite a sun unless it’s radiant, and a spring not quite a spring unless it is limpid. Here to place adjectives would be so rude as leaving price tags on purchases. Japanese poetry never modifies. There is a way of saying boat, rock, mist, frog, crow, hail, heron, chrysanthemum, that includes them all. Newspapers have been filled recently with the story of a man from Nagoya. The woman he loved died last year and he drowned himself in work—Japanese style—like a madman. It seems he even made an important discovery in electronics. And then in the month of May he killed himself. They say he could not stand hearing the word ‘Spring.’

I saw Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil maybe half a dozen times. An essay-film, not a documentary but certainly plotless, almost 3 hrs in duration, a miracle of dramaturgy. Every time I saw Sans Soleil, I was in company, and each time I was the only one to stay awake until the end.

Watching Sans Soleil has always felt like being inside someone’s head: unspeakably intimate. To see what they see and think what they think, synchronised, have the same associations, same train of thought. Sex doesn’t even come close. Chris Marker was a recluse who gave no interviews, and that is probably why.

Chris Marker is, without a doubt, the only film-maker I can quote by heart. He said: nothing distinguishes memories from ordinary moments; only later do they become memorable by the scars they leave.

Chris Marker died this morning, at the age of 91.

He said, I’ve been round the world several times and now only banality still interests me. This is from Sans Soleil too, footage of people sleeping on the ferry to Tokyo. Limbs in every way tangled, a socked foot dangling off the armrest.

David Thomson once wrote that La Jetee is the most important film ever made, “never mind if no one named it recently for Sight and Sound in their “10 best” polls. I know that if you went to most of the people polled in that magazine and asked, “What about La Jetée, then?”, they’d say, “Oh, well, of course”, and then (I’m one of them) we’d come up with some fancy excuse about La Jetée being above and beyond the best.” La Jetee, made in 1962, still feels, to this day, like it comes from the future of cinema.

The man who introduced me to Chris Marker was also the worst person I have ever encountered in my life, a vile man, and here we return to the proverbial Jew-gassing Nazionalsozialist and his enjoyment of classical music. To make my life easier, I tell myself stories of how he never appreciated Marker for the real reasons, only the false ones, things like technique or the monochrome stylishness of La Jetee, or Marker’s place in the history of cinema. Not things like dangling feet, or the side observation about the Japanese man ‘making an important discovery in electronics’ before killing himself to follow his wife.

I remember thinking, in the early days, that Chris Marker, despite the name, could not be an Anglophone, because his humour was too soft and diffuse. The bit in …a Valparaiso where the narrator starts inventing reasons for why the city is just so. The tiny commercial break in Letter from Siberia, a sing-song advertisement for reindeer as household appliance. Who does that? Nobody does that. When people do things like that, we fall in love. When we think about why we love people, it’s that calibre of behaviour, nothing bigger or more outwardly significant.

The question that has haunted me for years has been this: why do we get bored watching a film, or reading a book, and yet we can observe a street corner for hours? Sometimes it seems like art couldn’t possibly surpass living reality; and sometimes there come majestic works of art that seem like the only thing worth making, really worth making. Chris Marker created the pinnacle of both possibilities. Sans Soleil, the awe of reality; La Jetee, the perfect artefact, truer than the truth.

It is easy to love La Jetee, I as much as everyone, but Sans Soleil was always my favourite, because it was stronger than sex, because it had not the easy 50s stylishness but the more trying, gravelly 80s video textures, because it was as long as a DJ set, because it kind of was, anyway, a remix of memory. Sans Soleil is messy, and, someone once said, ‘for people who want their lines straight, life itself is a problem’.

As I get older, I realise that this will become more and more common: I will outlive artists important to me. And then, perhaps, one day this time will no longer be my time, among the living artists there won’t be any I adore. There have never been many artists truly, seriously important to me. Perhaps one for every artform (except non-moving visual arts, which I like but do not love). Chris Marker is the first one to die, and I am left a little bit more mortal.

I like to think the spirit of Chris Marker lives on in the work of chelfitsch and Jerome Bel.

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Laforet campaigns, 1997-2012

2012

laforet grand bazar from steve nakamura on Vimeo.

Summer 2011: Cheer up, Japan!

[pro-player]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fhcfEgNC9e4[/pro-player]

Winter 2011: GEEE FACE

[pro-player]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MuG5fN_HGp8[/pro-player]

Spring 2011: be noisy

[pro-player]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-2uKklaqfCU&feature=endscreen[/pro-player] [pro-player]http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=endscreen&v=GwLsnjEWhOQ&NR=1[/pro-player]

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On dance on film

[pro-player]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MMrRF4lHflU[/pro-player]

I am posting this by popular request: because so many people recently wanted to know where to see it, because I showed it to my boyfriend two nights ago (someone who knew not a single thing about dance films) without editorial comment and he said, when it ended, ‘I think this is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen, of any kind, because I re-watched it recently and had a moment of remembering how art can make one feel entirely quiet on the inside, because I sometimes think that I could do nothing but watch dance films my entire life, because dance film is perhaps my favourite art form, in the whole world.

Dance film has a power to draw me like no other form. I have a self-assembled archive. I watch dance films the way I read novels; out of pleasure, slowly, revisiting favourite passages, skipping to bits I particularly like.

I knew and loved dance film much before I knew how to properly look at a painting, much before I stopped giggling in front of conceptual installations, much before I could get to the end of a poem. It made sense to me straight away, just like dance did.

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Scott Pilgrim; musings on misogyny

After enthusiastic recommendations of the film by at least three men very dear to me, I’ve finally given in and seen Scott Pilgrim vs. The World.

Having a mountain of work to catch up on, I don’t think I have time nor energy for an in-depth analysis, but the film did leave me with one very pointed question mark hanging above my head, and it is the question ethics and pop culture.

Abigail Nussbaum completely seconds my opinion when she writes, on her blog, that Scott Pilgrim is both a fun movie, and an indisputably misogynist movie. Giving herself more time and space to analyse how and why, and also to wrestle with a number of Pilgrim fans who loudly disagree in the comments’ section, Nussbaum gives a very rounded overview of the film, equally critical and generous: it is both a fun piece of cinematic fluff, and one more brick in the general misogyny of the American (Canadian-American?) pop culture.

To both the fans and the critics of the film, this bias may be even more tragic when considering that, by all accounts, the original graphic novel works hard to unwind precisely the cliches that the film perpetuates. What appears to have been a subtle(r) and (more) nuanced critique of a certain kind of narcissistic, young slacker male, has here turned into a largely positive portrait in which, in the end, all faults are forgiven, some personal growth detected, and the loser gets the patient, mature and beautiful girl. There is a passage, it seems, between the subculture and the pop culture that flattens nuance, as registered in the fact that the Bechdel test would pass the comic, but fail the film.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Left: the flawed but lowable protagonist. Right: the romantic lead with a bit of personality, but no character.

(What is the Bechdel test? First divulged to me by one of those same men who invited me to see this film, Bechdel test is named after Alison Bechdel, an American graphic novelist. It both demonstrates the comparative progressiveness of the American graphic novels when compared to the movies, and is a one-size-fits-all detector of misogyny in any narrative. To pass the Bechdel test, a movie:

1. has to have at least two women in it,
2. Who talk to each other,
3. About something besides a man.
Whether this detects merely misogyny, or the complete inability of our popular art to portray women as human beings is a pertinent question, but let’s leave it aside. Let’s also leave aside the fact that many, many other films, TV shows, and comics fail this test together with Scott Pilgrim, including such beacons of feminism as Sex and the City, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, or Frida. The point is, Scott Pilgrim fails.)

It’s interesting, however, that a few web-commentators have remarked on the misogyny, but no one to my knowledge has mentioned racism *. Yet Scott Pilgrim is also an undeniably racist film. From the first moment the only Asian character faints, clearly too anime to do anything better, I wondered how the portrayal of gay characters has managed to shoot up from caricature to respect, leaving behind such comparatively more frequent behaviour as being of non-Anglo-Saxon ethnicity.

Yes, it is possible to give a hundred reasons for why Knives Chau behaves the way she does: she is only 17, meant to be a boy-fantasy girlfriend, the most immature character, etc. But I watched the film thinking of all the young Chinese Australians I know, all wonderfully rounded and complex people, and wondered how annoying it must be for them to never see faces like their own in any more central, more complex, more rounded role than the screaming sidekick caricature. Yes, the immature 17-year-old girlfriend swoons and says OMG. But why is only the 17-year-old girlfriend a Chinese-Canadian? Why not the romantic interest, the lead, the mature best friend?

At the same time, I’ve always found it annoying that this question is treated with such seriousness by feminists, post-colonialists, and Left-leaning liberal people in general. How serious can this issue really be? Is it really on par with slavery and Hiroshima? I don’t think so.

But today, I’m wondering if we could compare this pop-cultural treatment of women and races with smoking – not least because I’m reading That Book That Makes People Quit Smoking.

Namely: every smoker tells herself and her friends the same story. It goes like this: “I am not addicted. I just enjoy it. I could stop any time. If I’m not stopping, it’s because I like smoking/it relaxes me/it helps my concentration/I only smoke socially.” But what happens when someone asked the smoker, given the absence of serious addiction, to stop smoking for a week to demonstrate that she could quit any time? Ah, now it’s impossible. The smoker realises she is unable to, but will come up with a host of reasons for why now is not the right time to try this: “it’s a stressful period/it’s a period of socialising/I am still enjoying it too much/I’ll quit next week.” Because each cigarette is perceived as only one cigarette, not one in a long chain, not one small perpetuation of an unhealthy addiction, it is very hard to make the smoker acknowledge that the addiction is there. But, just like the cat doesn’t need to know where the hot-water pipes lie under the floor, to know that sitting in certain places is nice and warm, so the smoker doesn’t need to understand the mechanics of the nicotine addiction to enjoy the familiar relaxation of satisfying it.

The low-level, low-intensity racism and sexism of pop culture is, I think, very similar to the low-intensity nicotine addiction. It provides so little palpable pleasure that neither is perceived as a conscious act of satisfying a deep desire, either for nicotine, or to humiliate women/other races. Each act of misogyny and racism, just like a cigarette, is perceived as a single act of satisfying something else (humour, narrative cliché, shorthand, simplifying for greater clarity). But when you ask a question that would reasonably follows from such disawoval, such as: why not have a Chinese girl as the romantic interest?, or why not have multiple developed female characters who talk to each other about music, politics or cars? (the equivalent of quitting smoking for a week), it becomes obvious that these disparate actions, however unintentional and unperceived, form a long chain of habit, in this case a habit of portraying other races as inferior, or women as nothing but love interests.

Taken separately, each instance of a female character with barely a trace of interior life (like Ramona Flowers in Scott Pilgrim is a perfectly excusable artistic error – just like, taken separately, each cigarette is just one tiny little mistake in a very long life. But, cumulatively, one kills you and the other one builds a world in which all Chinese girls say OMG and swoon whenever they’re supposed to make a rational decision.

* This is actually incorrect, as I’ve discovered now. Prof. Susurro, a cinema/cultural studies academic, discusses precisely the racism of Scott Pilgrim on her extraordinary blog Like a Whisper **.
** This leads to another question: what would the Bechdel test for racism look like? Clearly, two people of colour talking to each other, but about what..?

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Pure pulp adventure spirit

There’s a reason people find themselves compulsively hooked on “House,” and it’s little surprise you can build an entire empire on the kicks afforded by a “CSI.” Both have their origins in Sherlock Holmes and his ongoing adventures with his trusted friend, Dr. John Watson. These two characters have been played on film more times by more people than any other literary creations, and the basic formula has been bent and twisted so many times, in so many ways, that most audiences have no idea what the “real” Sherlock Holmes is like. They base their knowledge of the character on a few surface details, and they’ve been quite vocal about how upset they are by the way Guy Ritchie and Joel Silver and Robert Downey Jr. are “ruining” the character.

Only… they’re not.

In fact, I’d say “Sherlock Holmes” represents not a radical reinterpretation of the character, but instead a nearly revolutionary return to the genuine pulp roots of what Doyle originally envisioned. No matter how beloved the stories have become, and no matter how much technical skill Doyle brought to the table (quite a bit, for the record), his stories were pulp adventure that followed a rigorous formula. It’s little wonder they have been adapted or reinterpreted for film so many times, since the rules were so clearly laid out over the course of the stories he wrote, and the archetypes so clearly defined. What’s amazing is how much they changed in what are now thought of as the “classic” film versions, while here, they’ve reverted to the text as much as possible and suddenly it seems to the general public like they’ve reinvented Holmes. I don’t think most audiences will care, though, because what Guy Ritchie has done, working with a small army of screenwriters and a team of dedicated producers, is tap into the pure pulp adventure spirit of the stories in a way that should leave audiences worn out from being entertained.

–Drew McWeeny, Motion Captured

Exhortation: Melbourne Cinémathèque NOW

I’ve just braved acute asthmatic bronchitis (not my words) to get myself down to ACMI and back, and see the first part of Melbourne CTEQ’s 3-week Chris Marker mini-fest live. It has nothing to do with theatre whatsoever. In fact, his films are so essentially films, so deeply untheatrical, that I can recommend them on nothing but my own enthusiasm.

As for my enthusiasm, I have been waiting impatiently for these three Wednesdays since about April. Chris Marker’s films are the most uncanny collage of thought, image, free association, philosophical musing, travelogue, and they are felt, humane, deep and employing both sides of the brain the way no other films have ever done for me (indeed, as we have established tonight, they are the polar opposite of Asperger’s films like Napoleon Dynamite, aloof to everything but their own hipster specialness). Watching Sans Soleil, which may be my ever-favourite film, with its free-associative stream of images relating loosely (but certainly) to a stream of very interesting thoughts, is an experience I would very favourably compare to that of being completely inside another person’s head. And a very interesting person’s, too.

The entire three-week experience, if you are so bold, will cost you a meagre $20. FULL DETAILS HERE.

STC: Elling & Belvoir: Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk

I am about to burn all my bridges and praise theatre I have never praised before. But we all grow older and up. Two shows currently playing in Sydney are exemplary for what Sydney likes to do: straight plays, if not television. Things that, we smirk from Melbourne, are not quite theatre.

Indeed, both are adaptations of dubious philosophy. Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, at Belvoir Downstairs, is Robert Couch’s adaptation of the 1865 short novel of the same title by Nikolai Leskov. The transposition, in this case, is informed by the existence of no less than three film versions, numerous other stage adaptations, and at least one famous opera (by Shostakovich, recently revived by Opera Australia). Elling, at Sydney Theatre Company, is based on a 2001 Norwegian film (!), itself an adaptation of Ingvar Ambjrnsen’s novel. Pamela Rabe is directing a stage adaptation, originally by Axel Hellstenius in collaboration with Petter Nss, then translated into English by Nicholas Norris and further adapted by Simon Bent (why, it makes you wonder, must the English add another layer of pruning to translated texts?). Suspicious pursuits!

It was already Goethe who complained that, as soon as they read the book, the audience of then wanted to see the play: the transposition of story across mediums, that completely failed to notice that medium was, even then, the message. (Without launching into a rant, that the narrative of Don Quixote was undivorceable from the novel-ness of Don Quixote; that one cannot turn Bukowski’s poetry into a play – although the additional question in this case is: why bother?) In Against Interpretation, Susan Sontag raves against the sanctity of content:

…which gives birth to the odd vision by which something we have learned to call “form” is separated off from something we have learned to call “content,” and to the well-intentioned move which makes content essential and form accessory.

I am a habitual Sontag-disciple in this matter; I believe that the theatre must be theatre first, and say something later. Yet both of these productions, these theatrical mongrels, are terrific, and absolutely worth seeing – something akin to Humphrey Bower and Jess Ipkendanz’s The Kreutzer Sonata at La Mama in 2007, a re-working of Tolstoy’s short story for one voice and two instruments. An adaptation that ought to have miserably failed was instead an astonishing artistic success, one of the finest experiences I have ever had in the theatre.

I am not sure how the formalist in me justifies the tremendous enjoyment to be derived from both Lady Macbeth and Elling, but I suspect it has something to do with story. None of the two are flawless works, but you forgive them even if you notice, because you’re taken along with the narrative. The limitations of the stage, unaddressed as they may be, become invisible as the stage itself vanishes behind the story.

Psychology has made a claim that we human beings love stories because story is the fundamental organisational element of our consciousness. In simple words, we make sense of the world by telling stories to ourselves (and, indeed, the fundamental product of schizophrenia is the inability to construct a coherent narrative of one’s own life). Some artistic forms are better suited to this task, called epic for this very reason: novels, short stories, epic poems. Some not so much: painting, haiku, tragedy. However, human mind is wired to look for a narrative even in the least likely places; and it is comical but not entirely wrong that many works of art are seen to fail when they provide too strong a narrative framework for the viewer, offer too little resistance to the story-telling mind (Jack Vettriano’s painting; pre-Raphaelite didacticism; Bukowski’s poetry; Hollywood movies; the realistic novel – depending on your elitism of choice). In this duel of the urge to narrate with the fickle narcissism of form, victories are sometimes unpredictable. While Aristotle clearly separated dramatic from epic arts, suggesting that theatre is inherently flawed as a story-telling vehicle (and I second that, except in the case of radio play), Brecht has revolutionised theatre by disagreeing. Not too long after, a generation of writers proved that the novel could well exist without telling a story at all.

To return to the matter at hand: the qualities of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk lie in Joseph Couch’s excellent direction of the narrative material. Robert Couch’s adaptation of Nikolai Leskov’s slim novel is pruned and stream-lined into a tight, breathless ride through the 19th-century Russia. It is as simple a story as they get: Katerina, an abused country wife, a childless slave in her own house, is seduced by a labourer. A woman who was, until then, resigned to a life of complete misery, she latches onto this unexpected source of bliss, and serially murders her way into freedom, trying to keep this love in her life.

It is interesting to find a character of this sort in the intersection of the work of three men: the novelist, the adaptator, the director. (Joe Couch notes: it is as if Leskov stumbled upon her heroine subconsciously, never understanding her motives.) This production, however, is singularly compassionate, and explores her amour fou with an essayistic clarity of thought. Without a single superfluous line or gesture, Couch builds a picture of Katerina, clutching onto a love affair that has become the sole source of meaning in her life. The macabre second act, in which her lover turns against her, is a tight and astute image of attraction turned rage, devotion turned self-annihilation, and joie de vivre turned madness.

Edwina Ritchard, Amy Kersey and Jason Langley’s many secondary characters build a varied, rich world around the two main characters in the tiny Downstairs space. For once, Russians are not played as English people: all characters possess a rounded, fully-fleshed emotional life. Kersey’s Aksinya is not a cockney maid we have come to expect from less culturally literate productions, but a brisk, yet compassionate, peasant woman. Alice Parkinson is extraordinary as a woman whom life has treated so badly as to reduce her to an animal presence, bare life on stage. She shivers and mutters, groans and sings and dances; yet she is not a caricature, but a tragic character whose actions, however extreme, are always understandable.

What could very easily have been a tedious night out is instead a riveting experience. The theatrical perils are enormous: the entire second act tries to enact a long march across Russia on the minuscule Downstairs stage. In the easy-going, frivolous Australia, the entire point could have been so easily misunderstood. Yet the emotional intelligence of the production completely overcomes the technical obstacles, delivering a gripping, utterly absorbing tale.

Darren Gilshenan & Lachy Hulme in Elling. Photo by Tracey Schramm.

The story with Elling is slightly different. A Norwegian comedy instead of a Russian tragedy. Another worrying adaptation trajectory, yet another success of theatre as straight-forward story-telling. Played by the exquisite Darren Gilshenan and Lachy Hulme, Elling and Kjell Bjorne are two lunatics given a council flat, a chain-smoking social worker, and a couple of months in the real world after a lifetime of confinement. If they screw badly enough, Frank will be only too glad to return them to the mental asylum.

The humour that Elling weaves out of this initial situation is as deliciously Scandinavian as it is un-Australian – which is also what makes its final triumph more interesting. The first thing to keep in mind is that the two characters are genuine, bona fide crazies. Kjell Bjarne is a 40-year-old virgin, constantly masturbating and without a clue about the world outside psychiatric institutions. Elling is a well-spoken agoraphobe who conflates his mother with Virgin Mary, possesses a baroque and complex sense of guilt for having outlived her (unlike Christ), and manages to regularly convince the infinitely more low-brow Kjell in the normality of his particular worldview. Reidun, the pregnant check-out chick from the apartment upstairs who becomes Kjell’s romantic dalliance, and the seedy poet Alfons, who befriends Elling out of aesthetic interest in the mind of a madman, are no more conventional human beings, and certainly not immediately likeable.

In front of the comedy of manners that ensues, Sydney audience looked genuinely confused: reluctant to laugh at insanity, at the intellectual and emotional underdevelopment of a pregnant working-class girl, even at the ruined career of a once-famous poet. The stakes are too high, firstly, and secondly, there is never anyone to laugh with. Indeed, in the entire first act, the only scenes that properly elicited laughter were those in which someone was clearly upholding normality (such as when frustrated Frank forces Elling to overcome his phobia and answer the phone).

Keeping in mind our quest for the coordinates of Australian humour – which is, sadly, looking more and more like textbook bully humour – another rule seems to assert itself: Australian humour shies away from the strange-without-resolution, otherwise known as farcical. Scandinavian humour, like in Elling, thrives on unconventional relationships (compare and contrast Kitchen Stories, exempli gratia), which deepen and grow without either of the characters capitulating in front of the differing opinions or behaviour of the other. Looking at the Sydney audience, trying to put my finger on why their engagement with the comedy was failing, the missing link seemed to be, I am sad to report, acceptance. Not tolerance – one tolerates a rash, tolerance is the ability to ignore, and a person on stage is not there to be tolerated – but acceptance of the unreconcilable difference. The audience seemed unable to get their heads around the fact that Elling was not going to be ridiculed out of his agoraphobia, nor Kjell Bjarne shamed out of public masturbation.

By the second act, however, all was resolved. The laughing curve, which dragged on the floor for most of act one, shot up immediately after the interval, and the play ended as an unqualified success. Yet there is no qualitative difference in the execution between the two acts, nor is the second half any more conventional. Quite the opposite: Elling runs off with an evil plot to become a famous poet by planting poems in sauerkraut packets, all whilst jealously plotting to keep their pregnant neighbour away from Kjell. Yet, it seems, by now the audience has thawed towards these mad people. The climax – in which Reidun goes into labour after a night of drinking and smoking, Frank assures them that a night of drunken debauchery is the normal way to celebrate childbirth, and Alfons opts for friendship at the expense of his writerly fame – is emotionally satisfying without being facile.

Again, Gilshenan and Hulme are supported by terrific supporting performances. Yael Stone, in particular, gives great richness to the range of women Elling and Kjell encounter. Directed confidently, but without frills, Elling is a terrific theatre experience. Just like with Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, the focus is solely on telling a story. Neither of the two productions does anything to make a case for theatre as something distinct from prose or television. Yet they both confidently assert, in these often narrative-dislexic times, the timeless importance of some plot and characters.

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Written by Robert Couch. Adapted from the novella by Nikolai Leskov. Directed by Joseph Couch. With Alice Parkinson, Conrad Coleby, Don Reid, Edwina Ritchard, Celeste Dodwell, Amy Kersey and Jason Langley. Belvoir Downstairs, July 2 – 26.

Elling. Based on a novel by Ingvar Ambjørnsen. Stage adaptation by Axel Hellstenius in collaboration with Petter Næss. Translated by Nicholas Norris. Adapted by Simon Bent. Director Pamela Rabe. Set Designer Michael Scott-Mitchell. Costume Designer Tess Schofield. Lighting Designer Nick Schlieper. Sound Designer Max Lyandvert. With Darren Gilshenan, Glenn Hazeldine, Lachy Hulme, Yael Stone, Frank Whitten. Sydney Theatre Company, May 30 – July 18.

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Ghost in the Shell, and the fluid self in body and mind; recapitulation.

I don't want to offend more than I absolutely have to, so I will conveniently hide most of this sleepy ramble behind a LJ cut.

1. It is not only the cyborg that is the idée fixe in Japanese animation, or Japanese art in general. It is the disintegrating body, disintegrating mind. It is body fused with machine and mind fused with other forms of consciousness.

opening sequence (making of Motoko):

The most interesting point, however, is not the idea, but the way it is approached. Without drama. Without a sense of tragedy. The ending of Ghost in the Shell is by no means a sad one. There is a sense of hope and future in the fusion of selves that is entirely absent from your average Western understanding of the same (best exemplified by the puzzled disgust at the Borg).

2. For whichever reason Western us find the idea of a fluid, unstable self repulsive, it completely soaks the philosophical response to something like Ghost in the Shell in theoretical misunderstanding. Western critics find all sorts of pessimism in the ending which simply isn't there.

My objective in this semi-scientific quest is not so much to shake our preconceptions of the gendered body á la Haraway, or mount any elaborate philosophical castle where it doesn't belong. In fact, Haraway's cyborg theory has been most unhelpful in my mini-research, blurring the eyes of too many cinema theoreticians, making them interpret Motoko as a feminist body rebelling from the observing men, sexualising a rather asexual problematics. Instead, I am simply interested in the plurality of ideas on the self. That something seemingly so simple would be subject to disagreement: I find that too interesting to let go of.

On the one hand, I don't need to explain too much that we the Western peoples – particularly the hyperindividualist, say, Australians – find the very idea of the fluid self immensely threatening. There is a crossing of borders involved that is too frightening. There is Christianity involved, the indivisible and unique soul as a gift from God, and a unique body to be cared for and preserved at any cost (suicide being a big taboo); Western bodies are precious souls, Western souls are precious souls. But is it all?

3. According to Julia Kristeva in Powers of Horror: An essay in abjection, the dividing line between the unconscious and conscious mind is in itself blurred, and therefore our sense of self is never stable. The abject is anything that reminds us of this instability, anything that disturbs order, blurs boundaries, creates ambiguities.

While looking around, I've found a whole range of issues that induce this border anxiety in the Western theoretician: rubbish, illness, and physical mutilation of the body; demi-human elements such as zombies and ghosts; puppets, in puppet theatre and otherwise; the question of inanimate objects coming to life, appropriating life force they are not meant to possess and this being a sin, the proverbial 'playing God' (Frankenstein monster); internet and cyber-bodies, the fusion of man and machine; trans-sexuality; mutations, from radiation and as an element of SF; clones as copies of the unique snowflake self, and robots as either copies of the unique self or a unique human species. Kristeva notes that a great part of this spectrum of the abject makes regular appearance in horror films, being frightening for its own sake.

4. A common offline narrative indicating boundary anxiety holds that Western bodies are precariously porous and under attack from outside by “germs”. These germs or viruses are ubiquitous evils associated with matter out of place, or untoward contact. They come from other people and overpower us when our personal or social boundaries are not maintained. This narrative has expanded to include other boundary violators, such as carcinogens, radiation, chemical food additives, and genetic modification.

One of the best descriptions of this anxiety complex is given by Martin in her study of ideas about the immune system. She gives plenty of contemporary examples of boundary anxiety towards foreign substances, reflected also in recent advertising campaigns promoting wars on bacteria in the household. The latter focus on children ingesting germs if bacteria are not “wiped out”. This indicates that barrier models of defence are still strong, despite reports of such anti-bacterial agents helping the evolution of resistant bacteria and impeding the development of the immune system.

-from The Online Body Breaks Out? Asence, Ghosts, Cyborgs, Gender, Polarity and Politics by Jonathan Marshall

5. In discussing our anxiety over cyber-bodies, cyber-existence and the fluidity of presence and absence of clear-cut individuals, Marshall writes:

“Western” cultures already have a set of “virtual body” constructions, which are complementary to our constructions of the “physical body”; those of the “soul”, the “mind”, and the “ghost”, all of which blend together due to their status of being “not-physical” bodies. The polarity between mind/body, generates the parallel of “virtual” or online for “spiritual”, and offline for physical.

Such a material/immaterial split is not essential, and many Western traditions have proposed more elaborate divisions of the mind, including the sources of mainstream religion. The Hebrew Scriptures distinguish nephesh from ruach, and the Greek Testament distinguishes psyche from pneuma. Both of these divisions are often translated as “soul” and “spirit”. Lullian alchemy makes the distinction between spirit and matter one of degree; matter could be etherealised and spirit concentrated. Mid Seventeenth Century philosophers such as Joseph Glanville and Henry More used examples of ghosts and witches to make arguments about the complexity of the multi-part soul’s interaction with the world. Such arguments seem to have become incomprehensible in the Eighteenth Century and later.

Other cultures can become more elaborate. The people of Zinancantan in Mexico have a 13 part soul. The Banyang claimed that humans are individually connected to animals or other natural phenomenon (babu) into which they can transform, or send out as an extension of themselves. The babu moves in a parallel ‘shadow’ world, the ‘forest of babu’, with effects in this world – making humans sick or destroying crops for example.

The point of this reference is not just exoticism but to illustrate a schema which could easily be applied to online experience, but which seems unavailable to Westerners. There are separate but parallel worlds, one is a ‘shadow’ of the other, part of oneself goes into the other world and behaves differently (perhaps more socially “irresponsibly”), yet we are connected to this other self. Tensions in one world spill into the other.

Despite such traditions, we tend to polarise body and mind, often while criticising other people for doing so. … A recent tendency is to represent minds as software, with the result that the distinction between computers and minds blurs. Computers become host to the realm of spirits.

-from The Online Body Breaks Out? Asence, Ghosts, Cyborgs, Gender, Polarity and Politics by Jonathan Marshall

6. Now compare the nonchalance with which the makers of Ghost in the Shell discuss this blurring of the one with the many, and the many with the panorama, in their oeuvre:

Ghost in the Shell does not have a definite chosen set, but in terms of street scenes and general atmosphere, it is obvious that Hong Kong is the model. Such a choice has, of course, something to do with the theme: on the streets there flows an excess or a flood of information, along with everything this excess brings out. The modern city is swamped with billboards, neon lights and symbols…. As people live [unaware?] in this information deluge, the streets will have to be depicted accordingly as being flooded…. There is a sharp contrast between old streets and new ones on which skyscrapers are built. My feeling is that these two, originally very different, are now in a situation where one is invading the other. Maybe it is the tension or pressure that is brought about by so-called modernization! It's a situation in which two entities are kept in a strange neighboring relationship. Perhaps it is what the future is.

In the midst of the profusion of signs and the heat of the messy urban space, the streets are remarkably chaotic. Passers-by, shouts, cars, all kinds of mechanical noises and human “sound pollution,” all merging into one, forcing itself into humans' central nervous systems through their ears. But why do people succumb to this “destructive” environment? Now that the artificial has replaced the natural, humans are like animals in the past, deprived of the characteristics of being human as a whole. Pulled directly into the whirlpool of information through the stimulation of visual and auditory senses, their feelings are henceforth numbed. On the other hand, countless mutually interfering and uncertain data pass through cables at light speed. This is the way informatics continues to expand its domain. Are people then like tiny insects caught in an enormous spider web? No, it cannot be. Humans are not tiny insects trying to escape from the web. It's not like that. In fact humans have willy-nilly become part and parcel of the spider web. Humans now have no idea of what their destination might be; they are like one of the silky-threads of the spider web. [emphasis mine]

Nozaki, Tohru et. al. The Analysis of Ghost in the Shell . Tokyo: Kodansha Young Magazine, 1995; from on the edge of spaces: Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell, and Hong Kong's Cityscape by Wong Kin Yuen

The interesting side-note is that the fused, unclean landscape becomes in itself an illustration of the unclean, contaminated future. The atmospheric L.A. in Blade Runner was threatening by virtue of incorporating an overt Asianness into a city that was still collectively imagined as uniformly white-bred. This may be an aesthetic side-note, but there is a long history of urban 'regeneration', 'slum clearance', et cetera, in perfectly fine and functional districts of unfortunately colonial cities, due to this semiotic contamination. What we consider as exciting and vibrant now can, through the same set of lens, easily become threatening and dangerous. In both cases, there is a sense of leakage between worlds, of contamination.

7. On the other hand: But it is not just on this large scale of global cultural flows (particularly of technoscape, mediascape, and ideoscape) that fractal aesthetics are relevant to Ghost in the Shell. On a smaller level — namely, that of the body — the idea of the fractured body of the humanoid hybrid has been popular in cyborg films … Corporeality, as we remember, is one of the four Cs listed by Frances Bonner to delineate a general pattern of plotting in cyberpunk films, which emphasize the wetware of mutable bodies. For Baudrillard, the body is now an infinite set of surfaces — a fractal subject — an object among objects. In cyberpunk's hyper-techno culture, “the centrality of body” is paradoxically represented by “the fragmentation of the body into organs, fluids and 'bodily state,'” and “fractured body parts are taken up as elements in the constitution of cultural identities”. The cyborg woman warrior in Ghost in the Shell, following in this tradition, speaks also to the “emergence of cyborg identities” that is predicated on “the fractured, plural, decentered condition of contemporary subjectivity”. …

… And throughout the film, from the opening ritual of birth (or manufacture) in a feast of visuals dominated by images of numerals and water or fluid, to the later horror of the mutilated torso and limbs registering the monstrosity of cybernetic organisms, corporeality is closely linked first to the sea of information and then to the human-machine interface, both of which are firmly grounded in and contrasted with the background of a future Hong Kong cityscape.

… The monstrous, mutilated and deviant body, shattered by violence, comes close to Donna Haraway's notion of “regeneration after injury” for salamanders, though the “regrown limb can be monstrous, duplicated, potent”. … In a sense, the final scene of horror of mutation and the attempt by the “Ghost” of Puppet Master to merge with the “Shell” of our heroine is symbolic of the entanglement of “self and other within monstrosity and the parasitical relationship between the two”.

-from on the edge of spaces: Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell, and Hong Kong's Cityscape by Wong Kin Yuen

This, I think, is where Wong goes astray, seeing horror where there isn't necessarily any. The ending of Ghost in the Shell is, if not quite serene, then certainly hopeful and buzzing with excitement.

8. Now compare the following notes on bunraku. Keep in mind that Barthes, Claudel et al. were exposed to bunraku without understanding the language of the text, or its cultural context. Empire of Signs is well-known for Barthes's declaration that the Japan in its pages is “a fictive nation”, “a reserve of features whose manipulation… allows me to 'entertain' the idea of an unheard-of symbolic system.” What this collection of quotes shares with the analyses of Ghost in the Shell above is the cloudedness of eyes: they say more about Christian understanding of mind&body than the relationships explored in the artwork analysed. What they do is depict the confusion:

Barthes’s reading of the puppet theater comes in “A Lesson in Writing” [“Leçon d’écriture”] (1968), later revised and incorporated into The Empire of Signs [L’empire des signes]. His interpretation of Bunraku (the nineteenth-century descendant of Chikamatsu’s ningyô jôruri that is still preserved and performed today) hinges on a feature of the performance that has fascinated a number of Western critics: the fact that the puppet is manipulated by three human puppeteers who remain visible onstage, while the voices of all the puppets are performed by a single chanter.

For Barthes, this visible separation of the puppet’s body both from its voice and its motive force shatters the illusions of the Western theater and the Western subject, laying bare the layers of the theatrical sign. The dispersed subjects of the puppets undermine the Western notion of a unified, whole subject. The Western dichotomies that constitute the self as this unified whole—dichotomies such as inside and outside, body and soul, and God and human—are now replaced with new articulations of body, voice, and will that expose the layers of signification and self. Speaking of this dissociation as a kind of Brechtian alienation or “distance,” Barthes says that distance is made explicable by Bunraku, which allows us to see how it can function: by the discontinuity of the codes, by this caesura imposed on the various features of representation, so that the copy elaborated on the stage is not destroyed but somehow broken, striated, withdrawn from that metonymic contagion of voice and gesture, body and soul, which entraps our actors. [emphases now&upcoming mine]

… Paul Claudel expresses the soul of the puppet as something dispersed among the performers, the audience, and the language of the text. He notes that while a Western operator stands above his or her puppet and pulls its strings, the Japanese puppet replaces this vertical geometry with several manipulators and a reciter surrounding the puppet. From Barrault’s image of a “heart to heart” union, we move to an idea of the puppet as the bright center of a communal consciousness.

-from From Wooden Cyborgs to Celluloid Souls: Mechanical Bodies in Anime and Japanese Puppet Theater by Christopher A. Bolton

9. However, it soon gets interesting again, as Bolton dives into the actual history of bunraku, building on Chikamatsu Monzaemon's writings and the narrative conventions of nineteenth-century Japanese drama:

The most interesting kind of transformation in the puppet theater and the one that speaks most directly to the violence of Ghost in the Shell is the transformation brought about through death. A pessimistic interpretation might see violence and death as the inevitable tragic outcome of these social conflicts. But in the puppet theater, death is not only a consequence of these social pressures but also in some sense a willing transformation that reconciles individual volition with these social roles and expectations. For Jihei and Koharu, suicide releases Jihei from his obligations and atones for his failures, while it also represents a final consummation of the two figures’ love. They die in an attempt to respect or escape these obligations but also in the hope that they will be reborn together.

And so, at the end of Ghost in the shell: … She is neither Kusanagi nor the Puppet Master, but some combination of the two, alive both in body and on the net. This plural but embodied existence is figured in her voice. Barthes and others saw the puppets’ shared voice as a sign of the decentered self; but Kusanagi is able to regain her old voice, seeming to gather it up again from across the net. … But the voice more than anything signals a retention of her old self and a bodily wholeness, while the power to change voices also shows she can find herself in new places or transform herself in new ways. In this new (old) voice, she recites more of the passage from I Corinthians that was heard earlier in the film: “When I was a child, I spake as a child . . . but when I grew up, I put away childish things” [Warabe no toki wa kataru kotomowarabe no gotoku . . . narishi ga, hito to narite wa warabe no koto o sutetari]. In this passage that equates selfhood with speech, the Japanese translation of Paul is inclusive; where most English Bibles have “when I became a man,” Kusanagi says hito to narite: “when I became an adult,” or even “when I became human.” … If Kusanagi is a kind of puppet whose voice, weight, and story reflect a division between unified and decentered subjectivity, or freedom and fate, then this final scene also represents her as an independent subject. She is independent in the sense both of being self-sufficient and of being free. She is whole, but she retains an openness that allows her to define herself. Not closed, she is nevertheless complete.

-from From Wooden Cyborgs to Celluloid Souls: Mechanical Bodies in Anime and Japanese Puppet Theater by Christopher A. Bolton

10. Tiny side-note here should get some attention on the generous acceptance of communal living, action and harmony in a great deal of Asian countries, and the liberal perception of the same as a kind of Borg in the West (saying “in the West” here is probably the most problematic thing I have done so far in this text, and I am not putting myself 100% behind it). What came first, racist chauvinism or the fear of bodily de-individualisation is the proverbial chook&egg problem.

11. In an interesting piece on social acceptance of household robots in Japan, Robertson observes:

The cute and catchy names of many humanoids — such as PaPeRo, Wakamaru, Posy, Pino, Robovie—also create an affinity to the “cute characters” who have inhabited Japanese popular culture long before “real” humanoid robots appeared.

The Japanese use the word “character” (kyarakutμ) as a categorical term for endearing cartoon or toy mascots—like Hello Kitty (recently reincarnated as a robot)—almost all of whom have distinctive and individualistic personalities. The ifbot (sic) robot, for example, is packaged with… information about its past, hobbies, personality, and so forth. … The term “character” has several meanings: a fictional or imaginary person or entity; a quality or aspect that defines the apparent individual nature of a person or a thing; and the inherent complex of attributes that determines the nature of a person’s actions and reactions. In Japan, humanoid robots like ifbot not only have character, but they are regarded as and referred to as “persons”—not “as if ” they were persons, but as persons. This is readily evident in the use of certain suffixes, such as kun (for boys) and chan (for girls and boys), which indicate endearment, familiarity, cuteness, and/or child or diminutive status. Thus, Wakamaru is also referred to on Mitsubishi’s website as Wakamaru-kun.

-from Robertson, Jennifer (2007): 'Robo Sapiens Japanicus: Humanoid Robots and the Posthuman Family', Critical Asian Studies, 39:3, 369 – 398.

12. The meaning of the word “person” does not automatically include “human.” Generally, “person,” in both English and Japanese* (hito, jin, nin) means a human being. Legally, however, a “person” may statutorily include a corporation, partnership, trustee, or legal representative. A hðjin, for instance, is a juridical person. Moreover, “person” is also a grammatical category of pronouns and verb forms, such as the “third person” (daisansha — sha or mono is another Japanese word for “person”). To reiterate then: the issue here is not about personification, but about the person-ness of, or personhood attributed to, robots.

In addition, two key cultural factors influence the way in which Japanese perceive robots. First and foremost is Shinto, the native animistic beliefs about life and death. Monotheism has never had a home in Japan, and unlike the three major monotheisms, Shinto lacks complex metaphysical and theological theories and is primarily concerned with notions of purity and pollution. Shinto holds that vital energies or forces called kami are present in all aspects of the world and universe. Some kami are cosmic and others infuse trees, streams, rocks, insects, animals, and humans, as well as human creations, like dolls, cars, and robots.

The second factor concerns the meanings of life and living—life and fertility are especially celebrated in Shinto. Inochi, the Japanese word for “life,” encompasses three basic, seemingly contradictory but interarticulated meanings: a power that infuses sentient beings from generation to generation; a period between birth and death; and, the most essential quality of something whether a living thing or a made object, such as a puppet. Thus robots, humanoid and otherwise, are “living” things within the Shinto universe, and in that sense, are very much a part of the natural world. By the same token, the creation of humanoids— or artificial life—is not at all imagined as a matter of “playing God.”

-from Robertson, Jennifer (2007): 'Robo Sapiens Japanicus: Humanoid Robots and the Posthuman Family', Critical Asian Studies, 39:3, 369 – 398.

Two side-notes: the famous mourning ceremony for broken knitting needles; and the Zen dissertation on life, in which the common definition of life is dissected and shredded to non-existence, like an artichoke, finally ending on this note: all living things grow, but so do crystals. Finally, the pronoun mono (the same of mono no aware), which can be used interchangeably for animate and inanimate things, including people. This in itself would confuse a Western logician out of its mind, as it effectively puts in the same basket subjects and objects.

13. Although “platform” is a generic term in robotics, it has a specific resonance in Japan in connection with the theory of ba, or place or topos. The concept and theory of ba (which is often used interchangeably with basho) is closely associated with the work of Nishida Kitarð (1870–1945), generally regarded as the founder of modern Japanese philosophy. According to Nishida, ba — he uses basho—encompasses a non-dualistic concrete logic meant to overcome the inadequacy of the subject-object distinction. He proposes instead a dynamic tension of opposites that, contrary to Hegel, never resolves in a synthesis. This notion of ba is also concomitant with self-determination: as Nishida declares, “a self-determining entity cannot be located in something other than itself.” Moreover, the place (ba) of dynamic tension and the self-determined self are always in an incomplete or emergent state. Nishida’s theory of ba and self-determination stand in stark contrast to the logic of “Western” rationality (and perhaps monotheistic thinking more generally), which is based on a separated self (subject), where an object is observed as definitely separate by the subject who occupies the position of observer. The theory of ba proposes instead that a living system lives and maintains self-consistency by the contingent convergence of the separated self and the non-separated self.

Nearly twenty years ago, Donna Haraway envisioned a posthuman future— the “cyborg path”—as liberating, especially with regard to overcoming a Western philosophical history of excessively dualistic thinking. Haraway’s cyborg is an individual who is neither entirely technological nor totally biological, and neither male nor female in any absolute sense. However, as I discussed in the context of Nishida Kitarý’s theory of ba, “excessively dualistic thinking” has never been an issue in non-monotheistic Japan.

-from Robertson, Jennifer (2007): 'Robo Sapiens Japanicus: Humanoid Robots and the Posthuman Family', Critical Asian Studies, 39:3, 369 – 398.

14. I suppose the main reason why I've been doing this has been because I've been finding the idea of human mergers, in body or mind, not only suddenly plausible, but also quite attractive. That is, I would now argue that there are definite moments when a human being is not one and alone, but merging with the environment: when in love, of course, but also when listening to music, swimming in the sea, eating, feeling overwhelming emotions, not to mention crowd dynamics. I would also argue that there is, in a sense, that urge to blend ourselves in every attempt at interaction. There is, quite simply, a human merger in every friendship. In the hermetic solitude of our minds, we would simply go insane.

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