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Moinak Biswas- New Cinephilia

Moinak Biswas- New Cinephilia

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Film Studies, Film Practice and Asian Cinema: Points in Re-Connection[1] Moinak Biswas Department of Film Studies Jadavpur

University i. These reflections are prompted by the new cinephilia that is emerging across cities in India. I have in mind the small groups forming in Delhi, Bombay, Bangalore, Calcutta, Hyderabad, Chennai, and in smaller cities and towns, around the LCD projector and the DVD player, holding screenings of select films, often accompanied by discussions. The DVDs come from lending libraries and private collections, copy culture providing the basis to the creation of resource. I have had the opportunity to participate in discussions at a few such screenings recently. They seem to be a reincarnation of the film society in the digital era. The film society had its origins in India in 1947, reached its peak in the 1970s, and went into a steady decline in the mid-1980s. If video played a major role in that decline it is the DVD which is bringing it back to a new life from the ashes. It is, of course, a new life, and therefore, different in its promise. The composition of the groups itself is different, connected as it is to virtual societies on the Web, linked to home viewing facilities that were not available to the earlier film society members, smaller in size, and based more or personal acquaintance and friendship. As it so happens, at the moment, Asian Cinema forms a central focus of excitement in these fledgling societies. Interest in Iran was already deep when the activity took off, and Wong Kar-wai was already a favourite from the East. Then came the discovery of Hou Hsiao-hsien, Tsai Ming-liang, Edward Yang, Jia Zhangke, Kim Ki-duk, et al. I am calling the excitement around the encounter with these filmmakers cinephilia in the old sense. There is a fascination for the possibilities of cinema that these films are bringing back. There is a part in the appreciation that is critical of the fact that we do not expect Indian film industry to produce such films. It is analytical in the sense that it tries to grasp the artistic processes at work. And then, it is a critical education in the way it tries to connect the techniques back to the act of filmmaking, often feeding into an interest in making films, into the increasingly common dream,

fostered by digital formats, of the viewer turning into an imagemaker some day. The interest in technique is always evident in the way young viewers discover possibilities of cinema, but there is enough reason to see it also as a fascination with challenging material. Take, for example, the passages of non-action that characterize much of the cinema coming from the practitioners mentioned above - those wordless durations where action is stripped of its dramatic content to a degree that often pushes screen reality beyond its imaginary wholeness, towards a registration of bare space and time. I am choosing this thematic-stylistic device since it has historically characterized many attempts of deviation from the norm in cinema. It was once a recognizable mark of the contemplative and defiant form, for instance, in the European cinema of the 1960s and 70s. It has been part of the celluloid cinephilia to appreciate the barren places of Antonioni, the camera writing over space in Mizoguchi, the near ridiculous moments of anticipation in Jim Jarmusch, or the withdrawal of movement in Mani Kaul. It was also part of the viewer's education to come to terms with the dead moments in various ‘new wave’ styles. One remembers how, later on, Gilles Deleuze devised a nomenclature for these moments in cinema, and brought out their deeper significance for thought in the twentieth century. It is intriguing to see the new cinephile learning to take delight in the same interruptions in the standardized system of pleasure. The logic of the action-less passage can connect up with a range of ruptures through which new speech emerges in cinema, through which cinema dares to speak in a different language. It strikes correspondence with an interruption in the suture of on-screen and off-screen space, of which Kiarostami and Hou are the new masters. The technique may lend itself to rediscovery, but its function has to be different each time at the level of the content. Jia Zhangke, for example, inserts stillness in the very heart of the story of the modernizing miracle of China. For him it is another time, hidden in the heart of a province; but he feels it is precisely what should be presented as the time of the contemporary, not the capitalist time of growth. His criticism of the Fifth Generation's turn to the past and period pieces[2] is visible in the way he withdraws from action and the dramatic organization of space. The withdrawal makes it possible to figure the story of a systematic erasure of people and lifeworlds. As the young cinephile in India receives films like Unknown Pleasures and Platform does she think of the daily experience of our

provinces, urban fringes and suburbia that is almost never articulated in our mainstream cinema? Does she feel the same sense of absence as she watches the immobilized gangsters traveling across the city borders in Hou's Goodbye South, Goodbye? The strategic function of immobility is not necessarily only to provide a critical access to the contemporary. A film like The Puppetmaster ( Hou Hsiao-hsien) reveals how cinema can achieve the difficult task of positioning itself between the past and the present by using the same technique. Goodbye Dragon Inn (Tsai Mingliang) captures by the same method the emptiness invading cinema itself, in the shape of a theatre abandoned by the audience, in the compulsion to hand everything over to the past before it is time. One is always prompted to think of such things as more than technique because of this iterability, their renewed and repeated use across films, and their shifting effects. The range of possibilities organized around a single technical cluster could well present a legitimate point about the content we in India do not explore. The theme of homosexuality, for example, has found its way into our popular cinema. These are issues 'taken up' by films and remain extricable from them as issues. And then there are our serious films dealing with marital difficulties and physical disabilities. What must be a reinvigorating experience for the new cinephile is that something like homosexuality not only crosses the borders of chic and safe-play in a film like Tsai's The River, but the way the film opens itself to the unknown possibilities of cinema by placing the contingent sexual encounter between the father and the son without the justification of plot or character. The technique of immobility develops into a form in the proper sense as it bounces off these critical moments rather than follow a logic of succession. What it does in a film like The River is to clear space for a reconsideration of ideas that sustain our sense of reality. Rey Chow, in an essay on The River, calls this 'discursivity in production'. She thinks the stillness and non-decidability of the film helps a discursive scattering[3]. If, in its attempt to appreciate a technique like this, the new cinephilia reconnects with the older one one need not be alarmed about the return of dead paradigms. What we witness in the artistic adventure of the new Asian cinema is an ability to speak to the rich and varied history of world cinema. I am reminded of the way Fredric Jameson read Edward Yang's Terrorizer in 1992 in his 'Remapping Taipei', placing it side by side with Andre Gide's The

Counterfeiters, and saw the formal dynamics of the film, its recapture of the symptoms of an urban subjectivity, as a mirror in which modernism could discover truths about its own career[4]. One could think of the moment in What Time Is It There? when Jean-Pierre Leaud hands his phone number in a chit of paper to Chen Shiang-chyi a tribute from the young appearing on screen as a gesture of generosity from the old. The film stops at unexpected moments to remember Francois Truffaut's 400 Blows. Tsai says in an interview that Leaud wanted lines to speak in that scene, but he didn't want him to. He also says how, when the film was shown in Paris, the audience broke into applause the moment the silent Jean-Pierre Leaud, the most remembered face of the young from the Nouvelle Vague, appeared on the screen[5]. An applause of the cinephile, it was occasioned, one would like to think, by the connection that Paris established with Taipei at that moment.

ii. It is difficult for the Film Studies we practice to echo these moments of gratitude. To repeat the point about the connection between the new cinephilia and film practice, the technique that I mention above cannot be a part of the standard cinema, Hollywood, Bombay or Chennai. As someone associated with academic Film Studies in India, I see a chasm opening up once more between our work and the cinephile's engagement at this point. It is not the first time, since Film Studies began by marking a distance from the existing cinephile discourse. The latter was a discourse conducted under the aegis of the film society movement. The first generation of Indian Film Studies practitioners all came from that background. The new scholarship they represented became visible in the late 1980s. Film Studies soon found itself ensconced in the academia, the first full fledged Department with a postgraduate curriculum was to be launched at Jadavpur University in 1993. I have been asked here to speak from the experience of being associated with the Department; hence you will forgive me this quick overview based on personal impressions. A divergence from the film art discourse was necessary, we thought, to open a domain proper to the historical-cultural understanding of film. The auteurist bias, the focus on select films, prevented historical investigation, re-produced notions of art and the artist which appeared problematic in the face of the challenges from Theory. The absence of any historical account of the institution of Indian

cinema, for example, was obviously a product of the rarefied 'appreciation' approach to film that the existing discourse had. I come from a city which had an active film society movement, and it was also home to some of the most prominent practitioners of alternative cinema in India, including Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak. Film Studies there had a paradoxical circumstance of birth. It was possible to motivate the university to launch a Department of Film Studies in the face of skepticism from the academic old guard because of the prestige film culture enjoyed among the intellectuals; on the other hand, soon upon the formation of the Department it became clear that the writers and organizers belonging to the film society culture did not identify themselves with our work. That they found our business esoteric was only one side of the problem; they also found it baffling that we shifted our attention from the art of cinema entirely to its culture, and therefore, also got occupied with a kind of cinema which the film society movement was launched to debunk. I do not have to tell this audience about the benefits of that departure. If that justification is at all needed I should rather be arguing with my disappointed friends from the film societies. I have been asked to reflect on the experience of the Department rather than tell the story of its environmental adaptation. I would like to speak a little about the internal effects of that adaptation though. When we formulated the syllabi for the Department, we were enjoined to strike a balance between Film Studies and its non-academic neighbour discourses. In teaching Hollywood and film theory we were drawn naturally to the seventies film theory and the attending historical research; in our courses on the world cinema schools (Europe, Latin America, Japan) we leant on a selection of critical texts that precede and run parallel to film theory. The courses that dealt with Indian cinema and cultural theory had to make a quick connection with what was then an incipient scholarship of Film Studies orientation in India. This bricolage of tools was sought to be put within a framing Film Studies discourse, which, after film theory washed ashore and receded, formed a closer alliance with Cultural Studies. As Film Studies began its productive investigation of the institution of cinema in India it had to deflect the focus onto culture. I would like to remember here that this does not necessarily demand a turn to the 'category of popular culture', since the new scholarship promised to analyze the processes of cultural production of all kinds of cinema, not only the mainstream popular. So far as a focus on

production was retained, it held the promise of taking us back to film practice, the uncovered weave of cultural composition offering an engagement with films not only wider but richer than auteur-based or close textual discussion . But let us remember that there was no radical content to this struggle to wean away criticism from art to culture, it was precisely what the new economy of culture demanded. Academic Film Studies began its career in India at a time when the state was about to withdraw its support to alternative cinema, a certain cultural project of post-independence modernity was coming to an end; the state's initiatives in culture was being handed over to the market. It also coincided with the onset of new television and the implication of cinema in a new audiovisual matrix, the beginning of the 'end of cinema as we knew it'. To the Film Studies scholar the alternative cinema in the feature film sector will simply become unavailable. It would not be inaccurate to say that that the Cultural Studies turn became recognizable in the increasing interest Film Studies began to take in the broad area of reception, and the increasing investment in the contemporary. Once again, I assume that I do not need to mention the important results of that project. The work on the changing exhibition modes and new forms of dissemination, for instance, is one of the most exciting areas of current research. This turn, however, made the rift between two approaches to cinema clearer. In the teaching situation, we do not necessarily produce scholarly material, we introduce them. We need a somewhat finished body of work to take to the students; and therefore, often move at a lag with research. But sometimes, you would agree, that little gap forces a choice on us, which has its own benefits given the occasional hazards of being fully contemporary to the contemporary. And one is not always sharing a discourse among peers in the class; the students have their own reality to present. We have often felt that the students, exposed only to Indian and American mainstream cinema, no longer having the support of the film society, should first know another cinema exists. They should not be deprived of the immersion in a cinema that has made us relate to the world in a new way, revealed the immense potentials of sound and image, provided incitement to thought, have changed us in small and important ways. One had to invoke a discourse that did not overlap with the new film scholarship in India in order to keep a dialogue on with Ozu or Oshima, Bunuel or Renoir, Ghatak or Glauber Rocha, even as one talked about the politics of popular pleasure.

The Japanese critic Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto says in an essay that the reason Japan doesn't have Film Studies is the study of cinema there never took off from the older humanities framework in the direction of Cultural Studies[6]. What happens when Film Studies co-exists in the university with other humanities disciplines? While the literature courses at Jadavpur have over the years incorporated parts of our content, Film Studies in its turn has been reminded of the usefulness of the methods they work with, which may not belong to Cultural Studies. I would say criticism is at stake at the juncture where we stand. Criticism demands a distance, a non-identity with the object. Film Studies in its current shape in India, tends to lose contact with criticism in that sense, committed as it is to what is, to the description of the given. In its reading of cultural symptoms it often resembles the hybrid body of the popular cinematic frame it encounters, collapsing the framing gap with the object. We run the risk of ending up placing a trust in the industry as the only creative source since it defines our area of operation. In that sense, retaining the framing gap would mean keeping alive the reflection on the possibilities of cinema, connecting back to creation of films. Retaining the gap would also mean taking a detour through other cinemas, those that are close to us, and yet distant. After all, a trend within Cultural Studies, by isolating the elements of artistic production and laying bare their strategic and historical functions, their diverse affiliations, sought to open the way for their renewal. Film Studies, especially in the space it shares with students, may need a conversation with the cinephile at this point, who is exploring the alternatives that exist next door, using them as the 'outside' that every criticism needs. It is not as if the industrial film in India does not establish links of its own kind with film scholarship. The smartness of contemporary Indian cinema shows how it has already incorporated a certain critical discourse about itself and turned it into an advantage. Why shouldn't criticism also attempt to make a connection with the films that are about to come, maybe through a process in which our filmmakers join the collaborative network in East Asia that sustains the new Asian cinema. The cinephile's viewing activity is connected by an imaginary thread to the films that many of the young, not content with what our cinema has to offer, would like to make. Shouldn't Film Studies also produce accounts of existing films that remember those that are made in our heads? -----------------------

[1] This paper was prepared for ‘Asian Cinema: Towards a Research and Teaching Agenda’, International Conference organized by Centre for the Study of Culture and Society, Bangalore, in February, 2007. [2] 'Capturing a Transforming Reality', interview with Michael Berry, in Berry, Speaking in Images, New York, 2005 [3] 'A Pain in the Neck, A Scene of "Incest", and Other Enigmas of an Allegorical Cinema, Tsai Ming-liang's The River', New Centennial Review 4.1 (2004) [4] Jameson in The Geopolitical Aesthetic, Cinema and Space in the World System, London, 1992 [5] '"My Films Reflect My Living Situation": An Interview with Tsai Ming-liang on Film Spaces, Audiences, and Distribution', by Sujen Wang and Chris Fujiwara, positions: east asia cultures critique, 14.1 (2006) [6] See Yoshimoto, 'The University, Disciplines, National Identity. Why is There No Film Studies in Japan?', South Atlantic Quarterly (2000) _________________________________________ reader-list: an open discussion list on media and the city. Critiques & Collaborations To subscribe: send an email to reader-list-request@sarai.net with subscribe in the subject header. To unsubscribe: https://mail.sarai.net/mailman/listinfo/reader-list List archive: <https://mail.sarai.net/pipermail/reader-list/>

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