Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Political Statement and cultural identity.
There seem to be two conflicting messages being expressed in the discourse surrounding Sud Sunaeha, 2002. The first is that the film has no specific political message. Weerasethakul himself, in this article, articulates a personal politic that ‘as yet’, has not infiltrated his films. However, Weerasethakul appears to contradict himself he mentions that the inspiration for Sud Sunaeha was watching two young Burmese women snatched off the street as illegal immigrants. As Felicity mentioned the political context of the film is quite dense, It implies a world of violence and war in desperately close proximity to the universally mundane daily life the director often attempts to depict. Because Blissfully Yours refrains from directly illustrating the intense violence of the Burmese conflict does it sidestep the issue altogether? In an interview considering, among other things, the position of the UN in the conflict, French minister for Foreign and European Affairs M. Bernard Kouchner states the idea that, especially in the case of war, the absence of the image unavoidably results in apathy. He is suggesting that, since the evolution of technology has brought the immediacy of war to us and forced us to react to it’s visible presence, we are now completely unable to respond to anything less than explicit visual representation, and thus we fail to react to issues of violated human rights until a graphic image depicting the particular violation is thrust under our noses.
This idea of technology having crippled our sympathetic activism is a frightening on but a parallel question can be asked in relation to Sud Sunaeha. If the intention and aesthetic of a film insists on neutrality, is it possible for the audience to forbid it this stance and imply onto it a political persona? Weerasethakul says in the interview above that Blissfully Yours is concerned with the depiction of everyday life, mundane and unextroadinary. It is fair to a film then, for the audience to determine a political aesthetic for it based on our understanding of its politcal context? I think it is possible and reasonable to do this if we consider the film concerned as an object of aesthetic rather than of narrative.
The power globalisation wields towards the destruction of notions of identity is one that that has been recognised in scholarship over the last decades. Sud Sunaeha, Weerasethakul and Thailand itself are useful in an assessment of these ideas. To return to the philosophical documentary I utilised in my entry on Cuaron’s Children of Men, the philosophers have a lot to say on the subject. Fabrizio Eva suggests that although globalisation cannot immediately eradicate a cultural identity, it can present the youth of that culture with the concept that they do not have to accept their culture the way it is, they can simply merge it with favorable aspects of other cultures. Todorov says that in the process of immigration, culture is forgotten by the young. He equates culture with identity and identity with humanity, and thus the destruction of one’s cultural identity is equal to the destruction of one’s humanity. Saskia Sassen however, equates the loss of culture to the loss of membership. She argues that political membership within a culture is what creates identity, and the disenfranchising of one’s culture leads to the absence of political membership and subsequent loss of identity.
Apichatpong Weerasethakul has been known to mention the contrast between the instinctual and culturally conditioned facets of human nature in terms of life in the jungle versus life in the city. I think this dichotomy is well represented by the style of his cinema, and is especially evident in a comparison of two of his films; Sud Sanaeha [Blissfully Yours] and Hua jai tor ra nong [Adventure of Iron Pussy]. In the interview linked to above, Weerasethakul claims that Thailand is void of any true individual identity. He says that the country absorbs and assimilates everything it comes into contact with and such cross fertilisation results in a neutralising of identity. These two films seem indicative of two of the contrasting identifications visible in Thai culture. The former demonstrates the contemplative nature of the Thai landscape and temperature. It illustrates a snapshot of day to day existence. The latter shows us very clearly, in the mode of Tears of the Black Tiger (2000), the cross-culturalism prominent in Thai culture and the pride Thai entertainment takes in it.
And yet, it is the film’s identity as a Thai creation which allows us to attach the political aesthetic mentioned above. I think it is difficult for anyone existing inside the confines of a culture to assess the features of that culture. Australia has often been described as a country void of identity; the argument being that our multiculturalism prevents any definitive identity from forming. This article from the Australian Monarchists is interesting to peruse with this idea in mind. I would argue that this multiculturalism, rather than hampering our identity, is simply a prominent element of our identity. It is easy to make a comparison between the formation and understanding of identity and that of aesthetic. We would not say that a film had so many different faces that it was impossible to identity a consistent and defining one; we would assume that the combination of difference was in fact the aesthetic point. So too we can understand identity; the identity implied by the miscellanea of culture in both Thailand and Australia does not suggest a lack of definite identity, but rather one whose whole revels in difference and inconsistency.
November 8, 2007
I think the question of historical authenticity is a fascinating one and the dilemma surrounding it is implied sublimely in Marie Antoinette. William Woods, in his essay Authenticating Realism in Medieval Film, argues that the attempt to create a consistent realist style in historical cinema is futile because such authenticity is essentially unachievable. He also wonders, if it were possible to generate a state of Medieval realism in the cinema, “what would be the charm in that artless, un-aesthetic view?”
Have a look at this Publicity Trailer for Laurence Olivier’s Henry V of 1946.
That certainly seems to be the philosophy that Sofia Coppola has subscribed to in her rendition of the enduring myth of Queen Marie Antoinette. I think it is useful to imagine Coppola’s film in terms of myth; she treats Marie’s story with great regard to its mythological imaginings. It could be argued that myth has acted over history as a vessel for ideology. The many uses that the legend of King Arthur has been put to over the centuries demonstrates this argument succinctly. Its use in the medieval period as a deterrent to Knights from unnecessary acts of violence outside the context of war and likewise as an ideological institution under which this selfsame violence is legitimised in the confines of war, served the governing bodies well. Likewise its use in the early decades of the 20th century as a tool of propaganda to inspire men enlist for the first and second World Wars led to the involvement of a huge proportion of the British population who had been reared according to chivalric values throughout their childhood, largely through the public school system.
The construct Marie Antoinette is a perfect example of the manipulative function of myth. Coppola’s film makes a blithe comment on this, mirroring the unoriginal but probably quite valid suggestion made throughout history that the persona of Maria Antoinette was largely a myth constructed to serve the revolution. This is not, however, the reason for Coppola’s utilisation of the myth. I would argue that, as the myth has been used as a vessel to serve the ideology of the period that renders it, the ideology communicated by Coppola’s Marie Antoinette is the ideology of aesthetics. Every element of Coppola’s construction of the film, both in terms of narrative and of technique, seems to be contributing to the composition of an aesthetic. And I absolutely agree with her priorities. Like Woods says, I see precious little point in striving for realism in historical cinema, because any semblance of authenticity gained is necessarily incomplete, and all the more false for purporting truth. The truth of cinema lies in its aesthetic, and Coppola is striving for a comprehensive truth. The myth and story and symbolism of the tale is simple a vessel essential to the conveyance of the dominant ideology of our time; aesthetics.
Authentic? No. Enjoyable? Yes!
As much as it is possible to read Marie Antoinette as a teenage melodrama relocated historically and a rendering of a familiar story redefined in the accessible terms of 21st century pop culture, the historical authenticity or realism of Marie Antoinette is absolutely inconsequential. This rendition into pop culture language may however be considered in terms of the aesthetic Sofia Coppola is trying to communicate. Patricia Pisters articulates the idea that the question of identity is more a continuous process of ‘becoming rather than being’. She suggests that this ‘becoming’ is assisted by music; that the pop music that we listen to and are exposed to produces the people, rather than the often expressed idea that music is representative of what is happening in culture at the time of its production. I think it is possible to see our protagonist in Coppola’s Marie Antoinette as a physical symbol of the development of the films aesthetic.
Often is the idea of the film symbolising the development or becoming of a character expressed, less often the reverse. The process of ‘becoming’ experienced by Marie can be paralleled to the development of the aesthetic of Marie Antoinette, largely motivated by sound design. The development of Marie as a character is punctuated by a mood of experimentation. The gentle music of her homeland is starkly contrasted with the punk and pop music introduced on her arrival in France and is developed to its height in Versailles. The mood is once again moderated by temperance as Marie indulges her inner naturalist in her country manor. But just as the eggs Marie ‘collects’ with her little one are carefully treated before she comes in contact with them, so is the audio aesthetic of the film constantly treated to assist our understanding. It seems to the viewer that Marie’s personality is controlled by her audio context, the suggestion being that persona and identity are merely constructions of our surrounding aesthetic.
This is particularly interesting in terms of sound, especially considering that a significant proportion of people existing in western societies carry their own soundtracks with them every day. The development of technology that provided us with ipods, mp3 players and the like allows us to choose an audio aesthetic for our day to day existence. Feeling angry? A little punk on the way to work will cement the mood. Pining over unrequited love? Bung on the country music while walking home will bring the tears. It is impossible to discuss the idea that our identity and therefore our actions are defined and shaped by our musical exposure without considering the serious negative publicity given to Marylin Manson in the deluge of media attention following the Columbine High School shootings. There was a certain amount of discussion regarding Manson and the influence of his music on the two teenagers responsible for the massacre.
I have always dismissed this as an example of culture clash, and assumed that those levelling the accusations against Manson were simply on the lookout for a scapegoat and found one in a figure superficially promoting violence and aggression that they had were separated culturally from and therefore could not understand. However, this idea that our identity is formed by our musical and aesthetic experiences lends some significant credence to what I always assumes was an excessively simplistic and irrational argument.
November 8, 2007
Realism and the hyper-real aesthetic
In Children of Men Alfonso Cuaron seems to have gone to considerable lengths to construct an aesthetic of Realism. He is interested in convincing his viewers that the world he has constructed possesses existence outside the confines of the film, both spatially and temporally.
The ad inserted above exists both within the diegetic world of Children of Men and within our own world. The design features are based on the same principles as design in our real world, so the look is not foreign to us. So too, the products advertised are more or less extensions of products which exist and are available to us in the real world. Clothing is available for pets, and it is not an unimaginable leap of the imagination to see the affluent expending such formidable sums on their pet’s image. In fact, I would not say with any degree of confidence that such a product is not already available. Check out this website for an insight into the truly frightening world of puppy fashions. The mood altering and cosmetic pharmaceutical solutions advertised within the film’s diegesis also appear merely an extension of products already available. One needs only to attend to the continuing discourse on the overuse of calming drug Ritalin to understand the concerns that spawned the product ‘Bliss’, fabricated in the diegesis of Children of Men. And all that is needed to lend a little reality to ‘Forever Young’, the cosmetic solution in the film’s showreel, is to try a google search and wade through the tens of pages of results.
Philosopher and Cultural Critic Slavov Zizek, in a fascinating philosophical documentary inspired by Cuaron’s film, describes realism as possessing a hyper-real aesthetic. Just as, he says, ‘ a good portrait is more like you than you yourself’ realism depicts a state of accentuated reality in which we see not ‘ultimate reality’ but the real in a heightened state.
This is certainly something that strikes me about Children of Men. One of Cuaron’s strategies to affect realism seems to be; take reality as it is now, enhance it slightly by combining imagery and implications poignant to us today, and voila! Instant realist aesthetic of the near future. The scene in which Miriam is led off the bus at Bexhill is is a flurry of references. It brings to mind Guantanamo Bay, imagery of the notorious Abu Ghraib prison torture, and is reminiscent of Holocaust imagery. Cuaron attempts an aesthetic more horrifically real by tumbling recognisable imagery we associate with violence and the abuse of human rights together in the one scene. His assumption is that such images will evoke basic instinctual reactions based on reality as we recognise them as real, suggesting that the diegetic world of the film and our own share a reality. However, rather than create an aesthetic of realism, this higgldey-piggldey compilation of realistic horrors once again evokes a feeling of hyper-realism, a world somehow more real than the one we exist in.
It is clear that Cuaron and cinematographer Emmanual Lubezki were striving for an aesthetic of Realism; Lubezki says in an interview that he was trying to make the film look a ‘bit like a documentary’. He says that their use of lighting was very intentionally natural, that the experience was intended as a visceral one; the viewer is invited to experience the chaos. The cinematographer claims that all this was because they didn’t want to ‘glamorise moments of humanity.’ I think this statement is a good example of what Zizek was trying to communicate. The defining moment of humanity in Children of Men is, of course, the birth of a child when such a thing was thought impossible. If we had to isolate this moment to one temporal moment in the film, it would have to be as the two main characters are emerging from the shattered high rise and are wondered at peacefully by the soldiers destroying human life everywhere else. The long takes, so notable elsewhere through the film, are ostensibly present to add to the aesthetic of realism, as is the drab colouring and the natural lighting previously mentioned. It is a moot point then, that in this moment of supposed heightened reality, a moment of humanity naked of glamour, Cuaron uses curiously attention seeking non-diegetic music. I can only guess that he motives were concerned with heightening the dramatic effect, and it certainly does this effectively, but all sense of realism is immediately compromised with such a glaring rupture of the diegetic world. This leads me to conclude that although, as Felicity suggests, Cuaron’s focus on the technical aspects of the film tended to overshadow the political statement of the film, it never commits itself totally to the affectation of realism. Traditional cinematic conventions such as the addition of music to dramatically heighten a moment of melodramatic climax persevere and conquer the means of creating an aesthetic in Children of Men.
Buffy, Harry Potter and the hunting of children
So even though the aesthetic tone is significantly different, i think there are some interesting parallels to be found between Pan’s Labyrinth and the T.V series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The final episode of the first season of Buffy, Prophecy Girl deals with all the same issues Felicity mentions on her blog relating to Harry Potter, Narnia, Spirited Away etc; children existing in a state of preparation for war, for loss and standing on an entirely different continent from their adult contacts. Prophecy Girl is a particularly interesting episode because for the first time in the series it actually attempts a dark aesthetic. At the suspenseful climax of the episode, as Buffy enters the lair of the big boss Vampire known as the Master, he strips away the layer of comedy insulating the horror of the scene by drawing attention to her witty banter that has continued through the entire series. The cinematography that follows is shadowy and foreboding, similar to the Italian school of horror of Dario Argento and Suspiria.
It’s interesting when compared to that aesthetic of Cuaron in Harry Potter: Prisoner of Azkaban or Pan’s Labyrinth. When stripped of all the teenage melodrama, the essentially the episode is about an experienced and physically indomitable man preying on a young and attractive girl, with the intention to penetrate her body and ultimately take her life, just like Harry is an orphaned boy being hunted by an older and infinitely more dangerous man who intends to kill him. Scary Stuff.
Ofelia is hunted from many angles. Obviously the danger that threatens her from the real world is potent and ultimately fatal, but her fantasy world pursues her as well, and never is she completely fearless with the vaguely menacing faun. As Felicity mentions, Pan’s Labyrinth appears preoccupied with notions of the body. I am particularly interested in this case, in the body’s potential for violence. Complicating this idea is the fact that both the Faun, Ofelia’s supposed helper, and the Pale Man, consumer of children, are played by the same actor. This video shows the actor, Doug Jones, discussing how he was able to play both characters and the practical concerns of his characters’ physicalities.
By using the same actor for the Faun, problematic symbol of good; and the Pale Man; symbol of evil, del Toro makes a poignant comment on the dichotomy of human nature, and embarks on a discourse of the body. We can read the body as a vessel capable of containing both goodness and evil, and are reminded that despite varying degrees of goodness, every body possesses the potential to commit acts of great violence.
It is necessary for the historical film to align itself with some ideological premise, in doing so delegating at least one party to the position of the ‘baddies’; negligence in doing so forfeits the films ability to evoke emotional reaction. It is important however, to remember that rarely in war and conflict are there forces of ‘pure evil’; ideologies that do not align with our own can not be equated to evil people. This concept gains consequence when considering Pans Labyrinth, embedded as it is in the context of Fascist Spain. The movement represented by Captain Vidal and his cronies are illustrated in opposition to the guerrillas living in the woods. Franco’s Spain is depicted through Vidal as dark, threatening and unreasonable, teetering on the edge of hysteria and insanity. However, Franco’s fascist regime has now ended, and the ideology it represented opposes our own. Del Toro does not allow the viewer to understand the evils of Pan’s Labyrinth only in terms of Vidal.
The violence in the film is intense; the scene in which Vidal continually stabs the farmer in the eye with a broken bottle is one of the most affecting scenes of violence I have ever encountered, within or without of the cinema. However, the guerrillas also demonstrate potential for excessive violence; Vidal’s own tortuous activities are countered in equal terms by Mercedes’ tearing his mocking face wide open.
There are many instances of evil committed by characters who are supposed to be good in addition to this memorable scene; Ofelia’s mother apparently levels no objection to the activities of her husband, the Faun does nothing to prevent the little girl’s violent death; in fact it seems that it was his objective all along. Rather than the positive concept that there is good in every body, Pan’s Labyrinth seems to be attempting to show that the opposite is also true; every body is capable of acts of intense violence. The suggestion is not that war is inhabited by two sides of good people drawn to evil acts, but that all people have essential element of evil in their nature, and that the ‘goodies’ are only created by those who survive long enough to edit the records of their behaviour.
In this Blog, the author wonders why del Toro finishes the film with an implication of victory for the guerrillas, when they were ultimately defeated. I would argue that his point is that in the sense of this film, they are victorious, because it is from their point of view that the story comes. The story is constructed in such a way as to legitimise their actions of violence and demonise those of Vidal, regardless of the fact that both were horrendous. Thus the aesthetic created is one of fear and suspicion, and suspense. When will the violence inherent in the good natured character reveal itself?
If we understand the supernatural beings in Pan’s Labyrinth as creations of Ofelias imagination, both the Pale Man and the Faun are products of this little girl’s thoughts. I would suggest that they are both embodiments of the dichotomy of Ofelia’s character.