Tag Archives: Stanley Kwan

A Pair Of Book Reviews

On Tuesday, May 9th, 2017 two stories broke on my facebook feed. One was from indiewire that detailed David Lynch’s “retirement” from making films (2006’s Inland Empire is to be his swan song). The second appeared courtesy of the Sydney Film Festival blog and explained why Martin Scorsese believes that the cinema is dead. If one is to take the statements of these two filmmakers at face value than the forecast for motion pictures seems to be pretty dire. However, it seems to me that both filmmakers are speaking with too much haste.

Desiree Gruber, David Lynch and Kyle Maclachlan in Paris

It is true that the mainstream of Western film production is relatively bankrupt. I myself have gone on and on about the irredeemable qualities of the current Hollywood franchises. Yet, this corner of the cinema, the one that dominates our media intake online and on television, represents only a fraction of what the cinema is today. One cannot gauge the current state of affairs in the cinema by using something like the Academy Awards or the Cannes Film Festival as a barometer. Films from the Middle East, Africa, and Asia all indicate innovation and progress in the tradition of such renowned filmmakers as Fritz Lang, Elaine May, Stanley Kwan, John Cassavetes, Ousmane Sembène, Nagisa Oshima, Alan Clarke, Béla Tarr, and Abbas Kiarostami just for starters. Not to mention the legions of underground filmmakers working in the U.S., Great Britain, France, Canada, etc. This, the underground, is where the majority of films are being made today (this leaves out, of course, the iconoclastic filmmakers still working within the mainstream that Lynch and Scorsese have given up on such as Jim Jarmusch, Andrea Arnold, Terence Davies, Atom Egoyan, Claire Denis, Charles Burnett, and Abel Ferrara; to name just a few).

As someone who works as an educator in the medium of film I can attest to a continued interest in the history of world cinema amongst my students. During this last semester I had a student who made weekly trips to his public library to rent Criterion Collection DVDs. I also had a student who, at age 16, had already made two documentaries and has decided she would like to focus on making some comedic short films. I was also fortunate enough to work with some acting students on two short film adaptations of works by Hal Hartley and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. So as far as I can see, the cinema is nowhere near dying off anytime soon.

In the interest of preserving the cinema I would like to recommend two books on the cinema. I often wish I could assign more readings to my students during the time I have with them, but the length, the specificity and some of the academic language of these books would render them inaccessible to my students in the context of the classes I teach. So I will relate some thoughts and reflections concerning these two publications to those who read this blog instead (which, to my delight, does include some former students).

Fassbinder and Thomsen

The first text I would like to address is Christian Braad Thomsen’s Fassbinder: The Life & Work Of A Provocative Genius. First published in 1991, Thomsen’s piece is unique in the realm of studies surrounding Fassbinder’s work in so far as Thomsen actually knew Rainer Werner Fassbinder quite well and can offer some qualified analysis of his films. The title speaks to Thomsen’s regards for Fassbinder and the text makes quite an argument in support of those regards.

Unlike the work of Wallace Steadman Watson, Thomsen succeeds in contextualizing Fassbinder’s work in the theatre within his filmography. Drawing on aesthetic and political similarities, Thomsen paints a clear portrait of Fassbinder’s artistic development in both mediums. Their mutual friendship also gives Thomsen some unique insights into the more psychological readings of films such as Fassbinder’s segment in the anthology film Germany In Autumn, In A Year With Thirteen Moons and other personal films. Thomsen also brings the importance of the novels Effi Briest and Berlin Alexanderplatz as narrative influences to clearer light, going so far as to identify character types outlined by these two novels that find their echoes as early in Fassbinder’s career as Love Is Colder Than Death.

The true highlight of Thomsen’s book is the close analysis of Fassbinder’s more avant-garde films and videos such as Bremen Coffee, Nora Helmer, The Journey To Niklashausen, Pioneers In Ingolstadt and Eight Hours Are Not A Day. These titles in particular are often overlooked in studies of Fassbinder.

Thomsen’s weakness as a writer, and this may be due to the fact that the text is translated from Danish, is in the prose style. There are a number of instances where the language is casual, lending the text an air of amateurism that I am sure is quite unintentional. This style maybe appropriate for the anecdotal elements of the book, but it reads poorly in the sections of concentrated and deliberate analysis of specific works. That said, while Thomsen’s book is a highly informative and accessible piece of literature on the subject of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, it is not as exhaustive in its presentation of information on Fassbinder as The Anarchy Of The Imagination, published by PAJ Books in 1992.

Ms. 45

The second publication I will address exists on the total opposite end of the spectrum of the literary discourse of the cinema. Nicole Brenez’s Abel Ferrara, published in 2007 as part of the University Of Illinois Press’ series on contemporary filmmakers, is an entirely scholarly piece of writing and represents the best of what film academia has to offer in the way of auteurist theory. The structure of Brenez’s book is to present a close analysis of Ferrara’s films in the first half, ending with a second half that is a transcription of a question-and-answer session following a screening of the film ‘R Xmas at the highly regarded Cinémathèque Française in 2003. By structuring her text in this manner Brenez allows her subject to support her own interpretations of his work in his own words, though in a less detailed and more casual conversational context.

Brenez’s book looks at all of Abel Ferrara’s films from Driller Killer to The Blackout in varying degrees of detail. The films that receive the most attention are Ms. 45, Bad Lieutenant, The Addiction, Bodysnatchers, The Funeral, New Rose Hotel, and The Blackout. Brenez’s exhaustive and highly specific analysis of these films is singular in film scholarship. The kind of thorough and detailed readings Brenez offers us of Ferrara’s films cannot be found elsewhere. Abel Ferrara is a filmmaker who is, for the most part, largely ignored within the discourse of film, often surfacing as a topic of interest in a limited capacity primarily in general overview studies of American Independent Filmmaking and its history.

Perhaps the most delightful portion of Brenez’s work on Ferrara is her analysis of the “time image” in relation to The Addiction. Brenez very successfully argues that the shared traumas of war and genocide in the 20th century are in fact what prompts the highly allegorical vampirism of The Addiction’s narrative. Not only that, but she successfully ties in the commentaries on society found within Bodysnatchers and King Of New York as being earlier iterations of the same social analysis found in The Addiction. Likewise, Brenez’s investigation into the modes of character duality in Ferrara’s Dangerous Game, Bad Lieutenant, Ms. 45, The Funeral and The Blackout is equally as impressive.

Brenez is wise in her analysis not to look to hard at Ferrara’s filmic influences. Often these kinds of studies on specific filmmakers become bogged down in the auteurist trap of tracing influences as a kind of aesthetic genealogy.  The weakness of Brenez’s book is that, for a few readers at least, the language is extremely academic and the prose highly refined and elaborate.

John Huston, Orson Welles, and Peter Bogdanovich
In conclusion I would like to return to the catalyst for this piece and discuss briefly my approach to writing this post. Originally I was going to open this piece with a quote from Orson Welles taken from This Is Orson Welles  concerning the nature of film in academia. But given the bleak forecastings of David Lynch and Martin Scorsese I think that the discourse that these two publications represent as well as the example of Orson Welles will dispel any anxieties surrounding the future of the cinema. Consider that these publications represent only a minute sampling of the literature on the subject of film. Then consider that Orson Welles spent the last decade of his life trying to complete a number of films that remain unfinished and yet he never lost hope nor did he ever give up. The cinema is alive and well, without a doubt.

-Robert Curry

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Stanley Kwan & The Death Of Ruan Ling-yu

“Woman’s awareness of herself is not defined exclusively by her sexuality: it reflects a situation that depends upon the economic organization of society, which in turn indicates what stage of technical evolution mankind has attained.” – Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 1952

Maggie Cheung as Ruan Ling-yu

Critical discourse typically presents a cinematic celebrity or persona, be it that of a performer, director, producer, etc., in binary terms; either in circumstances of fetishization or philosophication.  Even then, in terms of cinematic depictions, the former far succeeds the latter.  Films such as Larry Peerce’s Wired (1989) present this fetishization in the most trivializing and offensive manner, though, in spite of itself, a highly marketable one.  Few films have been able to transcend this exploitative stance on biographical material concerning actors and filmmakers.  Mark Rappaport’s Rock Hudson’s Home Movies (1992) is a rare exception.  Unlike most commercial films with similar subjects, Rappaport manages to balance both biographical information with critical investigation.  In Rock Hudson’s Home Movies Eric Farr plays the titular subject, and it is he who walks us through clips collected from Hudson’s filmography and offers us a biographical context, as well as a new perspective with which to view and analyze these selected clips in a context indigenous to the 1990s.  Hence Rappaport’s film tends to be more anthropological than it does anything else.  The approach Rappaport takes towards his subject in terms of technique demands a great deal of the spectator, accounting for why so few have followed in his footsteps outside of the vein of short video essays.  On the surface, Stanley Kwan appears to be marrying both techniques and aesthetics together in his film Actress (1992).  However the cross textual relationship between both sections of Actress complicate such a reading in how one aspect of the film informs the other within a binary complex.  

One part of Actress is set in 1992 and shot on video.  This section charts the legacy of the films subject, Ruan Ling-yu, to varying degrees. The other section of the film follows Maggie Cheung in the part of Ruan Ling-yu reenacting the events that resulted in the famous actress’ suicide in 1935 at the height of her career.  These two different sections are shuffled together, a moment from one section may be echoed in another, and vice versa.  The effect is that Actress is as much about the death of Ruan Ling-yu as it is about how her death shaped her legacy.

Kwan is interested in what Ruan Ling-yu’s persona means and how audiences have come to deal with it.  In American terms one could roughly equate Ruan Ling-yu’s legacy with that of James Dean or Marilyn Monroe.  For Kwan there are two kinds of images at work in Actress; the immediate and the abstract.  The abstract images represent the “immortal” aspect of Ruan Ling-yu’s persona.  These images are collected in the film in the 1992 pseudo documentary section, though they are all of the past.  Each of these images are of Ruan Ling-yu herself, either in clips from her films that coincide with Cheung’s reenacting of their production or from old newspaper clippings.  The images here are of Ruan Ling-yu as she once was and has remained, immortalized by the camera, rendered exclusively to the confines of our collective imagination.  The immediate images represent the mortal part of her persona; the flesh and blood.  This is rendered in Cheung’s performance as Ruan Ling-yu in a fabricated reality born out of Kwan’s imagining of her life.  Here the audience emotes with the character of Ruan Ling-yu as it shares in her experiences; an inclusive experience as opposed to the exclusive experience of the other section.  It is also telling that it is the fiction that is more of a reality to an audience than the reality of Ruan Ling-yu remembered and discussed in the documentary section.

Center Stage

That these immediate images consist primarily of Ruan Ling-yu’s domestic life and her life at work at Lianhua Film Company.  In both contexts (home life and work life) the primary concern is with how a woman navigates societal constructs that are male dominated.  Within the depictions of Ling-yu’s work-life it is also important to note that Kwan goes out of his way to show the audience some of the workings of a production that do note concern Ling-yu; there is no narrative agenda or motivation.  What this enables Kwan to do is to reinforce the notion of male dominance.  The film directors, the cameramen, the gaffers, boom operators, etc. are all male, and each has a hand in constructing the filmic image of the Ling-yu character, defining her persona for the public.  Ling-yu’s work is that of a performer, one of emotion and experience.  The juxtaposition of these two types of creative invention or work epitomize the sexual politics of the early thirties, articulating the presumed roles of both sexes within the societal machine.  Scenes that concern Ling-yu’s love life, her adopted daughter and mother, her first husband and so on reiterate the female’s submissive role at home.  Ling-yu’s stoicism, another societal mandate of the time, during these sections suggest that her work as an actress was the only means of an emotional outlet available to her.

The 35mm film contrasted with video is a more visceral representation of binary complexes at work in Actress.  This can be read as an echo of the immediate and the abstract, the then and the now, the real and fantasy, the male and the female.  The manner as well as the content of the documentary style footage is distinctly more female than the 35mm fantasy of Cheung’s reenactment.  In these sections set in the early 90s Kwan points his camera to Ling-yu’s niece, who knew her, as well as Maggie Cheung, who plays her.  We are given two female perspectives of Ruan Ling-yu.  These perspectives also work within a binary complex.  The intimate and the superficial acquaintance, the domestic and the public persona.  Each woman’s testimony compliments as well as contradicts one another at times, rendering Ling-yu as a more complicated abstract; unknowable.  

The 35mm sections of Actress that interrupt and disperse the video section conforms to a more romanticized perspective.  Kwan shows us imagined reality, a past made tangible, if only briefly, through illusion.  Kwan’s masculine gaze is controlled and effective, taking measures never to trivialize the characters.  One could even argue that his homosexuality, his outsider status in China, allows him to relate to Ruan Ling-yu in a very intimate way, identifying with her feelings of suppression.  Regardless, Kwan is allowed a greater selectivity of the images he shows us in this section since the images are born out of his own creativity and not out of another’s reminiscence or conjecture.  

Ultimately, Actress is concerned with Ruan Ling-yu’s death.  Every aspect of the film has been staged or selected by Stanley Kwan to give a context as to why Ling-yu committed suicide as well as to the legacy that she left behind.  This framework exaggerates the multiple binary complexes within the film as well as presents Ruan Ling-yu as an allegorical figure.  In China, the mark of the end of early cinema is often pinpointed with the death of Ling-yu, just as in American cinema this is pinpointed, more or less, by the release of The Jazz Singer (1927).  That Kwan makes this film and frames it in this historical context at the close of the twentieth century has a good deal to do with his later project Yang+Yin (1996).

Actress

Yang+Yin may be a more traditional documentary feature on the history of Chinese cinema, but it represents the same impetus as Actress.  Looking back at China’s cinematic history from the nineties, in both films, Kwan finds constants in the overall character of his national cinema.  In Yang+Yin Kwan examines these constants from the outside, almost anthropologically, while with Actress he looks first at the human catalyst of cinematic art, focusing on the most iconic and renowned of Chinese film stars.   The sense of mortality in both films is essential to their readings.  Kwan sees Ruan Ling-yu in much the same way as he sees the cinema as a whole; a conflict between immediate expression and its impact with the legacy and reappropriation that that work inevitably will assume with the passage of time.  

-Robert Curry

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