Saturday, November 04, 2006

Ever since 2001 when it first came out and I read Elvis Mitchell's review, I've wanted to see Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang's film What Time Is It There? and last night I finally did. The plot is extremely simple: a man dies, and his wife and adult son are cut adrift from themselves and each other. The son, who sells watches on streetcorners, sells his own personal wristwatch to a young woman on her way to Paris; thereafter, the film intercuts between the lives of the son and mother and the young woman's alienated tour of Paris. The son becomes obsessed with Paris and specifically life lived on Parisian time, resetting every clock he encounters seven hours behind Taipei time. The mother obsesses over the possible reincarnation of her husband, shrouding their apartment in darkness so as not to "frighten" the father's spirit and making meals for him in the middle of the night. It's a slow film: one unsympathetic critic said it was like watching paint dry. The literature on Tsai confirms what the style of film suggests: a man in love with cinema, particularly what we might call its high European Modernist period—the Italian neorealism of the forties and the French Nouvelle Vague of the fifties. Not only does the male lead watch Truffaut's The Four Hundred Blows but the female lead actually ends up sharing a park bench with Jean-Pierre Leaud, the star of Truffaut's film. Sounds pretentious, no? But what drew me into the film was its adaptation of the estranging devices of modernism—in cinematic language that means medium shots held by a static camera, no music on the soundtrack, a cast of uncharismatic actors or non-actors (on the DVD Tsiang claims that Lee Kang-shen, who has been the Leaud figure to Tsiang's Truffaut in many films, is not really a professional actor, and that Lu Yi-ching, who plays his mother, keeps a coffee shop between films), and long, long takes—in the service of a kind of realism. Or to put it another way, if the conventions attending a Hollywood film are artifices of absorption, the static, painterly frames of Tsiang's film (but "painterly" isn't quite right, it suggests a degree of aestheticization belied by the banality of what most often holds his camera's attention) foreground their artifice so as to foster both a deeper and more superficial level of absorption in the viewer.

Watching Tsiang's isolated characters struggle for some sense of connection in the wake of the father's death (a moment that is beautifully and hauntingly elided in the opening scenes: first we spend several minutes watching the father sitting around in his Taipei apartment, then we cut to the son being driven in a car with—it took me several moments to realize this —a cannister containing his father's ashes in his lap), my eyes glided across the screen, noticing details of the composition (often one character is foregrounded and isolated from another character in the same frame but in the background, in deep focus), while the characters do things like wait for trains, eat, lie in bed, go to the bathroom, or watch TV. Yet these details have a curious cumulative power. In the final scenes, the young tourist, Chen Shiang-Chyi, has failed at making a sexual connection with another Taiwanese woman she met in a cafe (simultaneously with similarly frustrated connections on the part of the other characters—Lu masturbates while a photo of her dead husband stares at us, and Lee has sex with a prostitute who later steals his case of watches). She lies asleep in a chair by a pond while some youths make off with her suitcase. In the next shot, while she is still sleeping, the suitcase floats across the pond from left to right. Then we see a well-dressed gentleman standing nearby who retrieves the suitcase from the pond with his umbrella and sets it back upright near, but not too near, Chen. When he turns we recognize the figure of the dead father. In the last shot he is standing with a Ferris wheel behind him in the distance: he lights a cigarette and walks off toward it, bearing more than a passing resemblance to Chaplin, as the clocklike Ferris wheel slowly begins to turn. I was moved nearly to tears by this unexpected and silent resurrection: the effect was not unlike what I feel reading The Winter's Tale when Hermione comes back to life at the end.

Though the characters are lonely and sorrowful, the film has a lightness of touch: there's nothing ponderous about the long shots, only a kind of mysterious dwelling with what feels like the shifting reality of human experience when strong emotion pulses under the banality of everyday life. Where opera or melodrama use dramatic confrontation and arias of feelling to illuminate character, Tsiang subsitutes more obviously formal devices—principally the sheer looking of the still camera, which when extended over time both invites and frustrates penetration of the characters' subjectivity. We cannot touch them but find we have been touched by them, lightly yet hauntingly, without seeming to move. I find myself likening this to the effect that a pattern in language can have on our emotions almost irrespective of the content of the words in that pattern. The rhythm of iambic pentameter, or the pulse of white space, or the sinuous sustaining of a sibilance, does secret work on my emotions while the poem seems to dwell on something ordinary—a red wheelbarrow, maybe, or a blackbird in a tree. Sometimes too a poem will work on me because I'm moved by its scale: the intensity of its presence whether almost instantaneous or drawn out over many pages. Pound's work demonstrates both ends of this: "In a Station of the Metro" can almost never be read, only reread, because it's over before you've properly begun it, and yet the kernel of experience that it contains has been transmitted straight into you; while The Cantos provoke, enrage, and move me to pathos almost by their mere being, their massive and monumental ambition, the scope of their failure. There isn't really a sufficient language for the affective dimension of formal devices—but I recognize and am drawn by works of art that foreground the means by which they were made, and the passion of the maker for those devices, while encoding more immediately recognizable human experience with those devices. I am moved by the very fact of the objective correlative, a variation on the pathetic fallacy: that objects rendered with a sufficiently exact attention might weep for us, or with us.

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