Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Holding Out For A Hero

Reading moviecitynews on Zhang Yimou's upcoming Curse Of The Golden Flower, I found a link to this review of Zhang's Hero by Armond White. White's an interesting writer, but I've always seen him as more provocateur than critic, and the bulk of his glowing review is what you'd expect: it looks great, Zhang's an artist unlike those Hollywood hacks, a dig at Tarantino, praise for Christopher Doyle, some blatant ignorance of Chinese film, but two paragraphs contain the germ of an idea that resolves the tension I've always had with the film, namely its seeming pro-fascist political statement (that violent abuses by the state against its people are justified in the name of national unity).

White writes:

Hero is an exercise in what academics call narrativity. Nameless represents the anonymous handing-down of legend, and when his stories are matched by the emperor's own counter-myths, the film grows into an elaborate—hell, magnificent—demonstration of pop-culture communication. Zhang shows how stories that are eagerly received can also be improved upon—for reasons that are either political, emotional or for sheer creative inspiration.

. . . .

Zhang and Doyle turn love and war—ecstasy and tragedy—into surreal extravagance. It's not decorative, it's volatile. And they keep the marvels coming: a showdown amidst golden leaves that change color as if they possessed mood, a resting place on a glistening lake that suggests an Asian Valhalla, as well as the psychic lunarscapes in Wong Kar Wai's Ashes of Time.

These settings seem heightened (if not created) by each character's longing. Every one of Jet Li's tales as Nameless situates a scene in a personal motive, yet, soon, the same imagery is doomed by mankind's intrigues. No other Jet Li film I've seen has been this sophisticated about national myth. Zhang explores the moral complexity of history.

This conception of the film, as a series of competing narratives, each one topping the other in order to create a foundational national myth transforms the film into an investigation into and even an attack on the kind of authoritarianism I (and Senses Of Cinema) saw in the film. Instead of valorizing Jet Li's assassin sacrificing himself to the murderous Qin Emperor on the altar of national unity, Zhang's instead showing how the state creates such myths in order to consolidate its own power over the people. It's therefore a critique of both the state and the large majority of patriotic propaganda films. Such an attack is consistent with Zhang's other films and his reputation as a Mainland Chinese filmmaker who's worked for 30 years subverting and obliquely critiquing that country's bizarre form of government from within.

So, a Yay! and a Thanks! to Armond White!

Addendum: I just watched Hero again, and I think this interpretation works. Not only is Zhang critiquing the use of narrative to support the state, but he's more specifically attacking the whole idea of Taoist/Buddhist "passivity" in the face of authoritarianism. Tony Leung's Broken Sword is a Taoist who achieves a kind of enlightenment through calligraphy and renounces fighting in the name of peace. He convinces Jet Li's Nameless of the correctness of his position: that fighting is pointless and counterproductive to the unity of "Our Land". Nameless spares the Emperor when the Emperor claims to understand the secret in Broken Sword's calligraphy ("The ultimate ideal is when the sword disappears altogether. The warrior embraces all around him. The desire to kill no longer exists. Only peace remains.") In the end, though, the Emperor has Nameless executed (in a scathing attack on the anti-individualist, anti-humanist hive mentality of bureaucracy, when dozens of his advisors, all speaking in one voices, demand Nameless be killed). Thus the Taoist renunciation accomplishes only the death of the "hero" and the elevation of the murderous tyrant.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Borat Eat Brain, Must Play Video Game

Not much time for Not Blogging lately, what with crazy Borat business sucking all the life out of me at work (the movie's great, by the way. Number 3 on the year so far, after Miami Vice and The Departed.) In addition, i went out and bought the new Final fantasy game, beginning my twice yearly video game binge, so i haven't been watching any movies at all.

Some interesting stuff going on however. There was the election, of course. And let me sum up my reaction this way: YIPPEE! But I'm still concerned for the future. I anticipate a Clinton-Obama ticket that will probably lose to McCain-Jeb or something. Could be worse, I guess.

David Bordwell's got his book on Yasujiro Ozu, Ozu and The Poetics Of Cinema available for download here. I haven't read it yet, but Bordwell's legit so I imagine it's pretty good. And Ozu's always fascinating.

Mike's got an interesting post at Vinyl Is Heavy about a Wired magazine article on Atheism and sad little anti-prayer atheist groups contrasted with lively Protestant gatherings. It's an interesting subject, but ultimately my opinion on the whole atheism vs. theism debate is that it doesn't make a bit of difference whether or not God exists. I have my doubts, but I don't particularly care. Nor do I really have any interesting in convincing people that what they choose to believe is wrong. People look for all kinds of things to give their lives meaning, to experience some combination of community and transcendence: church, sports, art, atheism groups, whatever. If it works for them, I'm happy for them. Though it's easy to see, without looking too hard, that not much is really sacred.

All religions are made up of a morality and a mythology. One doesn't need to believe the myth to agree with the moral: you can have the Golden Rule without the Trinity. The mythologies of various religions are fascinating though, not just in a psychological Carl Jung/Joseph Campbell sense, but also because all of Western Art (music, literature, you name it.) is founded on Judeo-Christian mythology (same with Eastern Art and Religion, as far as I can tell as well). Whether we believe in it or not, much of the way we see and understand the world is shaped by religion and the discourses surrounding it. And the world is richer for having those myths and metaphors. You don't need to be Catholic to appreciate Martin Scorsese, but you can't understand his work without understanding Catholicism. So this is the other problem with atheism as a doctrine: a world without religion is much less interesting, we lose many of our most versatile and powerful metaphors. Cinema would be a much poorer place without The Seventh Seal, The Passion Of Jeanne D'Arc, Andrei Rublev, The Last Temptation Of Christ, Au Hasard Balthasar, The Mission and on and on and on.

The problem with religion is not people who believe the myth and the morality, but with people who believe the myth and ignore the morality. This is the basic error in fundamentalist thinking, Christian, Jewish and Muslim. It's caused, not by religion itself, but by our woeful ability to think critically about ourselves and our world. Bertrand Russell, and many other atheists blame religion itself for this, as organized religion (they assert) discourages doubt and questioning in father of received wisdom and dogma. I can't disagree with that, but it's a chicken and egg thing. The fact is that less dogmatic religions have just as much trouble with authoritarianism and lack of self-examination as Western nations have seems to be evidence that the problem lies not with God but with ourselves. It's that longing for community again, making it so easy for us to sublimate our own judgment to the instruction of charismatic leaders. Is it religion that makes us ripe for exploitation by authoritarians, or our need for community that makes us accept so willingly whatever we're told religion demands of us? I don't know, and neither did Russell or any other group, prayer or anti-prayer.