This blog is a write-up of sorts for the first of a series of events that I am putting together in my (still relatively) new hometown of Vancouver, British Columbia.
Collectively entitled Cinema Thinks The World, the events involve a series of screenings and discussions over the course of the next year and perhaps beyond, and half of which are held in partnership with, and at, The Cinematheque here in Vancouver.
Each event involves one or more of a group of scholars who work on film at the University of British Columbia (UBC), expanding widely beyond its specific Department of Theatre and Film (where I am located) to incorporate scholars from various other disciplines – primarily but not necessarily exclusively in the Humanities.
Sponsored by the university’s Public Humanities Hub, the Cinema Thinks The World project effectively takes its name from the idea that it is hard for us to think of ‘the world’ without thinking of images produced by moving and still image cameras.
Indeed, as I explained in my brief introduction to the first of our screenings on 2 June 2022 at The Cinematheque, Matthew Boulton said of the steam engine, which he first helped to manufacture following its invention by James Watt, that it was a technology that was not worth making to work in three British counties alone, but that it only would make sense to build it for the entire world to use.
As the great Trinidadian scholar and Prime Minister Eric Williams suggests, drawing upon this comment from Boulton in his landmark 1944 book Capitalism and Slavery, to think ‘globally’ is always already to think through capitalism, and that it is technology (here, the steam engine) that necessitates such thinking.
Fast forward to the time in which we regularly see images of the ‘whole planet’ from outer space, and we can also connect Boulton’s remarks to Martin Heidegger’s well known idea of the ‘world picture,’ whereby a ‘world picture’ is not just a picture of the world, but an understanding that the world is, or we can only understand the world as, a picture.
That is, photographic and cinematographic technologies, among other imaging technologies, are what allow us to understand ‘the world’ as such. In this way, cinema ‘thinks’ the world for us. But just as the steam engine and cameras are technologies that spring from and reinforce power (not just steam but also political power), then so does the way in which cinema ‘thinks’ the world need to be looked at in terms of what I am here terming politics. If you will, if cinema thinks the world (for us), then how we think (of) the world will depend on what kind of films that we watch – from which places, which periods and so on. Thus how we think about the world depends on which kinds of films we see and which kinds of films we get to see and/or are encouraged to see. And which of the vast number of films get screened is a matter not just of taste, but also of, precisely, politics. That is, cinema plays a key role in power struggles and the distribution of power: if you are not on the screen, then you as good as don’t exist (since no one knows about you).
The world – what the world is (or what the world is understood as being) – is in this sense a concept that is unevenly distributed, much like wealth, and much like movies, in that American blockbusters are widely distributed and small, slow art house films like Tsai Ming-liang’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn, much less so.
Given that Tsai’s film is itself about cinema and the films that we see (or not, as the case may be), then it was a wonderfully apposite film for The Cinematheque to screen and to act as the launchpad for this series, with the 2 June event involving responses to the film from Chelsea Birks of The Cinematheque, and Igor Drjlaca, Christine Evans, Helena Wu and Mila Zuo of UBC. Along with The Cinematheque’s Shaun Inouye, I moderated the event – which required minimal effort and great pleasure.
What follows may well touch upon some of the things that the participants said in relation to the film, and I shall where I can give reference to things that my esteemed colleagues said. But primarily it is just a brief response to the film of my own, and it can be understood as incomplete rather than final thoughts about what is a very rich film.
For, Tsai’s film is set in a cinema where is screening King Hu’s classic wuxia movie, Dragon Inn (Taiwan/Hong Kong, 1967). Through a curtain, we see a packed house looking up at the screen early on in Tsai’s movie, before we see outside the theatre the arrival of a young Japanese man (Kiyonobu Mitamura), who without paying for his ticket proceeds into a relatively empty screening.
The mismatch between the full and empty house already destabilises our understanding of what we are seeing: what is real? who is really there? And this ‘ontological instability’ only deepens when, as the film progresses, we learn the theatre may be haunted and that various of the patrons might be ghosts (perhaps especially a woman, played by Yuang Kuei-mei, who eats nuts, discarding a seemingly endless pile of nutshells over the cinema’s floor).
The Japanese man seems not necessarily to be at the film to catch up on an Asian classic, but rather to get involved also in some of the cruising that seems to be going on among the cinema’s male-majority audience – even as our man never seems quite to be in luck.
Director Tsai’s work is, as Song Hwee Lim has argued, exemplary of what is sometimes called ‘slow cinema,’ in that ‘very little happens’ in terms of ‘dramatic action,’ while also consisting of long takes and long shots that give to the film a sense of taking place in ‘real time.’
Indeed, it is 45 minutes before a word is spoken (although we can hear dialogue from King Hu’s film during this time), and as much as anything we might just see people walking slowly through the cinema, especially a ticket woman (Chen Shiang-chyi) who has a pronounced limp, or taking amusingly interminable leaks in the men’s urinals. All the while, the rain pours insistently down outside of the theatre, with water leaking in through the cinema’s roof, and the ramshackle space, as we latterly discover, facing imminent closure.
For all of its flowing water, though, the film is very ‘dry’ in its humour – a kind of deadpan comedy of manners along the lines of someone like Jacques Tati, whose Playtime (France/Italy, 1967) was made in the same year as Dragon Inn, and to the ‘philosophy’ of which I shall return imminently.
Indeed, while I hope to have set the scene to the film in the above description, I also hope to have established what for me are some of the key terms of making a bit of sense of Goodbye, Dragon Inn, including real time, playtime, limping, leaking, water and the weather.
For, as we see the ticket lady limping around the theatre, slowly climbing and then going down stairs, there is a sense in which this is not just a film that moves at a ‘pedestrian’ pace, but that it, too, also ‘limps along,’ walking imperfectly, or in a ‘non-standard’ fashion.
And yet, if we feel tempted to call this a ‘real time’ movie, then the fact that we might be seeing ghosts seems only to complicate such a claim. Or, put more interestingly, it begs the question: what is ‘real’ about time at all?
One of the points that Tsai seems to be suggesting, in fact, is that time is not ‘real’ in the sense of having a fixed form or rhythm, but rather than time is malleable – even if also unstoppable. Time is, perhaps, like water, or the tides – both liquid but also inexorable.
But more than this is that our understanding of time, what we consider of time to be ‘real,’ is also an issue of politics, including perhaps especially the politics of cinema. While Tsai surely loves King Hu’s film, the choice of an action movie seems here to be pointed: cinema, in its mainstream iteration, employs fast editing and greatly condenses time, using speed as a means to engage and to maintain our attention.
So powerful is cinema in doing this, that when things move slowly or in ‘real time,’ ‘reality’ becomes ‘boring’ (and in our smartphone age, this leads many, or most, or perhaps even all people, to get out a smartphone or equivalent device in order to give themselves a shot of not ‘real’ time, but ‘cinematic time’). In other words, cinema and its offspring media have come to determine our sense of time – and even though ‘real time’ might be a byword for ‘slow,’ what it really points to is how our perception of time, what we understand time to be, what of time we think to be real, is determined by cinema. Tsai offers us up a slow movie that shows us what it is like to limp – because in the speedy world of impatient capital, those who limp, those who are disabled or non-standard, get left behind, cast if not exactly out of reality (we know that they exist) but outside of those who count to get to shape our reality (we forget them and their needs). Since it is cinema that encourages us, through its speed, to neglect those who limp (they are ‘long’ or ‘boring’), then Tsai must redress this imbalance through cinema itself, and that he does so in a film set in a movie theatre and featuring a classic wuxia film only makes him more conscious and conscientious of how cinema shapes our reality – of how cinema thinks the world. And if cinema typically thinks the world in a fast and rushed way (the way of busy-ness/business), then Tsai revels in those who are out of business, out of time, outside of that reality of time, and in a different, ‘real time.’ Tsai wants us to think the world differently, or otherwise – and to do this, he plays with time, or offers us up some ‘playtime,’ in which we come to play and to find delight not in some hi-tech super duper toy, but in the most basic and wonderful ingredients of life: the sound of shoes on surfaces, leaking water, the sheer wonderful strangeness of people, the fact that anything exists at all.
Being made in 2003, Goodbye, Dragon Inn also draws upon King Hu not by chance. For, in the years preceding and around Tsai’s film, Chinese-language cinema had enjoyed great global success with at least two other King Hu homages, namely Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Ang Lee, Taiwan/Hong Kong/USA/China, 2000) and Hero (Zhang Yimou, China/Hong Kong, 2002). These two action flicks kind of set the bar for money-making transnational Chinese film productions, meaning that in some respects King Hu functions as a clear forebear of an exportable (and nostalgic) ‘Chinese’ film style that is put together in a bid achieve ‘global’ success. While Tsai no doubt loves Dragon Inn, he also is making a kind of anti-King Hu movie.
Perhaps the above point is contradicted in the film by a wonderful moment in which two of the actors from Dragon Inn not only see themselves on the screen as members of the audience in Tsai’s movie, but they also then have a brief chat about the film in the foyer once it has ended. Miao Tien and Shih Chun, effectively playing ‘themselves,’ discuss how no one goes to watch movies anymore, and that no one remembers them.
However, I would suggest that there is no contradiction here, in that directors like Lee and Zhang recycle King Hu precisely so that we don’t have to watch his films (and thus can forget them). Perhaps this is one of the key and paradoxical uses of cinematic nostalgia, even: to help bury the past under the guise of resurrecting it. Old wine is put into new bottles – and it is the bottle that ends up being of greater value than the wine itself.
Being a playful film that limps along, Goodbye, Dragon Inn would seem to want us to take pleasure not in perfection, but in precisely imperfection, or that which is non-standard (I guess I am using this term as developed by the French ‘non-philosopher’ François Laruelle, whose work has so inspired John Ó Maoilearca, my former collaborator on Philosophical Screens in London, UK, and which functions as a clear inspiration for Cinema Thinks The World).
This is perhaps also why the building itself is falling apart and why the rain plays such an important role in the film: for, as the ticket lady limps, so does the building leak – both united in their ‘imperfection.’ But as the weather and water come to get in the way of people’s plans, disrupting our movements, so does Goodbye, Dragon Inn suggest not only that we all leak or take leaks, but in some senses that, even as we are encouraged to control and not to show in public, our imperfections, our porosity and the fact that we leak, these in some senses are our most precious facets.
Indeed, the Japanese man is in the cinema looking to hook up, it would seem. And even if he is not successful in this quest, some around him seem to be (as people move in and our of toilet cubicles that they seem to share fleetingly with others). The point I wish to make is that desire – particularly but not uniquely sexual desire – necessarily includes leakages, porosity, penetration, wetness and so on. Our very lives depend upon it (at least for the time being).
More than this, though, is that cinema is instrumental in inculcating and/or shaping our desire: we are encouraged to fall for movie stars and to seek ‘cinematic’ liaisons throughout our lives. We are, if you will, encouraged (and designed) to ‘leak,’ and yet we live in a world that disapproves of this.
Here the queerness of Tsai’s film (and his work in general) takes on extra meaning, for while desire is a necessary ‘imperfection,’ queer desire is an ‘imperfect imperfection’ – and so to embrace rather than to reject imperfection logically if not de facto leads us into the queer, a queer time, and so on. Perhaps it is only fitting that the Japanese man is frustrated in his quest for intimacy, even as that frustration can then also be shared by the viewer of Tsai’s film: what could be more imperfect than imperfect imperfection unfulfilled?
As the rain beats down, we also understand that cinematic time is a time not just of controlled bodies, but also of controlled time – time subjugated to the tempos and rhythms of capital (the fast pace of the action movie). The slow film, however, with its fits and starts, is kind of a time out of control.
Le temps: the French word for time and, of course, the weather. The weather is out of our control (and, thanks to climate change, getting totally ‘out of control’). To surrender to the weather, then, to let it leak in, to get soaked – this is also a queer gesture that paradoxically brings us closer to a ‘natural’ world, or a world in which we live, rather than a world that exists only as a picture.
In this way, while Chelsea Birks suggests that water is a deliberately empty signifier in Tsai’s film, it functions for me as a reminder of this lack of control, but also as a reminder of the afore-mentioned unstoppability of water, of the tides, of time.
That is, the quest to control time is effectively the quest to stop death, and it involves a quest to control the weather – a quest linked to cinema both in the sense that cinema can ‘preserve’ us beyond death (provided that people still go to see our movies!), and in the sense that cinema as made in studios (and in the season-less place of permanent sunshine that is Hollywood) involves the control of weather (making films outside in the mutable, un-Californian weather is a risky enterprise).
And yet, Tsai does not flee from death, just as he does not flee from the weather. Indeed, as Tsai films not just limping time, playtime and ‘real time,’ but he also films dead time, especially towards the end of the film when we hold on the empty cinema theatre for about a minute and a half, during a long take that involves the ticket lady limping with a broom through the hall after the screening of Dragon Inn has ended.
Tsai asks us love all of life, and part of life is death; part of time is dead time, not the singular beat of action-time. And part of cinema, then, is the empty cinema. And one might even contend that cinema uncontaminated by people is in fact ‘pure cinema.’ That is, Tsai offers us pure cinema, and yet it is a cinema that to many might be intolerable because it is so slow, dead, boring, limping, etc.
And yet, this is Tsai’s generosity, his love – both of cinema and of the world and its people: he has time, he gives time to everything, including that which apparently is ‘nothing.’ And for those who see his film, especially when they do so collectively in a movie theatre as we did on 2 June (and as Christine Evans remarked in her response to the film) is not just generous, but it also generates a new time, a new collectivity. Tsai is asking us, if you will, to see the world and time otherwise, and he is using cinema effectively as a tool to train us to do so (for those who are responsive to his ‘teachings’). Tsai asks, invites and gives us the means to think the world otherwise. Can there be a more loving gesture?
I shall end by saying that Ervin Malakaj intervened on 2 June to express some frustration that the Japanese tourist’s desire is indeed frustrated. In some senses, Tsai might be accused of promulgating a negative image of queerness here, one in which queerness has what Lee Edelman might term ‘no future’ (it does not belong to the time of capital). Or that while he might gives us some queer time, there is no ‘sexy time’ – with sex/sexiness being an especially leaky and ‘imperfect’ but crucial aspect of human life (might there be a time when we might even consider sex to be beautiful?).
Responses from the panellists suggested that if not in this film, Tsai does nonetheless broach sex as a topic in his other (or at least in his earlier) work.
However, I might take Malakaj’s point in a slightly different direction and invoke how the frustrated queer desire of Goodbye, Dragon Inn is nothing compared to the suppressed queerness of the film that currently dominates the box office globally, namely Top Gun: Maverick (Joseph Kosinski, USA, 2022).
As many have joked, Maverick and its predecessor (Tony Scott, USA, 1986) cannot help but exude a kind of queer excess in their own quest to demonstrate a perfectly controlled cinema, a perfectly controlled masculinity, a perfectly controlled desire. If the first Top Gun film is about ‘the need for speed,’ then we can see how it is also an arch-capitalist film. And even if the new film is itself filled with powerfully nostalgic affects (I insist that Christopher McQuarrie has a key role to play in the success of many of Cruise’s recent films)… and even if in the new film, we see staged on at least two occasions characters in the film having to watch Tom Cruise do something virtuosic (thereby training us also to see Cruise as a virtuoso star, thereby forgetting temporarily all about his problematic involvement with things like scientology and the human costs that it can have; could Katie Holmes ever have whispered a word of criticism at Tom Cruise?)… it in this way becomes an arch-capitalist film, clinging to a manhood and masculinity and a cinema that we had perhaps thought, or hoped, was outdated. Clinging to a world, to a reality – thinking the world in a fashion – that is outdated.
Or is it?
As the discussion on 2 June drew towards its close, an audience member asked about how one might explain or teach Goodbye, Dragon Inn to the TikTok generation. It is an important question, because while we might never hear what Katie Holmes has to say about being married to Tom Cruise, we have heard from Amber Heard of late what it was like being married to Johnny Depp. And in what has been dubbed a trial by TikTok, Amber Heard has come off the poorer (whether or not she is especially ‘likeable’). That is, the offspring technologies of cinema like TikTok bring with them more of the patriarchal same that supposedly we got rid of thanks to everyone’s much-vaunted and new-found wokeness.
If Tom Cruise passes for a ‘maverick,’ never daring really to be queer, then Tsai Ming-liang is the real deal, a genuine maverick filmmaker, generous in his work, generating new times and places rather than trying to rehash the old times and values of American Manifest Destiny, of cinema in its mainstream iterations. Tsai’s films might put some audience members to sleep; but if ‘woke’ is simply capitalist heteropatriarchy 2.0 (or 3.0 or whatever), then maybe some sleep and some dream time, some unreal time, some dead time, are what we need. That is Tsai’s love of life, of the world, of cinema. And as Tsai himself says: vive l’amour!