VISIONS IN A WHIRLING HEAD
By Xiaolu GUO
The day literature dies, that will be the end of the world. Literature is rooted on written languages - each time a written language is killed, I have to become a christian and pray to God – although I am a Chinese brought up in a communist environment.
Words are the essential tool to express visions. With their words, writers are searching for meaning, and gaining meaning. Paris is burning, kiss of the spider woman, a perfect day of a bananafish, the heart is a lonely hunter – words trying to capture the feeling, words trying to grasp blurred memories. Words are incapable, words are weak, words are burdened, words are manipulated, words are misinterpreted, words are obscure.
That’s perhaps one of the 200 reasons I also wanted to use images - to use a camera and compose moving images.
Images are born from various perspectives.
In a street in east London, I see Bengali mothers covered in their black veil walking around, their dark skin and black eyes shadowed by the hardship of Hackney’s notorious roughness and poverty. But after filming their faces, I watch these images on a TV monitor, and I find that nothing is like I saw it earlier. In those images, a veiled mother’s dark face is completely illuminated, her eyes are not shadowed by daily life at all - but glistening like a leopard’s eyes, the glistening of survival.
I stare at those images again - in a brown-brick council house yard built in Thatcher’s time, a Bengali mother gazing at her children playing football, kids screaming loudly, and the mother contemplating her children with great sorrow and worry, but without uttering one word.
This is the power of images - a gaze is frozen, you can read that gaze again and again, re-discover new meanings in it. In ‘Regarding the Pains of Others ’, Susan Sontag strongly speaks about the impact of images, when words can be twisted and misused.
Who once said this? – ‘cinema is a gaze’. That gaze changes the speed of time. It stops time.
Jean-Luc Godard’s famous metaphysical joke: ‘I make film to make time pass’. What is time? Three fingers pointing on a clock is such an uninspiring and inappropriate way to indicate time in this universe. And ‘universe’ is also a puzzling concept, since scientists now suspect that there is not only one universe, there actually are multi – universes. So if time exists in a specific way in one universe, it should appear a different way in another one. Perhaps in a different universe, time is reversed, time is frozen, time is about stillness, time is about not passing time.
In Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s masterpiece ‘A Time to Live and A Time to Die’(1985), as well as in his ‘A City of Sadness’ (1989), time is slow, time is the posture of a man and a woman, time is something like a tree standing in the wind with a certain weight. In those films, there’re no quick editing, no montage, no intercut, no shutter speed. You can also feel this attitude in Japanese master Ozu’s films: time is almost anti-time.
In cinema, time only exists 24 frames per second. As a filmmaker you chop, you play around, back and forth, you re-adjust these multiple 24 frames. A good cinema piece gains eternity 24 frames at a time. By the way, speaking about Eternity, I will never forget Truffaut’s ‘400 blows’ ending, when Jean-Pierre Leaud turns his head towards the camera.
Then, in a writer’s life, time is a different gesture. When the idea of a novel is growing in my body, I wake up, I brush teeth, I make a pot of coffee. I turn on the computer, I search for words, I walk into the kitchen, read papers, look out of the window. I try to think of a title for the novel, I drink all the coffee, and then I cook some noodles. I eat half of it, then type five words: ‘One summer afternoon, when she…’ I stop. The sky turns dark, so a day has passed, and I have to switch on the light. Good night my day. Good morning my novel.
Can I trust a camera more? In a society where words get manipulated and altered so much, if lawyers were to use cameras to argue their cases in court, would that reduce the injustice of this world? Well, I know the answer is: ‘not really’. A camera with its mysterious lens, every image it captures is a lie too. Then editing is the strongest way to invent and re-invent reality, this re-invention demonstrates that there is no such thing called ‘observational documentary’. And what was that swear word? ‘Reality TV’?
A camera is also ambiguous in its own physical principle - digital time, classical 35mm time. In ‘Notre Musique’, a character asks Mr. Godard, who appears in the film: ‘do you think digital cameras will change cinema, and the future?’ Godard freezes in the picture without answering. No answer, regarding a machine. And actually, there will never be.
So let’s take it easy about the camera, and let’s go back to an earlier form: the novel.
Novel is something most secret and most public at the same time. Novel is a convenient form for a writer to face a public – publication profits and people’s desire to consume stories.
I tried to understand the power of novels, good novels, like Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’, Camus’ ‘the Outsider’, or Boris Vian’s ‘Foam of Daze’… They are born from the most secret individual experiences, but at the same time, these experiences reflect collective life and fate. I guess that’s the reason I write, I want to share my anger and my joy, I want the public to be my warm dinner party in which everyone exchanges yesterday’s obsessions and frustrations, so we know we are not insane and we don’t have to go to hell immediately. Humans are spiritually saved because of some great novels, great books, and great poems.
Cinema has a strong desire to capture the energy of poetry, to have
a similar kind of impact: ‘The stars are only many names for one single darkness,’ Rainer Maria Rilke wrote. For me, Rilke is more a poet than Rimbaud, and Rimbaud is more an artist than Sylvia Plath. I say this because I value their personal lives at the same weight as their work. Their personal life is their art.
I can not identify with a poet who doesn’t use his body to write. Cinema is like a body, a body with its own shape, smell and movement. Some cinepoets manage to offer magnificent bodies to this world. Wong Kai-wei’s cinema is a melancholy and seductive body, Fassbinder’s is a punk body entangled in a heavy leather jacket.
In my country, there have been so many slogans in the last 100 years. Slogans are beautiful, slogans are dangerous, slogans are scary and smell of blood. If any slogan can be the right propaganda for a cineaste or for a writer, then I would suggest: ‘freedom is in your whirling head’. And to that slogan I would add: in order to have a whirling head, one should never believe in the appearance of an image or a word, one should always penetrate the world with uncompromising eyes.
5 April 2008