Criticism and Context; Jia Zhangke

One of the most intriguing aspects of the Movie Mutations project is that it brought together a number of film critics of a certain generation who were geographically dispersed across multiple continents and yet shared a lot of common ground in terms of taste. The films and filmmakers they treasured and championed were often equally (if not more) dispersed in terms of nationality and culture, and yet there was often significant agreement among these critics about their worth. When I first read Movie Mutations, I remember thinking: Does lack of knowledge of context — social, historical, cultural, economic, political, artistic — pose no barriers to the appreciation of a filmmaker’s work as it travels around the world?

My own position on this is simple: Contextual knowledge is not a prerequisite for appreciating cinema, but it definitely can, whenever available, contribute to a deeper and wider understanding of both the film at hand and its place within multiple larger structures — social, historical, political, etc. In other words, I’m rarely nervous about expressing praise for a film I like, no matter its global source, simply because I lack the contextual knowledge to appreciate it fully. The fact that it appealed to me for certain reasons is enough for the moment. But there’s a part of me that continues to be curious — for new knowledge and insight, both contextual and critical, that might revise, rethink, or even just elaborate, in ways large and small, my appreciation.

Case in point: I’ve enthusiastically followed the films of Jia Zhangke for almost a dozen years now but a fascinating piece in a recent issue of New Left Review — “Poetics of Vanishing: The Films of Jia Zhangke” by Zhang Xudong — deepens my view of his films by situating them in certain revealing particularities of background. (The piece is available online for a fee.)

Zhang describes how ‘Fifth Generation’ filmmakers like Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige were responsible for breaking Chinese cinema into the global culture market. They rejected the studio-bound socialist-realist tradition that preceded them, and instead chose to evoke a mythologized past with a visual reliance on “sweeping, dehistoricized landscapes”:

The elevated style of these films, reifying what they depicted into something ‘timeless’, seemed distant from the concrete experience of their own times, and failed to represent or recount the ongoing, epic social transformation of the country itself in the era of Deng Xiaoping’s market reforms […]

Where the Fifth Generation sutured together a mythological whole—embodied by vast, empty shots of a pristine, ahistorical landscape, from Shaanxi’s loess plateau in Chen Kaige’s Yellow Earth (1984) and Zhang Yimou’s Red Sorghum (1987) to the icy mountain ranges of Tibet—the Sixth was eager to portray the shabby, formless texture of everyday life in county-level towns, where socialist underdevelopment meets the onslaught of marketization.

Specifically, Jia’s films, Zhang tells us, portray a very particular kind of place: they are set in xiancheng, or county-level cities. There are over 2400 such cities in China, but they are extremely under-represented in film and literature. Zhang writes:

To focus on xiancheng is, whether consciously or not, to zoom in on the underbelly of China’s socialist modernity and its Reform Era. Nominally part of ‘urban China’, xiancheng stands apart from the fantasy of a pristine and authentic, custom-bound rural world […] On the other hand, xiancheng is decidedly not a metropolitan area: if anything, it offers the opposite of urban sophistication, white-collar jobs and access to national cultural and political power […]

In terms of material or symbolic capital, then, xiancheng is proletarian China par excellence. In terms of urban forms and their visual representation, xiancheng is usually found to be shapeless and unattractive. […]

In other words, this is the in-between, generic area where the daily reality of contemporary China is laid bare. With no clear-cut boundaries or sharp distinctions between rural and urban, between industrial and agricultural, between high and low cultures, xiancheng becomes a meeting place for all kinds of forces and currents, whether contemporary or anachronistic.

Jia’s “hometown trilogy” (Xiaowu, Platform, Unknown Pleasures) marked the ‘discovery’ of xiancheng in Chinese cinema, Jia even referring to himself as a “cinematic migrant labourer”. After being so closely identified with this milieu, he tried to move beyond it in the setting of The World. Zhang comments:

But this setting [of The World] is in fact a xiancheng within the nation’s capital, at once a migrant labourer’s village and a xiancheng imagining of a globalized world. Indeed the ultimate irony of the film is aimed not at the Disney-style theme park, but at Beijing or even China itself: a giant xiancheng, whose concrete, contradictory realities co-exist with a virtual, mirage-like unity.

Finally, he makes this ironic observation about the reception of Jia’s work:

The idea that Jia’s films are representations of working-class life that only high-cultural audiences can understand, or that they constitute laments about urban demolition funded by the demolishers—24 City, for example, was funded by the very developers behind the project featured in the film—are ironies not lost even on Jia’s supporters.

* * *

Jonathan Rosenbaum has long advocated for the crucial place that information occupies in film-critical writing. His book on Kiarostami, co-written with Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa, is a good example — as is so much of his other work — of this element of critical practice. Iranian politics, history, poetry, and cultural tradition are all summoned to the task of helping to explicate Kiarostami’s work.

Another example that comes to mind is Andrew Horton’s book on the films of Theo Angelopoulos, which attempts to draw upon centuries of Greek history and culture, Byzantine iconography and ceremony, Greek music hall traditions, and shadow puppet theatre to help sketch a broad context for the director’s art.

I’m wondering: Are there other examples of books, essays or even documentaries that perform this film-critical work of helping to provide any kind of context to better appreciate certain films or filmmakers? I’d love to hear any recommendations.

* * *

Some recent reading:

— A lovely joint piece by Adrian Martin and Cristina Álvarez López, “Secret and Impossible,” available in both Spanish and English, at Cine Transit.

— The new issue of the journal Experimental Conversations contains a terrific essay by Fergus Daly called “Sidney Lumet: Experimental Filmmaker?”. David Hudson handily rounds up the issue for us. David also collects links to pieces on David Cronenberg on the occasion of his NYC retrospective. Also: Jim Emerson’s 12-minute video essay, “Written in the Flesh: A Crash Course in David Cronenberg”.

A fantasy double features piece at MUBI penned by several writers.

— Matt Zoller Seitz’s “Vertigoed: A Press Play Mashup Contest” has almost 100 participants including Catherine Grant, Jason Mittell and Kevin Lee. The contest required them to take the same Bernard Herrmann cue — “Scene D’Amour,” used in a memorable moment from Vertigo — and match it with a clip from any film.

— The Village Voice lays off J. Hoberman: David Hudson has a post that collects links. Hoberman’s “year in film”; and in the NYT, he talks about the Village Voice and film culture.

Jonathan Rosenbaum and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky on Bresson’s Affaires Publiques. Also: Ignatiy on Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

Kent Jones and Jonathan Rosenbaum discuss Bresson and Godard. Also: Kent has an essay on Jean-Pierre Gorin’s films on the occasion of the new Criterion/Eclipse box set.

With this post on Diary of a Hitman (1991), Zach Campbell launches a new series of pieces at MUBI.

David Bordwell on the expressive use of hands and hand gestures and why they are comparatively rare in cinema today. Also: his post “Tinker Tailor: A Guide for the Perplexed”.

— This Onion story is pretty funny: “Miranda July Called Before Congress To Explain Exactly What Her Whole Thing Is”.

The Academy sounds an alarm about the fragility of digital production media.

— The Senses of Cinema 2011 World Poll.

A brilliant video montage set to Lionel Richie’s “Hello”. For a “key” to where the clips are drawn from, see this post.

— At Moving Image Source: Patrick Keiller on “landscape cinema and the problem of dwelling”; and a group of essays by several critics on films in the “First Look” program at the Museum of the Moving Image.

— Several links via Adrian: Claude Chabrol on adapting La Ceremonie; A great interview with Bob Dylan by John Elderfield; “What If”: movies imagined for another time and place”; The Journal of Aesthetics & Protest; Anne Bilson in the Guardian: “Why restyle Great Women of History as cockamamie feminist role models?”. Related: Laura Flanders on The Iron Lady at Truthout.

Ben Sachs in the Chicago Reader on Adam Curtis’ All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, which can be viewed online.

An epic essay and music mix by Trevor Link, “Pop Utopianism: A Manifesto”/”We Need to Talk About K-Pop: A Mix”; and, via Trevor, a discovery of Cinefiles, a large and valuable database.

— Olivier Père will be curating a complete Otto Preminger retrospective at the Locarno film festival this summer.

— At The Guardian: a piece on the birth of UK film criticism, 100 years ago.

— At the MUBI Notebook: “The Lost Pasolini Interview”; “The Posters of Robert Bresson”; and Dan Sallitt’s defense of Julia Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty.

Rowena Santos Aquino on filmmaker Kim Ki-duk.

— Via the Film Doctor‘s blog: At Filmmaker magazine, “6 Filmmakers Talk About Documentary Films in the Digital Age”; a story on the “found-footage horror movie” at The Atlantic; an interview with Frederick Wiseman at Filmmaker; and at Observatory, “Reassessing the Saul Bass and Alfred Hitchcock Collaboration”.

— At Little White Lies: Yusef Sayed on F.J. Ossang; Hong Sang-soo; and Philippe Grandrieux.

— The current issue of the Director’s Guild of America Quarterly includes pieces on Michael Mann and Leo McCarey.

Time magazine proclaims Godard’s Histore(s) du Cinéma “the DVD of the year”.

An interview with Nouvelle Vague cinematographer Raoul Coutard at the Film Comment blog.

— Completely unrelated to cinema (or is it?): I finally know the difference between dork, geek, dweeb and nerd.

pic: Jia’s Still Life (2006).

Comments (29):

  1. Peter Nellhaus

    January 24, 2012 at 4:10 pm

    The DVD supplement for In the Mood for Love changed my life to some extent. Wong discusses the films he grew up watching, with clips of older Hong Kong films, which in turn triggered my own fascination with films from that era.

    And in turn, I am almost finished reading The Cinema of Hong Kong, edited by Fu and Desser, from 2000. It's helped me put some issues regarding Hong Kong films in a larger context. The book as a whole is a mixed bag, but some parts are illuminating, and helpful in understanding what some of the issues regarding Hong Kong film now.

  2. girish

    January 24, 2012 at 4:13 pm

    Peter, I still haven't watched any of the supplements on the IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE dvd. Think I was daunted by the size of the Criterion set. But I need to.

    Also, didn't know the Fu/Desser book. I recently picked up Stephen Teo's books on HK cinema and the films of Johnnie To–and they're both very good. Johnnie To was my (very belated) discovery of the year in 2011.

  3. Nathan

    January 24, 2012 at 4:23 pm

    Partly because of my age (now 23), Jia Zhang-Ke's films have been absolutely essential to me as a young cinéphile. His was the first real art cinema that I discovered "live", so to speak, as it came out in cinemas rather than on DVD, and Still Life is very much a touchstone. When I finally went to China a year and a half ago (six weeks of language course and three weeks of travel), it was absolutely impossible for me to not see his films everywhere I turned. I guess in some way, for someone growing up in Europe with industrialization a given and a pervasive sense of "everything has happened", it was the only way to experience a certain form of modernity as something present rather than past, and for a long time all I could see in China looked exactly as if in one of his films. I had to make a mental effort to actually look in ways other than the ones he had taught me. It was a very, very strong experience for me.

    Anyway, on a less personal level. I find it deeply important to understand the context of a film, not just to "get" the references it might be making, but also to get a better picture of it as part of some interactive whole that's not just cinematic. But I have one major misgiving with the contextual approach carried to the extreme: it always seems to evacuate the question of agency on the part of the people involved in the film (not just its director). In some cases (Nippon Modern, which I'm grappling with at the moment, is a case in point), it feels like films are just symptoms of a general "cultural condition" rather than something actually made by people, which could have been made differently!

  4. Just Another Film Buff

    January 24, 2012 at 4:49 pm

    [PART 1/2]

    Girish, Will be surprised if this does not generate a hundred comments here. A very juicy topic no doubt. Thanks so much for excerpting Zhang Xudong's article for us. Really appreciate it. Excellent stuff this. Makes a neat little point about the theme park in THE WORLD: I guess this is what Baudrillard said of Disneyland.

    I think this must be one of those eternal debates about film criticism – contextualized vs universalized, insider vs outsider. And, like many, I love criticism that grounds the film, so to speak, and tries to provide very new avenues to understanding. I've also cribbed about reviews – of Hindi/Tamil cinema, for instance – that have no idea about social, financial or aesthetic situation here.

    On one hand, I think knowing nothing of the context often restricts your view to universal containers: humanism, the genres etc. I'm reading Sontag's astounding ON PHOTOGRAPHY and her jaw-dropping knowledge of context while she evaluates the works of American photographers convinces me that I would come across as a philistine when I encounter these photos.

    HOWEVER, I think this project of placing filmmakers "in context" is also very suffocating now and then.

    – For one, it runs the risk of overdetermining/reducing the film to a bunch of social and political forces. With time, might it not be possible that something truly groundbreaking will be considered simply as an inspired product of its time?

    – I also think it might wrongly situate the filmmaker in her national context. I mean, a filmmaker's ideas needn't necessarily be derived from her surroundings (what filmmaker are we talking about: the rich one, the poor one, the feminist, the gay filmmaker? Or are all the same under the label of nationality?). I think it would be unfair to contextualize, say, an artist from Asia trained in a Western way of life, with little knowledge of his own country. .

  5. Just Another Film Buff

    January 24, 2012 at 4:49 pm

    [PART 2/2]

    – Moreover, "context" itself is often an outsider's prerogative, especially when dealing with popular cinema. Providing context to an uninspired formulaic work that has no conscious relationship to the reality around itself, for example, might be a tad too lenient. (Looking at academic theses, one would think ALL Bollywood films reflected Nehruvian optimism). Most of the times, neither the filmmakers nor the loal audience really think about context. So contextualizing becomes the luxury of the one who is "outside",- a position which might ironically attribute false features (How much of Ramayana /Mahabharata actually drives Indian cinema?!). WHen it comes to, say, Contemporary American cinema, (American) critics hardly talk about context. (Context, it seems, is only needed for those obscure subtitled films). Now, it would be absurd of me to bring 9/11 into picture to account for every film. I think the same sort of problem is there with many academic attempts at contextualization of films. (This geographical partiality also seems to work with time: Radical is the 1950s Hollywood film that is neither a Cold War allegory nor a critique of McCarthyism).

    – Also, I think putting films (old ones, especially) seals them off into the past, disallowing any radical potential to them. (Oh Eisenstein? a commie advertiser!). As much as I love reading richly detailed, fleshed out, contextualized studies of a filmmaker's body of work, I would equally love a study that pulls filmmakers out-of-context, without any scruples about decontextualization, and rediscovers something cutting edge (Your invaluable link about Lumet as experimental filmmaker, which I have not yet read, might be one such example?). I have no idea even if that is fully possible (Wood's book on Hitchcock, as far as I can recall, cares little about Hitchcock's catholicism or his relationship with his wife or American politics in the 50s – a double edged sword that has its rewards), but a purely aesthetic revisionist study is one possibility that I can think of.

    I'm aware that I've gone awfully in tangents and "out of context", but just trying to toss a few ideas that pop up in my mind against each other and seeing where they lead me.

    Priceless stuff, as usual, Girish. Cheers!

  6. Jim Gerow

    January 24, 2012 at 5:33 pm

    James Quandt's book APICHATPONG WEERASETHAKUL is a great resource for contextualizing Apichatpong's films from a variety of sources. In addition to Quandt's detailed analysis of the films, it includes a fascinating look at Thai audience reactions to TROPICAL MALADY, pieces by Thai critic Kong Rithdee and by Tony Rayns, and several interviews and articles by Joe himself discussing, among other things, the influence of earlier Thai cinema on his work.

    The DVD supplement to IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE sounds like essential viewing.

  7. ZC

    January 24, 2012 at 8:49 pm

    Girish, I agree with you about the importance (but non-necessity) of "context." I do think that there are maybe two different (though intertwined) concerns with regard to context – one pertains to cause, and the other to interpretation (or use). We can better understand art that we may (or may not!) appreciate by learning about – this information can enhance, expand, or deepen appreciation. But it is also impossible to know all causes for all works of art. (Probably also impossible to know all causes for a single work of art!) So it's important to always remember, too, that an artwork doesn't live or die in the year or decade that it was created, but might rather extend forward & outward, across innumerable places & moments of reception. For instance, the "context" of Sirk entails not only the placement of the films as more-or-less straight 1950s melodramas, but also involves the residue of Sirk's latter claims to Brechtian strategies and the subsequent reclamation of the films in an almost modernist sense (which is how most people who bother to watch Sirk films qua "Sirk films" have encountered these movies since the '70s).

    I think a great recent example of a work that takes into consideration both context & interpretation is Brian Price's Neither God Nor Master: Robert Bresson & Radical Politics, which convincingly situates Bresson's work in sociopolitical context, in part by paying careful attention to the filmmaker's formal strategies and how those strategies were – or could be – socially meaningful.

  8. Filipe

    January 24, 2012 at 8:51 pm

    This is a great subject. As a Brazilian I'm always fully aware of this when reading foreign writing on Brazlian films. It's obviously that I'm aware of a lot of stuff from local politics, Brazilian film history and even just a matter of knowing about production that most non-Brazilians don't and that clearly affect how I and them see those films.

    I remember when Adrian Martin wrote about Julio Bressane's Herb of the Rat as a film "uneager to please" and that was fascinating to me because from my point of view it was the closest Bressane (probably Brazil's least audience-friendly filmmaker) would come to a crowd pleaser. Then a lot of the dry humor in it proably don't travel and Bressane's use of Selton Mello (Brazil's most popular film actor) do't have any meaning and a lot of the film easiest pleasures did come from how his usual personal adapted to a more sinester-neurotic plot.

    On the other end I remember in diferent ocassions having a beer with a Portuguese/Argentine film critic and mentioning how much I liked Eugene Green's The Portuguese Nun and Robert Duvall's Assassination Tango and get the same horrorified reaction.

    I do think it's worth pointing out that, if having a larger context certain makes for a richer experience it also does bring much more bias and that also do have its limitations. For instance, still using Brazilian film, Sylvie Pierre is a very good film critic but she clearly has her bias and given how central she was to Brazilian film presence on France cinephilia, that clearly had its limiting effects.

  9. Corey

    January 24, 2012 at 9:57 pm

    While I sense I understand the distinction you are making (between, though you don't put it this way, text and context), I will suggest what seems to me in fact an obvious point: some degree of context is in face necessary to understand virtually any film. You say "Contextual knowledge is not a prerequisite for appreciating cinema, but it definitely can, whenever available, contribute to a deeper and wider understanding of both the film at hand and its place within multiple larger structures — social, historical, political, etc." But I want to back up and say, no, contextual knowledge IS a prerequisite for appreciating cinema, unless appreciation is almost purely (dangerous word) formal, an appreciation of light, color, movement, or sound without any necessary attachment to representation, narrative, or meaning. (Sometimes it seems as if Deleuze wants to appreciate cinema in such ways …) Don't almost all (let's just say narrative) films rely to some extent on contextual knowledge — things like markers of historical era, social patterns understood to be normal or abnormal behavior, expressive facial codes, etc.? I sense that you are talking about "larger" cultural contexts — the politics or historical information that functions as the important backdrop for fully understanding any particular narrative, or simply (?) the nuances of language if a film is in a language we don't understand. Perhaps you are really talking about degrees of knowledge/context, or kinds of knowledge/context, but I keep coming back to the notion that no text is fully comprehensible without reference to its context: this is an old semiotic claim, of sorts: you can't understand an enunciation (or parole) without implicit knowledge of the language/context (langue) in which it is offered (not to mention other contexts that determine meaning beyond language such as gestures, tone, the circumstances of enunciation, etc.). Hmm … pondering. I will end by saying I often quote Jonathan Rosenbaum's emphasis on the value of information in film studies: if a film or filmmaker intrigues me, the more information (or context) I can acquire, the better!

  10. Matthew Flanagan

    January 25, 2012 at 2:40 am

    Girish, you neglected to quote the most significant piece of contextual knowledge in that NLR article: "[in adolescence] Jia also became an accomplished breakdancer, the result of having seen Breakdance: The Movie (1984) over a dozen times…"

    Here's a PDF if anybody wants to read the whole thing.

    Re: good contextual texts — I read Mark Betz's book on European art cinema recently and thought it was uniquely good at mapping complex social, political and economic histories onto an institutional mode of cinema. Can't think of many books on individual filmmakers that do this so well, but a text like T.J. Clark's Image of the People, on Courbet, might be a model of the form.

  11. girish

    January 25, 2012 at 2:55 pm

    Thank you, everyone! So many wonderful, thought-provoking ideas here!

    Jim's comment above reminds me. Let me excerpt at some length another text that speaks to our concerns: Zach's review at MUBI Notebook of the James Quandt-edited collection on Apichatpong:

    "Examination of Buddhism in Apichatpong's art, at least among those publishing in English, seems sadly overgeneralized. This shortcoming is played out in numerous chapters of the Film Museum's book, as well. Respect and love for Joe's work is clear. But at the same time there's an imbalance in the ways that some critics here discuss his influences or predecessors when they're Western, on one hand, and Asian or Thai, on the other. The former category is always specific and bespeaks the critics' erudition (or at least good taste). Joe's "local" influences tend to be identified on the order of the wholly national, the generically "Oriental" even—Thai (Siam), Buddhist, etc. The book goes into relatively little detail indicating that "Buddhism" can refer to a non-monolithic range of doctrines and practices. What does Quandt mean when he writes that Joe's whole oeuvre "surely qualifies as a Buddhist version of a Gesamtkunstwerk," for example? Why the adjective Buddhist? Or on the next page: "Such a strict binary form initially seems an oddity, more akin to western rationality or Cartesian thinking than to Buddhist holism." Can't Buddhism be addressed in some depth rather than mentioned, wholesale, from time to time as a vague feature of Joe's work? Might Thai-ness embody something even richer than the Bangkok-versus-rural distinction? It's not that the (Euro-American) writers who contribute to this volume consciously think along these lines. Quite the contrary, I'm positive. I think instead it's a function of unequal distribution of global knowledge and publicity pressing upon upon a filmmaker and nation that are—were—not so publicly visible in world film culture until fairly recently." CONTINUED…

  12. girish

    January 25, 2012 at 2:56 pm

    "When nations rise to prominence in world film culture, as we've seen with various recent vogues for Romania, Argentina, South Korea, the Philippines, and Thailand, there's a scramble not only to see these films but to process them, to say something about them. Yet few "outsiders" to any of these countries find themselves equipped to act as translators and bridge-builders—or Serge Daney's passeurs. Instead, one acquires a few basics and then proceeds from there. In the case of Thai film one can download digital copies of a couple Rattana Pestonji classics, peek in on some key websites, and see new installments in the oeuvres of Apichatpong, Wisit Sasanatieng, Ong Bak, and so on. From there, understand that there are references to Buddhism and perhaps to Americanization. It can be a bit vague. By comparison, the Western references can be distinctive, even brilliantly counter-intuitive (Eggleston and Welty are two comparisons in this book, for instance, and even Rossellini's wonderful La Macchina Ammazzacattivi (1943) gets a mention!). Frankly I'd like to see the same level of specificity and unpredictability when it comes to speaking about Joe as an Asian filmmaker—even if that means there will be some references to lesser-known, to an American, points of Thai history or Buddhism I'd have to actually look up if I wanted to understand more comprehensively.

    Kong Rithdee works in just this fashion with regard to Thai culture and cinema. As he points out in his very insightful contribution, debates about Thai-ness and Buddhism also mark Joe's reception in Thailand. But rather than being the consequence of internationalism and "postcolonial" legacies, the discourse "was aimed specifically at the Thai public." People were skeptical that Apichatpong's cinema could be more than a ruse, more than obeisance to a European art film paradigm. Who, after all, can lay claim to Apichatpong Weerasethakul's aesthetic? The easiest thing is always to presume that we know exactly what we are dealing with, where it has come from, and thus whether we can draw the proper line in the sand relative to it. If we over-emphasize either the Euro-art slowness or the Thai-Buddhist poise of work like Thirdworld, Mysterious Object at Noon, Tropical Malady, or Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, we dishonor the films themselves. What use is it to substitute readymade contexts when the films themselves are always inviting a viewer into experiences which reach the limits of verbalization, and court the extraordinary? Admirably, I think, the essays in Quandt's book move toward this quality, persistently attempting to address it."

  13. girish

    January 25, 2012 at 5:33 pm

    A couple of thoughts:

    — As Srikanth points out, there appears to be an assumption among US critics that context is required for the appreciation of OTHER cinema (from other nations and cultures), but not their own. But of course, we need contextual knowledge to better appreciate ALL films, not simply those from other cultures.

    This point links up with Corey’s: the way I chose to define “context” in this post was purposely narrow (sociopolitical/cultural/historical knowledge, especially of “other” cultures). But indeed, no film (as Corey points out) can be appreciated without some sort of context. For example, auteurism itself relies on a particular context to function: the oeuvre of a filmmaker from which can be constructed the thematic-stylistic complex associated with a particular filmmaker.

    — I’ve been wondering about a particular tension that seems to be hovering over the discussion here: between a deeper understanding of a film (which can sometimes be achieved, we seem to agree, via greater contextual knowledge) and valuation of a film. That is, it’s possible to better understand a film and what it’s doing by acquiring some knowledge of underlying context, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that our aesthetic valuation of the work (whether it’s a work of high art or popular art) will rise because of this knowledge.

    — Related to this: Perhaps film studies scholars can correct me and/or elaborate, but it seems to me that beginning with the “Screen theory” days of the 70s and continuing with both the rise of cultural studies and the ’historical turn’ in the 80s, aesthetic valuation has vacated an area that has been occupied more and more by context (broadly defined). But in the last 10 years or so, with a rise of interest in “cinephilia” and its study, we seem to be seeing a counter-movement in the discipline, a return of sorts, to open talk of aesthetics in cinema studies, an aesthetics that is enriched by context and its knowledge, not one that is evacuated and displaced by it (as it was to some extent in the 70s, 80s and 90s) . Any thoughts on this? I’d love to hear them.

  14. Yusef Sayed

    January 26, 2012 at 2:16 pm

    Personally, I've been very interested in particular works of art that purposefully work within a particular context and rely upon it for the work to have a stronger resonance, or to achieve its desired effect (yes, I have no problem with intentionality) – that play on expectations derived from the circumstances within which it is made. More often than not, though, I have appreciated this in musical works/performances.

    I feel that is almost impossible now, outside of live performances, because of the ease with which works can be cannibalised, ripped out of context and sampled across the Internet. That's all well and good, but it undermines some specific works, I think.

    Intentionality, in music particularly, is little discussed by composers – many of whom perhaps don't concern themselves with negotiating definite concepts or ideas – allowing the music to roam free, so to speak.

    So, if the context is important to the filmmaker, I'll probably be interested to hear what their aims were. That doesn't prevent me from undertaking whatever analysis I want to, using that same film.

    There are of course neverending ways of tackling films, paying heed to context or not. In fact, this year I've been making a concerted effort to study film history in a lot more depth, chronologically, since I personally value this approach, while also attempting to draw imaginative connections between films that seem so dissimilar, or totally at odds with respect to historical/social context. Of course, the results are sometimes rewarding, sometimes not.

    It can be tempting to judge the twenty-first century as defined by dissolving contexts,past and present due to the exchange and 'mash up' of data online. But, for those who are concerned with the contexts within which a work of art was created – specific to the artist, or to their country, or to technological shifts, etc – I think there are a LOT of useful books available, focusing on all sorts of niches and topics, as well as supplementary materials with DVDs.

    It's a fascinating topic, Girish.

  15. Yusef Sayed

    January 26, 2012 at 4:43 pm

    I'm aware that by having said:

    "Intentionality, in music particularly, is little discussed by composers – many of whom perhaps don't concern themselves with negotiating definite concepts or ideas – allowing the music to roam free, so to speak."

    I appear to be generalising in a pretty silly way. I don't think this particular discussion regarding films and their contexts warrants me elaborating on my ideas about music so I'll leave it for now.

    But turning back to consider film contexts, many of you might like to know that those hard-to-find Hyperkino Editions of Russian films which were once only obtainable through the impossible Ruscico website, and which offer elaborate contextualisng materials are now being distributed in the UK by Movie Mail:;tag=5|79

  16. Trevor Link

    January 26, 2012 at 5:54 pm

    I don't think there's any good argument against acquiring more contextual knowledge, but it doesn't always seem as though we are shut out from properly understanding a film if we do not have access to certain information. (And as Corey eluded to, we lack knowledge of linguistic context for what is essentially the majority of films ever made, no matter which languages we know. Can't know 'em all.)

    I can think of two examples where contextual knowledge seems particularly fundamental to situating a film. The first is Bong Joon-ho's Memories of Murder, which I see as a kind of grand commentary on South Korea's economic development. The way Bong jumps forward in time at the end of the film conveys so exquisitely the feeling of an entire country leaping into modernity. I tend to read the inability to determine the killer's precise identity as a symbolic representation of all the unanswered questions and unexamined consequences of economic development in a country like Korea; it's all the stuff that gets swept under the rug because economic prosperity is simply too desirable to question in any serious way. For me, this film is really profound, and my viewing of it happened to align to a period in my life (working on a master's degree in international affairs) when these questions were at the forefront of my mind.

    The other example is none other than Jia Zhangke. There are two moments in his films that stick out for me right now: the lighting of the bridge in Still Life and the rooftop rollerskating in 24 City. My feelings about Jia are rather like Nathan's above, and I think he's described Jia's appeal quite well. One truly senses the movement of history, the aliveness of cultural and national identity, the grandeur of economic development's more tragic dimension. Perhaps it's partly because of my own ambivalence (and sometimes indifference) toward my own, American, culture, but Jia's films matter to me because they never feel deadened toward these issues. These two moments are slight (even superficially unremarkable, some might feel), but they contain such an excess of meaning for me that I no longer feel I'm just watching a film, compartmentalized and benign.

  17. Trevor Link

    January 26, 2012 at 5:54 pm


    I'm not sure if it's possible to get that same spark if you don't understand something of the flavor of the world he's depicting. I've never been to China, and I'm certainly no expert, and that's why I think "flavor" is the right word here. You don't need to know everything, but you need to have a sense of the territory (in terms of meaning, rather than geography). Films create images that have a fecundity of meaning, giving us multiple entry points. We need to have some contextual knowledge to access these meanings, but there's such a surplus–too much for any one person to cover completely–that it seems pointless to hypothesize some form of ideal knowledge a person might have in approaching the film. (There might be an ideal body of knowledge for a beginner to know as a baseline, but after that, all bets are off.) I dare say that it's possible for people to become led astray by focusing too much on this kind of knowledge (as some people have pointed out above).

    Finally, I think what changed the way I think about culture was my time studying indigenous religion and culture. The temptation for many outsiders (and let's face it: in that field, we are virtually all outsiders) is to treat these cultures with a distanced kind of respect. And that's great and all, but I was much more fascinated by the lack of distance I felt between myself and the groups of people I was studying. We tend to focus quite a bit on the cultural differences between each other, but we are less inclined to see commonalities (or the ways they can teach us, the ways they are more "advanced"), as if culture is some kind of wall erected between groups of people. I think we can bring a lot to the table when discussing films by simply approaching them as works of art created by people who are, on some fundamental level, individuals just like us. I don't think there's a national/cultural style of cinema anywhere in the world that is completely impenetrable and "foreign," in this sense. I'm also in agreement with Bruno Latour's general idea, expressed in the title of his book We Have Never Been Modern, that the split between pre-modern and so-called modern people has been overemphasized and that we still function in many ways as "pre-modern" people. If we erect barriers between ourselves and our experience of a film, even in the name of recognizing cultural difference, we can possibly sometimes do more harm than good.

    (And as always, thanks for linking to my writing, Girish!)

  18. girish

    January 30, 2012 at 2:15 am

    Thanks so much, Yusef and Trevor! I always love hearing from you guys.

  19. girish

    January 30, 2012 at 3:18 pm

    David Hudson rounds up some reports from the Rotterdam film festival, which is in progress.

  20. Peter Nellhaus

    January 30, 2012 at 5:01 pm

    Came back to read the comments. And yes, Buddhism seems to be misunderstood and/or misrepresented by western critics who are unaware of the differences in doctrine and practice. I try to point this out when I write about Buddhism and film.

    Regarding Joe's film, living in Thailand for even a few months, when every other new Thai film released was a ghost story, and little ghost houses every few blocks, has been beneficial. To some extent Uncle Boonmee can be read as a reworking of what was until recently the most viable Thai film genre.

    On a somewhat related note, I'm still astounded that the Starz Denver Film Festival notes on Kim Ki-duk claimed him as a "devout Buddhist", presumably based on seeing his best known film.

  21. girish

    January 31, 2012 at 1:57 pm

    Richard Brody on a dialogue between Godard and Marcel Ophuls.

  22. gcgiles

    February 3, 2012 at 5:56 am

    Contextualizing the background of a critic is important as well, and I'm always thankful when a writer takes the time to present their background to the reader. Gilberto Perez introduces his book Material Ghost with a brief memoir of his filmgoing life in Cuba and his fascination with G. Cabrera Infante's film writing. It serves as a kind of elliptical mission statement for the rest of the book. Jonathan Rosenbaum often invokes his Alabama childhood in the '50s and the chain of theaters his grandfather owned. His film canon selections for that decade in Essential Cinema, at least to a certain degree, reflect this unusual upbringing.

  23. girish

    February 6, 2012 at 4:29 pm

    An excerpt from Joshua Land's essay "Migrating Forms: David Cronenberg and the challenge of the impossible adaptation":

    "What makes a film a successful literary adaptation? Ask a random literate moviegoer, and they're likely to answer that a good film adaptation should be "like the book" (or play). In other words, a successful adaptation is a faithful adaptation. What then is a faithful adaptation? One that follows the story of the original text, of course. It's this fixation on story that prompts the common contention that most great modernist and postmodernist novels, which often either lack a traditional story or integrate story elements with discursive material, are "unfilmable." One possible strategy of adaptation is to "flatten out" the original by simply discarding everything that doesn't move the story along, as in Philip Kaufman and Jean-Claude Carrière's version of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, a conventional 1980s Euro-prestige picture that preserves the novel's plot line while eliding the philosophical digressions and ruminations on love and kitsch that are essential to its meaning. So is it a successful adaptation of Milan Kundera's novel? Well, that depends on what you mean by "successful.""

  24. Greg

    February 10, 2012 at 9:29 am

    Exceptional post with a lot of detail

    Replies are very mixed on some of the film festivals

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