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February 2006 Archives

February 13, 2006

Reassemblage, 1982

reassemblage.gif Neither an ennobled (or exoticized) slice-of-life cultural documentary nor an expository thesis framed within the logic structure of an essay film, Reassemblage is, instead, what Trinh T. Minh-ha describes in her book Cinema Interval as an "interrogation" - an idiosyncratic (if not compositionally radical) approach to the ethnographic study of contemporary Senegal that seeks to erase the filmmaker's intrinsic interpretation of the recorded rituals through unsynchronized repetition of audio and visual imagery, using variations in shot placement (a methodology articulated in the comment "different views from different angles - the ABC of photography") and in the incorporation (or exclusion) of the non-diegetic soundtrack that, in its intrinsically abstract rhythms, nevertheless, convey the empirical essence of the quotidian. The film's introductory sequence - a black screen accompanied by the sound of tribal drums, followed by images of the Senagalese people without sound, fragmented into singular shots of limbs and torsos - illustrates this strategy of modulating, decontextualizing, and re-purposing seemingly familiar ethnographic imagery towards new ways of seeing.

At the core of Trinh's interrogation is the demystification of otherness or, more broadly, the application of binary logic in society's (and in partcular, western society's) examination of non-native cultures. The first words spoken by the narrator (Trinh) in the film, "scarcely twenty years were enough to make two billion people define themselves as underdeveloped", encapsulates this idea of externally imposed, arbitrary classification of populations into first and third world stratifications (as defined by standards of global economies set by industrialized nations), sameness and otherness, progress and underdevelopment ...and consequently, inclusion and exclusion. Prefaced with the recurring comment, "First create need, then help", the narrator recounts an encounter with a peace corps volunteer who attempts to teach the village women how to grow vegetables in their garden for profit. Implicit in their interaction is the specter of colonialism - the disingenuous claim of divine mandate to educate the "savages" as a rationalization for economic exploitation. It is this (delusive) image of the assimilated, enlightened westerner that is also repeated in the subsequent anecdote of an ethnographer who returns to a tribal village for two weeks in the belief that the extended duration of his visit renders him closer to understanding the culture, even as consumer artifacts from his own culture - in particular, a Sony Walkman - continue to intrude on his self-proclaimed goal of cultural immersion and indigenous assimilation. In both anecdotes, the ubiquitous electronic gadget serves as an iconic representation of the impossibility of true understanding and assimilation of one's non-native culture, an intranscendable limitation that Trinh defines as the hybridity of culture.

But beyond Trinh's examination of prevailing social attitudes that render true ethnographic documentation an impossibility, Reassemblage also seeks to subvert the perpetuated myths and common perceptions about African people. Stereotypical images of famine and disease are subverted through shots of healthy children at play and women milling grains that are cross-cut against shots of emaciated animal carcasses splayed on a deserted landscape to underscore the disconnection. Popularized ethnographic images of naked tribal women are confronted within the perpetual debate of what constitutes art and pornography, education and titillation. Even the traditionally common sense image of African people as having black skin is subverted through the image of albinism, further challenging the audience to redefine its superficial notions about race and ethnicity. Ironically, by creating a perpetual state of dislocation and fracture, Trinh creates a more honest and unmanipulated portrait of collective identity - a probing reassembly and decontextualization of familiar and iconic ethnographic images towards a deeper awareness of the underlying, indefinable essential alchemy that binds disparate people into the sociology of indigenous culture.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 13, 2006 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2006, Trinh T. Minh-ha

February 6, 2006

Le Joli mai, 1963

jolimai.gifBefore Chris Marker would deconstruct the 1930s, postwar photo-reportage of Denise Bellon in Remembrance of Things to Come to unearth what would prove to be subliminal portents within the zeitgeist of seeming halcyon days that would prove to be a harbinger of an inevitable second great war to end all wars, he would first cast his critical gaze towards Paris in the spring of 1962 after the signing of the Evian accord that effectively ended the Algerian War, a hopeful season that similarly held the elusive promise of peacetime following years of political agitation and terrorist insurgency. The resulting film is Le Joli mai, a two-part exposition inspired by Jean Rouch's groundbreaking Chronicle of a Summer assembled from candid interviews of ordinary people on the meaning of happiness, an often amorphous and inarticulable notion that evokes more basic and fundamentally egalitarian ideals of self-betterment, prosperity, tolerance, economic opportunity, and freedom. The image of a near imperceptible man scaling, then descending the symmetrical apex of a modern building provides a curious introduction to the film’s first chapter, Prayer from the Top of the Eiffel Tower, as a narrator similarly suggests adopting a different vantage point of observation for this seemingly auspicious time - to see Paris at dawn with the estranged familiarity of someone returning after a long journey, "without memories, without habit."

For a high school educated apparel salesman, happiness is earning enough disposable income to afford a second television set or similar commodified luxuries in order to make his wife and children happy, even as the ephemeral notion of free time itself contradicts the very mechanism of productivity and leisure that serves as the socioeconomic basis for obtaining these articles of luxury. For a pair of boys spending idle time in the financial district, happiness is growing up to become a person of importance, a captain of industry whose wealth and power can single-handedly influence the dynamics of the stock exchange. For an impoverished mother living in a one-room tenement in an Aubervilles slum with her husband and eight children (including one adopted niece), happiness arrives in the form of a long awaited mid-day telegram from the housing authorities notifying the family that its application for a three-bedroom apartment has finally been granted. Segueing into a conversation with contemporary artists, intellectuals, and inventors - a recurring theme of eccentricity and innovation that is underscored by images from a space exploration exhibit - Marker presents an image of the local population that cannot be reduced to a commonality of interchangeable archetypes but rather, reveals an underlying iconoclasm that often borders on narcissism - a preoccupation towards self-absorption and, consequently, away from the collective needs of society - that is reflected in the comment, "if we dissect this many-faced crowd, we find that it is the sum of solitudes".

While the first chapter reinforced the idea of separateness and social myopia innate in the individual pursuit of personal happiness (as epitomized by a young couple professing eternal love, the sad irony of their woeful ignorance over current events rendered even more absurd by the young man's status as a soldier awaiting impending deployment overseas), the second chapter, The Return of Fantomas places the hopes of the individual within the context - and limitations - of one's social station. An African immigrant becomes a first-hand witness to the malleability of history when he disputes the "official" colonialist version of the conquest of Dahomey. An ex-priest recounts his difficult decision to renounce his faith in order to take up the Marxist cause, unable to find compromise within the two competing ideologies of moral service. An Algerian young man recalls with dispiriting resignation and sense of exclusion his traumatic experiences with racism in the workplace and police brutality at home when he becomes the victim of petty retaliation in both his native and adoptive countries. Like the evocation of the elusive master-criminal Fantomas in the chapter title, the lingering, unresolved issues of racism, marginalization, social inequity, labor struggles, and colonial exploitation cast a pervasive, sinister shadow on the prospect of a lasting peace that, on the surface, seemed possible after the resolution of the Algerian conflict. Inevitably, it is through this dual image of Paris as a city of hope and despair, promise and chaos, liberation and imprisonment that the film serves, not only as an encapsulated document of the spirit of the times, but also a prescient prefiguration of the social turmoil - and ideological revolution - to come.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 06, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, Chris Marker