Robert Richardson through Uthid Hemamul

The use of the term ‘cinematic’ was detonated in the 1980s alongside the import of continental philosophy from France. For example, Deleuze’s Cinema I (1986) and Cinema 2 (1989) are ways of “thinking” and practicing theory cinematically according to concepts derived from the cinema. In his preface to Cinema 2: the Time-Image (2003’s English translation) he describes the post-War emergence of a disjointed world (e.g., “cities in the course of demolition and destruction [xi]”) which carry the cinema away from movement-centered structure of “rational cuts and continuity” toward a body-oriented time-image that, discontinuously, “shows time through its tiredness and waitings. (xi)” Here, theory came down to earth, while cinematic thinking carried a political objective, i.e., allowed the cinematic language of ‘visual literacy’ a place in everyday life. This step was monumental. Cinematic methodologies have changed our manner of seeing from the mere anti-foundational dead-ends of postmodernism a la Baudrillard (the imploding center), to a loose network of coordinates that are now present everywhere we look. The point is that everyone must assemble their reality though a variety of cinematic technologies, seeing and viewing being the most dominant. The time we spend on Youtube, in mass transit cars with literal tracking panoramic shots of the landscape, the facial close-up shots being crammed close together on a bus, and perhaps most of all…the landscape that is a mosaic of screens, digital billboards, and movie previews from light-rail television sets (what Victor Burgin [2006] calls the “cinematic heteratopia”). Furthermore, the assumption that vertical living in high-rise condominiums and 10-floor fashion malls is usually classified as the privileged view of the middle class fails to acknowledge that someone has to clean the windows. In our time everyone sees cinematically. Outside of magical realism and other anti-celluloid revolts, for me it seems there is no other way of writing about contemporary life while retaining some measure of verisimilitude. And this is why I see the passage from Nami Mun’s recent novel Miles From Nowhere (2009) as sincere:

Just enough to see the world without being in it. Everything—the cars and buses and curses from cabbies, the bodies that rushed by, as well as the ones that surrounded me like zombies—appeared beautiful and cinematic in my private viewfinder. (Nami Mun 2009: 144)

In the late 60s and early 1970s, the cinematic transitions in the American academy were already being measured in relation to what their continental European colleagues were saying. One side of the Atlantic looked through the lens of the humanities (Richardson 1969; Maddux, Silliphant, Issacs 1970), while the European counter-part (Barthes 1970; Metz 1968) wrote about film through the social scientific lens of structuralism. The former aimed to re-appropriate the art toward addressing a human deficiency and lacking in order, the latter toward revealing an enigma. In the latter case, these “secrets” coded within any particular film, for instance, can be decoded (as in the three axes according to Barthes: the symbolic, proairetic and cultural codes). Though its fairly obvious that film studies largely went with the decoding approach in accord with a split between film language and psychoanalysis, I quite like the humanist approach—asleep for the past forty years.

In 1969 Robert Richardson wrote Literature and Film in the attempt to regard where film was going, how it would affect literature, and how the two “fine arts” would be compared across the disciplines. He opens this concern with an opening chapter on a modern literature fraught with decadence and fragmentation, usually contrasted with the machine-like rise of a cinema built around ordering stories, frames, and episodes of life. In the following chapters he demonstrates the similarities in “visual literacy” that exist between literature (e.g., Dickens, Flaubert, T.S. Eliot, and the obvious conclusions like Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer (1962) and anything by Alain Robbe-Grillet) and film. Film’s technique of montage and narrative cross-cutting, he so notes, are apparent by the mid-19th century—Flaubert’s presentation of the Agricultural Show in Madame Bovary, for example. The same example is more recently and redundantly cited, yet uncredited, by Jacques Ranciere (2006) (in that Flaubert “framed his micro-narrations like ‘film shots’ [9]). Ranciere calls this period the Aesthetic Age, in which aesthetics operated as a discontinuous assemblage of disagreement (i.e., cutting) in place of a representational system of beauty and order.

Richardson also references Virginia Woolf’s 1926 essay on cinema, and a search for a future cinematic style, and Sergei Eisenstein’s homage to Dickens’ use of montage, as in the close-up shot in The Cricket on the Hearth (1845). Richardson closes the book by paying tribute to film theorist Bela Belazs, and perhaps as a caution against the continental trends of the following decade:

This is not a language of signs as a substitute for words, like the sign-language of the deaf-and-dumb—it is the visual means of communication, without intermediary, of souls clothed in flesh. Man has again become visible. (119)

For Richardson, Belazs believed the humanitarian impulse of film to be rooted in an engagement with the other, while the camera assemblage of shots (specifically, the facial close-up) would restore what has been lost in the cold machine-like progress of modernity. Consequently, Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propoganda film Triumph of the Will (1935) is inhumane because it fails to engage the Other.

Contemporary Thai film has taken Richardson’s proposition a step further. Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Syndromes and a Century (2006) tells the story of an inability to engage the Other. In a variety of sequences, the final half of the film offers a vision of a city where people are partitioned into regimented groups that follow orders. Collective intimacy takes place behind the closed doors of a “sterile” urban infrastructure. This narrative of the city that unfolds in the second half of the film contrasts with an unblemished humanity (or call it a less-regulated “otherness”) told through a similar narrative set in the Thai rural outskirts in the first half of the film. The film was initially banned in Thailand, due to the film’s blunt restoration of reality.

In contemporary Thai literature Anursorn Tipayanon’s short story “Skulls” (2006) is likewise told through the cinematic lens of visual contrast by ‘cutting’. Using the non-humanity of primate skulls (just as Dickens had begun with the close-up of a boiling kettle), the narrator employs a flashback/flash-forward technique of “cutting” (demarcated by solid lines across the page) to snear at the inhumanity of modern law. Law requires progress and continuity, disabled by the murder of the narrator’s wife. When the narrator interrogates the murderer to “decode” the secret of his motive, the murderer claims he wanted to test the soundness of the law. Law begets violence, as if a figuration (or incubator) of transgression. Though both of the above examples question “humanity,” both cinematic screens leave humanity centered.

This past month, and exemplary of the distinction between Ranciere’s recent work as compared with Richardson’s older comparisons between literature and film, I finished Uthid Hemamul’s Mirror Reflection (กระจกเงา/เงากระจก 2006). The early use of film techniques in 19th century literature actually used older musical analogies. So what Ranciere and Richardson call Flaubert’s use of montage, Flaubert compared to a symphony (see Hutchinson 1983, P. 69 or the entire chapter “Montage and Collage”). Throughout his 2006 novel, Hemamul lists a variety of songs throughout the chapters. This is because many of the characters undertake musical duties at a nightclub, but also because the author plays on the identity of characters through the ‘kinds’ of music they listen to (e.g., see his short story “That Day” [2008]). While the novel is about identity, as in the Lacanian mirror-stage of gender discovery insinuated in its title, the musical soundtrack acts beyond the mere reflection of identity. Music, like other elements of rhythm and flow (e.g., narrative voice, the three-part division of the novel into the form of a sonata/fugue is also an element of aesthetic arrangement, i.e. a method of composition. Chapter 12, the final “movement” of part II, is composed in musical rhythm, the main character Morn repeatedly referring to himself as a metronome. This metronomic function of identity is again clarified, in terms of the emergence of political appropriation (the “unclothed and disenfranchised individual” in modernity that Zygmunt Bauman talks about) whereby Hemamul’s narrator states: “politics awaits the rhythm to clothe you. (222)” In one of the primary settings of the novel, a night club called Brown Sugar, the protagonist DJ attempts a continuity through the smooth transition of songs. The events of everyday life, however, instigate hard cuts that are inscribed cinematically (and discontinuously) into the novel. I should say more about how Richardson’s engagement of the Other, one of the primary demonstrations of humanity connecting film and literature, unfolds in Hemamul’s Mirror Reflection by turning inward to the split self (a self split into more than two parts).


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