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Film Studies, Film Practice and Asian Cinema: Points in Re-Connection[1]

Moinak Biswas

Department of Film Studies


Jadavpur University

i.
These reflections are prompted by the new cinephilia
that is emerging across cities in India. I have in mind the small
groups forming in Delhi, Bombay, Bangalore, Calcutta, Hyderabad,
Chennai, and in smaller cities and towns, around the LCD projector
and the DVD player, holding screenings of select films, often
accompanied by discussions. The DVDs come from lending libraries and
private collections, copy culture providing the basis to the creation
of resource. I have had the opportunity to participate in discussions
at a few such screenings recently. They seem to be a reincarnation of
the film society in the digital era. The film society had its origins
in India in 1947, reached its peak in the 1970s, and went into a
steady decline in the mid-1980s. If video played a major role in that
decline it is the DVD which is bringing it back to a new life from
the ashes. It is, of course, a new life, and therefore, different in
its promise. The composition of the groups itself is different,
connected as it is to virtual societies on the Web, linked to home
viewing facilities that were not available to the earlier film
society members, smaller in size, and based more or personal
acquaintance and friendship.

As it so happens, at the moment, Asian Cinema forms a


central focus of excitement in these fledgling societies. Interest in
Iran was already deep when the activity took off, and Wong Kar-wai
was already a favourite from the East. Then came the discovery of Hou
Hsiao-hsien, Tsai Ming-liang, Edward Yang, Jia Zhangke, Kim Ki-duk,
et al. I am calling the excitement around the encounter with these
filmmakers cinephilia in the old sense. There is a fascination for
the possibilities of cinema that these films are bringing back. There
is a part in the appreciation that is critical of the fact that we do
not expect Indian film industry to produce such films. It is
analytical in the sense that it tries to grasp the artistic processes
at work. And then, it is a critical education in the way it tries to
connect the techniques back to the act of filmmaking, often feeding
into an interest in making films, into the increasingly common dream,
fostered by digital formats, of the viewer turning into an image-
maker some day. The interest in technique is always evident in the
way young viewers discover possibilities of cinema, but there is
enough reason to see it also as a fascination with challenging material.

Take, for example, the passages of non-action that


characterize much of the cinema coming from the practitioners
mentioned above - those wordless durations where action is stripped
of its dramatic content to a degree that often pushes screen reality
beyond its imaginary wholeness, towards a registration of bare space
and time. I am choosing this thematic-stylistic device since it has
historically characterized many attempts of deviation from the norm
in cinema. It was once a recognizable mark of the contemplative and
defiant form, for instance, in the European cinema of the 1960s and
70s. It has been part of the celluloid cinephilia to appreciate the
barren places of Antonioni, the camera writing over space in
Mizoguchi, the near ridiculous moments of anticipation in Jim
Jarmusch, or the withdrawal of movement in Mani Kaul. It was also
part of the viewer's education to come to terms with the dead moments
in various new wave styles. One remembers how, later on, Gilles
Deleuze devised a nomenclature for these moments in cinema, and
brought out their deeper significance for thought in the twentieth
century.

It is intriguing to see the new cinephile learning to


take delight in the same interruptions in the standardized system of
pleasure. The logic of the action-less passage can connect up with a
range of ruptures through which new speech emerges in cinema, through
which cinema dares to speak in a different language. It strikes
correspondence with an interruption in the suture of on-screen and
off-screen space, of which Kiarostami and Hou are the new masters.
The technique may lend itself to rediscovery, but its function has to
be different each time at the level of the content. Jia Zhangke, for
example, inserts stillness in the very heart of the story of the
modernizing miracle of China. For him it is another time, hidden in
the heart of a province; but he feels it is precisely what should be
presented as the time of the contemporary, not the capitalist time of
growth. His criticism of the Fifth Generation's turn to the past and
period pieces[2] is visible in the way he withdraws from action and
the dramatic organization of space. The withdrawal makes it possible
to figure the story of a systematic erasure of people and life-
worlds. As the young cinephile in India receives films like Unknown
Pleasures and Platform does she think of the daily experience of our
provinces, urban fringes and suburbia that is almost never
articulated in our mainstream cinema? Does she feel the same sense of
absence as she watches the immobilized gangsters traveling across the
city borders in Hou's Goodbye South, Goodbye?

The strategic function of immobility is not necessarily


only to provide a critical access to the contemporary. A film like
The Puppetmaster ( Hou Hsiao-hsien) reveals how cinema can achieve
the difficult task of positioning itself between the past and the
present by using the same technique. Goodbye Dragon Inn (Tsai Ming-
liang) captures by the same method the emptiness invading cinema
itself, in the shape of a theatre abandoned by the audience, in the
compulsion to hand everything over to the past before it is time. One
is always prompted to think of such things as more than technique
because of this iterability, their renewed and repeated use across
films, and their shifting effects. The range of possibilities
organized around a single technical cluster could well present a
legitimate point about the content we in India do not explore. The
theme of homosexuality, for example, has found its way into our
popular cinema. These are issues 'taken up' by films and remain
extricable from them as issues. And then there are our serious films
dealing with marital difficulties and physical disabilities. What
must be a reinvigorating experience for the new cinephile is that
something like homosexuality not only crosses the borders of chic and
safe-play in a film like Tsai's The River, but the way the film opens
itself to the unknown possibilities of cinema by placing the
contingent sexual encounter between the father and the son without
the justification of plot or character. The technique of immobility
develops into a form in the proper sense as it bounces off these
critical moments rather than follow a logic of succession. What it
does in a film like The River is to clear space for a reconsideration
of ideas that sustain our sense of reality. Rey Chow, in an essay on
The River, calls this 'discursivity in production'. She thinks the
stillness and non-decidability of the film helps a discursive
scattering[3].

If, in its attempt to appreciate a technique like this,


the new cinephilia reconnects with the older one one need not be
alarmed about the return of dead paradigms. What we witness in the
artistic adventure of the new Asian cinema is an ability to speak to
the rich and varied history of world cinema. I am reminded of the way
Fredric Jameson read Edward Yang's Terrorizer in 1992 in his
'Remapping Taipei', placing it side by side with Andre Gide's The
Counterfeiters, and saw the formal dynamics of the film, its re-
capture of the symptoms of an urban subjectivity, as a mirror in
which modernism could discover truths about its own career[4]. One
could think of the moment in What Time Is It There? when Jean-Pierre
Leaud hands his phone number in a chit of paper to Chen Shiang-chyi -
a tribute from the young appearing on screen as a gesture of
generosity from the old. The film stops at unexpected moments to
remember Francois Truffaut's 400 Blows.

Tsai says in an interview that Leaud wanted lines to


speak in that scene, but he didn't want him to. He also says how,
when the film was shown in Paris, the audience broke into applause
the moment the silent Jean-Pierre Leaud, the most remembered face of
the young from the Nouvelle Vague, appeared on the screen[5]. An
applause of the cinephile, it was occasioned, one would like to
think, by the connection that Paris established with Taipei at that
moment.

ii.
It is difficult for the Film Studies we practice to echo
these moments of gratitude. To repeat the point about the connection
between the new cinephilia and film practice, the technique that I
mention above cannot be a part of the standard cinema, Hollywood,
Bombay or Chennai. As someone associated with academic Film Studies
in India, I see a chasm opening up once more between our work and the
cinephile's engagement at this point. It is not the first time, since
Film Studies began by marking a distance from the existing cinephile
discourse. The latter was a discourse conducted under the aegis of
the film society movement. The first generation of Indian Film
Studies practitioners all came from that background. The new
scholarship they represented became visible in the late 1980s. Film
Studies soon found itself ensconced in the academia, the first full
fledged Department with a postgraduate curriculum was to be launched
at Jadavpur University in 1993. I have been asked here to speak from
the experience of being associated with the Department; hence you
will forgive me this quick overview based on personal impressions. A
divergence from the film art discourse was necessary, we thought, to
open a domain proper to the historical-cultural understanding of
film. The auteurist bias, the focus on select films, prevented
historical investigation, re-produced notions of art and the artist
which appeared problematic in the face of the challenges from Theory.
The absence of any historical account of the institution of Indian
cinema, for example, was obviously a product of the rarefied
'appreciation' approach to film that the existing discourse had. I
come from a city which had an active film society movement, and it
was also home to some of the most prominent practitioners of
alternative cinema in India, including Satyajit Ray and Ritwik
Ghatak. Film Studies there had a paradoxical circumstance of birth.
It was possible to motivate the university to launch a Department of
Film Studies in the face of skepticism from the academic old guard
because of the prestige film culture enjoyed among the intellectuals;
on the other hand, soon upon the formation of the Department it
became clear that the writers and organizers belonging to the film
society culture did not identify themselves with our work. That they
found our business esoteric was only one side of the problem; they
also found it baffling that we shifted our attention from the art of
cinema entirely to its culture, and therefore, also got occupied with
a kind of cinema which the film society movement was launched to debunk.

I do not have to tell this audience about the benefits


of that departure. If that justification is at all needed I should
rather be arguing with my disappointed friends from the film
societies. I have been asked to reflect on the experience of the
Department rather than tell the story of its environmental
adaptation. I would like to speak a little about the internal effects
of that adaptation though. When we formulated the syllabi for the
Department, we were enjoined to strike a balance between Film Studies
and its non-academic neighbour discourses. In teaching Hollywood and
film theory we were drawn naturally to the seventies film theory and
the attending historical research; in our courses on the world cinema
schools (Europe, Latin America, Japan) we leant on a selection of
critical texts that precede and run parallel to film theory. The
courses that dealt with Indian cinema and cultural theory had to make
a quick connection with what was then an incipient scholarship of
Film Studies orientation in India.

This bricolage of tools was sought to be put within a


framing Film Studies discourse, which, after film theory washed
ashore and receded, formed a closer alliance with Cultural Studies.
As Film Studies began its productive investigation of the institution
of cinema in India it had to deflect the focus onto culture. I would
like to remember here that this does not necessarily demand a turn to
the 'category of popular culture', since the new scholarship promised
to analyze the processes of cultural production of all kinds of
cinema, not only the mainstream popular. So far as a focus on
production was retained, it held the promise of taking us back to
film practice, the uncovered weave of cultural composition offering
an engagement with films not only wider but richer than auteur-based
or close textual discussion . But let us remember that there was no
radical content to this struggle to wean away criticism from art to
culture, it was precisely what the new economy of culture demanded.
Academic Film Studies began its career in India at a time when the
state was about to withdraw its support to alternative cinema, a
certain cultural project of post-independence modernity was coming to
an end; the state's initiatives in culture was being handed over to
the market. It also coincided with the onset of new television and
the implication of cinema in a new audiovisual matrix, the beginning
of the 'end of cinema as we knew it'. To the Film Studies scholar the
alternative cinema in the feature film sector will simply become
unavailable.

It would not be inaccurate to say that that the Cultural


Studies turn became recognizable in the increasing interest Film
Studies began to take in the broad area of reception, and the
increasing investment in the contemporary. Once again, I assume that
I do not need to mention the important results of that project. The
work on the changing exhibition modes and new forms of dissemination,
for instance, is one of the most exciting areas of current research.
This turn, however, made the rift between two approaches to cinema
clearer. In the teaching situation, we do not necessarily produce
scholarly material, we introduce them. We need a somewhat finished
body of work to take to the students; and therefore, often move at a
lag with research. But sometimes, you would agree, that little gap
forces a choice on us, which has its own benefits given the
occasional hazards of being fully contemporary to the contemporary.
And one is not always sharing a discourse among peers in the class;
the students have their own reality to present. We have often felt
that the students, exposed only to Indian and American mainstream
cinema, no longer having the support of the film society, should
first know another cinema exists. They should not be deprived of the
immersion in a cinema that has made us relate to the world in a new
way, revealed the immense potentials of sound and image, provided
incitement to thought, have changed us in small and important ways.
One had to invoke a discourse that did not overlap with the new film
scholarship in India in order to keep a dialogue on with Ozu or
Oshima, Bunuel or Renoir, Ghatak or Glauber Rocha, even as one talked
about the politics of popular pleasure.
The Japanese critic Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto says in an essay
that the reason Japan doesn't have Film Studies is the study of
cinema there never took off from the older humanities framework in
the direction of Cultural Studies[6]. What happens when Film Studies
co-exists in the university with other humanities disciplines? While
the literature courses at Jadavpur have over the years incorporated
parts of our content, Film Studies in its turn has been reminded of
the usefulness of the methods they work with, which may not belong to
Cultural Studies. I would say criticism is at stake at the juncture
where we stand. Criticism demands a distance, a non-identity with the
object. Film Studies in its current shape in India, tends to lose
contact with criticism in that sense, committed as it is to what is,
to the description of the given. In its reading of cultural symptoms
it often resembles the hybrid body of the popular cinematic frame it
encounters, collapsing the framing gap with the object. We run the
risk of ending up placing a trust in the industry as the only
creative source since it defines our area of operation. In that
sense, retaining the framing gap would mean keeping alive the
reflection on the possibilities of cinema, connecting back to
creation of films. Retaining the gap would also mean taking a detour
through other cinemas, those that are close to us, and yet distant.
After all, a trend within Cultural Studies, by isolating the elements
of artistic production and laying bare their strategic and historical
functions, their diverse affiliations, sought to open the way for
their renewal.

Film Studies, especially in the space it shares with


students, may need a conversation with the cinephile at this point,
who is exploring the alternatives that exist next door, using them as
the 'outside' that every criticism needs. It is not as if the
industrial film in India does not establish links of its own kind
with film scholarship. The smartness of contemporary Indian cinema
shows how it has already incorporated a certain critical discourse
about itself and turned it into an advantage. Why shouldn't criticism
also attempt to make a connection with the films that are about to
come, maybe through a process in which our filmmakers join the
collaborative network in East Asia that sustains the new Asian
cinema. The cinephile's viewing activity is connected by an imaginary
thread to the films that many of the young, not content with what our
cinema has to offer, would like to make. Shouldn't Film Studies also
produce accounts of existing films that remember those that are made
in our heads?
-----------------------
[1] This paper was prepared for Asian Cinema: Towards a Research and
Teaching Agenda, International Conference organized by Centre for
the Study of Culture and Society, Bangalore, in February, 2007.
[2] 'Capturing a Transforming Reality', interview with Michael Berry,
in Berry, Speaking in Images, New York, 2005
[3] 'A Pain in the Neck, A Scene of "Incest", and Other Enigmas of an
Allegorical Cinema, Tsai Ming-liang's The River', New Centennial
Review 4.1 (2004)
[4] Jameson in The Geopolitical Aesthetic, Cinema and Space in the
World System, London, 1992
[5] '"My Films Reflect My Living Situation": An Interview with Tsai
Ming-liang on Film Spaces, Audiences, and Distribution', by Sujen
Wang and Chris Fujiwara, positions: east asia cultures critique, 14.1
(2006)
[6] See Yoshimoto, 'The University, Disciplines, National Identity.
Why is There No Film Studies in Japan?', South Atlantic Quarterly (2000)
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