“We wanted to show how a chicken dealer (Lam’s actual profession at the time) lives. The whole film unfolded in a bizarre way because we were overwhelmed by incidents in the improvisation. Lam’s car had no brakes, no headlights, and no registration. It was really a patience-mobile that forced us to stop when we least expected. The introduction of the character of the devil in the bush came up in Lam’s reflections when we broke down. ‘Let’s not stop here,’ he said every time the car refused to go on, ‘there are devils here!’”
—Jean Rouch, from Cine-Ethnography
“I’m not a poet, I’m an entrepreneur”
—Jimmy Van Horn
Eminently practical people, when Americans do diaspora it’s usually a kind of one-stop shopping—aiming to hit both sides of the same coin—hedonism and capitalism. So when Jimmy Van Horn (David Zellner) the Ghostbox Cowboy of the title, goes to China this techno-huckster no doubt idly dreams of these things but gets a glitchy metaphysical adventure story instead. The last thing he expects is for the tables of history to be turned on him with a systemic indifference. How one responds to these nihilistic voids is the subject of this movie.
I wonder. Do people really understand what crazed Herzogian scheme it is to shoot a film unauthorized and guerrilla style on tourist visas in China? It was mad enough when Jia Zhangke and his generation did it, but this is in some ways beyond that. The film is the first fiction feature from John Maringouin, known as a formally and sonically experimental documentarian. Ghostbox Cowboy is a montage film, a film very much created in the edit, but that’s not to say that Maringouin isn’t a good hunter or on-the-fly composer of material, because there are parts of it that are as elemental in their poetic surrealism as anything I’ve ever seen. And he’s interested in subjects that produce some sort of unfamiliar, queasy vertigo, either ideological or interpersonal. I have to admire this fearlessness.
Running Stumbled (2006) is a documentary portrait of Maringouin’s father and his intimate circle in a New Orleans suburb. His father is a narcissistic and dangerous charmer, like an aging and demonic Matthew McConaughey, and a painter now blocked and stuck in a pharmacopeia of channel-surfed prescription drug hazes. The drug use is decentered, and becomes part of the formal texture, the ghost songs, of the film. At one point Maringouin says to his father, “I just wish you existed.” It’s a good line. When this comes after a voiced fantasy of killing his documentary subjects, this is a good summation of the ethnofictional ethos of what I’ve seen of Maringouin’s work. The thread that connects Running Stumbled and Ghostbox Cowboy is the idea of being marooned, or shanghaied, in a Fassbinderian universe of predatory dependencies.
Because it is faithful and true to its fragments, Ghostbox Cowboy is a film that needs to be post-mise en scène. Increasingly, mise en scène feels too formed, too inadequate for liquid modernity. Among other things, it’s a film about the normally esoteric process of creating what economists and Starbucks hustlers call a value chain in a global frame. This is a rather skittish thing to capture. The ethnographer Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, in her 2015 book, The Mushroom at the End of the World, spends almost 300 pages doing this same thing for matsutake. And I don’t think a film has shown this particular aspect of it—that this process is about creating and abandoning and creating again fictions out of people and objects. In other words, the process of creating a value chain is self-reflexive; not that different from a filmmaker making a documentary. In this way, even though it features two “name” professionals, Robert Longstreet and David Zellner, Ghostbox Cowboy is a collective work of ethnofiction.
"In this project, I have used ethnographic fragments to interrupt stories of a unified and successful regime of global self-management. Ethnographic fragments ask us to pay attention to details. The travels that inspire global connection turn out to be less controllable than those at the top imply. Making claims about scale, including globalization, turns out to be an arena of contention.”
—Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, Friction
Watching this movie, I thought more than once “what would Trinh Minh-Ha or Anna Tsing think about all this stuff we’re seeing?” Tsing’s over-arching point is that Manichean frames, even if they serve the “right” or the “correct” agendas are themselves oft-used methods to deny local agency. Solidarity does not mean homogenization, it means noticing local translations, adaptations, and resistances. And seeing that globalization cuts both ways, in fact that it cuts in an infinite number of ways. It’s a dangerous mirrorball made of shards that you can’t put a handle on.
The film is broken roughly into two halves. The first part is like a hybrid of the Olivier Assayas of demonlover and Boarding Gate and Wim Wenders’ The American Friend, in other words a DeLillo-esque film about the dangerous schemes, languages, and sociologies of globalized capital. This is the polyphonic part of the story. That’s the “sexy” part of the movie. This half is very good, and Soderberghian, but it’s not as interesting, searching and epiphanic as what comes in the second half.
Jimmy Van Horn has taken the last of his money, $40,000 in crypto-currency, and come to China to bet it all on a prototype of a fake electronic dowsing rod that he calls Ghostr. This box is supposed to help the living communicate with the dead, and Van Horn believes he can, with the help of Chinese venture capital, unleash it on the Chinese market and sit back and bathe in money. It’s a sensible but naive hustle, a globalized version of shark tank. But he’s underestimated the sharks, who have a razor-edged familiarity with American weaknesses, and with a cruel slowness they banquet on him, taking his intellectual property, his cash, his labor, and eventually and more mysteriously his sense of direction and selfhood. As he gets schooled, Van Horn’s sentimental education is a descent into a nowhereland. What might have been an artied-up genre film now takes the turn-off to the existential oblique, the same poetic surfaced territory as the Antonioni of Red Desert and The Passenger. A surfing of surfaces.
Specialist: “Happens every year in China. Betrayal season. It’s kind of like Thanksgiving for Americans, or Christmas for the Irish. It’s sweaty betrayal season.”
Abandoned by his main expat contact, Bob (the raging enthusiast played by Longstreet), Van Horn discovers that his prototype has already been stolen and is put on the market, and that his partners have not only betrayed him, but plan to sell the ghostbox to the foolish Americans either as a ghost repellent or as an IED. His frenemy, an expat fixer/con artist named Specialist (Spesh) finds him a series of occasional and humiliating precarian “jobs” that to keep him busy and at bay. Specialist hijacks the movie for a while as we watch his double-dealing interactions and hear his self-serving poetic musings on the nature of misanthropy. Specialist’s language and insights are those of a participant observer. His rabid mistrust of the Other, AnyOther, comes from experience—it’s capitalist paranoia actualized. Meanwhile, the knight errant turned guest worker, Van Horn sets off for Chinese Mongolia, to the semi-abandoned ghost-city of Ordos. It is a symbol of development as ruin, like an abandoned shopping mall, or cleared Amazonian forest, the archetypal capitalist ruin. This is where his last hope, a childhood friend, now an expat, Johnny Mai-Tai supposedly lives.
From this point on, the film proceeds according to dream logic. And here the editing and sound design, by Maringouin, Sean Gillane, and Leslie Shatz, turns into something oneiric and Ruizian. A Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia for the 21st century, bereft of dismal macho heroics or their narrative consequences. Now here is where the queasy vertigo feeling comes in—in order to really look at the infinite, eternal translations of global capitalism, Ghostbox Cowboy has to move beyond the usual, comfortably tut-tutting perspective, neither Orientalist or Post-Colonial. It has to glitch (or like Latour says, iconoclash) those frames. Because it pays minute attention to the frictions that are Tsingian and the multiple levels inherent in the globalist land-rush, it’s proof that as an ethnofiction it can be more useful and perceptive than either the conventions of fiction or documentary.
To his credit, Maringouin is not afraid to enter this ideologically contested Conradian no-man’s land. There is something cosmologically funny about taking a neoliberal gringo entrepreneur and making him play the subaltern to the hilt but as a performance of exile and psychological erasure, an American prop in all the pageants of globalization that we see in Jia movies. Van Horn is told to smile so often that he has to hide behind a pair of clip on dentures which give him the aura of a plastic skull. And to erase the skullness, Zellner wears a blonde wig at times.
A local headhunter in Shenzhen, Carrie (Carrie Gege Zhang), berates him for failing at everything: he can’t sell and he can’t show emotion, because affect labor is the biggest part of his performance as the ghostly American abroad. His taskmasters want a cowboy who can emote. His failure to emote is the evidence of resistance under the eager to please demeanor, and it’s where you realize that the actor Zellner’s mask of artlessness is really something plural. A truth unearthed: the entrepreneurial spirit is an onion bulb of artless fake affects. It can only make others cry.
"Since we don’t know how things will turn out, it’s worth attending to states of emergence—and emergency. Here hope and despair huddle together, sometimes dependent on the same technologies. Urgency springs up in ruined landscapes; utopian dreams, and crass ambitions, are formed. The guaranteed futures of globalization theory seem strange and far away in this storm.”
—Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, Friction
When Jimmy finally finds his Kurtz, Johnny Mai-Tai (J.R. Cazet), they fall into unconscious mimicry, doubling their weird platitudes in a ritualized quasi-religious way. “That’s why trying to be somebody is trying to be nobody and vice-versa. You better start being nobody prontissimo.” Johnny’s wife, Joanna (Angelina Liu), interrupts this mimetic reverie by screaming a mesmeric monologue of orders that Jimmy needs to follow. This is Joanna’s monologue: “Transit, commerce, leisure is what IT creates. Travel, making purchases, and relaxing is what IT demands. And IT demands that you participate. That’s why you will sell real estate. You will sell every part of this empty city. For the very bottom to the very top, every inch of it! You will bring people here. You will find a way, to fill this city, with happy smiling faces. Or you will die!” I love that Joanna doesn’t name the IT because it makes IT the most obvious secret, the holy secret that no one can name, it’s the tentacled Lovecraftian god of capital. Make no mistake: both Terror and Abjection are forms of worship.
At the end, Van Horn zeroes out to get lost in the inner Mongolian sandcastle of a mythically deserted Communist Vegas, where he realizes he has stumbled into yet another photo opportunity. He puts on this silver cape that Johnny Mai-Tai has given him. Again: “When you don’t know who you are or why you’re doing it, put that on.” What’s marvelous here is for the first time in the film he doesn’t resist his role as a meaningless American extra useful for a moment to the tourist hunger for the curio, the anomalous, the strange. He is no longer a protagonist of anything but an object of consumption.
Like America itself. A ghostbox looking for a shelf.