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Cannes 2018. Correspondences #5: Changless Change—Jean-Luc Godard and Jia Zhangke

On "The Image Book", a new essay film by Godard on man's endless wars, and "Ash Is Purest White", Jia's melodrama of a changing China.
The Notebook is covering Cannes with an on-going correspondence between critics Lawrence Garcia and Daniel Kasman.
The Book of Images
Dear Lawrence,
I also was impressed by Jaime Rosales’s Petra—and especially, as you note, by actress Bárbara Lennie, whose reserved intelligence and natural poise suggest an eloquent capability of character: Whenever she is in a scene, whether in Asghar Farhadi’s Everybody Knows or this one, one feels anything is possible in the drama, because she suggests an independence consciously held in check, thinking, feeling, waiting, and above all choosing when to speak, when to act.
“When to act” could be the central question of Jean-Luc Godard’s The Image Book, which has premiered in the Cannes Film Festival's competition. Taking the form of an essay film collage akin to his opus Histoire(s) du cinéma, it is a salvo of anger and soul-searching inquiry from this director too-often venerated only for his 1960s films (Pierrot le fou adorns the poster for Cannes this year) and dismissed for his later ones that, with far greater rigor, ask some of the hardest questions about ourselves as people living in the same era as he.
Undoubtedly the most experimental feature ever shown in Cannes competition, collaging clips of film and news, some recognizable and much not, using sources of various resolution and quality and often distorting the material with extreme color filtration or smudged clarity, the soundtrack a beautifully abrupt edit of text readings (some by a beleaguered-sounding Godard, as if murmuring or reciting to himself late at night), film dialog (much unsubtitled) and music samples, The Image Book feels like notes from the underground, a bunker film, trying to assemble and learn from the moving image remnants of humankind in the 20th and 21st century. This is as much “a film by Godard” as it is “research by Godard,” a work of poetic scholarship infused in equal measures by despair and aspiration. Premiering such an intimate and dense film, one which often makes the screen seem like a scarred, ancient entity, the cave wall on which we try to decipher old meanings and a transmission of values, in such a prestigious place as Cannes is an admirable gesture by the festival not merely to legacy of the Godard name, but to the urgency of the analysis of his thinking, and the deep warning and profound example The Image Book offers through this thought.
Made of five chapters, opening with “Remakes,” on the mutable repetitions of modern human wars, moving to a chapter on revolutions, trains (their possibilities of escape but also intimations of death camps), the “spirit of law”—who judges and thereby where justice lays—and concluding with “la région centrale”—a movement to the Middle East—The Image Book absorbs clips from cinema and reportage, equating both, trusting both, to search for the reason why violence between human being continues. Why, the film asks, if we have the capability of filming, of recording, acts of horror, do we keep repeating the cruelty, continuing the oppression? Flattening the distinction between the fiction films Godard is citing (including many of his own) and newsreels and Internet clips, popping the aspect ratio of films to expand the frame, The Image Book sees the moving image culture of the cinema era as both inquisitor and evidence for our capacity for horror, as well as for compassion and grace. Siegfried spears the dragon in Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen, ISIS guns down pedestrians in a drive-by, and Orpheus, stabbed through in Cocteau's Testament of Orpheus, collapses: one, two, three. “Only a fragment leaves the mark of authenticity,” the voiceover later quotes. This film, whose canvas of imagery is so generous that even with something like half of the film untranslated for this uneducated American, the force and the meaning were clear: we can read the film like a picture book—and indeed I wish I could flip back and forth, or, more appropriately, scrub through the timeline, revisiting passages like stanzas that were obscure or lost on me. (Watching films Godard has made since the 1980s can often be a humbling encounter, strangely rare in the art of cinema, between an audience and daunting erudition.) Through these pictures, Godard simultaneously shows the capacity for images not just to record and report but to argue and analyze, that reality is thought through in the movies, and the cinema is a powerful enough tool that we can use its art to think through itself. “Counterpoint is the discipline of superimposition,” Godard recites, and The Image Book is a mosaic of such superimposition, an extension of the soul and capacity of montage, edited with sublime rhythm: the alternation and combination of things to generate new meanings.
The final chapter of the film, which departs somewhat from the earlier ones that turn over so much of European and American cinema, goes to the Middle East as the locus in our time for the latest manifestation of this “remake” phenomena: a catastrophe of violence, and a crisis for representation. As Godard turned, aghast, in the 1990s to the Yugoslavian war as an abhorrent, almost inconceivable repetition of the horror of the Second World War, The Image Book turns to “Arabia” as the frontline in a conflict human and cultural that the film implores we try to understand—and to stop. In a touching coda, the film comes around to Godard himself, ending on images of a man’s extreme effort and collapse (the famous dance of death from the conclusion of one of the stories in Max Ophüls’ Le plaisir) and on words on the continuation of hope, working towards a utopia. It feels like a gesture of finality for this most active of cinema-thinkers and cinema-makers, but one founded in passing to us, the audience and potential image-makers ourselves, the means of understanding and therefore the possibility for change. “We are never sad enough for the world to be better,” laments a concluding female voice. The film’s final credits offer an unusually extensive list of citations—text, paintings, music, films—so that we, too, may go searching, understand what we’re seeing, keep the hope, and prevent disaster. In fact, these sources make up the entirety of the film’s trailer: so go forth, pursue your own research, and we urge you to report your findings.
Change is also what Zhao Tao must reckon with in Jia Zhangke’s subtly majestic drama Ash Is Purest White. Revealing an ambitious, sprawling tale with sidelong storytelling that focuses on grace notes of a much bigger picture, it is an elegant evolution of the Chinese director’s neo-melodrama style showcased in his last film, Mountains May Depart. Like that film, Ash Is Purest White follows Zhao’s character across three eras (in this case, 2001, 2006 and 2018) of contemporary China as her life is turned upside down, the country evolves in the background, and those once close to her become irrevocably different. Continuing a formal approach begun in the earlier picture, each section in Ash Is Purest White is shot a bit different than the others, including format (film, Digibeta, HD digital), aspect ratio, and decoupage, and each self-reflexively calls back to and revises different films from Jia’s own career. It is a film that roves across the director’s country, his own filmography, and across time, with the magnificent Zhao Tao as the constant factor, the spirit and the hope.
In 2001, Qiao is one part of a power couple in the developing northern Chinese town of Datong, side-by-side with her gangster boyfriend Bin (Liao Fan), who runs “transport” and gambling in a town on the edge of growth. With looser camerawork and pulling from the gangster-noir qualities of A Touch of Sin, the atmosphere of relaxed bribery and nightclub evenings is disrupted by a new gang of youths who start to cause havoc with Bin's small-scale crime scene. But together, cutting a striking duo with Liao’s provincial tough guy mustache and off-hand demeanor and Qiao’s precise hair bob and fluid confidence garnering respect as she floats through a world of men, the couple can take on anything—that is, until another attack of the new generation spurs Qiao to violent action and lands her to jail. In 2006 she is released to find Bin at the Three Gorges Dam (thus calling on Jia’s same-year Still Life), enmeshed in official business there and no longer interested in her love. Qiao resorts to petty frauds to find and confront him: “I’ve been living as a jianghu just to find you,” she says, referring to the gangster world from which they came. “Am I that important?” he scornfully asks. “If not that, then what is?” She keeps her head above water with no more family or support, but is unable to recapture the love and unity of the past. “We’re all prisoners of this world,” says a huckster she meets on the long train journey home; in a moment of tentative solace she joins him on his way—before abandoning him while he sleeps. Finally, in 2018 she returns to a modernized Datong and the gambling dens of her past, but now she’s old, resigned and in charge—and it's Bin who must abjectly return. The couple is restored but no longer the same: time has tested one to the limit and crippled the other.
A slow-burning and poignant portrait of female fortitude and resolve, Ash Is Purest White pays homage to a Chinese woman both faithful and capable. Qiao is able to survive in a world that changes under her feet: as she journeys north to south, south to north, trying to rejoin he whom she loves, she finds men inconstant, insincere, cowardly and venal in a country tearing itself down and building itself up. “Something that burns so much is more pure,” she says early on of a dormant volcano, and this metaphor of person and land soon becomes clear. It is not a naive view of women simply as faithful, but rather that this woman has a moral constancy and the perspicacity not only to survive but to keep her being intact rather than be corrupted by time and change. And Zhao Tao, building on the similarly epoch-spanning role of Mountains May Depart, reveals another tour de force performance. “How much love can be repeated”, asks a wonderfully terrible pop song in the film, “how many people are worth waiting for?”
And so, Lawrence, here's to hoping for our capacity to change (Godard) and to stay true (Jia).
Warmly,
Danny

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