Expressing the Move

Figure 1: The 400 Blows.

"In my view, the concept [the move] does not refer to the literal, physical movements of either the performers or the camera (although it can include these elements). It does not necessarily involve powerfully dramatic (or comic) large-scale alterations in plot. It does not have to entail any grand-slam subversion of social, ideological or cultural conventions. But something, in a filmic move, will indeed have to shift, perhaps gently, but tellingly so."

—Adrian Martin (2010: 23) [my emphasis]

Before being frozen, framed and immortalized in the static final shot of Les quatre cents coups (1959), Antoine Doinel undergoes its antithesis—a sequence of camera movements that re-frames, follows and foregrounds his actions. Escaping the juvenile delinquent centre, the character runs on a rugged country road, the destination of which neither he nor we know; the camera tracks the dash laterally in a medium shot. Visualizing his exuberance, Antoine performs a childlike half-run, half-jump with his arms swinging unduly but in harmony with his body, as if he is ready and eager to move into a dance in a musical film. While a number is certainly out of the question in a ‘realist’ film, the boy does perform actively and knowingly for the audience: rather than circumventing a large road sign, he chooses to lower his torso and crosses under it. This simple gesture not only discloses character traits, revealing the playfulness, excitement and spontaneity of Antoine but also alludes to the presence of the ‘real’ performer (Jean-Pierre Léaud), with his physical nimbleness and bodily control.

Antoine continues to run. But his arms are now befittingly folded and his breathing deliberately paced. It is the image of a proficient long-distance runner who is saving his strength; the performer-character seems to understand that he still has a long way to cover. The long take, indeed, has another minute to go: It tells nothing much but everything is tellingly told by its showing, with the running body the locus of our attentions. This attentiveness parallels Antoine/ Léaud’s absorption in his own action: the dash gradually becomes doubly mesmerizing, transforming from a (non-)event into a distancing Eisensteinian attraction, a revelatory ‘vertical attack’ that concerns depth, meaning and poetry. In other words, at a certain point during the shot, I seem to forget the runner is actually the chased, caught between a miserable past and an uncertain future in this enduring (in both senses of the word) matter-of-factness. Antoine’s action thus feels more like a dash (a physical activity) than an escape (a narrative event): it subtly moves into a presentation of Léaud running. Nevertheless, the scene is still an effective dramatization of the adolescent character’s disappointment and pains throughout the film—Antoine is running away from everything that upsets, oppresses and ‘criminalizes’ him, searching desperately for love, care and hopes. The shot, as an allegorical ‘rite of passage’, never fails to move me ‘gently’ and ‘tellingly.’ The emotions, the feelings and the labours are all there and palpably felt.

Figure 2: The 400 Blows.

Reality intrudes, transforms and authenticates the narrative space: I begin to see more and more Léaud than Antoine. Somehow I understand it is the performer who endures the physical labour and labours the physical endurance—the performer/character duality is deeply rooted in my (sub)consciousness. Léaud ‘lags behind’ on screen-left (figure 1), failing to keep pace with the tracking camera (he is always placed at the centre before that [figure 2]). His occasionally dropped head and eyes seem to suggest a loss of confidence and vitality initially manifested. Instead of a cut, the shot knowingly ends with a dissolve, as if leaving the rest of the run to our imagination due to the weariness of the performer. The two-minute take fuses life and a performance wherein ‘the moments of the character’s life… necessarily tak[e] moments from the actor’s’, ‘palpably absorbing some of the reality of the actor’s time in its rhythms and pulses.’ (Perkins, 1999:67-68) If the flight is unable to deliver Antoine the promised hope, it is nonetheless effective in triggering a shift in my perception of the scene, making the documentary of its actor real-ized (‘Every film is a documentary film of its actors,’ says Jean-Luc Godard). The action remains the same but its impact could be different.

To me, this somehow un-dramatic shot moves not because of the vibrant physical actions; the high mobility of the camera; the sudden realization of the ‘presence’ of the performer; or its subtle emotional affects, but of the richness and complexities these elements help to nourish; the intricate interrelationships they have with each other; and the depth they help to reveal if we read them closely and carefully. Simply put, this beautiful shot resonates, strikes and delivers (personally, it is more affective than the well-known final shot). It speaks to me; my heart and my mind listen, memorize and response.

Vague, impressionistic and idiosyncratic (if not outrageous mysticism) it might sound, reverberation, ambiguity and suggestiveness is indeed characteristic of the move. It is something indefinable and ineffable, stubbornly resisting analysis, qualification and quantification. It can exist in the form of a shock, a surprise, an intrigue, a rupture, an assault, a utopian feeling, a sense of the uncanny, an intense emotional engagement with the characters, an intellectual pleasure, an elegant movement of the performer (I am obsessed with how Michel swings around the tram pole and how Jeanne turns to the man on a doorway in Pickpocket [1959]), an impossible camera angle, a mesmerizing close-up, a spectacular stunt, a wisecrack, a cinephiliac fixation and so on. The move is essentially the Eureka moment in a film: sometimes rational, sometimes inexplicable, but always highly personal, evocative and tentative. The elusiveness, unattainability and ambivalence of the move does not wither my desire to apprehend it but rather kindles my wish to halt, delay, return and repeat these fleeting moments, propelling me to seize them urgently as if they ‘[flash] up in a moment of danger’ (to borrow Walter Benjamin’s famous phrase)—the danger of losing touch with their pleasure and poignancy.

But revisiting a resonating moment in a film is only the first step to our understanding of it—it is only by close-reading of the move that we can eventually come to terms with the possibilities it opens up. In other words, if film criticism is quintessentially a rendering of our viewing experience, perhaps the move will reveal itself more clearly and vividly when it is expressed, performed and made ‘alive’ in subtle languages and nuanced readings. In Martin’s words,

"And for us, as viewers, it is not so much a matter of ‘reading’ these moves – of interpreting them – as of simply but carefully and sensitively following them: staying alert to the shocks, surprises, fluctuations, tremblings, intensities." (2010:26)

The present article is an experiment in the search of the move through expressing the ‘palpable, visible, audible articulations of the filmic material’(ibid) in two particular scenes in the films of Tsai Ming-liang, exploring how the discussion of the ‘moving’ moment can tell us about the director’s cinema and film criticism in general.

In fact, the above reading of Les quatre cents coups is an apt entry point into this discussion, not only because Truffaut is Tsai’s favourite director and the film is watched by the protagonist in What Time Is It There? (2001) but, most importantly, the aesthetics of the filmmaker are arguably inspired by, and developed from, this poignant shot, as we shall see.

Figure 3: Vive l'amour.

Consider the finale of Vive L'Amour (1994) which references and reworks the aforementioned shot in the Truffaut film. Leaving (behind) an apartment that ostensibly connects but actually imprisons, suffocates and alienates three lost souls (May, Ah-Jung and Hsiao-Kang), the distraught real estate agent (Yang Kuei-Mei as May) decides to have some fresh air outside the enclosed space. In a deserted park, the static camera waits patiently for the off-screen heroine to enter this world outside. She casually walks into the frame from screen-right, turning her face away from us when we can almost see it clearly up close, as if she does not want her face seen. After having a glimpse of the ugly debris piled up on the side, she lowers her head briefly, seems disgusted and disappointed by the depressing sight. The camera stays but slowly pans to the left, facilitating May’s movement. As a result, we see the character moving away from us, strolling towards the horizon in silhouette (a gesture that confirms the wish to remain ‘unknown’, figure 3). A familiar image; does it not recall those sublime Chaplin moments of the little fellow walking down the road (for example, in The Tramp [1915]) that Gilbert Adair celebrates as the quintessential cinematic tableau? To Stanley Cavell, this image suggests privacy, human isolation, fragility, self-reflection and yet hopefulness (1985: 4-5). It is always the image of an ending, if not necessarily a resolution at the same time. Therefore, seeing a similar ‘character-walking-away-to-the-horizon’ shot in Vive L'Amour (though it leaves a sense of hopelessness instead of hopefulness), it seems that the film would end here. If not, what is this shot doing at this particular point of the film? ‘How does this specific shot inflect the range of associated shots that invoke the sense of privacy, vulnerability, thoughtfulness, and so on?’ (5). While these qualities are the linchpin of Tsai’s cinema, perhaps it is also worth asking: what is the significance of this shot towards our understanding of the aesthetics of the filmmaker?

After a cut, May is seen again in a tracking medium shot, walking towards the same direction. That said, the film does not end but moves on and restores the viewer to the narrative. The pseudo-ending violently pulls the audience back away from the film, reawakening their consciousness of its construction. Nevertheless, although the preceding shot only feints an ending, it does mark an end of the spectatorial absorption into the narrative, signaling an emergence of a mode of ‘documentary’ representation and reception. What follows is a long take that literally and laterally follows two minutes of life of the char-actor (i.e. both fictional and ‘real’ at the same time), not unlike that of the one in Les quatre cents coups. But instead of running, May/Yang walks, and keeps walking.

Perhaps wandering is a more appropriate description of what May is doing in this desolate park—a soulless, abandoned and depressing urban wasteland which seems to be an externalization of her inner emotional deprivation, mild resentment of self and spiritual emptiness. The weather, too, is far from encouraging: the sky is grey with a torrential storm possibly gathering on the horizon (the rain might come after the tears at the ending). The gloomy environment resonates with the ghostly presence of the char-actor. Throughout the shot, she looks like a zombie, roaming through the devastating space, accompanied by a hollow siren monotonously conjured up by the clicking sounds of her high heels. Her pensive face is one that caught between expectancy and despair; her gaze is fixed forward but she does not seem to be looking forward to her future. May is apparently heartbroken but is trying hard to hide her feelings, keeping everything to herself: the sense of privacy inevitably comes with vulnerability. In other words, the mundane activity (strolling) turns into a significant manifestation of the character’s emotions; the thoughtfulness and thoughts of May are crystallized and mobilized in this ordinary flight of the everyday—resembling a living dead, the character is reduced to a walking body.

In fact, a walking body is precisely what Yang is during the take—the basic traversing action is the vanishing point wherein performer and character dissolves, and unites, turning into one and the same. This eerie feeling, however, becomes less puzzling and irrational if we understand it through everyday languages: while most of the actions of a character can be more accurately described as ‘the performer as the character pretends to do or feel something,’ the same is hardly applicable to the most basic performance of bodily functions such as eating and drinking. That is to say, Yang is indeed walking in this shot, simply walking. The ‘long-ness’ of the take invites and allows the viewers to confront the char-actor for an extended period of time across a considerable distance: on the one hand, as demonstrated above, it subtly illuminates the character through mise en scène and performance. On the other, its reluctance to psychologize the character, its monotonous mundanity and its prolonged temporality all help the audience’s ‘documentary consciousnesses’ to rise: the moment when we begin to feel the worldly, perfunctory existence of the ‘human something’ on screen is also very likely the chance we start to see Yang. This long take, having affinity for the approach of Pedro Costa, is a ‘liberation’ which possesses ‘a vertical power’, ‘break[ing] the viewer free from the story’s linear cause and effect’ (Hasumi, 2005). Besides, Yang is temporarily ‘liberated’ from the character as well. In this shot, May walks into the realm of documentary and of a mode of ‘documentary consciousness,’ revealing the ontological kernel of physical performance in cinema.

Figure 4: Vive l'amour.

The third shot in this sequence is panoramic, enveloping the city skyline unhurriedly, offering  a glimpse of the equally unattractive world surrounding the park. But if the similar pan in Les quatre cents coups conveys hopefulness (Antoine is running towards the sea [la mer], an object of his desire which also stands for his longing for maternal care [la mère]) and lyricism (with the bittersweet yet playful title music), the one in Vive L'Amour is its contrary—depressing in both audio and visual terms (ugly sight plus traffic noises). This sweeping pan of the city, with its sense of urban frustration and disillusionment, is not unlike the anticlimactic ‘empty shots’ à la Antonioni (for example, in L’eclisse [1962]). However, while the Italian filmmaker would probably end his films with a long stare into the urban void, Tsai’s camera keeps its pace and continues travelling (is it not another ‘fake’ ending?) until its gaze reconciles with May/Yang again, in a nonchalant, matter-of-fact manner, just in time, when the char-actor re-appears passing the closest portion of the path from it (figure 4). The virtuosity of the shot lies in its timing: it gives a feeling that if the speed of the camera movement alters, the image would turn clumsy; either missing the char-actor or losing the harmonious composition. The shot is ostensibly drawn away from May/Yang, unrelated to her movements, similar to what Serge Daney in another context calls “a gaze that ‘pretended not to see’” (2007: 26). Nevertheless, it is in fact deliberately paced and in perfect unison with the char-actor. Re-presenting the mental landscape of the character, as if in a thinking bubble, the pan is not only neatly orchestrated and highly articulated but also allows the contingency of reality (the weather, the noises and the landscape) to slip in and become crucial parts of the mise en scène. In other words, the shot documents and respects the reality, yet remains expressive at the same time.

Another cut. In the middle-ground of a long shot, May/Yang sits on a bench and starts sobbing. An old man is reading in the foreground, paying no attention to the character’s plight (another sign of modern alienation, a major theme of Tsai). Keeping a safe distance from the crier, the indifferent camera denies the audience’s direct access to May’s expression and dejection. Following the established pattern of concealment throughout the scene, the film confirms its interest in actions rather than reactions; in the unfolding of events instead of the trajectory of drama. It is as if the film is hardly moved by what it reveals. But suddenly, a cut to a close-up and the camera stays staring (into) May/Yang for the subsequent six minutes, observing how she cries her eyes out, gathers herself a little, lights and smokes a cigarette as though it cures her before she eventually lets her tears run again.

The belated and abrupt catharsis counters what May stands and strives for previously—self-reflection, secrecy and privacy (thus she turns away from the camera in the first shot; roams with a blank face in the second; and the camera moves away from her in the third), or in Cavell’s words—‘unknownness.’ Since the idea is highly relevant to Tsai’s aesthetics, it is worth quoting at length here.

"...sometimes a film director, some film directors in particular, require physiognomies for their subjects which not merely happen to be unknown but whose point, whose essence, is that they are unknown. Not just any unknown face will do; it must be one which, when screened, conveys unknownness; and this first of all means that it conveys privacy – an individual soul’s aliveness or deadness to itself. A natural reason for a director’s requirement of this quality is that this film is itself about unknownness, about the fact and causes of separateness or isolation or integrity or outlawry." (1979: 181)

Indeed, Tsai’s films not only feature (relatively) unknown (non-)professional actors like Lee and Lu Yi-Ching, but they also constantly show the private behaviors of the characters: pissing, masturbating and sexual encounters are recurring imagery in these films. Reduced to basic bodily functions and instincts, Tsai’s characters forge an impenetrable surface that resists psychologization, scrutiny and the invasion of the menacing modern life. But by the same token, they are also unable to unleash their feelings, make their self known—the ‘aliveness’ and ‘deadness’ of their souls are really something they keep to themselves and seldom disclose to the world. Tsai’s cinema hinges on unknownness. Hence, the cry is one of the few exceptional occasions where a character’s self is directly confronted, unapologetically presented and nonsympathetically made known (unusually in a public space as well). Capturing the action up close, the film knowingly exorcises May’s unknownness. The camera and the char-actor enjoy a mutual acknowledgment; ‘each trusts the other to enhance understanding and to relieve them of the sole burden of making themselves known’ (Klevan, 2005: 14).

Apart from revealing the interior of May, this long take also makes the performer known, in a manner similar to the extended tracking shot of her walking. Nevertheless, weeping is always an ambivalent cinematic performance: ‘real’ tears are no guarantee of ‘real’ emotions (except perhaps for Method actors). Therefore, crying on screen necessarily require a leap of faith in the viewer; it challenges limits of performance and of ‘identification.’ While we might be moved by May’s tears initially, our sympathies gradually fade with time. It is a long take that stays too long and too ‘still’ with nothing much happening, as if its duration exceeds its functionality—the shot drags, becomes excessive and arouses awareness of the performance. But while the viewers are possibly awestruck by the seemingly eternal take, surveying the screen freely, the image stops sharply and ‘prematurely’ in the middle of the cry (so the film ends at the ‘wrong’ moment), as if to deny our make-believe and absorption: it is after all only a performance. The knowing camera acknowledges and reminds us of our status as ‘passive’ audience.

The respect for performance characterizes the aesthetics of this shot (and of Tsai’s cinema. The director realized the importance of respecting performer’s pace during production with Lee): accommodating the rhythm, vicissitudes and details of Yang’s performance, the static long take ‘seems a gesture of confidence in the expressiveness of action and inaction and in the vitally informative function of gestures, hesitations, glances, inflections’, searching for ‘the shape and pulse’ of the weeping in the ‘being and doing’ of Yang (Perkins, 1999: 67). In fact, under such a rigorous and tight framing, the slightest movements of the performer are magnified into telling indicators of the emotional states of the character. Highly demanding of the performer yet respectful for her pace, the shot is a documentary of Yang performing crying. ‘Seconds reinforce seconds; when they really pile up, they begin to be impressive’ (Godard, 1972: 212). Indeed, during the shot, not only does the adeptness of the performer become impressive but Tsai’s sensitivity and sensibility to performance also foregrounded. Highly considerate to the act of performing, the whole sequence is not only an homage to Truffaut but also pays tribute to film performance. Although the scene is not portrayed in a moving and dramatic manner, I am moved by how it is filmed: how all the elements and details come together and are united into a whole that resembles a musical movement.

Tsai’s attention to film performance goes with his interest in choreography, particularly in the creative uses of musical number in The Wayward Cloud (2005), The Hole (1998) and Visage (2009). Nevertheless, choreography in Tsai’s style is hardly conventional: it can be either boldly manifested as song-and-dance extravaganza, or deliberately subdued as accidents caught by the camera’s gaze.

One third into The Wayward Cloud, the fateful tide eventually bring Hsiao-Kang (Lee) and Shiang-chyi (Chen Shiang-chyi) back together after their brief encounter in What Time Is it There? (that film, The Skywalk Is Gone (2002) and The Wayward Cloud loosely form a trilogy about the consummating relationship between the two characters). The film then immediately turns expressive, celebrating the ecstasy, romantic possibility and bright prospect the meeting entails through metaphor (water wells up from a dug-up road during a drought) and a joyful musical number about love (accompanied by ‘Ai de kai shi’ by Yao Li and Tsin Ting). In retrospect, it is apparent that the elation is experienced by the girl more than the man (Hsiao-Kang is absent from the number): he feels ambivalent about their future, and is aware that his job as a porn actor—a fact not revealed to the girl until the last sequence—might be an obstacle to them. While Hsiao-Kang’s thought is not externalized like Shiang-Chyi’s, the film suggests his unknownness—an important trait that the following scene picks up and develops.

Figure 5: The Wayward Cloud.

The couple are inside the girl’s apartment. Shiang-Chyi is holding a glass of watermelon juice in the middle area of the frame, standing in the doorway between the kitchen and the living room while Hsiao-Kang, placed screen-right, is fixing Shiang-Chyi’s suitcase. Like an omnipresent observer, the camera is situated in a position that allows the viewer to see the two spaces simultaneously as in a split screen (figure 5). The mise en scène is well balanced, geometrical (a recurring motif in Tsai’s cinema) and lit with complementary tones (light yellow and light grey), resulting in a neat and harmonious composition—it is about two worlds running side by side, coincided within a single frame perhaps?

In fact, there are always parallel universes in Tsai’s films: Paris/Taipei (both geographically and ‘temporally’ different), life/afterlife in What Time Is It There?; the filmic/ extra-filmic, the theatre (where a peaceful nostalgia lingers)/the city (where catastrophic downpour persists) in Good Bye, Dragon Inn (2003); the agonizing body and mind (that suffers)/the disinterested world (that segregates these individuals) in The River (1997). The occupants of these vessels are isolated beings, co-existing in, but far from cohabiting, the same world. Seldom do they communicate to others, albeit they always share something similar (they are friends, families or neighbours): it seems that these people are really of different universes. Perhaps solitude is the only thing the characters have in common. Although their own limbos are inseparably related, individuals in Tsai’s films hardly interact; both follow their own courses until the fateful tide brings them together, usually out of a desperate undertaking (as in The Wayward Cloud and The Hole) or of an intimacy terribly goes ‘wrong’ (the notorious ‘incestuous’ encounter in The River). Nevertheless, in The Wayward Cloud there are certain contingent moments that I keenly feel, and am moved by, a latent connectedness between characters even they do not interact, communicate, or share the same space. How is it so?

Throughout the scene, the boundary between Hsiao-Kang’s and Shiang-Chyi’s respective compartments (i.e. territories) is rigorously respected: the characters endeavor neither to physically transcend the threshold nor talk to each other. Instead, they communicate by glares, facial expressions and gestures (look how Hsiao-Kang rubs the back of his hand against the lips to suggest he finishes the glass). And most importantly, as we shall see, the characters unknowingly achieve a feeling of communication through their timely and corresponding movements in this single take.

There is a hesitant and holding moment before Shiang-Chyi hands the drink to Hsiao-Kang: she pauses, leans her body slowly and slightly towards Hsiao-Kang’s side, as if she is longingly looking at him (her face is not seen) but does not dare to intrude in his world, to make a connection with him. And after all, watermelon is a sign of love in the world of the film: is it not too bold and too soon to make her desire known at this stage, especially as she does not know much about the man? Eventually, she retreats to the non-verbal and makes a noise that signals Hsiao-Kang to get the juice (without crossing the ‘threshold’). The man, out of politeness, accepts it but a flash of reluctance lingers in his embarrassing smile (he has already ‘consumed’ a lot of watermelons during the day’s filming). Shiang-Chyi’s yearning for love is further materialized by her persistent touches on the doorframe: they are more like caresses—an affective experience turns sensuous—and the girl is unwilling to let go either this intimate feeling of tactility, or leave the world of Hsiao-Kang (figure 6).

Figures 6, 7: The Wayward Cloud.

The characters are now back to their respective universes. Hsiao-Kang does not drink the juice but sneaks to the doorway, peeking into the ‘other world’ and making sure he has enough time to execute his ‘plan’—pouring the drink down the building. Although being a rhyming reiteration of Shiang-Chyi’s action (figure 7), the gesture, unlike the latter one, does not stem from a desire to communicate, to reach out the other. Instead, it confirms his disposition to keep his self and remains unknown. In great determination and swiftness, he then walks out of the frame from screen-right and returns (a knowingness of performance is suggested: the scene hardly works if he carries out the action off-screen); he heads towards the background and pours the juice out of the window; and finally comes back to where he was at the beginning just in time for when the girl finishes her work as well and looks out for him at the doorway. A ‘safe’ journey with flawlessly timed and interlocking movements: their actions on the one hand seem ‘casual’, unself-conscious and incidental—a comic event accidentally caught by the camera. But on the other hand, they give an impression of choreography: why this particular framing (asplit screen’ that shows both characters), and the timeliness of the actions if they are not something planned, rehearsed and performed for the camera? The scene, with its matter-of-fact staging, is of the in-between, one of those ‘queasy’ moments ‘when we’re uncertain where we are stylistically’ (Rosenbaum, 1998). Nevertheless, while the in-between helps suture the viewer into the musical, this unemphatic choreography in The Wayward Cloud reminds us of its performitivity: Chen and Lee indeed actively and consciously perform for us to achieve the comedy and make their characters known to the audience, if not necessarily to each other.

Hsiao-Kang’s unknownness to Shiang-Chyi and Shiang-Chyi’s affection to Hsiao-Kang are both dramatized in the eternal standoff at the end of the take: loving and considerate, the girl pours another glass for the man, thinking that he must be thirsty. The scenario then returns exactly to how it started initially: freezing at the hesitant moment before Hsiao-Kang starts ‘drinking’ the juice, it leaves an impression of an endless returning. Hence, the scene is about the misunderstanding and the connection between two people—the in-between period of a consummating relationship—when soon-to-be lovers and their separate universes try to come together (the film features a few of this kind of ‘try-out scenes’ of the couple until they at last figuratively and emotionally ‘connects’ in the final shot). Hinged on the secrecy and privacy of Hsiao-Kang, it generates a comedy and a tragedy of unknownness at the same time, together exploring ‘the joys and sorrows of being alone and of being with someone else’, a quintessential quality of film musical (Rosenbaum, 1996). Indeed, although without stylized movements, the sequence acquires a ‘musical’ quality—it goes for the spirit, if not the letter, of choreography. If the musical number is sometimes a try-out between characters, Hsiao-Kang and Shiang-Chyi’s unknowing but mutually acknowledging choreography not only suggests an invisible force that brings the two together, but also points to the performances of Lee and Chen: it is only by choreographed movements that the uncanny consonance and resonance of actions in this scene can be achieved. The contingency, liminality and ambivalence of the actions in the shot do not stop me to reflect upon them but invite my further mediation— it is only after rendering the scene in writing that I make sense of the nuances and significance of its choreography.

Underlining the above discussions is a challenge to film criticism posed by the move: so how do we critically engage the bewildering experience without losing sight of the narrative and the aesthetics of the films? How to write about the intricate and inextricable relationships between the former and the latter? As an obscure, ephemeral and somehow ineffable moment in films that defies objective languages, how do we come to terms with the move and make our discussion of it rewarding and enlightening? It is by closely reading the film, concerning the how as well as the what in films that a consideration of the move can truly become revealing. Film criticism, as a labour of love, is ideally a practice sensitive and alive to what is articulated on screen as well as how it is articulated, rendering the subtle exchanges between the two in eloquent languages. Film criticism always begins with, and is fixated by, specific cinematic moments like the move, but fixes them back into the totality of the films: it re-discovers, discloses and responds to the particulars and re-connects them to the universal. That said, as the above discussions hopefully achieve, apart from expressing the moves in Tsai’s cinema, attention must be paid on how the moves ‘express,’ and are expressed, in his films. For example, the tension between documentary and fiction should be simultaneously explored with/through expressionism/minimalism, humanism/modernism, the dramatic/the mundane and comedy/tragedy—contradictory themes that are nonetheless the crucial forces behind Tsai’s work. Film criticism should not fragment and fetishize the details but magnify and materialize them, bridging the minute features and the grand design. Only in such close reading that we can have a close encounter with the substances of the film.

To write about the move is to identify, ponder and seize (and be seized by) the elusive, ambiguous and contingent moments in film, revealing and illuminating the uncanny and resonating feelings they evoke. It is not only a celebration of the pleasure and pathos of the striking cinematic moments but also an experiment in making sense of these sublime and sublimated feelings, expressing them in languages. If writing about film is fundamentally a personal and inward journey that turns outward and public, perhaps film critics should not be too apologetic about making subjective experience manifested in it as long as they remain critical, and at times sceptical, towards their observations and evaluations. Expressing the move in a film is of course no guarantee of unveiling the achievements of it, but getting in touch with the viewing experience is time and again proved provocative and productive towards a profound understanding of cinema. To capture the move is a labour of urgency, a delightful pursuit and a cinephiliac calling that is worth undertaking. The tentative encounter between the film and us offers an inexhaustible source and an inspiring departure for critical contemplation. It is hardly accidental that the Cavellian idea of unknownness/knownness keeps returning in the above passages: writing about the move is not only to acknowledge and make known the characters and the film, but also acknowledging our engagement in the film and making known our feelings to us and to the others. If the Eureka moment of the move indeed moves anything, it ‘gently’ and ‘tellingly’ mobilizes the critic’s desire to be in touch with the surface and substances of the film. Vive les moves!
 

Notes

Cavell, S. (1979) The World Viewed, Enlarged Edition, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

— (1985) ‘A Capra Moment’, Humanities, Vol. 6, No.4, August, pp. 3- 7


Daney, S. (2007) ‘The Tracking Shot in Kapo’, Postcards from the Cinema, Oxford: Berg, pp. 17- 35


Godard, J-L. (1972) Godard on Godard, trans. Tom Milne, London: Da Capo Press


Hasumi, S. (2005) ‘Adventure: An Essay on Pedro Costa’, Rouge, Available from:      http://www.rouge.com.au/10/costa_hasumi.html [accessed 08 August 2012]


Klevan, A. (2005) Film Performance: From Achievement to Appreciation, London and New York:Wallflower Press


Martin, A. (2010) ‘The Moves: Blood (1989)’ in Tom Brown and James Walters (eds.) FilmMoments: Criticism, History, Theory, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 23- 26


Perkins, V. F. (1999) The Magnificent Ambersons, London: BFI


Rosenbaum, J. (1996) ‘Ragged But Right’, JonathanRosenbaum.com, 26 July, 1996, Availablefrom: http://www.jonathanrosenbaum.com/?p=6729, [accessed 06 August 2012]

— (1998) ‘Not the Same Old Song and Dance’, JonathanRosenbaum.com, 27 November,1998, Available from: http://www.jonathanrosenbaum.com/?p=6517, [accessed 06 August 2012]

Responses

2 responses to this post.  Join the discussion

  • ralch

    This is a pretty awesome piece. Says many things I have a hard time expressing eloquently (though I’m no critic). Thanks.

  • Brotherdeacon

    Your article stated its cases in an integrated stream of good likelihood. Your impressions and perceptions seemed well-informed, singular and original. Bravo. More please.

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