In issue 3 of Photogénie we want to extend David Bordwell’s notion of ‘just-noticeable differences’ as the attention to the fine-grained elements of staging in the work of Hou Hsiao-hsien, to include other aspects of film style that are closely linked to the production of ‘textural’ effects: color, light, but also sound as both diegetic ambient effect and music track, and rhythm in terms of both figure and camera movement and shot transition. At the same time, we want to examine and question the tendency within the current attention paid to films as ‘sensory events,’ to put the immediate experience of a film’s sensuous particulars in clear opposition to what are seen to be the confining structures of story and plot. We want to invite papers that explore the relationship between narrative and texture, inextricable parts of cinema’s fabric, not just in Hou, but in ‘mainstream’ narrative cinema as well as in the ‘minimalist’ strand of art(house) cinema that is particularly expressive of texture, rhythm and abstract structures. We welcome papers on topics like: the cinema of poetry vs. the cinema of prose; the optic and the haptic (in the art-historical usage of these terms by Riegl and Wölfflin); form vs. meaning; sensuous film criticism; word and image; mood and temperature; ambience and ambient sound in film; music and memory; cinema and rhythm; cinematic objects and bodies; decorative images and kitsch; etc.
Deadline for proposals (1-page abstract): October 1, 2015
Deadline for finished papers: December 1, 2015
For this call for papers (that also does double duty as a short blog post!) we want to start from a particular feature of the critical response to Hou Hsiao-hsien’s most recent film, Nie yin niang/The Assassin (pictured above), namely the tension that is set up between narrative understanding and sensuous immersion in the film’s extremely detailed texture. Variety critic Justin Chang is one of many reviewers who have applauded the film for its resplendent beauty (here's an overview), but he is also one of the few critics who has refrained from coupling praise for the movie’s visuals to an out-of-hand rejection of its plot as ‘unintelligible.’ In Chang’s opinion the film’s story action is relatively simple and straightforward: the story, based on a fantastical wuxia romance by Tang Dynasty short story writer Pei Xing, is one of impossible love, between a lethal female assassin and the man she is tasked to kill, the governor of the insurgent province of Weibo who also happens to be her cousin. That the plot can nevertheless appear confusing, Chang argues, is because the court intrigue that frames this simple love story, a power play set in the end of the Tang era, is ‘allowed to unfold as it plausibly would in real life, with occasional digressions and repetitions.’ So the confusion does not lie in the story events themselves (the argument of the culturalists who stress the ‘foreignness’ of Chinese cinema for Western viewers) but in the way they are told. Digressive, ‘off-center’ storytelling, that is also highly elliptical and often has a complex temporal order characterized by unflagged flashbacks and retroactive exposition, has of course been characteristic of Hou’s cinema – written and conceived in close collaboration with novelist Chu Tien-wu – ever since The Boys from Fengkuei (1983). The ‘difficulty’ of Hou’s work logically increased with the director’s turn to the dense multi-protagonist storylines of his ‘Taiwanese History Trilogy,’ and so it could be argued that the confusing period drama of The Assassin marks a return to the epic Tolstoyan tapestry of films like A City of Sadness and The Puppetmaster. On the other hand, the basic narrative strategies – ellipsis, repetition, duration, digression etc. – have remained in place throughout the work (Millennium Mambo, for instance, is as interesting a case of non-linear subjective temporality as the films in the ‘Trilogy’).
The Hou film The Assassin actually feels closest to is Flowers of Shanghai, another literary adaptation – of Han Bangqing’s novel about courtesans and their patrons in late nineteenth-century Shanghai – but one that elides much of the historical context and seems to counterbalance the psychological realism and ‘naturalist’ matter-of-fact narration of the source text with a return to the opulence of the classical courtesan novel, full of sumptuous meals, decorative splendor and opium-induced reverie. It is from Flowers onwards that Hou’s films have generated the paradoxical response that they are at the same time impossible to follow and understand and absolutely simple and straightforward. This double aspect of difficulty and simplicity seems to be the result of an escalating interest in surface detail, in the concrete particulars of both people and setting. These elements are both immediately available, easy to grasp in their everydayness, and hard to pattern into causally motivated narrative arcs. Flowers seems as obsessed with the detailed physical reconstruction of the late-nineteenth century flower houses as The Assassin is with the glistening golden age of the Chinese Ninth Century. Both films concentrate on world-building first, worlds that are then energized, brought to life through subtly shifting mobile framings that allow the actors/characters to move around in and experience these historical spaces. And then there’s the light. One of the crucial decisions on Flowers of Shanghai was to drop the extreme low-key source lighting schema of The Puppetmaster and allow for more artificial light to capture the texture and particular colors of light coming from oil lamps bouncing off the silk of the characters’ gowns (cinematographer Mark Lee Pin-bing refers to the movie’s style as ‘luxurious realism’). Similarly, in The Assassin, the flickering candle light in the interiors contributes to an opulent palette of reds and gold and brings out the luminosity of the lacquered wooden floors. If we have difficulty following the plot, it’s also because we’re distracted, held spellbound by the beauty of the light.
James Udden has called both the exquisitely detailed interiors and breathtakingly beautiful landscapes of the film ‘hyperreal’, in the sense that they exist only on film. He singles out a moment in the film when Nie Yingnaing (Shu Qi) observes her cousin Tian Ji’an (Chang Chen) and his concubine through billowing semi-opaque veils that are gently lifted by the breeze. In these shots, Udden notices how an ‘undulating texture’ is created through the play with depth of field: a sharp image is revealed through the out-of-focus foreground every time the transparent veils are lifted by the breeze. For Udden, it is moments like these that reveal the film’s true essence as poetry rather than linear narrative: ‘This is the grandeur of sheer, subtle, seemingly boundless beauty. It has to be seen, it has to be watched, it has to be experienced. It does not necessarily have to be understood.’
Texture, the effect produced by objects, clothes, bodies and environments that appeal to our tactile sense, or, at the level of style, the effect of light, color, sound, the manipulation of depth of field, has become crucial to Hou’s recent films. You could, indeed, argue that texture is what these films are about: the shimmering neon-blue colors and the hazy long lens photography in Millennium Mambo, the gently undulating rhythms of Taiwanese composer Yang Wen-ye’s piano pieces or the alternating play of ambient light piercing through darkened interiors in the aptly titled Café Lumière, or the red-green-yellow color scheme of Félix Vallaton’s painting Le Ballon (1899) that is repeated in almost every single shot of Le voyage du ballon rouge, all seem to exist as moments of pure beauty. At the same time, however, they deepen characterization and situation, help to ‘naturalize’ them, make them more real (it would be folly to consider the scene with the billowing veils only in terms of plotting and characterization, but at the same time it cannot be denied that we learn a lot about Nie Yingnaing from watching her observe; in a way, it’s the movie’s Stella Dallas moment). These moments also give the sense that Hou is looking for a new balance between narrative and pictorial impressionism (Is it mere coincidence, one wonders, that both Yang Wen-ye and Vallaton, crucial figures in two films about artists, are impressionists?).
In her recent work on Texture in Film, Lucy Fife Donaldson proposes that, ‘bringing texture into our critical vocabulary is also an argument for precision, for reflecting carefully on the constituents of a film’s form, for evaluating the nature and quality of the filmic world in all its elements.’ Such attention to the fine-grained elements of a film’s style has also been put forward by David Bordwell in his analysis of the ‘just-noticeable differences’ around which Hou’s mise en scène is constructed. In issue 3 of Photogénie we want to extend Bordwell’s specific attention to staging patterns to include other aspects of film style that are closely linked to the production of textural effects: color, light, but also sound as both diegetic ambient effect and music track, and rhythm in terms of both figure and camera movement and shot transition. At the same time, we want to examine and question the tendency within the current attention paid to films as ‘sensory events,’ to put the immediate experience of a film’s sensuous particulars in clear opposition to what are seen to be the confining structures of story and plot.
The idea that sensuous elements that resist summary or even verbalization are closer to the true nature of cinema, seems to return us to the moment when critics like Jonathan Rosenbaum, Raymond Durgnat or Manny Farber were responding to an almost exclusive attention to story and plot synopsis in mainstream film reviewing by stressing ‘non-narrative’ elements and structures that escape ‘meaning,’ or to the post-structuralist undermining of the constrictions of structuralist semiotics through the introduction of ‘pleasure.’ For Lucy Fife Donaldson narrative is always closely entwined with the other constituent parts of a film’s ‘fabric’; it is the ‘woof’ that is threaded through the ‘warp’ yarns constituted by the film’s phenomenal, material or visual-perceptual elements. In Hou, narrative is never suspended, not even in those moments of pure sensual bliss. In fact, narrative is structured as much through these less immediately noticeable, identifiable or meaningful elements as through the more explicitly literary devices of ellipsis or subjective narration. We want to invite papers that further explore this fraught relationship between cinema’s ‘sensuous particulars’ and its narrative weft, not just in Hou but in ‘mainstream’ narrative cinema as well as in the ‘minimalist’ strand of art(-house) cinema that is particularly expressive of texture, rhythm and abstract structures. We welcome papers on topics like: the cinema of poetry vs. the cinema of prose; the optic and the haptic (in the art-historical usage of these terms by Riegl and Wölfflin); form vs. meaning; sensuous film criticism; word and image; mood and temperature, ambience and ambient sound; music and memory; cinema and rhythm; cinematic objects and bodies; decorative images and kitsch; etc.
Tom Paulus teaches film studies in the department of Theatre and Film Studies at the University of Antwerp. He has published on issues of genre and film style in such journals as Film International. His essays on pictorial style in the films of John Ford were published in three edited collections, John Ford in Focus (Stoehr & Connolly eds.) from McFarland, Westerns: Movies from Hollywood and Paperback Westerns (Paul Varner ed.) from Cambridge Scholars Press, and New Perspectives on The Quiet Man from the Liffey Press. His edited collection (with Rob King) Slapstick Symposium: Essays on Silent Comedy was published by Routledge in the American Film Institute Film Readers series.