One of the first lessons I learned from writing plays was this: each character has objective. The playwright must be crystal clear about what the character wants.
The common things new students — and I was one of them — utter in workshops are usually: he doesn't want to change the status quo, she doesn't want to say more, she doesn't want to go, he doesn't feel comfortable.
"You are telling me what she DOES NOT want — she does not want to go — but what DOES she want?" The teacher asks.
"She does not want to agree with him."
"You are still telling me what she does NOT want. What. Does. She. Want."
"She wants... She wants..."
After some struggle, the student says, as if out of defeat, "she wants him to listen to her. She wants him to acknowledge her."
"She wants to be acknowledged by him. She wants acknowledgement from him."
"She wants acknowledgement, specifically from him. And that's something she's not getting. That's the conflict, and that makes the play."
I went through the process of identifying the character's objective on a weekly basis for a year and a half. I realize later that the process is a training to understand human beings, to get to the core of our desires, disappointments, insecurities.
I learned to see through my characters in order to write them. I learned that their wants, when spoken out loud, were simple.
It does not always work like that in real life. We do not identify our objectives all the time. And we certainly do not write our own stories out from our sheer will. Sometimes the things we want the most become the most unidentifiable, precisely because it touches our desires, disappointments, insecurities. We lose our clarity when we try to spell them out loud.
To articulate what we want knowing — consciously or unconsciously — that we do not have what we want, that is anguish.
We are afraid to see through ourselves.
If we could, we would have.
We haven't, because we are convinced we are not going to get it.
when I stay away from things
In my first year, I stayed away from writing. Writing is something I know well and feel comfortable with. I wrestled with my tendency to keep its place in the things I was trying to make. I subjected myself to the much less comfortable or familiar medium of film.
In making film, I stayed away from uninformed choices. I stayed away from this notion of freedom that "I can make whatever I want." I tried to learn proper forms. That was my research, and it was excruciating. I watched lynda.com tutorials and asked for the "correct way" to operate a camera and a sound recorder. I learned to stabilize my camera with my tripod. I learned to use premier. I was stressed the first time I had to sync the audio with the video.
I called this process a penance — I was choosing to do the things that pained me and exhausted me. I felt like an idiot around the medium, not to mention the craft of it. In order to overcome my clumsiness I tried to put something out constantly, all the while aware, annoyingly, that something was not quite there. The uncertain and unknown nerve-wracked me and humbled me. What I knew — from life, from writing — felt irrelevant in the vastness of new image-making knowledge.
I placed a heavy weight on feedback. I felt I relied on others to see, because I was not sure if I was seeing what I saw, or if I could now express what I saw.
I took on an editing project with a graduating MIARD student and felt quite shit as I went through the materials. It was labor, mental and physical. During the same time, I interned at a bakery. I always had a romantic association with being a baker. (I was a home-baker in the US.) It turned out that standing on your feet for 10 hours a day while lifting 10kg flour bags would be the opposite of romantic.
I felt I was never doing enough. I knew there was something wrong with this kind of thinking and doing. It came from a deeper place. (e.g. moving to a new country, living from family support, etc.) I was in a kind of darkness whose end I tried to see and whose space I tried to feel. Trying and trying and trying.
In making film, I stayed away from essay films, or — from the days I did not look into this term — films with a clear presence of a voiceover. The second film I made during the Master's had a voice component. I didn't want to do the voice and asked someone else to do it. I wanted the voice to be the voice of a character... I ended up doing the voice after Simon commented the voice felt totally detached, "a voice of a BBC announcer where what you are looking for is a whisper." I felt I did not want to expose myself like that after recording the voice.
At the time essay film seemed quite narcissistic. I disliked a voice on top of montages. Sometimes they sounded like pretend poetry. Sometimes there is a story — I call it an outcry — too much telling, too much declaring, too much imposing words onto images and making images pretty illustrations...
surface reading v. symptomatic reading
I got to know the term "surface reading" in an essay on how to read essays.
It reminds me of the methods from a few tutors, usually starting, what am I seeing here?
It felt like a sin to not be able to back up my work with ideas.
Now I realize however sound the idea is, the implementation is the only that matters.
Leave the conceptualization to the critics.
literal v. imagic
Yu, Kiki Tianqi. 'Image-writing': the essayistic/sanwen in Chinese nonfiction cinema and Zhao Liang's Behemoth
I encountered this book chapter when I was researching, for the first time, about essay film. The 'Sanwen' and 'Chinese nonfiction cinema' in the title surprised me — I never set out to search something that had a relation to China, a place towards which I had complicated feelings and about which I had been critical. However, the term 'image-writing' was the exact sort of thing that I wanted to inquire. So I decided to give it a read.
Yu combs through the history of essay film both in the west and non-west. The essay film in the west is linked to "the French Rive Gauche filmmakers, or Nouvelle Vague filmmakers such as Chris Marker, Alain Resnais or Agnès Varda" (Elsaesser 2017, cited in Yu). (This gives me a useful historical framework since Marker and Varda come up often in my readings regarding film.) Yu points out that the aesthetics of Chinese nonfiction film (yingxiang xiezuo, a.k.a. 'image writing') links to "Chinese literary essay tradition, cultural expression and the socio-political conditions in China."
What interests me most is the formal link between essayistic film and Chinese literary essay tradition (and to a lesser degree, cultural expression). I grew up with and was trained to write essays according to such tradition up till the age of 18. After 18m I was trained to write academic papers at an American liberal arts college, where I also took a creative non-fiction writing class. I continued taking creative writing classes after college, including two playwriting workshops in which I wrote plays extensively. I would say I am influenced, if not shaped, by American literary tradition. To a degree, the shift of language and the rhetoric and structure that come with it has determined my current way of thinking and expressing. I am curious about the implications of Chinese literary essay tradition in my current role as a filmmaker.
I do not regard the social-political conditions of contemporary China as an aesthetical influence for my current work. This makes Zhao Liang, the filmmaker Yu analyzes in the essay, and myself two authors with different intentions. (I still took some notes on this aspect, as the emergence of "image writing" is inseparable from political expression in China, as I learned from this essay.)
I agree with Yu that "current criticism and theorisation around the essay film... is largely rooted in western cultural and social contexts" (173) and read attentively as she unpacks the process of 'screening-writing' with practices of 'image writing' by Chinese filmmakers, using Liang's film as a subject.
Yu uses 'screen-writing' in the following way: ' Screen-writing' for essayistic cinema includes a complex on-going process of filming or collecting, (re)writing and (re-)editing moving image materials and 'image-writing': [I]mage writing' inherits the aesthetics of the scattered vision and ideographic expression of the Chinese language essay, sanwen, literally meaing 'loose text' or 'scattered writings'. (Handler-Spitz 2010, cited in Yu)
In Yu's definitions, 'screen-writing' is a higher level term for 'essay films in the western sense' and 'image writing' is a practice of Chinese filmmaker as they make essayistic films.
What are the literary tradition does Yu talk about here?
1. The Chinese prose forms of sanwen (scattered writings), suibi (the brush follows) and xiaoping (small appraisals), "established in the Tang and Song dynasties (c. 618-1279) and proliferated in late Ming China (1573-1644)," share the same timeline as well as literary qualities as Montaigne's Essais (c. 1570 - 1592). The qualities are: "scattered quality, inclusiveness, spontaneity and temporary mode, aiming to raise thoughts and provoke questions rather than offer conclusions" (Pollard 2000, Kafalas 2007, Handler-Spitz 2010, cited in Yu). (175)
It's interesting to note that, according to Handler-Spitz, in early modern France and Ming China, essays responded to "large-scale transformation occurring in both societies." (175)
Yu regards the development of "image writing" in China a form of response to social change, drawing on the histories of Ming China and the Chinese Republic. (175) She points out that 'image writing' is an intellectual practice in China and is male-dominated, a reality shared by Chinese independent cinema. The Tian'an men crackdown in 1989 is a marker of the state's shift on "furthering economic develops as well as de-emphasising the political reform and ideology." Film became an attempt towards free expression.* (176)
"Capturing images is similar to taking notes or making suibi, that is, letting 'the brush follow'." (176) Several Chinese filmmakers compare editing to writing, and the writer deals with both duration and space. One filmmaker, Kang He, also observes that image writing becomes an extension of the writer's identity. (Kang 2017, cited in Yu).
I find Yu's comparison of "image writing" and essay film in the western sense useful. It offers me a breaths of positions.
Timothy Corrigan: essay film has "an expressive subjectivity, commonly seen in the voice or actual presence of the filmmaker or a surrogate" (Corrigan 2011, cited in Yu)
Laura Rascaroli: in essay films, "'I', the author,... reflecting on a problem and shar[ing] my thoughts with you, the spectator." The essay film is "a specific form of textuality, and narration is a constitutive element of its epistemological and signifying strategies." (Rascaroli 2009, cited in Yu)
André Bazin: Chris Marker's Letter from Seberia is "an essay documented by film" "the primary material is intelligence... the image only intervenes in the third position, in reference to this verbal intelligence." (Bazin 2017, cited in Yu)
What are the retorical devices Yu refers to?
Paibi or 'parallelism'
Hongtuo or 'juxtaposition'
- Thinking about the images from the protests from the US... "documentary" v. "documents"... when there is fear of expression, direct cinema (or a more precise terminology) is not an option, or needs to be "translated." -- "Image writing" in the political sense becomes mediated thoughts and commentary.
More than once I received the feedback that I put film on a pedestal. More than once I was told that I needed to develop a confidence in the images I was making. I did not always know what that meant. Sometimes I felt resentment because I did not understand it.
Confidence is not rooted in grandiose language. I read International Art Language and a book on good art writing in the first few months of the program. I would later articulate a certain way of speaking/writing as speaking/writing for a discourse. Confidence within a discourse (a.k.a. knowing its jargon and history) is different from confidence in making, or confidence in seeing even. I valued the theory bits, but with some helpful nudges (i.e. Simon's comment on the bureaucratic art language), I distanced myself from seeing what I did within any theoretical framework. I also did not feel that I had to become erudite about art history as much as I set out to. I became less eager about reproducing the kind of language for an art exhibition. "Didactics" and "ontology" became less interesting way of speaking.
Confidence comes from opening up to uncertainty and the recognition of failures.
Yu, Kiki Tianqi. 'Image-writing': the essayistic/sanwen in Chinese nonfiction cinema and Zhao Liang's Behemoth. In: Hollweg, B. & Krstić, I. eds. World Cinema and the Essay Film: Transnational Perspectives on a Global Practice. [Online] Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, pp.?-?. [Accessed 27 May, 2020] Available from: http://www.jstor.com/stable/10.3366/j.ctvnjbhnw.16