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 read about the process again in David Mamet's On Directing Film, a collection of lectures when he taught at the film department at Columbia University in 1987. (He had very similar conversations with the film students as the ones I had in the playwriting workshop. Reading the book, I thought he was approaching film as a dramaturg rather than a director. See the synopsis)
I realize that the process of finding out the character's objective is a training to understand human beings — to get to the core of our desires, disappointments and 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 for ourselves. We do not identify our objectives clearly all the time. We certainly do not write our own stories out all the time. (We might find narratives from life events after they happen, which is different.) Sometimes the things we want the most are also the most unidentifiable, precisely because it pains us to touch our desires, disappointments and 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
I was quite convinced film was difficult because I knew little about filmmaking. The only remedy, I deducted, would be to start from scratch.
In my first year at the Master's, I stayed away from what I enjoyed, which was writing. I know writing well and feel comfortable with it. I wrestled with this tendency to keep its place in the things I was trying to make. It felt that I quite abruptly tried to restock my knowledge. I subjected myself to the much less comfortable medium of film.
In making film, I stayed away from intuition, which I saw as the notion of freedom that "I can make whatever I want." I tried to learn proper forms. That was my research. 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 insufficient around the medium, not to mention the craft of it. In order to overcome my clumsiness I tried to make things constantly, all the while aware, annoyingly, that what I made wasn't good enough. The uncertain and unknown nerve-wracked me. What I knew — from life, from writing — felt irrelevant in the vastness of new knowledge. I placed a heavy weight on feedback from tutors. 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. It wasn't a pleasant feeling, and I knew there was something wrong with this kind of thinking and doing. The feeling of being insufficient came from the shame that had plagued me. I was in a kind of darkness whose end I tried to see and whose space I tried to feel.
In making film, I also 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. At 19 I learned 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 in the US, including two playwriting workshops (weekly, lasting for 1.5 years). 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 the shift has determined my current way of thinking and expressing. I am curious about what revisiting Chinese literary essay tradition adds to my awareness 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 the social-political aspect, as the emergence of the Chinese "image writing" is inseparable from political expression, something 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). I read attentively as she unpacks the process of 'screening-writing' with practices of 'image writing' by Chinese filmmakers, using Zhao'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 (for this she cites Corrigan, Rascaroli, Bazin — see abstracts below) and 'image writing' is a practice of Chinese filmmaker as they make essayistic films.
What are the literary tradition does Yu refer to?
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 and 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 literary forms developed during Ming China and the China Republic in the early 20th century. (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 mark of the state's shift on "furthering economic developments as well as de-emphasising the political reform and ideology." Film employing "image writing" has since become a space of mediation.^ (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 breadth of positions as a Chinese national (indicated on my passport) shaped by Euro-American texts, pedagogies, intitutions. Yu cites a few key texts in essay film:
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)
Yu observes language's function "for forming, acquiring, analysing, interpreting, theorising and communicating our knowledge." She and the authors she cites suggest that the language in the essay film "constructs thoughts, which could be expressed through or as moving image." (177)
These authors help me clarify why I do not intend to make my own films essay film. I always intend for a story that hint at human nature. Some themes I have touched so far in my films: loneliness, loss, comfort/discomfort, searching for home. I am always looking to evoke humanistic qualities — sorrow, compassion, the instance of being moved — rather than commenting on socio-political changes.
Yu cites Christa Blümlinger's comment on how the essay can prevent documentary images from drifting into the picturesque, "cast[s] doubt on the univocity of photography." (177) I gather that "the univocity of photography" here refers specially to the picturesque and spectacular. It seems a simplified way of looking at images. I would argue that the language of the essay in an essay film guides the reader/viewer's interpretation especially when the image is ambiguous. As a filmmaker I see certain ambiguous images (e.g. extreme close-ups, abstract landscape) as the space for contemplation, and a source for affect. Yu uses Trinh T. Minh-ha's films as an example for 'accented cinema.' (Naficy 2001, cited in Yu) Minh-ha's narration as well as word play in these films is in English, while her the subject of her film is female repression in Vietnam. "[T]hese films indicate her position as a transnational intellectual, placing postmodern thoughts onto the seemingly more distant culture of Vietnam, the other side of her 'self'." (178)
Yu comments that contemporary Chinese filmmakers have also educated themselves by watching (pirated) Chris Marker, Jean-Luc Godard, Agnès Varda, Issac Julien and Apichatpong Weerasethakul and reading the recent dissemination of Bresson and Rascaroli. (178) (This might explain a converging aesthetics of filmmakers who show at international film festivals...)
What are the retorical devices in Yu's analysis of Zhao's film?
Zhao films the change (destruction) of the landscape due to mining in Inner Mongolia and the subsequent social changes. The film implicitly mirrors the structure of Dante's Devine Comedy. The narration is sparse. (Devine Comedy is mentioned once.) (179-181)
There is an absence of human voice. Emphasis on the mining noises (drilling, swinging, shovelling) and silence among the landscape. The filmmaker did interview miners when he researched for the film but decided to not use any direct speech from those sources. (181)
Two figures are recognizable throughout the film: a nude male in the landscape and a coal miner as a mute guide.
"Zhao's voice-over [in Chinese] comments, 'the crew spends all night daubing on dusky make-up.' By means of paibi or prallel editing, three workers' faces are shwon in close-up. Zhao continues, 'what decides they are "nongzhuang danmo" (translated as 'caked with poweder or getting a light touch-up' in the film's English subtitle) depends not on their mood, but on how fast the wind blows." (182, stills from film on 183)
^ I think of the images from the current BLM protests in the US. A lot can be said about "documentary" v. "documents" (see Aperture issue 214, "Documentary, expanded" spring 2014). When there is fear of expression, direct cinema (I might need to find a more precise terminology) is not an option. Social comments are "translated" through "image writing."
^^ Note-taking here is documentation rather than annotation. I have developed the latter as a key component of my practice. (I did write a lot of suibi for home assignments in middle school and high school, but don't remember what they are about.)
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