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Soul Food

Wayang Kulit, the Javanese shadow puppet theater, is a form of cinema that goes back at least a thousand years. The stories of Wayang are mostly from the Hindu epics, brought to the Javanese kingdoms from India after the second century. The characters are timeless and still appear in various reincarnations on our own movie screens: the good man trapped on the wrong side, the romantic hero, the wicked schemer, the wise servantclown, and so on. The Javanese believe that the puppets represent the ancestral spirits and that the dalang, or priest-puppeteer, enables the audience to communicate with the tribal ancestors by projecting their forms on the screen, and mimicking their voices. The audience sits on either side of the screen: some like to see the shadows flickering through the cloth, but the cognoscenti prefer to sit on the side of the dalang, to watch his technique.

The sun has set. It is a sultry night. The dalang lights an oil lamp, the symbol of eternal life, and lifts a beautifully worked triangular leather object called the gunungan, the tree of life, at the center of the screen. It is the sign that the show or, perhaps better, the ceremony, is about to begin.

Gore Vidal, in his book Screening History,* deplores the lack in contemporary American cinema of what he calls “tribal narratives.” He believes, for the best liberal reasons of course, that Americans need national myths to point the way toward a better, more coherent, more humane future. The Americans need “that vision thing,” inspired by the projected images of such sacred ancestral spirits as Lincoln and Jefferson. Vidal fears, however, that the Americans will never get it, because “the Japanese are in control” and “they will shape our dreams in the end.”

When Edgar Reitz, the brilliant German director of Heimat, saw the American soap opera Holocaust come to life, if that is the word, on his German television screen, he reacted furiously. The Americans, he said, “have stolen our history through Holocaust.” And now the French are up in arms about the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). Free trade in culture, it is feared, will lead to the total victory of Hollywood imperialism, by allowing unrestricted imports of American entertainment. As the film director Claude Berri put it recently: “If culture cannot be treated as an exception in GATT negotiations, Europe’s cultural identity will die.” This language might sound odd in a secular age, where artists should be expected to speak for themselves, rather than as priestly conducts of ancestral voices, but clearly the cinema has retained some of the magical, mythical power that people, on the whole, have stopped looking for in literature, or even music.

Geoffrey O’Brien’s delirious book is not much concerned with tribal narratives; it is concerned with the magic of film tout court. It could have been called Confessions of a Movie Junkie, except that O’Brien believes that we are all caught up in the phantom empire of celluloid and videotape, whether we like it or not. O’Brien’s feverish prose has an edge to it of voluptuous paranoia: “A spectator can avoid certain movies, but not The Movies. You have been a part of a captive audience all your life. Love it or leave it. But even if ‘they’ permitted you to leave, there is no place to go. They own the airports. They own the telephones. They have seen to it that the pictures are everywhere.”

What O’Brien is describing is an image world spun out of control. There is no dalang to light the oil lamp and lift the tree of life to mark the beginning and end of the show. There are hardly any borders between real life and movie life (and now with virtual reality, the borders have become totally invisible). There is just that sinister “they,” who appear to have invaded our heads. O’Brien likens the movies to “a colony of barnacles clinging to the underside of your visual memory. It’s too late, or too soon, to turn off the images.” Movies, he writes, “have colonized my memory.” I was reminded of the character in an early Wim Wenders picture who said the Americans had colonized his mind. But the Wenders character was still thinking in tribal terms; O’Brien’s phantasmagoria is global.

O’Brien’s text is lifted well above mere paranoia by an insight that wouldn’t surprise any junkie: we are well and truly hooked, because it feels so good. The pleasure he describes is not just intellectual, or the childish delight in being told stories. Watching movies is more than that; it is a physical pleasure:

The invisible producers—They, the Atomic Rulers of the World—love you, all of you: your rods and cones, your pulse and neurons, every hyperreceptive inch of you. The way they explore your nervous system is an act of tenderness. They want you to be pleased.

This idea of being trapped in a warm visual womb, from which there is no escape, because we do not wish to escape, runs through the entire book. There is something Orwellian about O’Brien’s take on The Movies: Hollywood as a totalitarian pleasure dome.

If O’Brien is right, Ronald Reagan was not an exception, but our contemporary Everyman, for whom reality, or at least history, is The Movies. Looking inside the projection room of my own mind, I have to conclude that O’Brien is at least partly right. When I think of D-Day, I think of Robert Mitchum chomping on a cigar, and Roman senators, in my mind’s eye, all look and talk like John Gielgud, and we all know that Eisenstein led the storming of the Winter Palace, camera in hand. The question is whether film is essentially different from the other arts in this respect. O’Brien believes it is. The Movies, in his view, are not just another art form; they are “an alternate life form.”

As O’Brien describes it, everyone is born twice, once in the real world, and once again in the movie world. Listening to the radio or even watching television is still to be at home, to be in the real world, the one in which we were born first. But to cross the threshold of the cinema is to enter the other world, where time is marked by cuts and splices. O’Brien describes the awakening of movie consciousness in terms of learning to speak. First there is contact between eye and screen, fresh, magical, shocking. But as soon as you are movie conscious, you feel,

Whether at nineteen months or four and a half years, a nostalgia for a vividness beginning to wear off. You had learned to identify things by looking at them again and again. By the time you knew for sure what they were, there was inevitably regret for the unrecoverable strangeness of a world without names.

This, then, is the basic difference between the movies and the radio, or books: “To be made into a movie was salvation, because the picture could not die: it was life itself.” Well, perhaps. But I am not entirely convinced. Learning to read is after all also to enter into other lives, another world. It takes more effort, to be sure, and fewer people do it, but is it really less potent? It is true that movie audiences, like modern theater audiences, sit fairly still and usually do not leave their seats during a performance. But this is a social convention. Does the fact that pre-modern theater audiences were noisier and freer to come and go mean that they were less captivated by the images on display? I should say not. And some societies, such as India or Spain, are as saturated with religious imagery as our secular movie-mad societies are with icons of Tom Cruise or Madonna. It is in any case very difficult to measure the impact of imagery on our minds. Some minds are more impressionable than others.

If Ronald Reagan’s head was filled with images from Hollywood, Winston Churchill’s view of the world was probably just as fanciful, except that his fancies were informed by Edward Gibbon and Rider Haggard instead of Gary Cooper and Frank Capra. Everybody needs stories to remember the past. Who is to say which fancies are more vivid, those produced by words, or by moving images? After all, people are prepared to kill for words, even if the assassins may never have read them. But one thing is sure: cinema is the most pervasive, most indiscriminate, and most seductive entertainment yet devised by man.

Of course Churchill knew the power of movies very well, as did Hitler and Stalin, and Jiang Qing, Mao Zedong’s wife, whose first taste of rather dubious fame was as a movie starlet in Shanghai. Stalin and Jiang Qing liked to watch American movies, which were forbidden to their subjects. No doubt these private screenings were more enjoyable than their own ghastly propaganda (tribal myths?), but somewhere in the back of their minds might have been the primitive thought that to possess your enemies’ dreams is to possess their souls. Kim Jong II, the Dear Leader of North Korea and son of the Great Leader, Kim II Sung, is a keen film buff and the director of such revolutionary works as Sea of Blood. Kim literally tried to steal the dreams of the capitalist running dogs by kidnapping a famous South Korean film maker and his actress wife. During the Pacific War, some strategists in Tokyo thought Japan might win the war by assassinating Charlie Chaplin. It was hoped that if deprived of Chaplin’s dreams the Americans would lose their will to fight.

O’Brien captures the primitive magic of cinema very well. Indeed, with his manic lists of movie titles and his feverish description of movie visions, he sounds like a monk of the movie religion. His prose is often so dense one needs to read the same passages again to grasp his meaning, but since everything he says is arresting, a second or even third reading is invariably worthwhile. As with all people obsessed by their subject, his visions can be a bit claustrophobic; there is no exit from his movie world, which makes the cinema appear unique. He writes: “No previous medium having so vividly intimated the disappearance of God—there are sacred books but no sacred movies—it stood to reason that film would overcompensate by the systematic cultivation of visions, icons, exorcisms, martyrdoms, paradisiacal landscapes, and sacred rituals.”

This is true. The cinema is a great purveyor of contemporary miracle plays. I received much of my movie education in Tokyo, where I was a film student in the mid-1970s. It was a good place to study the movies, for ever since the first Japanese film audience in 1897 turned around to look in awe at the projectionist who was conjuring up images of The Death of Mary Queen of Scots, Japan has been movie crazy. In the beginning there was even a kind of dalang, in the form of benshi, professional storytellers, who in the early days of the talkies would turn down the sound to describe the action in their own words. In the 1970s, Tokyo not only had its art houses and cinématheques where you could see retrospectives of Ozu, Kurosawa, Godard, Antonioni, and John Ford, but there was still the last glimmer of a more ritualistic movie age, at the allnight shows of yakuza pictures. Every Friday and Saturday night, Takakura Ken would enact the same death rituals over and over in interchangeable movies, which the fans knew by heart. “Die honorably!” they would shout at the screen as Ken-san slipped one arm out of his kimono to reveal a gorgeous tattoo, and made his lonely way toward a certain death at the hands of a superior enemy. This was the stuff of pure tragic myth, the ceremony of death and resurrection.

The point about movies as pure popular entertainment, directed by anonymous studio hacks, and starring stars playing the same archetypes over and over, is that they are unself-conscious, like primitive religious art. It is there, in the genre films, and not in the artistic masterpieces, that cinema comes closest to myth. For such movies express a closed world, in which events unfold with absolute inevitability, apparently impervious to the human will. This is why O’Brien is fascinated by horror pictures, in which “the only question was how slowly or quickly the inevitable episodes would come around. Its phases were as fixed as the Stations of the Cross.” An individual artistic vision is absent from such movies. These are collective expressions of collective dreams, great fodder for deconstructionists and other postmodern pundits. The quirky vision of an auteur would only disturb such dreams.

The desire for collective dreams might explain why a sophisticate like Gore Vidal hates the idea of the auteur, and longs for the movie innocence of his childhood:

For us, the concept of a movie being aesthetically good or bad was as irrelevant as saying that a bit of history was good or bad. Obviously, one enjoys some moments of history, screened, written, or experienced, more than others, but how is relative value to be determined of something which, like history, simply is.

Whatever is, is.” This is how Jacques Rivette, one of the founding auteurs of the French New Wave, described the encounter of the cinephiles with the images of their devotion. He was trying to describe what O’Brien calls an “unvoiced, inward sense of completion.” Audience and film were one. O’Brien quotes Rivette’s cryptic statement (from the Cahiers du Cinéma) in one of the most interesting chapters of his book, which describes how cinema became a self-conscious high art in the hands of European auteurs, and their counterparts elsewhere. High art, in Italy, Poland, France, and Japan, was created in the ruins of the war. Gorgeous sets, exotic fantasies, and Hollywood romance were replaced by the new realism of the streets. Film makers presented black and white pictures of lowlife and the grit of human existence, even as they paid homage to certain commercial Hollywood movies. But O’Brien shows convincingly how this new art cinema was inspired by a cult, which was as potent as the schlock mythology of genre movies. The new artists no longer believed in the primitive dreams, martyrdoms, exorcisms, and sacred rituals of early cinema; they no longer believed in stories. Instead, like secularized Renaissance artists, who continued to paint religious scenes, they believed in cinema as High Art. And so Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol, and others worshiped Hollywood directors, who had never been worshiped before: Nicholas Ray, Alfred Hitchcock, and Douglas Sirk became the Church Fathers of cinematic art.

The influence of Hollywood on the French auteurs—as well as, some years later, on such directors as Rainer Werner Fassbinder—shows that high art feeds off popular entertainment. As O’Brien says: “The link between the old world and the new was a shot of Belmondo posing beside a poster of Humphrey Bogart in The Harder They Fall.” Bogie haunted Godard’s film as a kind of ironic role model. The tension between high and low, or art and myth, seems a necessary condition for creating movies. Without the low, the high becomes arid; without the high, the low has no standards. But the myths need not be tribal, or national. This is as true of schlock as it is of the masterpieces. Film, says O’Brien, permitted “everyone to transcend the tribal.” I once asked a Japanese friend about Japanese reactions to Bridge on the River Kwai. Did people identify with Sessue Hayakawa, as the Japanese commandant? “Of course not,” he said. “We liked William Holden.”

Borderless schlock can be unsatisfactory. O’Brien has some wonderful descriptions of Italian imitations of James Bond movies, which evoke “the experience of reading an Italian comic book translated into Basic English by a robot with defective wiring.” A film, like a novel, needs a sense of place. Although a movie monk himself, O’Brien appears a bit uneasy about the universal movie religion. He points out how movie versions of strange countries give us a completely false picture of the world. As he says, people who grew up watching Shanghai Express and The Inn of the Sixth Happiness and 55 Days at Peking “ended up knowing more about ‘common misconceptions concerning China’ than they ever would about China.”

He also observes that Hollywood genre pictures, such as westerns, have a universal appeal because they contain very little meaningful information about history or culture. The stories are set in the past, but in O’Brien’s words, they exist “outside history.” Reduced to minimal formulas, the western “became the genre of genres because it was most obviously the common property of the emerging global communications tribe.” And O’Brien worries that film makers have little time to see any reality outside films; increasingly they make films about films. Film history, he writes, “charted the evolution of tiny mutations, as if everybody set out to make exactly the same movie—like monks copying out the writings of Origen and Athanasius—and failed in revealing ways. The failed imitation then became someone else’s original.” We are left, he says, with “a borderless flea market of used visions.”

O’Brien’s description certainly rings true: the world is becoming a borderless flea market—even in China, Japanese porno and American violence are seeping through. And yet the attempt to restore local or national authenticity (always a highly romantic notion) by limiting foreign influence does more damage to art than all the schlock in Hollywood. For individual artists who express personal visions, not those of imaginary communities, need the flea market. The best films are local in content, but open to outside influence. Kurosawa’s samurai pictures owe a great deal to John Ford’s westerns, and Sergio Leone’s Italian cowboy fantasies owe much to Kurosawa. Godard inspired Oshima; Satyajit Ray was inspired by Jean Renoir, Wenders by Nicholas Ray, and so on and so forth. The worst cinema, but also the best, has left tribal narratives far behind. There are good reasons for sympathizing with non-American directors, who see the Hollywood juggernaut as a commercial threat to local films, but the necessity to protect the European or any other collective identity is not one of them. Let them make good films, and identities will take care of themselves.

But if the autonomy of the artist is important, so is the autonomy of the individual spectator. Here I think O’Brien worries too much. He tends to see us all as victims of the medium he loves. Not only local authenticity is in danger of extinction, but our very memories, our individual imaginations are at risk, or perhaps already permanently damaged. Before the emergence of our “culture of permanent playback,” to use O’Brien’s phrase, before we could replay images at will, we still had real memories. We had to remember the past in our own heads, not on a video screen. In short, we had to make up our own pictures. Before film there were words, of course, and some of us could read them, but that still demanded an effort of imagination. Now we are passive consumers of images, endless images.

We are not actually as passive as all that. With the proliferation of still and video cameras, the world is awash with amateur artists—most of them bad, unimaginative artists, but that is nothing new. And the fact that many people have recorded their marriage ceremonies or their sexual games or the birth of their children on video does not obliterate their memories of such events. It is true we can bring the dead back to life, visually, by pressing a button, whereas previous generations had to make do with paintings, or plays. But I still wonder whether this marks a true break in human consciousness. There is a more fundamental dividing line in ways of remembering the past, which is the line between history and myth.

O’Brien ends his book with an interesting fantasy. What if one day people react against the incessant stream of images: “Won’t there be religions of iconoclasts springing up around the globe dedicated to erasing offending images and dismantling the image-making machines, simply in order to make a new start? Wouldn’t there be, after the glut of pictures, a deep craving for desertification?”

In fact, this already happened a long time ago. The prophet Mohammed, or his earliest official spokesmen, forbade the representation of living creatures. They believed that God was the only author of life and that anyone who produced a likeness of a living being sought to rival God. As a result remembrance of the past was imprisoned by mythical dogma. And that, in many parts of the world, is where it has remained until this day. The greatest works of the human imagination, even in the Islamic world, came from a revolt against this kind of thinking. By replacing the monopoly of one divine vision with the many visions of individual men and women, a sense of history was born, and a grasp of human psychology. Making pictures, on paper, on canvas, on screens, is a way of making sense of ourselves.

The best movies, like many works of art, are imbued with a sense of history as well as myth. Every generation finds new ways of telling old stories. And some of the magic of religion is retained, even as we admire the skill with which the stories are told. In this sense, modern movie audiences are no different from the Javanese listening to the ancestral voices while watching the hands of the priest-puppeteer. Just recently I took my six-year-old daughter to see Jurassic Park. She was suitably awed by the dinosaurs, of course. But then she turned in her seat, like the Japanese public in 1897, and gazed into the light beaming from the projectionist’s booth. “Wow,” she said, “computer graphics!”

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    Harvard University Press, 1992; to be published in paperback next spring.

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