Shekhar Deshpande (Arcadia University) Meta Mazaj (University of Pennsylvania)
Extending its cosmic reach beyond its text, Alfonso Cuarón’s recent blockbuster creation, Gravity (2013), has amassed over $500 million in world-wide box office, bluntly putting on display Hollywood’s position of global dominance, both literally and figuratively. Its narrative ambitions are disclosed not merely in its positioning in heavenly space above but also in its strategic nods to the realities of the marketplace underneath. The film gives prominence to a Chinese space station, a Chinese space capsule, and the technical manuals Dr. Stone uses in her attempt to overcome the impending disaster—all carefully positioned stratagems to appeal to the Chinese censors and the fastest growing film market. Thus, both in its narrative and its worldly ambitions, Hollywood has once again arrogated itself to be world cinema, speaking for and to the world, foregrounding the quest of the protagonist to return “home,” back to Earth—the US base of operations.
In its vision of dominance, however, a brief detour occurs. In a pivotal scene, Dr. Stone (Sandra Bullock), trapped inside a Russian space capsule with rapidly dwindling chances of survival, makes contact via radio with a male voice speaking a foreign language. What ensues is a fractured and frustrated conversation, complete with a barking dog and a crying baby, that at first offers a glimmer of hope for the audience and the character of Ryan Stone, until it all gets lost in translation. Gravity never reveals the other side of the conversation, and the audience’s concerns align exclusively with Dr. Stone and her desperate quest to return home. But it is precisely this invisible, other side of the conversation that becomes the subject of a seven-minute short by Jonás Cuarón (who co-wrote the screenplay for Gravity), titled “Aningaaq.”
Released six weeks after Gravity, the short acquired an impressive life of its own through film festivals and the Web. Watched as a short film in its own right, it is a puzzling narrative about a brief moment in an Inuit’s life, with its signification contained in its own world. But in the context of the feature film, this “companion” short offers a revelation by disclosing the gap in Dr. Stone’s conversation. As the camera pans over the snow-covered, expansive landscape of a remote fjord in Greenland, we see an Inuit fisherman named Aningaaq (Orto Ignatiussen) responding to a radio signal from Dr. Stone. Positioned firmly in his universe, concerned with the survival of his family, the crying baby and his dying sled dog, this time Ryan Stone’s distant voice appears insignificant, ungrounded, even silly.
The two films, one a giant behemoth with global ambitions and the other a brief statement from a marginal culture trying to assert itself, serve as a potent allegory for the image of world cinema. While Hollywood attempts to encompass the world below, it muzzles other voices, multitudes of which wait to be heard. Reminiscent of a children’s tale by Dr. Seuss, Horton Hears A Who!, the relation between Gravity and “Aningaaq” makes apparent the erasure of voices embodied in the dominant perspective, urging us to be mindful of the plurality that exists in places kept out of sight. There are thus many Aningaaqs, many cinematic voices from different corners of the globe claiming their space in the topography of world cinema. To grasp the ever-changing complexity and the layered nature of this topography, we propose an approach to world cinema that anchors us positively in multiple loci, maps its numerous elements, as well as their interconnectedness and relationships of meaning. We propose three levels of approaching world cinema that include many centers of activity (polycentrism), many interconnected forms of cinemas (polymorphism), and many perspectives or orientations (polyvalence). These are by no means mutually exclusive, but rather provide different paths to understanding and approaching world cinema, and together account for its dynamic and heuristic networks.
First, as Lúcia Nagib et al. (2012) have suggested in their work, world cinema is a polycentric formation, defying the idea of a single center—most frequently Hollywood or European art cinema. Building on this concept, we see world cinema as a field of uneven and constantly shifting cinematic power centers that gain prominence at different points in history and different topographic zones, each significant in its own moment and context. These power centers are characterized by: a) a high level of cinematic activity; b) the formation of their own spheres of influence, within and outside of their borders; and c) the creation of independent perspectives and scholarship on their cinemas, thus representing de-centering also in terms of western film studies and philosophy. Indian cinema, with 1602 films produced in 2012 (Rao 2013), is one such significant center, its distribution covering large territories from West Asia to South East Asia, with a greater share now taken by its diasporic audiences in North America, Africa and Far East Asia. Nollywood (producing well over a 1000 titles a year; Rice 2012) forms another center, not merely because of its numbers, unique aesthetic, and circulation, but because of its complex influence on African cinema in general. A similar case can be made for East Asian Cinema (Japanese, Chinese, Taiwanese, Hong Kong, and South Korean cinemas) that, while exerting influence over Asia, also has a significant influence on other cinemas, including Hollywood and European cinema. Mapping world cinema through such centers should not eclipse their internal diversity and complexity, nor should it consider these centers as isolated from each other.
Second, world cinema is a polymorphic formation, an interconnected tableau of various forms: national, transnational, postcolonial, diasporic, small, and minor cinemas, among others. These rather traditional paradigms, far from being obsolete, still provide a useful and necessary framework, but now have to be reoriented or reconfigured within the broader system of world cinema, studied in their fluidity and interdependent relationships with other cinemas. If “every local cinema is examined with an eye to its complex ecology,” as Dudley Andrew (2006, 19) points out, then a polymorphic vision of world cinema accommodates its different forms, which are intricately tied to each other as part of the larger world system. This is not to suggest that world cinema lapses into a vast generality (although the developments in globalization since the 1980s make such a consideration compelling), but that various national, regional and aesthetic components, rather than existing in isolation, have a heuristic relationship with each other, merging and blending aesthetic and narrative concerns. Andrew (2006, 22) describes this dialectic in terms of the “waves” of influence that travel not only to its proximate regions but affect in different ways, and often with considerable temporal slippages and delays, the cinemas of various countries. Thus, his study of the French New Wave, when seen as part of the larger world system, is approached not as a unique national phenomenon but as a complex wave that perhaps begins with the influence of Hollywood imports in Paris after WWII, continues with youth trends and fashion, the international impact of Cannes culture of the late 1950s, as well as the study of how this wave rolls through the world, affecting under different circumstances cinemas of Japan, Brazil, Yugoslavia, later Taiwan, etc. Similarly, the style of Zhang Yimou and his Fifth Generation peers, rather than a specific national expression, is a complex merging of influences that include Chinese painting and culture but also Soviet and Hollywood cinema.
This systemic connectedness (including national cinema to world cinema) is effectively allegorized in Walter Salles’ short film, “5,557 Miles From Cannes,” part of the anthology collection Chacun son cinéma produced by the Cannes Film Festival organizer Gilles Jacob to celebrate the festival’s 60th anniversary. One of the most humorous, tongue-in-cheek entries in the collection, the film features a Brazilian rap-comedy duo, Caju and Castanha (Cashew and Chestnut; Manu Velho and José Roberto), playing tambourines and trading verbal ripostes about the glories of cinema and the far-away French film festival, while they stand in front of a run-down movie theater in the hinterlands that is playing Truffaut’s The 400 Blows. Much of the film’s humor and irony comes from the seeming disconnect between the local situatedness of their performance and the global impact and prestige of the Cannes film festival. Caju and Castanha, popular practitioners of the tongue-twisting improvised singing style in northern Brazil known as embolada, offer a regionally specific, vernacular utterance that refuses easy translation for global audiences and cannot be dissolved into a global context here represented by Cannes and its ever-so assertive claim on world cinema. The two performers have never been to Cannes, have nothing to do with French cinema or Truffaut, and they sarcastically distance themselves and their identity from Cannes (Caju mistakes The 400 Blows for a porn movie and turns Gilles Jacob into Brazilian “Gil”). But while the specific regional/national framework very much informs and defines their performance, they direct it towards the international gaze; they know and sing about Cannes and the classics of world cinema that it has anointed over the years, clearly placing their expression in relation to Cannes in the process of asserting their own locus. Thus, the performers position their identity in a similar way that Brazilian cinema positions itself in relation to world cinema, simultaneously asserting its national identity and negotiating its place in a broader system.
Third, world cinema is polyvalent, requiring an understanding of how each film is perceived differently in different parts of the world, suggesting an awareness of a perspective, the fact that “every film is a foreign film” somewhere (Egoyan & Balfour 2004). De-centering Hollywood’s hegemony in the conception of world cinema also means that the privileging of interpretations from western observers must yield to the multitude of perspectives from elsewhere, and that every film, no matter how global its claim, embodies a specific geopolitical orientation. The unique context of multiple perspectives explains, for example, why Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle, 2008) was widely acclaimed in the West as a triumphant adaptation of Bollywood conventions, while it failed to gain any traction in India, where it was negatively received both for its orientalism and failed appropriation of Bollywood cinema. More recently, the Hong Kong blockbuster The Grandmaster (Wong Kar Wai, 2013) was re-edited by its American distributor (The Weinstein Company) in a way that strips the film of much of its historical complexity and foregrounds instead a love story and the stylized aesthetic of kung fu action. A similar controversy about appropriation for American audiences surrounds Bong Joon-ho’s recent feature Snowpiercer, also distributed by The Weinstein Company. Another interesting example here is how Avatar (2009) was appropriated differently as a political film in various countries. As Loshitzky (2012) explains, the film was seen as subversive and was removed from screens across China; it was seen by Bolivia’s president Evo Morales as a resistance to capitalism and defense of nature and read in Britain as the story of European destruction of the Americas. Loshitzky’s analysis focuses in particular on the Palestinian appropriation of Avatar in their grass-roots resistance to Israel’s occupation of their land and natural resources.
With this conceptual model in place, the actual class on world cinema is structured by example, and always begins with watching specific films. As Andrew (2006, 19) says, what matters in a course in world cinema is “displacement, not coverage,” an exposure to “unfamiliar conditions of viewing” rather than a convenient translation of all things foreign. In choosing films from class to class, we opt for the diversity of examples and forms of cinemas. Examples of less visible films from minor, national, and diasporic cinema are included along with films with relatively high visibility (including Hollywood, commercial cinemas in other countries, and art cinema) to illustrate the dynamic of polymorphism. The experience of displacement, an encounter with a film that initiates the process of mapping, is effectively articulated in the wonderful short film “World Cinema” by the Coen brothers, another contribution to Chacun son cinéma.
In this short, a rancher type named Dan (Josh Brolin) enters a theater in the middle of nowhere playing two cinema classics: The Rules of the Game (1939) by Jean Renoir and Climates (2006) by Nuri Bilge Ceylan. Since he’s never heard of either of the features, a helpful ticket clerk guides his choice and assures him that both are masterpieces in their own right, and yes, they do include “the words up there to help follow the story along” (i.e. subtitles). Dan finally decides to see Climates, and ends up wowed, confused but visibly enchanted by something profoundly unfamiliar. He may have no knowledge of Turkish cinema, no context in which to place and understand Ceylan’s work, and is deprived in the end of the discussion he’s clearly eager to have about the film. Nevertheless, he connects with the film, relates to it and understands it on some level, stating “there’s a helluva lot of truth in it,” and this displacement and disorientation is precisely a productive point from which to begin exploring and mapping both a specific cinema site and its global coordinates.
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