The moment has finally come: this week, on Wednesday 9 June, Belgian cinemas will reopen again. The event also brings an (unfortunate) end to Sabzian’s months-long selection from the online offer. On this occasion, Sabzian presents a final selection that pays homage to the space of the movie theatre itself. Reflecting indirectly on an art form declared dead numerous times already, we’ve selected three films from the first decade of the 21st century that are set solely in and around the darkness of the screening room.
Tsai Ming-liang’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn portrays a cavernous, old picture palace in Taipei City which is about to close its doors forever. Tsai turns this rundown movie theatre into a worldly haunted house, populated by a small audience watching King Hu’s wuxia classic Dragon Inn, and the remaining few staff – every one of them haunted by memories and desires evoked by the art of cinema itself, imbued with past and future viewings, giving us a vision of the seventh art’s uncertain future. Last March, Fireflies Press launched their Decadent Editons series – a series of ten books treating ten films from the 2000s. In the first instalment, film critic Nick Pinkerton looks at Tsai’s film and links its partial portrayal of the cinema as a so-called “cruising” spot with another film that also lends it the same role: Jacques Nolot’s La chatte à deux têtes (2002). Also known by its English titles Glowing Eyes and Porn Theatre, the film takes place in an adult movie theatre in Paris. “Goodbye, Dragon Inn is a long, frottage-heavy tease without release, and as such makes an interesting counterpoint to Nolot’s Porn Theatre,” Pinkerton writes, “a film largely given over to matter-of-factly presenting the conventions of negotiating a mano a mano hook-up or group grope in the dark of a cinema. It is worth noting that the multi-hyphenate Nolot is the former lover of Roland Barthes, whose ‘Leaving the Movie Theater’ […] is one of the essential texts on the erotics of the cinema – and for Barthes, like the Tsai of Goodbye, Dragon Inn, ‘cinema’ connotes not only a medium, but also a place: ‘Whenever I hear the word cinema,’ writes Barthes, ‘I can’t help thinking hall, rather than film.’”1 On Sabzian, we previously published Herman Asselberghs’ in-depth reflection on Barthes’ essay. As he writes: “Through Barthes’s succulent, suggestive choice of words, the entire cinema experience grows into an erotic adventure in which all spectators ‘peer through the keyhole’, the author ‘flings itself upon’ the image ‘like an animal’, a climax audible in ‘the grain of a voice milled, up close, in our ears’.”
In Shirin, Abbas Kiarostami points his camera at those spectators themselves. Composed exclusively with portraits of 112 Iranian theatre and film actresses (and Juliette Binoche), the viewing of a Persian love story in a movie theatre only present in the soundtrack and by flickers of light, the faces of the women become screens themselves. The active participation which Kiarostami demands of his spectators is here thematised and radicalised even more unambiguously. In his ‘An Unfinished Cinema’ – a text written on the occasion of the centenary of cinema’s invention and also available on Sabzian – Kiarostami emphasises: “I believe in a type of cinema that gives greater possibilities and time to its audience. A half-created cinema, an unfinished cinema that attains completion through the creative spirit of the audience, so resulting in hundreds of films. […] For one hundred years, cinema has belonged to the filmmaker. Let us hope that now the time has come for us to implicate the audience in its second century.”
Bu san [Goodbye, Dragon Inn] (Tsai Ming-liang, 2003) is available on UniversCiné.
La chatte à deux têtes (Jacques Nolot, 2002) is available on Amazon.
Shirin (Abbas Kiarostami, 2008) is available on Amazon/MUBI and Apple iTunes.
In an old Taipei movie theatre, on the eve of a “temporary closing”, King Hu’s 1967 wuxia classic Dragon Inn plays to a dwindling audience. Lonely souls cruise the aisles for companionship while two actors from Hu’s film watch themselves writ large, perhaps for the last time.
“Mr. Tsai is the most Euclidean of directors, a master of geometry whose films are both oblique and acute. He captures some of the essential texures of contemporary urban life -- the loneliness and boredom, the longing that permeates even the most routine encounters, the collisions and coincidences -- with a deadpan dexterity that may remind you of Buster Keaton or Samuel Beckett.”
A. O. Scott1
“Goodbye Dragon Inn is the best film I’ve ever seen. I think I saw it a year or two after it came out, after I finished Tropical Malady. It really is the ultimate film. Tsai Ming-liang and I share many aspects: the big cinema and the characters there, like the woman who eats watermelon seeds… I really love that.”
Apichatpong Weerasethakul in conversation with Bjorn Gabriels2
“The title of Tsai's new film might suggest that the chronicler of morosely funny Taipei anomie has decided to veer into Jin Dynasty costume epics, but rest assured that Tsai has nothing so Ang Lee in store. I imagine that the nearest he'll come to King Hu–copping melodramatics is this, a film that entirely takes place in a movie theater during a funerary late-night showing of Dragon Inn, Hu's light-as-a-silk-slipper 1966 kung-fu adventure flick. It's a gimmicky sounding premise that should raise copious red flags, were it not for the fact that Liang may be the lone contemporary filmmaker who can be trusted to build something around the superficially acinematic act of watching a movie that will neither smirk with meta coyness nor wallow in awed hommage.”
“Tsai had het een keer gebruikt als locatie voor een korte film. De manager liet de Taiwanese regisseur van Rebels of the Neon God (1992) en Vive l’amour (1994) vervolgens weten dat hij van plan was de boel definitief in te pakken, tenzij Tsai het filmtheater zou willen overnemen. Filmtheaterdirecteur paste toen nog niet in het curriculum van de filmgrootmeester, dus Tsai bedankte vriendelijk, maar besloot de huur van het pand wel een jaar over te nemen om misschien nog iets te doen met het ietwat mysterieuze gebouw dat door alle lekkende plafonds, gigantische gangen en stiekeme achteraftrapjes een blijvende indruk achterlaat. In de laatste maanden van zijn huur had hij nog niets gedaan met de locatie. Hij stampte er dus een spaarzaam, bijna dialoogloos scenario uit dat zonder te veel kosten snel geproduceerd zou kunnen worden. Wat niet wil zeggen dat Goodbye, Dragon Inn een eenvoudige of spaarzame film is.”
“Most of the dialogue and music in Goodbye, Dragon Inn emanates from Dragon Inn. And the movie within the movie is glimpsed at from a variety of angles, its shifting light patterns cast on the faces of spectators. (At one point, Tsai creates a montage in which the theater manager and the Dragon Inn star Hsu Feng appear to exchange glances.) ‘Did you know this theater is haunted?’ an audience member asks another halfway through. The theater is haunted, both by the specters on the screen and the spectators in the seats, some of whom turn out to be in both movies.”
"And this is, above all, a film about going to the movies; returning to Truffaut, one might call Goodbye, Dragon Inn Tsai's Day for Night, though the more aquatically inclined Taiwanese director, whose oeuvre is so thoroughly drenched in metaphorical waterlogging, imagines films not as trains passing in the night, but as monstrous frigates, unmoored and adrift, which carry their human cargo on a dark free-float. The stowaway-haunted interior of the Fu-Ho, where boys float and brush past each other like buoys, is a ramble of aimless corridors and storage rooms crowded by sagging, soggy cardboard. All of the walls here seem to be the same aquamarine shade of abandoned swimming pools, every corner is stained with dark tendrils of water damage, and everything contributes to the overall appearance of some great vessel's hull, where the all-pervading, echoing soundtrack of Dragon Inn approximates the moans of a pressurized below-deck. This ship's off on an under-booked farewell cruise, and the desolate few spread across this space made for the accommodation of thousands, clustering together then ricocheting apart, are fine material for Tsai's delicately orchestrated tableaux of touch-and-go souls. But so much negative space is also bound to take on a palpable presence of its own, and when one of the Fu-Ho's occupants finally speaks, almost halfway through the film's running time, it's no surprise that it's to inquire, ‘Did you know this theater is haunted?’”
“Other ways of watching movies—on a computer and even on a phone—have come to the fore, and, as a result, new ways of living with movies have emerged. They’re no less valid and no less important (the movie lover’s life is greatly enriched by the video essay and the Twitter discussion), but they’re different, practically and psychologically. The corridors, the projection booth, the box office, and even the bathrooms are, in a strange but ineluctable way, a part of the cinema. So is the screen. I like to sit in or near the front row, because my relationship to movie images isn't solely visual or psychological but also physical. Tsai’s film gets at that feeling better than any other movie I’ve seen.”
Tsai Ming-Liang’s list for the Sight&Sound Greatest Films Poll:
- 1. A. O. Scott, "THE FESTIVAL REVIEWS; Last Picture Show: Lives Pass in the Darkness of a Taipei Theater", New York Times, 15 October 2003.
- 2. Bjorn Gabriels, "Longing for Change: The Shifting Shapes of Apichatpong Weerasethakul", Sabzian, 2016.
- 3. Nick Pinkerton, "Goodbye, Dragon Inn", Reverse Shot, 11 December 2004
- 4. Hugo Emmerzael, "Goodbye, Dragon Inn: Filmmagie van het hoogste soort", Filmkrant, 9 December 2020.
- 5. J. Hoberman, "'Goodbye, Dragon Inn’: The Last Picture Show in Taipei", New York Times, 16 December 2020.
- 6. Nick Pinkerton, "Goodbye, Dragon Inn", Reverse Shot, 11 December 2004
- 7. Richard Brody, “Movie of the Week: 'Goodbye, Dragon Inn',” The New Yorker, 30 September 2014.
In a heterosexual film theatre... A love story between the cashier, a fifty-year-old and the - much younger - projectionist... The cashier will seduce the fifty-year old man through the simplicity of the young projectionist... The fifty-year old man will use his complicity with the cashier, in order to seduce the young projectionist... The cashier will tell us her story... We will learn that she has left home at the age of sixteen... came to prostitution... Her life was very much the same than the fifty-year-old man... The fifty-year old man is an occasional writer... former gigolo... He will tell us his story with a humorous touch...
« Fermé depuis quelques années, le [cinéma] Méry a rouvert ses portes à Jacques Nolot, comédien, cinéaste, qui y a organisé une cérémonie à la fois orgiaque et nostalgique, placée sous le totem de La chatte à deux têtes, film à caractère pornographique inventé pour servir de prétexte au film à caractère autobiographique de Nolot.
Ce caractère autobiographique se signale d'abord par la présence du réalisateur dans le rôle d'un poète malade qui hante régulièrement cette salle, mais aussi par l'évocation assez précise d'un paradoxe souvent ignoré : les salles projetant des films classés X montrant des coïts hétérosexuels servaient de lieu de rencontre aux homosexuels. Le commerce amoureux que montre Nolot dans cet environnement d'une forte couleur sordide (avant de s'asseoir, les habitués examinent leur fauteuil à la lueur d'un briquet) n'a rien de ragoûtant. Les premières fois qu'il montre ces corps plus qu'imparfaits, que le travestissement tire encore vers le ridicule, la répulsion guette. Mais Nolot est un metteur en scène patient, qui, en même temps qu'il épate le bourgeois, compose une toile d'araignée de désirs et de relations amoureuses qui fait la vraie substance de La chatte à deux têtes. »
“Jacques Nolot, with his gentle gaze, graying hair and thin 1920’s mustache, has been a familiar figure in French films for several years; he appears in many of André Téchiné's movies (he's the shoe salesman to whom the gay teenager turns for advice in Wild Reeds) and helped write Mr. Téchiné's J'embrasse Pas (1991), about a boy from the provinces who becomes a hustler in Paris. With Porn Theater, [...] Mr. Nolot continues his concern with gay characters looking for their place in the world. Set in a seedy adult movie theater in an unnamed section of Paris (the camera never ventures beyond the theater’s foyer), the film examines the temporary community that comes into existence every night as the regular patrons shuffle in, one by one, for another evening of hopeful cruising and brief encounters. [...] For Mr. Nolot, the social interaction in the audience is far more important than the sexual interaction on the screen. [...] Some of the men solicit attention; others seem determined to avoid it. But all are there in search of a human connection, however short or sordid. Porn Theater functions best in its voyeuristic, sociological mode, offering fragmentary glimpses of complicated lives and the complicated social rituals that shape them. The characters are constantly changing seats, acting out an elaborate choreography of desire and denial.”
« Comprehension et compassion des deviations de la nature humaine, écoute de l’appel, chorégraphie sexuelle, “tout le monde est le refoulé de lui-meme”. Avec franchise et dignité, avec compassion, Nolot observe l’hypocrisie, la solitude, la frustration, le manque. Comment on fait pour s’en sortir ? »
“I like to please, I like to seduce, but at the end of the day I'm making a film. [...] From the moment it becomes a film, I begin to acknowledge my flaws. I no longer belong to myself, I belong to the story. When I write, I think of myself as a painter. I put myself in a creative state – a state of neurosis and anguish. Before, this was unconscious, but it has become less and less so with age. I feel like I'm splashing bits of dialogue the way a painter splashed color on a canvas, and I have to let myself go. And I always take care not to become too intelligent: when I think about something, I rework it and it turns out worse.”
“Let’s be clear that a fantasy requires a setting (a scenario) and therefore a place.”
“When the film was released, a few critics predictably pursed their lips. In Nolot’s world, homosexuality has none of the sequined hysteria of La cage aux folles or Pédale douce, two French box-office hits. As in Gore Vidal, the film’s dance of sex ebbs and flows according to the rhythm of desire (or financial need), disrupting the genre’s conventions and complicating the issues of identity politics and sexual orientation (homo or hetero, male or female, drag queen or transsexual). A regular rails at the transvestites for spoiling things; a bald, paunchy man puts on a wig – his last hope for picking up a little sex. With a lateral tracking shot Nolot shows men in the theater, their backs to the camera, zombified by sexual tension – the pathos of flesh that can only consummate its desires under the pressure of the final countdown.”
- 1. « “La Chatte à deux têtes” : sur et sous l'écran, le chassé-croisé des désirs interdits, » Le Monde, 19 novembre 2002.
- 2. Dave Kehr, “FILM IN REVIEW; ‘Porn Theater’,” The New York Times, 10 October 2003.
- 3. Jean Decock, « 55e Festival International du films de Cannes 2002, ou la Dispersion (première partie), » The French Review, Vol. 76, No. 4 (Mar., 2003).
- 4. Roland Barthes cited in: Jules O’Dwyer, “Coming and Going: Nolot, Barthes, and the Porn Theater,” Discourse, Vol. 42, No. 3 (Fall 2020).
- 5. Elisabeth Lequeret, “The Way of All Flesh,” Film Comment, July/August 2008, Vol. 44, No. 4.
The faces of a hundred and fourteen famous Iranian actresses and French star Juliette Binoche as they watch a filmed adaptation of a tragic twelfth-century romance by Nezami Ganjavi in a movie theater.
“That’s it. The closest analogy is probably to the celebrated sequence in Vivre sa vie, in which the prostitute played by Anna Karina weeps while watching La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc. Come to think of it, the really close analogy is Dreyer’s film itself, which almost never presents Jeanne and her judges in the same shot, locking her into a suffocating zone of her own.
Of course things aren’t as simple as I’ve suggested. For one thing, what is the nature of this spectacle? Is it a play? The thunderous sound effects, sweeping score, and close miking of the actors don’t suggest a theatrical production. So is it a film? True, some light spatters on the edge of the women’s chadors, as if from a projector behind them, but no light seems to be reflected from the screen. In any case, what’s the source of the occasional dripping water we hear from the right sound channel? The tale is derealized but it remains as vivid on the soundtrack as the faces are on the image track. What the women watch is, it seems, a composite, neither theatrical nor cinematic – a heightened idea of an audiovisual spectacle.”
« Voilà un film comme vous n’en n’avez jamais vu. Un film miroir. [...] ‘C’est beau comme la Jeanne d’Arc de Dreyer’, a dit Manoel de Oliveira de Shirin, faisant référence à la façon dont le cinéaste danois avait transformé le visage de Falconetti en paysage d'ombres et lumières. »
“You can’t really disassociate this film from the present moment there, politically or otherwise. When you see these women crying, you can’t help but think of martyrdom. At the beginning, we even hear Shirin addressing other women, ‘Listen to me, my sisters,’ about their common pain and her own story, and then at the end, she says to them, ‘I’m so tired, my sad sisters,’ asking them whether they’re crying for her or for their own, inner Shirins. You can’t eliminate this context.”
“The film they supposedly watch is a fanciful, sentimental melodrama entitled Shirin, based on Nizami Ganjavi’s Khosrow and Shirin, a celebrated epic poem of the late twelfth or early thirteenth century. But in fact, this film doesn’t exist. Kiarostami constructed a ‘theater’ in his living room, directing his actors to react to a spot on the wall behind the camera. Afterward, he invented an offscreen soundtrack made up of formalized dialogue, horses galloping, water splashing, swords clashing, and stirring music by four contemporary Iranian composers. The result is a metafilm of considerable richness, giving us the opportunity to ‘see’ a movie in our minds as we watch the play of emotion across women’s faces and become conscious of our own role as cinematic spectators.”
- 1. David Bordwell, “The movie looks back at us”, Observations on Film Art, 2009.
- 2. Jean-Luc Douin, « Shirin : Abbas Kiarostami et ses jeux de miroirs, » Le Monde, 2010.
- 3. Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa in conversation with Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Kiarostami Returns”, Chicago Reader, 2009.
- 4. James Naremore, An Invention Without a Future. Essays on Cinema (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014) 315.