Week 25/2023

This week’s selection is about history. How does cinema reflect on the past?

The first film will be screened on Tuesday in Ghent and Bruges (and you can also watch it on Sunday in Brussels!): Goodbye, Dragon Inn by Tsai Ming-liang (2003). The film takes place in an empty cinema in Taipei, Taiwan, where the last screening of the wuxia (a genre about martial artists in ancient China) film Dragon Inn by King Hu (1967) will be shown. Goodbye, Dragon Inn marks a shift in the cinematic experience, in a communal sense, where we no longer regard watching film as a social activity in a public space.

On Thursday, we leave metafiction and enter Luchino Visconti’s full on period piece, Ludwig (1973). This four-hour long film is newly restored in 4K and will be shown at Palace in Brussels. It is the last film of his German trilogy. A film that Dirk Lauwaert described as “[a] return […] to cinema’s first gesture: a moving image thrown onto a screen in a dark room.”

Finally, Robert Bresson’s The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962) is playing at CINEMATEK in Brussels, where we witness a cinematic interpretation of the records of the trial of Jeanne d’Arc. In this historical work, Bresson, wanting to avoid making a period piece, opted to make the set design and costumes as plain as possible. He also worked mostly with non-professional actors in an attempt to move cinema away from theatre. Cinema had – and still has – to recognize itself as a proper artform, which Bresson renamed “le cinématographe”.

Bu san
Goodbye, Dragon Inn

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.

Tsai Ming-Liang’s list for the Sight & Sound Greatest Films Poll:

EN

 

“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.”

Nick Pinkerton3

  

“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.”

J. Hoberman4

 

"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?’”

Nick Pinkerton5

 

“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.”

Richard Brody6

NL

“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.”

Hugo Emmerzael1

screening
Ludwig

Bavaria’s King Ludwig II, one of history’s most complicated figures, is a loner tormented by unrequited love for his cousin, Empress Elisabeth of Austria, an obsession with the music of Richard Wagner, and excessive state-funded expenditures.

EN

“Typical of all of Visconti’s films beginning with Senso, The Damned and Ludwig were, along with Death in Venice, comprised of international casts for the possibilities of dubbing in various European and North American markets. All of these more recent features, though, were filmed primarily in English. But in the earlier Visconti films, the settings and subject matter remained Italian even when the source material was not. With The Stranger, shot primarily in French and Italian, this began to change, roughly coinciding with Visconti’s increased importance as an international cultural figure. By the late 1960s he had begun to detach himself from contemporary political and social concerns in Italy and elsewhere, as well as from issues of Italian history with which younger Italian filmmakers were beginning to actively engage. Guido Aristarco would later write of the “moral crisis” Visconti began to undergo after Rocco and His Brothers, “a retreat into inwardness” in which “the threads of decadence were no longer woven within the fabric of the imperatives of a great historical/moral tapestry.” [...] With the move away from Italian subject matter this inwardness is further manifested. But Visconti was not unique among major Italian filmmakers in this regard. Pasolini, for example, engaged in a similar “retreat” through his Trilogy of Life: The Decameron (1971), The Canterbury Tales (1972), and Arabian Nights (1974). The Damned, Death in Venice, and Ludwig have likewise been seen as a trilogy, although their predetermined status as such is less clear than in the Pasolinis.

[...]

With Ludwig, the slow pacing of Death in Venice continues but, in tandem with the use of the zoom, now acquires a stateliness in a film almost four hours long. In Italy, The Damned was released under Visconti’s preferred title of La caduta degli dei, the Italian translation of Götterdämmerung, or The Twilight of the Gods, a reference to the last of Richard Wagner’s operas of The Ring of the Nibelungen. But it is in Ludwig where Wagner himself materializes as a character, although, unlike Senso, there are no opera sequences and the film’s epic scale is paradoxically tied to its intimacy. And if tragic form is central to The Damned, it is no less central here. As Geoffrey Nowell-Smith has noted, the struggle over control of dynasties in Ludwig is not typically a theme of the novel but of tragedy. Borrowing a term from Eisenstein, Nowell-Smith argues that the “dominant” of Ludwig is “kingship and the destructive pairing of this with Ludwig’s homosexuality,” in which a “tragic ending is the only one possible.” [...] But neither The Damned nor Ludwig attempt to recreate the poetic forms of verse central to tragedy, although they each make use of dialogue in a different way. In The Damned, the dialogue assumes straightforward functions and often has a melodramatic explicitness. With Ludwig, Visconti returns to collaborating with Enrico Medioli and Suso Cecchi d’Amico and the script has a literary density absent from The Damned. One example of this is how it uses sleep as a motif (so central as well to Macbeth), extending the implications of Ludwig as an indecisive and withdrawn leader, so that sleeping, lethargy, and insomnia infect the entire narrative world and the bed becomes, again for Visconti, central.”

Joe McElhaney1

  • 1Joe McElhaney, Luchino Visconti. and the Fabric of Cinema (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2021), 138-140.

NL

“In The Damned, in Death in Venice en nu weer in Ludwig is het alsof Visconti zonder scenario heeft gewerkt en alleen een slordige collage van mooie mis-en-scène rondom een thema en een personage heeft samengebracht. Structuur en opbouw ontbreken in deze films: er is geen melodrama dus en geen geschiedenis. Wat dan wel?

Een orgie van visuele luxe en stijl. Wat een allure heeft Ludwig! Het is een majesteitelijk slagschip van somptueuze beelden, zonder een rimpeltje onzekerheid, een momentje twijfel. Wie zich door al deze drukdoenerij laat overdonderen en op een dwaalspoor brengen, heeft het echt aan zichzelf te wijten. Want onder deze allure gaat niets meer schuil. Geen betekenis, geen boodschap, geen emotie, geen passie, geen empathie, geen afkeer. Melodrama en geschiedenis zijn onderdeel geworden van een esthetisch credo.

Dat heeft sterke parallellen met de weg die andere grote Italianen de laatste tien jaren hebben afgelegd: Antonioni, Fellini, Pasolini. Elk met hun eigen gevoeligheid en métier hebben ze een terugtocht ondernomen uit de betekenis en de boodschap, naar een vrijblijvender estheticisme. Van deze 'bevrijdende' generatie bevalt Visconti me nog het meest. Van Death in Venice hield ik niet, behalve van enkele momenten van grootse 'contemplatieve' cinema. Een terugkeer - en in wat voor een stijl! - naar het eerste gebaar van de cinema: een bewegend beeld dat op een scherm in een donkere zaal wordt geworpen. Hetzelfde gevoel van passieve oppervlakkigheid heb ik nu opnieuw bij Ludwig ervaren.”

Dirk Lauwaert1

  • 1Dirk Lauwaert, Dromen van een expeditie (Nijmegen: Dirk Lauwaert en Uitgeverij Vantilt, 2006), 61-63.
screening
Palace, Brussels
Procès de Jeanne d’Arc

In 1431 Jeanne, a French peasant girl, is imprisoned for heresy and brought to trial at Rouen. Despite rigorous interrogation by the judges and constant persecution from the jailers, her faith remains unshaken. The relentless theological questioning and argument in court is broken only by an ineffectual attempt at torture and an examination to prove her virginity. Jeanne's insistence that her military ventures were bidden by God is scoffed at by the English, who are anxious to destroy the legend already building around her. In a moment of weakness during the trial, Jeanne recants her faith. She is sentenced to life imprisonment, but when she retracts her earlier confession, the court decrees that she be burned at the stake as a witch.

 

“I brought everything back to Joan, to avoid a ‘period’ style and create an internal intensity. The interrogations serve less to inform us of events, past or present, than to provoke certain specific, profound expressions on Joan’s face, to record the movements of her soul on film. The real subject is Joan—destined for the pyre—and her slow agony. It’s also her internal drama and the mystery, the un-elucidated enigma of this amazing young woman, to which we’ll never have the key. Finally, it’s about injustice assuming the guise of justice, cold reason battling against inspiration and illumination.”

Robert Bresson1

 

“Les tables et les portes ne sont pas données entières, la chambre de Jeanne et la salle du tribunal ne sont pas données dans des plans d’ensemble, mais appréhendées successivement suivant des raccords qui en font une réalité chaque fois fermée, mais à l’infini. D’où le rôle spécial des décadrages. […] C’est comme si l’esprit se heurtait à chaque partie comme à un angle fermé, mais jouissait d’une liberté manuelle dans le raccordement des parties. […] La perte et le salut se jouent sur une table amorphe dont les parties successives attendent de nos gestes, ou plutôt de l’esprit, la connexion qui leur manque. […] Par là Bresson peut atteindre à un résultat qui n’était qu’indirect chez Dreyer. L’affect spirituel n’est plus exprimé par un visage, et l’espace n’a plus besoin d’être assujetti ou assimilé à un gros plan […] l’affect est maintenant directement présenté en plan moyen, dans un espace capable de lui correspondre."

Gilles Deleuze2

  • 1Robert Bresson, Le film français, 936–937, Cannes Special, 1962. Republished and translated in Bresson on Bresson. Interviews 1943-1983, edited by Mylène Bresson (New York: New York Review Books, 2016).
  • 2Gilles Deleuze,Cinéma 1 : L'image-mouvement (Paris : Éditions de Minuit, 1983).
screening
CINEMATEK, Brussels
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