A speculative essay on the relations between viewers and cinema in China today.
They leave the cinema, dark and dejected. This is not the movie of their dreams. This is not that perfect, all-encompassing film unspooling in every person’s mind that can never be completed. This is not the movie that they themselves would like to film. Perhaps similarly – if it’s possible to peer into their most secret thoughts – this is not the movie that they want to live out.
— Translated from the Chinese version of Georges Perec’s Things: A Story of the Sixties
Going to the cinema on the weekend is His and Her favorite pastime. According to reports, as the economic crisis deepens, going to the cinema has become one of the most popular forms of diversion.
They fervently scour the Internet for movie news, and though there aren’t many options, They exhaust themselves seeking out arthouse films that can provide an alternative to the typical commercial blockbuster.
Cultural consumption always relies on this kind of determined speed to catch up with the pace of memory. In Their features there are no signs of aging. Invoking the power of skin-care products, They still hope to see an even better film. Passionately discussing the film They have just seen, They still believe that life has the potential for choice, and narrative the potential for new developments, just as every movie represents a new beginning. As such, They inevitably leave the cinema feeling somewhat dark and dejected.
Their dejection approximates that of the protagonists in Georges Perec’s novel Things, which was set in 1960’s Paris during the crest of the New Wave. What’s changed? Daily life is still flooded by waves of continuous overtime shifts, occasional romances, purchases and mortgages.
It seems that in the 1930s, Sergei Eisenstein declared his intent to bring Marx’s Das Kapital to the silver screen. In a passage in his diary, he confidently outlined his concepts for this proposal. Considering his experience from his early masterpieces, these concepts would seem to have been utterly attainable, but in reality Das Kapital will probably remain one of the great unrealized projects of cinema history. Eisenstein planned for his cinematic adaptation of Das Kapital to be a complex, essayistic film that would completely break through the simple exposition of events and would “deal with events as a series of propositions and conclusions” that “from the representation of material life would leap into abstracted and universalized significance.” Through the medium of film, he hoped to express a dialectics of thought.
Corresponding with the period of Eisenstein’s films was the popularization of the piecework-flow concept of Frederick W Taylor, who is now reverentially referred to as the “father of scientific management.” Today, assembly lines have evolved into an invisible system for the assessment of self-valuation, possessing even greater incentivization and seductiveness (and for creative workers, the first priority is never addressing problems of sustenance, but rather figuring out how to realize self-worth). Were one to use capitalist theory to interpret the current production system, the social context of the film industry might appear constrained, but film’s assembly-line method has already matured: the film industry itself already performs the narrative of capitalist theory.
In fact, after passing through middle-school exams on dialectic historical materialism, They certainly will never again run across Marx’s theory of surplus value. In those years of socialist middle-school classes, when asked to determine whether air is possessed only of use value and not possessed of exchange value they wracked their brains but could not find an answer, while now a Beijing real-estate development advertisement can make them understand capitalist ideology in its entirety.
Working five or six days a week, then enjoying a brief escape on the weekend, their “opera” is going to the movies. Were there no weekend consumption, the world might stop turning. Rejoicing, They enter the world’s rhythm, the cinema’s program revolving on a Spring-Summer-Fall-Winter cycle, just as fashion week brings us our seasonal changes.
Maybe Eisenstein already completed Das Kapital in his head, and has passed on to the world a cinematic dialectical ideology: as a conceptual movie, Das Kapital must carry with it the complexity of the world itself, and is unable to simplify the inherent contradictions of our existence.
Such being the case, if we were to re-edit cinema since the post-war period (Vittorio De Sica, Federico Fellini, Jean Luc Godard, Yasujiro Ozu, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Edward Yang), would it not be possible to find another kind of capitalist theory – “Das Kapital of the Senses” – in which individual destiny repeatedly rises and falls along with the evolution of capitalist society, and the image becomes a reflection for identifying ourselves, becomes a mechanical eye that can infiltrate the history of individual lives?
Accordingly, through the narrative of images it’s likely that we can find yet another new beginning. Is this the film that They are willing to seek?
Translated from the Chinese by Andrew Maerkle
Hu Fang is a fiction writer and co-founder of Vitamin Creative Space, Guangzhou, as well as the shop, Beijing. His latest book is the novel Garden of Mirrored Flowers (co-published by Sternberg Press and Vitamin Creative Space).