One of the great themes of film history has been the growing rivalry between Hollywood and Asian cinema. This is the real cultural clash of east and westby Mark Cousins / February 26, 2006 / Leave a comment
One morning recently I went to see Memoirs of a Geisha, Columbia Pictures and American director Rob Marshall’s account of the education of a young girl who becomes one of the figures in eastern life that most fascinates the west—a geisha. As the end credits rolled, I walked to an adjacent screen and watched Brokeback Mountain, Taiwanese director Ang Lee’s portrait of the lives of the figures in western cinema who most fascinate eastern directors—cowboys. Each is a ventriloquism of sorts, or a stealing of the rival’s clothes.
Memoirs of a Geisha and Brokeback Mountain have several things in common. Both were made by American production companies—though, to add to the hall of mirrors effect, Geisha’s backer, Columbia, is owned by the Japanese company Sony. Both films are about sex. Marshall’s has the girl slowly realise that the beautifully dressed, Dionysian women who surround her sell a sophisticated form of sex. Lee’s film takes the most prevalent male archetype in American cinema and—as American critics say—queers him, positing eros in a relationship between frontiersmen.
The techniques of the films could not be more different, however. From the off, Memoirs of a Geisha’s business is mythmaking. The opening commentary mentions a “forbidden, fragile” world full of “mysteries.” The camera is always craning and gliding, attempting to make us feel awe at the places in which we are being immersed, as if they are the settings of a fairy tale. The lighting is stylised throughout, as it was in Marshall’s last film, the musical Chicago. The aesthetic strategy is smoke and mirrors: to conjure a cultural and sexual elsewhere through visual uncertainty, glimpsing and feeling.
Lee’s film is from another universe. His camera hardly moves. Almost everything is seen in crisp, clear and naturalistic light. Shots are held a long time. There is little or no filtration. Camera tricks are almost non-existent—just three small dissolves in the whole movie. This is filmmaking as cold hard stare. If Lee and his screenwriters Larry McMurtry, Diana Ossana and E Annie Proulx (who wrote the New Yorker short story to which the film is faithful) intend something like an introduction of the explicitly erotic into an already homosocial genre which has nonetheless ignored or tiptoed around sex, they could not have chosen a better approach. They have taken America’s greatest fairytale and reintroduced it to the real world. Others have tried to do so but their observations were mostly social. Brokeback Mountain goes deeper. Its fine-grained account of the disruptive power of eros makes us feel as if we are seeing a western for the first time. By contrast, Marshall’s film about sex and myth is tedious and repetitive. It tries to get us excited about something that we’ve seen in movies a hundred times before.
The triumph of Brokeback Mountain and the failure of Memoirs of a Geisha are suggestive in a number of ways. First, Hollywood seems to be completely indecisive about whether it wants to stoke the fire of myth or pour water on it. From the 1930s to the 1950s it did the former; in the 1970s it did the latter. Today it does both, hesitantly, with one eye on Asia. It knows that “reality” sells like never before, but cannot shake its atavistic dreaming.
Secondly, eastern directors like Ang Lee use stasis more convincingly and to greater effect than western directors like Rob Marshall use action and movement. The cutting rate of Hollywood films increased from once every 10 seconds to once every six seconds during the 1980s—40 per cent faster—and remained at that rate from the 1990s onwards. Memoirs of a Geisha suffers from such cutting norms. Accelerated cutting has become a cul-de-sac for mainstream American cinema.
Films should show something new or say something new. They should, as Jean Renoir advised, try to remove cliché from the world. Brokeback does. Geisha piles cliché on cliché. With east and west borrowing each other’s tricks so readily, orientalism should have been a dead duck long ago. Filmmakers from Godard to Mizoguchi, Leone to Welles and Wilder have long been fascinated by the figure of the prostitute. Marshall’s film adds nothing new.
It would be wrong to read too much into one bout, of course, but in this case of Hollywood versus Asia, the east wins on a knockout. Luckily, however, Hollywood is a world unencumbered by pride. Rightly, it steals from the best. It ransacked Europe in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, then again in the 1970s. Now it is doing so with Asia.
How will it learn? The answer is, certainly at the level of personnel. Not only Ang Lee but John Woo, Michelle Yeoh and many others have taken trans-pacific flights after offers from Hollywood. They have stayed and enriched film culture there. And as Sony’s ownership of Columbia shows, there are no barriers at the corporate level either. Seeing Geisha and Brokeback back to back shows that it is at the level of form and philosophy that the estrangement continues. The clash, and engagement, between Hollywood and Asian cinema is proving to be one of the great cultural contests of this or any other time.