In cinema, you can still be called "orientalist" if you depict another culture. And eastern filmmakers are "pandering" if they are applauded in the westby Mark Cousins / July 22, 2006 / Leave a comment
On hearing that I am to co-curate a British festival of Chinese cinema, a colleague warns against the dangers of orientalism. When I made my series on Iranian cinema for Channel 4 last year, people also questioned whether I was being orientalist. A popular topic for PhD film students these days is how Chinese breakthrough films like Zhang Yimou’s Hero and House of Flying Daggers are “pandering” to the west. In Iran, director Abbas Kiarostami is often accused of the same thing. At the Mexico City film festival this year, local films featuring peasants or agricultural workers were often called “folkloric.” In Scotland, where I live and work, the pitfalls of kitsch and tartanry have led directors and screenwriters in the opposite direction, towards social realism.
The fear of fake in cinema is everywhere. This is understandable. For 50 years, the world’s two largest film industries—Hollywood and Bollywood—have kitschified every corner of the globe. Edward Said’s influential book Orientalism arrived in 1978, just as America was shaking off its 1970s flirtation with seriousness and inventing the blockbuster and the multiplex, so Said’s arguments seemed bang up to date. Mainstream cinema today, with its Arab terrorists and exotic geishas, would still enrage him, but in general, the fear of fake—call it kitschophobia—is damaging global film.
Nearly every aspect of cinema is globalised these days; pirate DVDs of even Brokeback Mountain are on sale outside mosques in Cairo. The exchanges of imagery, eroticism, narrative and myth between the middle east and the west are no longer, as Said envisaged, based on colonial power and updated by 19th-century grand tourists enthralled by ill-informed views of the Arab world.
Take the charge of pandering levelled against Kiarostami and Zhang Yimou. Just as Said accused some Arab intellectuals of internalising colonial power structures and so parroting orientalist ideas, so these filmmakers are seen as equally masochistic, hurting their own culture by “strip-teasing” it for the gratification of the onlooker. Nonsense. If anything, Zhang’s recent films could be criticised for sucking up to China’s ongoing reconstruction of its national pride, certainly not grovelling to the west. And if Kiarostami is making things we want so much, why do his films make so little money in the west, and why is there such a black market for them—untainted as they are by mullah discourse—in Iran?
The career of Alfred Hitchcock sheds an interesting light on the orientalist/pandering complaint. Unlike fellow émigré Billy Wilder, when Hitchcock upped sticks and started making films in America, he showed no interest in the realities of his adoptive country. There is almost no social content in Hitchcock. His middle-class American businessmen have none of the economic anxieties of, say, Jack Lemmon’s character in Wilder’s The Apartment. Instead, America is a Freudian stage on which Hitchcock presents, for our gratification, his scenarios of sex and escape. Yet Vertigo and North by Northwest are acclaimed around the world. They gut a complex country of its social complexity and, as a result, float untethered above the civic, easily absorbed by libidinous dreamers anywhere in the world. This untethered quality of Hitchcock films is not necessarily kitsch and is not necessarily to be feared. Rather, it is part of the essence of cinema and, you could argue, an accurate reflection of the nature of existence.
Wong Kar-Wai’s films float like no others. In the Mood For Love, for example, is about Hong Kong in the 1960s, when the music was all cover versions of Latin American songs and Nat King Cole. The clothes were Hollywood, via hit parade chic. The mood of the title is not love but drifting, renting a new place in an anonymous apartment block, passing time in noodle bars. Made in 2000, it was difficult not to see the film as a reaction to the handover of Hong Kong—its identity slippage.
A good way of understanding cinema in transnational times is to consider Homer’s story of the oar and the winnowing fan. In this story, Odysseus is instructed by Tiresias to take an oar from his ship and walk from the shore with it until he comes to an agricultural place where the locals consider the oar to be a winnowing fan. The truth is that objects change when they travel. Cinema is just such an object. At the recent Cannes film festival I encountered films from Kazakhstan and Peru, Nigeria, America, Europe and Korea, all carrying their oars, many of which I will have seen as winnowing fans. This is the nature of modern life. We live in intermediate zones where ideas have travelled. Yes, we risk misunderstanding them if their formative circumstances get too lost on the journey, but if they—ideas, films—are well made, they will transcribe their native places in readable ways.
The charge of orientalism is that I am ethnically unable to make such readings. The assumption is that those with authority should read and the rest of us should merely listen. No way. We are all in that place where oars morph into winnowing fans.