Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Zhang Yimou's House of Flying Daggers - an allegory of the mind

I was shocked when I watched Hero. It seemed that history had been flip-flopped yet again and so Qin Shihuang was not a despot anymore. I can't remember if Mao used him that way, or if this would be a way to rehabilitate Mao. And then the Olympic ceremonies really really confused me.

Was the director of Hero, this Zhang Yimou, unreservedly contributing to Chinese chauvinism, or was he playing off the panic he would cause in Western audiences, showing hordes of exquisitely choreographed drummers, smiles lately pasted on, but still in imitation of our nightmare yellow hoards?

Finally I did remember which movie I'd wanted to watch before Blockbuster goes out of business for good, and there are no other from virtual shelves to browse (I can't find anything on virtual shelves - it takes all the pseudo-random out). I watched it first without subtitles, just to see how well I would follow. The subtitles added a few things, but not so much, to the illusion of understanding.

This is a martial arts film of sorts. If nothing else, the martial arts are ways to decenter consciousness in the acts we commit for self-preservation or in the name of a cause. The body becomes trained to respond as if with foreknowledge, taking advantage, one has to presume, of the faster neurological response at the preconscious level than the one which follows conscious calculation.

In the mythic realm, these reactions seem like pre-cognition or some awful meshing with the workings of fate. One moves as if by accident to some stimulus which it is not quite conceivable one could have reacted to.

In The House of Flying Daggers, the protagonist seems blind, in imitation of that state where you finally do get your mind out of the way and become one with the flow of the qi. The movie's all about seeming, though, especially where protestations of truth and loyalty are concerned. Saying the wrong thing turns out right, and the love connection goes contrary to the rules you would suppose.

Following on the Beijing Spring of 'six-four,' when so many were injured or killed for their effrontery to the Party, it's almost impossible to view this film as other than allegory. But it's hardly necessary, So many more films have been produced which are that much more direct in their politics.

And even though Zhang Yimou clearly and decisively demonstrates his mastery of classical sensibilities in all of his depictions as well as in his dialog, and thereby establishes that he might . . . no, that he must . . . be deploying ancient and refined arts of indirection; analogs from world of letters to the arts deployed by Gong-fu masters. He invites you to read into his images for some central truth about what really is going on.

Except that the material stands frustratingly on its own. And even of the Olympic show, Stephen Spielberg has this to say:

At the heart of Zhang's Olympic ceremonies was the idea that the conflict of man foretells the desire for inner peace. This theme is one he's explored and perfected in his films, whether they are about the lives of humble peasants or exalted royalty. This year he captured this prevalent theme of harmony and peace, which is the spirit of the Olympic Games. In one evening of visual and emotional splendor, he educated, enlightened, and entertained us all.

Thus turning everything, as he must, into Hollywood twaddle. As if it were all about peace and love and harmony, but I'm sure Zhang would never want to contradict Spielberg.

Anyhow, peace and love have nothing at all to do with Olympic contests. These enact struggles to the death and in that sense are as real as the absurd martial arts sequences in Zhang's films. They also rehearse those things which have kept us and all species alive in the wild. Good reflexes and the ability to construct reality as fast as it happens to us.

If the films could not stand on their own, apart from allegory, they would be unwatchable. No matter whether or how they might pass muster with government censors. In any case, there is no censorship in China that's any different from the kind that we deploy in the West. So long as you are helping to build the economy without taking direct potshots at the Party, there's not much you can't say or do.

And why would anyone want to take direct shots? There's way too much power always on the ready for deployment; Power to keep things moving along they way that they already are.

What does a little freedom of speech really matter when everyone's being so distracted by things which need doing right in front of them.

At least the Chinese movie-goers understand what we don't: that there's no truth to the illusion of truth. And therefore they can move ahead without any illusions about the stakes or about the consequences. While we here in the West can continue to indulge creative fictions that because our misery has been moved offshore, it's not something we have anything to do with.

Which makes us here rather more subject to dictatorial whims than they are there. After all, the Party after Mao and Deng is not controlled from some single man. It resembles more the human brain, which delegates out to nerve centers more near the action what it would do in cases near enough to numbingly normal that they don't need to be dealt with by the self-conscious mind.

Back to that pseudo-randomness I like so much on shelves of books or DVDs arranged for my perusal. Of course eye-level real-estate is the most valuable, and as any grocery-shelf stocker will tell you, there's nothing at all random about the arrangement of items on shelves. This is easy enough to demonstrate to oneself by going back and looking again for that thing you never saw but subsequently remembered the title for.

The trouble with virtual shelves is that you feel too much in control when you don't want to be. Something needs to at least seem to stand still. Otherwise you feel like you're hallucinating reality. You can get kind of desperate looking for things when the shelves all shift and change their sort according to what kinds of keyterms you type in.

* * *

It's fairly unproblematical historically to refer to the Chinese written language as the nervous system for the state. It allowed administration to be centralized for a people spread almost amazingly far away in geographic - and also temporal - space. But it's also easy to suppose that this function could be filled by any written language.

In one sense of course it could be. Orders from the center and feedback from the periphery can be reliably rendered in any kind of written language. But Chinese has afforded a dialect and spoken-language--community independent means for "transmission" by abstracting from the spoken language a differing written form.

That form is not simply like Latin in that it stays relatively stable and has been mastered only by a priesthood. It represents a much more radical economy by incorporating strict and ideological controls on any proliferation of its forms. Well, as with all things, until recently.

What the Chinese written language enables is for any official anywhere along the chain of "transmission" to reliably anticipate what the center would say or will say or is likely to say if and when it gets around to it, or finds the need for it.

This is a powerful difference from any written language elsewhere in time or place. And it means that the overall entity called China can function in a manner more analogous to the human "mind" than can we in the West. Our language remains in thrall to the transmission of information in just the fashion that we remain in thrall to novelty, authenticity and origination of any sort.

Some day shortly I'm certain that there will be an ultimate crystallization of sense in English, say, to where all religionists and Republicans and atheists and freethinkers will all have to agree because of some powerful scientific finding. But, um, I'm not exactly willing to hold my breath in waiting.

Meanwhile, we suffer dictatorial and centralized controls much moreso than do the Chinese for whom all meaning is already known to be allegorical, though without priority as to which is the real meaning and which the allegory. Ironically enough, there is no center in the Middle Kingdom, just as there is no real democracy over here.

Irony abounds!

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