Lesson Plan: Irony and Lies, pt 2

24_city-screenshot-05
24 City (Jia Zhangke, China, 2008)

Ian here

Here’s the second week in my “Ironic Narration and Lying Photographs” section for my course “Moving Images and Arguments.” Below the fold: Mitchell Block’s …no lies (1973), Luis Buñuel’s Land without Bread (1933), and Jia Zhanke’s 24 City (2008). Let the beguilement commence!

Mitchell Block’s …no lies

Along with the overall theme of irony and lies, the sub-theme of this week may be characterized as “films that very nearly tear themselves apart in their internal contradictions.” First up, Mitchell Block’s …no lies.

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I began this discussion with one seemingly simple and straightforward question: If were were to take it as a given that this film has a message, then what would that message be?

Students’ hands shot up on this one rather quickly. The response? “Women who report sexual assault deserve to be believed.” In pointing out the validity of this interpretation, you can point out several aspects of the film’s narrative—the fact that the police response to her report was obviously upsetting and demeaning, the fact that, the more her “friend” the filmmaker starts to waver in his belief of her story, the more he seems like an unsupportive asshole, pulling the same shit the police pulled. In general, it’s an easy point for students to grasp, especially in 2016, in an era in which responses to allegations of sexual assault are coming under increased scrutiny. (On the one hand, it’s great that the current cultural climate will make students more improved to the problems with the filmmaker’s response to his friend’s testimony … on the other hand, it is, of course, depressing that in 2016 a film made about sexual assault in 1973 still seems so relevant.)

This is all well and good, I say: you have accurately picked up on what is arguably the major message of the film. But what about that ending? Here, seemed a bit lost. What about the ending? I asked what the very last thing we see in the film was. Students mentioned the woman leaving the apartment, but no one grasped what I was looking for. I’ll take note of this, for future times I teach this film: students are so trained not to watch credits that they can miss absolutely essential details.

The detail I wanted them to notice was the one captured in the frame grab above: The last thing we see in the film are its credits, which establishes that the people in the film were played by actors, and that the film was not just a record of two people alone in an apartment, but in fact had a small crew, including an assistant cameraman, gaffer, and sound recordist. The film even ends with the well-known legal disclaimer “all characters and incidents portrayed in this production are fictitious.”

Students seemed deeply confused by this revelation. I asked them if they had believed that the film was, in fact, an unscripted record of a conversation that the filmmaker had happened to catch on film with his friend while he was shooting her. They said they had.

I pointed out that the film strikes a very strange balance, between two critiques. Both of these critiques are valid and insightful, and both of them are worth pondering. But it is unusual to think of them co-existing within the same film.

On the one hand, there is the critique that the students already recognized as the film’s “message”: The idea that women deserve to be believed, and that we should respect the authority of their self-reportage of their lived experiences, especially in matters of sexual assault.

On the other hand, however, there is a critique of our relation to media images. It perfectly mimics the style of observational, off-the-cuff documentary. In doing so, it encourages skepticism towards the truth value of such media forms. We should not, the film seems to say (if you’re paying close attention to the credits, anyway), accept such media images uncritically.

If one was only interested in the latter point, there are plenty of films that you could slot in on your syllabus—for instance, David Holzman’s Diary (Jim McBride, 1967). But what’s strange, and especially interesting, about No Lies is the sharp tension between the two messages it balances, one of which advocates for belief, and the other for skepticism.

Luis Buñuel’s Land without Bread

When introducing this film to students, I lay out the following: Luis Buñuel was a communist, an avid reader of Marx and Engles. He was also a surrealist. In 1933, he made an ethnographic documentary on the inhabitants an extremely impoverished mountain region of Spain, Las Hurdes.

If you heard, without context, that a left-leaning filmmaker had made a documentary about this subject, you might expect it to be a standard ethnographic/liberal “social issue” film. You could be forgiven for expecting this. Certainly, that seems to be the expectation of the audience at the film’s premiere, at the Palace of the Press in Madrid, where Buñuel himself read the film’s narration live. The premier went poorly. Anthropologists in the audience were apparently vexed by notable omissions. It did not meet their expectations.[i]

But these audience members had forgotten (or, indeed, perhaps never known) one crucial tidbit, the other side of the equation: Buñuel was a surrealist. And this surrealism infects Land without Bread to the bones. As Ado Kyrou has put it, “Buñuel’s healthfully corrosive vision could only be surrealist. Without this vision, Las Hurdes would be purely documentary.”[ii] And, make no mistake, Land without Bread is not purely documentary (whatever that may mean).

Now, perhaps Buñuel wasn’t being fair. After all, he himself stated, in the introduction to the film, that his aim “was to objectively transcribe the facts offered by reality without any interpretation, less still any invention.”[iii] Very well. Buñuel wasn’t being fair. Buñuel was lying. We should be skeptical of what he had to say, just as we should be skeptical of the film’s narration, the narration that was originally delivered by Buñuel, and is now delivered by anonymous voice-over actors in its English– and French-language prints and video copies.

Before I show the film, I instruct students to listen and look carefully. A lifetime’s worth of accepting documentaries at face value is difficult to wash away. (I think this is especially true of documentaries that look “old,” which students too often assume harken back to some prelapsarian era before irony and critical reflexivity were invented.) There is something off about this film’s soundtrack. This begins with the choice of music, the stately, somewhat sleepy drones of Brahms’ Fifth Symphony. As Vivian Sobchack points out, this choice of music “is so antithetical to what it accompanies that it functions blatantly to announce contradiction” … to those who are paying close attention, anyway.[iv] And then there is the narration. It is so inhumanly indifferent, reporting on facts in a bored monotone. It is, at points, shockingly callous, especially at those times when it describes Hurdanos with various developmental disability. (This is, undoubtedly, something that our distance from the time of the film’s creation actually enhances, rather than dampers.) It’s so callous at moments that it segues straight into the grotesquely comic.

Let’s watch a bit:

After I play this clip, I ask, straightforwardly: Did this girl really die? Students are often uncomfortable at first. It seems wrong to doubt accounts of others’ suffering. If they resist answering, I ask a softer follow-up question: does anything we can visually confirm actually indicate that this girl died?

Students here will sometimes mention the swollen gums and throat, to which the proper response is: Are you a doctor? Can you accurately visually diagnose swollen gums and throat from what we see? Or do you just believe it’s there because the narrator is telling you it’s there. At this point, I acknowledge that I am not a doctor. I do not know how to visually read the signs of the human body in this way. So all I can say is, “I’m not sure if this girl’s gums are swollen or not.” I’m also not sure that she died or not. I know that this is what I am told, but I am skeptical.

land_without_bread-screenshot-01

I am also skeptical that this woman is 32 years old. I pause the film on this frame, and ask students, if they really look at her, if they believe what the narration says. Usually, I get a few grins and giggles here. Students start to loosen up. They may not believe that everything they’re being told is a lie, but they at least begin to understand the importance of skepticism.

There is one big, central reason to be skeptical of the narration in this film: at one point, it very boldly and very obviously lies to us. I show them the “goat falling to its death” sequence, probably the most analyzed moment in the critical literature on the film:

I ask the students what’s happening in this scene, leaving it up to them to point out the puff of smoke on the righthand side of the screen, indicating that the goat was shot. (This should be easy, if they’ve done the Sobchack reading!) There are other blatant indications to the attentive viewer that this scene was elaborately staged, I point out. Just look at all the angles they film the goat’s death from! Surely, we’re not supposed to believe that they just happened to be filming from multiple angles at the moment a supposedly rare event occurs. At the very least, even if the film crew hadn’t killed the goat (which they clearly did), they would have had to have tossed a goat carcass down the side of the cliff multiple times to get the coverage they wanted.

Sobchack writes of this sequence:

In this sequence, simply more blatant than others which function similarly, we are confronted with a lie, with a manipulation of reality which we can see is a manipulation for the film. We are led not only to mistrust the narrator and regard him as unreliable and unethical (he has, after all, lied to us), but also to mistrust the reality and spontaneity of the images we see and the way in which they are offered to us for viewing.[v]

The “simply more blatant than others which function similarly” bit makes an important point: This lie is no anomaly in the film. It is just more blatant than some other, similar moments. In its flagrancy, it acts as a sort of “key” to the rest of the film. It is very deliberately placed so that reasonably attentive viewers will be able to spot it, and introduce some healthy skepticism to everything that is asserted by the narrator in the film. Because, in fact, as Sobchack points out, the film is actually filled to the brim with moments “when the narrator tells us something which is never confirmed by the images.”[vi]

We’ve seen this before when the narrator reports on the girl’s health, and the woman’s age. Can you spot it happening in one of the most unpleasantly callous moments of the film, where the narrator describes denizens of Las Hurdes with developmental disabilities?

We have another moment of an absurd-seeming age being attached to someone on camera. (Again, it is possible that this seemingly young child is 28 years old. But it would be foolhardy to believe it without more evidence.) We also have various townspeople being identified as “cretins,” with no real evidence or context to support this characterization.

Why this promotion of skepticism? Does Buñuel want us to shrug away extreme poverty and wealth inequality? No. But, just as Block did in No Lies, Buñuel does have two distinct aims in Land without Breadaims that are not in alignment and, indeed, occasionally come into conflict.

First, Buñuel is genuinely aghast at the poverty one finds in Las Hurdes, the astounding disparities in wealth, access to technology, and general cultural knowledge between the Hurdanos and “civilized” Spain. There is real anger on Buñuel’s part, I think, that the moral lesson the Hurdano children are being taught is “Respectad los bienes ajenos—”respect the property of others,” and that the only luxurious interiors to be found in the entire region are churches. We could call exposing these conditions the “communist aim” of the film.

But just having this aim would be too simple. Buñuel’s second aim is to expose how easily viewers believe what they are told when encountering documentary cinema. The film is not so much a documentary as it is a hyperbolic parody of the potential dangers of the documentary form. The narrator’s callousness is just an exaggeration of the lack of empathy that already governs most ethnographic documentary narration. The film’s deceptions are just unusually overt manifestations of the types of manipulation that go into documentary filmmaking. We could call this the film’s “surrealist aim.”

There’s a danger, of course, that the film’s surrealist aim might be so subversive as to disrupt the functioning of the film’s communist aim. That seems to be a danger that Buñuel is willing to accept. Much like with No Lies, the productive, conflicting tension between this film’s two aims form its very engine.

Jia Zhangke’s 24 City

Jia Zhangke’s 24 City could be considered a documentary, but there is one, weird, nagging detail about it. The majority of the film consists of former workers of Factory 420, an aircraft manufacturing plant, reminiscing about their labor as the factory prepares to be razed to make room for the 24 City luxury apartment complex (clearly, a charged subject, that has a lot to say about the human effects of China’s rapid economic development). Every now and then, though, Jia ditches the real-life interviewees, and instead presents us with mock-interview footage, in which the actors Joan Chen, Chen Jianbin, Lü Liping, and Zhao Tao play factory workers. The dialogue for these scenes was apparently written by combining dialogue from multiple interview subjects who weren’t filmed, meaning that these actors play “composite characters,” with no clear real-life analogue.[vii]

Sometimes these fake-out moments are quite subtle. (This is especially the case for Western viewers, who may not recognize these actors—the film is a fascinating study in issues of cross-cultural reception.) At other times, Jia gets incredibly cheeky. During Joan Chen’s interview, for instance, her character relates being nicknamed “Little Flower,” due to her resemblance to the title character of a famous movie, played by … Joan Chen.

Does Jia want to trick us? Perhaps. And he may pull it off on the inattentive observer (including, as stated above, many Western observers). But it’s not as if he actively lies to his audience. He makes no attempt to hide his ruse—anyone paying attention to the opening credits will notice Joan Chen’s name there, publicly available for all to see.

24_city-screenshot-01

I played the Joan Chen segment, and asked students who this woman was, and how the answer to that question intersected with the film’s issues of truth, lies, and performance. No one, not even the international students from China, pointed out that Chen was an actor. (This was, in hindsight, perhaps a good indication that they hadn’t done the course reading.)

Since no one was venturing this information, I explained that Chen was a performer. I was utterly surprised by what happened next. Although I know that at least one of my students found the film’s deception to be concerning (she wrote on the discussion board that she found there to be “something off-putting … about having an emotional response to someone’s personal narrative and then remembering that the speaker in the film is, in fact, an actor or actress”), most of the students leapt into a defense of the film’s integrity.  It didn’t matter that actors were mixed in with real interviewees, they claimed, because the film was still emotionally compelling. According to my students, it lost not rhetorical effectiveness for its substitution of interviewees with actors.

One of my students went to far as to take up this banner in a future assignment, writing a paper that argued that the film’s mix of fictional portrayals of composite characters actually made it more rhetorically successful, since it more deeply engaged audience sympathies than it otherwise would have!

I have to admit that I was dissatisfied with this conversation, and consider it to be a personal failure in teaching. I hadn’t foreseen this student reaction at all, and was baffled as to how to push students in the direction of more skeptical and critical assessments of the film’s construction. In the future, I’ll have to be better prepared for a range of student responses, including impassioned defenses of deception and naïveté.

[i]. Aranda, Francisco. Luis Buñuel: A Critical Biography. Translated and Edited by David Robinson. New York: Da Capo Press, 1976. Pp 93-94.

[ii]. Kyrou, Ado. Luis Buñuel: An Introduction. Translated by Adrienne Foulke. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1963. Pg 46.

[iii]. Buñuel, Luis. “Land Without Bread.” In An Unspeakable Betrayal: Selected Writings of Luis Buñuel. Translated by Garrett White. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. Pg 217. (As there is no date on this address, is it actually unclear whether or not it was actually delivered at the film’s premiere.)

[iv]. Sobchack, Vivian. “Synthetic Vision: The Dialectical Imperative of Luis Buñuel’s Las Hurdes.” In Documenting the Documentary: Close Readings of Documentary Film and Video. Edited by Barry Keith Grant and Jeannette Sloniowski. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1998. (This was assigned as student reading for this week. Sobchack also has an essay on …no lies, and although I didn’t assign it, it might be interesting to pair two essays by the same author on these two films.)

[v]. Sobchack, “Synthetic Vision,” pg 74.

[vi]. Sobchack, “Synthetic Vision,” pg 78.

[vii]. For a good overview of the film’s construction, see Stephanie Hemelryk Donald, “The Poetics of the Real in Jia Zhangke’s 24 City,” Screen 55:2 (2014): 267–275. (I didn’t assign this as reading, primarily because my students were working on a writing assignment and I didn’t want to overburden them, but it is a good size and complexity level for an undergraduate reading assignment.)

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