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Always leaving the 20th century
Tsai Ming-Liang’s Stray Dogs (2013) didn’t spark any particularly profound thoughts for me when I watched it recently (all the worse for those given to seeing my posts). I’m not an expert at all on the Taiwanese New Wave and had only seen one other of Tsai’s films, Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003), so could only tell that it felt somewhat—not insuperably—slower and sparser than the New Wave films I’d seen by his near-contemporaries Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Edward Yang, so much so that it activated my early-30s lockdown-life tendency to get extremely sleepy watching anything less fast-paced than, say, Con Air. Like Goodbye…, it’s a remarkably beautiful film, though one whose use of chiaroscuro, isolated light sources, high contrasts between background and foreground, and a richly varied distribution of colours within a narrow band of black, greys and blues (at least in the night scenes) and occasional grungy obscurity doesn’t really accord with the kind of ‘beauty’ habitually lauded, and in turn standardised, in dramas on Netflix or Amazon Prime. Most of the setpieces are static shots with hardly any movement from the actors, although Tsai intersperses these painterly compositions with almost brutal and guileless day shots, as in the opening that sees the father of two children (Lee Kang-Sheng) holding a sign for a massive real-estate company, getting battered down by the wind in a thin cagool. (The sign acts like a double of the ‘No Trespassing’ command that opens Citizen Kane, except that instead of forbidding the viewer from someone else’s property, it invites them into the father’s exclusion from property. Although he stands in the middle of a busy road, every lane of traffic moves towards the viewer: we’re literally the only people who see him.) There’s virtually no exposition and although the characters remain themselves throughout the content of their psychological continuity—their pasts, their identities and interior lives—is never divulged. But then this static, long-take aesthetic has been absorbed as one of the standard modes of world cinema in the last decade anyway, alongside anything else you might see trailers for at an upmarket cinema. (Remember trailers?)
All of which makes the trailer extremely funny, for the way it turns these endless dwellings on a single frame into the punctuating moments of a family melodrama, with stirring by-the-yard string music supplying the emotional narrative beats that the original (which conspicuously has no non-diegetic music at all) lacks. It’s as if the film’s beauty can’t be allowed to exist in its unconnected state, but has, by the very nature of its inner content in the culture industry, to be drawn out into a narrative form that would make it legible. Which suggests something about those troubling fragments of “social realism” in the film that assault the eyes and ears. Fredric Jameson described realism as intertwining two different forms of time: the continuity of melodrama (the plot-sequence that narrative theory designates as histoire), and the still, visual intensity of punctual time that he calls “affect”. The film’s glimpses of the social reality of late-industrial Taiwan—individuals surviving on building sites and empty containers on Taipei’s outskirts, populations of stray dogs meandering through the ruins of half-built apartment blocks, a patriotic mural on the wall—obviously lack the narrative fabric that, in the realist novel, would have connected them into a wider social portrait. But the contemporary adepts of social realism in film create even more atomised works, from the thin surface grime of Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank to the fake panorama of Nomadland, which smears romantic cinematography over the cracks in its social vision like Polyfilla—a comforting trailer extended to feature length. (This is to say nothing of the aesthetic dog’s dinners of the DC and Marvel cinematic universes.) No-one beyond the specialists of political formalism would bother now setting up some opposition between a ‘resistant’ cinema of stasis and Hollywood narrative—except perhaps at the very furthest edges, in the work of Pedro Costa or Lav Diaz. Beauty, it seems now, can’t survive without realism and vice versa. Realism without beauty dissolves into dessicated ‘message’ films à la I, Daniel Blake. Beauty without a skein of realism becomes kitsch, as in the goggle-eyed likes of Cloud Atlas and Valerian. But the problem that the opposition names persists—the old 20th-century battles over time in artistic form that Jed Esty calls the “realism wars”, and which postmodernist theory long since thought it had transcended. Which isn’t to say that we’re doomed to fight the same stale conflicts. Rather, it tells us that in the supposedly flighty and thoroughly reconciled 21st-century, history still weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.