A Privileged Source of Information

On the obscenity of transparency - or how to “cloud” the cinematographic image

Pablo Gasparini


Some time ago The Wayward Cloud [the last film in the trilogy by Taiwanese director Ming-liang Tsai comprising What Time Is It There? (2001) and The Skywalk Is Gone (2002)] passed through São Paulo. With little dialogue and lots of songs, the film follows - among other characters dealing with a water shortage in Taipei - Hsiao-Kang, an impromptu pornographic film actor who seems a bit fed up with the gymnastic artifice to which his work subjects him. To the viewer’s surprise, Hsiao-Kang appears at a certain moment dressed as a women and, watermelon-shaped umbrella in hand, performs a series of cheerful song and dance intervals in grand Hollywood style, set in various different locations around the city. The cross-dressing as well as the allusion to watermelon may be understood by virtue of elements that the film provides, but what to what should we ascribe the sudden explosion of flashy musical numbers featuring hundreds of robotically beaming dancers? The film explains little and many of its scenes remain in fact unclear to those who are not familiar with the history and culture of Taiwan.

In contrast to this opacity, caused in large part by the immediacy with which the cinema exposes us (practically without intermediaries) to foreign images, André Malraux - the French writer and occasional Spanish Civil War filmmaker [Espoir / Sierra de Teruel (1945)] - maintains that the ‘seventh art’ promotes a great fraternity of images. In Esquisse d’une psychologie du cinéma, the author suggests that there are three phases in the life cycle of a work of art: a first in which the work is entirely unique and one-of-a-kind, another in which the work is reproduced and finally, the conversion of the work of art to film, or in other words, to a product of mass consumption. Independent of the films to which Malraux refers in order to support this hypothesis, it is apparent that he believes that art gains added value and interest thanks to the cinema. In transforming a work of art into myth, the cinema - Malraux maintains- has the capacity to overcome linguistic and cultural barriers. Like Cocteau, Malraux appears to believe that cinematic adaptation involves the conversion of ideas to myth. But to which myths does The Wayward Cloud refer? Beyond appealing to certain universal situations and daily figures familiar to modern global life, the film seems to evoke “Oriental” legends in which the protagonist becomes for example a kind of suffering aquatic beast beneath the dripping water tank of a Taipei building. Hsiao-Kang’s songs and ambiguous eroticism remain opaque and impenetrable to the viewer. The clarity for which we might hope from the presumed universality of myth certainly does not help to render these images more clear. Indeed, the lack of complete translation and the fact that the film speaks to us in a language that remains deliberately alien may be interpreted as attempts to give The Wayward Cloud, in this ever more uniform world, the singularity and sense of ‘otherness’ inherent to true art.

Certainly the ideal of transparency, at least in art forms related to the cinema – such as theatre and literature – presumes critical objectivity and a blatancy that allows for immediate comprehension. In drama, the iconic pretension to faithfully represent the world pushes the theatrical experience toward illusion and naturalism. On the other hand, in literature the ideal of clarity is the bastion of realism, the school which attempts to circumvent all forms of mediation in order to promote a language in which, in its most ideal manifestation, word and object are one and the same. As Brecht points out with respect to the theatre, total iconism implies pure emotional participation and consequently, intellectual passivity; whereas in literature, the word has achieved an independent worth that renders its immediate relationship with the world more complex. In fact, if “painting the world as it is” may be considered obscene in relation to classic literary perfection (Flaubert was, we recall, prosecuted for having written Madame Bovary), it is no less certain that the aesthetic transparency of pictorial and literary realism was brought to trial by the artists themselves: Man was sent out of Paradise and his language, since Babel, has become confused.

Nevertheless, if the breakdown of the illusion of transparency has given rise to, among others, an Artaud in the theatre or practically all of the poetic vanguard that marks modern literary experience, the cinema does not seem to have continued in the footsteps (if indeed such a thing were possible) of the radical as exemplified by Buñuel’s Un perro andaluz. To exaggerate the proposition: if the collapse of the transparent aesthetic language requires that literature, theatre and painting take note of their own material nature and thus relate to the world starting from the admission of the opacity of their idioms, the cinema does not appear to have recognised such an abrupt break. Certainly it is unimaginable that, after having paid the steep price of admission to our plush seats in our air-conditioned movie theatres, we would willingly sit witness to a succession of incomprehensible sparks of light randomly flashing to life and burning out on the screen.

It would appear that the cinematic image is less disposed to relinquish its legibility. Perhaps this is due to the fact that the cinema is still related, in the expectations of a large part of its public, to a form of entertainment, and in this way is less prepared to “épater le bourgeois” (or, in more contemporary and perhaps irreverent terms: to attack the representational a priori that sustains our daily ideology). On the other hand, attempts to obscure the transparency of the cinematic language may at times find their pretext in the very nature of the medium itself: according to Robbe-Grillet, the cinema is a struggle against the material exterior that resists it.
Perhaps because it is based on the necessary (and unavoidable) accord between the sign and that which the sign represents, the cinema shows more than it wishes and its realistic effect is more difficult to avoid than in other art forms.

In any case, images such as those of Tsai’s last film serve a death blow to the ostensible glamour of glossy advertisements or the illusory representations of a stereotypical New York as glimpsed between sitcom sequences. In contrast to the clarity of these formulaic (and globally familiar) conventions, the increasing interest in cinematic experiences realised outside of the major film centres promotes the – as of today – unconforming, yet perhaps liberating contact of one with the other. Far from subordinating themselves to the occasionally operational “adapter” of translation, to the whims of editorial politics and the slow mediation of critics and other reviewers (all typical aspects of the literary market), the untranslatable images of film travel with the speed of light and at times do not even require the support of major studios in order to reach the public: today the many international film festivals handle distribution with increasing efficiency. The immediacy of modernity seems to contribute to the opacity and delayed timing of aesthetic ‘otherness’.

In one of the many blogs that claim to be specialised in cinema, I read that the musical numbers of The Wayward Cloud may represent a parody of highly Americanised Taiwanese television shows. In another, that seems a bit more serious, the writer suggests that the amphibious monster played by Hsiao-Kang is to be understood as a reference to water symbolism in Tsai’s oeuvre. In any case, like Hsiao-Kang - fed up and at the same time captivated by the obscenity of images and the consequent negation of the other -

I prefer the uncertainty generated by his paradoxical and erotic distance to the transparency of these explanations.