Bitter Money (Wang Bing, 2016)

By Tara Judah

Courtisane saw me first. It gestured for me to come and I followed. That was a year ago, but the memory is as viscid as lacquer just applied. This year, I came without call. The invitation to participate in the art at Courtisane is a gesture of repetition, and one that extends into discovering an alternate history of cinema; not for its refusal of the canon but owing to its sincere interest in something altogether else.

A productive and ritual turn, Courtisane doesn’t concern itself with trying to disprove a narrative – Ah, the tension in my shoulders drops and I exhale. Relief and freedom to discover without battle! – Fighting the notion of a film canon has its brave warriors but sometimes fighting only further enforces that which it rails against; legitimating it in the act of acknowledging its prevalence and power. Courtisane presents art on its own terms, not only for what it is not.

Last year I saw my first Wang Bing film, Ku Qian (Bitter Money, 2016). This year I saw parts two and three of Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks (2002), He Fengming (2007), three and a half hours of his epic fourteen-hour installation A Journal of Crude Oil (2008), Three Sisters (2012) and his most recent film, Mrs Fang (2017). Though I don’t like to subscribe to old hat notions of auteurism, there is something urgent and impressively recurrent in Wang’s way of looking at China around him. Watching his films is both a challenge and a privilege; here I sit with all of my first world affluence watching abject poverty as art. I have the choice to leave both the cinema and the gallery, perhaps because I am hungry, tired, too cold or simply because I would rather be somewhere else doing something different. This choice is not available to the workers on the oil rig, or the titular sisters covered in lice in the rural mountains. They cannot leave. Duration is not optional for them, it is life. For me it is a view, a lesson and a consideration but I can decide against it whenever I like. The freedoms I have are deeply troubling in this context. What does having the freedom to look really mean? And if I have that freedom, how ought I use it?

Sometimes I can feel the filmmaker’s presence; when he tires of a fixed view on a subject’s face, as in Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks, Part III: Rails, where the camera, perhaps bored, perhaps a little curious, or maybe with defiant determinism, wanders from the face of the young man it was observing to a clock on the wall. A clock might tell us the time, but it also reminds us of the pressures, problems and economic trappings of its keeping. In this moment, Wang gives us so much: the young man is crying because his father is held prisoner, and for how long he does not know; the silent observation also signals the futility of time in relation to incarceration without sentencing, as well as how it bears upon the unofficial incarceration of poverty, something for which it really couldn’t care less. Time is a system and a construct but also a constant and an inescapable trapping of the free market economy, the effects of which Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks carefully and purposefully observes.

He Fengming (Wang Bing, 2007)

In He Fengming, Wang lets the titular protagonist literally tell her story. It is remarkable just how clear and certain she is in recounting her personal history. She tells us more than an outsider could even imagine knowing about the Anti-Rightist Movement and the Cultural Revolution in China. It is not just her story, it is a story that belongs to many, including her late first husband, one of too many that the labour camps claimed. Witnessing her testimony – and it is testimony – is extraordinary. Here Wang has not just made a film, he has amplified a voice that some factions of history would deny. This is important work.

Though the camera focuses mostly on He Fengming from either mid-distance or mid close-up range, Wang does occasionally allow us a counter view. Placing his camera in the vantage of her seat, when she is not sat there, we look out as she might to the other side of the room. And yet, we do not, and cannot, see what she sees. For starters, Wang is not there, recording her. It is the absence of the camera, and the absence of a witness that our eyes lock onto. In this way, Wang intimates how, even as a witness, we cannot assume her view. The ethics of responsibility in both storytelling and observation are made clear. Well, insofar as that they are anything but. – Ah, to feel that I know what I do not know, and to have the freedom to be aware and still not be burdened by the paradox!

Yet I do not even know that much. Directorial intent is impossible for a viewer to live up to. Morgan Fisher taught me that when he showed Another Movie (2018). A work of personal and collective (film) history, Another Movie is in direct dialogue with Bruce Conner’s avant-garde collage film, A Movie (1958). At the start of Another Movie, Fisher includes Respighi’s descriptions of what we are * supposed * to imagine during the movements from his musical score, Pines of Rome. Played to a (mostly) black screen (eventually a moon, with the movement of clouds before it appears), we are * supposed * to imagine the images from Bruce Conner’s A Movie. The relationship, and the presumption, is about film history, and the utter redundancy of movie music. While I’ll agree to this in general, the specificity evades me.

Standard Gauge ( Morgan Fisher, 1984)

Just because the intention is that I think about one work while watching another, even if that work has been shown before it (with another of Fisher’s films about film in between, Standard Gauge (1984), doesn’t necessarily mean that it is what I will see. My view, and my imagination, is my own. Most fascinating to me was that the discussion mentioned Respighi’s fascism and yet still presumed that the artist (Fisher) could construct meaning.

Whilst my associations were undoubtedly fascist; Disney, westerns and the shit-eating grin of John Wayne, they were not the images of Respighi’s writing, or Fisher’s association and influence from Conner. This does not mean that Fisher failed. Far from it. It only means that the ethics of film reach far beyond intent and stitch us all into implication.

The existence of something doesn’t necessitate its following. That there is a film canon may be, but our desire to cling to it or not is born of our own free (viewing) will. Our imaginations, as Courtisane again emphasized for me, are equal players in this game of understanding image and affect.

At Courtisane, the ethos is about relationships and visibility; where aesthetics and politics meet, where art is in flux, and where viewers are active in constructing their own account of images and, perhaps humbly, the world. It is a festival that champions a variety of voices and that cares about how history interacts, not just what it alone has to say.