Critical Theories (or, Jia Zhang-ke's "Still Life")

Thu, Mar 20, 2008

Still Life, March 21 & 22 at the Wexner Center

When Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni died within days of each other last summer, there were more than a few think-pieces that posed the question, “Where are the Bergmans and Antonionis of today?”

The 37-year-old Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhang-ke is surely one of the leading candidates for bringing the modernist traditions of Antonioni, Bergman, and even Roberto Rossellini into the 21st century. One of the most impressive aspects of Jia's films is the way they are able to give attention to issues of form, politics/sociology, humanism, and storytelling. The majority of films are only able to successfully address one – or, at most, two – of those concerns. Jia is particularly skilled at telling the stories of individuals against the larger backdrop of the social changes sweeping through every aspect of Chinese life.

In his editor's letter in the current March/April 2008 issue of Film Comment, Gavin Smith points out that “in contrast to the rest of world cinema, and as a mark of our current insularity, American narrative film… seems totally oblivious to the underlying realities of globalization. At a time when the disconnect between America's sense of reality and that of the rest of the world is growing, American filmmakers have completely failed to articulate a response to the forces that shape and determine how we live now.” Much like audiences turned to world cinema during Bergman and Antonioni's heyday to get a much more frank view of sensuality and psychology than American movies provided at the time, perhaps now audiences are turning to world cinema to get aesthetic responses to life as it is actually lived by the majority of the world's population.

To give a sense of the importance of Jia and his films in today's film culture, here's a quote from a recent indieWire review, “Today there are no films reaching American screens that reveal quite so much about the state of contemporary China, as important a topic as anything else going on in the world today.” But the Village Voice's J. Hoberman – perhaps the finest film critic working today, especially when larger sociological and cultural issues are concerned – has gone so far as to remove the implicit qualifiers from that statement. In January, he wrote that Jia, “the pre-eminent cine-chronicler of contemporary China, could well be the most contemporary narrative filmmaker on earth.” Another Village Voice article called Jia “cinema's foremost poet of globalization and its discontents.” And Chinese film scholar/programmer Shelly Kraicer called Jia “one of the leading filmmakers of our time. His works advance the art of cinema in ways that are dazzlingly innovative.”

Given all this, you would think that it would be something of an event when Still Life, Jia's newest feature film – the winner of the grand prize at the Venice Film Festival and almost universally regarded as Jia's best film to date – plays in Columbus, right? Well, apparently the local film and arts press gave Still Life and Jia Zhang-ke the full measure of their attention and decided not only that the film was not worth reviewing or grappling with, but that it wasn't even worth bringing to their readership's attention in all but the most cursory fashion. As even the publications that used to be called “alternative weeklies” are increasingly focused on consumerist “reporting” and targeting audiences that aren't interested in reading, they are mirroring the same head-in-the-sand insularity and disconnect that Gavin Smith discusses. It's often amusing (and troubling – these are people who are supposed to know their field) when myopic film critics trot out their year-in-review articles that go on at length about how the big film story of the year was the preponderance of sequels or some other such box-office related concept. After subsiding solely on films with multi-million dollar marketing campaigns (augmented by the handful of “art” films released by sub-divisions of the major studios), these critics are all but bought by Hollywood into believing that these massive commercial releases represent the heart of film culture. But, maybe even worse than that, they then believe that these films also represent the entirety of the art of film culture. They literally become tools of The Man (in every sense of the word “tool”) and are trained to not just overlook but to be entirely oblivious to depth and breath of filmmaking as it is practiced today.

Luckily, with the internet it's easier than ever to get a sense of where the truly relevant things in film are happening. A great starting place is GreenCine Daily, a perpetually updated repository of the best film writing on the web. Unlike looking at the film section of a newpaper, a glance at GreenCine Daily will show that more serious discussion is going on around, say, Still Life than 10,000 B.C.. The magazine Film Comment is also covering a much broader cross-section of contemporary (and past) filmmaking than most publications. Because of national release patterns, the films showing up in Columbus will have often been featured in the previous issue of this bi-monthly periodical but this time gap allows a reader time to figure out which films they might want to keep an eye out for in the upcoming season at local venues. Each reader will surely find other sources that cater to their particular tastes by using these two publications as an entry point. The fullest possibilities of cinema doesn't lie within films that are meant to be experienced identically by mass audiences of viewers; instead it can be found in films that open up to individual responses and allow a viewer to contribute to the process of meaning-making. So with a little bit of resourcefulness and searching beyond the general interest publications, you'll be able to find the films that are meaningful to you and the world you live in. -- Chris Stults, Assistant Film Curator, Wexner Center for the Arts

Jia Zhang-ke's Still Life screens at the Wexner Center March 21 and 22.

Jean Dubuffet, Vaches au pre (Cows in a meadow), 1954

Reserve your tickets now for Transfigurations: Modern Masters from the Wexner Family Collection, on view through Dec 31. Learn more about the exhibition.

Artists featured in Transfigurations: Modern Masters from the Wexner Family Collection

Learn more about the artists represented in Transfigurations at our dedicated website. (Educators will also find curriculum resources to support their K–12 classrooms.)