My China kit
With less than two weeks before I return home from Peking University, it’s time I finally offered some scattered thoughts on two of my favorite films of all time, two films which have kept this lonely scholar company during his solo foray: Pootie Tang and Etre et Avoir (To Be and to to Have). Released in 2001 and 2002, respectively, these two movies have a great deal more in common than one would expect from their dust jacket precis. The first sentences of each tells us everything, and nothing, all at once.
PT: “Women can’t resist him. Evil can’t withstand him…”
EeA: “All over France, there are still examples of what are known as ‘single-class schools’…”
Despite these apparent differences, there is a fundamental commonality which connects them. Allow me if you will…
Pootie and Etre are, at least to this spiritually inclined yet religiously undecided viewer, both contemporary revisualizations of biblical stories cast in such a way that one is left thinking: if there is any truth to these stories in the first place, then this is perhaps what they would have really looked and sounded like. Let’s begin with Pootie Tang.
Pootie Tang, played masterfully by Lance Crouther, is essentially the Buddha, Christ, and Bruce Lee rolled into one, and yet he captures certain dimensions of each of these archetypes normally muted in other treatments. For one thing, he is an ascetic polymath, yet one whose asceticism operates within a field of almost total hedonism. He lives the life of a global megastar, and yet is impervious to all its seductions (save one, which you can see for yourself). It is his asceticism, moreover, which makes him at once inspiring and irresistible to those who wish to believe, and at the same time infuriates and imperils those whose aim it is to shape the beliefs and conducts of others through the power they exercise. This is to say: whereas the Buddha and Christ are often portayed as “guys you’d really like to get a beer with,” in fact they would have been almost unbearably brilliant to be around. Only those with sufficient reserves of coal could have withstood being in the presence of either. The rest would have been incinerated immediately, or would have sought refuge in the cooler waters of the mainstream, the more peaceful and predictable exchanges found within the red dust.
Let’s move for a moment to Etre. In this film, the teacher George Lopez is, to his kindergarten and elementary school students, essentially a God-like figure. He assists them in navigating early life, becoming self-aware, and encouraging them to choose paths which are at once sponteaneous, satisfying, and moral. But unlike most portrayals of the God-head, his powers are clearly demarcated. He cannot see into his students’ minds, and instead must be a student of them. Take for instance a wonderful scene in which, for what seems like the very first time in one cohort of children, one student pushes another to the ground and causes him to cry. In essence, what the child has done has invented a new form of violence which, at least in this tiny world, had not existed before. After the deed is done, everyone is shocked and the teacher is sought out. Rather than pontificating to the children about violence, however, he very earnestly and vulnerably asks the offending student why did you do it? One gets the sense that he’s posed this question before to students past, and yet still does not understand how this moment of invention – this bringing into being of the violent act – always seems to reappear within human communities at roughly the same time. Unmoved by those answers which explain this behavior on behalf of the child, such as in the comparative social sciences, the teacher wants to hear the answer directly from the one and only person who has the authority to explain the act: the student himself. And yet the student is unable to do so. He does not know where this moment of genius came from, since genius is by its very nature the innovative act which, from any angle one views it, lacks all precedent: 无中生有. And so, confronted with this silence, Henry Lopez has no power to answer it for the child. The student does not know, and so the teacher cannot know either. I believe and like this idea very much, and am thankful to Etre for planting it in my mind.
Returning to Pootie, we also encounter the Devil and the act of a soul being sold. Dick Lecter, spun with flair and ease by Robert Vaughn, recites to Pootie the contract he has just been tricked into signing. It begins:
I, Pootie Tang, do surrender to Lecter Corp all the rights to my image and likeness.
What is brilliant about this scene is that it uses the language of everyday contracts to capture what, in essence, is the single most damning, self-enslaving action a person can take. And yet I encourage the reader to reread carefully the contract he or she has signed with Gmail, Myspace, and, for those who have had the strange delight, television reality shows. The price of infinite storage is, as you will see, complete transparency: the opening up of one’s most private exchanges, not to human censors, but to data mining algorithms which in recent years have become the new fossil fuel of the consumer economy: a new and seemingly inexhaustible sea of willingly donated data which powers a vast engine of market analysis, propaganda (不好意思, in the U.S. they’re called media campaigns), and social engineering.
I realize this is my heaviest blog yet, so here’s something to lighten the mood: I call it the “Urumqi Soviet Black Cat Boat”
Likewise, the price of exposure (suddenly I hear Radiohead’s We suck young blood in the background) is splicing: having one’s “image and likeness” cut into an untold number of audiovisual fragments, and subsequently interwoven with other samples of speech and sound and image with which it was initially disconnected, non-contiguous, unrelated. This is precisely why all the candidates on Project Runway scowl at precisely the moment when one would expect them to. It is because that scowl – which seems so telling of the very thing being told to us – was, when originally recorded, completely disconnected from the context in which it was later spliced. Point a camera at someone long enough, and you will see all of her expressions. Once in possession of all of her expressions, the act of splicing – a simple technology by now – enables the editor to create that person in virtually any form he or she likes. As Superchunk put it, Here’s where the strings come in.
That moment in Pootie, subtle and simple as it was, brought this message home for me: normally regarded as an exceptional act engaged in only by the likes of Doctor Faustus, and one whose consummation is reserved for hallowed sites like Robert Johnson’s crossroads, in fact we pawn our souls off all the time, for the most ridiculous of reasons, at the most unceremonious of intersections. I give my thanks to Pootie Tang for presenting this so clearly, and making me laugh at the same time.
As often happens with this blog, lunchtime has arrived before I was able to present a complete thought. My apologies!
[In closing, I would like to extend special thanks to my friends Alex and Nicole, who introduced me to Pootie and Etre, respectively, and who also arranged the appropriate viewing conditions.]
Thomas S. Mullaney
Modern Chinese History