Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Nicholas de Villiers: Leaving the cinema -- metacinematic cruising in Tsai Ming-liang’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn

Leaving the cinema: metacinematic cruising in Tsai Ming-liang’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn
by Nicholas de Villiers
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"Trick becomes the metaphor for many adventures which are not sexual; the encounter of a glance, a gaze, an idea, an image, ephemeral and forceful association, which consents to dissolve so lightly, a faithless benevolence: a way of not getting stuck in desire, though without evading it; all in all, a kind of wisdom."— Roland Barthes, Preface to Renaud Camus’s Tricks (1979) [Rustle 295]

In his evocative essay “Leaving the Movie Theater,” Roland Barthes proposes a particular way of going to the movies:

“by letting oneself be fascinated twice over, by the image and its surroundings — as if I had two bodies at the same time: a narcissistic body which gazes, lost, into the engulfing mirror, and a perverse body, ready to fetishize not the image but precisely what exceeds it: the texture of the sound, the hall, the darkness, the obscure mass of the other bodies” (Rustle 348).

This urban eroticism in the dark of the movie theater, the bodies sliding down in their seats as if in a bed (346), is crucial as a way to reinsert “queer” eroticism into movie-going. Barthes enjoys the anonymity and availability of the dark mass of the bodies in the movie house in opposition to the foreclosed eroticization of the place in the domestic well-lit scene of the television:

“television doomed us to the Family” (346).

That gay/queer [1] [open endnotes in new window] men in particular have made use of theaters for the purpose of cruising has a long history, which shows up in Midnight Cowboy (1969), Far From Heaven (2002), and in Samuel Delany’s Times Square Red, Times Square Blue. But Barthes’s works suggest that “cruising” might also be thought of as a more general type of experience: the reader’s relation to the text, which at the same time “cruises” him or her (Pleasure 4–6; 27). Tsai Ming-liang’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003) connects both these aspects: the situation of the movie theater as a place of the anonymous multitude cruising each other in the dark, and the drifting relation of the spectator to the cinematic image. Tsai simultaneously provokes fascination and distance, which best captures Barthes’s sense that

“I am hypnotized by a distance; and this distance is not critical (intellectual); it is, one might say, an amorous distance” (Rustle 349).

Both Barthes and Tsai emphasize the place and spatial conditions of the cinema itself (the shadowy box, the “big screen”), but also temporality (both in the sense of “duration” and “history”). They ask: what does it mean to leave or say goodbye to “the cinema”? Barthes clarifies the pun:

“Whenever I hear the word cinema, I can’t help thinking hall, rather than film” (346).

Tsai’s film fits into the longstanding genre of “metacinema” (from Sunset Boulevard [1950] to Scream [1996]), but it also takes on a particular local significance: Tsai’s choice of King Hu’s 1966 Dragon Inn (a.k.a. Dragon Gate Inn) — as the final film screened at a movie theater which is closing its doors indefinitely — indexes the rise and fall of Taiwanese cinema, thereby invoking the industry’s history in a wistful manner. Such a description of the historic place of cinema can also be found in Barthes and Delany, but this is not simply nostalgia for a lost era, as Delany insists (xviii). Instead, it laments the loss of the social contact which movie houses fostered [2] — social contact which is cross-class and queer: thus feared by social conservatives. Like José Muñoz’s discussion of the “Ghosts of Public Sex,” I believe that rather than being simply hopelessly nostalgic, the present is haunted by the virtual potential of queer ways of occupying space, as in parks, public restrooms, arcades, and movie theaters.

To Read the Rest of the Essay

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