The Assassin, or movies we’re not meant to follow

22 12 2015

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Hsiao-Hsien Hou’s latest is complicated. It’s so complicated someone went ahead and created an infographic outlining the characters’ relationships. Still, I enjoyed the movie, and I think the reason I did is that, with cinema, it’s not always necessary to understand what’s going on.

This has to do with the nature of the medium, especially in a theatrical setting, where viewers can’t rewind or pause the screening. Overwhelming amounts of visual and aural information are always flitting past them, so it’s expected that they won’t grasp everything. And they truly can’t when the images are as breathtaking as they are in The Assassin. How can they simultaneously keep track of such gorgeous compositions, layered period detail, and dense webs of spoken exposition? Well, the answer is: they can’t. Or: they should consult the infographic. Or perhaps: they should stop worrying and love the Hou. Or maybe: they’re not supposed to keep track of it all, because that failure is part of the meaning, part of what the film has to say about the prickly brambles of politics, legacy, and heritage, in which every action in the present is an equal but opposite reaction to innumerable factors stretching into the past.

Now, unlike movies, novels often include family trees, maps, and other paratextual elements so that readers can, indeed, keep track of it all. With literature, as tangled as a story might get, the unwritten assumption is that readers can handle it because they have all the time in the world to wrap their noggins around it. They can flip back pages, look up information, scribble notes on the margins. The story isn’t going anywhere until they force it to. Even if the author hoped to instil a sense of disorientation, readers will still try to assimilate the whole unwieldy edifice.

This might explain why so many readers become frustrated with, say, James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, an extreme example of  confounding art. Since it’s a book, total understanding seems to be simply a matter of perseverance. And if total understanding never comes, well, that’s a problem. Jorge Luis Borges, in his famous pan of the book, mentioned his “total bewilderment” and admitted to only stealing “useless and partial glances” at the Irishman’s “verbal labyrinth.” Had it been a movie, I suspect some might have more readily accepted it as a brilliant mind-fuck and rolled a joint. (As it happens, there is indeed a movie version, an acceptable one made in the 60s by Mary Ellen Bute, but it’s considerably more coherent and sedate than the original text. Bute’s own experimental shorts from the 20s, with their dreamy abstraction, are probably closer to Joyce’s vision.) Or maybe not: early responses to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, as many will recall, were similarly baffled. As a culture obsessed with rationality, perhaps we’re terrified when an artwork exceeds our capacity to comprehend it.

That’s not to say books or movies should never make sense. Sometimes their stories or themes call for sense to be made. But other times, that’s obviously not the point. Joyce was doing a novel about the night, like Ulysses had been about the day. Kubrick was imagining bedrooms beyond the known universe. And Olivier Assayas, in his brilliant Demonlover (roundly criticised for being as infographic-worthy as The Assassin), was studying the endless twining and interweaving of corporate intrigue, even flirting with satyrical absurdity. (As we discover, the company all the protagonists work for is entirely and comically comprised of double agents from other, competing companies). When judging their merits, we should not ask how much sense they make, because they don’t always make that much of it, but how well they keep our attention despite the “total bewilderment” they sink us into. The best mind-fucks are those we’re forever close to figuring out, but can’t. Or rather, we can’t while in the process of watching them, because the pieces often do fall into place after post-credits reflection – or reading an infographic.

The examples I just mentioned often deceive us. They seem to straddle the line between sense and nonsense, the shadow and the light. Finnegans Wake seems written in an alien language, but… is that an actual English word? Are those repeated names or initials? Is that the faint outline of a discernible narrative structure? 2001, inversely, is so glacially slow and its images are so transparently beautiful and clear, that it seems impossible to be flummoxed by anything in it. And then, suddenly, there’s a white room with a black monolith – and is that a space-faring baby? In the same vein, Demonlover and The Assassin include reams of exposition. Characters talk and talk, they name names. Viewers suspect that, if they keep listening, their burning questions will finally be resolved. Except they’re not. These masterpieces of confusion know that confusion isn’t fun unless we feel we’re perpetually close to an epiphany that might never come.

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