April 12, 2009

The Mosaic Film: Nomadic Style and Politics in Transnational Media Culture (2)

Filed under: film,new media politics (k3),patricia pisters — ABRAXAS @ 4:40 pm

Media Technology: Binding and Separating Forces

Media technology also plays an important role in the new mosaic film. Paradoxically, the pervasive reach of television news appears to be both a binding and splitting force. Both in Babel and in Kicks, news of the accident spreads quickly, and is then interpreted in relation to ethnic tensions and threats of terrorism. In Babel, the news media immediately interprets Susan’s being struck by the bullet as a terrorist attack on American tourists, a news item that Cheiko, in Japan, stumbles on while zapping. In this way, global television news creates a strange (paranoid) kind of transnational “imagined community” (Anderson, 1991), that functions like an anxiety machine. “Media are spreading the fear of the other,” Innaritu says in The Making Of Babel. Kicks provides a similar view of television news when, after the death of his brother, journalists confront Said with the rap texts Redouan sung earlier; in doing so they are trying to characterize Redouan one-dimensionally as a (potential) terrorist. The television news further enhances polarization by announcing that an opinion poll held immediately after the incident shows that 79% of the Dutch-Moroccans think the motives for the murder were racist, while 77% of the indigenous Dutch think this is not the case. On the other hand, the news (both on television and on the radio) also provides all of the members of the community with a common point of reference, and provokes Kim to begin, naively perhaps, to change her own attitude, and to look for connections beyond her own circle of well-to-do Dutch friends.

The technologies featured most prominently in WWW. What a Wonderful World are the computer and the mobile phone. As noted above, the Internet connects Hicham (and many other Moroccans) to the rest of the world, while, at the same time, political conditions are restrictive with respect to their ability to physically travel abroad. The mobile phone is another important connector. Kamel falls in love with Kenza’s voice, which he has heard only through the phone and which he does not recognize in embodied form until the very end of the film. Kenza earns some extra money by renting her mobile phone to friends and acquaintances. Here too, new technology does not change everything: not everyone owns a (mobile) phone, the new is not for everyone. Technology connects and disconnects.

In Babel, the telephone is also used as a cinematographic enfolder of time. Here, communication technology’s ability to bind and/or separate is realized particularly in a temporal dimension. Most of the film presents the events more or less chronologically, except for one moment when time is enfolded in a sort of loop. At the beginning of the film, Amelia, the Mexican nanny, picks up the phone when she is playing with the kids, Debbie and Mike. It’s their father Richard, who phones from Morocco to tell Amelia that his sister will take care of the kids the next day so that she can go to her son’s wedding across the border. He also talks to Mike on the phone, who tells him about his day at school. At the end of the film we return to the same phone call—but now it is presented to us from Richard’s point of view in Morocco. What makes this scene particularly touching is the fact that we not only now know what happened to Richard and Susan before the call was made (we didn’t know at the first iteration that Susan was hit by a bullet and that Richard is calling from the hospital in Casablanca). We also now know what will happen to Amelia after this call. Richard’s sister will not come after all and, in desperation, Amelia will take the kids with her across the border. In Mexico, they will attend a wonderful wedding party, but on the way back home they will get stopped at the border. Amelia’s nephew, Santiago, who is driving the car, then panics and drives away, leaving Amelia and the kids in the desert. They will survive, but Amelia, who has been taking care of Debbie and Mike since they were born, will be sent back to Mexico for illegally taking American kids over the border. Because we know what happened before and what will happen after the phone call when we see it for the second time, Amelia’s answer, “Everything is fine, Mr. Richard” is just as heartbreaking as the tears that fill Richard’s eyes when he hears the voice of his son, knowing, as we do, that Susan is still in critical condition. The significance of the shared moment in the present (the phone call) has been augmented by virtue of its interrelation with the past and the future. Temporally has multiplied, become “heterochronic” (Bal, this volume…).

On a narrative level, the telephone is here used for its dramatic possibilities—the play between embodied and disembodied voices, and the spectator’s knowledge of a particular situation. But the telephone also reveals the temporal out-of-syncness or dyschrony that is characteristic of migratory movements and migratory aesthetics. As Miguel Hernández-Navarro asserts, “the coexistence of times as a collision and an irresolvable tension, [is] like a fundamental dyschrony, impossible to assimilate” (Hernández-Navarro: this volume). The transnational mosaic film reveals the contradictions and temporal tensions that come into existence when (via technology) time and space are traversed in an out-of-synch way.

Finally, the cinematographic technology itself must be addressed. In the second part of this essay, I will examine the political implications of the mosaic film, and argue that this type of film can present particularly political and resisting narratives in the larger media networks. Here, I’ll first describe how the particular nomadic styles in which these films are shot enhance their relation to contemporary reality.

Nomadic Style: Mixing the Codes

The contemporary mosaic film is often presented in a nomadic style. As the term derives from Deleuze and is often misunderstood, I will briefly revisit Deleuze’s thoughts on the nomadic before returning to the films. Postcolonial theory has put forward many objections to Deleuze’s conceptual response to the postcolonial situation. His concept of the nomad has met with particularly heavy criticism. It is often seen as an all too easy way of describing migrants as nomads without any roots, or without any hierarchical relations. Deleuze’s notion of the nomad is seen as both romanticizing and assimilating. Hence, this concept is believed to contribute to “perpetuating a universalized and unmarked western norm, [leaving out], or marginalizing local knowledges and prioritizing theoretical validation over political exigencies” (Wuthnow 2002, 194). While acknowledging these dangers of simplified equations of the nomad and the migrant and the universalising powers of conceptual thinking, however, I would like to argue that the films under discussion are nomadic experiments in the sense Deleuze lays out in his essay “Nomadic Thought.” Here, he argues that “the nomadic adventure begins when the nomad seeks to stay in the same place by escaping the codes” (Deleuze 2004, 260). As the different types of mosaic film discussed above make clear, real mobility is not a necessary condition for establishing a transnational dimension, hence the nomad does not need to be a migrant. Other elements of the mosaic aesthetics of these films make them nomadic. As such, I’m not arguing that nomads (as a special category of people) escape the codes, but that escaping the codes (in any possible way) is nomadic.

By presenting complex, fragmented, and multiple stories and characters, the films that I’m discussing here them selves escape or mix the codes of conventional filmmaking that demand a central narrative and clearly goal-oriented main characters. Babel escapes the code requiring a star-driven plot by giving equal amounts of attention and screen time to Hollywood stars and amateurs. The unusual combination of Moroccan, Mexican, and Japanese settings and story lines is also refreshing. Even though the cinematographic techniques applied to making the transition from one scene to another are conventional (match on action, graphic matches or sound bridges), they are handled with such brilliance that crossing continents feels quite enchanting.

Stylistically, WWW. What a Wonderful World is more obviously concerned with mixing the codes (genres) of the crime film, the romantic comedy, Buster Keaton (the director, Besaidi, who plays Kamel himself, has an inexpressive face like Keaton), and Jacques Tati (some of the scenes where Kenza directs the traffic in Casablanca call Playtime to mind). And by presenting a stylized and modern image of Morocco, the film also breaks with Moroccan cinema’s clichéd images of pitiful women, poor children, and powerless or/and tyrannical men. This nomadic representation of Morocco is often funny in its absurdity, but also in the intensity with which it confounds Morocco’s traditional images. This is typical of nomadic style: “You cannot help but laugh when you mix up the codes,” Deleuze argues (258). The mood in transnational mosaic films is not exclusively sombre, but also embraces cheerful moments, moments of humor and lightness. (See also Pisters, 2009).

Moments of laughter are also present in Kicks, in those situations when cultural codes are explicitly scrambled by Nordin, who, for instance, loves singing typical Dutch songs by 1960s singer Boudewijn de Groot. The characters in Kicks may typify certain recognizable figures in contemporary Dutch society; the fact that Dutch Moroccans and indigenous Dutch meet and interact is a mixing of social codes that is not often seen in Dutch cinema. Cinematographically, the characters break another code: especially at the beginning of the film, during the introduction of the characters, but also at moments later in the film, the characters look straight into the camera, into the eyes of the spectator. This is unusual in feature films and sets up the very powerful effect of direct address, enabling the direct involvement of the spectator: it’s not just the world on the screen but our own world that we are engaging with. Which leads me to the second important attribute of the nomadic, namely its political implications.

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