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The Reeler Blog

A Useless End

By Vadim Rizov

Whether through willful perversity or innocent coincidence, the very final film screened for the press during this year's New York Film Festival -- the title that summed everything up -- was Useless. The irony; Jia Zhang-ke's latest documentary definitely isn't. In the 80-minute doc's first half, Jia aestheticizes the awful with gorgeous tracking shots of joyless industrial work in huge clothes factories. He moves on to Ma Ke, a rogue fashion designer who moved from this kind of work to creating Wu Yong, the titular brand, all hand-crafted clothes made on handcranked looms in very small quantities.

A scene from Jia Zhang-ke's NYFF selection Useless (Photo: Memento Films)

There's an internal contradiction in Ma's work: she quotes an old line of Chinese poetry, "Mother's stitches for her traveling songs," to explain the kind of emotional feeling she thinks is missing from mass-produced clothing. She wants to restore that connection, but it would appear that her clothing -- the few samples we see are bulky and impractical, with French models grumbling about the weight -- is for those who can afford it. Is this really restoring an emotional connection to work, or just creating a dumb new trend?

Useless peaks with what can only be described as a David Lynch fashion show: In Paris's Lycee Stanislas, dirt-caked models stand on glowing cubes in an otherwise completely dark warehouse, instructed not to blink for an hour. Then Ma drives into the countryside, talking about how she wants to explore the otherness of country life, and Jia takes her at her word; she drives past a villager on the road, and suddenly we have a new protagonist. This isn't the first time Jia has bifurcated his structure this way (Still Life does the same thing, though it eventually ties together its threads), but Useless has about four distinct stories, which is at least two too many. The film goes from the hypnotic formalism of the fashion world to the slow, less-aestheticized world of the village. The mystery departs.

The most surprising revelation of the press conference following the screening is that Jia sincerely admires Ma Ke's work, taking it at face value as "an engagement with critical thinking about the state of China from the point of view of fashion." She's his on-screen alter ego, her brand name his plight. "I find that Ma Ke's situation parallels my own, because in China it's commercial films, Hollywood films that can draw audiences and make money," he said. "Films like mine are considered useless." Over and over, Jia reiterated his dedication to making documentaries about artists and intellectuals, whose presence he feels has been removed from the new, capitalist China. "This film is the second installment in my planned trilogy on artists in China," he revealed; last year's Dong was the first installment. The goal is "to make their voices felt again."

Sounds useful enough; Jia's title should have been assigned instead to Carmen Castillo's insufferable 163-minute political harangue Calle Santa Fe. Not to trivialize the subject matter; in 1973, Castillo's companion Miguel Enriquez -- leader of the Movement of the Revolutionary Left (MIR) -- was assassinated by the Pinochet regime, the first of the regime's many brutal crackdowns. More than 500 people "disappeared" during its reign, and nearly 2,300 perished in political killings. Understandably, Castillo went into exile in Paris.

Calle Santa Fe director Carmen Castillo (Photo: Wild Bunch)

But Calle -- whose ostensible goal is to exhume lost leftist political history and provide a framework for future progressive movements -- is the political equivalent of a rambling, numbingly-long lecture from a smug '60s boomer who wants you to understand that music peaked in 1967 and no one will ever be as awesome as Jimi Hendrix. "Like young people all over the world, we were blazing our own path to the revolution," Castillo explains in voiceover (kill me now), as she returns to Chile (the film was shot over four years and a number of trips). Castillo's main project, amazingly enough, isn't fleshing out the politics of the time, which remain suitably fuzzy and slogan-garbled; instead, she agrees with one of her ex-comrades that it's important not "to analyze it politically but in terms of the heart." And so we learn, over and over, that all who were killed and struggled were amazing, wonderful people. Salvador Allende's most important characteristic, apparently, is that he was "a man who loved everything about life." Carmen's years with Miguel were full of laughter and love; the death of another comrade hurt because he was a great rock 'n roll dancer, and he didn't get to dance past 30. A hint: All premature deaths -- whether assassination, AIDS, drunk driving or freak accident -- hurt. There's nothing new here. Over and over, Castillo and her friends eulogize themselves and the past.

The only narrative throughline is Castillo's attempt to "reclaim" the house where Enriquez lived, somehow convinced that that will make the past present once again. (Hilariously, the house's owner wants to sell it; he's tired of having to open it up every year to MIR people.) She's skeptical that Young People Today really understand the importance of the struggle, and the vast majority of the film is cant, memorials without a hint of surprise or real emotion. The interviews are endless, with virtually no editing as every rambling thought spills out; Castillo compensates for underdocumentation with excessive length and thematic redundancy.

She was no more congenial in person. "It's a film of today, not a film of yesterday," she said at Friday's press conference. "I'm planning to go into neighborhoods, to unions, to the various provinces of Chile, to various communities, to universities, one by one showing them the film and having debates and discussions. It's the manner in which I hope to use Calle Santa Fe, with my participation, that really interests me. I want to hear what the young generation has to tell me. I want them to teach me." She's a liar; the sound she enjoys most is that of her own platitudes, and anyone under 30 in the movie is patronized immensely. There's nothing worse than a long, smug lecture from an old Marxist -- maybe next year that Hendrix documentary will become a reality.

Posted at October 15, 2007 11:24 AM

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