the ball whisk

April 9, 2008

My title was too long…I shan’t be truncated!

Filed under: Film, Linguist Musing, Politics (sorry), Scando, Uncategorized — Tags: — groenefee @ 8:08 am

On the subject of truth in documentary, words about words, Gitxsan myth, a dead man directs a funny tragedy: Saturday at the WFF.

So here we go Up the Yangtze. My God was I ever amazed by this film. Three dominant voices interweave to form a graceful narrative of the Yangtze and where it sits as of two years ago. We follow the story of a young peasant girl from the soon-to-be-flooded banks of the river, an ambitious young man from the nearby city and the disembodied voice of the director. Our young girl’s family moves their house away from the banks as the water rises, noting we never had to buy food before, now we do. She struggles but seems to prosper as a galley maid on a western targeted river tour boat. Our young man gets flush with cash and then summarily dismissed for being too ambitious. Our narrator wistfully invokes the songs and experiences of his grandfather.

There are so many directions to take this brief post; I’ll take two.

First, the young man’s dilemma: As relative prosperity and opportunity for social class climbing come before him he smells it and goes for it pursuing tips and favor at every turn. He feels the gap between his customers and his lack of cash (underscored by his insistence that his family has money-they don’t). He quickly becomes flush with tips and then is dismissed from his job for being too ambitious and not enough of a team player. Here’s a wonderful irony of social class climbing, the tools needed (outside of luck and others pity) for advancement are brash, Eieraufdiewand, get ahead at all costs ruthlessness. Along the way, the climber meets all sorts of failures-the midlevel functionaries that function as priests of the current order-who’s roles are that of stopper. Those failures who have been trusted by the oppressive system at hand to use every value and pressure possible to prohibit social advancement and retain the dominance of their masters. The saddest part of this whole situation is that the failurepriests honestly believe that they are preserving something when they bar the ambitious from rocking the boat; so, they always speak with an ernest voice full of conviction. In very real terms this dynamic plays out by having a mid-level manager guilt and shame our young ambitious man for trying to rise above the relative squalor, damning him as not a team player, as selfish. Instead of applauding the energy and desire of the youth and funneling it into something great, he stands on it and weighs it down dismissing the young man.

Less social theory oriented, #2: It is really unclear at what point narrative and documentary interact here. I’m not sure if I believe anything in this film because of the staged and scripted feeling of the the well composed narrative arc. Of course, the river did rise, people were relocated, living conditions are squalid, I assume the boy did work and lose his real job, the girl did work and grow aboard the ship and that there are legitimate protests hidden behind the paper thin state relocation tours. All these things feel so scripted and assembled and staged that I came away distanced from China and very much feeling like I just enjoyed a deeply moving feature film.

not to be lost in this blathering, one man really brings home the key to this film, (quote: a mangled reconstruction from a beer-addled memory) “the dam is good for the state, not good for the individuals.”

So damnabley awful. Beautiful film though.
4 of 5

Social commentary? From a scientist? Oh yes, enter The Linguists.

Watching this film with my own historical (not field) linguist, I had a dandy of a time essentially seeing a discovery channel program at a filmfeestje. That being said, it was a good discovery channel show.

I do always find the need to invoke the spirit of Truth and, also, powerlessness in the face of an unquestionable nobel enlightenment ritual by the donning the appellation “Scientist,” cute (here we find that need to be a functionary vouchsafed by accredidation bolstered by a freakin’ bewildering array of collegite sweatshirts. You would have thought that a Steve & Barry’s sweat shop vomited on the screen at times.). So here we have two “scientists” doing science’s bidding and attempting to preserve the world as much as possible. (Oh lovers of stasis how these two must make your heart sing! Oh supposed lovers of difference and variation how you must think that you aren’t masking a love for stasis!).

That all pontificated obliquely, I really enjoyed the film. As the blog Mr. Verb (was the name a reference to Mr. Plow?) points out, one needn’t sex up saving languages by running to the far corners of the world; there are perfectly fantastic languages dying within 50 miles of you. For me, the cultural voyeur that I am, most of my enjoyment of the film came from peering into the lives of the very other populations that they visited. Much to my discredit, being a non-linguist, I would have probably not enjoyed a film about preserving a swiss dialect spoken by 9 drunk ‘sconnies in New Glarus.

Back to the central rub I have of those professing to do the bidding of Science, the central virtue of attempted neutrality is galling. There were so many moments in the film that begged for commentary about the political context these languages die within. The film makes passing reference to languages tending to die in areas of colonization, that the collective boarding schools are efficient and that there is a fair amount of shame in used in the process of killing a language. Never is the responsibility for killing a culture directly addressed. When in the radio station the linguists are served up a wonderful opportunity to discuss in an aside on film the active suppression of native languages, our scientists nervously giggle at a young man’s freestyle. When a racist belligerent Mayor rants about the “drunken” Chulym speakers in the same vein as a “dirty injun” rant from the american southwest. Again, no comment (and much to my horror, much laughter in the WFF screening crowd…thats how Dejope and Ho Chunk stay in business.). When we see the Indian-izing of the youth in boarding schools, our fearless scientists actually discuss the merits of the cultural assassins’ education system. When the end result is a thin book or an archive, we should be honest and realize we’ve preserved nothing about the culture but its ashes.

A question at the Q&A following asked one of our Scientists to offer the value of these languages to us. A correct response would have been to point out that language as well as all human culture cannot and should not be totalized and made exchangeable by a reduction of a lived practice to its use-value. But, Awww fuck, this is America! Instead we see the logic of the cultural assassin adopted by his chief agent, the reductive scientist in his response. We were told of languages’ unique ways of packaging data, of the many different bits of knowledge that we (Western Encyclopedic Science) would lose were these languages to die. We were told essentially that unless we processed the languages or cultured the culture in a lab we would miss so much encoded in the taxonomic structures and relations “packaged” in these peoples. Ahh what of the age-old Kantian dictum, “…Man, and in general every rational being, exists as an end in himself, not merely as a means for arbitrary use by this or that will.” I call this the Medicine Man principle of cultural imperialism. Let’s be clear, few who destroy people and their ways of life do it in an emotional and intentional way. Cultural death happens because of the driver is intentionally napping at the wheel of a steamroller. Appropriations of marginalized peoples still function to reduce them to the same you-are-your-use-value crap soup we Americans live in, die under and export violently.

3.5 of 5

So sorry about the political stick i’m holding in this post…I’ll drop it to discuss a film short in the Gitxsan language, Darkness Calls.

In a fantastic native-speaker of both Manga and Gitxsan tribal myth collision, this short amazingly keeps a tradition fresh and meaningful. The above trailer should say everything that needs to be said about this short except that it is done wonderfully and powerfully. The writer brings his own feelings of living at a cultural border into his culture, owning it and tending to it. Fantastic.

4 of 5

Ahh to Europe. No, from Denmark to Prag.

More to follow on Prag when my eyes recover!


1 Comment »

  1. Added Up the Yangtze to the netflix list. It’s not available yet, but should be soon.

    Comment by quietglow — April 9, 2008 @ 12:47 pm

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