Life as Art as Cinepoem: Gao Xingjian’s Silhouette/Shadow

A man stands in the middle of a deserted city street, surrounded by tall buildings with rows and rows of shuttered windows. He looks up. The sky is spinning, the buildings are spinning, the man’s mind is spinning. Bernd Zimmermann’s Requiem for a Young Poet — a symphony featuring, among other things, the recorded voices of mad dictators — is blaring, dominating everything else. There is the sensation of a storm, of screaming, of a migraine headache. Horns, voices, an amplifying chorus. Again, the shuttered windows. Now the man is lying at the top of a stairwell, his head perched on the edge of the top step. The music fades. There is an empty chair in an empty room. There is the sound of a heartbeat. Now there is no one at the top of the stairs. The heartbeat fades. There is the sound of sirens, the sound of an ambulance, the image of an ambulance speeding in the night. You get the distinct impression that the man has just experienced a stroke, or something equally awful — and that you have not merely witnessed the event, but experienced it with him.

There’s no linear story here, but rather Gao’s astonishing reportage of emotion, thought, and the creative process, told through the vocabulary of multimedia collage: the film interweaves scenes from his “real” life, scenes from his imagination, excerpts from his poems, excerpts from theater performances he scripted, images from his oil paintings, music… and sound.

The man is the multidisciplinary artist Gao Xingjian (Nobel Laureate in Literature), and the scenes are from his art film Silhouette/Shadow, which Gao aptly describes as a “cinepoem.” A collaboration with Alain Melka and Jean-Louis Darmyn, it’s a deeply moving work — part documentary, part dream, part transcription of his own real-life, near-death experiences. Alternately meditative and nightmarish, prosaic and otherworldly, the film’s sensibilities are evocative rather than narrative. There’s no linear story here, but rather Gao’s astonishing reportage of emotion, thought, and the creative process, told through the vocabulary of multimedia collage: the film interweaves scenes from his “real” life, scenes from his imagination, excerpts from his poems, excerpts from theater performances he scripted, images from his oil paintings, music (Zimmerman’s contemporary music and Bach’s Mass in B Minor), and sound. At times the sound of the wind predominates; at others, music or poetry — Gao seems determined to not be hemmed in by any single mode of expression. Many images recur, morph, and appear in concert with one another: the pupil of an eye, a circle on an oil painting, a woman’s nipple, a haloed burst of fireworks. A thin black rectangle on canvas in one scene suggests the many doorways and windows that appear in other scenes — as well as the slit of a vagina, the shape of a candle, the silhouette of a hanging man, Gao’s shadow on a sidewalk. The cumulative effect is reverberative, border-blurring, maximalist, profound, and utterly haunting.

Silhouette/Shadow: The Cinematic Art of Gao Xingjian (2007)

Silhouette/Shadow: The Cinematic Art
of Gao Xingjian
(Contours, 2007)
PHOTO © Triangle Méditerranée
EDITED BY Fiona Sze-Lorrain
TEXT AND POETRY BY Gao Xingjian

Illuminating the film’s themes and origins is the book Silhouette/Shadow: The Cinematic Art of Gao Xingjian, which is a companion text to the film as well an integral component of a larger, more expansive art “exhibit” that includes the film, the book, and Gao himself. The book reveals Gao’s deconstructionist philosophies about filmmaking and his own take on the film’s explorations: “Childhood, recollections, war and disaster, love and sex as well as death, life and art, existence and nonexistence: between these scenes, there is ample space for viewers to insert their own interpretations” (p. 32).

The book also includes excerpts from two of his plays (scenes from these plays are featured in the film), as well as the complete text of the poem “The Way of the Wandering Bird” (also featured prominently in the film). Translated from the French by Ned Burgess and Fiona Sze-Lorrain, “The Way of the Wandering Bird” (pp. 41-64) begins by describing the freedom of a bird’s aerial arc, one that becomes a downward spiral: “Yet the slightest distraction leaves you blind / And you fall back into darkness / Knowing too well you are not a bird / Incapable of running from anguish/ That assails you endlessly / Like the merciless din of everyday life.” The poem ends with “an aging bird / Weak, pitiful, or anxious… faced with agony” who “waits calmly for his life to end.” As in the rest of the film, death — and/or its nearness/prospect/specter — is the poem’s enduring subject.

It’s one made all the more resonant when you learn how close Gao has come to death himself. In 2002 and 2003, while working on his stage plays in Taiwan, he collapsed and was hospitalized multiple times, undergoing major heart surgery (this in addition to an earlier incident in his life, in which he was either correctly or incorrectly diagnosed with lung cancer — whatever the case, he miraculously recovered.) Now 69, he has been near-death and back and back again. Silhouette/Shadow invokes, explodes, and makes art of his extraordinary life experiences, with the conviction and virtuoso of one of the most provocative artists of our time.

Printed from Cerise Press: http://www.cerisepress.com

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