The work of art in the age of crude capitalism

On the rise and fall and reinvention of filmmakers in contemporary cinema.


    As President Donald Trump proposed budget cuts that will abolish the National Endowment for the Arts - and justly invited comparison with ISIL "destroying statues with sledgehammers in Iraq's Mosul Museum" - I happened to see three movies while pondering the fate of art in the age of crude capitalism championed by unbridled militarism in the span of one week.

    The first of these three films destroyed my faith in a magnificent director that I have loved and admired over the last quarter century, the second restored my hope through a young filmmaker whom I had never known before, and the third gave me a sublime sense of trust in a medium that, for over a century, has consistently reinvented itself.

    Zhang Yimou's The Great Wall was a calamity of colossal proportion. Barry Jenkins' Moonlight was a poetic revelation of astounding poise. Raoul Peck's I Am Not Your Negro radically rethinks the very idea of a documentary film by bringing back to life a book proposal by the towering literary figure James Baldwin that was never actually written.

    How does that happen? How is it that a filmmaker of exquisite capabilities like Zhang Yimou can fall so blindingly for a banal creampuff like The Great Wall, while a young filmmaker of very little reputation can produce a beautiful film like Moonlight? The answer is perhaps in the third film that overcomes such questions and points to a way out.

    The Great Fall of a Filmmaker

    Chinese director Zhang Yimou and actors Pedro Pascal, Jing Tian and Matt Damon arrive for the premiere of 'The Great Wall' in Hollywood, Los Angeles, California, USA on February 15 [EPA]

    What a horror to walk into a theatre to watch a film by Zhang Yimou and walk out aghast at the commercial calamity that has stricken a once-beautiful mind! The Chinese-Hollywood epic The Great Wall is a banal and boring cocktail party of CGI-infested monstrosities warning of visual gibberish and announcing, evidently, a new period in US-China film production. 

    'The Great Wall' is a great tragedy: the final fall and collapse of a once exquisitely gifted filmmaker whose early masterpieces I have known and loved and taught chapter and verse for decades.


    Before the film was out, the buzzword was about the patent miscasting of Matt Damon in an Asian film. After you watch the film, you exit the theatre missing the time when such Tarzan, white-rescue, fantasies were the only affliction you had to endure in a film. 

    The Great Wall is a great tragedy: The final fall and collapse of a once-exquisitely gifted filmmaker whose early masterpieces I have known and loved and taught chapter and verse for decades. This cannot be the man who once made Raise the Red Lantern (1991), or To Live (1994), or The Road Home (1999). 

    The enormity of the Chinese market for Hollywood productions has now ended up with a film that predictably centers around three European mercenaries venturing into China in search of gunpowder, introducing the bewildered audiences to the legend of the Taotie, locust-like ocean-waves of flesh-eating monsters swarm who scale the Great Wall every 60 years to feed on Hollywood's mind-numbing greed and banality. 

    William (Matt Damon), Tovar (Pedro Pascal) and Ballard (Willem Dafoe) are the three Europeans cast as the hero, the sidekick, and the required villain, respectively, on a threadbare cliche narrative in which you can see the rotten skeletons of ancient Hollywood history through its state-of-the-art CGI gadgetry. 

    The politics of the film, deliberate or otherwise, are straight out of Donald Trump's great big wall along the southern US border meeting Benjamin Netanyahu's apartheid wall in Palestine

    The sea of monsters come to awash Chinese civilisation in almost uncanny similarity to Trump's delusional characterisation of Mexicans coming to the United States. You even have a scene where the Chinese generals discover "tunnels" these monsters have dug to attack China, slightly reminiscent of Israel's imagined "villa in the jungle".

    The birth of a filmmaker

    Director of "Moonlight" Barry Jenkins holds Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar. [Danny Moloshok/Reuters]

    As we lose Zhang Yimou to the bottomless abyss of globalised Hollywood, we gain a young filmmaker of exquisite subtlety. Barry Jenkins' second feature film Moonlight unfolds like an incredulous dream, from the heart of a heartless nightmare he crafts a work of art of such poetic precision that you sit there and marvel, "Where did he come from, how did he do it, what miracle is it when from the depth of an abyss a visionary artist can craft a work of such truth and sublimity?" 

    Moonlight narrates the story of one fragile black boy called Chiron as he grows up in a poor neighbourhood in Miami to become a strong, handsome young man having built a robust muscular fortress of a body around his frightened fragile soul inside. 

    Moonlight is about growing up poor, black, fragile, and frightened; bewilderedly meandering your way through a wasteland of poverty, drug abuse, violence, and a lonesome soul's search for solace. Moonlight is about the caring and competent hand of an artist gently searching in those very debris of debilitating destitution and finding a jewel of aesthetic craftsmanship to behold and marvel. 

    From the rock-bottom roots of urban destitution Barry Jenkins has made a beautifully self-conscious work of art that has found a passage to itself on the borderline of so many other lost souls. 

    But Chiron is no abstraction. He is the living indictment of the world that has terrorised him. His survival in Barry Jenkins' art is the sublated consciousness of that world, its moral abnegation, aesthetic consolation. 

    I am not your Negro 

    Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck, director of Oscar-nominated documentary I Am Not Your Negro, poses for a portrait at the 89th Oscars Nominee Luncheon in California on February 6 [Mario Anzuoni/Reuters]

    Zhang Yimou and Barry Jenkins happen at the two opposite ends of a predatory capitalism that can buy and sell anything: in one, it decidedly destroys a once-visionary artist and, in the other, it enables a young artist to uplift the soul of a broken world to allegorical fragments of truth. 

    There was once a Barry Jenkins in Zhang Yimou, and for all we know, there might be a Zhang Yimou in the future of Barry Jenkins. What matters is not why or how an artist falls and another rises. But where and whence is the source of that beautifully defiant creative consciousness that sustains our trust that there must be a purpose for poets "in a destitute time", as Friedrich Holderlin once put it. 

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    What distinguishes the lucratively commercialised Zhang Yimou from the promising vision of Barry Jenkins is the steady hand of an artist like Raoul Peck.

    The significance of Peck's masterpiece is not in the plentiful of video clips that have reached us from various public occasions in which James Baldwin spoke his exquisitely brilliant mind. Today, all these videos and even more are available in public domain. What matters most is the manner in which Peck has melodiously woven them together and, along with the sonorous voice-over of Samuel Jackson, invested them with a piercing contemporary power and poignancy. He has poured Baldwin's beautifully ageing wine in a masterfully crafted new bottle.

    In The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1935), Walter Benjamin famously made a distinction between the original and the copy, which in his estimation has lost "the aura" of the original. What today we witness when we move away from the commercial contours of The Great Wall through the promising balance of Moonlight and come towards the sublimity Raoul Peck has crafted in I Am Not Your Negro is the full gamut of that aura: from the lost and lonesome soul of a capitalist banality to the rediscovery of truth in the age of fake facts, of destroying the ancient and defunding the contemporary arts.

    Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York. 

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.



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