Drive-By Cinema

Back when I first started at Pacific Arts Movement, then-Executive Director Lee Ann Kim would laugh recalling how the former Associate Festival Director George Lin used to joke about buying a mail truck and driving it around San Diego projecting films. Lee Ann just wanted to highlight George’s madcap ways. I, on the hand, steeped in film history, experiential art, and political performance, saw in George’s inspiration something that was not just doable, but fundable and exemplary of what we as an Asian American media arts organization can and should be doing. So Lee Ann and I whipped together a grant application to the James Irvine Foundation’s Exploring Engagement Fund, and got the project, entitled Drive-By Cinema, funded for two years.

Part of the grant was to publicly present our experiments in arts engagement, so we published a hardback picture book with a tongue-in-cheek how-to guide in mobile film presentation as well my curatorial essay, reprinted below. It’s just one of many forms of writing Drive-By Cinema took, which also included Tweets by poet Kiik Araki-Kawaguchi and our legendary three-line press release that announced nothing and everything.

U-Haul trucks were made to move. Even in their post-corporate afterlives, as empty scrap metal boxes sitting on worn rubber in need of a tune-up and a makeover, movement awaits their rusty gears. The haul: an HD projector, multiple makeshift movie screens, a popcorn machine, assorted witches and gurus, lab coats, and a generator. The route: a Marauder’s Map full of secret passageways and ghosts who sometimes take the passenger seat. The goal: moving minds through flashing lights and creative cartographies.

Drive-By Cinema takes its cue from the fabled (the pied piper, the flying circus, the ice cream truck jingle, Bakhtin’s carnival, Takeshi Kaneshiro’s soft-serve-mobile in Fallen Angels) and the historical (the traveling shows of the silent days, the legendary “cinema vans” of mid-century Britain, the mobile film units of 1950s China that brought cinema to rural populations). But DBC really came from the jungles of Thailand where our mad scientist cut his teeth (and who knows what else), the streets of Oakland and Chicago where our digital nomads built schools and formed guerrilla educational initiatives, and in the spidery poetry that our social media guru morphed into 140-character breadcrumbs. The motley crew of know-how and guile not only knew how to make a truck move and how to assemble a movie space, but they knew what movement was for: to bring folks together, to soak in stories, to paint a town in lights, especially neighborhoods that have for whatever reason (but probably racism) gone dark.

They say people don’t watch movies in theaters anymore and I’m sure “they” have data to back that up. But it’s possible many neighborhoods don’t even have theaters anymore, and equally possible people in those neighborhoods don’t have the hardware or the broadband to stream films in ways the experts say are the trend today. The rush toward “new media,” both in the for-profit and non-profit worlds, sharpens the digital divide in the name of progress. It also uses the concepts of interactivity and digital community to obscure opportunities to build and elevate actual communities. There’s R&D money now in developing and tracing the aesthetics of virtual spaces. But what of the brick-and-mortar neighborhoods? They’re relegated to 100-year-old solutions like the mural. The driving principle of Drive-By Cinema is to reinvent these spaces with the cinematic, even if it means reinventing the cinematic in the process. Let the passerby, the area businesses, and the neighborhood community associations decide what to do with a 1970s sci-fi film or an Asian American sports comedy. The rule was always that there were no rules. Patrons could talk and eat, come and go at will, even ignore the film altogether. It’s not necessarily a lawless space, but one where the rules of engagement – and indeed the social meaning of public art – are structured by those curious enough to step into the flickering light.  The traditional concept of the movie theater was built on upper-middle class discipline (silence, stillness, consumption), and the digital community is being rebuilt today along the same lines. DBC finds inspiration in pre-theatrical cinema, when films were cheap inner-city entertainments consumed by immigrants and the working-class. However, the intention was never to return to the past, but to figure out how digital technology can awaken analog pleasures deemed backward, unengaging, and primitive by the trendsetters and experts.

One of the best drive-outs took place at Linda Vista Plaza, allegedly the first mall-type shopping center in the United States, and now one of the most important retail plazas for Vietnamese Americans in San Diego County. The DBC team cautioned the area restaurants and security personnel, and caution-taped a couple of spaces in the parking lot. A Vietnamese restaurant offered chairs. A security guard took interest in protecting the space. At sunset, DBC projected a mad-cap mahjong comedy, the sort that Hong Kong studios used to mandate had a set-piece per reel. Popcorn was set up, though it couldn’t compete with the area banh mi. The usual DBC followers showed up and stayed for the entire feature. Cars would slow down to peep the antics. And as retail hours ended, grocery workers, waiters, and neighborhood restaurateurs stopped for a second on the way to their cars. The film was a blast, but it was the sense of impromptu festivity that turned a mundane weekday night into something else, be it a momentary diversion, an art-school oddity, a family night out, a tribute to a neighborhood, or a better Tuesday than last.

Some nights fared better than others. The Korean comedy didn’t work under the palm tree by the beach. A security guard foiled plans for a surprise serenade of Filipino lolos hanging out at Starbucks. We slowly learned how short films could be the medium of the streets, just as they had become the medium of YouTube. We also learned to program Asian cinema outside of the safe space and self-selected audience of the Asian film festival. How do you use Asian and Asian American content to spark pedestrian interest in the streets of San Diego without playing only Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee movies? Action, experimental, and animation played the best in most environments. Once again, the “cinema of attractions” beat classical narrative, as they have since the silent days, especially once cinema was liberated from the confines of the theater.

And if the streets were the theater, then the truck, illuminated in green and magenta, was usher, concession stand, and projection booth in one. The DBC crew named the vinyl-wrapped hunk of metal “Humb’lin,” after Pac-Arts’ late associate festival director George Lin, who first imagined a fleet of cine-mobiles when he saw a USPS truck for sale on eBay. Humb’lin’s most famed ride was the one where he shared the spotlight with another giant urban monster. During Comic Con, San Diego’s rowdiest event of the year, the DBC team secured the rig so that the projector could run while the truck was in motion. It was a tricky set-up, with wires through windows and blu-ray players in laps, and an even trickier route to map, with one-way streets, inebriated pedestrians, and height clearance warnings. Traffic was at a crawl, which was horrible for commuters, but perfect for Godzilla to roam the streets on Humb’lin’s back, and perfect for onlooking geeks to stop, point, and cheer as Tokyo’s monster made its way around San Diego’s skyscrapers. Godzilla screamed through the tinny loudspeakers like a Taipei politician campaigning out of an old jeep. Cars honked, celebrities tweeted, and cops sighed. For a truck better used to riding incognito in less prominent parts of town, it was a rare treat to be on the yellow brick road. And for the DBC team that gave this tin van a heart, it was a sweet victory lap – at least until the next adventure.

Cinema is the future of man

This is my first piece on Korean director Hong Sang-soo, written on the occasion of the release of A Tale of Cinema. Originally published in Asia Pacific Arts.

Hong Sang-soo has found a clever and endlessly fertile narrative strategy for exploring his world of coincidences, humiliations, and emotional transcendence. In each of his six features to date, Hong tells us two stories in each, not by cross-cutting them a la Robert Altman but by laying them one after the other, such that the A and B stories play off of each other enigmatically and abstractly rather than in clearly-defined contrasts or edited juxtapositions. In The Day a Pig Fell into the Well and The Power of Kangwon Province, characters mentioned in the first story emerge in the second, not only giving an additional dimension to the characters and plot, but also evoking the deathly connections between friends and strangers, culminating in both films with mysterious and cruel deaths. In Woman is the Future of Man and Turning Gate, the two stories represent a past and a present, and the way characters repeat or contradict their misogynies, gestures, lines, or emotional tics from story A to story B tell us all we need to know about their motivations and tragic flaws. For a while, Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors featured Hong’s most experimental dual narratives by playing a young woman’s gradual deflowering from two Rashomon-like perspectives, but that film’s status has now been overtaken by Hong’s newest: the formally flashy, and surprisingly warm A Tale of Cinema, which juxtaposes the story of a young director and the victim of his stalkerish aspirations, with a deathly funny film-within-a film of Solondz-esque proportions.

This structure works because Hong is especially good at repetition, or at least the illusion of repetition. In A Tale of Cinema, the repetition of the words “Let’s die together” (the coldest line of pillow talk imaginable) by the young director parallels the same line at the center of the short film which begins A Tale of Cinema. But rather than simply saying that life imitates art, Hong seems to be showing how cinema becomes the mental bedrock of everyday life; our earthly desires entangle with our cinematic ones in strange and often ugly ways. In Turning Gate, it’s the same love story played twice, only the term “I love you,” an empty signifier scholar Kyung Hyun Kim sees as central to Hong’s cinema, takes on different meanings when uttered in each section. The tragedy at the end of the film isn’t the protagonist’s romantic rejection, but the irony of “I love you” as it is played out in the two stories. The near-repetitions in Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors don’t just show variations on the same story, it conjures to the fore the plot’s sinister shadow, revealing the male chauvinism and sexual domination lurking beneath what at first seemed like simply one of the many threesomes in Hong Sang-soo’s oeuvre. In A Tale of Cinema, the formal style of the short film which opens the film — namely the dramatic zoom-ins and voice-over narration which have never before been encountered in Hong’s films — is repeated in the “real” portion which follows the short film. Tricking us into thinking that these cinematic devices were characteristics of the film-within-the-film, and then repeating these devices when we think we’re back in Hong’s usual territory of static silence, Hong further blurs the line between fact and fiction.

There are also repetitions between films. Most famous are Hong’s use of rowdy drinking scenes shot in long takes and his depictions of gritty, static, discomforting, and erotically stale sex which frequently results from the drinking. Drunkenness plays a crucial role in Hong’s stories. On an obvious level, drinking provides the catalyst for confrontation, leading to scenes of humiliation for which Hong is most famous. At the powerful climax of Woman is the Future of Man, drunk characters dance, stumble, fellate, betray, mumble, and humiliate in a literal orgy of dissatisfaction. However, drinking is more than a narrative convenience; it gathers meaning by being depicted as the most primal of social rituals. These scenes are so animalistic that the sex scenes look mechanical in comparison. In The Day a Pig Fell into the Well, the customs of social drinking enable collisions of personalities and desires, culminating almost inevitably in violence. In that film and in A Tale of Cinema, pressures to toast each other in pairs — depicted in the most uncomfortable of long takes — forces characters into compromised situations. This also mirrors the pressures of singing karaoke during drinking which are also evident in those two films. In The Power of Kangwon Province and Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, the very social-ness of drinking — the gathering of friends and colleagues — coupled with the debilitating effects of alcohol, turn petty private bickering into painfully public displays of embarrassment. By A Tale of Cinema, Hong and his audience have become conscious of these effects of social drinking in Hong’s films to the point of self-consciousness: one character tells another, “Don’t get drunk please; let us know if you’re going to get drunk,” as if it’s painfully clear to all parties involved that drinking could only lead to disaster.

If alcohol is the tonic for chaos in Hong’s films, it’s in that lingering hangover which follows that Hong’s characters typically dwell. There’s no better exemplification of this than the final sequence of A Woman is the Future of Man, where friends disperse to literally wander the city, not to “find themselves” or gather their bearings, but to simply walk off that blistering headache convoluted by memories of dashed hopes and regretful despair. At the end of A Tale of Cinema, a film actress runs into the man with whom she had just had a cold sexual encounter the night before. She’s casually trying to figure out his intentions, not because she wants to know if he’s worth continuing a relationship with (clearly he’s not), but so she can more easily shake off the bitter memory of their lustless fuck.

It’s fascinating, then, that so many of Hong’s characters are filmmakers or actors. What is Hong trying to convey by thrusting film people into the cruelties of disappointment, embarrassment, impotence, and disillusion? Is there a connection between this and the fact that Hong is a financially unsuccessful art house director in a country of big-named blockbusters? After all, the issue of art versus commercial cinema does get raised in Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors. More importantly, much of the tension in Hong’s films is related to the egos of film artists. The fighting in Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors comes from an argument between filmmakers over a stolen camera. The tragedy in Turning Gate is set in motion when a film actor begins to pursue a beautiful female fan. In A Tale of Cinema, a failed director becomes dangerously obsessed with a rising star. The main character in Woman is the Future of Man goes to America to become a filmmaker and in the process spurns the woman who loves him; when he comes back to Korea a failure, he thinks he can simply re-claim his ex-lover. These filmmakers and actors (at least the male ones) are studies in moral and emotional vacuousness to say nothing of their chronic helplessness in the realm of romance. If cinema is the future of man, let’s drink to lowered expectations.