7.Cinema Interval

© susan pui san lok 2001. ‘Trinh T. Minh-ha: Cinema Interval’, book review, Parallax, no.19, pp.128-130


W1: This is but a shot in the dark.

W2: There are three items. Make a guess at any one of them.

W1: Let’s see… It’s not quite an object.

W2: Right.

W1: It begins with a B.

W2: … Wrong…

W1: It begins with a D.[1]

‘Shoot for the Contents’ is a guessing game, a game of divination, a deciphering of puns and metaphors in an attempt to arrive at the unidentified object(s) contained within a real or imaginary box. Upon and around this notional framework, so many intricate words and images might be spun, the naming of said object(s) delayed, deferred by the pleasures of not-quite naming. The game lends a name to, yet withholds the naming of, a 1991 film by Trinh T. Minh-ha, the text of which is often as elusive as its apparent – or rather, non-apparent – subject, ‘China’. Repeatedly invoking the capricious symbol of a dragon for ‘China’ in its ‘ten thousand aspects’ – now “small as a silkworm,” now “large as the world – Shoot, together with Trinh’s other filmic works, may itself be said to be as purposefully unreliable, inconsistent and fabulous.

The full scripts for Shoot and the more recent A Tale of Love (1995), can be found in Trinh’s latest book, Cinema Interval. If Trinh’s earlier films – Reassemblage (1982), Naked Spaces – Living Is Round (1985), Surname Viet Given Name Nam (1989), and Shoot – often screened under ‘documentary’ or ‘experimental’ umbrellas, might be referred to crudely as her ‘Africa’, ‘Vietnam’ and ‘China’ films respectively, A Tale of Love, billed as her ‘first feature narrative’, would seem to represent a formal break as well as a departure in genre.[2] ‘First’, ‘feature’, ‘narrative’; as a set of hierarchised terms and means of compartmentalisation, it is, as anyone familiar with Trinh’s work might imagine, a classification both she – an ‘award-winning-Vietnamese-American-academic-artist-feminist-theorist-poet-composer-filmmaker—’ – and the work refuses. Previous works deploy varied and multiple tactics in challenging the legitimacy of ‘documentary’ and ‘fiction’ as conventionally oppositional and mutually exclusive modes of narrative practice, their wilful ‘illegitimacy’ affronting audiences anxious to preserve disciplinary lines, unexpectedly unsettled by the complexity of voices, the continual translations between visual and aural texts and registers, and perpetual deferrals of ‘truths’. For A Tale, Trinh ostensibly makes a ‘return’ to ‘documentary’ from which to build a ‘fiction’, tracing a different route back / towards ‘other’, ‘earlier’ territories. Taking up a strand of Surname Viet, Trinh appropriates and displaces a popular nineteenth-century Vietnamese epic poem,  in order to spin another, quite different, ‘Tale of Kieu’.

Confounding ‘firsts’ and compounding ‘fictions’, A Tale invokes ‘A Tale…’ and its eponymous mythical, legendary heroine through a latter-day imaginary, Vietnamese-American counterpart, interweaving culturally intimate yet geographically and temporally distant stories into the fabric of a “scenography of love” (as opposed to ‘love story’). Focusing on the state of ‘being in love’ as “an altered state of the mind and body… in which our senses are strangely aroused and sillily obscured – hypersensitive; so lucid and so blind at the same time”, disengaged from realism and the classical economy of narrative cinema, A Tale is neither plot nor character-driven (Trinh refers instead to ‘dis-inherited’ and ‘non-’ characters). As ‘real actors’ and audiences struggle with the resultant difficulties of identification and reading, lights and cameras are subordinated to neither actors nor set, but come in and out of visibility as their trajectories cross, suggesting other rhythms and spaces, and “the intensity of a veiled theatricality”. Presenting “partial views, saturated colours, elliptical narratives, sounds separated from context”, endeavouring towards what Trinh calls “a radical multiplicity instead of complementarity”, A Tale is “just a moment of a no-story”, the desired ‘happy / tragic ending’ elusive, resolved to remain unresolved.[3]

VOICE 2: Interpreting orientation and form is not without risk, because in Ancient books the beast exists in a thousand forms; has ten thousand aspects; stands or crouches; it is huge or tiny, unruly, or obedient, reserved or extravagant. Infinitely in metamorphosis, it dives deep, rises high, meanders, coils, leaps, and takes its flight.[4]

Like Trinh’s previous publication, Framer Framed (1992), Cinema Interval couples film scripts with interviews, the latter conducted over a six-year period.[5] Where Framer Framed presents the two as separate categories, the interspersal of script, set and lighting notes, film stills and occasional blank pages, as well as the achronological ordering of texts, works conversely to disturb the boundaries of their supposedly distinct terrains – images and words spilling out of their respective frames to circumscribe discontinuous, unfinished, unexpected relations. Cinema Interval goes further, dispensing with the momentary assurance of a script/interview binary and the demarcation of theoretical or disciplinary terrains, turning our attention instead to the necessary movements between. Abandoning a horizontal axis of sure-footed progression to embark headlong on a spiralling, gently vertiginous trip, Trinh invites / dares the reader to partake in three moves, gestures, attitudes – ‘Upward: Diving in, Non-seeing’, ‘Midway: Returning to the Scripts’, ‘Downward: Surfacing, Non-knowing’ – to slip, semi-blind, into waters of uncertain depth.

Trinh suggests that it is unnecessary to see or have seen either film before or after the book, which resides, then, both and neither in their anticipation and/nor wake. Gaps and discontinuities are not to be filled but accentuated, contemplated, a collection of pauses and/for thoughts. Her eighth book, her fifth film, her earliest, her latest – such attempts to differentiate or chronologize, to trace a line of thought or development, make little sense as a tactic of making sense of Trinh’s work as a ‘body’ – for it is always already a contingent non-whole-work-in-progress. Each interview, for example, already occupies at least two moments and places, each shift in location a double move, each winding between questions and texts a temporal twist and shadowing, shadowed by a not-same yet similar contorted chronology. Preceded by the interviewers’ ‘original’ introductions, bio- and bibliographical summaries m/edi/a/ted by Trinh, earlier contexts are recalled, and the possible affects and implications of their reframing signalled. Exchanges – with Deb Verhoeven, Homi Bhabha, Annamaria Morelli, Berenice Reynaud, Margaret Kelly, Kim Hawkins, Paul Kalina, Nancy Chen, Gwendolyn Foster, Mary Zournazi – travel to and fro, forth and back between 1998 and 1992, revisiting and revisited by Trinh’s earlier writings, films, and the virtual and real spaces of journals, books, and cities – from London to Naples, New York to New Zealand, Rotterdam to Sydney, Melbourne to California – further modulated by the particular attentions, dis/affections and alignments of each interviewer, in degrees of tension or accord with her/his interviewee.

The interrogation into the politics of interview in Surname Viet (structured by two sets of interviews, one staged, one ‘real’, translated, re-edited, re-enacted and re-transcribed into English from the ‘original’ Vietnamese) allowed Trinh to foreground the necessary and numerous mediations, not only between languages and cultures, but also between the spoken and written, the visible and the audible, each in turn complexly inflected by regional, historical and political accent/uations. Any expectation that the interviews and scripts might here promise elucidation, clarification, or the definitive interpretation of Shoot or A Tale, is misplaced. If dialogue, as the exchange of spoken words, has been deprivileged in the filmic texts, the scripts can only bring into relief particular (deceptively translatable) aspects of diffuse filmic bodies. Interrupting the already fragmented interview texts – scripts for quite a different kind of performance and staging – they are themselves interrupted by colour stills and handwritten notes, while black-and-white stills break up the rest of the text. “What is visible and audible can prevent one from seeing and hearing”.[6] The images and the blanks produced by their framings and juxtapositions breathe uncertainties along the speculative labyrinthine paths hewn into relief by words, marking their limits (their relation to the films “never one of unmediated explanation, but rather one of supplementarity – that is, of outsideness and substitution”), and the “infinite relation” between word and image.[7]

We are warned at the beginning (a mere point of entry), “Beware of Wolf Intervals” – those ‘bad’, dissonant, aberrant disharmonies that announce, rather howlingly for certain ears, an “out of place” or “out there” relation. In this rupture, “a temporal hiatus, an intermission, a distance, a pause, a lapse, or gap between different states,” “the infinity of the task of speaking nearby” is preserved. Improperly and inappropriately positioned, disclaiming authorship and authority to displace ‘translation’ – like ‘love’ – as a relation of loyalty and betrayal,[8] Trinh’s practices reflect and deflect the make-believe spectres of the originary, authentic and true. She describes Cinema Interval as “an interrelational space of detour”; it cannot be said to ‘go anywhere’ – there is no point of closure, nor arrival. Duplicitous, multiplicitous, wavering and wayward, after the dragon, it too “dives deep, rises high, meanders, coils, leaps, and takes its flight,” negotiating protracted, convoluted shots at the belly, in the dark. Cinema Interval opens (itself) up – curtain raised, out of sight – and leaves itself (and its audience, in wonder or frustration at its own predicament) gaping. Adrift, treading watery currents and “flat waves,” there is nothing to hold onto, nothing to fix (on), the last words going to another:

“… and we called that nothing an interval”.[9]

[1] Filmscript for Trinh T. Minh-ha, dir., Shoots for the Contents (1991), 102 mins, colour; cited in Trinh, Cinema Interval (New York, London: Routledge, 1999), p. 152.

[2] Trinh T. Minh-ha, dir., A Tale of Love (1995), 108 mins, colour; Surname Viet Given Name Nam (1989), 108 mins, colour and b&w; Naked Spaces – Living Is Round (1985), 135 mins, colour; Reassemblage (1982) 40 mins, colour.

[3] ‘A Scenography of Love,’ Trinh T. Minh-ha with Deb Verhoeven, in Trinh, op.cit., pp.3-15.

[4] Trinh, ibid., p. 153.

[5] Trinh T. Minh-ha, Framer Framed (London: Routledge, 1992).

[6] Trinh / Verhoeven, op.cit., p.7.

[7] Trinh, ‘Beware of Wolf Intervals,’ in Trinh, Cinema Interval, op.cit., pp.xi – xiv.

[8] Rey Chow cites the Italian expression ‘traduttore, traditore’ (translator, traitor) in her discussion of film as ethnography, in Chow, Primitive Passions: Visuality, Sexuality, Ethnography and Contemporary Chinese Cinema (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995), pp. 182-184.

[9] Clarice Lispector, cited in Trinh, Cinema Interval, op.cit., p.267.

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