Posts Tagged ‘Cultural Revolution’

To Live

Tuesday, June 30th, 2009

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To Live
1994, 120 minutes
directed by:  Zhang Yimou

This is one of the most powerful, beautiful films I have ever seen.

It is the story of a small, Chinese family during the Cultural Revolution. It won the Grand Jury Prize, the Audience Prize, Best Actor (You Ge), and was second only to Pulp Fiction for the Palme d’Or, the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival the year it debuted. There may be no more powerful film than this one about a family caught in the wheels of history. Though the male lead, You Ge, won the Best Actor awards, the film is carried on the back of Gong Li,  who projects a quiet strength that few other actresses can. The title of the film, to live (huozhe), “conceals a universe,” as Roger Ebert put it.

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As China is currently experiencing incredible growth and expansion, it may well be worth remembering that the country has always grown in fits and spurts—conversely, it has also experienced periods of incredible backwardness. The idea of progress, inextricably tied to utopianism, has been used to justify all manner of political and social harm, of which the Cultural Revolution is but one recent example. It is a simple reminder of the evil that even good intentions can create.

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I remember my first trip to China several years ago, and being enthralled, disappointed, and just dumbfounded by the magnificence and potential of this rough, barely kept together coalition of 1.2 billion people. At one point I was at a street fair, and this vendor was selling turtles, about the size of a thumbnail, from a plastic tray the size of a dinner place setting. And there were hundreds of these turtles in that plastic tray, and only one rock. And for some reason or another, every little turtle in that tray wanted to be on that rock. And so the entire tray was just this mess of turtles clawing and swimming and climbing as if for their lives, all desperately trying to get some time out of the water and on that rock. I sat there and watched, for maybe 10 full minutes, my head not so far from the turtles, as one turtle’s paw would use another turtle’s head as a leverage point; as a little turtle eye would seem to get poked out, as one turtle would flip and fall down into the water tumbling over other turtles. And in that mess of hundreds of beings fighting so fiercely for so little resources, I thought, wow, this is China. If only I had another rock.

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In China, progress seemed to be measured quantitatively, as opposed to qualitatively. In Japan, progress seemed to be a matter of how a new product, experience, or service affected life. You could see it in each piece of sushi crafted by a chef, or by the music, film, video, and advertising that vied for your attention on the confident, strutting streets of Tokyo. But in China, there was no strutting, the people didn’t seem confident, and there were the quiet reminders of desperation that couldn’t be kept hidden (amputees and homeless single mothers begging on every corner). And yet the buildings are being built at what must be literal break-neck speed. And as Chinese companies are starting to appear on international markets–Chery, Lenovo–they do so not by virtue of their innovation or technology, but by their ability to just produce more, cheaper. It’s hard for me to imagine China becoming the next world power anytime soon because of the incredible lack of creativity and ingenuity that seems to be the result of the last generations’ Cultural Revolution. Because isn’t today’s most important export Culture? And it seems like it will take another government in another generation to reverse the astounding wrongs of the last.

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As China experiences another one of its periods of intense growth, of which it has had similar periods before, it may be important to remember the power of our ideas, to question the role architects have in the built environment, and the families who are affected by it.

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(originally written in 2008)

It cuts both ways. . .

Tuesday, June 30th, 2009

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There are times when one feels utterly powerless against greater forces: in a perfectly played but losing hand of poker; in the passing of a completely unremarkable milestone birthday; or watching the passing of another historical moment that seems to gain no ground for the very idea of an expressive humanity.

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It pains one to see the tides of history sweep past unregarded citizens who were supposed to be its beneficiaries, and even more so when we had supposedly entered a new age where technological mediums rendered the oppressive techniques of the past obsolete. I wrote about this a bit in my review of the WWII-era surveillance film, The Lives of Others (2006, dir. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck), an excellent film.

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My studies had been roughly focused on the intersection of architecture and media–or, slightly more specifically,  between the intersection of film and architecture. My thesis is/was that changing modes of communication affect the way we inhabit, experience, and express space. This was borne from readings of McLuhan, Mario Carpo, Adorno, and extrapolated, used to explain the historical significance of architects such as Alberti, Le Corbusier, and Eisenman.

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Early on, many people pointed to the significance of new media to seeming alter the course of history. But as this article in Slate, titled, “The Revolution Will Not Be Digitized,”  argued, the new technology cut both ways. The same technology that could enable people could also be disabling. Yes, twitter was used to report on occurrences and organize groups of people, and major international news providers using video from cell phones as primary sources was no longer remarkable. But the chaos from so many “tweets” actually increased the confusion, and the government reportedly began using surveillance along with web volunteers to identify and imprison protesters. And because of the lack of true anonymity on the internet (tweets and postings can be traced), many citizens feel powerless or afraid of saying anything. Which exactly how they were supposed to not feel.  “The surprise isn’t that technology has given protesters a new voice. It’s that, despite all the tech, they’ve been effectively silenced.”

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In other words, top-down oppression lives on, and the anti-hierarchical digitopia remains (at this point) another castle in the sky. Which can be seen as one of the oldest stories in the book. In fact, up until recently, the standard bearer for historical mass-oppression was China. Think of the Cultural Revolution, Tiananmen Square, or the Three Gorges Dam project. The effect of these historical drives towards “revolutionary” ideas on individuals is difficult to begin express, but I’ve probably seen no greater filmic attempt than Zhang Yi Mou’s To Live (1994), which I will review in a following post as part of my ongoing “The Future is Asian” film architecture series.

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As I write in that review, the story of a small Chinese family through the middle Twentieth Century serves “a simple reminder of the evil that even good intentions can create.” It is an example of the attempt to affect change upon a certain scale, and how the scale and locale of our actions may be the most important thing we consider as citizens of a community. It nevertheless remains difficult to sit by, at whatever distance has been made possible by the contemporary medium, and read/watch/surf/blog/twit about the actions of a few which seem to bring strife to so many. It feels as if I am literally watching walls being erected between people, and knowing that so many hearts are being broken at once. What has changed?

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The images throughout this post are from Shawn Rocco, a photographer who uses a cell phone as his medium. Yes,  a cell phone was used to capture all of the above images (a Motorola E815, to be precise). More info about Shawn can be found on his blog called cellular obscura.