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Living in the Sky

China, the West and Cultural Hubris
Guy Rundle

Perhaps there are more ironic places to see The Tree of Life than the Langham Centre in Hong Kong, but it would take some searching to find them. The skyscraper/mall/hotel combination is forty stories amid the scumble and chaos of Kowloon, the Chinese side of the city: low-level streets crowded with markets, discount stores, by-the-hour hotels, neon, rickshaws, carts, trucks, people, people, people, six deep on each pavement. Above it the Langham soars, a familiar steel-and-glass challenge to the city’s warrened sprawl.

Inside, however, something different has been done, for the central atrium is vast: ten, fifteen stories high, and irregularly shaped, with jutting angles, narrowing at the top—as if a cavern has been hewn from the finished skyscraper. At its base, lush trees and plants soften out the look, crisp and perpetually watered amid the air-conditioned chill. A vast, steep escalator takes you to the top. It seems unsupported. Near the apex, it’s dizzying, vertiginous—near successful in its attempt to imitate a sense of the sublime found in nature. Then you step off, into the multiplex cinema.

The multiplex is always at the top of malls. Perhaps for reasons of space, or perhaps it is part of the marketing. Cinemas remain, despite (or because of) the spread of the DVD and direct download, the primary modern manner in which an escape from the bounded ego is possible—the body dissolving into the dark, the two dimensional image rendered three dimensional by our projection into it, the manufactured dream state that plays at the boundary between the head and the world. To place them at the very height of malls seems a reward, an endpoint to the pilgrimage of consumption. Working your way up the levels, you become steadily more loaded with anxiety, frustration and dissatisfaction until, as a reward for your labours, you can dissolve entirely for a couple of hours at the point nearest the sky.

Curiously, though it is an art film, The Tree of Life seems made for this multiplex experience. The fifth film—in forty years—from legendary director Terence Malick, it is the most unusual of things, a genuine, audacious, ambitious work of art (as opposed to that distinct genre, the ‘art film’, of middlebrow psychologistic drama) with a mainstream release. Malick’s previous films, such as the thrill killer movie Badlands and the early twentieth-century historical epic Days of Heaven, were concerned with matters of existence and being, rather than psychology—as befits a former philosophy professor and Heidegger scholar. Thereafter he took a near two-decade break. After two successful relatively conventional films gained him a degree of latitude, The Tree of Life represented an uncompromising go at making not a bolder statement about life, but a different sort of encounter with it. Using the frame of psychological drama and memory, the film busts open into something entirely other.

Ostensibly, The Tree of Life is a memory film. An architect (Sean Penn) working on a large skyscraper project, a building of cold monotony even by contemporary standards, recalls his childhood growing up in Waco, Texas. In reality, most of the film is taken up with this, the family’s story told backwards, from the news of the death of the architect’s brother in Vietnam in the late 1960s, to their childhood in the 1950s. Such a precis doesn’t capture it of course—Malick’s style is a film essay, memories and moments, montage and deep focus, reminiscent of the classic Soviet filmmakers. More importantly, in the middle of the film is a third section which sets all on its head, for an extraordinary near half-hour sequence. Rendered in CGI graphics, it essentially tracks the history of the universe, from an abstract rendering of the sudden beginning everywhere (erroneously, usually described as the big bang) of the universe, via the formation of stars and galaxies, the planet, the seas—and then, suddenly, a jellyfish-like creature seen from the underside, swimming through the deep ocean, distant light perfusing the surface. If description of the other sections falls short, here it is actively misleading—using up-to-the-minute HD vision, the sequence is continually arresting, astonishing, even when it teeters on the edge of self-parody—as when, emerging from blackness again, we realise we are looking over the sleek back of a brontosaurus-type dinosaur. Taking the risk that the audience’s mind might wander in the direction of Monty Python, Malick’s cinematic intent is nothing other than to be present not to Creation in any limited sense, but to Being. The movie that surrounds this sequence is entirely resituated by it—both the architect remembering his childhood in the throes of a mid-life crisis, nor the fraught psychological drama of an angry mid-century father, squeezed by industrial work, threatened and rivalrous with his growing sons.

Without the ‘third sequence’, the film would be no more than another memory film, better than most. The sequence centres it instead on the pure process of life, running beneath the particular, the historical, the encultured. The psychological drama of the film is a giant McGuffin, a false lure to draw the attention while the movie does its work. The film is a general critique of the idea that meaning could be found in existence simply as the summed product of a series of meanings, of intention and desires, without a ground beneath. This is given form in the very different look of the present-day and 1950s sequences, and with a gesture to Heidegger’s fundamental notion of the Earth and the Sky, as separate realms and orders. The silver and blue of the present-day, the reflected emptiness of the skyscrapers, is contrasted with a 1950s shot in earthy, brown tones, of a drama taking place in low-slung single storey houses in a small regional city. One of the most quoted parts of the film in reviews is a rapturous sequence in which the mother lifts one of her children up, and points to the sky. ‘See that—that’s where God lives’, she says. Reviewers have assessed that for religious sentiment, but it is equally interpretable in an a-theist fashion—the Sky is the realm of God, or the idea of God. The Earth is where we live. Trying to live in the Sky—the architect’s buildings with their mirrored surfaces look like nothing less, spaces carved into the heavens—is worse than hubris. It’s an error.

There’s no way of knowing what The Tree of Life will look like in ten years time—either a classic or period kitsch. But coming out of the cinema, staring down the escalator into the fake cavern, the world was thrown into sharp relief. Beneath lay the Kowloon streets, arrayed much as towns and cities have been for seven thousand years, the intersection of people in tight spaces, engaged in the business of life. Beyond, visible out the windows, was Shenzen, the companion city to Hong Kong, which the Chinese government has put up in a quarter century. Pretty much a fishing village the day before yesterday, it now sprawls hugely, mega-block on mega-block of new skyscrapers, a 400 square kilometre supercity. Hong Kong has a compactness to it, shaped by the natural focus of the harbour. Shenzen is a city on a plain. There was nothing to stop it continuing across the earth forever.

Good place to see The Tree of Life. A good time too. After six weeks travelling down through China, Shenzen stood as a continuing reminder—most especially of the inadequacy of most accounts of the place. Endless colour supplement articles about the place joining the world, cranes on the horizon, don’t really capture the categorical nature of what is happening; that China is embarked on the largest-scale transformation in human history, something of another order entirely to the relatively piecemeal way in which it occurred in the nineteenth-century West. Financial journalists and the like write of the vast pace of new building and urbanisation, but they cannot capture how that feels or means—that cities of two, three, five million people have been, in effect, entirely demolished and rebuilt, soaring into the sky and doubling their size in the process, as people come in from the country. It has been done before, elsewhere, this shift from the horizontal to the vertical, with all that that entails, but not on this scale or even at this magnitude. Even for a stranger, with no knowledge of what was there before to compare it to, it is a confronting experience, unquestionably unprecedented.

To travel down the middle of the country from Beijing was to move in a state of double ignorance—cities of which one had never or barely heard of, yet larger than all but the half-dozen Western mega-cities, arose ahead, entirely new-minted, yet with thousand-year histories that nothing in the city disclosed. Wuhan, Chengdu, Chongking … it was impossible to know what had been there before. What is there now is mile on mile of apartment towers, business hotels, shopping malls—Western-style in origin, but only in the sense that the West had got there first. Once you take-as-given that modernity—capitalist, socialist, or mixed—will focus on urbanisation, industrialisation and consumption, then skyscrapers and malls follow automatically, accumulation patterns written down in concrete.

Nor was there much mystery about how this categorical shift had come about. For three decades after the 1949 victory, the Chinese had experimented with radical models of social transformation, drawn from the wildest dreams of pre-Marxist utopian socialists. In the late 1970s they had changed direction. To the outside world that looked like a capitulation to a set of unquestionable rules about modernity—markets, property and eventually liberal parliamentarianism—when in fact it was a transformative plan as radical as those that had preceded it. The Cultural Revolution had been directed towards one type of transformed society; its successor was directed towards another, but with a similar determination to sweep away pre-existing structures with resolute lack of sentiment. Cultural icons, symbols of ancient privilege, had been smashed in the Cultural Revolution, but what came after it would level whole cities, annihilate villages in their thousands, and rupture the pattern of life—of the hutong—that went with them. Because the country remained a planned society, in which the planning was overwhelmingly concerned with directing how and where market forces would flow—while also preparing the way with state-inaugurated projects far beyond the capacity or imagination of the post-Keynsian West—China’s progress was essentially super-charged by this dual effect, modernity’s transformative capacity refined and distilled.

Planning mitigated the anarchy of capitalist production, its flow towards consumer goods; property and the market kicked a high-growth high capitalist economy into top gear. Western Thatcherites and neo-liberals visited over the decades to hold the country up as an example of the existence of enduring economic laws—even as the application of such laws in the West were draining it of industry, coupling growth to consumption, and turning the entire region from creditor to debtor status. Arriving in Shanghai weeks earlier had been propitious, because it coincided with celebrations for the ninetieth anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party. At night, on the front of the largest skyscraper in Pudong, the massive financial district built across the river from the old European Bund, the hammer-and-sickle was projected thirty storeys high on a background of red, the whole thing reflected, shimmering in the river. For a moment one felt science-fictive, caught up in the familiar plot of a time-traveller waking in an alternate reality—like Francis Spufford’s recent Red Engineers, the documentary novel in which it is imagined that Khruschev’s USSR, steered by technocrats, races ahead of the West. Then one remembered—this was real; something had happened that could not be easily assimilated to simple models of privatisation. Capitalism was the means; the re-engineering of being—Chinese in particular, human in general—was the aim. Amid the pitiless skyscrapers, the vanishing hutongs and courtyards, brown, earthy, had the same look of ground-hugging closeness as the low, plain houses of The Tree of Life. China was the project to make such a transformation into humanity’s unquestioned path; the film’s power arises from its understanding that that historical moment has occurred, and that, under its sway, life—its character, its qualia—becomes the thing in question.

Throughout that journey—which in retrospect would feel like a journey to the film—the world outside China provided a descant of sorts. While the Middle Kingdom appeared to have entered a sustained period of post-histoire—reading modern histories, one’s attention wandered after the Cultural Revolution, because there seemed little further history to tell—the West seemed to be coming apart at the seams. In the United States, a President both diffident and stymied was unable to articulate any notion of how the nation might either regain its dynamism, or change its idea of what counted as success. Meanwhile his opponents in the Republican Party left the sphere of modern politics altogether—the organisation, driven by its radical wing, became the political expression of a cult, fusing not merely distrust but hatred of government with literalist Christian beliefs.

By this conception, America’s woes were the result of error in heaven and on earth, turning away from both God and the sovereign individual. Though they paid obeisance to the Founding Fathers—indeed fetishised the Constitution—their beliefs were no longer grounded in Jefferson or even Hamilton. Instead the discourse of the newly-elected Republican Congress was dominated by one thinker—Ayn Rand, inspiration not merely to marginal figures such as Ron Paul, but also to principals such as Paul Ryan, the man charged with drafting Congress’s 2011 budget. Filled out by a Tea Party movement, inaugurated by right-wing media, but now ranging free of it, the American Right has essentially taken a fundamentalist turn, a hysterical reaction to a national and economic decline rooted in larger global trends. Like all fundamentalists, from Calvinists to Wahhabists, it had honoured its founders by wholly replacing their ideas. Christian grace became Calvinist predestination, Mohammed’s radically universal monotheism became Wahhabist disdain, and the American founders’ notion of a balanced polity reflecting human multiplicity has become Rand’s manic and nihilistic gospel of self.

In Europe there was equal and opposite reaction to the same stimulus, the official acknowledgement of what had been obvious for half a year—that there had been no real revival after the crash of 2008, that what commentators were describing as a ‘double dip’ was simply the evaporation of the minimal funds directed towards recovery, and the re-emergence into visibility of a deep stagnation. There was no revival because there was little to revive. The states of southern Europe were effectively broke—having got short-term benefit from the euro, they were now constricted by the EU’s tight control of the money-supply—and the whole of European economic policy tilted towards Europe and the North. In Britain the past three decades’ evisceration of manufacturing, the reliance on banking, intellectual property and other services—like rents—made any simple re-starting of the economy difficult; and the cuts imposed by the Tory-Libdem government rendered it impossible.

In one corner of Europe, Greece’s agony became an emblem of the contradictions faced by the West—bowing to every austerity demand, its ruling socialist party managed to contract the economy by 7 per cent. Still, neither its interest rate nor its credit rating improved and it moved inexorably towards default. The familiar image of its black-clad koukouloforei—the hooded ones, a mix of political anarchists, petty criminals and a middle section of semi-politicised disaffected youth—were played gleefully on China Broadcasting’s English-language channel (often as not fronted by former ABC newsreader Edwin Maher).

In August they were joined by images from Britain, as first London and then cities of the North and West erupted with unrest, uprising, rioting. Triggered by the police killing of a black man in a suburb where riots had erupted a quarter century before, they rapidly became something else—fluid, separate breakouts targeting shopping high streets, mixing confrontation with looting. Some of them were kickstarted by professional anarchist activists—someones’s gotta break the first window—but they kicked on as kids from the city’s public housing estates poured into the streets. The riots were a testament both to the postwar Labour settlement—the idea that public housing should commingle with private areas rather than be ghettoised—and the post-1979 abandonment of it, as inequality soared between people living cheek-by-jowl. Thatcherite culture had—unwittingly—elevated personal consumption to the apex of British values; unlike the Reagan revolution, no spiritual dimension partnered the new invitation to define your worth by your wealth.

As the high streets filled with chain stores offering the sort of goods that were as much symbols of meaning as objects of utility, a ghastly social experiment was inaugurated. How long can you sustain a population of millions of people—unemployed, semi-employed, untrained—on the bare means of life offered by benefits, while around them a privileged class enacts the idea that consumption is life? The answer was: until August 2011, when masses of such people attacked not police stations, MPs’ offices or the like, but Footlocker (a shoe chain specialising in trainers) and Currys (a TV/computer/electronics chain). They looted them, then they burnt them down, a double-whammy whose significance would be hard to miss.

Pundits of both Left and Right struggled to assimilate the rioters into a framework. That they related to the cuts—and the sense that even New Labour’s limited attempt to address poverty had been abandoned—was obvious; there had been no riots in Scotland or Wales, where cuts had been limited by regional governments. But the actions had no recognisable political content—even the vestigial one of smashing up a McDonalds. Essentially it was the other of the autonomous processes by which the Western economy was run—any sense of property or propriety had been abolished at the highest levels of the Western economy, well before 2008. In a world where money, production and opportunity are mysterious, inexplicable flows, bearing no relation to work, worth or effort, the looting of one branch of a 300-strong chain store, the removal of goods from China—they may as well be from space—seems a mere continuation of a process. A glass window, in that respect, becomes not a mark of ownership, but a barrier of no reason or right, like the invisible impediments encountered in dreams. Smashing it, in that respect, is a sudden return to the real, a bringing of the impossibly immaterial, skyward trending economy back to earth.

Such an act resonates. Watching it on TV in Hong Kong—the island proper, that charming imperial remnant daily leaching energy, opportunity, life, to Kowloon and Shenzen—it appeared to be, in its inchoate way, a rupture of the same order of Malick’s film. The riots combined protest, criminality and amorality in equal measure, but at their core was the desire to interrupt, to record a dissent from a totalising system, even if those carrying away plasma TVs did not present it to themselves in such a way. From the Tea Party, through the riots, to The Tree of Life, there was a common sense—that this could not go on. The Tea Party’s answer is to retreat so deeply into fantasy as to be lost to dialogue; the rioters were excluded even from the purposeful language of political manifestation of a generation ago. Malick’s film proposes that the breach has occurred within our lifetimes, that the error is not departing from God, or Jefferson, or Hayek—or Keynes for that matter—but from a primordial truth, that we cannot live in the Sky.

China has gathered the twin forces of modernity—the Will of Communism and the Prometheanism of the market—and put itself at the head of humanity in seeking to refute this idea. Malick’s film—journeyed to in a fake cavern, amid manicured and tamed foliage, at the top of an escalator to nowhere—was an argument against such a thing, drawing on an idea of life, of being, sprung from insights prior to modernity’s prejudices and assumptions. Did the times produce it now, this meditation Malick has struggled with for decades? Did they ensure that it would be the first great ‘transcendental film’—cinema that tackles Being in the manner of Dreyer, Bresson, Antonioni—to achieve multiplex success? Does one’s conviction, leaving it, that a social irruption both political and beyond-political may be closer than one had hitherto suspected testify to the power of its rhetoric, or the fatal conceit of revolutionaries, that the absurdity of the present is a guarantee of its imminent crisis? Or is it the world speaking through the artist, opening both creator and audience to a more radical vision than they could otherwise conceive, with all the possibilities that that suggests?



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