C i n e m a   C i t y

Cinema City is made up of two distinct but intimately connected elements: a miniature architectural system / cinema complex or model cinema structure complete with working visual displays, and a series of seventy neatly executed watercolour paintings representing key moments from highly influential Japanese films. Each of these two central features may in their turn be further dissembled, at least conceptually, into their component parts. It is indeed within and between these complex constituents that the multiple, critical resonances of Cinema City can be observed and recognised. [1]

In the centre of the work resides the "cinema city" itself, a miniaturised multi-screen cinema upon the screens of which are visible a variety of individuals, each caught up in the act of engaging with a key work of Japanese cinema.[2] Framing in shot only the portraits of the participating watchers, attention is focused on the facial expressions and other physically visible responses made by these people in reaction to the films they are watching. What we as outsiders cannot see, however, but which considerably extends the critical loop of the viewing scenario is that the films' audiences are viewing not only a given classic of Japanese cinema but, on a second screen, their own postures and poses as they consume the chosen filmic image. A live video display captures for the viewers their own response, relaying it directly to them. Thus we, as observers of Cinema City, witness a contained double observation, see the watchers simultaneously watching both themselves and the selected film. Chosen as a foreground to a perhaps exhaustive "lexicon" of viewing responses: we witness on the faces and in the acts of these recursive observers laughter, sadness, fear and insecurity, excitement, sexual engagement or, conversely, a boredom-induced drift into indifference or even sleep as their own attention, be it intense or passive, is returned to them within the arranged relay.

As Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto and other scholars have emphasised, Japanese cinema holds a key place in the history and institutionalisation of cinematic practice and of film studies. [3] It occupies the paradoxical territory of, on the one hand, an oppositional genre, a refusal of Western (i.e. dominant) filmic conventions and, on the other, provides a culturally specific filmic mode, self-contained, a unified practice with neither need nor inclination to gain its validation from, or accumulate the praises of Western critics or other members of the Western filmic institution. Furthermore, with respect to the academic discipline of film studies Japanese cinema occupies a unique place. As Yoshimoto remarks:

The success of film studies as a newly emerging discipline was inseparable from a certain spirit of contestation in the 1960s against the way knowledge was produced in the traditional humanities...The radical critics of the late 1960s and early 1970s turned to film to question the ideological underpinnings of what was considered as constituting "scholarly seriousness". The study of Japanese cinema did not remain outside this trend of theoretical radicalization.[4]

More particularly, it was Japanese cinema which constituted one of the prime objects of study within the new discipline of film studies, to the degree that without its presence this new discipline would not have materialised at all. Given this specificity of position the selection of the genre may be seen to be anything but arbitrary. Its double positioning as a force in opposition to, but also independent of Western filmic norms give it an ambiguous status. It is both within and exterior to the established frame, reliant upon, because it apparently opposes it, Western film, but simultaneously and intractably, other.

Surrounding the miniaturised city the watercolours offer another "take" upon the materials described above, whilst realigning their already multiple implications and meanings. Their juxtaposition with the cinematic structure raises several questions about representation and its repercussions in contemporary culture. The medium of watercolour may be called traditional, unadventurous, a kind of academic practice not normally aligned with novel ways of seeing. Yet it is this very conventionality that acts as a kind of distancing device, one through which we might consider the still young medium of cinema in a different light. Having picked seventy key moments from the vast body of work that is "Japanese cinema", watercolours have been made which, if read as a potential narrative, give to the viewer a kind of shorthand model of a possible but as yet unrealised cinematic project, a cinema of cinema, as it were. And, paralleling the double-edged presence of Japanese film, the ambiguity of watercolour as a "high culture" yet "amateur" art form echoes what is both most problematic and productive about cinema from Japan. Watercolour painting is a sophisticated, difficult medium to master but it is also the first and most obvious choice for would-be artists, a relatively cheap and accessible field of effects. Its necessary tools, the brushes and paints and papers, are easy to obtain and transport, its apparently fantastic effects at least in principle open to all.

To place work in watercolour - the very model of a tradition recognised by all but mastered, in actuality, by only the few - next to a miniature cinema complex employing state-of-the-art digital technology is a thought provoking move. Is film, especially when transferred to the even more modern medium of video, a new version of watercolour painting for contemporary culture? Have the technologies of film and video rendered watercolour painting, with its cumbersome conventionalities of the hand-made layering of colour and line, irrelevant, a merely nostalgic method of representation? Or is it that the new media can't compete with - or at least not entirely overthrow - the accumulated strength and historical power of the hand-painted image? Perhaps it is even possible to claim that the aesthetics of cinema still somehow cling to those long established within painting, forever doomed to repeat these forms of looking and of thinking about how we might represent the world we occupy. The decision to repeat in watercolour only those film instants already photographically frozen, reproduced via the camera and printed in books and magazines, itself encourages further pause for thought. The "disordered ordering" of the relationship between film still and its painted representation disrupt any potentially "neat" readings of the mediums under discussion, throwing standard ideas of chronologically-determined influence into doubt.

Taken as a whole, the multiple parts of Cinema City act as a spectacular mesh of mirrors,
the piece being a compositionally ordered construct in which notions of fixity, direction and directness of viewing are deconstructed, "deranged", and then reassembled; in fact this process is an ongoing one within the work, as though the piece is a restless machine committed to the making and remaking of meaning.

If Cinema City is, as it should be, regarded as a model not only of the cinematic apparatus but also of the lived city itself, then this feature is further emphasised by the means to power the apparatus as a whole. Digital video disc players require electricity to run them and this is supplied in an unusual, though intriguing and pertinent way. Attached to the video players are cables connected to a number of solar panels, devices which transform the energy that is natural light into the energy that causes the players to operate, the videos to roll, the images to constitute themselves on the screen and be seen. In using solar panels as the energy source the city of the title is truly autonomous, completely self-supporting in its electrical existence. As with conventional cinema light is the central element here. Light itself, in cinema, is truly the medium of its existence; with the solar panels as power source light is again emphasised as a necessary feature of the work's operation.

Such autonomy is a telling analogy, provocatively pointing to issues of social autonomy within the broader cultural context. The cinema cannot be separated from the industrial, urban environment in which it developed. It is truly integrated within the contingencies of Modernist culture, and whether it can survive intact within the present or future analytical climate remains to be seen. In this respect, Cinema City may be in part an archive of the problems of history. Forcing the viewer to look into the very nature of the cinematic gaze and its attendant cultural representations, Cinema City is, finally, an "irreducible" work: an examination of cinema and its multiple subjects, an archive, a clashing of visual codes, technologies and cultures, an analysis of art, power and representation.


1. It is a truism to observe that Japan is a highly traditional culture which has, since World War 2, undergone rapid and intense modernisation. Thus, the contrast between traditional and modern forms of representation brought out in Cinema City is not
without historical relevance. Miniaturisation is also a culturally loaded issue. See, for example O-Young Lee, The Compact Culture: The Japanese Tradition of "Smaller is Better", Kodansha, 1994.

2. Wong's project utilises a number of portable digital videodisc players whose small screens become the cinema screens within the realised piece. The individual video sequences are fifteen minutes long.
At the conclusion of each sequence a well-known Japanese song, the lyrics of which refer to the winding down of a clock, that is to the conclusion, death, or end of an era, can be clearly heard. The watercolors in some cases relate directly to the films being watched by the recorded participants. They might be read as forming the landscape in which the city is located.

3. For a survey of Western critical reactions to Japanese Cinema see Yoshimoto's Kurosawa: Film Studies and Japanese Cinema, Duke University Press, 2000, especially pp. 7 - 49.

4. Yoshimoto, op. cit., p. 19.

A text by Peter Suchin / Steven Wong