A key question for a process-relational account of a film is the question of how that film shows objects and subjects in the process of being made — how it shows subjectivation and objectivation arising together. Much of Ecologies of the Moving Image is about this, but what remains more implicit throughout the book is the way in which film itself expresses subjectivation.
I thought of this while re-watching Up the Yangtze, Yung Chang’s documentary about a “farewell cruise” on the Yangtze River before the completion of the final phase of the Three Gorges Dam.
The film’s lead character is Yu Shui/Cindy, a peasant girl who has just finished middle school and is sent by her family to work on one of these cruise ships. Yu Shui is shown being trained to be an object — a cog in the wheel of global tourism. She is given an English name (Cindy), taught some basic English, and is made to learn how to speak, move, and look, what to say and what not to say as a member of the cruise ship staff, and even how to feel about her work. She is made into an object within the smooth functioning of expanding global capital.
(This objectivation can be more or less successful. In the film, Yu Shui’s transformation into “Cindy” is more successful than Chen Bo Yu’s into “Jerry” — he gets fired from his job for being too eager to profit from the relations of global tourism/capital, too in-your-face about his desire for a good tip.)
The film is, in this sense, a parable of (neoliberal) enclosure. Yu Shui’s peasant family is forced by circumstance — by the flooding of the land on which they’ve lived in a hut, grown food, and eked out a living without participating in the money economy — to move uphill into a more legitimate home, where money is needed for electricity, food, and everything else. This is a physical and bodily process; we see its bodily strains on Yu Shui’s father in particular. And they feel forced to send their eldest daughter to work on the ship rather than allow her to go to high school.
Cindy is also shown being trained into becoming another kind of object: a woman who learns what is expected of her emergent social class (and gender) status in terms of dress, appearance, posture, composure, and so on.
Both of these forms of objectivation enable certain, albeit limited, forms of subjectivation. She looks confident and happy when she is walking in the city with her friend, trying on new clothes in fashionable stores. She doesn’t look happy in her cruise ship training, yet by the end she has adapted somewhat to that as well. The film’s focus on her is very much an account of her efforts at resistance and adaptation (i.e., subjectivation) to circumstances forced upon her (i.e., objectivation).
The film also depicts a landscape that, far from being a mere backdrop or pure landscape object — the thing to gaze at and admire from the ship’s deck — actively overtakes the individuals who are in its way. The flooding of the river is an overcoming of people and places by a “nature” that has been set into motion by global capital (in its Chinese variant).
It is, of course, not nature that is overcoming these individuals (and communities); it is the state-capitalist project of economic globalization. Millions, including the 1.5 million or so forced to relocate by the dam project, are subjected to — made objects of — a global process. This massively distributed objectivation, however, allows for different forms of subjective accommodation — micro-subjectivations within a macro-objectivation. Some become-subject more confidently than others.
So much for becomings-subject and -object within the film. What is equally interesting, however, is how the film itself becomes a subject.
The production of a film is always the production of an object. This is usually pretty obvious to the extent that a film follows formulas of commercial or aesthetic success established by previous films.
It’s the weird objects — the ones that don’t fit the formulaic patterns, but that create new trajectories — that are the interesting ones. These are films that become subjects.
The camera is a subject insofar as it insinuates itself into situations where cameras have not been before or where they are not particularly welcome. In series like Planet Earth and Blue Planet, cameras probe down further into the ocean than ever before. These films engage in what Sean Cubitt calls “the mode of looking that encourages the world’s unmotivated upsurge to well up into us, clasp itself to us, merge with the salt water in our veins.”
In neorealist films (say, by Rossellini, Visconti, or De Sica) and many cinéma vérité or direct cinema documentaries, there is the emergence of a subjectivity that finds and amplifies voices, rendering them visible and audible in ways that they were not previously. (Think of a film like Trouble the Water, about the New Orleans of Hurricane Katrina.) In avant-garde films (like those of Stan Brakhage or Jean Cocteau), the subjectivation is even more original: a new seeing, a new hearing, a new synthesis of the seen-felt-heard.
In Up the Yangtze, the filmmakers apparently did not get permission to film from Chinese authorities; they just went ahead and filmed. And they found subjects within the massive object that is the Three Gorges Dam (an object that is a subject, a subjectivation of global capital). The subjectivity of Yu Shui and her family as presented in the film, however, is not equivalent to the subjectivity of those people in “real life.” It is a new subjectivity, one that emerges out of the mixing together of these lives, the film crew with its cameras and equipment, the images of the dam being built, the water rising, people moving or being relocated, and so on.
It is a subjectivity that arises as a result of the insertion of the apparatus of cinema — cameras, microphones, recording devices, equipment and its handlers, framing and narrative conventions, directors and camera operators and sound crews, editors, fundraisers, marketers, distributors, movie screens and festivals, and so on — into the relations between people, places, landscapes, animals, ecologies, and technologies.
Cinema’s becoming a subject is in cinema’s nature. It is what film was made to do, even as it becomes an object. It is a subjectivity that the film makes available and presents to audiences, which in turn move it further in directions that are not always the intended ones. It is a subjectivity that is multiplied and redistributed as filming capacities and viewing venues — digital cameras and smart phones, YouTube and Vimeo, and the rest — increase in a digital world.
And in better hands, film/cinema subjectivates more radically, more interestingly, and more beautifully.