Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Jia Zhang Ke's The World and Some Thoughts on Tourism

Seeing Jia Zhang ke's The World last week made me realize once more why I feel so ambivalent about tourism. First a few words about the film. The film is set in a real-life theme park at the outskirts of Beijing which houses scaled replicas of famous monuments of the world - Eiffel Tower, Leaning tower of Pisa, Taj Mahal etc. The loose narrative follows a bunch of characters as they go on with their daily job of creating and sustaining the required effect of hyperreality, simulacra and spectacle. Girls for example wear traditional Indian skirt and blouse and dance in front of Taj Mahal to the tunes of popular music. (Pretty weird, it actually made my head spin. Jia uses a tune from the classic movie Disco Dancer. I believe it was this song.) There are very few dramatic moments but even in its quiet and understated way it makes its point about slow erosion of identity and authenticity and the toll it takes on interpersonal relationships very emphatically. "The World" becomes a living metaphor for the thriving capitalist society itself. Matter of fact dialogues acquire ironic meanings. For example when they tell each other that "I am going to India" while knowing that they are not free to go anywhere. All they have is the illusion of the real.

It also made me think about the nature of tourism, at least the kind which is sold over the counter in ready-made packages. (Paris in seven days, India in two weeks!) Entire places and entire culture is reduced to a few symbols and monuments completely decontextualized and turned into products so that they can be marketed and sold to the consumers. Paris for example becomes synonymous with Eiffel Tower and a bunch of other things. There is a specific term in Marxist theory for this called Reification. Tourism is a major driving force behind this cultural reification, which is actually one of the hallmarks of advanced capitalist societies. The most extreme manifestations of this reification phenomena are the so-called theme parks, the very idea of which I find insulting. It is not that I have never indulged in vicarious pleasures myself and taken delight in things I know are simulated and false, but this is of an entirely different magnitude.

I don't want to give rationalized justifications for my own apartment-bound existence. There is also a different kind of tourism which is motivated by curiosity and eagerness to learn about the culture and discover new things, a tourism which is more authentic and less superficial, which is not just a series of tick marks on the discovery channel travel guide (saw this, done that kind).

A nice review from Village Voice and the trailer of the film:

10 comments:

puccinio said...

''The World'' by the way is a leading candidate for best picture of this decade. It's a great film, I saw it in a theatre and it was absolutely beautiful. Although I think ''Yi-Yi'' should be number one since it was the last film of a great artist, but then Ingmar Bergman's angry ''Saraband'' should be there as well.

Tourism is(and I'm surprised it took you so long to figure out) a huge joke to anyone with a proper sense. Like America promotes Grand Canyon, Statue of Liberty and the Washington Statues as it's monuments and promotes Mt. Rushmore heavily(personally I prefer the Mt. Rushmore in ''North by Northwest'') and so on and so forth. But people are more interested in say New Orleans, Bunker Hill, Brooklyn, Broadway or simply the famous places their favourite movies are shot. Like everybody loves to go on the ''Vertigo'' tour in San Francisco.

Basically it's a world where the image, not even the image but more the plastic figurine of the original is valued more than the real thing. That's the world today really, one of the most decadent cultures in history.

Tati caught the sentiments far earlier in ''Play Time'' which is about the world becoming an airport where the places you depart is just like the place you arrive. But then Tati has a wonderful love for human beings since he believed their endless stupidity ensured an abundance of creative possibilities. Which is why ''Play Time'' despite it's melancholic undertone is a very optimistic film. I don't get the same thing out of ''The World'' though which seems very sad to me somehow.

Madhuri said...

Thats a great excuse for your love of the apartment :) Made me give a thought to the merit of travel - which is too much coming from me, since I simply adore traveling. Though I don't hold the commercialization of tourism in high spirit, I do believe it has made some places accessible to people who want to travel. Its true that much of what is publicized is the 1-2 week iconic tour (because it is more popular, as people do not have the time to know a culture and mostly think of travel as a leisure activity than any lesson in culture), the influx of tourism has given in-roads to rarely-heard-of places, and at affordable rates. And even for the packages, if one s sensible enough to chose the right number of destinations, the package can be a good capsule to begin with and put you on that hunt for more.
Also, Paris is synonymous with Eiffel tower - you can see almost the whole city from there, and you can see it from almost any part of the city when the lights go on. It is what epitomizes the city, and deserves to be the beginning point.

Alok said...

puccinio: I agree. Tourism is just one aspect of the whole "Society of the Spectacle" that we live in. Places like Paris and New York are even okay since they have an identity outside what tourism industry manufactures for them but what about smaller places whose identity have been completely subsumed by an artificial and commercialised idea? What about people there who have to work only to keep this false sense of illusion alive? This is collective objectification of an entire culture on a mass scale. In a sense this is no different from other sectors of global capitalist economy. If something can be commodified, then it will be because otherwise you are forgoing a chance to make a profit. The fact that tourism has become such an important driver of wealth redistribution in our time speaks more about the inbuilt injustices of capitalism rather than any virtue of tourism.

Also nice of you to remind of Tati. That is one of my favourite films. I agree the film really shows his faith in human beings specially the skill and creativity with which they negotiate life in an environment which has become more and more inhuman, artificial and alienating. I just had a good laugh thinking about the doorman who keeps holding the handle after the door of the restaurant has been broken. Lol!!

madhuri: Like I mentioned I only singled out a purely commercialized version of tourism and the tourists who behave like braindead and cashrich consumers. I agree because of economies of scale, you have better chances of discovering a place which would have been inaccesible before or as said it is vital for many local economies also. But at the end I think the onus is on the consumers themselves... that they look for deep and lasting experiences rather than shallow guided tours, passively consuming whatever sights and sounds they are fed.

at the fundamental level it is the idea of experience itself. some people think it is like something you can catalogue in a diary (done this, done that, been there, saw that). that is to me triviliazing of self. Going to a new place gives us an opportunity to find a new grounding for thought and feeling and that can result in a a genuine experience. But how many of those tourists really think about these things. The problem is that if they really do, these business people have to work harder for the same thing.

/* End of Rant :) */

Kubla Khan said...

What do you think of the weary man, or men, in times past, who left for unknown encounters, some mystical and some magical?
there are many here, who leave for a nirvana tourism, a package filled with promises of bliss, usually for India or elsewhere, a travel driven by loss for loss. i dislike that tourist the most, trivializing the entire religious ethos of a culture, as if solace lies there, waiting to be garnered in a jiffy. Oh, i found it different, they say then, it was hot.
what do you expect? one should say perhaps, soul's fever is always hot.
This kind of traveler is so odious too.

Alok said...

Kubla: There might be genuine seekers in our time too. I don't know about spirituality and nirvana but visiting the "real" India for the first time can be quite an experience for western man :) The key is to search for authenticity in experience and not compromise with easy solutions and cheap solace sold over the counter. An ideal traveller and a genuine seeker in our time would be someone like W.G. Sebald, someone who uses the defamiliarization and novel sensory experiences that comes with travelling as starting points for a much deeper discovery and search for lasting truth.

Alok said...

If you have some time to waste, you can listen to a nice audio discussion of a travel book called Eat, Pray, Love which has been on the bestseller list in the US for more than a year. One woman tries to find consolation after a broken marriage by touring Italy, India and Bali. This is the kind of idiotic gibberish that gets on my nerves. It is not just irredeemably corrupt and cynical but also deeply immoral in its shameless narcissism - the whole culture reduced to a few bits and bytes for the sole purpose of consoling your soppy heart.

Szerelem said...

Nice post Alok.

I do understand your rant about commercialised tourism. It's a very weird phenomenon, especially with tour groups, etc. Though I do think it's very difficult these days to even take the time of truly travel...It is easier to go to a place and see the 'main highlights' - after all they are attractions for a reason.

I do think travel is an amazing eye opener and a great way to learn - but it depensd on your being open to looking beyond the cliches that the tourism industry has set up. Many people don't.

Going to a new place gives us an opportunity to find a new grounding for thought and feeling and that can result in a a genuine experience. But how many of those tourists really think about these things.
Like I said, I really agree with this. I would hope to think that I am one of those people who does think about such things!

Madhuri said...

There are catalogers in every sphere - people do that even in movies they watch and books they read. That doesn't make these activities ridiculous. Same way, such people do not make traveling ridiculous. There are bestselling craps churned out by authors and there are bestselling tours churned out by travel operators. The majority of people pursuing anything do it with profound shallowness. As you said, the onus is on the individual to have a meaningful experience.

Though I must say, looking for meaning and thought in everything you do could be harmful/joy-killer. Sometimes, you should just let the baser senses take over and enjoy what's in front.

Alok said...

madhuri: I know and agree with the sentiments expressed in your last line :) Now only if I can find some way to shut down my braincells which trouble me so much!

szerlem: you don't have to worry. you are already an honorary cultural ambassador of so many different countries!

Szerelem said...

So many different countries?? I thought it was only the one!