Reading lists, conversations, and other texts
Reading lists, conversations, and other texts
Trinh T. Minh-ha Film Club #2: The Fourth Dimension (2001)July 9th, 2020
hosted by Shaelyn Hanes and Emily Markert
hosted by Shaelyn Hanes and Emily Markert
The Trinh T. Minh-ha Film Club is a weekly viewing party to screen one of Trinh’s films, with shared materials that help us understand and appreciate it, whether a passage from a piece of literature, a video clip, or a text that addresses Trinh’s work directly.
As we watch, we have a live discussion about how our research relates to the film and highlight points of interest. Viewers are invited to join the discussion in the live chat or simply watch. Through our conversation, we identify motifs that carry us to the following week’s film.
1:09 Shaelyn Hanes: Hi I’m Shaelyn. I’m a second year graduate student in CCA’s Curatorial Practice Program and one of the Wattis Curatorial Fellows.
1:38 Emily Markert: Hello! I’m Emily. I’m also in the Curatorial Practice graduate program and work alongside Shaelyn as a Curatorial Fellow.
2:15 CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts: In order to follow along with our commentary, please make sure your chat window is displaying the "Live Chat" instead of "Top Chat."
2:41 CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts: If you have a comment or question at any time, feel free to join the conversation. You will need to be logged in with your YouTube or Gmail account to do so.
[FILM BEGINS AT 4:02]
4:43 Emily Markert: This documentary film portrays Japan in 2001, in which tradition and the ultra-modern coexist.
5:00: Shaelyn Hanes: On the surface, The Fourth Dimension is a documentary about Japanese culture.
5:11 Shaelyn Hanes: However, Trinh uses this form as a way to address technology’s mediation in our lives, our relationship with time, and the role ritual plays in developing a sense of identity.
5:19 Shaelyn Hanes: In Trinh’s words, the “subject is not exactly Japan or Japanese culture, but the Image of Japan as mediated by the experience of “dilating and sculpting time” with a digital machine vision.”
5:44 Emily Markert: Trinh shot the footage while working as a visiting professor at the Institute for Gender Studies of Ochanomizu University.
5:59 Emily Markert: She had been to Japan four times before, but this was her longest and “most intense” visit to date.
6:16 Emily Markert: In 2001, she mentioned in an interview that she shot this footage while researching for “a fiction film I'm working on" - presumably this was to become Night Passage (2004).
6:24 Emily Markert: (Night Passage was our subject last week.)
6:30 Shaelyn Hanes: This is a haiku by Matsuo Bashō, a 17th century Japanese haiku master. This haiku will appear again later in the film.
6:51 Emily Markert: Trinh was born in Hanoi, Vietnam and has been based in the United States since 1970.
7:00 Emily Markert: By narrating this documentary in her own voice, she is able to question her authority as a non-Japanese person ostensibly appropriating images of Japanese culture.
7:14 Emily Markert: Trinh has spoken and written extensively on this precarious position. About The Fourth Dimension specifically, she explained:
7:19 Emily Markert: “When you decide to speak nearby, rather than speak about, the first thing you need to do is to acknowledge the possible gap between you and those who populate your film…in other words, to leave the space of representation open so that, although you’re very close to your subject, you’re also committed to not speaking on their behalf, in their place or on top of them. Such an approach gives freedom to both sides and this may account for it being taken up by filmmakers who recognize in it a strong ethical stance.”
8:35 Shaelyn Hanes Similar to Night Passage, The Fourth Dimension is a film that situates itself between fiction, documentary, and experimental film.
8:44 Shaelyn Hanes: While the improvised scenes in Night Passage constituted the documentary, Trinh notes that The Fourth Dimension is intended to be a documentary of time. She writes:
8:51 Shaelyn Hanes: “The documentary aspect…has less to do with the nonstaged nature of the material shot than with the process of documenting its own unfolding: it documents its own time, its creation in megahertz, the different paths and layers of time-light that are involved in the production of images and meanings.”
10:21 Emily Markert: You may associate the term “fourth dimension” with math or physics. Trinh describes “the fourth dimension of cinema” as time, not just in terms of the length of a film, but in the film’s content.
10:28 Emily Markert: This film in particular layers “musical, historical, sociopolitical time, as well as...the time of festivities, of traveling, of witnessing, and of viewing,” for example.
10:36 Shaelyn Hanes: Trinh also notes that in the context of spiritual practice, “the fourth dimension” can refer to the dimension of light within (not in opposition to) darkness.
10:53 Shaelyn Hanes: Darkness was a theme addressed in Night Passage, as well.
12:27 Shaelyn Hanes: There are two main “characters” in The Fourth Dimension, which correlate with the most powerful rhythms Trinh experienced while living in Japan.
12:36 Shaelyn Hanes: These are: “the train, as it regulates time (the time of traveling and of viewing); and the drum, as it is the beat of (our) life (significantly played by women in the film).”
12:47 Emily Markert: In Night Passage, we see the female protagonist travel through space and time on a train while she is dreaming. Is this sleeping woman dreaming of her own fantastical train ride?
13:54 CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts: By the way, if you've just joined us, you can skip back to the beginning of this stream to watch the film from the start. You’ll still see our ongoing chat, though.
14:01 Shaelyn Hanes: Notice how Trinh emphasizes “the lightness and portability of the camera” in this shot and throughout the film, calling attention to the process of production.
14:06 Shaelyn Hanes: Speaking of The Fourth Dimension, she notes that “the movement of a camera carried on the shoulder is very different from that of a camera held in the palm of one’s hand.”
15:46 Emily Markert: Japan’s "bullet" trains, the Shinkansen, are emblematic of the rapid and unprecedented technological and economic development that has taken place there since World War II.
15:56 Emily Markert: The first Shinkansen tracks opened in 1964.
18:08 Emily Markert: Part of Trinh’s goal with this film was to “locate rites and rituals not only in the obvious places, in festivals and ceremonies, but also in everyday life.”
18:20 Emily Markert: As we oscillate between public spaces and private interiors, consider how the word “ritual” applies to the various scenes.
20:12 Emily Markert: Some other questions to consider in scenes like this one include: Who is the true audience of this performance--who are they performing for? What does it mean for Trinh to be filming it?
21:35 Emily Markert: The red squares overlaid here represent the multiplicity of both conceptual and visual framing Trinh witnessed in Japan.
21:42 Emily Markert: In one example, she described her observations of Japanese doors and openings as: “You come to someone’s home...they proceed to slide the partition doors in intricate shifts of rights and lefts and middles, and shuttling in front of you are at least four or five framings of the outdoor garden.”
24:38 Emily Markert: Japanese bullfighting is called "togyu"!
26:28 Shaelyn Hanes: Notice how Trinh speaks in rhythm with the movements of the train in this scene.
26:34 Shaelyn Hanes: Rhythm is a key element of this film, with Trinh working “with uneven and heterogeneous speeds, rather than with a homogenized space of linear time.”
28:37 Shaelyn Hanes: Trinh uses ritual as a way of slowing down time and encouraging her viewer to “step out of the one-dimensional, technologically servile mind.”
28:42 Shaelyn Hanes: These rituals are intended to mark the boundary between past / present, light / dark, outside / inside, form / content.
28:48 Shaelyn Hanes: Trinh encourages us to enter this boundary and experience “something that opens both ways and allows you simultaneously entrance and exit.”
28:53 Shaelyn Hanes: This boundary is one of many meanings of “the fourth dimension” for Trinh.
29:05 Emily Markert: Boundaries, dichotomies, and binaries are interrogated throughout this film, just as they are in Night Passage.
29:19 Emily Markert: In the latter, the protagonists constantly cross between the train and the private spaces occupied by the other characters. Their journey is shrouded in ambiguity (darkness).
29:27 Emily Markert: In this film, Trinh is like those protagonists.
30:56 Emily Markert: These scenes and the narration points to how rituals can be used as a frame “whose stabilizing effect, experienced through repetition in cycles and in rhythmic recurrences allows us to see things with a different intensity.”
32:24 Shaelyn Hanes: In Night Passage, we saw Trinh revealing the material means of production of the sound of the film. In The Fourth Dimension, we see her pointing to the creative process of filmmaking.
32:29 Shaelyn Hanes: Notice the layered shapes and colors on top of the image and the presence of colors such as this pink square, or bright red and green alongside one another.
32:35 Shaelyn Hanes: Trinh uses these tactics to call our attention to the moiré pattern of the video screen.
34:05 VIEWER: Can't wait for "Noh time"
34:23 Emily Markert Us too, us too
34:32 Emily Markert: If our modern society is like a train, what does this mean for the linearity of our lives?
34:47 Emily Markert: It is valuable to consider the context in which The Fourth Dimension was released: April 2001.
34:57 Emily Markert: Reflecting in 2002, Trinh commented: “We are constantly running for fear that if we stop, time may catch up with us. It’s only in extreme situations, as with the recent 9/11 event, that suddenly the arrow of time loses its forward-only linearity to take on a multi-spiral course.”
37:30 Emily Markert: It's Noh time!
37:37 Shaelyn Hanes: Here again, we see Trinh using color layered on top of the image as a way of drawing our attention to the texture of the screen.
37:50 Emily Markert: Noh is a form of classical Japanese dance-drama dating back to the 14th century.
37:54 Emily Markert: Traditionally, the stage is open save for a roof, to create a sense of shared experience between the audience and performers.
38:00 Emily Markert: Here, the color block does the opposite, as if asking: is it possible to view traditional artforms through anything but our 21st century lens?
38:41 Emily Markert: Rituals as depicted in The Fourth Dimension represent both conformity and freedom. For Trinh, even youth rave culture is characterized as a kind of “tribalism.”
38:49 Emily Markert: “We can’t see into the other face of rituals when we indulge in divisive realities and compartmentalized knowledge...To ignore, to isolate, to naturalize or to take for granted the very rituals that define our activities would amount to letting conformity reign.”
40:07 Emily Markert: The dichotomy between “guest” and “host” Trinh describes here relates to the binaries or boundaries we mentioned earlier.
40:18 Emily Markert: Not only does “guest” and “host” describe Trinh’s own presence in Japan creating The Fourth Dimension, but it also describes filmmaking itself.
40:25 Emily Markert: The medium and the maker act as both host and guest in relation to the content of footage of Japan.
40:36 Emily Markert: There is a constant pull between care and control in this relationship, as with the relationship between a guest and a host in a private home.
40:50 Emily Markert: There is a connection here to speed, too. Visitors, especially “tourists,” often don’t want to “take the time” to understand the boundaries and traditions of the space they have entered.
42:19 Shaelyn Hanes: For some Japanese novelists, “the fourth dimension” is used in reference to a “dimension of reality not immediately perceptible through ‘normal’ sight.”
42:25 Shaelyn Hanes: One must lose their “normal eye” in order to experience this fourth dimension.
42:54 VIEWER: There are many zooms in and out in the video and I am curious about this. Slow and fast zooms.
43:55 Shaelyn Hanes: Yes! This demonstrates Trinh's interest in the portable digital camera. We will see her use this as a way of emphasizing its lightness and the space between tradition and modernity.
44:17 Shaelyn Hanes: Trinh’s approach to slowness is not opposed to speed, for “stillness contains speed and determines its quality.”
44:27 Shaelyn Hanes: Considering this in relation to the digital, Trinh writes, “Speed at its best in digital imaging is still speed. The speed of a flower mind.”
45:08 Shaelyn Hanes: Here is an example of Trinh using the mobility of the handheld camera to trace shots “between two realms that are habitually conceived as separate” by panning between the scene of traditional performance and the surrounding modern crowd, many of whom watch with digital cameras in hand.
47:55 Emily Markert: I find this music particularly beautiful. We will talk more about the musicality of this film shortly.
48:31 Shaelyn Hanes: The torii gate symbolically marks the transition from the mundane to the sacred.
48:38 Shaelyn Hanes: Consider this in relation to how Trinh describes ritual as marking a boundary and allowing one to step into a revolving door between entrance and exit.
49:52 Emily Markert: The script of The Fourth Dimension reveals that Trinh’s narration consists largely of quotations from writers and thinkers from throughout history, most of which are not cited like this one.
49:57 Emily Markert: Trinh also weaves quotations and allusions into Night Passage in this subtle way.
50:55 Shaelyn Hanes: Trinh uses slowness throughout this film in a way that is both subversive and rooted in her working process with the digital. She writes:
51:00 Shaelyn Hanes: “In times of coercive politics and transnational terror, slowing down so as to learn to listen anew is a necessity. For me this is particularly relevant, as I turn to digital systems in my last two films, The Fourth Dimension and Night Passage. For the question is not so much to produce a new image as to provoke, to facilitate and to solicit a new seeing.”
53:12 Emily Markert: This explicit focus on “Women’s Time” speaks to Trinh’s interest in and study of feminist theory.
53:18 Emily Markert: For more on this, consider consulting her important book entitled Woman, Native, Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism.
53:38 Shaelyn Hanes: Trinh writes that “Women’s Time” potentially defines Japan’s Time by finding space “in the heart of an insular culture” for “invisible narrators...uneven times and odd rhythms.”
55:20 Emily Markert: Consider that much of the music in this film is being performed in front of us, rather than playing as a score on top of the footage.
1:00:17 Emily Markert: Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694) is quoted multiple times in The Fourth Dimension and is a major historical and literary figure.
1:00:21 Emily Markert: He is best known for his haiku poems and collaborative renku, which contain many linked haikai verses.
1:00:32 Emily Markert: Bashō walked and wrote about the world he observed. He was more interested in communicating an experience than obeying the rules of the poetic form.
1:00:40 Emily Markert: One could describe Trinh’s approach to documentary filmmaking in this same way.
1:00:51 Emily Markert: Additionally, Trinh has written extensively about walking as it relates to bodily experiences of time and history, as well as performing presence or knowledge.
1:02:13 Shaelyn Hanes: This scene demonstrates what Trinh has identified as the “three textual layers” of her work – the visual text, the musical text, and the verbal text.
1:02:20 Shaelyn Hanes: Of the verbal text, she notes further layers: one that relates to the subject (here, Japan) and one that speaks to “the unfolding process of producing images and meanings.”
1:02:26 Shaelyn Hanes: This way of speaking allows Trinh to speak to the “how” of the scene rather than the “what.” She writes: “And by doing so, it questions its own politics of representation and positions the filmmaker. I’m constantly exposing where I stand.”
1:02:55 Emily Markert: Breaking the fourth wall... but documentary-style
1:04:50 Emily Markert: This film predates social media, but what Trinh describes here sounds very much like a description of the function of social media to me.
1:07:39 Shaelyn Hanes: This portion of the film, which consists mostly of voyeuristic scenes of both banal and extraordinary events without Trinh’s narration, exemplifies her use of images as an unfolding “time-form (that) allow us to experience not motion, but time as a form of its own.”
1:08:31 Emily Markert: Whenever Japanese is spoken in The Fourth Dimension, we are invited to consider its musicality by hearing its rhythm and undulations, rather than simply understanding its meaning.
1:08:36 Emily Markert: Trinh has said: “Although my films can all be said to be music of the eye, [The Fourth Dimension] stands out for me both as a spectrum of time and a musical latticework.”
1:08:50 Emily Markert: The character of Aunt Wolf in Night Passage also represents Trinh’s interest in the musicality of language and how the body acts as a musical instrument to create it.
1:10:07 Emily Markert: Suddenly, this both looks and sounds much more like a traditional documentary.
1:10:13 Emily Markert: Of course, Trinh often eschews this categorization of her films as she prefers to locate her work across categories and boundaries; in a space of multiplicity.
1:13:03 Shaelyn Hanes: Trinh places her tactic of “speaking nearby” within Frantz Fanon’s three phases of colonized cultural identity, as outlined in his book, The Wretched of the Earth.
1:13:10 Shaelyn Hanes: She writes, “…with, across and in between: it is the phase of struggle. You can borrow the master’s tools, as long as you know that you are merely borrowing for strategic purposes.”
1:13:17 Shaelyn Hanes: While Japan was never colonized, this framework relates to her analysis of Japan’s relationship to the West.
1:15:45 Emily Markert: Trinh’s use of “essential” here to describe the workers who are “natives, exiled, and immigrants discriminated against” feels especially potent from our current vantage point, especially in the US.
1:15:59 Emily Markert: The Covid-19 pandemic has disproportionately impacted marginalized communities who often hold jobs sometimes described as “unskilled labor” and now deemed “essential.”
1:18:14 Emily Markert: The Fourth Dimension is exactly 86 minutes 40 seconds long as this was, in 2001, the longest time acceptable for a mainstream TV broadcast in the US.
1:18:24 Emily Markert: This was a tongue-in-cheek decision on Trinh’s part as the film centers on our obsession with efficiency, mobility, and speed.
1:18:38 VIEWER: Noh times two, noh?
1:19:33 Shaelyn Hanes: Indeed! Here Trinh juxtaposes modernity with tradition by inlaying a scene of Noh theater, the oldest surviving form of Japanese theatre, on top of the linear journey along a train track.
1:19:42 Shaelyn Hanes: This also speaks to her interest in the screen as it relates to life, performance, and film.
1:25:32 Emily Markert: The Japanese word “ma” is often translated as negative space. However, ma is better understood as a space (physical or conceptual) in which dissimilar things can co-exist.
1:25:40 Emily Markert: Here we can think of it in terms of 21st century Japan and our conceptions of it.
1:25:49 Emily Markert: The Fourth Dimension asks us to see Japan’s many dimensions and “to recognize the multiplicity of times at work in any single moment of the journey.”
1:29:08 CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts: Thank you for joining us! Visit wattis.org to learn more about this film and Night Passage. Next week we stream "A Tale of Love."