Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Reflections on Time's people of the year

By Michael J.W. Stickings

As you've probably heard by now, Time's Person of the Year for 2008 is, as was fully expected and as is richly deserved, Barack Obama. Seriously, did anyone even come close this year?

The runners-up are an interesting bunch: Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Chinese film director Zhang Yimou, and someone named Sarah Palin.

It's far too early to assess Paulson's impact, though there's no denying his influence on the political and economic landscape not just of the U.S. but of the world. I'm not sure who this "Sarah Palin" is (for some reason, if I think back through the year that was, what comes to mind is a nagging cold sore), but Sarkozy certainly deserves to be on the list, having emerged, perhaps improbably, as Europe's leading statesman, and Zhang, the artist behind the spectacular Beijing Olympics opening ceremony, is a suitably ecclectic selection. (The piece at Time on Zhang is by Spielberg.)

On Zhang, I must admit that I'm not as much of a fan anymore. Once upon a time, back in the early '90s, when he was making Ju Dou, Raise the Red Lantern (which I would put on my list of the greatest films of all time -- a chillingly powerful masterpiece), The Story of Qiu Ju, and To Live (a brilliant journey through modern China), I thought he was one of cinema's finest directors, a bold and courageous voice speaking out, often through historical parable to avoid the censors, against tyranny and brutality, and specifically against the tyranny and brutality of his country's totalitarian regime.

But then he started making more crowd-pleasing epic entertainments like Hero, House of Flying Daggers, and Curse of the Golden Flower. All three are magnificently beautiful movies, and all three are profoundly engaging, but, somewhere, the voice of protest and resistance was lost. Hero, like his earlier films, can be read as a defence of the individual against the state, but, ultimately, the message is that the glory of China, the glory so celebrated at the Olympics this year, requires the sacrifice of the individual to and/or by the state. The Curse of the Golden Flower, a fascinating mixture of Machiavelli and Shakespeare that may be too gorgeous for its own good (in a way, the movie equivalent of the gorgeous Gong Li, Zhang's frequent leading lady), ends on a similar note, with resistance utterly defeated by a brutal tyrant. Are there parables in there? Sure. But whatever parables there are are overwhelmed by the sheer spectacle of it all, the old Zhang vanquished by the new one, the protest replaced by unabashed nationalism, a celebration of the past, present, and future glory of China, with Zhang become one of its leading artistic cheerleaders -- for what was the opening ceremony in Beijing but nationalist cheerleading?

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