Courtesy of Kanopy

July 1, 2024

FATTAL | The Feeling of Falling Uphill: Production Codes, Journeys and Destinations

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What keeps you up at night?

It’s like that dream where you show up to school and you’re wearing nothing but your underwear. Somehow, some way, you got to school, made it to the classroom — at one point you had the agency, some decision had to have been made. But now you’re here, and the agency you once had guided you to a place where choice has been lost. You are naked in front of the school. 

It’s like Hunter S. Thompson’s broken wave — a recognition that to surf, to succeed in the world, necessitates knowing that the wave will break and recede and disappear. It’s like that stupid goddamn Phoebe Bridgers lyric — I get this feeling / whenever I feel good / it’ll be the last time. 

Maybe I’m just adhering to the laws of gravity: what comes up must come down. Maybe it’s my way of recognition that those things — each of those accomplishments — are ultimately unearned, the product of abstracted privilege and fortune divorced from any sense of innate talent. Or maybe it’s just the words I give to the pit in my stomach that makes me feel wrong. 

Maybe it’s about production codes. There’s a thesis that can pad a Sun column: it’s about production codes.

Johnnie To’s Drug War could only ever end one way — the protagonist had to die. In Chinese cinema, there exists a production code (much like the Hays Code of Hollywood past) that dictates the fates of fictional criminals to adhere to legal norms. Now, knowing the code and knowing the criminal, we are trapped watching a film about someone who has to die. To doesn’t allow us the sick satisfaction of criminal justice gone right — as though such a thing were possible. Instead, he creates a character who, if not strictly identifiable, has more to recommend than death and subjects him to such a painful end that even the hard line law and order fanatic couldn’t help but wince. Knowing the rules — the destination — To chooses to play with the inflection of delivery.

Screwball comedies can tend to operate in the same way. Recommending Bringing Up Baby, I heard back that the film’s ending evoked a certain uncanniness. I hadn’t particularly thought of it, but again the conclusion was decided first — Cary Grant was going to end up with Kathryn Hepburn. And again, the film isn’t entirely convinced that its internal logic must make sense. Codes, designed to develop archetypes and fit molds — designated uniformities of enforced hegemony — end up doing the opposite. As many have observed, the omission of the sex scene from Casablanca makes the film all the more raunchy. The need for the criminal to die makes us question why. The marriage of two people who only might be able to stand each other reconfigures what love might mean. 

This isn’t how we’re going to die. Earlier this month I jaywalked with another Sun columnist who framed the decision in terms of that same archetypal fate: The journey is irrelevant to the predestined destination. When I describe my life as some sort of inevitable parabolic arc, I frame myself as the criminal in a Chinese action movie (or perhaps the spurned romcom also ran). 

So what does it mean when I strip myself of free will, place myself in a narrative and then evoke all of its subversions and rejections? That’s the feeling: a dangerous cocktail of certain expectations that wills itself into being despite the fact that each and every intermediating event contradicts the conclusion. If one’s sense of self is oriented around priors of what is and isn’t possible (for me), then violations of those priors — rather than forcing a reconfiguration of identity — become rationalized through the sense that they are temporary: the set up to a punchline. There is nothing that can happen in Drug War or Bringing Up Baby that will change the outcome; the best a filmmaker can do is alter its significance. 

But then, here’s the tricky part: Nobody cares about the ending of Bringing Up Baby; more people have thoughts on the ending of Drug War, but the average Hong Kong crime film conclusion isn’t worth the bat of an eye. In the cinematic language with which I bottle my own experience, the code mandated denouement often refuses interest. And it’s not even necessarily that the film is able to convince its audience to deny its understanding of the code and hallucinate the presence of dramatic tension; rather, it’s that the dramatic tension arises from process rather than outcome. The non-sex scene in Casablanca is so precisely sexy because anything can be implanted therein — when the what is omitted the how becomes more interesting. The same is true when the what is telegraphed and predetermined: If anything, the how becomes all the more necessary to develop dramatic meaning. 

I don’t know that I’ve made the feeling of falling uphill any more palatable. If anything, I’ve disproven my own analogy: Falling uphill implies a painful journey with a successful destination … and often I’m describing the opposite phenomenon. And the pre-code silver lining of the dream where you show up to school in your underwear offers a cold comfort: This is just the conclusion to some unseen journey that could well recontextualize all that came before. There’s a little bit that’s exciting about the whole thing: when the you who exists in the world follows a path that the you of your mind cannot comprehend, the violation produces an intriguing dissonance. The dissonance remains unresolved by the perceived certainty of the “ending” and that goofy chaos of living a contradiction offers a strange thrill. But, the code can only get you so far; to the extent that it makes things more interesting for a while, it ultimately limits — the sense of self dictated by archetype must be broken in order to live a meaningful existence. So, what now? 

Max Fattal is a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. They* can be reached at [email protected].

Let’s Unpack That is an arts column that traverses autocriticism and borderline psychotic hyperfixation through the lenses of pseudo-intellectualism and film analysis. It runs occasionally throughout the year.