Mediamatic Magazine Vol. 1#2 Mart Grisel, Murk Hoestra 1 Jan 1986

Either/Or in Chinatown

In 1984 GáBOR BòDY was artist in residence at WESTERN FRONT in Vancouver. He made Either/Or in Chinatown, a 37- minute video with a narrative structure, about the esthetic's of decay, erotic desire, and the impossibility of choice.

The historians of literature GRISEL and HOEKSTRA endeavored at a psycho-analytical-semiotic analysis.


Either/ Or in Chinatown - Published in Mediamatic Magazine Vol. 1#2 (1986)



The Hungarian filmmaker GáBOR BòDY was born in Budapest in 1946. He started reading philosophy and history at Budapest University from where he obtained a Master's degree in 1971, the title of his thesis being A Contribution to Cinematographic Meaning. Four years later he graduated from Budapest School of Art, after receiving training in the fields of television and film direction. His graduation film Amerikai anzix won him the Great Prize of the Mannheim film festival in 1976.

This started a career of film making; he produced several more or less experimental films in which he sometimes also appeared as an actor.

In the late sixties he started using video and in 1980 he founded Infermental, an annually appearing video-art-video magazine (see MAURICE NIO in this issue). In 1984, one year before he took his own life, he made Either/Or in Chinatown.


Either/Or in Chinatown is based on Diary of a Seducer, which is a part of Either/Or, the first major work of the Danish philosopher SøREN KIERKEGAARD (1813-1855), published in 1843. KIERKEGAARD's writings might be regarded as a reaction against the German idealistic tradition, especially against the dialectical Hegelian philosophy. According to KIERKEGAARD , a synthesis of oppositions is only possible in the idea in its purely abstract form: in our daily life we continuously have to make a choice and our choices are not always as rational as HEGEL's philosophy suggests.

One of the choices dealt with in Either/Or is that between the aesthetic and the ethic outlook on life. From the ethical point of view, individual life is an aspiration towards eternity. The 'aesthetic' way of hie, which is that most evidently available to the romantic consciousness, unites the subject with what is temporary, and fixes his soul in the immediate. The aesthetic consciousness finds its paradigm of personalhfe in what is most determined by the passage of time - the erotic. 1)

Diary of a Seducer, written in a vivacious, literary, and at times even high-flown style, deals with the aesthete, who affirms that a seducer must conquer a woman by a carefully construed display of his intellectual, not sensual qualities. His aim is not to seduce as many women as possible, but to seduce them by means of a beautiful and carefully mapped-out strategy. The seducer, Johannes, is caracterised by a rationalistic, self- reflective attitude: with painstaking preciseness he describes his motives and the plans he has for Cordelia, the object of his desire.

Cordelia is indeed his Cordelia to the extent that she has become the product of his imagination, Johannes tries to mould her like an artist paints his beloved; that gives him pleasure. 2) According to Johannes seduction must be seen as a work of art, which comprises not only the person involved but also her surroundings: Environment is always of great importance, especially for the sake of memory. Every erotic relation should always be lived so that one can easily reproduce a picture of it, in all the beauty of the original scene. To make this successful one must be especially observant of the surroundings. If one does not find them as one wants them, then one must make them so.

Either/Or in Chinatown

GáBOR BòDY chose Vancouver's Chinatown for the setting of his film. This is not as far-fetched as it may seem, as Diary of a Seducer already refers to a Chinese atmosphere: On the table stands a lamp shaped like a flower, which shoots up vigorously to bear its crown, over which a delicately cut paper shade hangs down so lightly that it is never still. The form of the lamp reminds one of oriental lands, the movement of the shade of the mild oriental breezes.

Either/Or in Chinatown is not just a faithful representation of the book: an ironic distance is created by the turgid tone of the narrator who cites fragments of KIERKEGAARD's book and the music in the film which includes Chinese take-away muzak adds to this effect. The narrator and the music weld the succession of scenes together into a straight narrative. The abundancy of the narration makes it impossible to interpret it entirely. The narration only functions when some of its key words coincide with certain scenes of the film.

The protagonist of the film is a young Canadian called Johannes. He catches sight of a Chinese girl, Cordelia, and follows her for several days. Although he is in love with her, he is afraid to talk to her. After a while, Johannes discovers that there is another man, Edward, who also shows interest in Cordelia and with whom he becomes friends. Both men pay a visit to Cordelia's house and Edward seems to have an edge over Johannes in that he seems to be on more friendly terms with Cordelia, whereas Johannes is just entertaining her aunt, A few days later, Johannes clumsily proposes to Cordelia by offering her an engagement ring, Cordelia, however, declines his proposal, but this does not mark the end of their relationship: Cordelia tries to seduce him. Whether or not Johannes makes love to her remains unclear. At the end of the film, we only see him lying on his bed, his crotch covered with a bandage.

The viewer will become even more confused when GáBOR BòDY interweaves the love story of Cordelia and Johannes with a discussion held by the Vancouver Philosophical Society. They are debating the Kierkegaardian and the Platonic concept of love, and the theory of the origin of the two sexes as it is described in the Symposion. As if this were not enough, our devoted scholars also struggle to shed light on the metaphysical problem of the Tibetan rainbow death, i.e. the mythical idea that the hair and fingernails are the only remainders of a person who has just died. One of these sophisticates argues that the rainbow death can be linked with the use of make-up by women; he sees the excessive care for the hair and the fingernails as pure erotica.

The TV in Johannes's hotel room constantly shows the philosophical debate but he rarely pays any attention to it. Obviously, this pseudo-intellectual discussion is a clear case of interpretation running wild. There is very strong evidence to suggest that it is meant to function as a surreptitious parody of KIERKEGAARD's philosophy as it is to be found in Diary of a Seducer. At any rate the philosophers help toning down the high-flown manner in which the narrator expresses himself, all the more so because the events forming the story of Cordelia and Johannes in Either/Or in Chinatown can only be described as prosaic. Only their ricksaw-ride comes close to Hollywood-style good old-fashioned romance. It reminds one of the ride in a fiacre shared by Emma and Léon in Madame Bovary and announces a new stage in the relationship of Cordelia and Johannes which seems to lose its hitherto platonic character. The black leather outfits that they wear for the occasion also point in that direction.

During the fist platonic stage of their affair Johannes can only enjoy Cordelia as long as he kept a firm distance. He is incapable of regarding Cordelia as a woman with an individual personality of her own; he merely sees her as a mirror to reflect his own ideas and desires. Only when she declines his proposal she shows Johannes that she has a will of her own and she thus underlines her otherness that he failed to perceive. Cordelia is now in the position to impose her own terms upon Johannes: she tries to seduce him by licking the whipped cream of a cake in a very sensual way. Johannes, however, does not move an inch towards her.

A later scene shows Cordelia lying naked on the ground, playing with what looks like the male equivalent of a Barbie doll. She can easily bend the doll's limbs, which suggests her dominance over Johannes. This even evokes the classical idea of woman having power over man in a sexual perspective. The Kierkegaardian thesis that woman's main raison d'être is her being for another - quoted by one of the philosophers - has been inverted: the film closes with a shot of Johannes lying on his bed, his private parts covered by a bandage. Johannes, finally, has allowed himself to be carried away by the female charms of Cordelia. Only, he had to pay a price: the final scene goes a long way towards suggesting that he has been castrated. Either Cordelia deprived Johannes of his masculinity, and thus eliminated the sexual difference between her and Johannes, or Johannes mutilated himself in an attempt to escape the choice between satisfying his desire for Cordelia and not satisfying it at all.

The final scene is broken in two by the lecturer who previously delivered a speech on seduction, in which he rightly states that deferring satisfaction of desire precisely determines the structure of desire. The desire of the seducer must by definition remain unsatisfied within him or he would destroy the distance through which this form of desire defines itself Thus, when for example we take pleasure in watching the flight of a seaplane over the landscape it certainly does not follow that we would want to relieve the pilot of his job. If we ourselves pilot the plane we loose the original view and become like the man in the story who wished for a sausage and suddenly found one growing out of his nose.

During the last couple of scenes the lecturer kept coming back and his words can be interpreted as a comment on Johannes. When he states: A world that feeds on its images looses its capacity in the realm of deeds... he clearly points out that Johannes did only watch the image of Cordelia and is unable to act. He also presents us with a couple of dilemmas: Either you like this picture or you live in this hotel... And: either this fish head is beautiful or you take up residence in the deep blue sea... Hinting at KIERKEGAARD's rejection of Hegelian dialectics he thereby draws our attention to the fact that our choices often lack rationality and are sometimes even impossible to make.

He also holds up the two tools that keep popping up throughout the tape. Showing the bottle-opener he asks: Isn't this nice? Would you like to have this in your house?... Then he demonstrates the wrench and asks: Isn't this nice? Would you like to work with it?...

Alone in his hotel room Johannes makes use of the bottle-opener to decapitate a whole row of bottles of San Pellegrino (pilgrim!) mineral water so often that it has almost become an extension of his arm. With this water Johannes baptizes some fish heads, which associates Johannes with John the Baptist. Did not John the Baptist also become the victim of the fatal desire of a woman? Through its form the bottle-opener seems to be a parody of a penis symbol and at the same time it functions as such: contrived as its virtuosity may seem, it still works.

As we have already stated above, Johannes needs a distance between himself and Cordelia. Previous to the seduction scene, Johannes has only indulged in voyeurism in its purest form. On the night that Johannes sees Cordelia for the first time, the narrator remarks: To be sure, it is dark; I shall not disturb you; I only pause under this street lamp where it is impossible for you to see me, and one is never embarrassed unless one is seen, and of course If one cannot see, one cannot be seen. Johannes gets his satisfaction from following Cordelia wherever she goes and he even watches her with a telescope, not knowing how to contact her. Does the frequent use of the bottle-opener imply that Johannes seeks refuge in the safe practice of masturbation on his hotel room?

In another scene we can see Cordelia polishing her fingernails. We only get to see her hands resting lightly on the bottle-opener, thus associating this form of female erotica with death, through the concept of the rainbow death, as one of the philosophers affirmed.

Thus the Vancouver Philosophical Society both suggests this symbolic interpretation and warns us against it: one of the members of the philosophical panel, a priest, although he belongs to the most connotative signifying systems in the Western world, the Christian Church, flatly states: The excessive use of signifiers is questionable... That might just be BòDY's way of mocking a system of signifiers - his video - while being unable to do without it.

If you'd like to quote something: Grisel, Mart, and Hoekstra, Murk. "Either/Or in Chinatown" Mediamatic Magazine vol. 1 # 2 (1986).

1) Roger Scruton From Descartes to Wittgenstein London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981, p. 189
2) Soren Kierkegaard Either/ Or Princeton. Princeton University Press, 1959

Ilustrations from: Gábor Bòdy Either/ Or in Chinatown. International distribution Vera Bòdy, Köln