The opening image of author, poet, theorist, composer, ethnographer, and filmmaker Trinh T. Minh-ha’s first digital video feature, The Fourth Dimension is a view from a moving vehicle on a fog-laden stretch of highway at dusk. A secondary rectangular frame then blocks the visible image of the fleeting landscape, and the aperture begins to drift, slowly shifting as if to momentarily focus attention on an overlooked detail within the transient frame. This deceptively whimsical and eccentrically playful introductory sequence serves not only to illustrate the amorphous interdependence between observation and demarcation, but also provides an incisive framework into Trinh’s experimental approach to filming an ethnographic essay of contemporary Japan and, in particular, modern-day Japanese rituals. Creating motion within the observation of a “fixed” image, the dynamic frame within a frame becomes a metaphor for the film’s titular fourth dimension: a conscious awareness, yet transitory encapsulation of the invisible within the visible – the ephemeral representation of space, time, and memory through the observation of perceptional shifts in the liminal – through the coded aesthetics of capturing perpetual dislocation.
For Trinh, the essence of modern day, quotidian Japanese rituals does not reside within the synchrony of the unfamiliar spectacle, but in a state of transcendence derived in the act of conformity and repetition, the mode of commuting between two states through the performance of decontextualized, everyday ritual. In its most literal form, Trinh equates the experience of a ride in a bullet train as a phenomenological representation of the idea of motion within stasis, a state of duality in which inclusion itself, no matter how passive or unconscious, reflects the privilege of commuting from one physical state to another…a geographic rite of passage. Figuratively, this transcendence through repetitive ritual is reflected in the images of young people dancing euphorically in a public square, in the solemn chants of monks walking on a open field, in the deliberative gestures of a Noh performance that places traditional cultural arts within the visual framework of contemporary aesthetics, and in the perpetuated performances of ancient, local festivals within modernized cities.
Perhaps the most relevant, essential image of Japan is illustrated in the inherent incongruity in these everyday occurring cultural juxtapositions, a dichotomy epitomized through the images of ubiquitous Japanese tourists – the fellow traveler – who equally regard these decontextualized, seemingly alien rituals with a similar sense of curiosity and alterity, an observation that demystifies the cultural outsider’s notion of Japan as a paradigm for monoethnic uniformity. Rather, what Trinh captures is the image of contemporary Japanese society as peripheral outsiders within their own culture, for which the elusive ideal resides in the conscious act of achieving collective sameness – the paradoxical erasure of identity through the assumption of interchangeable social roles – the donning of masks. This internationalization of identity inevitably defines the essence of the fourth dimension, the idealized state of being intraordinary (as Trinh comments near the conclusion of the film) – the ability to conform outwardly through the enlightened sublimation of identity and human emotion – to achieve transcendence within the liminal through the quotidian rituals of conformity and self-erasure.
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