Borderland Legend, Carnival Fetes and Cinematic Opera

Carnivals of course also have non-spectacular interludes or bookends – most often the rank-ordered and loudly broadcast passage through and around the ritual commune, usually much larger in scope than could be cemented by any sort of quotidian face-to-face contact, even (most of all!) though market day interaction: these ambits are often known or associated with saihui (lit. “contestive gatherings”), perhaps because (as in the palio) the rite articulates an abstract totalizing of spatial integration by carefully orchestrated contest among its members; characteristically they also include or climax in a march to the temple/shrine of a warden deity (shen), the hoisting of that being’s consecrated likeness on the shoulders of younger males (here ONLY males), and a circular excursion that is meant to cast a redemptive or protective aura when numenal disfunction or peril is sensed…..

But this sort of reverential and hierarchically ordered segment of the “carnival” procedure is but one part. The other (again to oversimplify) classically invokes fire and enacts hyper-energized dance (kick, etc.) AS IF animated by fire. The cosmological explication here derives from the generic for solstice – jie 节 – or other kind of turnpoint in the flow of circular time, when a prior cycle is at its end but is or is hoped to renew (Eliade, Myth of Eternal Return). In this category of course falls our own Easter (Passover?), which falls (originally fell) on the Spring Solstice, another crisis point in the agro-fertility cycle when the first of the new sprouts are supposed to break cover.

Whether as entertainment for easily bored (asleep) warden-gods (God), or as proof that TIME itself has momentarily lapsed (stalled), and with it the rules of social hierarchy and propriety, this “interstitice” (Part 2) generally is the occasion for “world turned upside down” behavior: the young take precedence over the old, women over men, bright (lavish) costume over workaday drab, and the like.
A mood of what was once called Saturnalia descends; the dead can seem alive again, the past becomes present, the restrictions on courtship often (but not everywhere) are suspended.

It is this (second), hyper-energized, seemingly out-of-control that demarcates etrangerie, movement into strange territories either real or conjured, inaccessible to non-belongers that offers (or can) the most gripping venue for filmed excursion into operatic magic, psycho-wilderness. Abnormal noise, quickened dance, and often nighttime lantern-bearing when “danced” into circles, all establish the kind of distance from the ordianry that the (film-) opera thrives on now that we are in the age of color.

A very common and famous event in the repertoire of inversions occurs in the hybrid performance Liu Sanjie (Sinified Zhuang), where there is a double inversion: the (we later discover) magical songstress
engages in a riddle song contest with 3 males who are also above her station (they are first degree scholars in official costume (made to look silly of course); she is but a hillcountry tea-picker in work clothing, but of course (inverting the rules) she humiliates all 3 and sends the away…

Inversion Rite, Liu Sanjie


Trajectorying through Shamanic Interlude:
“Carnival” as Interlude or Narrative Pivot

But what needs most to be addressed is the way that opera/carnival (as a compound) enfolds so effectively in operatic film. (even in nominally secular/rationalist post-1949 China – our current purview). Or can, if not blocked by censors.

If the magical atmospherics of carnival opera are to enter the dramaturgy (filmed or not), there is one generic that seems necessary: that is, the drama of metamorphosis, miraculous
transformation (almost always of virginal women), either “shown”, discussed or perhaps just casually overheard in gossip), perhaps as metempsychosis (one thinks of Jiu’er in Red Sorghum, transiting past the eclipsing sun); perhaps as embalmment in/to magical rock or cave; perhaps as incomplete miracle (the fate of the wronged ghost surviving onlu in illusory echo (Lan Huahua and Cuiqiao in Yellow Earth whose ghosted song continues)…, the still singing wronged concubine 3 in RHRL, and the seemingly Buddhist reincarnation (endless rebirth) of the young girl-spirit singing “Poling, poling up to Auntie’s Bridge) who reembodies “Bijou” as she is ferried back from Paradise to Urban Hell.

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