for Tribune: AV Festival report — on Wang Bing’s CRUDE OIL

Published on: April 18th, 2014

Crude Oil's Newcastle installation

Roughly ten hours into Wang Bing’s 14-hour documentary Crude Oil there’s a single shot that runs 107 minutes– longer than the entirety of Casablanca, Dr Strangelove or Annie Hall. And what does this almost unbroken segment, filmed from a single tripod-fixed camera-position, depict? A bunch of blokes watching films from DVDs on a bedroom telly, during a break between their punishing shifts as Gobi Desert roughnecks. They trade occasional small-talk (“The Sword of Justice – more boring shit”); colleagues come and go; daylight slowly fades; not much happens; illumination is elusive; the drillers’ zonked-out lassitude osmoses its way steadily through the screen and envelops the viewer in a miasma of torpor. Dozens of minutes ebb into the void.

In what our culture regards as a conventional narrative film (like the Oscar-winning Hollywood pictures mentioned above) the inclusion of such an episode would be unthinkable; a gross dereliction of duty on the part of director Wang and particularly his editor Guo Henqi. But there’s the rub! Crude Oil isn’t a conventional film at all. It wasn’t even made with the intention of ever being projected in a cinema; rather it was commissioned as an installation (initial provisional running-time… 70 hours) by Rotterdam Film Festival, where it was unveiled in January 2008 at the city’s former Fotomuseum.

Despite Wang’s steadily-growing international acclaim over the intervening period (he’s routinely ranked among the world’s most important documentary-makers) further exhibitions of this colossal work have been few and far between. And it wasn’t until March 2014 that Crude Oil finally washed up on British shores, when it was included in a selection of Wang’s ‘industrial films’ that formed one key strand of north east England’s sixth biennial AV Festival, this year built around the theme of ‘Extraction’.

For those unfamiliar with Wang’s extreme methods and results, perusing the AV catalogue–which included details of the 840-minute Crude Oil as well as the 534-minute, three-part West of the Tracks in addition to three much shorter works–might cause them to ponder just what was actually being extracted here. Perhaps ‘the Michael’ or even ‘the urine’.

The commitment to watching the entirety of such uncompromisingly ‘durational’ pieces is no mean undertaking, and while AV displayed all the other Wangs in cinematic settings, Crude Oil got special curatorial treatment. Mirroring the 2×7-hour timetable of that first Rotterdam presentation, it was screened from 10am to 5pm, in a draughty upstairs room at the Stephenson Works, behind Newcastle’s central station: first half one day, second half the next (with one or two quirks of the calendar to complicate the sequence a little). A pair of functional sofas was positioned a few yards away from the ‘screen’–actually a blank white wall on a partition temporarily erected to divide the decidedly un-dark, un-cinema-like room.

the Stephenson Works

The choice of location was of course no accident, AV being a festival acutely attuned to the realities and ironies of post-industrial cultural practice. The Stephenson Works is one of the last remnants of the world’s first purpose-built locomotive ‘factories’, opened in 1823 by the pioneering brothers George and Robert Stephenson (with three partners) and birthplace of the legendary ‘Locomotion No 1’ and ‘Rocket’. A former office block and boiler/plate works comprise the premises today, a somewhat unprepossessing building, occupied by small creative firms and located down what’s essentially a glorified back-alley.

For those without GPS the Works aren’t easy to locate, and the maplessness of AV’s catalogue further exacerbates the intrigue. Indeed, by the time I actually tracked down the entrance–the only sign indicating its presence only feet from the door, and almost invisible from the main road–and bounded up the stairs to the projection space, the “movie” had been running for nearly a quarter of an hour. Sweat-prickled and furious, I suddenly felt like Woody Allen in Annie Hall when he refuses to enter the Manhattan cinema showing Bergman’s 114-minute Face To Face because he and his date have missed the opening two minutes (“That’s it! Forget it! I can’t go in…. We’ve blown it already. I can’t go in in the middle. You wanna get coffee for two hours or something..?”)

Common sense prevailed, however, and I settled down for the duration with my supplies (big lump of Cheshire cheese; Mars bar; tuna salad sandwich; ‘flat cake’ bread; two bottles of water; thermos flask of tea) and the tools of my film-critic trade (notebook; pens; customised torch; stopwatch). I say ‘tools’ and ‘trade’ because in my mind what I was doing at the Stephenson Works was labour, of a kind. Never mind the fact that I’m not getting paid by Tribune for this article (the publication has been pro bono since its inception in 1937; what’s good enough for George Orwell is good enough for me).

Locating the entrance to the Stephenson Works had involved a frantic tour of the immediate vicinity, much of which is a vast building-site that will at some point become the Stephenson Quarter–a 10-acre zone which, according to the Newcastle Evening Chronicle, “will include new commercial, hotel, residential and retail facilities”. Wandering to the back of the projection space afforded, through two sets of very old windows, a panoramic view of the construction–a tough environment on these chilly, windy, rainy days in March. Standing at certain positions allowed the viewer (i.e. myself) to see the Newcastle labourers and their Gobi Desert counterparts at a single glance. The film’s many longueurs provided numerous occasions for such improvisations and speculations.

site of the Stephenson Quarter

Wang, working in something akin to real-time, alternates between spells of work (uptime) and leisure (downtime), though ‘leisure’ sounds much too pleasant for the hours of sitting around which evidently form the men’s rest periods. The latter affords Wang’s cameras endless opportunities for eavesdropping: litanies bewailing pay and conditions are the norm, with the division between permanent and temporary staff a particular source of discontent: “We get a lot, others not. We got no luck,” kvetches one worker.

Anger at their seldom-glimpsed employers is palpable and pointed: “If it weren’t for the bosses’ black hearts, we’d be well off.” The criticism then widens audaciously, even dangerously, in scope: “Fuck the Communist Party… All Chinese bureaucrats are rotten to the core!” “If the Party keeps this up, it won’t be around for much longer.”

Specific mentions of actual wages are fleeting, but at one point we learn that one of the bosses is on 120,000 yuan a year (roughly £12,000) whereas a driver, named as Xiao Sang, is on only 800 yuan per month (£8). But Wang is evidently less interested in agit-prop or investigative journalism than he is in exploring and recording the basic sensory realities of these men and their environments.

We spend so long in dull recreation-rooms and the like that it comes as considerable–and paradoxical–relief when we shift outside (the first first external shot comes fully three-and-three-quarter hours in) to witness the actual extraction taking place. In these sequences, protractedness becomes a joy rather than a pain: we have the rare privilege of joining expert workers on a platform high above a lunar desert, going about the messy business of getting oil out of the ground–this valuable substance a key engine of the still-booming Chinese economy.

driller, killer: CRUDE OIL

With no voice-over or captions provided, we have to work out what’s going on for ourselves, simply by observation over extended periods of time. We soon learn the drill, in more ways that one, particularly regarding a huge and crucial bit of kit that swings into place, and into view, to screw and unscrew pipes together and which in its daunting, bygone floating massiveness looks like a cross between an outsize toilet-seat and an electric chair. Indeed, it could easily pass for a commode used by the villainous Harkonnen clan in David Lynch’s epic, desertine $40m folly, Dune.

Crude Oil is, in its way, no less ambitious than Lynch’s career-derailer: inevitably intimate in its implicit fly-on-wall camaraderie with the workers, but deliberately, even ostentatiously demanding of its audience to an almost satirical degree of excess. The diametric opposite of Hollywood slickness, Wang’s film was shot on medium-grade digital video using equipment that is, we deduce, of an strictly-functional nature.

The result–suitably ‘raw’ and ‘unrefined’ as it is–runs longer than all six of the Fast and the Furious movies combined. But in cinema size isn’t everything, and it’s important to avoid the trap of overlooking quality while lauding width. As an installation, Crude Oil can indeed transfigure space and time: an interior wall of a building on Tyneside (for example) becomes in effect a portal, allowing us extended peeks into the unvarnished reality of a particular spot in the Gobi Desert, in the first decade of the 21st century. How marvellous it would be to have a whole library of such 14-hour records–of a Burmese farm in the 1867, perhaps, or Guatemalan church in 1937, or a Finnish school in 1954–anthropological, sociological, economic records, more valuable than any written word…

After considerable prevarication I returned to the Stephenson Works the next day for part two, coffee in my flask, two sandwiches, another Mars bar. More longueurs; more sympathetic surveillance of Men At Work (women are very occasionally heard, never seen); more unexpected grace-notes, all the more rejuvenatingly jarring for their brevity and unforced poetry: the very final image [spoiler alert!] is of the moon, seen through clouds, its white orb refracting into liquid streaks, phasing in and out of visibility until the final fade.

A justifiable way of spending two whole ‘working’ days of a life? Perhaps. Fourteen whole hours, gazing at a bloody screen that isn’t even a proper bloody screen?! But there’s a lot to be said for assessing and confronting one’s limits, whether in art, work, or life in general. And so long as I could put my habitual professional practices to the side, I got through it painlessly enough. As the tagline from Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left almost puts it, “to avoid fainting, keep repeating: ‘It’s not a movie! It’s not a movie! It’s not a movie!'”

Neil Young
8th/18th April 2014
written for Tribune magazine

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