Friday, September 30, 2011

Unseen Gods

Images from Arab Spring, 2011

Both a political revolution and pop-culture hysteria yield a number of images of people looking away from the axis of the camera at an undisclosed object. The subject of these images, often engrossed in hysterical (and when devoid of a context, seemingly unreasonable) gesticulation, seem to engage themselves in diverse sorts of relationships with the off-frame (or in the case of this blog post, off-screen) object: it is at times desperate, often Shamanistic appeasement of the off-screen deity; at times, a direct challenge to the spectral entity and some other times, casual frenzy at a single sight of the grand monolith. Regardless of the nature of this engagement with the off-frame (screen) object, the reaction documented in the images of both a political revolt and pop-hysteria is inevitably titling towards religious, hallucinatory and often times, absurd – it is as if the residents of the photograph (or screen grab) are a part of a giant energy-chain in  which they are passing on vast vigor to each other through Chinese Whispers. Ofcourse, it is not entirely unreasonable for a viewer of this image to find a moment of such agitation silly, or even baseless, because as they say, you would ‘have to be there’.

Screen-Grab(s) from Richard Lester's A Hard Day's Night (1964)

Increasingly, however, and interestingly too, as the role of global media in the broadcast of the events of a political revolution (and more seldom, its tenets too) to the world has increased in the past half a century – the images that yield from a political revolution have started resembling those from pop-culture hysteria even more starkly – especially because pop-culture subsumes all and reduces everything to a set of identifiable icons. So when rampant broadcast (increasingly an instance of pop-culture) ‘shows’ a political revolt ‘live’, the one image you are sure to see is that of a sea of people – and much like pop-culture fandom – the large collective is only a ‘mass’, or at best, a ‘statistic’ – it does not represent anything meaningful or even discernible, because while television always shows us the gathering, it is impossible to spot the single object they have deposited themselves around. As always, the mysterious object of a revolution (or pop-hysteria) only looms large over the scene through its absence, but is never quite ‘there’. As a result, more and more images from a political revolt will look like a pop concert, and those from a pop concert will be mistaken for a revolution. A classic example of such a faux-pas: Woodstock, 1969.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Death on a Slow-Burner

The Hit (1984) / Stephen Frears

The reason Stephen Frears’ The Hit is a unique film is because while it is clearly a crime-cum-assassination film, it functions with the laidback rhythm of some sorta holiday-family. A group comprised by two assassins, their victim and an unfortunate onlooker resembles a family on a road-trip. It travels through exotic lands and when faced with the diversion of overwhelming natural splendor is forced into personal introspections, discoveries of new-found affection, casual quibbles with other members, philosophy-sharing and petulant annoyance with a ‘slow’ member. Which is interesting too, because just like in a family-drama – there is a hierarchy intact -though different characters assume different familial roles throughout the film – Braddock the Hitman (John Hurt) is sometimes the patriarch of the pack, sometimes the younger brother, sometimes the lusty husband; Willie Parker the Victim (Terrence Stamp) is often times the calm matriarch, but a few times, the family deity itself. Others on the trip include the innocent bystander from an earlier murder, a Spanish femme-fatale Maggie, and Myron, the young assassin-apprentice of Braddock and his new partner. While Maggie is sometimes the rebellious young-daughter and sometimes the ‘other woman’, Myron is mostly the ‘black sheep’ of the family : the son who is a cause of incredible shame for the others in the family. 

Such a rhythm is wholly original, if only because Frears’ film takes the act of assassination – which in itself, is almost always assumed to be momentary and brief (so much so that the Zapruder film informs us of the exact frame which documents the impact. Other examples : the urgency of : shots through the sniper-Scope  in movies, the Lee Harry Oswald assassination, the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand) and spreads it across a duration of two-hours, for which, it becomes a political allegory, a road-movie, a power-struggle, a vacation film as well as a tourism-ad.  

Tuesday, September 20, 2011


A Better Tomorrow (1986) / John Woo

Both  Le Samourai (Melville, 1967) and A Better Tomorrow (Woo, 1986) begin with the image of a man (Delon and Lung Ti respectively) lying on his bed, his head firmly entrenched in the recess of his pillow, clearly bothered by a premonition of something terrible and overall, I presume, sweaty. Ofcourse, both movies are at some level, about a man’s ability (or an inability) to stick to the unspoken word, the Gentleman’s promise, or the Jewish businessman’s handshake – once a deal is done, it is done. But while Le Samourai’s idea of morality is transgressed in a single moment of implosive betrayal (gunshot, approaching train, grunt in an abrupt close-up); all of A Better Tomorrow’s transformation happens during a three-year long prison term. That is very interesting, because Woo uses this reasonably long ridge of time to appropriate the strength of purely human qualities: brotherly love, male honor, casual bromance and generally hokey lack of scruples - the film dictates that what remains unchanged over the duration is worth cheering for, and whatever changes, is an indication of absolute villainy or at the least, deserves our pity. 

Therefore, the two protagonists (Mark : Chow Yun-Fat, Tse-Ho : Lung Ti), counterfeiters, loan shark agents and casual in-tandem dressers, meet after Ho’s prison-term (of which we see very little) and are still the best of friends, Yun-fat still wants to shoot people up and return to the good ol’ life and Ho’s brother Kit’s still with the same girl – so while the film clearly proposes reform (or even revolution), the qualities it wants to endear us to are mostly the ones that remain unaltered in the before and after of the prison term. On the other hand, their crime-protégé from before the sentence becomes an evil crime boss, Ho’s policeman brother (Leslie Cheung) becomes a stone-cold, paranoid, loveless man (he also grows a thin moustache and a frown) whose relationship with his brother sours and in an incredible move of self-pity, Yun-Fat grows a limp – anything that changes over the three-year period must therefore be condemned or despised. Needless to say, the film’s final scene will have all order restored and the entire universe reset to point zero – that is almost ironical for a film titled A Better Tomorrow, because mostly, it looks at the ‘yesterday’ as its ideal – but atleast, unlike Le Samourai, the agent of bleak morality is still alive at the end of the film and thus, morality may still be salvaged eventually.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Sound Basilica

My Man Godfrey (1936) / Gregory La Cava

My Man Godfrey (1936) may very well be declared devoid of any particular ambition: the social satire is as soggy as a teenage political protestor’s manifesto; the performances range from absolute hysteria to calculated mystery, there is no soundtrack, there is no particular purposefulness with the camera (though, a lot, with the manner in which actors move in relation to it) – but it is still one of the most significant films ever – because it demonstrates properly, unlike a lot of other films from its era, the manner in which a soundstage may effectively be employed. The idea of a soundstage may be understood as a bank every inch of whose floor is wired with an alarm sensor – each inch of its area sensitive to a touch that may evoke a startle – similarly, a sound may be picked anywhere on a soundstage, even if one were to speak in the background, or better still, from outside the frame itself. This quality of sound is not used in cinema much even now – and it is most often the source-distance from the camera that determines the level of sound it may emanate – therefore, since the mainstream almost always films its characters in the foreground, the sound of the scene also belongs to only one plane-of-action. But what La Cava does with Godfrey, apart from choreographing some of the most elaborate background action in cinema (no one is irrelevant in the frame, no one is provisional, the actors even in the far-background are relevant contributors to the scene), is that he choreographs background-sound as well – therefore, the sound is not merely three-dimensional (which the speaker-system in a theatre ensures), but also three-planar i.e., emanating from three planes of action, and ofcourse, from the off-screen. Which is particularly relevant too in the case of this film, because if it were to be defined as such, it is a screwball comedy – and more than any other film, depends for its humour on dialogue exchanges, monologues, sighs, grunts, queer laughters, and in general, dialogue-mayhem – therefore, La Cava takes care to ‘record’ each sound on the stage and the put it in the film too. The players in the film are perpetually speaking (or affecting a sound) – one dialogue exchange happens in the foreground, yes, but at the same time, you can hear someone crying hysterically in the background, and in some other room altogether, someone else conducting yet another affair – in a rare case in cinema then, it is the sound that evokes the image, and not the other way round.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Lee Marvin’s Face

The reason the blog has been on a week-long hiatus is because we (Broken Projector's Gautam Valluri and Floatin' Zoetropes' Me were compiling the fourth issue of our online journal Projectorhead (PH Wants You). You can read the entire issue here. As someone on Twitter said, some real nice goodies in there.

Point Blank(1967) / John Boorman

“None of them would look or sound or play the same way today if marijuana hadn’t seized and transformed the style of pop movies thirty years ago. This isn’t to say that the filmmakers in question are necessarily teaheads, or that the people in the audience have to be wigged- out in order to appreciate these efforts. Stoned consciousness by now is a historical fact, which means that the experiences of people high on grass have profoundly affected the aesthetics of movies for everyone: filmmakers and spectators, smokers and nonsmokers alike.”

                                                       Rosenbaum in ‘What Dope is Doing to Movies’
The notion of an action film is based on the idea of urgent causality: one act influences the other, the other impacts another – as such, each single choice the protagonist may make assumes utter significance and becomes capable of forever altering the universe. The narrative is reduced (or elevated, take your pick) to an elaborate series of codes that the protagonist must unlock one by one (the reason Die Hard: With a Vengeance is so goddamn great is because it literalizes this idea of an action film and completely breaks it down), and in that order, to fully comprehend eventually the villain’s grand nefarious design. Essentially, in an action film, everything is crucial, and if one lego-block is pulled out, the entire lego-network of choices and their outcomes will be rendered worthless. Point Blank is such an oddity precisely because it’s protagonist whims are particularly irrelevant, and while Walker’s physical demeanor (Lee Marvin, two-face performance: scare with one, get scared with another) is that of a perpetual badass, he is actually quite a nincompoop: confused, battered, vulnerable and at times, a real idiot; after 45 minutes into the film, he has actually exacted revenge already (even that, unintentionally), and isn’t even certain as to who he is pitted against. But such pointlessness is inherent in the very element of the film: it is emblematic, perhaps of the era of movie-making which Rosenbaum talks about in the passage above. Ofcourse, while The Trip (Corman, 1967) is deliberately pointless, made with the aim to mimic a LSD-trip; a film like Point Blank (as well as the best sequences from BlowUp and Bonnie and Clyde) just happens to be that way – the film of a man disenchanted with structures based in logic, rationale or causality – the most crucial accomplishment of Point Blank as an action film is that in its 91 real-time duration, and 2 years of filmic duration, nothing really happens, no choice is made, no decision affects the world, no action bears a real consequence – yes, a lot of people die, but when the film ends, the protagonist is exactly where he was at the start of the film, as poor, as lonely and as impotent.

Since the narrative itself is absent (nothing has an implicit meaning, nothing happens, no one comes, no one goes), it is what you can see that becomes particularly important – the ‘trippiness’ of the film, therefore, manifests itself in what is shown (instead of say,  Easy Rider, where the trippiness is all told or heard). Therefore, Point Blank’s exhibition of rambling meaningless includes angular pathways, skyscrapers jetting diagonally out from the corner of the frame, characters framed through latticed windows, hokey matte-effects of naked bodies floating like stray-scrap through 2D air, eternal corridors, color bursts, an action scene illuminated by disco-ball lights so that you can only see a punch land or a forehead turn to grimace – but the film is at the peak of its delirium when it shoots Lee Marvin’s face in a close-up. At best, his face is an accumulation of veins fitted into cloth-folds that sag over a gangling frame whose owner went to the wrong tailor.