Saturday, June 25, 2011

Humiliations

A Generation (1955)/ Andrzej Wajda

This still from the film is particularly essential, because it combines in a single frame innumerable ideas, all distilled through visual symbols. Tadeusz Lomnicki, who looks like a Hollywood leading-man type from the early 50s, is a Polish rebel who up till this singular moment in the film has hokey ideas about rebellion (rebellion as a medium of courtship/rebellion as masculinity), but deposited in the office of a Polish officer who is on the Nazi side, he finally understands the stakes-at-hand. In this frame, he stands with his back to the Polish map, helpless and defeated, as the baton of the officer casts a diagonal shadow that runs like a scar through his face. There are humiliations through domination of various sorts : the map (territorial occupation), Polish worker (personal insult), baton-shadow (looming armed threat) - all of them coalescing to form a picture of wholesome imposition. Ofcourse, the officer is an off-screen presence, and is, ironically, Polish himself. In the next scene, Lomnicki and his friends sneak up to the joint where the depraved officer's predictably indulging in drunken revelry, and in a revelatory moment of the Micheal Corleone-mode, shoot at him multiple times; in the process, becoming real 'men'.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

In Hindsight : II

The history of cinema is a giant smudge: it is like upturned embroidery, with threads that inter-mesh in a manner so random that even the cautious pursuit of one does not reveal any clear pattern - unless ofcourse, one were to turn it back and view the 'correct side' of the arrangement : the one in the front - which is when the painting emerges. Everything connects to everything else; every film influences the other; every filmmaker is another's inspiration and every film is both classical and  contemporary - a mesh so elaborate that it can make any sense only if the 'correct side' is looked at - only if all of it is looked at as being under the ambit of one notion, a singular entity : cinema itself. The permanence of film means that I may view a 1914 film in 2011, and for me, it assumes the status of a 'contemporary film', and there might be a 2011 film, that I hear a lot about, speculate on, anticipate; but never actually 'see' - the film assumes a mythical status, and becomes a 'classic'.

This is the second-part in a series that examines this peculiar phenomena inherent in film, one that defies chronology and grants the viewer of a film the benefit of hindsight, of certain foreknowledge of the career-trajectory of a person whose name features rather mundanely in the credits of a film from before his career. Ofcourse, my act of watching this film takes place only after I have watched all the films in the career of the person.

A Generation (1955)/ Andzrej Wajda

Monday, June 20, 2011

Beauty as a terrifying predicament.


Frozen(2010)/ Shivajee Chandrabhushan
The problem with Frozen is that it functions under burdensome notions of ‘beauty’ and ‘loveliness’ – as if it itself is perennially overwhelmed by its own ‘excellence’. Unlike many other directors of independent films, the greatest issue Chandrabhushan faces is not an alacrity of choice(s), but an abundance of it – therefore, his task as an independent director is not as much as creation of a path, but negotiation of one. Filmed entirely in the fantastically beautiful desert of Ladakh, Chandrabhushan could point his camera in any direction, and emerge with a ‘great shot’ – this is only the beginning of his problems. He decides also to shoot in stark black-and-white digital – thereby smudging each image into a high-contrast binary dialectic between light and shadow; black and white, and nothing in between. As a result, the film has many great-looking images, but no great image. Lastly, he chooses also to engage immensely the process of color correction, wherein he further escalates the black towards a richer-digital black and white towards a uranium-flash – eventually, the images from his film look overtly contemplated, as if each one of them was frozen, grabbed, printed and then hung onto the wall above the DI suite, and then altered to a state where each looked ‘beautiful’ or ‘lovely’. But a landscape is eventually a landscape, and nothing more; its mere ontological appeal, i.e., its inherent ability to look ‘beautiful’ through a viewfinder may result in a problem of the very common sort: indulgence. A filmmaker may, when presented with umpteen opportunities to shoot a ‘good shot’, lose sight of his larger objective, instead believing the shot at hand to be the ultimate purpose of his endeavor – therefore assuming the role of a photographer who seeks to perfect a moment in time, instead of a cinema-director, who must perfect a capsule in time. As a result of the same, Frozen is really about nothing – and while a meandering narrative is a noble aim – it clearly is not the aim of this film, which wants to tell a wholly mainstream story, but cannot, because the director cannot resist the temptation of fretting over incidents that impede the flow of his story, if only to get a ‘good shot’.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

On Cattle-Rearing

Red River (1948)/ Howard Hawks
At certain unique, yet not wholly indistinct levels, both Red River and The Searchers are about the same thing: the things a man may discover about himself while in a state of transit. Convention may define both of them as road films, therefore; but they depart from the ‘road film’ in their establishment of a fixed objective that the journey is meant to attain. In Red River, Wayne and his band must find a suitable market to sell the 9000-strong members of their cattle-herd, while in The Searchers, Wayne must retrieve a young girl from the captivity of a native Indian tribal leader. Both films are rather specifically the product of their times; even if in a wholly Hollywood-manner, i.e., in interlinked catacombs of subtexts, underlying meanings and implicit meanings. The old-timey filmmakers functioned in a manner by which they could work up a healthy pretense of the ‘paramount premise’: plot details that are presented as objects of utmost urgency, a story that requires immediate telling. But with directors like Hawks or Wilder sometimes and Welles or Huston, most of the times; details of the ‘paramount premise’ would only obscure an agenda, instead of revealing it whole-handedly. In Red River, the agenda is clearly a right-winger’s definition of ‘manliness’: that of one who brands cattle as his own, beats native Indians in gun-fights, asks a woman to bear him his son, and is involve in a consistent animalistic battle for ‘territory’. It is not the defeat of a patriarchal code as many may read it, but the upgradation of it. 

The patriarch is no-longer the Herzog-hero: borderline senile, excessively principled, a fascist commander who is played by John Wayne in the film; but a vulnerable, malleable, more centrist youngster played by Montgomery Clift – so even though Joanne Dru does a ‘Rosie the Riveter’, and becomes a representation of the post-war American woman when she points a gun at the two brawling men and tells them get their act together – the patriarch is still very much intact. There are signs, in fact, that while Clift’s young leader might seem an overhaul of Wayne’s old dictator; he is infact, only a replacement. Even as the film ends, Wayne’s Dunson does not concede his error or admit the fallibility of his ideology, but in fact, assures Clift’s Garth that their cattle will now also be branded with his initial, because apparently, he ‘has earned it.’ In that moment, the film ceases to remain about a larger theme, and instead, becomes a father-son story, with each trying to stress his ‘masculinity’. But Red River’s masculinity is peculiar too, because the greater man is not the one who draws a gun faster, but that who can rear cattle better.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Compartments

It is always interesting to see directors employ architecture as a compositional grid in a shot. Besides the obvious strict modernist influence in such a method, there is also the small matter of a cinema frame pictorially resembling the page of a comic - with characters conducting their conversation across separate panels. Following are a few such recommendations,


The Thin Blue Line(1988)/ Errol Morris

Vengeance is Mine(1979)/ Shohei Imamura

Harakiri(1962)/ Masaki Kobayashi

Vengeance is Mine(1979)/ Shohei Imamura

X-Ray(1974)/ Krysztof Kieslowski

Jimmy Corrigan/Chris Ware

Friday, June 3, 2011

Essential Phoniness


I Walked with a Zombie (1943)/ Jacques Tourneur
It is only by the time one may reach the half-way point of a Tourneur film, trying, up till then, to ‘follow’ the narrative (narrative as the sermon, as in a Wilder film), or to coalesce various fragments of a supposed ‘story’ together (narrative as debris, as in a Tarantino film); that one realizes that there is no narrative at all, but only a fa├žade of it – a vague notion that something absolutely relevant is happening. But actually, if anything is at all relevant in a Tourneur film, it is in its assortment of fleeting sensations. Tourneur’s ability was invested best not in the direction of a grander narrative, but in transient moments of cathartic drama – grotesque moments of singular scandal. Such moments were as effective as they were affected, particularly because they were placed aptly at points when the audience’s interest in the presumed ‘story’ was at its peak – and therefore, they would become easy victims to the Tourneur-absurdity. In I Walked with a Zombie, set in West Indies, the first half an hour is devoted to Betsy’s (the new-nurse-in-town) discovery of the underlying conflict between two brothers, one of whose comatose wife she is there to attend to, as well as that of a secret familial past (the ‘past’ is Tourneur’s muse; it is always an element without being a force.) It is an interesting enough premise, with enough suspense (how did the wife become comatose?, what is the family secret?), and horror (the wife is a ghoul) to keep one going for its short 68 minute duration, and yet, as the second half of the film reveals, Tourneur could not be less interested in the pursuit of such interrogation. Instead, the film attends to these questions only sparingly, and though there are answers to all of them – they are answered not in the manner of revelations, but in the form of ‘givens’ with bored sighs from all the characters who give them. Tourneur’s major interest in lieu of the narrative, of course, is the setting itself – West Indies, and the various exotic oddities that he could employ in concocting his own brand of tourist-paranoia and voodoo-speculation. 

As a result, the second half of I Walked with a Zombie is perhaps the most potent instance of Tourneur’s cinema – formless, but replete with moments of outrage – there is an infamous extra-bug-eyed zombie, occult ceremonies, voodoo chanting and an atmosphere saturated with ceremonial drums used by the occultists to summon the comatose wife – none of it makes much sense, and there is no greater debate at hand; Tourneur’s only interest is immediate impression.   

The larger guise of a ‘fictional’ film, or a ‘tale’, and its utilization as a hook to lure unsuspecting audiences in what is essentially a world devoid of any coherent pattern is emulated perfectly by David Lynch in his films – who offers a ‘story’ only so that he can remain assured of an audience for repulsive shots of fried chicken bleeding in plates they are meant to be eaten in. And yet, this method is not as callous as Hitchcock’s, who, unlike Tourneur or Lynch, does not pull the carpet of a narrative from his audience’s feet unknowingly and often, helplessly – but only for cheap thrills.