Monday, December 31, 2012

Notes on a Few Great Titles

The year’s drawing out to a close and it’s featured a number of revelatory moments in terms of my engagement with cinema. My viewing of films was abundant and fertile – if not in regards to the number of films I watched, then definitely for the variety I did. I will issue an year-end summary where I will list the best of the year, but till then, very brief notes on three great recent films (in this case, recent being post-1990):

Limits of Control (2009) / Jim Jarmusch
I did an essay a little-time ago about how most truly great contemporary films reflect on the uber-globalised world we inhabit right now as also on the anxieties, insecurities, modified forms of communication, political implications and benefits of this new arrangement. With his last film, however, Jarmusch extends that discussion even further logically – for him, a discussion of globalization must yield a discussion of cultural pluralism, destruction of conventional symbols (and subsequently, the prejudices they result in), understanding (which is always so much tougher than just acceptance) and only through all this, a truly globalised world, which exists not merely as a notion, but as a successful concept. Each character in the film battles/defies pre-determined conceptions about themselves; these are formed as a result of conditioning and awareness that result from the primary tools that humans use to recognise each other: languages and appearances (costume, colour of skin, hair colour, nakedness). Before each exchange, the first question the lead character is asked is: ‘Do you speak Spanish’? – he doesn’t, but that will not, must not hamper exchange. As he negotiates the Spanish-town geography, a few children approach him and ask him: ‘Are you an American gangster?’ Why do they ask him that? Why do we wonder the same? It is because we are conditioned to believe that a lone, serious, lanky shape that wanders the streets of a modern city must belong to a criminal – it is what cinema has taught us, it is what we believe. The man-with-no-name is an ancient creature, anachronistic in today’s world; a man devoid of an identity is an inconceivable creature in this newly porous world, for if he has no passport, no driving license, no social media existence, no political affiliation, how do we identify him? And if there is no identification, how can there be any categorization? The world arranges itself into a single, universal culture at a pace so swift that man, the eternally rationally creature, will look for ways in which to arrange and classify this increasingly torrential flow of information, people, ideologies, social structures and the like – for the greatest horror of mankind is to exist in a world that is mysterious to him, that he cannot understand, that he cannot master. But as Jarmusch posits, the more we attempt to control the world we live in, the more it will escape us: if there is anything that has limits, it is not how much of an enigma the world can be, but the control we have over its eternal malleability. An image we imagine to be a painting will convert into an actual scenery, a naked girl will turn into a movie-reference, a small, tiny bistro will suddenly turn into a giant interior location the moment the lead character will turn his head to look left (after all, in cinema, it is the direction of the human eyeline that illuminates dark corners and reveals new spaces; human vision is like torchlight in cinema, it is the ancient discoverer) and the ‘American gangster’ lead, in the ultimate scene of the film, will recede into a toilet, discard his flashy suit, wear a jumper with the Senegalese flag on it and walk out of the building (thereby breaking our movie-audience perception of him). In the final seconds, the film, hitherto shot with the camera firmly and professionally set on the tripod, will suddenly attain a vitality when someone will remove it from the clamp and swerve it a little to allow it to register a soft-focus, badly lit blurry image of the exterior – right in front of our eyes, the entire universe of the film will self-destruct. Nothing, in a world that changes so quickly, will exist as we know it.

Cold Harvest(1999) / Isaac Florentine
This is the sort of cinema-folding-back-onto-itself masterpiece that is rare to see in the 21st century, where everyone seems desperate to move forward and break away (some aesthetically, some through the use of technology and finally, some by bullshitting their way through). This Florentine masterpiece treads genre-based iconographies and movie-universes the way most films can only tread, say, a scene or a narrative. 

In a post-apocalyptic world, people wear dusters, enter salons, talk tough, sweat profusely, sling guns, duel like cowboys (there is a final showdown rapidly cut to a swelling-up music score as well) and bathe like actresses from a French period-drama. The lead, played by Gary Daniels, is introduced in a scene borrowed verbatim from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Apart from iconography-loans from Spaghetti Westerns, the film is also, in parts,  a chase-drama, a mutant film, a sci-fi film (the production design includes a lot of things with buttons on them, a control room setup, tracking-and-homing devices), a good ol’ action film, a strange childhood grudge-revenge film (the villain and the hero share a childhood rivalry) and there is also an a sentient benevolent race of gypsies who speak English like they are in Star Wars. There are injections also of post-punk, lots of leather and chain gangs like Sogo Ishii’s early 80s films. It is as if Florentine believes that if the world were to enter an apocalypse, it will collapse inevitably into a series of endless movie-homages.

Still, one of the great achievements of this film is the very complex psycho-sexual relationship between the female lead and her brother-in-law, the hero. It is rendered sexless by the virtue of her being pregnant (and of course, since it is all just like Civil War, preggers equals pure) but it is also simultaneously strange because the hero and his brother were twins, so that her brother-in-law looks just like her dead husband. Also, the villain Bryan Genesse inhabits this kaleidoscopic, multi-dimensional world perfectly, adding a baritone to his voice and squinting whenever he can, it is a tremendous performance in a tremendous film.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

A Dead Revolution

Things have been a bit slow blogside; I was mostly involved with the organisation of the film festival as part of the annual Delhi International Arts Festival, setting up the new issue of Projectorhead, a small Retrospective of Alain Resnais and separately from these(unfortunately or perhaps not) making a living. The favourites at the Intn'l Festival include: Fat, Short, Bald Men(2011), a rotoscopy Colombian film by Carlos Osuna and in very minor portions, the 1991 Van Gogh by Maurice Pialat (in '90 and '91, three great filmmakers attempted their personal renditions of the painter). The latter was screened on 35mm and the screening was well-attended; the same cannot be said of the other, lesser known films for which the halls were sparsely populated, both by people as well as their enthusiasm. A Polish film, Krysztof Krauze's My Nikifor (2004) was also interesting, at the very least, it featured a pretty cool film (and festival) ending slideshow of hundreds of the 'naive-artist's' works - film putting up a painting exhibition. At any rate, I have been writing a few capsule reviews both for the Projectorhead blog as well as for the magazine itself; one of the most intriguing films of this year for me was the recently-late Koji Wakamatsu's 11.25: The Day He Chose His Own Fate(2012), which debuted at Cannes and was one more in his series of films set in Shōwa series (word's out that he made a new one before his death). Below is an excerpt from my review of the film.

11.25: The Day He Chose His Own Fate(2012) / Koji Wakamatsu
Wakamatsu’s frontally-shot, semi-sterile, mechanical and harsh digital images seem to put Mishima’s revolutionary streak into perspective – one may build a considerable argument that this draining out of the romantic aspect from a revolutionary proclamation is (at the least) easier with digital video, because film’s inherent quality can cause an objective criticism of any idea to collapse rapidly – while the unsophisticated, clean and entirely ‘real’ digital image will remove planar/compositional conveniences of the film image and present all lofty claims, as if made to stand in an inquisition, in the foreground. This is an attribute typical of one of Wakamatsu’s last features – a film about the controversial Japanese novelist, Yukio Mishima, as he leads his merry-band of acolytes/sycophantsin the demand for the restoration of Japan’s loyalty to its Emperor, the nation’s kokutai and the Samurai bushido code; but eventually, to their brutal suicides on the fateful date listed in the film’s title. Wakamatsu’s approach towards the treatment of the Mishima character is exceptional and if a single word would describe it, cautious – he remains vary of presenting the almost-Noble laureate as a visionary or a superstar-rebel, instead choosing to entomb the kindred human spirit in a grave full of mirrors. As such, Wakamatsu is clear about presenting Mishima as a sincere, earnest individual with a set of very personal beliefs and the balls to carry on with them, but he doesn’t romanticize these as necessary qualities; choosing instead, to let Mishima expound on rambling and endless exposition that reveal not merely his actual incapacity to achieve anything of value, but also, at the film’s harshest, just how pathetic his entire endeavour was. 

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Tokyo Driftin'

The online film journal I run with a few great guys, Projectorhead just grew a blog of its own. You can visit the subsidiary branch of the magazine here: I will, over time, syndicate a few of my posts there, here. The first is on a recent great film I saw at the Mumbai Film Festival (I originally made the 1600 kilometers long journey to watch a restored print of Once Upon a Time in America, but as it turned out, the house was declared full. It was full, but of empty seats, but that's a story for another day). Here,

Outrage Beyond (2012) / Takeshi Kitano

2010’s Outrage features as one of its final sequences a neck-snappin’ execution, the method of which lends itself graciously to Kitano’s perfectly perpendicular, two-dimensional, side-scrolling video game manner of composing and then staging a shot – as the character drives his car further towards the right end of the frame-proscenium, a chain tied to a singular metal contraption present in the left half of the screen snaps tightly, thereby resulting in inarguably agonizing murder. The right half of the image is high-strung by the left. While this is, in the overall scheme, merely another act of violence in a long series of such acts that have preceded it (and will, needless to say, follow it), it is perhaps the only one which includes within itself the room to accommodate sympathy – in the scene that precedes the execution, the murdered character is shown to make love to his girlfriend (who will die as collateral damage in a bullet siege aimed at her lover) and as such, is deemed to be the only functional human being in a melee of programmed and practiced upholders of abstractions like clan loyalty, honour and personal prestige. His eventual death in the car therefore renders the vehicle an entirely human object, the container of a now subdued human heart. Outrage Beyond begins with the image of a similar vehicle being retrieved from within the ocean (the ocean and its shore are often points of culmination in a Kitano film; it is interesting that this film begins with it) – the image of this piece of soggy, dripping metal strung up by an invisible crane in the middle of the screen is a purely industrial one. It calls into mind a very similar image from Louis Malle’s 1973 documentary, Human, Too Human, a film about modern vehicle manufacturing industry and the coldness of the whole arrangement. In Outrage Beyond, the title of the film supers in large red serif font over this image of the car – it is the perfect manner in which to begin a sequel, with the notion that time (in-movie time and real-world time between the first film and the sequel) has rendered cinders of old memories frigid and the human car at the end of the first installment meaningless material at the beginning of the second.

I presume that very few film directors in the world can afford the luxury to end the film the manner in which Takeshi Kitano ends his latest. Kitano uses the entire duration of the film (as well as that of the preceding installment) to set up a large situation of warring gangs trying to gain control over Tokyo, but instead of a large payoff at the end (‘101 Ways To Murder’), Kitano’s Otomo pumps a bullet or two into Kataoka (the policeman and a big jerk, the real villain of the piece) and then, as the recently dead slumps to the ground, looks over his body in a low-angle that is as much the point-of-the-view of the murdered, as it is of the audience members whose collective complacent expectations of the film Kitano’s just taken a piss over. With this final scene, Kitano brings to culmination not merely a power conflict or a narrative problem, but also a certain tradition in the gangster-rivalry film. Instead of bothering with the usuals: dude egos, ambitions of vulgar power, hierarchical conspiracies, loyalty to clans and a world-ending final montage of individual deaths, Otomo eliminates the very engine that drives the giant genre-mechanism – the character who schemes to setup one gang against the other and enjoy the show as they destroy each other. In essence, Outrage Beyond exists first and foremost as a latter day meditation on the common tropes of the gangster film, their inevitable redundancy (someone gets to the top, other wants his position, so on and so forth) and eventually, through this final sequence, their defeat.

Such contemplative audacity is resident not only in this aforementioned scene, but throughout the film; because if Outrage Beyond is anything, it is not a yakuza film, but a post-yakuza film. A sustained atmosphere of a world coming to a somber end seems to permeate through the film, in that, the sedate gliding track-ins that open almost each scene, the tired medium frontal close-ups that its characters populate, the absence of any real soundtrack and character conversations that contain more meaningless mumbling than wisecracks seem to suggest that if the first film was the party, the second’s just the hangover. In that, it employs its duration to not ‘up the stakes’ in the manner of a blockbuster Hollywood sequel or create a cutesy wrap-up of the casual barbarism and haemo-shower-variety show resident in the first film, but instead, take the gangster film and volunteer that really, because the gangster film is inevitably driven by a hunger for power, no conclusion is possible because as long as there is a hierarchy, there will be those who are actually powerful and those who wish they were instead. Therefore, the only real end is to murder the agent (in this case, the policeman) that induces entropy into a stable system and through this, preserve the status quo. So even as there are many shootouts close to the end, Kitano’s big point remains to make them seem like a stuck record, playing itself endlessly into an infinite loop of absolute pointlessness. These shootouts are so many that eventually, Kitano manages to leak the human possibility out of them (as Michael Mann tells us, even gangster takedowns involve human death) because as they keep going on, you don’t even know who’s dying and who’s killin’ – I suspect Kitano even got the same extras to play roles on either side in successive sequences.

As such, Kitano cleverly reduces the gangster universe inside his film – specifically the yakuza universe to an anachronistic setting, a fascist setup run inside a world that really has moved on from such adherence to empty symbols. It is notable that unlike the first installment, the sequel doesn’t feature a single real interaction between the habitants of the gangster universe with those of the world outside – there are no wives, girlfriends, children or mothers – it is as if these gang members live in a giant bubble of delusion by themselves. They seem to possess an enormous amount of power (which is why, the problems), but its application seems to effect no one but those in their peer group. Kitano concerns himself with constructing therefore a universe which projects its energy externally (by becoming a social concern or public enemies) but internally; it wouldn’t be a surprise if the final twist is that they exist on an island far from the coast of Japan. Kitano’s piece-by-piece takedown of the yakuza world, of which he has now been a cinematic ambassador for over two decades now, is very interesting – he reduces it to a universe obsessed with hollow symbols and their pursuit; his character Otomo is the enfant terrible who no one likes because well, he could care less. He talks down to ‘seniors’ in the organization, refuses to take orders and has no interest in setting up his own crime-family. In this, Outrage Beyond is closest not to other gangster films, including a few made by Kitano himself, but to the twin jidaegeki dramas of Masaki Kobayashi – Hara-Kiri and Samurai Rebellion, where characters (or as in the case of Outrage Beyond, a single character) enters a state of rebellion against a system built entirely on the sustenance of illogical symbols, the sort of which Kitano reduces the yakuza existence to – seasonal gifts, tattoos (a character, while emphasizing the undeserved reputation of a peer laments, ‘He doesn’t even have the correct tattoos’), chopped pinky fingers, suited attire (the henchmen wear black suits, the bosses can choose their sartor and such.

Kitano then takes to evaluating his own ‘violent guy’ persona – if Outrage Beyond is a great film, it is because he is interested not in creating another manifestation of his gangster persona, but an old-man’s ‘looking back at it’ introspection of it. When the policeman character informs him in prison of an impending parole and encourages him to join the yakuza setup again (again, to induce chaos into a stable setup and to get them fighting again), Kitano replies, ‘I am too old for this shit.’ And it’s clever, because as he pulls off his private Gran Torino with it, it seems to be a message similar to the one inherent in Seijun Suzuki’s Tokyo Drifter, where the director uses his lead character to mouth a message of dissent to the studio that asks him to keep making the same type of film; explaining his predicament to another character, the drifter exclaims: ‘I keep trying to move on, but they keep asking me to come back.’ With Outrage Beyond, Kitano conducts some Tokyo Driftin’ of his own.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

A Love of Materials

Antonio Gaudi (1985) / Hiroshi Teshigahara

Antonio Gaudi ties into the rest of the Teshigahara filmography also via the theme of metamorphoses – his work seems to delve perpetually into the  of this metamorphoses of an object (in Teshigahara, it is crucial to view the human body as a material, a thing) from one form to the other; therefore, a number of his films situate themselves in the middle of this mutation. As a filmmaker, Teshigahara’s pre-occupation remains not the end result of this process, but the process itself – if presented therefore with a ‘work in progress’, he is bound to focus on the ‘progress’, rather than the larger ‘work’. In Antonio Gaudi, Teshigahara devotes the final third of the film to a very material study of the Sagrada Família, not arguably Gaudi’s most famous accomplishment, and yet, incomplete or unfinished. The film contains several shots of the structure surrounded by construction cranes, cement, workers, safety helmets, wooden framework and other modern architectural framework – it is essential therefore, that it is seen as a work-in-progress and a structure built of brick, mortar, ceramics, stained glass and wrought iron. It is also not entirely untrue that the film can sometimes make the site of the church building resemble the laboratory from The Face of Another, where throughout most of the film, a man’s face is the site of a formidable architectural ambition.  

Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Solitary Usherettes

The sort of women whose specters will inevitably haunt the theatres of their employment long after their bodies are dead,

New York Movie '39 , Edward Hopper

Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003) / Tsai-Ming Liang

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Images of the Colonised

Gate of Flesh (1964) / Seijun Suzuki

Contras' City (1969) / Djibril Diop Mambéty

These two very similar images belong to films that both deal with colonization – the first thinks of it in an entirely metaphysical manner; the second, in an entirely material. In Gate of Flesh (1964), Seizun Suzuki mourns the complete overwhelming of the Nippon spirit (which in his film is the spirit of the warrior) by post-War American presence; in Contras’ City (1969), Djibril Diop Mambéty mocks the coloniser’s complete failure to exist in harmony with the land he colonises. While Suzuki documents this utter ruin of the human soul through a group of characters committed to hedonism as an ideal, Mambéty has his fun at the expense of the baroque French architecture whose presence is an anomaly in the city-scape of Dakar (in a close-up of a French building, a voiceover remarks: ‘It looks like a pastry’). Both images feature symbols that do not fit with their general surroundings (a US flag and a French building, surrounded by refugee ghetto and a slum, respectively), but still insist on being there by existing at a greater elevation than whatever structure surrounds them – the background of the image colonises its fore through altitude-based hierarchy. Eventually, however, Mambéty’s statement from an interview holds true: ‘If you make an anti-colonialist joke, you are also making fun of the colonized themselves.’ 

Friday, September 7, 2012

The Portkey

Easy Virtue (1928) / Alfred Hitchcock

Hitchcock makes a big deal out of still-life objects in the opening courtroom sequence of Easy Virtue: each one of them is presented as a singular entity, a magic portal to a time gone by and in reverse, a time to come. As such, whenever the investigation features a mention of a particular event in the past, the audience inside the courtroom as well as the audience outside of the film must use an object to facilitate this time travel and allow the film to illustrate visually what is only being talked about in the courtroom. A particular decanter gets the most attention, with alcoholism and the resulting unrestrained brutishness being the big ideas of the film’s first portion: therefore, whenever the prosecutor inquires with the wife about the decanter, Hitchcock summons the whole diegesis of the courtroom and allows it to get suctioned into the decanter (held tightly in the hands of the prosecutor) the moment the film cuts to a close-up of it. When the camera tracks back out from the close-up, we are now into the past, into another diegesis – the decanter therefore becomes some sorta scene-sponge, where it inhales the whole of the courtroom into itself and then exhales it into some living room in the past. In films, the past often looms upon the present, but in this case, it is the present that forces itself onto the past, invading its sanctimony through a decanter-shaped opening.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

A List

It's lisztomania in cinephile-town, but I wouldn't want to, at any rate, let the following exist as either a consolation prize or as a convenient substitution for the real thing. Let's just think of it as a personal record really, nothing more, nothing less. If anything, it will atleast help us know where I'm coming from. Also maybe, over time, I can keep updating it to suit my convenience.

There is then a list of films I love unconditionally, fourteen titles in all, and as is evident, I like titles which have 'night' either in their title or in their spirit. This list is followed by an inventory-list of a number of top-of-the-head titles which could also decide to sub any day, any time of the week. Here goes, in no particular priority,

  • The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) / Sergio Leone
  • Taxi Driver (1976) / Martin Scorsese
  • Jaws (1975) / Steven Spielberg
  • First Loves (1974) / Kryzstof Kieslowski 
  • Kanchenjungha (1962) / Satyajit Ray
  • Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx (1972) / Kenji Misumi
  • Night of the Demon (1957) / Jacques Tourneur
  • Night and the City (1950) / Jules Dassin
  • Le Trou (1960) / Jacques Becker
  • Mystery Train (1989) / Jim Jarmusch
  • Jalsaghar (1958) / Satyajit Ray
  • Modern Times (1936) / Charlie Chaplin
  • Night and Fog (1955) / Alain Resnais
  • Gate of Flesh (1964) / Seijun Suzuki

Titles to recall and smile about on a cold winter night
The Burmese Harp, Le Samourai, Raging Bull, Ajantrik, Aguirre: The Wrath of God, Psycho, A Clockwork Orange, Modern Times, Les Vampires, The General, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kagemusha, Sunrise, Ivan's Childhood, PlayTime, At Land, A Trip to the Moon, Dersu Uzala, BlowUp, Young Frankenstein, Le Mepris, La Dolce Vita, The Story of Adele H., Real Life, Vengeance is Mine, The Third Man, Kuroneko, Anand, A Grand Day Out With Wallace and Gromit, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Peeping Tom, Sherlock Jr., The Killers (Tarkovsky), Treasure of the Sierra Madre , Shock Corridor, Woman in the Moon, The Lady from Shanghai, Oldboy, The Red Balloon, Close-Up, M., Witness for the Prosecution, Three Colours: Blue, Repulsion, Kaagaz Ke Phool

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Odd Obsession

Branded to Kill (1967) / Seijun Suzuki
Everything in Branded to Kill is fetishised to the point of odd whimsicality – characters obsess over the smell of boiled rice, assassin-ranking systems, butterflies, dead birds, sniper-scopes, gun-barrels, naked female bodies and the director himself creates one super-collage of dedicated fetish-imagery by shooting everything either in long telephoto lenses or front-on – thereby either creating ‘pretty pictures’ out of every goddamn object or reducing it to its most fundamental, as-it-is form. There is nothing that exists if not to serve purely surface-level pleasure; there are no great ideas about imperialism as in Gate of Flesh or genre-reflection like Tokyo Drifter, but as pop-objects go, it is one helluva film.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Image Deluge

Deccani Souls (2012) / Kaz Rahman
The first ten minutes of Kaz Rahman's 2012 film, Deccani Souls, have a distinct feeling of impending disintegration that pervades through them - it is as if the image is constantly coming apart at its seams, a faucet about to burst because of the contents that occupy it. As a result, Rahman must act as the editor-gatekeeper, allowing at a maximum only two or perhaps three disjointed images into the frame, but not more. Finally, as all of them jostle for space with each other, they seem to arrive at a reasonable reconciliation, an uncomfortable compromise: the superimposition. The superimposition is a often enough a cutesy pictorial tool - wu-xia epics would use it to establish looming presences and to indicate the oncoming of a major event - Rahman's film tells us that the superimposition is also the tool to depict a midwinter fever-dream or memories - because as memories go, when they rain, it's a downpour.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Seven Times Over

As we recover from the Lang post, allow me to present to you the seventh issue of the online film journal I run with Sudarshan Ramani/Suraj Prasad (both of 'em being unclickable). It is called Projectorhead and the seventh issue carries as its center-piece a roundtable on Martin Scorsese's Hugo and how it belongs to the larger, four-decade long Scorsese filmography. I participated in that and wrote an essay on the films of the Indian mainstream director, Dibakar Banerjee.

Here is the link to the issue: (check also: past issues,

Below, an excerpt from the piece I wrote:

'A good detail (of the production design, or a character tic or the way a line is spoken) does not have an existence of and by itself – left alone, devoid of a larger universe of which it is merely a byproduct of, the detail is merely an annoyance – a contrived vehicle for the director to show-off his ‘eye’. In that, it is perhaps slightly tragic that people do detail-spotting with Banerjee’s films – because if anything, a detail exists only as an engine to propel larger ideas that permeate through the film, like the walls in Fuller’s Shock Corridor or the gun barrels in Aldrich’s World for Ransom. A detail for detail’s sake is never the marquee event in a film. If the discussion of a film, any film, remains restricted only to its most visible and exterior surface, i.e., the details or performances - as opposed to the embedded theme or a subdued subtext or centrally, softly-stated truths that dwell at a micro-level within the film – it is either the failure of the film or of the discussion.'

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

In an interview to William Friedkin in 1976(this), Lang admitted to the interviewer that films like Dr.Mabuse: The Gambler, Die Nibelungen, Metropolis and Spione had tired him out by the end of the ‘20s and that what he really wanted to do was a ‘personal film about one or two characters.’ Of course, he tried it with M, but M is nothing if not about the problematic notion of a mob-mentality and the very idea of a shared belief. Perhaps, Lang got the sort of independence (a filmmaker euphemism for ‘just let me be, sucker!’) he sought when he finally got around to making films for/in Hollywood – even if a lot of his 30s English features are marked for their admonishment of the mob and of a resolute belief that a person can only ever take right decisions in private, and never while influenced by a collective(this idea is manifest in Fury but also in You Live Only Once; mob-paranoia is also something that can be thought of as a direct yield of Lang’s political preference). As such, crowds/mobs in Lang are always looked with a distinct suspicion – they are capable, as is shown in a number of films, of incidents of great violence, absolute thoughtlessness and misguided sentiment. As a precursor to these, they are also easily misled (the ‘Sandor Weltemann’ sequence in Dr. Mabuse Part II – Inferno: A Game for the People of our Age, where Mabuse en-disguise hypnotises a whole auditorium of people that outside of the film screen, includes us) and influenced (bad-girl Maria in Metropolis) or just plain irrational (M). For all his distrust, therefore, of the mob, however, Lang could shoot crowds bloody well – better perhaps than most, notable contenders include Lean, Niblo, Gance, Monty Python, K.Asif. He knew a thing or two about how to let massive hordes of people populate his geometrical compositions/austere frames, but his real skill lay in actually providing them with a real personality as opposed to just impressive, but shallow presence. This, I believe, was an ability that rose out of a genuine intrigue for human sentiment/impulse as opposed to an ultimately empty fascination for scale/magnitude. As such, Lang could insert close-ups, long-lens shots and ‘faces’ where others would satisfy themselves with wide-shots filled pictorically with dots of varying intent and sizes. 

Below, some Lang crowds:

Saturday, July 28, 2012

The Sneak

Bigger than Life (1956) / Nicholas Ray
When Ed Avery (James Mason, tremendous ol' fashioned craftiness), only recently informed of an illness and disturbed, therefore, by the prospect of how it will disrupt his middle-class American life, goes to the bathroom and looks at himself in the mirror - he decides after a few moments of private contemplation to take the 'miracle drug' (the McGuffin in the film) that may cure him. When he causes the mirror cabinet to open, thereby causing the reflecting surface to swivel, one may catch a quarter-second glimpse of an intruder, a trespasser of Eddie's solitude, another occupant of the bathroom - half-crouched but very alert, it is the director of the film, Nicholas Ray, dressed in what seems to be a off-white (more white than off) overcoat. This is a very curious incident - one that momentarily interrupts the sustained poetic realism of the film up till the point but also, at the same time, enforces Mason's performance of Avery as a normal everyman desperate to live up to someone else's standards.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Notes on Gangs of Wasseypur - I

Gangs of Wasseypur (2012) / Anurag Kashyap

  • The film has been praised for being a sincere depiction of rustic life – the lower-class villagers are no longer weak or noble, but are vicious and self-serving within the universe of the film – as such, Kashyap has revised the filmic representation of the villager in Indian film, or even better, empowered them via-film. This is all hogwash – firstly, Wasseypur only rarely deals with the 'underprivileged' villagers that the film is assumed to revise – his characters are political leaders, gang leaders, the sons of gang leaders and owners of slaughterhouses/butcheries. Kashyap merely replaces social poverty with moral poverty - where they were poor and therefore, inhabitants of a land the middle-class didn't really understand earlier; now they are seen with an even more sinister eye: as people who can murder and mutilate you in a second. It isn't as if Kashyap gave them any real personalities/ambitions – they merely exist as vessels of different modes of violence. This is not empowerment; this is misrepresentation.
  • One may argue that the film has a genuine class-based unrest – but actually, the initial promise it makes of social/economic upheaval through a scene where a first generation criminal discloses his secret desire to usurp power (and is found out through the most convenient contrivance of Hindi films: a passing bystander who happens to overhear this disclosure) is soon replaced by personal vendetta and mano-a-mano upmanship. The son of the aforementioned criminal does not wish to climb up the social ladder (scenes depicting his ascent are done very tardily and lazily; unlike the picaresque dexterity that Goodfellas or even Deewar bring to the fold) because of a deep-rooted social ambition, but his life, as he states, has only a single motive – revenge. As such, he exists not as a social object (or symptomatic of a larger town, as Kashyap would have us believe), but as an isolated case – a person who has devoted his entire life to picking a historical bone.
  • The whole publicity of the film and the manner of the film itself sells Wasseypur as distant exotica – even worse than the likes of Boyle or Lang at their worst, because in their cases, atleast the director admits to not-knowing. The characters in the film are always bragging about the eccentricities that prevail in Wasseypur - so that us city-dwellers can laugh  and snicker at them without ever having to face the real danger of actually being in such a gangland because well, Kashyap, ever the documentarist of ‘real life’ - has ventured into that territory and shot footage, the rad-director that he is. The truth is, the film is merely 'replacing the urban cool with a rural cool' – as such, it is, at best, an ‘artsy’ Dabangg.
  • The Wasseypur of the film is as a mythical land that exists only to become a pop-culture object. So what if there really is no real geographical location of the town or it seems almost as if historically/politically severed from the rest of the country (the final sequence of the film that this film takes its name from, Gangs of New York, in which the skyline makes multiple-transitions to finally take the shape of the present, situates the place specifically within a historical context – and it is done with the simple precision that great directors always possess) – the publicity of the film tells you that if you are a fan of the film, you too can become a ‘Wasseypuri’. This sort of identification or syndrome of allowing the audience to place themselves in ‘someone else’s shoes’ is symptomatic of a comics convention (where fans step into the attires of their icons), but not of a film that claims to offer a kaleidoscopic-view of a real, existent social situation somewhere.
  • The directorial voice is perpetually amiss throughout the film – there is no texture that Kashyap as an artist lends to the film, there are no signs of a conscious intelligence behind a tale that runs throughout on autopilot mode. The truth is, even if your story is ‘solid’, ‘sprawling’ or ‘epic’, someone’s still gotta direct it. If, as Perkins said, cinema as an art that is a yield of a number of clear decisions made by the director – then Wasseypur has very few. In order for a film, any film, to exist as a real, tenable object – it must be something (good, bad, anything), but the problem with Wasseypur is that it exists as a nothing-object, it exists in some sort of a peculiar vacuum – as a result of which, you cannot call the film good, or bad, or anything else. It is strange to watch a film so terribly devoid of a(any) personality – yes, the film has all the crude sexual humour that you may associate with a Kashyap film, but it is critical to remove the script from its direction and see them as two separate functions. While there is former, which is why there is a film, there is no latter at all. If there are directorial decisions, however, they are ones like the following,
  • In showing a character who lusts after women and looks at them merely as sex-objects, Kashyap actually shows us all the women in the film from the character's point-of-view, thereby letting us, the members of the audience, share in the lust-show, instead of allowing us to merely look at a strange lustful eccentric from a distance and then, perhaps, putting him under the scanner, where he can exist both as an eccentric, a comic object or someone worthy of our disgust.
  • The huge myth that Kashyap has created around himself, a huge bubble of appreciators that follow his every move very dangerous - because while what someone else does is not my business, but I feel a lot of earnest cinephile interest is investing itself in the pursuit of an ordinary director - and such a large collective can make such mistakes only in the age of the internet. Earlier, if a large group of people would like one guy, you could be damn sure he is bloody good, but now, it could just be hype.

Monday, July 2, 2012

The Resurrection-Loop

Sunnyside (1919) / Charlie Chaplin

Chaplin is less a person and more a notion, and there really isn’t anything new anyone is saying when anyone says that. It wasn’t as if he was ever viewed as a real human being at any rate. Two years into his career, he inspired merchandise (itself pop-culture’s way of facilitating ownership/domestication of an otherwise inaccessible ‘star’ or ‘myth’ or ‘notion’), cinephilia consistently thinks of him as a cinema-deity and when they gave him that Honorary Oscar, they correctly, and trivially, discussed the possibility of his immortality (again, people are never immortal, symbols are) when they stated that he will survive as long as there is a screen and a projector. The idea that a Chaplin film may someday become a relic (like Leaud in Tsai-Ming Liang’s
Face) is not entirely ridiculous. If an apocalypse hit and if intergalactic invaders had to carry home certain proof that we did exist, a Chaplin film would suffice – in that, the idea that his work from the past will transmit to the future is one in which the quality of eternal sustenance is present. Yes, Chaplin is permanent – but his permanence is not of the forever-sort i.e. to say, he is not always relevant – Chaplin, or the notion of him, has to resurface, regain importance, re-emerge or resurrect – like the feeling of fear that will leave once to return again, Chaplin will go away, but never to never return again. He is the comeback-sort: whether in his career – first as the evolved Tramp (the Tramp in Mabel’s Strange Predicament, considered the character’s debut, is rowdy, mean and a prick – he also has a complete moustache), then as an actor who can speak, and then as an apolitical nostalgist – or as a symbol that stands in different times for different things, the qualities of resurrection or at worst, redefinition must always attach themselves with Chaplin.

That is why Sunnyside is Chaplin’s shorts-era masterpiece – while A Dog’s Life is great (and a heady introduction to Chaplin’s Miyazaki-type insistence that modern life has reduced man to an animal existence) and Shoulder Arms is where the notion that ‘even in the middle of a great tragedy the human heart will beat’ is most visibly manifest – Sunnyside is where Chaplin’s skill at spiritual resurrection after complete personal erasure comes through most solidly. The mysterious penultimate scene of the film, where Chaplin crouches in front of an oncoming vehicle (even in the 20s, vehicles were already considered apt for the carrying out of a suicide) and braces himself for certain death – as you expect a sudden gag, the film quick-dissolves into a scene where Chaplin’s character is reunited with his love, and together, both of them bid goodbye to the urbane-love-rival. This could be the dying character’s fantasy (he has a similar fantasy in the middle of the film) or merely a technical snag that caused the erasure of the gag that follows the action of crouching-down in front of the car – whatever it is, in both cases, it is resurrection.

Sunnyside is also excellent for another reason – Chaplin made silent films, which apart from an occasional whimsical contribution from the overlaid soundtrack, did not feature any diegetic or ambient noises. As such, most of his gags are based on visual hysterics – things you can see. Therefore, the broader, funnier strokes in a Chaplin film are often the most easily appreciable only through looking at them (this is a quality that is inherent in the Indian Chaplin-homage, Pushpak, where most of the thrill is through entirely ‘visible’ gestures: an illusionist, a knife made of ice and such). But the narrower ones, the unobvious routine-actions aren’t necessarily dependent only on the audience’s sight, but also in their ability to imagine a sound. When Chaplin’s employer in the film walks in from the other room (this geography or understanding of the spatial arrangement of the space is crucial to the comedy of Chaplin, even more to that of the Marx Brothers) one early morning to wake Chaplin up to get him to work, Chaplin responds by sitting up almost immediately. Satisfied, the employer walks back to his own room – the sly Chaplin, assured that his master can only hear him from across the wall and not see him, plays a feign-game that entirely involves sounds: he rattles his shoes on the floor, causes an object by his bedside to clink and creates other sounds so as to suggest a departure to the listening employer in the other room. In that, Chaplin’s silent film is full of sound and noise.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012 a bird that rides a hippopotamus

The link below is not listed, and therefore, won't show up on Youtube search. That means that I cannot upload it to this blogpost. Still, watch it for it is a revelation:

One may argue that in the scene above, there are two distinct realities at play – the first of the smaller mounted camera, and the second of the larger, intimidating and wholly intrusive (it conveniently juts into the frame of the smaller camera) camera it is mounted on. The first reality features a diegetic rendition of a peculiar science-fiction, futuristic perhaps, magical wide-angle world: there are metallic ramps, fluorescent green mats covering the windows, shifty walls, large wooden shelves that slide politely to a side when requested, lamps that dim by themselves and ultimately strange people (they applaud a magic trick where the card never disappeared and therefore, cannot reappear). The second reality is of course, not visible to us at all – we do not have any idea what the larger camera is recording – or if it is a camera in the first place. It is therefore, only when we get the opportunity to see the final film in the theatre that we are introduced to an altogether different reality – one that locates and then disperses meaning in the scene that we never saw before, a context which wasn’t immediately obvious earlier and an assurance that the second, larger device is capable of recording. We also realise that the smaller camera is perhaps the more giving out of two – letting its own reality be subjugated in the favour of its elder cousin’s.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Relative Dislocation

I usually do not post excerpts of criticism for I see film criticism, as well as the art it describes as a giant Deleuzian abstract machine (as Adrian Martin describes it in his essay on Tsai-Ming Liang's films: water as the abstract machine) wherein influences/loans/inspirations are absorbed by a part inside the whole mechanism, and then passed onto the other parts: thereby, a massive circulatory system, or a network, if you may. As such, a critic or a film writer or a film director is perpetually quoting, or deriving, or posting excerpts, even if not consciously. Such circulation of influence or (at a lesser-glorified level) riffing is an event one must not and cannot resist. However, I feel this excerpt below from an interview of (who else, but) Adrian Martin, conducted for the Slovenian journal Ekran by Nil Baskar describes so perfectly the situation a number of exciting critics/curators/cine-lovers feel in India currently, and therefore, must be shared as a conscious decision:

Q: You live in Australia, which does not enjoy – at least until now – a reputation as a particularly cinephile part of world. Does this relative dislocation from some of the important sources of contemporary film, Europe and the States, somehow affect your critical work?
AM: To answer this question, we must rehearse the entire geo-political history of film criticism! Seriously: in a sense, I will answer you as any serious film critic from Ireland, Taiwan, Canada, and so many other similar places – places that have been ‘in the shadow of the great world powers’ – would. Because we are talking about a long history (mention of this is made in Movie Mutations) in which – just like in the art world and other cultural/intellectual spheres – the ‘centres’ or capitols of film-thought and film-discourse were taken to be only France, USA, to an extent UK … And it didn’t matter how rich or alive the film-culture scene was in your ‘local’ scene – if you weren’t from, or in, one of those ‘centres’, you simply didn’t exist on the ‘world stage’ as a critic. (I know it well personally: for my first 15 years as a writer, I barely appeared in print outside of Australia. There would be many similar stories.) As a result, we (in general) know the identity of so few of the best critics (or the best teachers, or the best journalists) around the world who worked over the past century … And it is not just a matter of ‘small countries’: Spain, Germany, Russia, Austria, Italy and Japan (to take random examples) have remarkable histories of film culture, but they too have barely been recognized, for so long, on the cinematic ‘map of the world’. So, to come back to your question: does this ‘relative dislocation’, as you put it (one could use less polite words, like imperialism, geo-political oppression, colonialism, etc!), affect the critical work of me or my Australian colleagues? Of course it does; invisibility is both difficult (you feel alienated from so much going on elsewhere in the world) and enabling (you have a dream, a Shangri-La, a Utopia to strive for!)

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Scenes of Crime

From Louis Feuillade's mid-1910s crime serial, Les Vampires: individuals in various states of transgressions:

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Six Times Over

The sixth issue of the online film journal run by me and some rather patient friends is now out for your perusal. 

Here it is:

An excerpt below, from my contribution to the inaugural discoveries section at PH:

...The idea of Cinephilia is tremendously reductive in this country – it essentially comprises of the guys in the big city publishing e-zines or blog posts to be read by guys in another big city, or guys in a big city organizing film screenings for the other guys in the same big city, or the last straw: guys in one big city making short-films (or features, recently) to be watched by guys in another big city. Basically, Cinephilia as a metropolitan idea – a clique of metropolis-dwellers celebrating each other.  Film-love, in order to be truly effective, has to percolate down to the rest of the country. With regards to that, it is an encouraging sign in the last two years; the Indian film festival circuit is evolving like an amoeba-network, a seismic wave that seems to have no certain epicenter, but spreads as potently, nonetheless. New film festivals seem to be coming up in smaller cities – other smaller film festivals enter their second or third editions, new entrants to the circuit include Pune, Kolhapur, Allahabad, Darjeeling and Jaipur. While these are still second or third-tier cities or even state capitals, this is an encouraging sign. Encouraging also is the annual BYOFF (Bring Your Own Film Festival) that takes place on the beaches of Puri – it is a festival that functions with the utopian ethic of no rules, no selection criteria and thereby, no juries and no hierarchies. Everything that is sent to the festival is given a screening slot...

Monday, April 23, 2012

Human Vampires

Up until that particular 50-or-so minute mark in Feuillade's Les Vampires, the eponymous gang is claimed to be a menacing band of no-gooders who behead patrol policemen, poison stage performers, create fraudulent identities and commit a double-homicide before making one of the most spectacular (yet graceful escapes) in the history of cinema (The Great Vampire's touchdown via-a-pipe at the end of 'The Severed Head'; shot in a single, unbroken take, is as fluid as Assayas's post-post-modern imagining eight decades later). Suddenly, however, in the third chapter, 'The Red Codebook', an intertitle announces revelry in the Vampires' camp - which then bleeds into the ensuing shot: Dr. Nox and Irma Vep scheme in the foreground with squinty eyes and grouchy noses as the great criminal-club transforms into a sea of casual normalness ('see, they aren't even wearing latex masks and suits!') behind them. Abruptly, Feuillade severs the film that will follow the intertitle from the film that precedes it - the vampires will no longer be a menace, but petty criminals who do what they do because they must - not because they want to. It sets up a grand narrative idea as well - Guerande will now wage an equal war, not an impossible one - as his humiliating defeat at the end of the first chapter would have had us believe.