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.

13 Assassins (2010) / Takashi Miike
At the outset, I must admit that I had to pause the film in the middle, around the 86-minute mark, in the middle of a scene in which the leader of the group of assassins, standing atop a roof in the village where the final massacre takes place, shouts, ‘Kill them! Kill them all!’I had to stop because I had to cry and like a famous critic once said, ‘it’s difficult to continue seeing when your eyes are blurry with tears.’ I cried because at one level, I realized that what I was watching was a great film, but also because I was overcome with gratitude in front of the power of this medium that so many of us owe the meaning of our existences to. That it can move me so much does not fill me with merely awe, but also much humility. I must also confess that Miike very carefully deposited the moral centers of the film, with a very clear demarcation between the good and the bad and while initially, that led me to believe that it was a very convenient setup for a great action film (which I was enjoying thoroughly), I later realized that this move was crucial in order for him to mount his elaborate revision of older jidaegiki dramas. As such, a few notes:
  • Till around the 100-minute mark in the film, Miike allows us to revel in the infallible situation he has setup – men-on-a-mission to kill an evil Lord. It is one of cinema’s unfailing premises – but as soon as the situation begins to go out of the hand and there is a lot of senseless murder (enormous, numerically and in terms of the means used to effect it) Miike suddenly breaks the film’s mould and transmogrifies it from a batter-ram action film to one clearly critical of the audiences that exult in glee at such violence (I fell for the ruse, for instance) – this, he achieves via-a clever two-way strategy, the first by allowing the character of the evil Lord to channelize all the feelings of the viewer. He exists therefore not merely as the villainy-deposit in the film or as target-practise, but as an excellent self-refential in-film commentator who functions on the wrong side of our sympathies, but shares more than a resemblance with us in terms of how we experience violence. For instance, when the leader of the eponymous thirteen assassins spreads open a scroll that reads, ‘Total Destruction’ to display to the forces that guard the Lord, we smile wryly in anticipation. What does the Lord do? He smiles wryly in anticipation. At a point during the showdown where the propensity of action attains a certain scale, you stare at the screen with wonder, he does the same. Similarly, in the final scene, when the grand-showdown condenses to a duel (and here, Miike mocks attitudes to not just this samurai film, but to many others) and the participants wield their swords gracefully, the Lord suddenly remarks, ‘The duel between two swordsmen is so elegant.’ He reads our mind.
  • Miike also achieves this auto-criticism through a quick shift in aesthetic strategy and by shifting the gears of violence up a notch in a very sly move – the meticulously planned action-choreography in the first half descends into absolute chaos in the second – a collection of short-burst meaningless visuals of blood-spurts, people groaning, falling, dead, muddied and bloody bodies; sounds of swords clinking, groans, grasps, shoves, footsteps on grovel, rain-splatter – but it is just a Grand Guignol of absurdity. The great moral purpose of the fight is lost and by the end, everyone’s killing each other for the heck of it. In a crucial shot, the pupil of one of the thirteen assassins is stabbed by the sword of an enemy-samurai and he falls down, his head sideways – this alignment of his head offers Miike an opportunity to alter our perspective of the whole situation. We enter his subjective point-of-view, from which the dying student now sees his master, hithero an honourable and a very effective swordsman but now eliminating men mercilessly. From the student’s tilted (and therefore, skewed/distorted) perspective, we can now see what his samurai-idol really is: a blood-thirsty and merciless killer, who really has no affinity for the honour of a sword – as soon as he loses it, he picks up a rock and brutally crushes the heads of two enemy soldiers to pulp before dying himself. Through this, Miike demystifies (and more relevantly, deglorifies) the ancient film-samurai, his death is not as clean or as geometric or hygienic as in Kurosawa’s films, but messy and dirty – the samurai collapses into the same slush as everyone else.
  • But where the 13 Assassins is an even more effective film is in that it really launches a serious inquiry into the benefit of leading one’s life by the samurai code – one led with selfless devotion, sacrifice and utmost loyalty to his master – but Miike sees this more as an subjugation of the samurai’s individuality, his private beliefs and his status as a human being – Miike does not outright dismiss them, but he does cautiously establish the samurai to eventually just be worker-ants, blindly and mindlessly committed to the sustenance of the feudal cause (this there is the Kobayashi strain of the film) and bordering on the verge of being slaves serving ungrateful masters. When Hanbei, the retainer, gives up his life for his Lord, loses the duel against the leader of the thirteen assassins and is eventually beheaded, the Lord walks up to the severed head and kicks it away. That act renders his death futile and purposeless. When the Lord is murdered finally and the mission is complete, only three members from the assassination-team survive: the leader, Shinzaemon, his nephew (a recent convert to the samurai life) and a wandering vagrant (a clever-play on the Mifune character from Seven Samurai). The nephew approaches his dying uncle, who tells him: ‘The samurai life is too tough, all these codes. Do something else with your life.’ Post-this, when the nephew wanders the scene of the massacre, he stands in the middle of burning houses and a floor laden with dead bodies, the vagrant engages him in a conversation and asks him what he will do now; the nephew, now devoid of a mission, a mentor or a master (earlier in the film, one samurai says to the other: ‘we are nobodies, we are affiliated to no one.’ This is because they are on a secret-mission and everyone will disown them) is clueless. He wonders aloud, ‘I will go to America and make love to women.’ – this reveals the eventual futility of social service (and really, Miike filmed it as if they were serving themselves, the grateful villagers of Seven Samurai are missing from this film) as opposed to empty-headed casual hedonism and the idea that ties this film obliquely with the great Chaplin, Monsieur Verdoux, where Chaplin posits that to merely exist means to be selfish. Cleverly, the confused samurai does not walk into the sunset (or into the background of the image), but exits through the foreground, i.e. planar-differences that represent a severing from the classical presentation of the samurai character.
  • The film does end with a title card that announces that indirectly, the massacre brought about the Meiji Era in Japan, thereby rendering the whole assassination consequential, but still, Miike ensures that it wasn’t an act of collective sacrifice as it was of a lot of individual ambitions finding a means to fulfill themselves.

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