April 28, 2013
April 14, 2013
Arbeiter Verlassen Die Fabrik (1995) (aka Workers Leaving The Factory)
“Never can one better perceive the numbers of workers than when they are leaving the factory. The management dismisses the multitude at the same moment. The exits compress them, making out of male and female workers a workforce.”
Made during the centenary of the medium, Harun Farocki’s marvelous, dense filmic essay Workers Leaving the Factory (1995) traces the lineage of Auguste and Louis Lumiére’s Employees Leaving the Lumière Factory (1895), cited here as the first film ever made, through the history of cinema. (What the film doesn’t mention is that were three similar versions of the film, each with its own bunch of curiosities.) “It was as if with film the world would become visible for the first time” says the narrator. Farocki starts out by analyzing the Lumiére siblings’ film on aesthetic and social levels. On a purely formal front, we notice the sheer kineticism of Lumieres’ minute-long, single-shot film, in which masses of people enter the screen and almost instantly exit it from the right and left like streams of water from a hosepipe, “as if impelled by an invisible force”. Presaging Eisenstein’s handling of masses of people, the streamlined movement in the shot gives us a sense of observing a workforce, as opposed to a group of individuals.
Farocki also treats the Lumiéres’ film as a kind of social document and imagines the social and political scenario within and outside it. His narrator points out that, in the film, there is no sign on the factory’s façade, no sign of its importance and no sign of its economic power. (The place is, in fact, the Lumiére factory in Lyon, France.) She also remarks on the condition of unions at the time when the Lumiére brothers’ film was made, noticing that there is no sign of the worker’s power either, even though the European union feared a worker’s uprising at that time. With the help of footage from the Ford facility in Detroit, 1926, Volkswagon in Emden, 1975, an unnamed industrial establishment in Lyon, 1957, and from tens of fictional factories including from the films of D. W. Griffith, Charles Chaplin, Robert Siodmak and Fritz Lang, Farocki’s endlessly curious work studies how this singular image of workers exiting the factory premises has been captured on film during its hundred years of existence.
The narrator comments, early on, that this is “an image like an expression, which can be suited to many occasions”. It analyzes the gesture of the workers, their gait, their possible state of mind and their physicality: workers evacuating colluding police, police evacuating protesting workers, man waiting for a woman outside the gate, woman waiting for a man, gangsters entering factory for a job, workers leaving the premises and joining a Nazi rally, workers jubilant about entering the factory, workers lumbering out after an exhausting day. (This study of space and movement reminds one of Farocki’s prison-based films, which strike a Foucauldian equivalence between spaces and movement in prisons, asylums, supermarkets and factories.) Gradually, the film comes to serves also as a critique of representation as the selection of clips runs the gamut of ideologies: a propaganda film from Eastern Europe glorifying work is balanced by an excerpt from Lang’s Metropolis (1927) in which we see the robot-like workers checking out of the factory. Zeroing in on the sameness of all experience – work or leisure – in post-industrial societies, the voiceover notes that “this vision of the future has not been fulfilled. Nowadays one cannot say with a glance whether a passerby is coming from sports, work or the welfare office”.
Harun Farocki is among the most materialist of directors and his films have always been concerned with the material presence of objects and people they present. More than any other director, it is Farocki who is to be called a “process filmmaker”. A photo shoot for Playboy magazine (The Image, 1983), construction of a series of advertising images (Still Life, 1997), planning of a shopping mall (The Creators of Shopping Worlds, 2001) and the manufacturing of bricks (In Comparison, 2009) – many of these films have been preoccupied with the processes by which ideology materializes itself in the realm of the visible, the audible and the tactile. Sometimes, they are about the process of seeing itself – as is the case with As You See (1986), Images of the World and the Inscription of War (1989), War at a Distance (2003) and a number of his installation projects – and about how the European Enlightenment tradition has come to anoint sight as the preeminent channel of perception. Workers Leaving the Factory combines these two lines of examination, and explores both the physical act of workers exiting the factory and the change in way we have seen this process through the years.
Farocki finds this space just outside the factory triply dialectical. For one, it is the space of direct confrontation between Labour and Capital: between picketers and guards, between strikers and police. The factory gate becomes the membrane that separates work from workers, an economic system from its constituents. It is at this factory gate where Labour and Capital identify themselves by identifying the other. Secondly, Farocki imagines this space as the meeting point between the liberal and communist concepts of property and theft. While the territorial imperative of Capital defines the place in front of the gate as private property, for the workers it becomes an area of discussion, congregation and protest. “Where the first camera once first stood, there are now hundreds of thousands of surveillance cameras”, goes the narrator, pointing out how cinema unwittingly became the instrument to safeguard Capital.
Lastly, the space outside the factory has become something of a limbo between “First Cinema” – films from Hollywood and industrial cinema in general – and leftist cinema –early Soviet cinema, Socialist Realism and other partisan film movements. While the latter revolves around work and working conditions and contains depersonalized narratives driven by organized groups of people, the former is almost always about life outside work. In these films, narratives about individual lives begin once work is over and the impersonal, faceless workforce dissolves into separate somebodies. They replace our leisure time with that of the characters, our problems with theirs and provide vicarious pleasures and catharses. “Whenever possible, film has moved hastily away from factories” says the voiceover, as though incriminating it for attempting to make us forget our everyday working conditions and, from a vulgar Marxian perspective, for momentarily rejuvenating us for the next day’s work. Farcoki’s work reminds us, whatever the nature of the specific film, that this image of workers leaving a factory needs no explanation. It is an expression, an idiom, a turn of phrase in itself and, as the Lumieres’ film shows us, one that is as old as the language itself.
[Workers Leaving The Factory (1995)]
March 31, 2013
March 23, 2013
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Profit Motive And The Whispering Wind (2007)
John Gianvito’s Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind (2007) is prefaced by a quote by Utah Philips (but attributed to a certain Claire Spark Loeb): “The long memory is the most radical idea in America”. Inspired by Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, Gianvito’s film is an attempt to chart the history of the country through gravestones, individual memorials and geo-historical markers. Unlike Zinn, however, Gianvito doesn’t have the descriptive advantage of the written text. His is, notwithstanding the texts we encounter within these images, is a visual project in which history ‘materializes’ itself in the signatures of the visible. For Gianvito, this history, too, is a history of class struggles. Starting from the early Native American movements, through slave insurrections and worker uprisings of the industrial era, to the Civil Rights Movement and current-day social protests, the film, like Zinn’s book, sets the framework for a historiography of America based solely on – organized but not necessarily politicized – people’s movements. Profit Motive brings to mind essay films such as Landscape Suicide (1986), Robinson In Ruins (2010) and, more recently, differently, Molussia (2012) in the way it probes for the strains of a troubled past on a sedate visible present. Presenting indicators of modern life – highways and cars – right next to site markers detailing strikes and revolts that took place centuries ago, the film hints at a causality and reflects on how history continually affects and shapes the here and the now. The Whispering Wind of the title, which resembles a tribal Indian name, on the other hand, derives from the numerous shots of wind-ridden countryside, forests and grasslands that punctuate the film. (They remind one of D. W. Griffith’s comment about filming the wind in the trees.) These winds become something of connecting tissues between the shots of the monuments and have a mythic quality to them, as though they are immortal, invisible balladeers channeling history from one time and place to another.
March 16, 2013
Paradesi (“foreigner”, “nomad”), the latest by noted Tamil filmmaker Bala, is a film that’s not going to win any new converts for the director. Those who find his work to be representative of the best of Tamil cinema are going to come out nodding while those who question its merit, among whom I’m moved to classify myself, will find themselves shrugging. It’s either the next logical step in the evolution of a personal vision or the result of a filmmaker becoming prisoner of his own image. Perhaps it’s both. The title “Bala’s Paradesi”, two words that feed into each other, kicks off the opening credits, which consists of a series of monochrome sketches depicting a community of natives forced to pose for the artist. Locating Bala’s film in the representative, visual tradition, the sequence also unwittingly bestows upon its author the role of a chronicler, a mute observer and of a person in and colluding with power. In the first shot, the camera cranes down quickly from a bird’s eye view of a village down onto the ground, as though indicative of a world where God has fallen, before nimbly snaking in and out of the muddy alleys to give us a sense of life in this village. This is India a few years before independence, we are told, but the seemingly anachronistic village seems to be completely isolated from the happenings elsewhere in the country. We are introduced to the local announcer and workhorse Rasa (Atharva Murali), a quasi-outcast who falls in love with an upper caste girl – a union that gets rejected by the local council thanks to his profession, which primarily involves trumpeting news of death. To marry the girl, he tries to rise above his position and find a more honorable job outside the village. By turn of events, he, along with hundreds of others from the village, ends up as a bond labourer at a tea plantation estate owed by an undesignated Briton. Doomed fatalism and an affable mythic simplicity characterize this first half, which functions as a portrait of Man’s dignity and the transformative power of love. More importantly, this section of the movie is studded with images of silhouetted bodies and huddled masses endlessly traversing through barren landscape. Human body and land – the two chief material elements of Paradesi, as much as DI-inflected brown and green are its two major chromatic elements – are in perpetual conversation in Bala’s movie. The Marxist of transformation of nature through physical labour and decimation of bodies by and for the sake of land are two actions that recur throughout. The second half of the film, which bears an aesthetic and thematic symmetry to the first, comes across as something of a heightened, contorted version of the former. At the tea estate, the classified community of the village is flattened, with slavery of one person, Rasa, transmogrifying into the slavery of an entire populace. This juxtaposition is becoming of Bala’s film, which comprehends slavery less as a political phenomenon and more as a human condition. This stance enables Bala to wallow in his signature brand of miserablism, with its characteristically condescending camerawork and wailing soundtrack. For his film, slavery is a universal condition enforced upon one people by another with no room for resistance. It elides, on a conceptual level, the question that the plantation owner in Quentin Tarantino’s new film asks: Why don’t the slaves all rise up and kill the masters? (For a Hegelian examination of slavery, see Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s Vidheyan (1993).) There’s an unknowing yet eerie parallel between the idea of a group of lumpen workers surrendering their bodies to an all-powerful plantation owner on the promise of remuneration and the way Bala uses non-professionals and their bodies in his film. If Tarantino the filmmaker, like his bounty hunters and plantation owners, deals in corpses, Bala, like his many mythical villains, deals with human bodies, exotic and imperfect. (One shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that Bala, like Tarantino, is incriminating himself here. The film itself is oblivious to the similarity and the parallel is curious, at best.) Of course, I could list all my fascinations and problems with the film, but I would only be repeating myself. Bala’s method here, despite the film’s CGI-finish and surface gloss, is at times reminiscent of Third Cinema films, both in its cut-and-dried ideology and roughhewn dramatic values – broad acting, blunt satire, authorial omniscience and a superficial mythic allegory that reveals its social criticism as much as it conceals it.
March 10, 2013
Far From Heaven (2002)
“Do you think we ever really do see beyond those things, the surface of things?”
Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven (2002) opens with a shot of red autumnal leaves before the camera cranes down from heaven into the town of Hartford. This shot – a direct reference to Douglas Sirk’s beautiful All That Heaven Allows (1955), whose quasi-remake Haynes’ film is – locates the film squarely within Sirk’s universe and announces right away the derivative and thoroughly cinematic nature of this enterprise. It also signals the film’s preoccupation with the look and sound of the Sirkian world that it wants to depict. Right from the retro typeface of the film’s title card, through the emphasis on era-defining objects of the film’s world and seasonal details such as autumn foliage and clothing, to its use of outdated figures of speech and Elmer Bernstein’s intense score, Haynes’ film is obsessed with the minutiae of Sirk’s universe, with the surface of things. (Haynes shares another trait with Sirk: the two are among the most articulate American filmmakers, directors who are remarkably clear-eyed about their films.) Far From Heaven is the kind of film that academicians instantly cotton on to. It is an analysis of Sirk’s cinema and a case for it as cinematic art (as though that were necessary). It is Douglas Sirk refracted through decades of film theory.
Set amidst the suburban excesses of Eisenhowerian America, the film centers on Frank, an affluent resident of Hartford, Connecticut, and the earning member of the Whitaker family which comprises of his wife Cathy and their two children. Dennis Quaid plays Frank playing the role of a upwardly-mobile businessman with familial responsibilities while Julianne Moore plays Cathy playing a dedicated homemaker and much lauded society woman. The Whitakers are the cynosure of the town’s eyes (Mr. and Mrs. Magnatech), with their professional successes and grand soirees. Frank, however, is struggling to confront his sexuality, a revelation which might bring down all that he’s worked for. Cathy, meanwhile, barely more than a prop in her picture perfect household, takes a special liking to her composed and taciturn African-American gardener Raymond (Dennis Haysbert). Caught between a crumbling marriage and a forbidden love, poised to lose everything that has given her an identity, Cathy must choose between what she wants and what is wanted of her and negotiate the lines between the personal and the social.
One of the things that sets the film apart from its contemporaries is its almost classical use of the mise en scène. Haynes uses a meticulously picked, heightened colour palette that conceptually takes off from Sirk’s (saturated primary colours for the white denizens and their environment and deep reds and browns for the black community) but produces striking images of its own. Same applies for the lighting that alternates between chiaroscuro and softly graded and the dialectical use of indoor and outdoor spaces. Haynes and crew retain the cinematographic devices of the studio-era, especially the dissolves-in-camera and strategically employed Dutch angles. In fact, Far From Heaven, imbibes much from sources besides Sirk, such as Max Ophüls’ Madame de.. (1953, a film that’s also about the horror of surfaces), Rainer Fassbinder’s remake of Sirk’s film Ali; Fear Eats The Soul (1974, entrapping double-frames using architectural elements) and, of course, Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman (1976, décor details, which also haunt Haynes’ Mildred Pierce adaptation). Outside of film, it appears as if Haynes’ major aesthetic inspiration comes from Edward Hopper, whose downbeat yet somehow hopeful vision of post-war America and use of incandescent light and chromatic contrasts seem to inform the scenes depicting Hartford at night.
Period films run the risk of treating History as a closed project, as a fossil frozen in time, clinically isolated from the present. Steven Spielberg’s period films, for instance, are informed by historical hindsight and characterized by current day morality bleeding into the past being depicted. Issues of the past are addressed as just that: issues over and done with. As with most mainstream films, the audience here knows right away where their sympathies and convictions lie and what is morally just. This triumphalist perspective of history offers – not unlike films about poverty, problems faced by Third World women and pre-modern cultural practices, in general – the liberal audience an opportunity to pat itself on the back, to patronize on groups not yet shown the light of the day and to align itself to and ratify the Enlightenment project. On the other hand, ambitious period films, as do ambitious sci-fi pictures, locate what are decidedly concerns of the present – problems affecting us here and now – in a narrative apparently located in a different historical time. They open up history for scrutiny, presenting it as a force that still bears upon us, and undermine our moral convictions. History, as it were, bleeds into the present.
Admittedly, and evidently, Far From Heaven attempts to work against conventional narrative approaches to history by trying to retain a radical edge to its story. It replaces partly outmoded taboos of Sirk’s film with ones that are still provocative. The rationale is that today’s audience would find the forbidden love story between an upper-class widow and her working class gardener a bit too easy to resolve compared to the edgy sexual and interracial tensions of Haynes’ film. (Substituting class with race and sexual orientation is, in a way, indicative of the trajectory of Western counterculture, where the more global grand-narrative of class conflict has made way for niche identity-politics and the struggle for economic overhaul has transmogrified into a struggle for cultural change.) The swap pushes the envelope, sure, but is it radical? Hardly. Fassbinder’s remake of Sirk’s film, made three decades before Haynes’, had a younger African immigrant labourer as the object of an affluent widow’s desire. It is, of course, unfair to demand of Haynes’ film to emulate the radicalism of Fassbinder’s by stacking up the odds against the union as much as possible. However, like numerous primetime social experiments with hidden cameras, the moral equations remain so clearly resolved that even a conservative audience would know which side to take.
Perhaps it’s the inherent simplicity of the form that Haynes employs that necessitates the film’s moral clarity. Two obvious questions come to mind watching Far From Heaven: why the 1950s New England milieu and why Douglas Sirk? Why not a current day realist drama? (That’s a question provoked by the entirety of Haynes’ body of work, which consists almost completely of period pieces.) Haynes’ answer is part-Bazinian, part-Godardian:
“I think the best movies are the ones where the limitations of representation are acknowledged, where the filmmakers don’t pretend those limitations don’t exist. Films aren’t real; they’re completely constructed. All forms of film language are a choice, and none of it is the truth. With this film, we point out at the start that we’re aware of all this. We’re not using today’s conventions to portray what’s ‘real.’ What’s real is our emotions when we’re in the theater. If we don’t have feeling for the movie, then the movie isn’t good for us. If we do, then it’s real and moving and alive.”
One infers that, instead of creating a new schema for this self-conscious artifice, Haynes chooses to adopt a démodé form, to draw from a more primal, more impassioned aesthetic. What is interesting here is that Haynes’s film embraces this form neither for parodying representational conventions (as has become the norm for many films too clever by half) nor for emotionally disengaging the audience (as do many films, including Fassbinder’s, that consciously take to melodrama). Instead, it places full faith in this ornate, innocent yet complex form to generate emotional connection between the text and the viewer. A postmodern exercise with genuine affect, if you please.
Although Haynes is working in an anti-naturalistic mode, he is still very much works in the psychological tradition – an unusual combination that further complicates Haynes’ complex brand of humanism. Despite his post-Humanist approach to his material and his formalist inclinations, there’s always been a streak of real humanism in all his films. Sure, the Barbie doll actors and the subversive documentary trappings of Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1988) are meant to satirize popular culture’s obsession with gender-programming, but it’s also sympathetic towards the plight of Karen Carpenter the person. Carol (Julianne Moore) in Safe (1995) may be the means by which Haynes criticizes the soulless lifestyle of Reaganite American suburbia and its empty concerns, but she’s also fully human. (Carol and Cathy are essentially the same people, separated by space and time.) The many Bob Dylan avatars of the trailblazing I’m Not There (2007) are definitely used to illustrate the politico-cultural space in which he created his music, but the film is also practically a love letter to him. In this film, Cathy is a victim of her ethos, but she’s also a rebel, as is evident from her many acts of defiance. Her osmosis from sacred to forbidden spaces is an act of revolt on par with Dylan’s countercultural gestures. The expectation-defying Far from Heaven - a warm and unironic heterosexual drama – like most of the director’s films, likewise, is something of a rebellion on Haynes’ part against a film culture that perennially tries to pigeonhole filmmakers into broad labels and easily disposable categories.
March 2, 2013
The Attacks Of 26/11 (2013)
Ram Gopal Varma
Ram Gopal Varma’s latest exploitation venture, The Attacks of 26/11 (2013), which purports to illustrate what happened during that long night in Mumbai when 10 armed men entered the city via sea and carried out a series of assaults in key public locations, killing over 150 people, opens with a statement that only a certified cultural amnesiac like Varma could have made – that 9/11 is the most heinous crime to have occurred in the history of mankind. That it brings in an incident that happened 7 years ago in the US is not an analytical move that geopolitically links these two events, not even a naïve leveling of the two incidents as interchangeable acts of absolute Evil, but – bizarrely enough – a betrayal of the film’s ambition to emulate Hollywood-styled Realist-reportage pictures. However, Varma is too straight-shooting and tactless for employing questionable Hollywood screenwriting tricks and, unlike most successful Oscar darlings, Attacks does not refract its agenda through a protagonist in order to surreptitiously validate itself. It wears its ideology on its sleeve, telling us exactly what we want to hear. Sure enough, there is the account of Joint Commissioner (an indefatigable Nana Patekar), whose voice of reason (which is clearly Varma’s own unoriginal voice, as are all the other voices in the film) tries to pass off what were essentially stupid, haphazard attacks as a clear-eyed, exactingly-planned project, but, for most part, the narrative remains dispersed and free of character subjectivity, serving as illustrations of unshakeable truths – fictionalized Reality rather than Realist fiction. Inventive like a child, and just as intelligent, Varma’s film consists chiefly of a high-speed handheld digital camera sweeping the many enthusiastically arranged, corpse-ridden tableaus, with violins wailing in the background. Not artful by any stretch of imagination, of course, but it would do well to those complaining about the lack of subtlety (a currency that Varma doesn’t ever deal with) in the film to remember that the nation’s real-life response to the events of 26/11 itself had the subtlety of a shark in a bathtub, making Varma’s movie pale in comparison. Condemning the movie would only serve to conceal the fact that our response to the attack was no better than a tacky exploitation flick. Varma’s aesthetic has consistently celebrated Hindu belligerence, which was lapped up by the public when it was married to the ‘right’ subject, and it becomes especially problematic here, despite Varma’s vain attempts to undermine it with the film’s professed secularism and its tacked-up, self-defeating Gandhian ending. In an interesting gambit, Varma abstains from showing us how most of the attackers themselves were shot down, which keeps postponing gratification for the audience. This 90-minute-long-foreplay-without-a-release results in a special challenge for the film, with the sole possible means of retribution coming through the figure of Ajmal Kasab (Sanjeev Jaiswal), the only attacker captured alive, who is saved from graphic violence thanks to the film’s loyalty to reality. How the movie appeases the audience hereafter unfolds in two monologues that are better left undescribed. Besides its moviemaking aspirations, Varma’s film also has the obvious ambition to narrativize history, to resolve the necessary contradictions in our understanding of the events, to assure us that we have obtained closure, to simplify complex causalities of the real world and provide a ready-to-eat account of events that the audience can digest without trouble. It took America eleven confusing years to tell its story to itself. We took just five.