Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
George Miller
English

 

Fury RoadMad Max: Fury Road, directed by George Miller, has been hailed as some sort of Halley’s Comet of Hollywood filmmaking. Early reviews have waxed poetic about its action filmmaking chops, its scene-by-scene inventiveness and its supposed verbal terseness and have somewhat misguidedly fetishized its use of real stunts in place of CGI – something that flummoxes me given how much of CGI is, in fact, utilized in the film. Though I found its limited inventiveness adolescent, its dialogue superfluous and banal and its direction exhausting, with its corny, rapid zooms, split second edits, its pointless disruption of spatial integrity, the eye-sore inducing orange-teal colour scheme and the lack of emotional weight that marks the best of action cinema (there is a reason why the chariot race in Ben Hur works), I did not find myself provoked enough to write a putdown of the film. Action films, after all, have the capacity to accommodate and neutralize a wide range of shrill notes and who’s to argue that critics shouldn’t derive aesthetic pleasure out of this sub-Boetticher material. However, recent think pieces have started exalting its writing, especially the film’s politics, which is what has finally pushed me to type this note out. Let’s see what Fury Road is about. The film is set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, where a tyrannical patriarch, Immortan Joe, controls the city’s water supply and raises men to become war machines and women to become baby-dispensers. Joe and his boys regularly go to war with neighbouring districts for oil; they gather oil so that they can ride out to war. It makes no sense and may be that’s the point. One day, Furiosa (Charlize Theron), the only woman in Joe’s army, renegades and runs away with a massive rig containing not just oil, but also his five wives whose reproductive rights he has colonized with medieval chastity belts. In the women’s ride to neverland, they are joined by nomad Max (Tom Hardy), who is undergoing a crisis of masculinity after having failed to save his family from destruction, and Nux (Nicholas Hoult), who has liberated himself from Joe’s paternal authority. Together, they bring down Joe’s reign and establish a more just society under Furiosa. I suppose the film thinks this is all intelligent and subversive. We are expected to buy into the film’s declarative “This is America today” posturing. Like all mainstream moviemaking, Fury Road has the privilege of attracting academic and critical interest with half-committed ideologies while hiding behind an excuse of simple entertainment when examined deeper. (It celebrates the same automobile fetish it seeks to criticize.) Miller and co-writers mount on screen the most basic feminist meta-narrative, without any sort of personal inflection or rough edges. (There is, as addition, awfully problematic bits like a conspicuously scarved woman and those deluded war boys dreaming of a better hereafter and yelling “witness me” while leaping to death.) The resulting work has the subtlety of a jackhammer and pays lip service to a set of stillborn theoretical ideas that place nothing at stake. At its worst, it panders to a set of politico-cultural beliefs in a way that is not different from the market segmentation of studio machinery. This is the mainstream counterpart to Michael Haneke’s “I’ve got it all figured out” brand of smug filmmaking. It’s allegorical cinema for those who hate allegorical cinema.

Nirbaak  (2015) (Speechless)
Srijit Mukherji
Bengali

 

NirbaakSrijit Mukherji’s Nirbaak (“Speechless”) tells four stories of doomed, extraordinary love. There is, first of all, a man in love with himself (a delightful Anjan Dutta), one so self-absorbed that the only time he reaches out to another person outside himself is when he imparts pithy advice to a heartbroken girl: “Love yourself”. There is, secondly, an unrequited love of a tree for a woman (Sushmita Sen) featuring arboreal onanism and animist BDSM – a pressing subject that, I daresay, has never been attempted on film till now. The third segment is about the jealous love of a dog for his master (Jisshu Sengupta), while the last speaks of a love beyond the grave. A professed tribute to Salvador Dali (a monument of self-love and self-pleasure, if there was one), Mukherji’s rather well behaved exquisite corpse nevertheless contains ideas outré enough to make Kim Ki-duk envious. For a good part of the movie, the filmmaker weaves his scenes nimbly, cycling through a few precise camera setups, experimenting with some zany angles and having fun with an anti-realist sound palette. It is in the third section, where psychological realism supplants absurdist comedy and bland shallow fields replace the interesting wide-angle interior cinematography so far, that the mildly amusing tips over into the annoying. What should have been a weird but strangely dignified image of a dog’s possessive love instead becomes kitsch, suffused with absolutely redundant POV shots through the animal’s eyes rendered in monochrome. That, and not the intent to portray the toxic love between man and animal, is anthropomorphism. The ultimate impression of Nirbaak is that of an earnest student film: too focused on its conceptual framework to allow for accidents, too transparent in its technique to sustain mystery and too disciplined to befit the personality it is dedicated to.

Bombay Velvet (2015)
Anurag Kashyap
Hindi

 

Bombay VelvetWhat struck me most about Anurag Kashyap’s unanimously derided Bombay Velvet was how thoroughly unoriginal it is. Right from the history of Bombay-that-might-have-been to the black eye that Johnny (Ranbeer Kapoor) carries, the film builds a relentlessly artificial world far from the realist trappings of Gangs of Wasseypur (2012). The universe of Bombay Velvet is media-saturated, drowned in cinematic codes that paint a portrait of the city as a jarring mix of Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and New York movies. So this reimagining of Bombay as a sort of Hollywoodized America has as a welcome and perhaps unintended consequence of defamiliarizing the city, giving it a new foundational myth akin to that of America at the turn of last century – a perennially rootless territory that actively erases traces of its past, a new world for those who wish to cast off their social identities and chase a new dream and a promised land of real estate rush and hedonist abandon. The lasting effect, however, is that of a simulacrum, a Disneyland. It all finally has the air of a cinephilic wish fulfillment project that imagines how great it would have been had Scorsese made a film on Bombay. Films as cinephilic navel-gazing is not new and there is nothing wrong about them either, but this one comes across less like a cinephile infusing his material with his movie loves than him incarnating his movie loves through indifferent material. When he cites Raoul Walsh, it feels less like a tribute to his formative movie experiences than a tribute to Scorsese paying tribute to his formative movie experiences. This kind of double quotation completely erases Kashyap’s authorship, but not in any subversive way. But this was to be expected of a generation of filmmakers fed on New Hollywood. The Movie Brats, thanks partly to the French New Wave, plundered classical cinema for personal use and emptied its signifiers of any meaning outside cinephilia. And films that tend to pillage these already pillaged films are very likely to come out the way Bombay Velvet has. One gets the feeling Kashyap would perhaps have liked to belong to Scorsese’s generation. The lament is understandable: it is desirable to have grown up on cinema than cinephilia.

The View From The Train
Patrick Keiller
Verso, 2014

 

British filmmaker and photographer Patrick Keiller’s The View from the Train features thirteen essays written over a period of almost 30 years – roughly overlapping with the length his career – dealing with cinema, architecture, public housing system in the UK and physical space in general, seen in the context of the city of London. Presented in the order they were written, these essays were written originally for various architectural journals and catalogues and hence contain considerable repetition of material. While some of these pieces are not very rewarding for those unfamiliar with London’s townscape (or the works of Charles Dickens, which forms the subject of one of the essays), the others offer valuable and original insights into not just the subjects discussed but also Keiller’s own filmography, his working methods and his artistic ambitions.

Like his third feature film Dilapidated Dwelling (2000), The View from the Train deals primarily with London’s public housing in whose dilapidated state Keiller finds a kind of contradiction in late capitalism’s promises of material abundance and universal prosperity. To be sure, since the Industrial Revolution, the general condition of life has improved in Europe. The life expectancy has seen an increase while access to luxury goods has become easier. The cost of housing, on the other hand, has not stopped increasing, especially in London where, Keiller says, the rate of construction of new buildings has saturated and the majority of the existing structures are over a century old. He points at the economic system as reason for this domestic malaise:

…under advanced capitalism it is increasingly difficult to produce and maintain the dwelling…Modernity, it seems, is exemplified not so much by the business park or the airport, but by the dilapidated dwelling.

Moreover, he sees this characteristic as belonging to a bigger tendency in modernity, perhaps descending from the protestant work ethic that dominates Anglo-Saxon nations: the glorification of the values of work over those of domesticity. He summarizes thus:

The dominant narratives of modernity – as mobility and instant communication – appear to be about work and travel, not home. They are constructions of a work-oriented academic elite about a work-oriented business elite.

As a response to this near-impossibility of changing public and domestic spaces of London, Keiller proposes, the idea of subjective transformation of space enjoyed a growing popularity in the city. This, he believes, harks back to artworks and movements of the past, such as the short stories of Edgar Allen Poe and Eric Baudelaire, in which we witness a subjective capacity to reinterpret the city space, and the theories of Surrealism and Situationism, whose proponents sought a subjective metamorphosis of everyday reality in their ‘rediscoveries’ of abandoned objects and buildings. Keiller reminds us that this is not an academic concept without practical application:

Transformations of everyday space are subjective, but they are not delusions, simply glimpses of what could happen, and indeed does happen at moments of intense collectivity, during demonstrations, revolutions and wars.

This remark above recalls the aesthetic transformation of public spaces during moments of great political crisis (as demonstrated in Sergei Loznitsa’s recent film, Maidan (2014), where the central square in Kiev becomes a site for the theatre of revolution). Nevertheless, according to Keiller, this return to popularity of Surrealist and Situationist – movements with revolutionary intentions – practice and philosophy in the 1990s in London doesn’t signify as much an atavism as the bourgeois appropriation of these movements:

The dérive and psychogeography were conceived, in a more politically ambitious period, as preliminaries to the production of new, revolutionary spaces; in the 1990s they seemed more likely to be preliminary to the production of literature and other works, and to gentrification, the discovery of previously overlooked value in dilapidated spaces and neighbourhoods.

Elsewhere, Keiller investigates the mutual influence of architecture and cinema. He argues that cinema in inspired by architecture, but more importantly, it opens up various possibilities for the latter in the form of spatial critique. Cinema illustrates and critiques existing spaces and points at the possibility of new, unrealized spaces. Old films reveal historic changes in architecture and landscape and help us reevaluate current day architecture and city design.

The best passages of the book, are however, the last essays in which Keiller studies the relation between cinema and trains. Cinema is intimately related to the railways ever since its birth. The first films of the Lumière brothers present a train arriving at a station. The rapid succession of passing landscape seen from inside the train bestowed in the spectator-traveller a thoroughly modern mode of perception which made the comprehension of cinema’s moving images possible. He writes:

Both cinema and the railway offer more or less predetermined and repeatable spatio-temporal continuities, so that it is perhaps not surprising that railways crop up in cinema as often as they do. Films even physically resemble railway tracks – long, parallel-sided strips divided laterally by frame lines and perforations, as is the railway by sleepers.

In the best essay of the book, Phantom Rides: The Railway and Early Film, he analyzes films made before the 1900s and characterizes two film genres in which the railways played a pivotal role. The first consists of films that depict passing panoramas during a train journey. Scholars call the second category Phantom Rides – films that present the view of railway tracks as seen from the front or the rear end of the train. Taken together, these two genres of early cinema offer perceptual experiences which embody in them a unique image of modern times:

This sequence [from Brief Encounter (1948)], with its added superimpositions and narration, confirms an interpretation of the railway panorama – suggested by Promio’s first examples – as an image of the stream of consciousness. In 1913 Sigmund Freud wrote, famously, that psychoanalysts might usefully tell their patients to ‘say whatever goes through your mind. Act as though, for instance, you were a traveller sitting next to the window of a railway carriage and describing to someone inside the carriage the changing views which you are seeing outside. The phantom ride, on the other hand, more particularly resembles Henri Bergson’s ‘predatory’ image of duration introduced in Matter and Memory (1896), in which the present is ‘the invisible progress of the past gnawing into the future’

 

(Originally posted here)

Uttama Villain

“People tell me I’m narcissistic but I disagree; if I were to identify with a figure from Greek mythology it wouldn’t be Narcissus, it would be Zeus.”

-Sandy Bates (Stardust Memories)

“If it’s a wedding, I must be the groom. If it’s a mourning, I must be the corpse.”

-Vallavarayan (Ejamaan)

Prometheus, punished for his transgression of the divine laws of Creation, must be one of the most crucial symbols of modernity and is certainly something of a patron saint for modernist art. In this proto-democrat is incarnated the secular myth of the artist as creator, as opposed to the artist as messenger. The legend that looms over Uttama Villain is that of Hiranyakashipu, the illicit child of Prometheus and Narcissus, in whom the actor-writer of the film, Kamal Haasan, sees an alter ego. Now Hiranya was – or rather is – a special one. He is not only in love with himself, but wants the entire world to worship him. But then, in Kamal’s inverted version of the myth, Hinranya is a hero, the artist figure who cheats death and achieves immortality, the implication being that a profound narcissism must lie at the heart of all artistic enterprise. This is as close to a self-defense from Kamal Haasan as we are going to get.

The film opens with a mirrored image – a reverse shot of a projector in a movie hall – signaling its strictly behind-the-scenes ambition. Kamal plays Manoranjan, a popular star churning out vacuous movies who is jolted out of his passivity by the news of imminent death. He wants to make one last film with his estranged mentor Margadarsi (K Balachander) – the one he wants to be remembered by. There is hardly anything that needs unveiling here. Here’s the sixty-year old actor, contemplating aging, death, fame, relevance and legacy, placing his self squarely in the foreground, without really sliding it behind a curtain of impersonal entertainment like he usually does. This is part of the reason why Uttama Villain falls more in line with European auteur cinema than with the multi-authorial, generic cinema of movie industries.

The other, more surprising trait that situates the film in the arthouse tradition is its narrative construction. Unlike any of Kamal’s recent pictures, the three-hour long Uttama Villain takes its own time to unfold – ironic enough for a film about the lack of time. Scenes breathe easy. Transitions between public and private spaces take place like clockwork. There are no twists, no revelations, no withheld pleasures. In other words: no poisonous vials, no ticking bombs, no safely-guarded secrets. Throughout the film, there is no additional information that the characters know which the audience doesn’t. This atypical lack of any narrative legerdemain is amazing, for it means that there are no big emotional payoffs that await the audience. This is probably Kamal’s riskiest script to date. On the other hand, there are redundant scenes, those whose objectives have been already either established or well understood. For instance, the earliest bits with Jacob Zachariah (Jayaram) or those featuring Manoranjan’s manager (M S Bhaskar).

At a late point in the film, Manoranjan points at a tree of life chart hanging on the wall in his cabin containing the photographs of those close to him. He says it would help him not forget these people. This, of course, appears to be the very intention behind Uttama Villain: a tree of life project of its own that brings together important individuals close to Kamal personally and professionally (barely an actor here who hasn’t worked with Kamal before). More importantly, this is an attempt by the actor to narrativize his own life and to place himself in a personal and professional continuum. When his daughter (Parvathy Menon) hints that he is the villain in her life, Manoranjan quips that he is trying to be a hero in his own. This film is a veritable response to the question “Who is Kamal Haasan?” posed by those around him, sure, but also himself.

There are numerous precedents to this type of confessional cinema – Wild Strawberries (1957), Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959), 8 ½ (1963), Startdust Memories (1980), Deconstructing Harry (1997), and more pertinently here, All That Jazz (1979), of which a great writer once wrote: “There is something convenient and self-pitying about artists using their works as confessionals, where a modicum of inbuilt repentance tries to fish for unwarranted redemption, but there’s also something irresistibly human and disarming about it.” And there lies the rub. For a work that seeks to bare it all, Uttama Villain is astonishingly anodyne and unblemished. There is nothing about it that portrays Manoranjan/Kamal (there is little reason to doubt the congruity between these two personalities) as anything other than a nice bloke caught in wrong circumstances, none of the honesty and messiness that comes with this type of personal cinema. This is not as much Kamal Haasan opening himself up to us as it is him telling himself the story of his own life. There is certainly a lot of intimately personal material in here, whose truth can only be judged by those very close to the actor, but, for the outsider, the overwhelming impression is that of a martyred saint. One always senses a remove, a separating wall between his true self and the sort of self-portrait he paints here. It is as though Kamal can’t stop acting even in his real life, as though he can’t step out of the character of Kamal Haasan that he is playing every day and kill it, at least a bit. Immortality is indeed tragic.

 ————————————————————————————————————————————————————-

PS: I realize that I have not even mentioned the elephant in the room: the film within the film. I liked this segment, with its pleasant use of traditional forms and their innate expositional superfluity, and wondered what a full-length children’s movie from Kamal would look like today. The segues into and out of this track, in particular, are fantastic in the way they bridge narratives of vastly varied visual and emotional textures. More interestingly, it presents us a Kamal Haasan we rarely see these days: vulnerable, self-deprecating, less than perfect, pawn of nature and fate. I take it that the story of this section forms a counterpoint to that of Manoranjan in oblique ways and helps posit the various dualities that underpin this project, specifically, and Kamal’s filmography, in general. I find it unrewarding, not to mention to be complicit in stoking the Kamal Haasan cult, to go into the specifics, but let me just say this: The final, downbeat shot of the film – a zoom into the actor’s grainy face on screen strongly echoing for me the last shot of Altman’s Buffalo Bill (1976) – is something I never expected from Kamal Haasan at this point in his career. It is a moment that throws into question both my view of the man and all the sureties that the film has been hitherto standing on. It is the only truly equivocal image of in film in which everything else is set on a platter for academic interpretation. Has Manoranjan indeed conquered death through his art? Is immortality a product of individual enterprise? Is having your image projected on a screen for eternity immortality at all? What does it mean to live on as a shadow without body? Hell if I know.

OK Kanmani
 
Mani Ratnam’s new film, OK Kanmani, opens rather atypically, with a bloody in-game sequence cut to the track Kaara Attakaara (“player”): a strange mix of irony and foreboding that contrasts the unheroic nature of the romance in the film while announcing the fantastical quality of the narrative that we are about to find ourselves in. To be sure, there are no villains here to be vanquished, no great external hurdles for the lead couple to surmount. Unlike in the metaphysically structured Kadal (2013), there is no place for abstract Good and Evil in this universe of nuanced morals. At the same time, this world is not entirely congruent with our own, as is evident from its barely suppressed romantic idealism composed of separate but complementing male and female fantasies. We, the audience, want to love like they love; we want to suffer, if at all, like they suffer.

OK Kanmani finds Mani Ratnam returning to his beloved city of Bombay. Mumbai, this time around, actually. The summer showers are around the corner when Adi (Dulquer Salmaan) arrives in town from Chennai by train. Right away, he sees Tara (Nithya Menen), through a series of speeding trains, attempting to jump off from the platform across his. This emblematic coupling of arrival and departure would become a defining element in the six months that the couple would live together for. One of purposes for making this film seems to me to be to give a sort of cultural sanction to live-in relationships, which have of late come under attack by nationalist outfits, by bringing them into the mainstream in however comprised a form. This is Mani Ratnam being topical without puffing his chest and critical without throwing leftist journalism at us.

It is also from this point of view that the countless echoes of Alaipayuthey (2000) in this film become productive. While the earlier film centered on youngsters marrying without parents’ consent, OK Kanmani is about them living-in without the idea of marriage or long-term commitment. In the new film, caste and class differences are not even important, as long as the institution of marriage is respected. This shift between what is socially acceptable and what is not within a span of 15 years demonstrates in its own way how Mani Ratnam’s cinema has been both a response to cultural changes as well as a symptom of it.

OK Kanmani’s problems are predominantly formal. As much as the director-screenwriter avoids flab by cutting down the number of principal characters, the material here is too scanty to justify its feature length. Given that it’s only the two leads that have any other dimension than the archetype assigned to them, we have a challenging situation where most part of the film needs to be written around these two. The result is, at times, monotonous and structurally unsound. Consider the scene in which Tara leaves for Jaipur for two days. We see Tara packing her bags and leaving. The film cuts to the number Sinamika, at the end of which Tara returns home. Where a better script would have cut to an outdoor scene with secondary characters, OK Kanmani finds itself compelled to insert a song to avoid the disorientation and airlessness caused by Tara’s otherwise immediate return. What’s more, it uses this unjustified outing to initiate a subplot whose purpose is inexplicably elided for a while.

The film’s entire drama is predicated on the dynamic between the couple wherein one of them starts emotionally investing too much in the relationship just when the other is moving away; that is, on the fuzzy line around which one is either too far or too close. This tension between the need for commitment and recognition and the fear of responsibility, between individual liberty and the search for meaning, between career and relationship, between arrival and departure is what gives the film its thrust. As in many Mani Ratnam films, OK Kanmani is suffuse with shots of the hero following the heroine – through shopping malls, roads, markets, hospitals – like some twisted Orpheus myth. (This seems to be a cherished image in Mani Ratnam’s romantic imagination: men following women out of frustration, attraction, guilt but never domination – always as a powerless agent.) The dynamic is also reflected in the relationship between the couple’s elderly hosts (Prakash Raj and Leela Samson), one of whom has Alzheimer’s which takes her slowly away from her loving husband. (The two actors interpret their roles with a quiet dignity that prevents them from becoming frigid symbols). Lest this rather palpable tension elude us, the script verbalizes it for us regularly. “Don’t shout at him as if you were his wife”, reminds a friend of Tara’s. “How must Tara feel about your departure?” asks Adi’s colleague. The verbosity is startling for a director notorious for his brevity.

The individual scenes, in themselves, are a mixed bag. At its best, OK Kanmani finds Mani Ratnam doing a Mani Ratnam. Scenes like the one at the church wedding and those set in public transport are clear examples of the director flexing old muscles. On the other hand, those that treat the two leads separately in their workplaces raise eyebrow. The segment where Adi pitches his video game idea derives from a movie maker’s idea of video game development. Same is to be said of the long montages of Adi and Tara having fun in the city. It is a bit disappointing that one of our most creative directors’ idea of fun is limited to shopping, partying and wandering on vehicles. There is no indication, aesthetic or otherwise, that this image of romantic fun is being held at a distance by the director. This is not the evidence of a director abstaining moral judgment, but one who seems to be working on the ‘ídea’ of fun than fun itself. While there is much to be enjoyed from seeing a veteran filmmaker – and one fully capable of exercising mastery over his material, as this film exemplifies in parts – responding to changing times, there is also that residual feeling that the times may have left him behind in some respects.

I'm Going Home

 

“Life is a moment which is always past, which doesn’t exist anymore. It’s the genius of artistic creation to attempt to retain life. This is the function of literature, of painting, of sculpture, which preserve the passing life. Not its historic dimension, but the ephemeral dimension of things which flow like the water of a river. The place is the same, but the water isn’t.”

— Manoel de Oliveira, at 90

 

It is something of an irony that Portuguese filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira, who passed away at the age of 106 – a full life and a half – on Friday in Porto spoke frequently about the ephemerality of life. To cinephiles who have celebrated and cheered for him during each of his post-centenary birthdays, it seemed that Oliveira will be around forever, making the kind of films he makes, free not just from the ruthless exigencies of commerce, but also the passive-aggressive demands of film festivals, academia and cultural fads at large. Even the Venice Film Festival felt obliged to give him their lifetime achievement award a second time in 2004, having underestimated the late bloomer’s career plans the first time around in 1985.

To be sure, Oliveira’s vast body of work, the bulk of which was made after the filmmaker turned 70, despite regular critical acclaim, hardly fostered undying allegiance in his already niche audience. He was a thorough modernist, yet worked consistently with classical texts and themes devoid of political polemic or cultural commentary favoured by the academic establishment. He was at the vanguard of cinematic experimentation, but was so religiously bound to the written word as to frustrate “Pure Cinema” evangelists. The typical Oliveira shot is static, with the fixed camera squarely filming well-costumed actors flatly spouting dialogue in an anti-realistic, declamatory fashion. One recalls old Tamil films where actors, burdened as they were by the tradition of theatre, spoke looking at the camera than at each other.

Instead of shunning theatre for the critically venerated idea of film as a pure form, Oliveira’s cinema embraces and even subordinates its filmic elements to it. For the filmmaker, there is no real need for cinema to consciously distinguish itself from theatre, for its very nature sets it apart from the latter. Theatre is always material, contingent on actors and décor, while a movie, once filmed, is fixed and ethereal with its bodiless phantom actors. Theatre, cinema and reality form a triad in Oliveira’s films, each one feeding constantly into and illuminating the other two. Like Michel Piccoli in I’m Going Home (2001), who comes to terms with his old age only through the conventions of the stage, Oliveira believes that it is theater that helps us better understand reality.

So too with cinema, which captures fugitive moments of life and preserves it for eternity in order that we have a clearer view of it. Nowhere is this preservative quality of the moving image more piercingly and movingly portrayed than in The Strange Case of Angelica (2010), one of Oliveira’s last films and one of the greatest films of this century. Like so many of the director’s films, Angelica is a story of unfulfilled love and thwarted desire, in which Isaac the photographer (played by Oliveira’s grandson and regular collaborator Ricardo Trêpa) falls in love with the image of a dead girl he has photographed. Through Isaac’s attempts at bringing to life this girl through the imaginings of his art, the film becomes an ode to the redemptive quality of cinema in which impressions, people and memories long dead are resurrected through the magic of the medium.

Art and life: the two co-ordinate poles between which Oliveira’s cinema resides and oscillates. Characters in Oliveira’s films yearn that the shortcomings of life be dissolved in the perfection of art, while art harshly brings them back to bitter the quotidian reality around them. These romantics always want to be somewhere else – some other time, some other place, some other medium. Perhaps that is why these films routinely straddle multiple historical timelines that often meld into each other such that the contemporary seamlessly cohabits with the classical, the modern with the medieval. Oliveira’s is a cinema of longing, of this vain desire to be ‘somewhere else’, of the uniquely Portuguese feeling of Saudade, or what he himself calls, the nostalgia for the future.

(For The Hindu)

While my writing on this blog came to a grinding halt in 2014, watching and reading hit an all-time high, with the year practically spent in the eight feet between my bookshelf and computer screen. The films that I really liked last year consisted of some boldly adventurous mainstream Indian features (Haider, Dedh Ishqiya, Pisaasu, Jigarthanda), strong arthouse dramas (Waste Land, Two Days, One Night, Clouds Of Sils Maria, A Midsummer’s Fantasia), experiments in participative ethnography charting newer territories (Episode Of The Sea, Joy Of Man’s Desiring, Tomorrow Is Always Too Long), intelligent and reflexive modernist works (Actress, The Salt Of The Earth), classic fly-on-the-wall documentaries (National Gallery, Of Men And War, Maidan), purely formalist delights (Journey To The West, Panchromes I, II, III, Khan Khanne) and nearly unclassifiable mysteries without mysteries (Jauja, For The Plasma, Mercuriales). But (nearly) no film of the year, I thought, compared to the best offerings of the previous few years. Here’s hoping for a much richer 2015. As always, only the films that had their world premiere in 2014 are considered for this list. Happy New Year and good luck at the movies.

 

1. Goodbye To Language (Jean-Luc Godard, Switzerland)

 

Goodbye To LanguageThere is a reason why Godard’s explosive ‘second final’ film is called Adieu au langage and not Adieu à la langue: what it seeks to bid farewell to is not any particular language, but the system of language itself – not surprising for a film that attempts to wrestle with half a millennium’s worth of Western perceptual history. In 3D, which he employs like Cézanne employed watercolours, Godard finds a tool that can demolish the Albertian perspective of 2D images, decenter the human spectator and ultimately dethrone anthropocentric perception as the preeminent way of observing the world. The result is a torrent of phenomenological incidents in which stereoscopic images reinforce and undermine one another, stereophonic monologues diffuse into dialogue and ‘stereotemporal’ narrative shards respond to each other tangentially. Goodbye to Language is a investigation into the 3rd dimension in every sense of the word and sets up a plethora of sonic, visual, narrative and conceptual dialectics to see what the synthesis does to its two constituents. It is an attempt to find a perspective outside language – one of a dog, perhaps. No other film this year animated me and annoyed me as much. More importantly, it snapped me out of a cinephilia-induced intellectual stupor.

2. The Second Game (Corneliu Porumboiu, Romania)

 

The Second Game

The simple and cozily domestic setup of Porumboiu’s pseudo-single shot movie – the director and his father bond over a recorded game of televised football, in which the latter was a referee – belies the complex chain of implications that this physically hermetic film sets in motion. Running for exactly the length of one football match (played between two governmental bodies in 1988 on a spectacular snow covered ground), The Second Game is part-filial wish fulfillment of watching his father at work, part-review of sports aesthetics under communism and part-remembrance of an outmoded video technology, all filtered through a present day perspective. Striking an equivalence between his profession and his father’s, in both of which players have to be directed and decisions have to be made on the spot, the film is likely a reflection on whether or not the filmmaker has temperamentally inherited anything from dad, whose view of sports as perishable commodity is antithetical to his son’s view of it as art. It is more importantly one of the most intelligent and productive instances of appropriation art, with Porumboiu refashioning out of obscure sports footage a trademark film that is “long”, where “nothing happens” and which is nonetheless highly suspenseful.

3. Transformers: The Premake (Kevin Lee, USA)

 

Transformers: The PremakeIf what Porumboiu accomplishes sitting in front of a TV screen was amazing, what Chicago-based Kevin Lee does sitting in front of a computer is downright revelatory. Weaving together hundreds of internet videos about the making of Paramount Pictures’ Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014), uploaded by common folk in America and Hong Kong and official news agencies in mainland China, Lee develops a brilliant and scary picture of corporate cultural hegemony in which seemingly the entire world bends over backwards to affiliate itself, consciously or otherwise, with the American conglomerate. Imbibing the spirit of Harun Farocki and Theodor Adorno (who, not coincidentally, lend their names to Lee’s HDDs) respectively in its tracing of modern forms of labour and commodity production and its critique of the darker side of popular entertainment, Premake reveals a post-globalized, post-nationalist Hollywood whose financial motor is now set to ensure China-friendly films to capitalize a booming market – a pertinent reminder that the influence of patronage on aesthetics is strongest in cinema of all arts. It is a short, sharp alarm call about the all-pervasive nature of Big Money, which can forge adherents out of the very people it has run over.

4. Bronx Obama (Ryan Murdock, USA)

 

Bronx ObamaRyan Murdock’s bountiful Kickstarter-funded documentary about Bronx-based Puerto Rican single father and Obama-impersonator Louis Ortiz is an oblique tale of possession and haunting. For the recession-hit Ortiz, Obama’s ascension to power is not only a story of national hope, but also a personal one that rides the coattails of Project Merchandise Obama. Murdock’s richly thematic film ties his fate to that of the POTUS in heady ways that demonstrate the double-edged nature of power: while his daughter can’t take for granted the privileges that the president’s can, Ortiz, unlike Obama, has infinitely more power in being able to stop playing the president any time he wants. It is also a snapshot of a common man struggling to maintain his dignity and identity under the weight of celebrity, for Ortiz has to not only become a receptacle of repressed racial hatred towards the president, but actively undercut his beliefs and parody his idol for one-percenter entertainment. When Ortiz looks at his hero speaking on television, he is at the same time looking at a mirror, continuously calibrating his speech, gesture and gait to match those of his doppelgänger. A Kagemusha for the 21st century.

5. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson, USA)

 

The Grand Budapest HotelIt seems to me that, with The Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson set himself his biggest challenge to date. If making films with genuine affect wasn’t tough enough in a postmodern art climate where unironic approach to material is generally considered reactionary, his new movie assigns him the task of conveying nostalgia for a world doubly lost to our post-ideological age, in which the only valid nostalgia is the nostalgia for a time when nostalgia was even possible. The Matrioshka doll-like construction of the film aptly serves this objective by employing nested frameworks, each set in crucial periods of 20th century Western history, that bring this lost world closer to us instead of distancing it. The result is a deeply felt work about the enduring value of categories such as truth, beauty and basic human decency, really, which sets Anderson apart from most of his equally flamboyant peers, whose malevolent or agnostic universes seem to reject the spiritually uplifting side of art. If ever Renoir’s faith in Human Goodness in The Grand Illusion (1937) felt as being trapped in a time capsule beyond contemporary access, Anderson’s film releases it back into our epoch.

6. Letters To Max (Eric Baudelaire, France)

 

Letters To MaxDear Max, Are you there?” asks Baudelaire in the first of his 74 “impossible letters” to his Abkhazian friend and ex-diplomat, Maxim Gvindjia, addressing, in effect, both his interlocutor and his country. This existential question haunts the entirety of the film, which investigates what it is that really makes a nation. Is it the spectacular rituals and glorious anthems reinforcing nationhood? The time-worn buildings and landscape that give it a unity of character? The dubious accreditation of superpowers? Or is it indeed an imagined community forming an identity in opposition to ‘the other’? Such a dialogue between the material and the abstract is woven right into the structure of Letters to Max, where the very possibility of the physical letters that Baudelaire dispatches from France reaching Abkhazia gestures towards a recognition of its existence. Baudelaire’s film is partly an amicable correspondence between amis sans frontières and partly an interview between a bureaucrat and a political critic in which Eric’s broaching uncomfortable questions thwart Max’s desire to paint a unblemished picture of Abkhazia, putting him in a double bind paralleling that of his country: a nation torn apart as much historically between change and preservation as it is geographically.

7. False Harmonies (Paul Vecchiali, France)

 

False HarmoniesVeteran French filmmaker Paul Vecchiali made not one but two sublime films in 2014, the other being the Dostoyevsky adaptation, White Nights on the Pier. In False Harmonies, Vecchiali plays a man who is grieving the death of his long time partner. He chances upon email exchanges that the latter had had with an anonymous user on an online gay dating website and imagines the texts being read out to him by this unknown young man, who is played by two different actors depending on the tone and content of the messages. On one level, False Harmonies is an intelligent modernist exercise that charts its own making, wherein the script of the film is its very subject and the elaborate central scene of letter-reading is, in effect, the audition for the actors playing that role. But, like White Nights, it is also a work of soaring honesty about the essentially limited nature of romantic relationships. It suggests the frightful probability that the person you have spent half your life with might be the one you know the least; that we play roles in a relationship, sure, but we also seek out other roles to complement it; that getting out of character might be as important as getting in.

8. Li’l Quinquin (Bruno Dumont, France)

 

Li'l QuinquinIn its conception, Bruno Dumont’s Li’l Quinquin, made as a four-part television miniseries, recalls the slyly subversive films of Robert Altman in his heyday. Picture this: 1.4 million French folks tune in to Arte TV expecting a comic broth of northern hicks, bumbling detectives and enfants terribles. What they get instead is a progressively morbid feuilleton about an ersatz Old Testament God meting out gory punishment for vaguely defined transgressions and a community with a twisted idea of moral propriety willing to shield this vigilante who seems to give potent form to their own thwarted drives. This is fine, topical screenwriting that responds to the rapid rise of the far-right in France, portraying a nation whose barely-repressed xenophobic streak during and before WW2 rears its ugly head in the present as Islamophobia. (Quinquin seems so tailor-made for India, where similar political upheavals have taken place and where a psychopath with a perverted sense of bovine justice is very much in the realm of possibilities,) It’s a world where pre-adolescents inherit, internalize and put into practice adult beliefs and rituals without reflection. Despite its humour and frivolity, darkness looms in the future that Dumont’s film lurches into.

9. The Lesson (Kristina Grozeva, Petar Valchanov, Bulgaria)

 

The LessonThe debut feature by Grozeva and Valchanov, like Two Days, One Night, works within the melodramatic form, moving its protagonist from point A to B through a series of progressively challenging obstacles. But while I found the Dardennes’ formidable and formally astute picture nonetheless a tad too ‘clean’, in the way it deliberately takes an irresolvable ethical quandary as a starting point and keeps underscoring a globalized Europe, The Lesson seems to me to retain the messiness of some of their earlier great films. On one level, it is a simple parable about the fallibility of authority, but it is also an uncompromising portrait of the tyrannical nature of all forms of social organizations, be they human systems with conscientious individuals at the helm or faceless bureaucratic ones with no vested interests. Slowly shifting its narrative space from the classroom to the metropolis with an enviable economy of exposition, The Lesson facilitates a double-edged critique that argues that the values taught in the class are but modeled on the values the state imposes on us and that what the state demands of us is to be ideal pupils in a classroom that is less than ideal.

10. Melbourne (Nima Javidi, Iran)

 

MelbourneThis remarkable debut feature by Nima Javidi naturally reminds one of Asghar Farhadi’s films, with its strong sense of drama, tremendous actor interpretations and mature writing that does not compromise the integrity of any of the characters. But there is also something particularly “new generational” about it in the way it harnesses the choice in front of affluent young Tehranians: to stay in Iran and own up its problems or to leave the country to start life anew. The inciting event in the film that dramatizes this choice stops the train of life dead in its tracks, exposing its protagonists to the unbearable “nowness” of the present. It is a terribly universal predicament in which time freezes around the material reality before you and all plans for the future and memories of the past seem like a remote, inaccessible country, a crisis that makes you want to either regress in time (“wish mother were here”) or to jump to a future day when the clouds have cleared, a moment where husband and wife see each other’s innermost character in all its stark nakedness. Though the couple might physically arrive at the eponymous neverland, the utopia it once represented is irrevocably lost.

 

Special mention: National Gallery (Frederick Wiseman, USA)

Transmissions

 

A man putting off a cigarette on his wrist, midwives being trained to handle childbirths with a plastic baby, an actor roleplaying as a traumatized war veteran with the help of a virtual-reality software, visitors at a Vietnam War memorial in Washington caressing the engraved names of the deceased, a group of architects discussing how to maximize the amount of time a buyer spends in a shopping complex, a mock Iraqi village set up in California with Iranians and Pakistanis intended to train American GIs. These are but some of the unmistakable images from the films of German documentary filmmaker Harun Farocki, who passed away last week at the age of 70. Farocki’s output, which spans the genres of filmic essays, Direct Cinema documentaries and multi-screen installations, is among the most intellectually piercing and artistically rich bodies of work made in the last 50 years anywhere in the world.

Born to an Indian father and a German mother in 1944, Farocki was taken at a very early age to the work of Bertolt Brecht, who, along with Theodor Adorno, had a deep impact on his filmmaking style. As a student, he was actively engaged in the student movement in West Germany and was, as a result, rusticated from the film academy. Inextinguishable Fire (1969), which Farocki made during that period, contrasts the horrifying effects of Napalm B on the human body with the amoral, scientific detachment with which it was developed in the laboratories of the Dow Chemical Company. This phenomenon of the alienation of labour from its products – the defining characteristic of industrial era – and the absence of individual moral accountability in hierarchical corporate capitalism haunts the entirety of his 45-year working life.

A lifelong Marxist, Farocki examined the ever-changing face of industrial production, continuously investigating what exactly constitutes such production and what labour means in an age in which the boundary between productive and not-productive work has become fuzzy. His last, unfinished installation project, Labour in a Single Shot (2011-2014), which consists of a collection of shots showing people at work in 15 different cities simultaneously projected on 15 screens, probes into this shape-shifting nature of labour and its increasingly invisible place in the scheme of things.

Such a desire to get to the heart of modern capitalist practice is also what informs the series of observational documentaries – fly-on-the-wall films in which the filmmaker abstains from intruding on what is being filmed and instead simply plays the non-participative spectator – which Farocki made from the 90s onwards. In these works, we typically see a group of white-collar workers coming together to conceive and realize a project, such as the construction of a mall, the forging of a deal between an investment company and a startup, training of interview candidates or the design of a new corporate office space. As they unfold we are made privy to something that is all too elusive in the technocratic society of ours – the presence of rational, human decisions underpinning the actions of systems larger than them. In these sound-proof rooms of glass and steel, we witness the crystallization of an entire socio-economic climate around individual choices – the materialization of ideology in the realm of the visible.

This constant osmosis between the domain of ideas and that of real things is a theme that binds all of Farocki’s work. These films recognize the progressive abstraction of tangible things into intangible notions – the translation of use value of commodities to its market value and the subsequent transformation of hard money to vague stock market numbers – and the continuous virtualization of the real. They throw in relief the fact that, in the sphere of production and marketing, material things are merely temporary containers in which one abstract idea (the idea of happiness and satisfaction for the consumer upon buying the product) is realized before it is converted to another (the advertising image). Taken together, these films form an elegy for materiality, a testimony to the loss of tactility of objects.

Nowhere else was this loss as sharp and complete as in Farocki’s own professional practice, in which he had to move from working with film stock, to shooting with analog video, and then to making films with digital cameras. The increased digitization of shooting, editing, storing and distributing of films, for Farocki, rhymes with the increased depersonalization of manual labour. Data from the real world is stored as electrical charge in computers, then abstract images are formed out of these charges and finally the real world is reshaped with these very images, thus closing the loop. The pre-existing filmic material used in Farocki’s films – surveillance videos, engineering models, reconnaissance footage, and scientific data feeds – attest to the centrality of machine-captured images in military, economic, social and legal processes today: supermarkets are architected according to the walking patterns of consumers, defense strategies are planned out based on video game designs, psychological traumas are treated with virtual-reality games and prison facilities are controlled and regulated through interactive CCTV setups.

The image, of course, is the primordial object of study in Farocki’s films. These works delve into the history of modern image making – from the diminishing perspective of Renaissance architecture which anointed sight as the preeminent sense to the flattened images of aerial photography that gave birth to both Cubist art and wartime telecasts – to explore how the cinematic image has time and again been the tool of choice for subjugation and how it has unwittingly played its part in the concentration and abuse of power. “The history of battle is primarily the history of radically changing fields of perception”, wrote Paul Virilio. Farocki’s films echo this observation and demonstrate how, in modern warfare, wars terrains are mapped out in amazing detail, war strategies simulated through software and variables of battle are controlled to such an extent that the actual war simply becomes a logistical formality. In such an asymmetric war, the side that controls machine-filmed, amoral and objective images of a region is the one that conquers it. To see is to capture.

Farocki’s cool, composed essay films remind us of the treachery of images, sure, but also keep pointing us to their possibilities and their liberating power. These works move beyond analyzing our extremely visual, late capitalist culture through its advertising images alone and reveal the epochal shift that machine sight has brought in every sphere of existence. One of the greatest strengths of these films is their genuinely open-mindedness towards the rapid transformations that mark our post-ideological age. Though they certainly take a political position, they are not monolithic, leftist diatribes perceiving every change as a machination of the powerful that leaves no scope for resistance. Neither pessimistic nor triumphalist, Farocki’s films distinguish themselves with the untainted curiosity and the openness to change with which they attempt to make sense of the time we live in. The same could be said of Farocki.

(For The Hindu)

Only Angels Have Wings

Straight Shooting

Ball of Fire

The Iron Horse

To Have Or Have Not

3 Bad Men

The Big Sleep

Young Mr. Lincoln

A Song Is Born

They Were Expendable

Gentlement Prefer Blondes

My Darling Clementine

Rio Bravo

3 Godfathers

Hatari

She Wore A Yellow Ribbon

El Dorado

The Searchers

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