Cinema of Switzerland


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)

La Petite Vendeuse De Soleil  (1999) (The Little Girl Who Sold The Sun)
Djibril Diop Mambéty
Wolof/French

 

The Little Girl Who Sold The SunThe second part of an unfinished trilogy titled Tales of Ordinary People, Senegalese maverick Djibril Diop Mambety’s posthumously released The Little Girl Who Sold The Sun (1999) centers on a physically challenged girl who makes her living selling Le Soleil in the streets of Dakar. We witness her bravely fighting the everyday tyranny of cops and other street urchins, who try to elbow her out of business, and helping out her blind grandmother. The overwhelming optimism of the film, admittedly, is an attempt to balance the cynicism and anger of the directors’ previous feature, Hyenas (1992), which presented an Africa that had buckled to the pressures of global economic powers. Bathed in sunlight and shot almost entirely in open spaces, The Little Girl seems to be characterized by a pair of contradictory forces at its heart. On one hand, the film, on its face value, comes across as one of those million well-meaning, liberal, independent movies which dodge real issues in favour of readymade humanist themes and identity politics. On the other, it is clear that Mambety is attaching an allegorical weight to this simple tale, put into place by a fantastical political event – all of Africa leaving the Franc zone and taking up a sovereign currency – which reveals that Mambety’s fervent commitment to the “African cause” hasn’t lapsed into some kind of “everyman for himself” philosophy. Mambety’s recognition of the girl – as herself – and her condition prevents The Little Girl from becoming frigidly schematic or crumbing under its symbolic weight. When the girl’s friend carries her on his back, after her crutches have been stolen by the boy gang, you simultaneously sense an individual’s resilience to her immediate surroundings as well as a soaring political utopianism.

The Turin Horse

The Turin Horse 
(Image Courtesy: MottoMagazinBlog)

There are 30 shots in all in Hungarian couple Béla Tarr’s and Ágnes Hranitzky’s The Turin Horse (2011), 29 of which involve a moving camera and most of which are elaborately choreographed amalgam of camera movements. The first and possibly the most exhilarating shot of the film is a compounded crane and tracking shot in which we are presented with a horse cart and its driver. The dolly tracks at the pace of the cart and its craning arm films the cart primarily from two directions perpendicular to each other: a view lateral to the line of action and a view of the horse head-on and up close. (This combination of lateral and head-on angles of the camera will form a major visual motif in the film.) We see the horse pushing hard against the gale, with its mane fluttering backward. We see the man, equally haggard, with his hair swept back by the wind like the mane. We also note that, by himself, the man is static while the horse is the one moving forward and taking him along – a minor detail but also an illustration of the film’s chief theme. The equivalence between the horse and its driver becomes even more pointed as the film cuts to the second shot, where we see the man – now on foot – pulling the horse into the stable (also reiterated in shot no.22 where the man’s daughter does the pulling). After the second shot, the film shifts indoors, where the major part of the film unfolds.

Inside, we follow the man, Ohlsdorfer (Janos Derzsi), and his daughter (Erika Bok, who plays a counterpoint of sorts to the character she played 17 years ago in Satantango (1994)) as they go about doing their daily work for 6 consecutive days: she gets up first, wears the countless number of clothes hanging on the wall, adds firewood to the hearth, fetches water from the well, dresses up the man, who has a paralyzed right hand, and boils the potatoes so that they can have lunch. Much of the action involves, as does the latest Dardennes feature, closing and opening of doors, necessitated by the beastly windstorm that plagues the outdoors. Their house is sparse and functionally furnished. Not only are the walls entirely unadorned, but the coating is coming off. The man seems to be a cobbler and he, possibly, sells the belts he makes in the town. The family does not seem to particularly religious. It does not have appear to any neighbours or visitors, save for the man (Mihály Kormos) who comes to their house to get his keg of country liquor filled, and the band of gypsies which arrives at their well for water, only to be shooed off by the old man.

The day-to-day events repeat over and over, of course, but Tarr (Please rest assured that I’m not forgetting the contribution of Hranitzky here and elsewhere) and regular DoP Fred Keleman photograph them from different setups each day, trying out various possible configurations and presentations and as if illustrating the Nietzsche’s concept of Eternal Recurrence that informs the structuring of the film. The effect of ritualization and repetition of everyday events with religiosity is bolstered by Mihaly Vig’s characteristically organ-laden cyclical soundtrack (reminiscent of the thematically apt Que Sera Sera of Almanac of Fall (1985)) that meets its counterpoint only in the boisterousness of the winds that sweep the plain. Keleman and Tarr light and shoot the interior of the house so painstakingly and evocatively, that even commonplace objects achieve a throbbing vitality of their own. They often light overhead, as they regularly do, imparting a luminous visual profile to the characters, who now seem like spectres haunting this dilapidated house. Unusually, there are also few instances of a voice over, which is new for Tarr, which acts as like the voice of an anti-God looking over the man and his daughter during the course of the film and their eventual fall.

It soon appears as though the horse (Risci) is neither at the centre of the film’s lean narrative nor at the focus of its apparent ideas. Indeed, it simply looms in the background like an unwelcome guest or an illness that is preventing the old man from riding into town to do business. However, actually, the animal not only provides a stark thematic contrast to the human characters of the film, it is at the very foundation of its metaphysics. The film opens with a hearsay anecdote about Friedrich Nietzsche. Apparently, in January 1889, when the philosopher was in Turin, he witnessed a cart driver flogging his recalcitrant horse. Nietzsche is said to have stopped him in haste and leapt on to the cart, embraced the horse and cried profusely. It is also said that this was the day after which he started losing control of his mental faculties. Of course, at the outset, what Nietzsche felt was simple empathy for a tormented creature, like any kind person would have. But because the person we are talking about is Nietzsche, the event holds a very special implication. What he was going through was also a sudden experience of intersubjectivity and, as importantly, the awareness of its existence.

A small detour to Dostoyevsky, a writer Nietzsche deeply admired, would be instructive here. In Crime and Punishment (1865), protagonist Rodion Raskolnikov, a bona-fide Nietzschean character, is haunted by dreams of a horse being cudgeled to death for the entertainment of those around it. It is, in addition, an expression of the owner’s power over and possession of it. Rodion, who believes that certain superior individuals have the right to disregard law and conventional morality if they feel that they are doing so for a greater good, discovers here the fallacy of his worldview. Like Nietzsche, he proposes a philosophy of guilt predicated on the effect of a “crime” on the conscience of the actor and not on the acted upon. But what this idea assumes is that moral consciousness of a person is a given, fully-formed whole, independent of other consciousnesses. Rodion realizes, in this nightmare, the toxicity of appointing oneself a superordinate being, especially when the relationship is that of master and slave, owner and owned. Nietzsche, in a classic case of life is imitating art, faces the same situation at Turin. His tears are an acknowledgement of the interconnectedness of all consciousnesses, an equivalence of each one of them.

The opening text of The Turin Horse tells us that we know what happened to Nietzsche after the incident but not the horse. The film’s recognition of the horse as a being as important as Nietzsche begins right there. The first image we see is that of a mare trotting against heavy wind, very close to the screen, dominating the frame – as if the camera is embracing it – suggesting its centrality to the film’s ideas. (Actually, we are never told that this animal is the same as the one Nietzsche wept for. The cut from the anecdote to the horse prompts us to assume that. This is only the first instance of lack of specificity that pervades the film.) The Turin Horse treats the horse as a fully-formed consciousness in itself – as vital as, if not more, its human counterparts – capable of understanding the world and, more crucially, reacting to it. The two human characters at the centre of the film do recognize the doom that surrounds them, but do not seem to do anything to change or respond to it. On the other hand, it is their horse that protests the cruelty of its master and offers resistance to the decay all around by refusing to eat or work. In other words, the mare seems to possess a higher degree of self-awareness than its human owners.  In one shot, the camera lingers on the horse long after the humans have left the scene, with the same solemnity that it displayed towards the people in the film. It is not some overblown anthropomorphism that we are dealing with here. It is a radical decentering of humanity as the locus of consciousness.

This tendency to displace humans as the centre of the universe also furthers Tarr’s and frequent collaborator László Krasznahorkai’s long-standing anti-Biblical programme. If, with the ending of Satantango and the upshot of the Nietzschean Werckmeister Harmonies (2000), the writer-director pair tried to overturn the Scripture, here they take on the Creation narrative itself. Divided into six days, which no doubt serve to echo the six days of the creation of earth, The Turin Horse chronicles in detail the progressive disintegration of the world back to nothingness before time. In this anti-Genesis-narrative, neither is man created in the image of God (one that’s not dead, that is), nor are beasts inferior beings to be tamed and controlled by man. (“Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.) In Tarr’s and Krasznahorkai’s Scripture, it becomes increasingly difficult to separate night from day, the seasons from each other. (There are only two seasons in the film’s world – windy and otherwise). Beings, instead of being fruitful and multiplying, become scarcer and scarcer. Earth returns to the formless void – the void that we witness in the evocative last shot – that it was at the Beginning. One imagines that the film would agree with Genesis on the seventh day: “Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them”.

[The Turin Horse (2011) Trailer]

Commentators have noted the striking silent film-like appearance of The Turin Horse. Indeed, Tarr, who has never been as metafilmic, parallels the anti-Creation narrative with a similar trajectory on the cinematic plane. A number of sub-shots are presented with the set and character in full view, arranged against a flat background and shot head-on with the décor in parallel to the image plane, just like a silent movie. Many of the shots are parenthesized by vertical or horizontal bars of film grain that wipe across the screen. Father and daughter, themselves, resemble the monstrously mismatched prospectors of The Gold Rush (1925), eating a non-meal every day and the smaller one always drawing the shorter straw. This is compounded by the fact that the film is set in 1889, just about the time cinema came into being. Moreover, the two interruptions that disturb the routine of the silent family are marked by excessive talk and cacophony. The film begins with pure movement of cinema and ends in absolute stasis of photography. (It is telling, in this respect, that the only completely still shot of the film is the last one.) It is as though cinema, like the film’s world, has regressed into non-existence, from broad daylight to total darkness.

Judge him, but this affinity for depicting disintegration to rubble has permeated Béla Tarr’s filmography. In a way, each of his film is a document of structural destruction: of urban spaces (Family Nest, 1979), of the modern family (Prefab People, 1982), of society (Almanac of Fall, 1985), of political machinery (Satantango, 1994), of civility (Damnation, 1988) and of civilization (Prologue, 2004). The Turin Horse takes the logic further and locates itself at the probable end of humanity itself. If Tarr’s latest work appears to lack the analytical rigour or satirical edge of his previous films, it is because it distills key ideas of these earlier films into a highly abstract conceptual examination devoid of urgency and pointedness. Looking at the director’s oeuvre, one can see this coming. Tarr started with very topical, socially critical films made in vérité aesthetic. Realizing that surface realism could only get him this far, he took a stylistic as well as epistemological break with Almanac of Fall, after which, instead of recording reality as it appears, he dealt with increasingly abstracted forms removed from everyday experience and a philosophy that replaced materialism with metaphysics.

Such departicularization is the modus operandi of The Turin Horse. The film systematically removes any trace of specificity from within it and builds an extremely generic framework that one can liken to the confident broad strokes of a paintbrush. Such sucking away of particulars would have been fatal in a film with concrete political ambition. But The Turin Horse, in contrast, works in a philosophical and cinematic realm so rarified that such distillation seems tailor made for it. Beyond the very specific opening story (Who: Friedrich Nietzsche; Where: Door No. 6, Via Carlo Alberto, Turin; When: January 3rd, 1889), we are not sure about any narrative detail. The place could be Turin, or not. The year could be 1889, or not. It could be autumn, or not. The long monologue that the first visitor delivers is what Pauline Kael would call a Christmas tree speech: you can hang all your allegories on it. What is the threat he is talking about? Why is the town ruined? Who are “they”? We don’t get any answer. If, at all, Tarr makes another film and intends to take the idea further, he’s, in all possibility, going to find himself in the realm of pure avant-garde, with nothing concrete to hold on to except the truth of photography.

Undoubtedly, Tarr is as cynical as filmmakers can get. His cynicism, like Kubrick’s, is the cynicism of great art, to borrow a sentence from Rivette.  But with The Turin Horse, Tarr seems to have punched through to the zone beyond. We have, here, entered the realm of the absurd, where cynicism itself is rendered impotent. In this film, doom is a given, inevitable. Instead of charting people’s downward spiral into the abyss as in the previous films, Tarr and team observe with resignation the insularity of people from their situation. Foreboding gives way to fatalism, cynicism to amusement. Robert Koehler correctly compares the film to the works of Samuel Beckett and The Turin Horse is a veritable adaptation of Waiting for Godot (1953). Right from the lone tree on hill top, through the dilemmas of vegetable eating, the sudden logorrhea of a stranger, the perpetually cyclical nature of events, to the ritualization of actions, especially the changing of apparels, Tarr’s incomplete tragicomedy in 30 shots echoes Beckett’s incomplete tragicomedy in two acts. Like Beckett’s bickering pair, or Buñuel’s angels, father and daughter find themselves unable to leave the house for some reason. And like Vladmir and Estragon, or Pinky and Brain (“Tomorrow we’ll try again”), the two– stuck in their house for eternity with only each other to stand witness for their existence – sit by the window everyday gazing at, or waiting for, a Godot that could be anything ranging from revolution to death.

But there are two key cinematic predecessors to The Turin Horse as well. The first of them, Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman (1976), lends Tarr’s film its finely spiral structure, in which a continuous process of disintegration is made palpable by minute changes in what appear to be unchangeable routines. Like in Jeanne Dielman, another film with an inclination for culinary detailing, the aquarium-like world of the characters is pierced by changes in the outside world, leading to their downfall. Then there is Sohrab Shahid Saless’ Still Life (1974) with which The Turin Horse not only shares its strong comic undercurrent, but also the idea of rendering chronology and the passing of time irrelevant by making it go in loops; the eternal return if you will. But, unlike the makers of these two films, Tarr filters his film from any direct comment on contemporary social organization. (Akerman and Saless, on the other hand, are keenly focused on the issue of urban and rural alienation). But what these films, most critically, share is an acute eye for everyday details, for minor behavioral and physical variations and an unshakeable faith on inescapable specificity of the photographic image.

 

Rating: 

Film Socialism

Persistence Of Vision 
(Image Courtesy: Cannes Festival Site)

A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of its own past. So seems to suggest Jean Luc-Godard’s golden jubilee work Film Socialism (2010), the one film of recent times that has produced the least insightful body of criticism so far (with some of them being downright vengeful; one wonders if the film would fared better with the critics if Godard’s name wasn’t attached to it). The latter observation should come as no surprise for neither does the film provide the comfort of a clear,  overarching authorial voice as in History of Cinema (1988-98) nor does it overtly embrace – as some recent works of the director have – the free associative essay form. What we have, rather, is a documentary with conscious fictional texts embedded within or a self-conscious documentary of a shoddy fictional production. Film Socialism’s ontological confusion might be a throwback to Godard’s films of the late eighties, but the picture that is closest to this one, to my mind, is Last Year at Marienbad (1961, more on this later).

The film is divided into three segments (or “movements”) the first and longest of which, titled “Things such as”, is set on a cruise ship (which has been noted to possibly denote a floating Europe – both financially and historically), whose passengers seem to represent a microcosm of Europe present and Europe past (including intellectuals who carry out dialectical conversations). Amidst the fragments of dialogues, scenes and visuals runs a plot involving an ex-Nazi turned Jew who might have appropriated a huge sum of money from the Bank of Spain. The brooding environment of the ship’s deck at twilight, the seeming absence of contact between various groups of people on the vessel, the contemplative images of the sea (water being equated to money right from the first line) that punctuate the segment and the general sense of hopelessness that pervades it – all serve to create a post-apocalyptic atmosphere redolent of Tsai Min-liang’s cinema. Likewise, the filmmaking here seems both like a desperate act to salvage and synthesize from what remains of a glorious civilization and a typical Godardian attempt and appeal to return to zero. The first facet is reflected in the fractured nature of this section, wherein shards of banal, familiar images, texts, words and sounds are sewed together (a treatise on Husserl gets to sit alongside Lolcat videos) using equally eclectic assortment of digital media (ranging from cheap cell phone camera footage to crisp high-definition, from unfiltered, noisy microphone recordings to studio-mastered sound), while the latter manifests as an intermittent but perennial discourse on the value of things and the possibility of reversion to barter system where, probably, the concept of surplus labour vanishes. (Godard’s use of nearly-unintelligible Navajo subtitles, in this sense, might be an offer to barter the film’s half-articulated ideas for our participation).

The second section, called “Quo Vadis Europa”, involves a middle class French family whose ‘head’ is disillusioned by the state of affairs of the nation. The children of the family take to anarchistic politics following which they adopt rigorous policies in the usage of language and show an increased involvement in the arts. Whether this is a straightforward parody of the Leftist agitation of the 60s (whose poster boy Godard undeniably has become, when it comes to cinema) or a serious consideration of an atavistic return of student radicalism (and the consequent sloganeering) is somewhat unclear, but these sequences marry the apparent emotionality and solemnity of the director’s post-eighties work with his flamboyant rigor of the years before in a manner that seems like new territory even for Godard. (It is mainly the absurd scenario – reminiscent of the filmmaker’s works featuring Jean-Pierre Léaud – of this segment that prompts the former reading. Both Melville and Herzog compared student anarchists to children and dwarfs respectively during the seventies. However, Godard’s insistence here that the spirit and ideas of the age persist through language seems more sober and hopeful and less nostalgic and playful).

The third part of the film – “Humanities”, an epilogue of sorts resembling the scintillating “Hell” segment of Our Music (2004) – takes us further back in time, into ages which are now considered ancient. I say ‘considered’ because the film appears to refer to our perception of those time periods than the periods themselves. This is an era where we see images of relics of Aegyptus, prisoners of Palestine and ruins of Naples alongside Eisenstein’s version of the Odessa massacre and Rossellini’s documentation of an archeological excavation. There is no logical reason for us to consider the first set of images as belonging to a remote past and the other to a more recent time (the same way it is illogical to consider one set as fictional and the other as real). Mythology and history interpenetrate irreversibly. (Elsewhere, Godard points out how Eisenstein’s restaging of the October Revolution now passes off as the actual event). In every case, cinema distorts, realigns or plainly obscures our perception of history, as does the written language to an arguably lesser extent. “It’s not the literal past that rules us, but the images of the past” said George Steiner. Like film technology, these images have persisted in our vision through the ages, distilling and redefining the past along the way. The visual language of photography, with its deceptive simplicity and misleading verisimilitude seems to have ‘become’ what it sought to represent. (“Roman Jakobson shows during the winter of 1942/43 that is it impossible to separate sound from meaning” quotes the film). Cinema is not just the defining phenomenon of the 20th century, it is the 20th century. Like the inhabitants of the cruise ship, we all seem to be aboard this boundless, floating fleet of images having almost no anchor to reality, in this quagmire of symbols where to say is to be, in this inverted world where our own footmen – our languages, our currencies – have become our rulers.

[Film Socialism (2010) Trailer]

Language is, of course, the central object of investigation in Film Socialism (as it is in almost all of Godard’s pictures; he calls Film Socialism his “Farewell to Language”). Money is treated as a language for communication at the outset and an examination of the possibility of returning to zero of economics is also extended to the possibility of return to zero of communication (Someone utters the maxim: “silence is golden”). (The Navajo text for the film is perhaps the first attempt at this, with its unambiguous, rudimentary words being uncontroversial and untainted in comparison to the meaning-laden sentences a proper set of subtitle would have provided. Like the Navajo subtitles, Film Socialism is composed of discrete, clear, nearly incongruous images which sacrifice meaning for concreteness). Speaking of concreteness and directness, Godard seems to have found a new respect for objects and surfaces in this film. The first movement of the picture, at least, is a cinema of superficies. Be they of the wet floors of the ship or of a slot machine at work, the images of this segment seem to acknowledge objects for what they are rather than as symbols or props. One could suspend the movie at any random point and admire the beauty of the objects seen, without any consideration of the context. Each image, each cut and each sound seem to have found their proper place, like these objects. Given that this section is a reflection on the value of (manmade) things, this apparent piety towards commonplace articles – made more palpable by the ‘immediacy’ of digital video and the use of static shots – is perhaps Godard’s (and cinema’s) way of appraising the objects he films.

Furthermore such use of images as objects invokes the issue of copyright and intellectual property, which the French has been long against. (The film’s opening credits cites all the film clips, sounds and texts used in the film and there’s the FBI copyright warning, surprisingly, at the end with the text “when the law is wrong, justice comes before the law”, as if asking if images of objects could be subjected to laws of private possession at all. Godard’s plundering, of course, ranges from John Ford to YouTube). During the seventies, Godard was not just concerned with making political films, but, as James Monaco points out, making films politically. Godard and company recognized that the whole enterprise of cinema – production, authorship, marketing, distribution and exhibition – inherently espouses an ideology and to subvert the ideology called for a subversion of all these systems. This also meant an effacement of individual authorship and ownership (for a person who had been at the forefront of auteur criticism). The movement, of course, fell apart and Godard went back to an even more personal mode of filmmaking. However, even with their esoteric eccentricities and idiosyncrasies, his films continued to possess the same critical charge and formal rigor. In that sense, Film Socialism might not (just) be a film about socialism but one that is made socialistically in the way it lets its audience take responsibility for and ownership of its text.

I’m, of course, only speculating. Part of the problem in properly responding to the film arises from the confusion regarding whether we should take what we see at face value or as symbols, metaphors and allegories, whether these things exist for the sake of an interpretation and not as themselves. Each shot simultaneously prompts interpretation and invites us to explore its surface. Susan Sontag, against all temptation to interpret it using literary prisms, praised Last Year at Marienbad for “the pure, untranslatable, sensuous immediacy of some of its images, and its rigorous if narrow solutions to certain problems of cinematic form”. The same could be said about Film Socialism, which, for me, replicates the experience of watching the Resnais film. More than the fluidity of form or the repudiation of grammar, it is the lingering feeling that it might all just fall into place if we only stayed with the film – if we could just enter the film – for long enough that makes Film Socialism resemble Marienbad. “Conversation flowed in a void, apparently meaningless, or at any rate, not meant to mean anything. A phrase hung in midair, as though frozen, though doubtless taken up again later. No matter. The same conversations were always repeated, by the same colorless voices” could well be a paragraph from a description of Godard’s film. Like the floating phrases of Marienbad that are periodically picked up, the Film Socialism is a work that would, no doubt, be visited regularly by those fascinated by it, as I am, even if that fascination isn’t all for the right reasons. If the rumours are anything to go by, Godard might just have retired at the peak of his prowess.

 

Rating:

[Raavan (2010) Trailer]

Éloge De L’amour
(In Praise Of Love)
2001

In In Praise of Love, Godard focuses on a single topic for discussion – that of preservation of history. He debates the validity of preserving history using media and the replacement of memory by technology. Additionally, he raises questions about Hollywood’s methods of representing history and argues that the industry manipulates history in order to make the audience sympathize or react but never to indict the guilty. There are also some hard-hitting statements made about the history of the United States that are readily controversial. And these questions in turn bring up the conflicts between image and reality, documentation and re-creation of history and proprietorship and openness of history.

In Praise Of Love (2001)

In Praise Of Love (2001)

The film is marked by extraordinary cinematography with the first half of the film taking up a neo-realistic character. Godard achieves complete distancing and passivity of vision that the Italian pioneers could never achieve. The second half of the film literally changes tone with its excessively saturated Wong Kar Wai-ish colour palette and expressionistic style. In some ways, In Praise of Love is Godard’s version of Wings of Desire (1987). He films the past in colour and the present in monochrome as if suggesting that the variegated experiences and stories of the past have now lost their colours and been demarcated by black and white regions – like what a child sees. This absence of an adult’s vision that plagued the very nature of revolution seems to have made history a matter of pop culture.

This creation of extraordinary out of the ordinary, refusal of cinema to act as a social mirror and one-dimensionality of perception about history, Godard suggests, is decidedly a result of the years of training of the audience’s minds by the films of the west. There is a fantastic sequence where we see a theatre that is screening both Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959) and the Wachowski siblings’ The Matrix (1999). Though both the films deal with the notions of fate, free will and existential imprisonment, the popular choice seems be the spiced up version.

For Ever Mozart
1996

For Ever Mozart is one of Godard’s most complex films. This is true of all his films that have a seemingly coherent narrative, but For Ever Mozart surpasses all its companions into a realm that only Godard has the access to. But by no means is it a self-indulgent film. While the whole world of filmmaking is crowding the narrow lane defined by the “rules of success”, Godard wallows alone in the vast unexplored stretches, taking his gigantic leaps and pondering on the barrenness of the field. Until someone gives him company and learns his language, I can just guess.

For Ever Mozart (1996)

For Ever Mozart (1996)

For Ever Mozart, on the outset shows us two threads the first of which follows a group of self-proclaimed theatre artists out in Yugoslavia to put up a play amidst the frustrating war situation around. The second thread, the more accessible one, involves a director with an urge to use filmmaking as an art (wanna guess who?!) against the wishes of his producer and audience. He believes the director to be the father and the actor to be the mother of any play and sure enough, after much labour by both the director and his actress, they deliver the film of their dreams. But what does the audience want? Terminator-4. This creates a tautology of sorts within the film between the two threads. One depicts the struggle of art to survive within the harsh realities of the world whereas the other portrays the battle of art with its own subverted form – Cinema among wars and war among cinemas.

There is a magical scene at the end of the film, perhaps Godard’s best. We see an anachronistic image of Mozart performing amidst an audience that is clad in jeans, chewing gum. The mute Mozart invites a layman to assist him in his concert. The director ascends to the hall with difficulty via a stairway (to heaven?) after which he retires. Is Godard suggesting that a time will come where art will be a commodity of the public and not just for the public? To steal from the film itself, “It’s almost nothing or… something I don’t know“.

JLG/JLG – Autoportrait De Décembre
(JLG By JLG)
1995

Godard’s influence of Van Gogh shows in his next film JLG by JLG: An Auto-portrait in December. Made largely inside his room, JLG/JLG looks like a home movie like some of his films of the late 80’s. The film seems to take place during the editing of Godard’s interesting reworking of the Greek legend – Oh Woe is Me (1993). Godard makes it clear that the film is only a self-portrait, not an autobiography – not an objective account of his psychological motivations, but an introspection that is subjective and only skin-deep.

JLG By JLG (1995)

JLG By JLG (1995)

The most interesting aspect of the film is that we get a glimpse into Godard’s daily life, which by itself is quite extraordinary. We see what he reads –  a huge private library which stores some of Godard’s most famous quotes that have enthralled audience through the decades. We see what he speaks – as we have seen before through his various quirky characters. We see what he watches – the films that find their way into almost all of his movies in the form of references and posters. And we see what he thinks – like the relationship he conjures up between stereo speaker system and the Star of David. His financial difficulties clearly show up as we even see an official raid into his shabby household. These claustrophobic images are intercut with paradisaical images of the winter that seem to bear a strong relationship with Godard’s own mental landscape during that period.

Although all this gives the feel of an honest documentary observing a day in the life of a filmmaker, it is, like most of Godard’s filmography, an essay that presents as many ideas as its predecessors and provides a commentary on larger issues hidden beneath the veneer of the quotidian events that we see. Godard begins with his favorite theme of individualism versus the community (crystal and smoke, according to him), moves on to the regular issues of truth, image and fate and finally takes up an elegiac tone that shows a clear yearning for the past carrying over from his previous films. And who wouldn’t be disarmed by a film whose closing quote reads “A man, nothing but a man, no better than any other, But no other better than him.

Les Enfants Jouent À La Russie
(The Kids Play Russian)
1993

The Kids Play Russian employs the same (lack of) structure as Germany Year 90 Nine Zero and forms the last part of what I would call Godard’s Elegy Trilogy (wow! that rhymes!). This time it’s Russia, the head of the family, the massive Redwood tree that has fallen. Godard suffers a one-two slap with the fall of the USSR and his angst shows. The impressionist images are replaced by the mesmerizing surrealism of Dovzhenko and literature replaces the music of Germany 90. However, he does go a step further and probes what should be the future course of the country, still crying out “We will not change”.

The Kids Play Russian (1993)

The Kids Play Russian (1993)

Godard calls Russia the birthplace of fiction and emphasizes that a history of Russia would most definitely reflect the history of fiction itself. And hence, fall of the USSR (rather communism) means the fall of fiction. He traces back the history of image projection as the first Franco-Russian alliance and calls his relation to Russia as the last one surviving. In that sense, Godard himself is the Lemmy Caution of activist cinema – once a visionary, now undone. He employs the fictional figures of Anna Karenina and Prince Andrei to represent Russia and its plight hereafter. He imagines what they would be doing if they were alive during the collapse of their motherland. But again like all three films of the series, the film is one that is built on hope and promises.

The final image of the film captures a borderline-wild Godard continuing to work in his recording room, lit partially by the harsh light. More than “The show must go on” attitude, what shows here is “And miles to go before I sleep” mentality that has kept Godard afloat amidst his larger-than-life troubles in both his personal and professional life. A sexagenarian with fractured relationships, doomed ideologies and whose only redemption is in Cinema, pushing forward with more vigour than ever – only a few images can be more moving than this. The Idiot will go on. So will Cinema.

Allemagne 90 Neuf Zéro
(Germany Year 90 Nine Zero)
1991

And I thought Godard didn’t have a masterpiece. Once more after many years, Godard follows Lemmy Caution (remember Alphaville?), now the “world’s last spy”, after the collapse of communism in Germany and the breaking of the wall. If Alphaville was The Return of the Jedi, Germany 90 is the Revenge of the Sith.  In the first film, Lemmy was a virus eluding the clutches of the supposedly omnipotent Alpha 60 whereas here, he is a lone warrior meandering unharmed in the bigger Alphaville and the sole survivor of a species that would soon be extinct. Evidently a requiem for what Godard considers the death of Germany, Germany 90 is perhaps the best contender for the adjective “sublime”.

Germany Year 90 Nine Zero (1991)

Germany Year 90 Nine Zero (1991)

Tinged with a slight green throughout, the film juxtaposes images of sincere yearning by a man whose raison d’être has been questioned with fleeting sequences from the classics from the early expressionist German cinema. Godard classifies music, love and poetry as belonging to socialism alone and as languages not understood by the new world. Though elegiac in tone, the film is uncharacteristically (for Godard) hopeful in actuality. There is a definite promise of restoration in the form of Dora, the symbol of Germany in the film, and the assurance of “music after life”. On a lighter note Lemmy comments “You have to admit, Marx did triumph. When an idea is born among masses, it becomes a material force. That’s one way of looking at it.

Lemmy Caution who represented all that is living and all that is human in Alphaville represents all that is lost and destroyed in Germany 90. The recurrent images of exile crucifixion and torture may be for the whole of socialism itself, whose pro-mass approach was nailed down by the elite bourgeoisie. Now as Lemmy walks alone through the remains of the now- nonextant world, we see what Godard is referring to by “solitude of history” – Lenin icon amidst Greek ruins, people moving towards the west in blue cars, machines resembling dragons almost swallowing Lemmy, history books being sold as souvenirs. The fugitive events that shook the world seem to have single-handedly made Godard’s political period a thing of arthouse circuits. It is more than solitude of history, it is solitude of Cinema.

Nouvelle Vague
(New Wave)
1990

Watching New Wave, it felt like a Tarkovsky film, especially Nostalghia (1983) at many places – may be because of the organic pace and camera work of the film, may be because of the very presence of Domiziana Giordano (and the horses!) or may be the hypnotizing locales of Italy, I don’t know. But the film surely echoes some of the elements of the Tarkovsky classic for Nouvelle Vague is essentially a yearning for the past and nostalgia of la dolce vita of yesteryear.

New Wave (1990)

New Wave (1990)

The basic premise of the film follows a rich couple Richard and Elena, visibly dissatisfied with their lives, attempting to search for that elusive object called happiness and hence trying to discover their place on earth. They assume roles of the dominating and the dominated in turns Yet again, Godard crafts a film that works on so many levels that it becomes intensely personal in more than one way. Richard and Elena may be representing the French New Wave and traditional cinema respectively as they try to find their own place and struggle to accept their mutual existence. So the film on one level becomes a superficial study of how the New Wave affected established cinema and vice-versa. With characters named de Sica, Mankiewicz and Aldrich, this argument seems plausible, but one shouldn’t restrict the film to a mere interpretational exercise, again a Tarkovskian trait of the film.

The regular intertitles read “Things, not words” and this is exactly what the film seems to be following. Godard bids adieu to his immensely talkative pair of periods, for the events around the world have made words completely futile. He places the images in the driver’s seat such that the basic feel of the film prompts one to classify it as elegiac. Coming soon after the twin collapse of East Germany and the USSR, Nouvelle Vague will be remembered as a befitting farewell to the most revolutionary ideology in the annals of mankind and the most subversive period of filmmaking in cinema history.

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