Ellipsis


Profit Motive And The Whispering Wind  (2007)
John Gianvito
English

 

Profit Motive and the Whispering WindJohn Gianvito’s Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind (2007) is prefaced by a quote by Utah Philips (but attributed to a certain Claire Spark Loeb): “The long memory is the most radical idea in America”. Inspired by Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, Gianvito’s film is an attempt to chart the history of the country through gravestones, individual memorials and geo-historical markers. Unlike Zinn, however, Gianvito doesn’t have the descriptive advantage of the written text. His is, notwithstanding the texts we encounter within these images, a visual project in which history ‘materializes’ itself in the signatures of the visible. For Gianvito, this history, too, is a history of class struggles. Starting from the early Native American movements, through slave insurrections and worker uprisings of the industrial era, to the Civil Rights Movement and current-day social protests, the film, like Zinn’s book, sets the framework for a historiography of America based solely on – organized but not necessarily politicized –  people’s movements. Profit Motive brings to mind essay films such as Landscape Suicide (1986), Robinson In Ruins (2010) and, more recently, differently, Molussia (2012) in the way it probes for the strains of a troubled past on a sedate visible present. Presenting indicators of modern life – highways and cars – right next to site markers detailing strikes and revolts that took place centuries ago, the film hints at a causality and reflects on how history continually affects and shapes the here and the now. The Whispering Wind of the title, which resembles a tribal Indian name, on the other hand, derives from the numerous shots of wind-ridden countryside, forests and grasslands that punctuate the film. (They remind one of D. W. Griffith’s comment about filming the wind in the trees.) These winds become something of connecting tissues between the shots of the monuments and have a mythic quality to them, as though they are immortal, invisible balladeers channeling history from one time and place to another.

The Attacks Of 26/11 (2013)
Ram Gopal Varma
Hindi

 

The Attacks Of 26-11Ram Gopal Varma’s latest exploitation venture, The Attacks of 26/11 (2013), which purports to illustrate what happened during that long night in Mumbai when 10 armed men entered the city via sea and carried out a series of assaults in key public locations, killing over 150 people, opens with a statement that only a certified cultural amnesiac like Varma could have made – that 9/11 is the most heinous crime to have occurred in the history of mankind. That it brings in an incident that happened 7 years ago in the US is not an analytical move that geopolitically links these two events, not even a naïve leveling of the two incidents as interchangeable acts of absolute Evil, but – bizarrely enough – a betrayal of the film’s ambition to emulate Hollywood-styled Realist-reportage pictures. However, Varma is too straight-shooting and tactless for employing questionable Hollywood screenwriting tricks and, unlike most successful Oscar darlings, Attacks does not refract its agenda through a protagonist in order to surreptitiously validate itself. It wears its ideology on its sleeve, telling us exactly what we want to hear. Sure enough, there is the account of Joint Commissioner (an indefatigable Nana Patekar), whose voice of reason (which is clearly Varma’s own unoriginal voice, as are all the other voices in the film) tries to pass off what were essentially stupid, haphazard attacks as a clear-eyed, exactingly-planned project, but, for most part, the narrative remains dispersed and free of character subjectivity, serving as illustrations of unshakeable truths – fictionalized Reality rather than Realist fiction. Inventive like a child, and just as intelligent, Varma’s film consists chiefly of a high-speed handheld digital camera sweeping the many enthusiastically arranged, corpse-ridden tableaus, with violins wailing in the background. Not artful by any stretch of imagination, of course, but it would do well to those complaining about the lack of subtlety (a currency that Varma doesn’t ever deal with) in the film to remember that the nation’s real-life response to the events of 26/11 itself had the subtlety of a shark in a bathtub, making Varma’s movie pale in comparison. Condemning the movie would only serve to conceal the fact that our response to the attack was no better than a tacky exploitation flick. Varma’s aesthetic has consistently celebrated Hindu belligerence, which was lapped up by the public when it was married to the ‘right’ subject, and it becomes especially problematic here, despite Varma’s vain attempts to undermine it with the film’s professed secularism and its tacked-up, self-defeating Gandhian ending. In an interesting gambit, Varma abstains from showing us how most of the attackers themselves were shot down, which keeps postponing gratification for the audience. This 90-minute-long-foreplay-without-a-release results in a special challenge for the film, with the sole possible means of retribution coming through the figure of Ajmal Kasab (Sanjeev Jaiswal), the only attacker captured alive, who is saved from graphic violence thanks to the film’s loyalty to reality. How the movie appeases the audience hereafter unfolds in two monologues that are better left undescribed. Besides its moviemaking aspirations, Varma’s film also has the obvious ambition to narrativize history, to resolve the necessary contradictions in our understanding of the events, to assure us that we have obtained closure, to simplify complex causalities of the real world and provide a ready-to-eat account of events that the audience can digest without trouble. It took America eleven confusing years to tell its story to itself. We took just five.

To Be Or Not To Be (1942)
Ernst Lubitsch
English

 

To Be Or Not To BeErnst Lubitsch’s divine To Be Or Not To Be (1942), which is arguably the greatest American comedy of the talking era alongside Dr. Strangelove (1964), opens with a sequence in which Adolf Hitler wanders the busy streets of pre-war Warsaw for apparently no reason. We are immediately taken into a flashback that purports to explain the faux-historical scene we just witnessed only to, eventually, reveal it as a piece of fiction – a provocative performance art – within the film. In fact, in Lubitsch’s movie, which is the most direct precursor to Inglourious Basterds (2009), History itself unfolds as theatre, with characters impersonating other characters, with Nazis playing Nazis, with timing, blocking, make-up and diction becoming questions of life and death; politics becomes theatrical and theatre becomes political. The funniest line in the film is perhaps also the most trenchant: “What he did to Shakespeare, we are now doing to Poland”. For these aesthetes of war, Warsaw becomes a theatrical space to be controlled, its inhabitants, actors to be directed and history, a grand narrative to be shaped. On the other hand, for the Polish acting troupe, the stage becomes the most politicized space, with even the most harmless subversion stamped out. In a disturbing way, History haunts Lubitsch’s film as farce, before unfurling as a tragedy a few years later. Like in Dr. Strangelove, History had not yet happened to separate comedy from horror. Now that it has, it has ensured that To Be Or Not To Be is not cheap propaganda but biting satire. Hysterical and terrifying from start to end, Lubitsch’s film is a coup de grâce from the greatest weapon that the Allies possessed: Hollywood.

Dancer In The Dark (2000)
Lars von Trier
English

 

Dancer In The DarkThe least everyone could agree on Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark (2000), without getting into a debate about its artistic merit, is that it is a work of immense range. Juxtaposing Dogme-styled kitchen sink ultra-realism with musical numbers replete with chorus dancers, it ambitiously attempts to marry genres that are positioned at the opposite ends of a spectrum. It’s a marriage that is perhaps doomed by construct, but in Trier’s film it is intended to be an unholy, internecine union. The flights of musical fantasy that Selma (Björk) launches into, like the stripped scenery of Dogville (2003), serve as Epic Theatrical devices that seek to thwart audience’s uncritical surrender to the film’s drama and continually remind them of the artificiality of the film’s construction. That even such a blatant disfiguration of the film’s tonal integrity doesn’t successfully prevent the audience from total emotional identification with Selma is less an indicator of the film’s conceptual failure than a demonstration of why a multi-generic cinema, like Bollywood, works on the same audience-character dynamic as the straightforward genre entries of the West and why a mixed-mode narrative doesn’t necessarily avoid the pitfalls of Realism. That’s because von Trier the screenwriter is an incurable melodramatist (tempered by von Trier the director), who, by heaping misery upon his protagonists, makes sure that there’s not a single dry eye in the house. (Unsurprisingly, he cites Douglas Sirk as a major inspiration here, but I’d think Sirk’s assimilation of Brecht’s method is a tad more successful). On the other hand, as a musical, von Trier’s film leaves a lot to be desired. He shoots musical numbers like action scenes (in contrast to Peckinpah, who shoots action scenes like musical numbers), forgetting that the secret to a great musical number lies in the Bazinian conquest of space and not time.

Der Fluss War Einst Ein Mensch (2011) (The River Used To Be A Man)
Jan Zabeil
English

 

The River Used To Be A ManJan Zabeil’s bone-rattling debut film The River Used To Be A Man (2011) revolves around an unnamed German tourist (Alexander Fehling) who embarks on a trip in the marshlands of Botswana. Early on, we see him on a boat – lying face upward, soaking in the atmosphere and, so to speak, reliving an imperial past – as an older local guide (Sariqo Sakega) rows him through the shallow river. He is the quintessential master of the universe that we have come to know through the movies: a young white male who can negotiate the thickest of woods and tame the wildest of rivers, an Übermensch for whom the world is a puzzle to be cracked, a finite space to be conquered. It is this all-too-pervasive, Caucasian, colonial Weltanschauung internalized by most of the world today that the film systematically dismantles when the guide suddenly dies in the middle of the forest and literally becomes the white man’s burden. The man dumps the corpse in the river and somehow ends up in the nearest village, where he is told that the deceased would come back for revenge unless his body is found. With no choice, he goes back, in vain, to look for the body, while occasionally witnessing the spectre of the dead man. We notice that he has not only acceded to the laws and beliefs of this pre-modern community but assimilated, interiorized and ratified it. Zabeil’s wildly inventive film tackles nothing less than the Enlightenment project itself – its Cartesian and Albertian perspectives and its ultimately arrogant repositioning of Man as the centre of the universe – and upends Renaissance-inflected rationalist approaches to filmic narrative. The final shot, in which the man – defeated and disturbed – looks outside the windows of his flight – presumably back home – only to feel as if he still floating in the river, is perhaps the most philosophically upsetting ending in cinema since The Birds (1963).

Kadal (2013) (The Sea)
Mani Ratnam
Tamil

 

KadalThe title of Mani Ratnam’s latest feature, Kadal (“The Sea”, 2013), conjures images of vastness, infinity and extremity. Like the sea monsters of many a folklore, it has a mythic ring to it, which is very apt considering the last half hour of the film takes place entirely in the realm of the abstract, the mythical and the elemental. There is a leap of faith that is to be made on the part of the viewer if one is to take Ratnam’s film for what it is – a leap that corresponds to a risky gambit that the film makes towards its third act. It is a manoeuvre that catapults the film from a temperamentally placid, naturalistic portrait of stunted childhood and sea-side romance to a melodrama of heightened emotions and larger-than-life stakes. The jump is grating, sure, but those willing to hold on would see that Ratnam manages to find a more cogent articulation of the misplaced metaphysical arguments of Raavan (2010), especially because he thankfully divorces his tale from political topicality. At heart, Kadal works upon the classic temptation parable, wherein Thomas (Gautham Karthik) must choose between the ways of the Devil and God, which is tweaked here to posit the tainted nature of an Absolute Good or an Absolute Evil, the impossibility of a foundational morality. When, in the end, Bergmans (Arjun Sarja) laughs at Father Sam (Aravind Swamy) hanging upside down like Nolan’s Joker – a universe cut from the same moral fabric as Ratnam’s – we discover a deconstruction of the Good/Evil binary that is more thorough, pointed and pulsating than anything in Ratnam’s previous film.

Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
Kathryn Bigelow
English

 

Zero Dark ThirtyKathryn Bigelow’s mostly redundant Zero Dark Thirty (2012) begins with one of the most repulsive opening sequences in cinema – an assembly of American voices from the World Trade Center and the flights that crashed into it minutes prior to and after the incident. That the scene emphatically introduces the film as an American narrative is not even remotely as problematic as its cannibalization of what is a most private moment to oil its genre gears. Presented without visuals, with an apparent intention to de-sensationalize the event, it does exactly the opposite and provides – not unlike the war on terror itself – a convenient, ahistorical, faux-humanist inciting reason for the film to dive headlong into act two. “The history of battle is primarily the history of radically changing fields of perception”, wrote Paul Virilio, and Bigelow’s film is a extended demonstration of how the Get-Bin-Laden enterprise was essentially a manipulation of the logistics of perception. The film’s major theme of the centrality of “seeing” and the predominance of the image over material acquisitions in war dovetails with Bigelow’s signature aesthetic, which consists of strings of POV shots emphasizing spatial integrity and a Realism fetish that approximates Jordan and India to Pakistan and Afghanistan. There is something of interest, of course, in the progressive defeminization of Maya (Jessica Chastain), which results in a portrait of wartime masculinity as performativity. The rest of the film, however, reinforces cinema’s status as, to quote Virilio again, “a bastardized form, a poor relation of military-industrial society”, especially the final showdown, where the attempt to make cinema as exciting and visceral as “the real thing” becomes a parody of itself. History as commodity. War as entertainment. Don’t worry if you don’t know what happened at Abbottabad that night, it’s on DVD.

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