Flashback


Arbeiter Verlassen Die Fabrik (1995) (aka Workers Leaving The Factory)
Harun Farocki
German
 

“Never can one better perceive the numbers of workers than when they are leaving the factory. The management dismisses the multitude at the same moment. The exits compress them, making out of male and female workers a workforce.”

 

Workers Leaving A FactoryMade during the centenary of the medium, Harun Farocki’s marvelous, dense filmic essay Workers Leaving the Factory (1995) traces the lineage of Auguste and Louis Lumiére’s Employees Leaving the Lumière Factory (1895), cited here as the first film ever made, through the history of cinema. (What the film doesn’t mention is that were three similar versions of the film, each with its own bunch of curiosities.) “It was as if with film the world would become visible for the first time” says the narrator. Farocki starts out by analyzing the Lumiére siblings’ film on aesthetic and social levels. On a purely formal front, we notice the sheer kineticism of Lumieres’ minute-long, single-shot film, in which masses of people enter the screen and almost instantly exit it from the right and left like streams of water from a hosepipe, “as if impelled by an invisible force”. Presaging Eisenstein’s handling of masses of people, the streamlined movement in the shot gives us a sense of observing a workforce, as opposed to a group of individuals.

Farocki also treats the Lumiéres’ film as a kind of social document and imagines the social and political scenario within and outside it. His narrator points out that, in the film, there is no sign on the factory’s façade, no sign of its importance and no sign of its economic power. (The place is, in fact, the Lumiére factory in Lyon, France.) She also remarks on the condition of unions at the time when the Lumiére brothers’ film was made, noticing that there is no sign of the worker’s power either, even though the European union feared a worker’s uprising at that time. With the help of footage from the Ford facility in Detroit, 1926, Volkswagon in Emden, 1975, an unnamed industrial establishment in Lyon, 1957, and from tens of fictional factories including from the films of D. W. Griffith, Charles Chaplin, Robert Siodmak and Fritz Lang, Farocki’s endlessly curious work studies how this singular image of workers exiting the factory premises has been captured on film during its hundred years of existence.

Workers Leaving The FactoryThe narrator comments, early on, that this is “an image like an expression, which can be suited to many occasions”. It analyzes the gesture of the workers, their gait, their possible state of mind and their physicality: workers evacuating colluding police, police evacuating protesting workers, man waiting for a woman outside the gate, woman waiting for a man, gangsters entering factory for a job, workers leaving the premises and joining a Nazi rally, workers jubilant about entering the factory, workers lumbering out after an exhausting day. (This study of space and movement reminds one of Farocki’s prison-based films, which strike a Foucauldian equivalence between spaces and movement in prisons, asylums, supermarkets and factories.) Gradually, the film comes to serves also as a critique of representation as the selection of clips runs the gamut of ideologies: a propaganda film from Eastern Europe glorifying work is balanced by an excerpt from Lang’s Metropolis (1927) in which we see the robot-like workers checking out of the factory. Zeroing in on the sameness of all experience – work or leisure – in post-industrial societies, the voiceover notes that “this vision of the future has not been fulfilled. Nowadays one cannot say with a glance whether a passerby is coming from sports, work or the welfare office”.

Harun Farocki is among the most materialist of directors and his films have always been concerned with the material presence of objects and people they present. More than any other director, it is Farocki who is to be called a “process filmmaker”. A photo shoot for Playboy magazine (The Image, 1983), construction of a series of advertising images (Still Life, 1997), planning of a shopping mall (The Creators of Shopping Worlds, 2001) and the manufacturing of bricks (In Comparison, 2009) – many of these films have been preoccupied with the processes by which ideology materializes itself in the realm of the visible, the audible and the tactile. Sometimes, they are about the process of seeing itself – as is the case with As You See (1986), Images of the World and the Inscription of War (1989), War at a Distance (2003) and a number of his installation projects – and about how the European Enlightenment tradition has come to anoint sight as the preeminent channel of perception. Workers Leaving the Factory combines these two lines of examination, and explores both the physical act of workers exiting the factory and the change in way we have seen this process through the years.

Workers Leaving The FactoryFarocki finds this space just outside the factory triply dialectical. For one, it is the space of direct confrontation between Labour and Capital: between picketers and guards, between strikers and police. The factory gate becomes the membrane that separates work from workers, an economic system from its constituents. It is at this factory gate where Labour and Capital identify themselves by identifying the other. Secondly, Farocki imagines this space as the meeting point between the liberal and communist concepts of property and theft. While the territorial imperative of Capital defines the place in front of the gate as private property, for the workers it becomes an area of discussion, congregation and protest. “Where the first camera once first stood, there are now hundreds of thousands of surveillance cameras”, goes the narrator, pointing out how cinema unwittingly became the instrument to safeguard Capital.

Lastly, the space outside the factory has become something of a limbo between “First Cinema” – films from Hollywood and industrial cinema in general – and leftist cinema –early Soviet cinema, Socialist Realism and other partisan film movements. While the latter revolves around work and working conditions and contains depersonalized narratives driven by organized groups of people, the former is almost always about life outside work. In these films, narratives about individual lives begin once work is over and the impersonal, faceless workforce dissolves into separate somebodies. They replace our leisure time with that of the characters, our problems with theirs and provide vicarious pleasures and catharses. “Whenever possible, film has moved hastily away from factories” says the voiceover, as though incriminating it for attempting to make us forget our everyday working conditions and, from a vulgar Marxian perspective, for momentarily rejuvenating us for the next day’s work. Farcoki’s work reminds us, whatever the nature of the specific film, that this image of workers leaving a factory needs no explanation. It is an expression, an idiom, a turn of phrase in itself and, as the Lumieres’ film shows us, one that is as old as the language itself.

 

[Workers Leaving The Factory (1995)]

Far From Heaven (2002)
Todd Haynes
English

 

“Do you think we ever really do see beyond those things, the surface of things?

 

Far From HeavenTodd Haynes’ Far From Heaven (2002) opens with a shot of red autumnal leaves before the camera cranes down from heaven into the town of Hartford. This shot – a direct reference to Douglas Sirk’s beautiful All That Heaven Allows (1955), whose quasi-remake Haynes’ film is – locates the film squarely within Sirk’s universe and announces right away the derivative and thoroughly cinematic nature of this enterprise. It also signals the film’s preoccupation with the look and sound of the Sirkian world that it wants to depict. Right from the retro typeface of the film’s title card, through the emphasis on era-defining objects of the film’s world and seasonal details such as autumn foliage and clothing, to its use of outdated figures of speech and Elmer Bernstein’s intense score, Haynes’ film is obsessed with the minutiae of Sirk’s universe, with the surface of things. (Haynes shares another trait with Sirk: the two are among the most articulate American filmmakers, directors who are remarkably clear-eyed about their films.) Far From Heaven is the kind of film that academicians instantly cotton on to. It is an analysis of Sirk’s cinema and a case for it as cinematic art (as though that were necessary). It is Douglas Sirk refracted through decades of film theory.

Set amidst the suburban excesses of Eisenhowerian America, the film centers on Frank, an affluent resident of Hartford, Connecticut, and the earning member of the Whitaker family which comprises of his wife Cathy and their two children. Dennis Quaid plays Frank playing the role of a upwardly-mobile businessman with familial responsibilities while Julianne Moore plays Cathy playing a dedicated homemaker and much lauded society woman. The Whitakers are the cynosure of the town’s eyes (Mr. and Mrs. Magnatech), with their professional successes and grand soirees. Frank, however, is struggling to confront his sexuality, a revelation which might bring down all that he’s worked for. Cathy, meanwhile, barely more than a prop in her picture perfect household, takes a special liking to her composed and taciturn African-American gardener Raymond (Dennis Haysbert). Caught between a crumbling marriage and a forbidden love, poised to lose everything that has given her an identity, Cathy must choose between what she wants and what is wanted of her and negotiate the lines between the personal and the social.

One of the things that sets the film apart from its contemporaries is its almost classical use of the mise en scène.  Haynes uses a meticulously picked, heightened colour palette that conceptually takes off from Sirk’s (saturated primary colours for the white denizens and their environment and deep reds and browns for the black community) but produces striking images of its own. Same applies for the lighting that alternates between chiaroscuro and softly graded and the dialectical use of indoor and outdoor spaces. Haynes and crew retain the cinematographic devices of the studio-era, especially the dissolves-in-camera and strategically employed Dutch angles. In fact, Far From Heaven, imbibes much from sources besides Sirk, such as Max Ophüls’ Madame de.. (1953, a film that’s also about the horror of surfaces), Rainer Fassbinder’s remake of Sirk’s film Ali; Fear Eats The Soul (1974, entrapping double-frames using architectural elements) and, of course, Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman (1976, décor details, which also haunt Haynes’ Mildred Pierce adaptation). Outside of film, it appears as if Haynes’ major aesthetic inspiration comes from Edward Hopper, whose downbeat yet somehow hopeful vision of post-war America and use of incandescent light and chromatic contrasts seem to inform the scenes depicting Hartford at night.

 

Far From Heaven

The Earrings of Madame de

Far From Heaven

Jeanne Dielman

Far From Heaven

Nighthawks - Edward Hopper

Far From Heaven

New York Movie - Edward Hopper

 

Period films run the risk of treating History as a closed project, as a fossil frozen in time, clinically isolated from the present. Steven Spielberg’s period films, for instance, are informed by historical hindsight and characterized by current day morality bleeding into the past being depicted. Issues of the past are addressed as just that: issues over and done with. As with most mainstream films, the audience here knows right away where their sympathies and convictions lie and what is morally just. This triumphalist perspective of history offers – not unlike films about poverty, problems faced by Third World women and pre-modern cultural practices, in general – the liberal audience an opportunity to pat itself on the back, to patronize on groups not yet shown the light of the day and to align itself to and ratify the Enlightenment project. On the other hand, ambitious period films, as do ambitious sci-fi pictures, locate what are decidedly concerns of the present – problems affecting us here and now – in a narrative apparently located in a different historical time. They open up history for scrutiny, presenting it as a force that still bears upon us, and undermine our moral convictions. History, as it were, bleeds into the present.

Far From HeavenAdmittedly, and evidently, Far From Heaven attempts to work against conventional narrative approaches to history by trying to retain a radical edge to its story. It replaces partly outmoded taboos of Sirk’s film with ones that are still provocative. The rationale is that today’s audience would find the forbidden love story between an upper-class widow and her working class gardener a bit too easy to resolve compared to the edgy sexual and interracial tensions of Haynes’ film. (Substituting class with race and sexual orientation is, in a way, indicative of the trajectory of Western counterculture, where the more global grand-narrative of class conflict has made way for niche identity-politics and the struggle for economic overhaul has transmogrified into a struggle for cultural change.) The swap pushes the envelope, sure, but is it radical? Hardly. Fassbinder’s remake of Sirk’s film, made three decades before Haynes’, had a younger African immigrant labourer as the object of an affluent widow’s desire. It is, of course, unfair to demand of Haynes’ film to emulate the radicalism of Fassbinder’s by stacking up the odds against the union as much as possible. However, like numerous primetime social experiments with hidden cameras, the moral equations remain so clearly resolved that even a conservative audience would know which side to take.

Perhaps it’s the inherent simplicity of the form that Haynes employs that necessitates the film’s moral clarity. Two obvious questions come to mind watching Far From Heaven: why the 1950s New England milieu and why Douglas Sirk? Why not a current day realist drama? (That’s a question provoked by the entirety of Haynes’ body of work, which consists almost completely of period pieces.) Haynes’ answer is part-Bazinian, part-Godardian:

 

I think the best movies are the ones where the limitations of representation are acknowledged, where the filmmakers don’t pretend those limitations don’t exist. Films aren’t real; they’re completely constructed. All forms of film language are a choice, and none of it is the truth. With this film, we point out at the start that we’re aware of all this. We’re not using today’s conventions to portray what’s ‘real.’ What’s real is our emotions when we’re in the theater. If we don’t have feeling for the movie, then the movie isn’t good for us. If we do, then it’s real and moving and alive.

 

One infers that, instead of creating a new schema for this self-conscious artifice, Haynes chooses to adopt a démodé form, to draw from a more primal, more impassioned aesthetic. What is interesting here is that Haynes’s film embraces this form neither for parodying representational conventions (as has become the norm for many films too clever by half) nor for emotionally disengaging the audience (as do many films, including Fassbinder’s, that consciously take to melodrama). Instead, it places full faith in this ornate, innocent yet complex form to generate emotional connection between the text and the viewer. A postmodern exercise with genuine affect, if you please.

Far From HeavenAlthough Haynes is working in an anti-naturalistic mode, he is still very much works in the psychological tradition – an unusual combination that further complicates Haynes’ complex brand of humanism. Despite his post-Humanist approach to his material and his formalist inclinations, there’s always been a streak of real humanism in all his films. Sure, the Barbie doll actors and the subversive documentary trappings of Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1988) are meant to satirize popular culture’s obsession with gender-programming, but it’s also sympathetic towards the plight of Karen Carpenter the person. Carol (Julianne Moore) in Safe (1995) may be the means by which Haynes criticizes the soulless lifestyle of Reaganite American suburbia and its empty concerns, but she’s also fully human. (Carol and Cathy are essentially the same people, separated by space and time.) The many Bob Dylan avatars of the trailblazing I’m Not There (2007) are definitely used to illustrate the politico-cultural space in which he created his music, but the film is also practically a love letter to him. In this film, Cathy is a victim of her ethos, but she’s also a rebel, as is evident from her many acts of defiance. Her osmosis from sacred to forbidden spaces is an act of revolt on par with Dylan’s countercultural gestures. The expectation-defying Far from Heaven ­- a warm and unironic heterosexual drama – like most of the director’s films, likewise, is something of a rebellion on Haynes’ part against a film culture that perennially tries to pigeonhole filmmakers into broad labels and easily disposable categories.

At Sea (2007)
Peter Hutton
Silent

 

At SeaPeter Hutton’s hour-long At Sea (2007), voted the best avant-garde film of the decade by Film Comment, draws upon the director’s city portraits, landscape films and at-sea sketches, the last of which is informed by his decade-long experience as a marine merchant. The first section of At Sea, set in an advanced South Korean shipyard, showcases the assembly of a container ship. We witness monstrous machine components moving about slowly and rhythmically as they give birth to the vessel, making it seem as though we have been prodded into the maternity ward of a futuristic machine-hospital. (At times, we are not sure if it is the machines or the camera that is moving.) Arguably, the camera is in awe of these machines framed against the sky. Hutton employs two types of visual schemas – an intricate, crisscrossing array of verticals and horizontals (of the structures and the machines) and large, blank spaces (created by the ship’s surface and the sky) – which, often, reside in the same shot, resulting in unbalanced compositions that suggest both the vastness and the complexity of the man-made objects that we are looking at. We also see the workers working on and within the machinery, not only dwarfed by these behemoths but also assimilated into them. Even though they appear to be at the mercy of these metallic monsters, we know that they are in control of these machines. Even if one prefers to read it as a critique of dehumanization of labour, one can’t help but trace a sense of fascination and artistic pride about mankind’s ability to construct such enormous, complex objects. This unsettling mix of political criticism and scientific veneration is exemplified by the penultimate shot of the section in which executives, officials and captains sit in front of the finished product for a photograph. As such, they have nothing to do with the construction of the ship, but as members of a scientific project, their pride is justified.

In the most rewarding, middle segment, which lends the film its name, we are on a cargo ship in the middle of a sea. We observe both the sea and the crates aboard at different weather conditions and at various times of the day. Few films set on a ship convey such an exact sense of being in the ocean as this section. The gently bobbing camera which also suggests the speed of the ship (In one shot, we see the water alternately rising above the rails of a deck and hiding from our view) and the weather that registers its nature on the lens of the camera (as raindrops gather on the viewing surface, the rigid crates appear as if they are melting away) evoke both the romance and the fatigue of living for days together over deep waters. In one extended rearview shot, we see the agitated water at the ship’s wake move towards the horizon, where it appears to freeze to stillness, just like how a sea journey etches itself in memory. The use of a tripod here is highly ironic in how the instability of the camera is facilitated by it being coupled to the sway of the vessel. The compositional patterns in this segment echo the first – horizontal bars on the deck cross the vertical motion of the raindrops creating a visual grid like the architectures of the opening section; the geometrically fragmented, variegated set of crates juxtaposed with the monolithic, monochromatic texture of the sea and the occasional mist – facilitating an aesthetic continuity across the sections.

At SeaAlso in common with the previous passage is the disturbing mixture of poetic inspiration and materialist inquiry that the images invoke. Even if one is enraptured by the beauty of the sea, one also keeps wondering what these crates contain, where are they coming from and where they are going, not unlike the feeling when we observe the goods trains traversing the screen in James Benning’s RR (2008). Such a comparison to Benning’s cinema doesn’t seem gratuitous because At Sea exhibits the same sensitivity to minor changes in landscape, shadows and light and the same affinity to locate major visual changes alongside gradual, barely perceptible ones in the same shot. (The tension between the dynamic and the nearly-static exists throughout Hutton’s imagery.) Most importantly, this central section of the film portrays a world in a permanent state of flux. Shape-shifting and transition become underlying principles – this middle section as a converter working on two contrasting ends of the ‘narrative’, transport of goods as a prime mover enabling globalization, sea journey as a transitional period between two stable periods and the sea as a turbulent passage way between two worlds – and is typified by the travelling shot of the sea water at night that looks like an abstract painting in motion, with its thick, dark strokes interspersed with impressionistic stipples of light. The image also recalls the opening shot of Film Socialism (2010) in how the dark waters are made to look like crude oil and in how water is equated to money (respectively as a metonym for seaway capitalism and a metaphor for public commodity).

The concluding part of the film is set in a scrap yard in Bangladesh, where discarded ships from other countries are torn down manually using the most archaic of methods. A squalid, post-apocalyptic space, it is the hell to the heaven and purgatory of the previous two segments. We observe kids playing football amidst the mess and silhouetted figures lurching towards decrepit ship parts for a hard day’s labour. The awe of the South Korean section makes way for total repulsion and scientific marveling, for political investigation. The visual patterning of crossing lines and juxtaposed surfaces carries over into this segment as well, but talking about style in this particular segment becomes rather dangerous. Like Glawogger’s Workingman’s Death (2005), which covered a ship wrecking yard in Pakistan in one of its passages, the third section of Hutton’s film walks a tight rope between ethics and aesthetics. This section of At Sea is neither as detailed nor as visceral as the former, but it shows the moral restraint that Glawogger’s work sometimes neglects. There is no obvious aesthetization of menial labour here, no soaring music to guide us; just a sober documentation of the appalling working conditions. The stylization is subdued and it derives its merit mostly from the continuity and meaning that the overall placement of section within the film’s structure provides. That is why the sudden shift to B/W in the segment is a little troubling, even if it never comes across as objectionable. This shift appears to take us back in time – to the nascent days of cinematography where passersby stare curiously into the camera – as does the transition from the advanced shipyard to the medieval wrecking grounds.

At SeaHutton knows that sound in film can potentially gloss over critical questions and inconsistencies and make the viewer complacent. Like most of his earlier films, At Sea contains no sound and the whole responsibility of communication falls upon the visuals. This helps the audience distance itself emotionally from what it is watching and engage with the questions and ideas that the film prompts. Although this achievement comes at the heavy handicap of having no soundscape, Hutton’s choice not only aids the audience achieve true alienation from the work, but also comes across as highly ethical in the way it attenuates the realist aspect of the film (and all its concomitant issues). However, At Sea is not devoid of sensual pleasures. The mid-section, specifically, is rich with images marked by a poetic outlook. For instance, the protracted shot of the sunset, seeming as though a giant ball of fire is plunging from the sky into the sea, and the image of the sea bathed in moonlight, evoking a sense of the infinite and the unknown, directly convey the romance of sailing, which no doubt inform many of Hutton’s films. The film opens with a quote by Joseph Conrad: “A man who is born falls into a dream like a man who falls into the sea…” The idea of sea journey as a dream, a shape-shifting psycho-space, finds its echo in the hypnotic images of the second section of the film.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of At Sea is how it absorbs given tenets from narrative cinema and transforms them for particular end uses. I’m thinking specifically of the three-act structure, which the director himself describes, in generic terms, as the “birth, life and death” of a container ship. (The fictionalized nature of Hutton’s film is revealed right there, for we are made to believe that the film is a story of one ship, while we see a different ship in each section). Like narrative cinema, the first act bears a strong, antithetical relationship with the last act: construction/destruction of the ship, glory/shame of our civilization, birth/death of the vessel, rigid structures/boggy seaside, smooth movements/total stasis, advanced automated engineering/prehistoric manual methods, photographing of achievement/ photographing of distress and, most notably, the triumph/failure of global capitalism. This association becomes a strong indictment if we consider, like narrative cinema, that the first act is the cause of existence of the third.  This collocation raises the same question as does Workingman’s Death: Where is the worker in the modern world? Both the opening and the closing sections attempt to answer this question. The structuring of At Sea helps unveil what is hidden in each of the segments considered separately: workers across the world connected with each other, without their immediate knowledge, by larger, imperceptible forces. The second act, then, comes across as both redundant in terms of end result and absolutely critical in terms of thematics and meaning. Without it, not only will the film come across as crudely polemical, but will also cease to be a work as connected to personal experience as it now is. It is the middle section, most of all, which prevents the reduction of the film to any simple political or philosophical statement. The dissonant feelings and ideas that it generates contribute to the holistic richness of the film. It is here that we are, truly, at sea.

Explorer (1968)
Pramod Pati
Silent
 

ExplorerPramod Pati’s pocket-sized dynamite, Explorer (1968), opens with a rather representative image: alternating horizontal black and white strips, resembling window blinds, flickering on what appears to be a screen (within the screen) that is being refreshed vertically – like television display – at a relatively slow rate,. The soundtrack, likewise, alternates between high-pitched, discontinuous noise of what might be telegraphing and printing machines and the comparatively bass sound generated by the Damaru. It is through this audiovisual thicket that the name of the film reaches us, appearing and disappearing along with the strips, oscillating between two typefaces – one fragmented and stretched and one sturdy and more conventional. This deeply dialectical title sequence pretty much sets up the tone, the modus operandi and the primary thematic and stylistic concerns of the seven-minute phantasmagoria that is to follow. Pramod Pati, who died an untimely death at the age of 42, worked for the Films Division [sic] of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting in India, which generously commissioned feature-length and short documentaries as well as short animation films for the purposes of cultural archiving and nationwide information dissemination. The documentaries generally consisted of profiles of artistes practicing traditional forms (sometimes directed by names as big as Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Govindan Aravindan and Ritwik Ghatak), standard ethnographic explorations, educational films for adults (such as on family planning, which Pati was involved in) and other socially-oriented films while the animation was usually targeted towards toddlers and young adults, presenting simple moral tales and basic literacy courses. Although there was an obvious restriction on the type of subjects filmmakers can choose, the Films Division, like the Kanun in Iran, was free from commercial concerns and thus presented a higher scope for formal experimentation for directors. In Explorer, Pati seems to have harnessed that liberty to the fullest to produce a doggedly inscrutable, remarkably witty and manifestly personal work.

The eerie title sequence of Explorer gives way to the first “photographic” image: a miniature Hindu idol in profile, magnified by its distance from the camera. We assume that it on the plane closest to the lens, but Pati reconfigures our depth perception with a fluid racking of focus – rack focus forms a major motif in the film – that discovers an oil lamp nearer to the camera than the idol, before revealing a man – in profile as well – reading sacred verses. We don’t hear him though and the soundtrack, strangely, gives us the cry of an infant, as if trying to reach out. This somewhat serene shot is interrupted by a startling cut, followed by a short, rapid zoom accompanied by the noise of a cymbal. Before we even begin to register the scene, Pati switches to a barrage of images in which with the bobbing camera captures the faces of ecstatic teenagers in extreme close-up, interleaved with extra-brief shots of the religiously-charged alphabet “Om” represented in Devanagari script and of the chicly-dressed gang, from at a distance, dancing to what might be rock-and-roll tracks. The audio, however, uses loopy non-contiguous samples from traditional music including classical instruments and vocals overlaid over a continuous stream of Ghunghru sounds, punctuated now and then by clapper board-like noises. The association here is, of course, between tradition and modernity, between ecstatic rapturous tripping and religious fervour – and it is here that the film announces its context – urban India in the sixties – and its central idea.

ExplorerThe sequence is also one of the few occasions in the film when we are asked to make a purely intellectual connection between the shots, between the sound and the image. For a large part of the film, the montage is also rhythmic, and sometimes even metric, as is the case with the immediately following segment in which the preceding staccato arrangement makes way for a rather mathematical audiovisual pattern: A snappy pan shot from right to left followed by the face of a Buddha idol, a quick pan shot from left to right followed by a painting of Radha and Krishna. This model repeats a couple of times before being abruptly interrupted by a brisk tilt shot of an electronic machine with hundreds of small lights on it, which, in turn, is interrupted regularly by close-up shots of the faces of youth, before culminating in a slightly intimidating, negativized image of another god, (The latter intervention is thematically and stylistically vital to the film). The linearly assembled audio, in this section, curiously enough, neither spans across multiple images nor consists of overlapping tracks. Each sound accompanies an image. The whole setup described above repeats once more, faster than before, with additional interruptions by sound graphs and B&W film headers, after which select images from the whole film thus far interspersed with a hazy shots of palm lines and fingerprints play over a sound stream composed of what might be samples from sci-fi and thriller movies. What follows is a sprawling ten or so seconds bursting forth with polemical ideas. The visual backbone of this stretch – the (by-now-familiar) tracking shot of hundreds of analog indicators (of pressure gauges? speedometers?) – is disrupted by disparate single-frame images (a la Ken Jacobs’ Star Spangled To Death (1957-2004)) hurrying past from right to left in a way that also reveals the “filmic” nature of Pati’s work: faces of gods, the word “War” printed on paper in bold, black letters, the cover of a porno storybook, an open eye and a medieval painting on whose central figure’s chest is a white circle with the self-censored words “F.ck Censorship” in capital letters. The soundtrack here, though, is unbroken and is made up of repetitive noise of machine/automobile exhaust. Then, another horizontal-vertical assemblage like the previous segment, now with the image of a huge plant leaf inserted right in between. In retrospect, it is probably at this point that the film’s primary ideas clearly surface.

Explorer was made in 1968, a time right in between two wars with Pakistan, a time when the scientific race among the superpowers was at its most feverish, a time when the Vietnam War was shaking the world and a time when Western media was becoming increasingly permissive. Urban India, meanwhile, was vacillating between the forward thrust of scientific and technological development and the conservative tendencies of its dominant culture, religion and art forms. Explorer subliminally charts this polarization at the heart of this ancient-yet-young country, in ways that are just more than textual. This conflicting duality is embodied by the colour (strong blacks and strong whites), movement (the diametrically opposite directions that the camera takes), the sounds (ancient chants and electronica, ritual noises and machine humming) and the very material of the film (developed and undeveloped negatives). Till I saw Pati’s film, I’d thought Kamal Swaroop’s Om-Dar-Ba-Dar (1988) really had no precedent in Indian cinema. Exactly like Swaroop’s pièce de résistance, Pati attempts to portray a country caught between a number of opposing and diverging tendencies – between war and celebration, rock-and-roll and Bhajan, science and religion – in all its richness, convolutedness and madness. Alongside such analysis, Pati’s film seems to wonder about the future of the nation, especially that of its youth. Palm lines and fingerprints from the chief leitmotif of the film. As if, ironically, practicing palmistry through assortment of sounds and images, Pati strikes a conceptual parallel between the myriad divergent lines of the palm with the numerous incompatible and expansive practices emerging with the march of progress. Perched at the crossroads of 1968, Explorer is an idiosyncratic – but ever loving and never cynical – examination of where the nation is and where it is heading. It is a “palm-size” state of the union address.

ExplorerBy the same token, Pati’s film is an outrage against film censorship. The Film Censor Board, coming from a country where the most famous and explicit book on sexuality was produced, too, seemed (and it still does) to have been caught between similarly opposing currents, when the rest of the world was opening up to hitherto scandalous representations. Pati’s placing of such elusive placards disapproving censorship and the bunch of barely-identifiable images of porn magazines and nude women throughout the film is, patently, an attempt to break out of this entrapment. Likewise, three pairs of opposing camera movements characterize the visual field of Explorer, which are simply the three geometric axes: a up/down movement consisting of fast tilts and headers consisting of everyday symbols, an in/out movement made up of numerous rapid zoom-ins and zoom-outs and protracted rack focus shots and a dominant right/left movement involving zippy pan shots of the dancing crowd and machines at work and handheld shots at a university library. The camera frequently hops across these major axes, as though being swept by their force, oscillating to and fro within them. There are also a number of (possibly metaphorical) crisscrossing diagonals – the veins of the leaves, the leaves of the tree – that seem like vectorial resultant of actions on major axes. (One useful point of reference for Explorer is Artavazd Peleshian’s electrifying Beginning (1967) with its equally rhythmic back and forth movement of crowds and its eclectic sound mix consisting of popular dramatic sounds). The notion of present as a meeting point and a dialogue between the past and the future is further emphasized in the way the film often juxtaposes images we’ve already seen so far with those we are yet to see (and will see a little later).

After the psychedelic opening minute or two, the film applies brakes to present a series of “melodic” rack focus shots – some of the longest in the film – that appear to meld images of idols and paintings of god (which were intercut with the faces of exuberant young people) and those of laboratory machines. We hear a teacher and a student reciting “Ramayana, Parayana. Kuran, Puran” one after the other and we see youngsters handling microscopes (much like how Pati uses his medium). This passage is followed by another series of brusque imagery and soundscape: a shot of a bearded man meditating and those of a group chanting the Vedas, interwoven with a spate of western symbols and psychedelic wallpaper patterns, archival images of riots, women in the nude, the face of a monkey (Hanuman?) and the now-familiar attack on censorship. (A case could be made for Explorer as a sur-realist – even Buñuellian – portrait of the mind of a teenager in urban India in the sixties). The film’s construction becomes more mystifying following this, with both the images (not just religious and scientific, but archeological and cosmic as well) and the connection between them appearing even more abstract, although the aesthetic choices remain pretty much the same. There is a marked predominance of images of science, technology and education over those of religion and tradition, possibly hinting at a resolution of the conflict thus far. But not for long. As the film moves into its final “section”, where we see the same close up shots of the faces of youth, among negativized images of the dance sequence at the start, . the soundtrack becomes, once more, infused by classical vocals and Hindu incantations. In the final few seconds, the film is reduced to a sustained flicker, with a looming image of the letter “Om” becoming the visceral centre of the imagery. Beyond this point, the whole film seems to go backwards, calling forth a flood of recognizable images from the film in reverse order within a matter of seconds as the film’s title flashes in the middle of the screen. The film is actually undoing itself. Here in, Explorer, like Tscherkassky’s Instructions for a Light and Sound Machine (2005), becomes a Sisyphean tragedy; not of a man unable to escape the process of film, but of a film unable to escape the claws of a reactionary establishment. As indicated by the lateral tug-of-war involving the film-strip-like imagery throughout, Explorer is a film that fails at breaking free into full-on modernity, instead getting sucked back (and backwards) into the mouth of traditionalism. Forget it, Pramod. It’s India.

[The Explorer (1968)]

Thampu (1978) (aka The Circus Tent)
Govindan Aravindan
Malayalam

“World-famous performers. Hilarious clowns. Leopards, Goats, Monkeys and other exotic animals. Miracles, acrobatics you have never seen in your lives. Don’t wait for anyone. Art loving residents, watch the Great Chitra Circus.”

 

http://theseventhart.files.wordpress.com/2011/04/kummatty.jpgThe state of the great Indian filmmaker Govindan Aravindan, who would have turned 75 this year, is not much different from one of his most famous characters, Esthappan, about whom every one talks about and whom no one has seen. An even more unfortunate fact is that few of his films are available on home video or underground distribution networks – the ones available are in an extremely bad shape – and the situation doesn’t seem like its going to get any better. When even ‘bankable’ art house filmmakers like Adoor Gopalakrishnan and Girish Kasaravalli don’t have all their works out there on discs, a truly marginal (and truly challenging) filmmaker like Aravindan, who was neither a professionally trained filmmaker nor a filmmaker who made cinema his profession (He did have a day job, if I’m right), could only hope for a miracle. Thampu (1978), my favorite Aravindan film of the ones I’ve seen, is as simple as they come, in terms of the plot: A circus troupe arrives at a village, sets up their tent, performs and leaves. And Aravindan films exactly that. We see in fine detail – pretty much like a fly-on-the-wall documentary – how the troupe enters the village, how it sets up the tent, promotes the show, practices, performs multiple shows, incurs losses and finally leaves. Like Tati’s amazing Jour de Fete (1949), Thampu is a film that is a chain of moments, actions and impressions.

Besides Jour de Fete, there are a number of films that Thampu channels. First is, of course, Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1914) in the way Aravindan develops a tone and an ambience by choosing to shoot the deserted streets and the old buildings of the village with great affection, as though they were all alive. We can also see assorted elements that Tarr would incorporate in his later films: long shots of outdoor action, processions, celebratory dances, inebriated people, papers all over streets, high-pitched diegetic music and even an enigmatic head of the circus troupe. Then there’s the ‘c’est la vie’ approach to circus and life – life at circus and circus of life – of Chaplin’s Circus (1928). But the most fruitful reference point for Thampu would have to be the middle period films of Federico Fellini, especially The Clowns (1970) and Amarcord (1973). Like the former, which deals with the circus as well, Thampu is a touch elegiac about the profession, about the waning interest towards circuses and about clowns of yesteryear being disregarded and discarded as troupes lose business. And like Amarcord, Thampu unfolds as a string of vignettes of the village – children on the streets watching the circus monkey perform, workers leaving the factory after a hard day’s work, villagers crossing the river on a boat to catch the evening show, the village prostitute carrying on with her work and, generally, the dead times of a life lived more leisurely – all directly from what seems like adolescent memory, so typical of Fellini’s cinema as well.

ThampuThe prime structural and visual motif – a rarity considering given how ‘spontaneous’ the film seems – of Thampu is that of the circle. The film opens startlingly with a three-minute, near-silent sequence – redolent of Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s equally experimental opening of Swayamvaram (1972) – that presents the circus crew entering the village in their truck and it closes with a similar sequence as they move out of the village, with no apparent impact on either the village or themselves. Within the story, circles of power result in circles of suffering and circles of mute suffering, cyclically, perpetuate circles of power. The local elite who has returned from abroad, Bidi Menon, maintains his own circle of bourgeois connections and practices while manager Panicker’s circus (etymology check: “circle”) crew is a closed circle of friends and families putting up assorted acts in the circus ring. Power abuse in Menon’s family is mirrored in that of Panicker’s. (Aravindan, of course, cuts between the two ‘circles’ in order to establish this equivalence. Both the family heads are even portrayed by bald actors with a good degree of resemblance). In both, people – the women in Menon’s group and the aging performers in Panicker’s group – are subordinated and condemned to a lowly existence (The protracted inter-cutting between the old clown and the monkey getting ready for their respective acts is one of the very few instances of heavy-handed-ness in the film). Only Menon’s son, who realizes his entrapment – within concrete houses, amidst drinking bouts and alongside rock music records – tries to break out of this circle, even if it means entering another – that of the circus. (The last shot is, at once, full of hope, anxiety and pathos). It’s not a bit clichéd as it sounds at all, for all these relationships remain nearly inconspicuous under the ‘tender’ surface of the picture.

It’s tempting to declare Thampu as a work that is all surface and no centre. The film is fragmented, constructed as a series of visual and aural impressions of an event, as an elliptical memory of images from the village fete. Like Ruttmann, Aravindan shoots the empty streets and bylanes of the location with care, as though attempting to find something in these surfaces. Aravindan’s cinema is, in more than one sense, surfaces in search of a centre, images in search of a story. In Kummatty (1979, a remarkable ‘children’s book movie’, if there ever was one), the eponymous, mysterious bogeyman becomes the talk of the village kids, who seem to spin their own myths about him. The identity of the titular stranger in Esthappan (1980, a quasi-Marxist update on Citizen Kane (1941)), is nothing but the sum of the village folks’ anxieties, fears and hopes. Same is the case with electricity in Oridathu (1987, the portrait of a nation in its Mirror Stage). Far from dealing merely with central MacGuffins, these pictures emphasize the present over the absent, the visible over the invisible, appearance over meaning. (Even in a deceptively straightforward documentary like Anadi-Dhara (1988), the director underscores physicality, of people trying, with glitches, to exhibit their native art within a totally alien environment). This trait seems all the more radical given that it stands in direct opposition to the conventions of Parallel Cinema – the category under which Aravindan’s name is generally placed – whose works are built around heavy, politically-charged texts. Aravindan, on the other hand, constructs his films top-down, using his images to develop rhythms and moods rather than to drive the plot. He knows well that cinema begins where meaning ends, that cinema is the preeminent art form of the visible and that no philosophical or psychological depth can make up for the visceral impact of the photographic image.

ThampuThampu could be classified, in a broad sense, as falling under the ‘aesthetic category’ of Contemporary Contemplative Cinema (CCC), a mode of filmmaking that Indian filmmakers rarely get into. Like the major works of CCC, it eschews narrative for texture and psychology for gestures. The film generally works with long shots and little employs speech, pruning down sensational elements and using a naturalistic mise en scène and an observational style. However, unlike most CCC films, Thampu uses a lot of music, most of them diegetic. There are songs that play on the radio, songs from the circus loudspeakers and a bunch of them even sung directly by characters. However, each of these occurrences is presented in a nearly-documentary format, as a part of everyday life of the villagers. The result is fascinating in the way the movie ventures into territory generally alien to CCC and yet works within its paradigms. Throughout the film, there is a tug-of-war between performance and naturalism. Rather, one complements the other. Decidedly over-the-top, spectacular scenes from the circus performance are intercut with the audience’s faces whose startled reactions are little spectacles in themselves. We watch the performance of their faces as they watch the faces of their performers. We are made the spectators of faces as we watch the faces of the spectators. The contrived and repetitive, even if bravura, acts of the circus troupe are countered by the fresh, spontaneous gestures on the audience’s faces, as if trying pointing to Parallel Cinema a whole new type of filmmaking.

The indoor scenes, on the other hand, are highly synthetic (not in a derogatory sense). For one, the scenes at Menon’s house are filmed like a newspaper caricature, composed like a tableau at times. But even in the other scenes at the circus, the naturalism of the documentary sections (the circus show, the streets of the village etc.) is replaced by a highly stylized aesthetic that uses monochrome backgrounds before which actors move, perform and talk in a self-consciously artificial fashion. Even here, there is a push-pull relationship between conscious performance and the naturalism vested in the documentation of that performance (a dialectic that forms the central working principle of Anadi-Dhara). The circus manager, Panicker, is played by Bharath Gopi, one of India’s finest actors. He plays Panicker straight, without any attempt to convince that he’s into the skin of the character or that this is how a circus manager behaves. Like Cassavetes’ strip club owner (but not half as empathetic towards his workers) he just is. Gopi’s portrayal is a termite art of the highest order and his face here is one that you won’t forget for a long time. In fact, it’s tough to forget any of the faces one watches in this movie. Quite simply, Thampu is a film about faces, like how Kummatty is a film about horizons of all kinds. Aravindan, somewhat like Bartas, cuts from one face to other, using them like notes in a melody, as if conjuring them up from childhood memory. As in Shirin (2008), there is something expressive about these faces, their reaction to a small-scale spectacle revealing more than what’s visible. And like the Kiarostami film, we realize that the screen space extends on to us, inviting us to revel in this small-scale spectacle of faces.

 

Here is a set of interviews of Govindan Aravindan speaking about his films. On Thampu:

 

When you planned the film THAMPU, what was uppermost in your mind: was it the problems and insecurities of the circus artists or the response of the villagers to the circus tent?

I planned THAMPU as a documentary feature. The film was shot in Thirunavaya on the banks of Bharathapuzha. I came to this village with ten to fifteen circus artistes who had already left their circus company. We did not have a script, and we shot the incidents as they happened. What we did on the first day was to call all the villagers and perform a circus act for them. There were a lot of people who had not seen a circus before. We shot their responses as they were watching. We did not ask them to do anything. After the initial hesitation, they forgot the lights and the shooting and completely got involved in the circus. It was all very original. At that time the village was also getting ready for the Ayappan Vilaku festival, which we used in the film. Finally the whole village got so involved in preparing for its festival, they lost their interest in the circus. The film ends there. In fact it is a location film.

Well, in THAMPU also, there is a discontented young man.

This character was there in the film – young man from an upper middle class family returned from abroad and settled in the native land. I am fascinated by these kind of people. You see similar people in UTTARAYANAM also. This ‘return’ has been with us for a very very long time. Earlier people ‘returned’ from Singapore, Burma, Ceylon etc. Now they ‘return’ from the Gulf. That is the only difference. When they ‘come back’ they will build a big bungalow and live isolated from the others around. Their relationships are confined to those of similar ‘type’ – they will of course have their “weekend gatherings”. The question is why do they ‘come back’ if they are unable to or do not want to mix with the people around? My young man is someone who is discontented with this sort of isolation and wants to be in tune with the people and surroundings. He does not like to sit at home. He starts learning to read Malayalam and then ask the circus whether he can join them and ultimately goes away with them.

Just a small comment. Although apparently ‘regional’, your films, one could say are much broader – Indian. Your comments on contemporary issue reflect more a cynicism towards the present (as in your cartoons) than a nostalgic return to the past. To get back to the film – the young man has never been to see a circus, has he?

No. When the circus goes back he just goes along with them.

When a circus is on the move, the artists are resting or asleep. They have nothing to expect or remember from the places they visit or stay in. This young man takes a decision to go with them. Why? Perhaps a recognition that he is no different from them! Or is this decision merely coincidental?

He could not get along with his family. To escape the home atmosphere he goes and finds a place under the Banyan tree and learns to read etc. I have included in the film the moment of his decision to join the circus. At home he was surrounded by rock music while he himself loves classical music. There you see him asking the circus to take him along. The circus manager tells him to get into the van. At that moment he has not identified himself with the circus – he is merely escaping from his environment. No one has taken note of him in the circus company. The film ends with the sequence of him sleeping by the side of the circus clown.

For the circus, this journey is a stagnation. A period of rest, where as for the young man this trip is a progress and escape.

We cannot really say predict what he will become or do… He could become anything…even a circus clown… We are not making it clear. The emphasis is on his escape from the immediate environment.

As you are talking about the journey of the young man, it occurs to me that all your films have this aspect of a voyage to self-discovery or a ‘movement’ towards betterment of humanity. e.g. in KANCHANA SEETA, Rama carrying the sacrificial fire and going into the Sarayu River; in UTTARAYANAM, Ravi going into the forest; the arrivals and departures of the bogeyman in KUMMATTY according to the seasons; in CHIDAMBARAM Shankaran Kutty’s search for peace in his troubled conscience etc. Your films seem to be myriad manifestations of the deep desire of human kind for answers, peace, meaning…?

(Remains silent)

Instructions For A Light And Sound Machine (2005)
Peter Tscherkassky
Silent

 

Instructions for a Light and Sound MachineAustrian experimental filmmaker Peter Tscherkassky has the most bizarre working method I’ve come across. He apparently only works on found footage which he doesn’t merely reuse. Using a specialized laser beam, he transfers the images partially from the footage onto a fresh stock, working painstakingly on a frame-by-frame basis, leaving certain areas of the latter unexposed. In other words, he literally ‘sculpts’ his film from the raw footage he gathers and gives them a whole new appearance and meaning. One could say that he is essentially responsible for every single speck present in the frames of his films. This fact is of utmost importance since the medium is the message in his 16-minute wonder, Instructions for a Light and Sound Machine (2005), a work that packs a wallop like a few films do. That Tscherkassky chooses Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Western, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), for his project is vital. Like the Kinski-esque man in it who steps in front of the camera to gaze into it, the Leone film is a self-conscious masterpiece that keeps the narrative to its bare minimum, dissolving the genre and asking us to see through its own construction (If he was allowed, Leone would probably have included the boom mike in the frame as well). Like the Italian film, Instructions is a work that has both narrative and formal concerns, but it goes one further in the way it calls attention to its narrative, its aesthetic and its medium, all at once. And how often do we see experimental films being made in 35mm CinemaScope?!

Instructions consists of a bunch of shots from the Leone film, almost all of which deal with Ugly/Tuco (Eli Wallach) running – for the treasure and for his life. Tscherkassky takes the shots through his elaborate transfer process, extracting, distorting, stressing and degrading them. Sometimes he repeats, reverses, negates, overexposes and overlaps the shots, creating a highly familiar yet vastly different stream of images. The soundtrack, likewise, is a dense collage of diegetic sounds and extra-textual mechanical noises. We hear a clamorous storm of bullets, the hum of a rickety projector, the footsteps of the characters, alarming wail of sirens and other cyclic machine sounds put together by Dirk Schaeffer. Instructions begins with a man – the surrogate audience – opening a window and peering into the horizon through his telescope. An exposed ellipse reveals to us that it’s Tuco arriving on a horse. Soon there are bunch of these ellipses as if a crowd of such men has gathered. We are soon thrust into a duel, bullets fly by, the image jars and switches between negative and positive, with lots of flickering of image and sound. The violence in film parallels the violence on film and, somehow, the latter prevents us from enjoying the former. The film is, hence, also violence on us, an assault on our senses. It’s sadism that’s being exhibited on every level – not just the filmmaker’s, ours too. By exposing the process of the film running, we are made to notice the politics of the narrative, of the form and of the material itself.

Instructions for a Light and Sound MachineTscherkassky seems to have found an apt metaphor for the filmmaking process in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. An actor in a film dies at the end of each frame only to be born again in the next, like how Blondie (Clint Eastwood) – the director stand-in – surrenders Tuco to the sheriff for hanging only to save him again. This seemingly never-ending cycle of death and resurrection pervades the entire film as Tuco becomes the Sisyphus-ean man caught in the loop of film, never being able to escape the tyrannical circle. In the final scene, he finds himself in a cemetery full of graves, which might all well be his own. He runs from one grave to another trying to find the one that will redeem him. But what he does not know is that he is not in control of his situation. It is Blondie who makes him run from one grave to another. It is Tscherkassky who makes him run from one direction to another and back. Tuco tries to evade death by trying to jump onto the next frame and perhaps even out of the film, to no avail. He is puppet in the hands of the filmmaker who distorts Tuco’s figure to give it a phantom-like appearance, as if the man is on fire. Tuco vainly attempts to enforce his reality, to free himself from the machinations of the narrative, the filmmaker, the audience and the projection system. But, even after the ‘Finish’ frame has arrived (which is immediately juxtaposed with the ‘Start’ frame), he is still running, wandering the limbo between life and death, never to see real light.

Instructions is a meditation on the nature of film and its relationship to cinema in this world of digital video. Tscherkassky’s film is highly rooted in the ontology of the material using which it is made and this inseparability of the movie’s medium, aesthetic and content is what gives the work its special significance. In the director’s own words: “I attempt to create art works that can only be made with film. In other words, if there were nothing other than the computer, hard disk and magnetic tape, then these works would simply not exist”. More than anything, Instructions illustrates how the film medium is inherently a vehicle of personal expression and how it bears the authorial stamp more deeply than any other modern medium. A scratch on a piece of film denotes human authorship while a smudge on a piece of digital video does not. The scratch – be it a conscious distortion on the part of the filmmaker or a folly of the projectionist – proves and particularizes the existence of the piece of work in the real world. It stands witness to the human elements of the cinema enterprise – from the production of a film to its exhibition. It’s an existential question of sorts for the work being created, like for Tuco here. The medium of the work has to be palpable and has to be subject to physical impairment in order for it to testify its being. May be that’s why the combustion and destruction of film stock always has some romanticism associated with it. The death is what establishes its existence.

Instructions for a Light and Sound MachineA digital smudge, on the other hand, could happen anywhere within the production, distribution and exhibition systems. It might just be the corruption of a few thousand bits of data. It might purely be the work of a malfunctioning storage device. The smudge makes a film metaphysical by refusing to acknowledge its being in the real world (Tscherkassky’s film, in a way, could be read as an assault on digital video by film). In a sense, it sweeps the work off ground and makes it a bunch of floating images that find their meaning only in the minds of their beholders. Consequently, it is both interesting and problematic when one watches Tscherkassky’s film on the computer or on a DVD system. For one, the basic significance of the whole film is lost. It digitizes the analog. One is never sure if a particular defect in the image stream that we see is a part of the original film or a result of the inefficiency of the video encoder used. This additional dialectic goes to the extent of inverting the filmmaker’s and the spectator’s relationship with the film. The work ceases to be a set of instructions ‘for’ a light and sound machine and becomes a set of instructions ‘from’ a light and sound machine. We stop being the authors and the critics and become the passive screen on which the film projects itself back, assaulting and deceiving us with its glitches. Thanks to the proliferation of online video sites, we have managed to mass produce, more rapidly than ever, what was essentially to be found on a single reel of film. As Godard said, what we see is not even a copy of a reproduction.

In his seminal essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1935), Walter Benjamin optimistically examines how the invention of film (more or less coinciding with the birth of psychoanalysis) changed the perception of the world at large and redefined the function of art. He argues that cinema, by its inherent necessity to be reproduced on a large scale (owing to the sheer amount of financing that goes into it, unlike other arts), destroys the aura – to use Benjamin’s terminology – around a piece of art. The question of authenticity of a work of art, in such a case, becomes irrelevant. Thanks to such mass production, a work of art is no more the centre of the world that connoisseurs must travel miles to see. Art is now delivered at our doorstep, so to speak. It frees cultural expression from the confines of an arthouse by making it accessible to a large part of the public, hence making the perfect tool for political mobilization. He writes:

Mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual. To an ever greater degree the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility. From a photographic negative, for example, one can make any number of prints; to ask for the “authentic” print makes no sense. But the instant the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the total function of art is reversed. Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice – politics.

This invalidation of the question of authenticity by mass production, far from being a death knell for the arts as some purists may cry, obviates the need to own and collect works of art. Mass production, on the most basic level, thus seems to override socioeconomic disparities, freeing art of the classism and elitism inherent in a ritualistic approach to it (One could dig a little further to see the underlying contradictions within modern, assembly-line production and marketing). This liberation of the arts rings truer in the world of video streaming and peer-to-peer sharing, where even collection of reproductions of work of art, like DVDs, has become a futile exercise (the ritualist cinephile’s last hope is, then, boasting about the number of films she’s watched). So a work of art, essentially, is stripped down to being about its ideas and emotions and our responses to them than about its authenticity, ownership and geographical location.

Instructions for a Light and Sound MachineNow, one could argue that films such as Tscherkassky’s (and others’ such as those of Stan Brakhage, which literally have its author’s signature imprinted), which thrive on the existence of a physical medium, only bring back the ritual culture generally alien to cinema (The tendency is also manifest when certain experimental films are auctioned for tens of thousands of dollars and even in certain tenets of the auteur theory). But one could also say that it’s their way of asserting their individuality amidst the ruthless homogenization of commercial cinema, over the effacement of a personal vision by the financial objectives of studios (Tscherkassky’s is very much a work of Second Cinema). Instructions, in particular, resorts to this ritualism only to illustrate the tyranny of film, the olden days when the author could make his material transmute on whim and even impart a part of his personality to his film. Not anymore. Authorship can no longer exist on the frame, only within it. As far as the physical medium goes, the author is dead now, which is not necessarily a bad thing. The film even seems to look forward to a newer, less egotistic cinema as suggested by the strange overlapping of ‘Start’ and ‘Finish’ frames. Now that Tscherkassky has mourned the death of the despotism of film, it’s time for some filmmaker to celebrate the democracy of digital video.

 

(You can watch the film here. The password to the video is “theauteurs”.)

Historias Extraordinarias (2008) (aka Extraordinary Stories)
Mariano Llinás
Spanish

Thrilled, X thinks, “She’s done it. She managed to escape. The case is closed. She fooled them all.” Then adds with some pride, “all but me…” But this isn’t really the case. X is wrong about everything. He will never know it, but his entire theory is wrong.

 

Historias ExtraordinariasArgentine director Mariano Llinás’ Extraordinary Stories (2008) is an interesting bundle of paradoxes. For one, it is one of the most entertaining films of last decade, yet not many people seem to have seen it (Even its festival visits seem few and far). The film runs for more than four hours, yet it “feels” as if it is only a third of that length. The stories it tells are so interesting and seem ready-made for a mass, global audience, yet its running time precludes the possibility of a wide release. The film was made for a mere $40,000 and yet it’s more ambitious than an industry product made with thousand times that budget Corporations would be glad to distribute the picture and yet would probably ask Llinás to cut the film to half its original length, which would only unmake the entire film. These kinds of contradictions are present even within the film. Extraordinary Stories tells stories that are simple, lucid and linear enough to understand easily, yet the way it chooses to tell them agitates us, calling attention to itself and nearly undoing the emotional involvement the stories offer. Furthermore, it tells stories that imbibe many of the conventions of genre cinema and yet the film freewheels all the way, never succumbing to the baseless needs raised by the genres. The result is not a filmmaking mess as one might think, but a heady mix of addictive stories and spectacular storytelling.

So, what is Extraordinary Stories about? Where to begin and where to end? For starters, it tells us three parallel stories in eighteen chapters about three common men – X (Mariano Llinás himself), Z (Walter Jakob) and H (Agustin Mendilaharzu, also the cinematographer) – as narrated by an unseen narrator (rather three of them – Daniel Hendler, Juan Minujin and Veronica Llinás). X is a state-commissioned architect who, by a strange turn of events, becomes a murderer and pigeonholes himself into a hotel room in order to evade the police. Z is a small-time government official in a secluded town who gradually finds a deep interest in the secret life of his predecessor. H is a manual labourer who is hired by an old man to hunt for some specific relics that are supposedly lying on the banks of the local river. Also interspersed in generous amounts are threads about an escaped convict who plans to infiltrate a top-level meeting of businessman, a bet between two old men about the feasibility of a construction project, a short biopic of an iconic architect who built demonic structures in the most remotest of villages, a flashback of a random character recounting war time experiences, a love triangle and what not. The story deviates on its whim with the narrator seemingly improvising as he goes along. One might argue that none of these diversions makes sense, but these irrational detours are the stuff that stories are made of.

Although the film makes no claim to study the psychology of its characters or the motivation for their actions, it is very interesting to speculate on why the protagonists do what they do. X is like L. B, Jefferies, confining himself to the hotel and observing the world through the rear window of his room. He attempts to construct a coherent world from the random images he observes and believes, in vain, that the can make sense of it all. He is trying to hold together not only the world that appears to be going berserk and out of his comprehension, but also his sanity. If X was trying to construct a game around him, Z attempts to get into a game already built. Like Antonioni’s photographer, out of sheer boredom of a drab suburban life, he creates a puzzle within the world (where none may exist) and plunges into it, thereby ceasing to be a passive observer and becoming an active participant. H, on the other hand, is nudged into a game he never wanted to be in the first place. Preferring the untroubled life that he already leads, he tries to shut himself out of the new universe that he seems to have been pulled into and tries to reject the larger-than-life stories of the old man. He initially thinks that he’s being paid for much more than what he’s doing but, gradually, he discovers that he’s got himself into something much more than what he signed up for. What connects them is their realization that, even though things may not have turned out the way they wanted, the experience itself was worth the investment.

Historias ExtraordinariasThe first, and obviously, striking thing about Extraordinary Stories is the presence of a narrator who recites to us the events like a news reporter, giving a sense of immediacy to the proceedings and packing so much of narrative material into these paltry 245 minutes. He authoritatively comments on the characters, their motivations and actions as if he knows everything about them. The apparent redundancy is nullified along the film as Llinás provides friction between the soundtrack and the visual. This discrepancy between what we see and what the narrator tells us is both comical and unsettling. For instance, the narrator elaborates on the theory that X concocts only to tell us, at the end of it all, that he’s wrong. Similarly, he tells us what is going to happen at a scene much before the event actually takes place (In fact, halfway into the film, he gives away what is to happen towards the end). So, for us, the narrator seems both omniscient and suspicious. But having no other objective point of view, we are forced to trust him. This way, Extraordinary Stories is a film about storytelling itself – its methods, its pitfalls and its very nature – and, consequently, also about the role of the director in the filmmaking process. It is as if we are forced to acknowledge that no story can be free of the tyranny of authorial subjectivity, that every story tells as much about its storyteller as it does about its characters and that every version of a story gets refracted by the ideological prisms of each of the narrator it passes through.

Shot in video as expected and almost exclusively with a shallow focus, the film has all the coziness and visual blandness of a home video or, at best, an independent production, which is especially evident in scenes with little lighting where the images start bleeding. Llinás also probably saved a lot in the sound department, given that not much rerecording would have been required. However, the film is directed lovingly, with a keen interest in telling the stories. As indicated by the film’s promotional poster that imitates van Gogh, Extraordinary Stories is a work that lies somewhere between modernist distortion (the subjectivity and personal nature of storytelling are continually brought to the fore) and postmodernist pastiche. Like Kill Bill (2003-04), the film that first comes to mind while watching this one, Llinás’ film is divided into chapters and traverses various genres and styles, taking us on a tour of the various zones of popular cinema. One moment we have the film lurking in the dark waters of a psychological thriller and in the other, cruising in the carefree playgrounds of a romantic comedy. Using almost every form out there – graphic animation, photo essay, journalistic reportage, cinema vérité – Llinás fabricates a film that instantly recalls the early works of the Nouvelle Vague, especially the pictures of Truffaut whose on-the-fly narration of events it emulates. Like the films of the French director, Llinás’ film, despite the alienating presence of the narrator, is full of emotions – humour, pathos, fear and love –which prevent the characters from being reduced to caricatures or pawns of a larger structure.

Throughout the film, we struggle to find a connection between the three stories. Genre cinema, especially those written by Guillermo Arriaga, has taught us to expect these seemingly independent stories to gloriously clash and merge in a magisterial showdown. Accordingly, we earnestly wish that the all-powerful narrator will somehow tie all these stories up and prevent the film from becoming a very long shaggy dog story. The inherent trait of genre cinema is to provide patterns, to prepare us to expect certain types of stories, conflicts and closures. The successful genre film supplies minor variations within the larger structure whereas the ordinary ones act by the book. But all of them provide the audience an integral, causal world the events of which could all be accommodated neatly into an overarching “meaning”. And Llinás’ film avoids precisely that. If at all there is some connection between the three stories, it must be the idea that our lives change in ways we never would have imagined and through the kind of people we never would have expected to meet. X, Z and H may not have found what they wanted, but the important thing for them is that they rediscover themselves in that quest. The people they meet may or may not be what they think they are, but even more vital is the transformation that this motley bunch brings to the worldview of the three protagonists. To kill a cliché, the journey for them is more important than the destination. Likewise, Llinás’ film seems to suggest that the details of the stories – the inflections, the moments and the events – that it presents are far more enriching – far more intriguing certainly – and important than any resolution to these stories could be.

Historias ExtraordinariasTaken together, these three stories, save for a few tenuous connections between them, may not account for any singular “meaning” at all for Extraordinary Stories is the kind of film that abstains from making any grand statements about the world – political or otherwise. By actually recounting the tales through an active narrator, and not just presenting the stories visually, Llinás absolves the world within the fictional stories from the burden of causality, realism and meaning. If the film has something concrete to say at all, it can only be about storytelling and not the world. Now, one might argue that this form of depoliticization only obfuscates reality for the viewer. However, by freeing itself from the hinges of the genre, its mundane mechanizations and its inherent ideological choices, Llinás’ film provides true escapist entertainment that, for once, does not intimidate its audience. By rejecting the tyrannical structures of genre cinema such as pattern, meaning, closure and unambiguity, Llinás’ film brings back to stories what is absolutely essential to them – mystery. It is an achievement for the film that it does not hesitate to include what would otherwise be deemed superfluous elements. There is probably a whole film playing out through the eyes of the stray characters we see – the lovers at the town centre, the workers at the office and the old men at the village meeting, for instance – that would make for stories as fantastic as the ones we see. The greatest triumph for Llinás’ film is that it preserves such possibilities. It has, in essence, brought back the awe and curiosity that we felt as kids, sitting in the porch listening to the tall tales of our grandparents with wide eyes. Extraordinary stories indeed.

 

(Image Courtesy: Revista Post)

Next Page »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 196 other followers