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)

Workingman’s Death (2005)
Michael Glawogger
Pashtu/Yoruba/German/English/Ibo/Indonesian/Mandarin/Russian

We imitate the figures and pose like the soldiers and our ancestors up there. We think these poses look really funny and avant-garde.

 

Workingman's Death - HeroesMichael Glawogger’s Workingman’s Death (2005) is the kind of film that helps illustrate why an authorial viewpoint is so important in documentary filmmaking. More than anything, Glawogger’s film suffers from the absence of a voiceover. This occasional pseudo-neutrality and non-involvement of the filmmaker is troubling precisely because it runs the risk of alienating the subject from the filmmaker. When you set out to make a documentary on the lives of the oppressed and unprivileged, there are only two ways you can take. One, you film their situation from at a considerable distance, clinically analyzing the causes of their misery and, preferably, pointing out a way out of it. Or two, you go up, close and personal, empathize with them, understand them and document their condition as you would your own, always being critical of what they are going through. Merely gawking at their wretchedness, in the name of neutral observation, amounts to nothing more than crowding near a man run over by a car. Filmmakers such as Pedro Costa have tried to resolve the deadlock between the imperative to avoid exploitation of one’s subjects and the need to document their living condition by, as Michael Sicinski sharply notes, making them active participants in the creative process, by fictionalizing the documentary with the consent of its participants. What this effectively does is that it gives a voice to the subjects, as if they are expressing themselves through the film incidentally organized by the director. Additionally, other filmmakers like Werner Herzog (who has done some atrocious things as well) continually (and, some might say, overbearingly) intrude on their subject’s space – interrupting them, commenting upon them and essentially reducing what they’ve shot to the level of found footage – and hence display a deep personal commitment towards the topic at hand.

What is interesting about Workingman’s Death is that it assumes all the above attitudes in turn. There are phases in the film that are simply brilliant, some interesting, some insipid and some plainly worthy of contempt. There is nothing you learn from the film that’s not summed up in its title. What one expects from it, then, is to study the politico-historical reasons for the eponymous demise of the worker and what it means to the proletariat today. And the film starts on the right note. As the title credits play, we are shown a collage of news reels and archival footage, all depicting workers doing various strenuous activities, cut at a rapid pace reminiscent of the early Soviet films. Likewise, the soundtrack is a patchwork of drilling noise and ominous percussion-heavy music. This prelude ends with a clip depicting a pair of bubbling Soviet workers pledging that they will mine an amount of coal that is much more than is expected from them in a single year. They are filmed with the camera pointing upwards towards them. Following this, Glawogger cuts to the present, to the image of a tired worker, whose face is covered with coal dust, posing for the camera. An on-screen quote from Faulkner reads: “You can’t eat eight hours a day nor drink for eight hours a day nor make love for eight hours — all you can do for eight hours is work. Which is the reason why man makes himself and everybody else so miserable and unhappy”. The contrast that the subsequent image – a wintry, deserted townscape – provides to the preceding montage is jarring and drives home the point right away. That the town is in Ukraine – an erstwhile member of the Soviet Union – only reinforces the central idea, which is the failure of the Utopian socialist dream of the omnipotent worker.

Workingman's Death - GhostsHeroes’, this ironically titled and finely directed first part of the film, is set in Donbass, Ukraine, a former mining hub of Soviet Russia, and follows the working routine of a bunch of freelance miners who gather the last pieces of coal left in the mountains. We are told that the government-run mining industry has been shut down and these workers have been left with no choice other than to form small groups, dig out whatever coal they can, sell them and share the profits. Glawogger intercuts these snippets of interviews with a piece of propaganda that details Andrey Stakhanov’s record-breaking stint at the same mine in 1935 when his team collected 102 tons in a single shift, virtually triggering off the Stakhanovite movement. The image of charged workers carrying their drills over their shoulders like rifles and marching forward, heaving their chests and singing under the open sky stands in stark opposition to these handful of miners crawling in a mineshaft that is hardy a couple of feet high and which could collapse on the slightest of errors. We realize how the image of the worker as envisioned (and perhaps constructed) by the Stalinists became more of a self-deceiving prison than a liberating guide for the common worker (an idea that was superbly explored in Makavejev’s Man Is Not A Bird (1965)). Glawogger enters the mine along with the workers, crawling about just like them, to document them (It is an achievement that the movie is shot in film and not in video, which would have been logistically easier). It’s a Herzogian moment no doubt, but to bring in an auteurist dimension would be to undermine the vision of the film, which is nearly what Glawogger himself ends up doing later in the film.

We are also shown the women in the area, who, too, make money by mining and whose camaraderie reflects the men’s. They are more cynical about education and believe that they would have ended up at the same position even if they had gone to college. They laugh at the idea that a faith in God might save them. Perhaps this gender equality is all that remains of the socialist dream. The workers are no more the all-powerful beings in control of the machinery they operate and the nature they exploit. They are now gleaners squeezing every ounce of coal they can out the nearly exhausted mines. The 102 tons of coal that Stakhanov mined in a single shift has become the stuff of legends, much like Stakhanov himself. They are less like Stakhanov and more like Sisyphus – mining to live and living to mine – with seemingly no way out of this wearing circle. Much like the mythological hero, these people seem to have come to terms with their condition. Glawogger, too, ends the section on a note that isn’t much different from how Camus concludes his essay: “…one must imagine Sisyphus happy”. For the first time in the film, we see something that’s really cheerful – a wedding. The couple and their friends celebrate near the Stakhanov statue at the centre of the town. They have bonfires. They leave. Lest it should become a gesture of complacence, Glawogger signs off with the image of the Stakhanov statue standing alone in the wintry night, with the bride’s headwear hanging from his left arm – the answer to a question that will be asked at the end of the film.

Workingman's Death - LionsGhosts’ is shot in Kawahljen, Indonesia, where we see a group of workers chip away large chunks of Sulphur from a valley and carry them all the way to a factory where they get paid. Although the section stands in contrast to the claustrophobic undergrounds of the previous segment, it is equally suffocating to see these workers gagging themselves to avoid getting poisoned while mining these pieces of Sulphur. Glawogger directs the segment with traces of fiction, including what appear like rehearsed conversations and with dynamic camera movements which are simply too beautiful for their own good. There is even a thread consisting of what seems like a gay couple, which is clearly ridiculed by the other workers, that throws light upon the hierarchies of marginalization. We are also shown tourists who visit this breathtaking valley and have themselves photographed along with these workers or temporarily assuming their roles. These tourists humour the workers, treating them condescendingly. One of the workers even talks about a French woman who wanted to kiss him. Evidently, Glawogger is criticizing these middle-class folks for their hypocrisy and for glamorizing what is essentially a life of ordeals. The irony here is that Glawogger does the same thing later in the film. However, there is one sequence which shows one worker selling a improvised Sulphur curio to the tourists at exorbitant prices. For a moment the film attains remarkable density where, for once, the basic human elements of the film are not overshadowed by class-level analysis. However, the political context in this segment is weaker as compared to the previous segment. For one, there is no reason why the film must be set in Indonesia. The only reason for this deadly routine of these workers that we can think of is globalization. But unlike in ‘Heroes’, that connection is not stressed upon one bit (apart from the fact that one worker is wearing a football jersey!).

But it is in the third and fourth segments that the film really plummets. The middle section, ‘Lions’, takes place in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, and inside a slaughter-ground where hundreds of cattle are sacrificed, skinned and processed every day. Glawogger shows us all the killings in fine detail, without any restraint, spending considerable time chronicling the process of slaying, skinning and roasting the animals and lesser time talking to the people who do that. Of course, the reference point here is Franju’s Blood of the Beasts (1949, from which shots are borrowed by Glawogger for the title sequence), where the director took us through a graphic tour of Parisian slaughterhouses, revealing the opaqueness of our morality, among other things. But the subtle difference between the stylistics of Glawogger and of Franju reveals a world’s difference between the attitudes of both the filmmakers towards the killings. While Franju assembled the clips and provided a voice over that built on the material, Glawogger seems to treat the footage of the slaughter as an end in itself. As a result, Franju’s film became an analysis that based itself on the everyday work at the abattoirs whereas Glawogger’s film seems as if it merely wants to record workplace details (and possibly pass itself off as a “mature” film). The shots of animals being slit become the only destination for Glawogger here since his relationship between the people who carry out this task remains tenuous, at best, in this segment. The workers at the slaughter grounds mark the severed heads of the cattle they’ve slain so that they can reclaim them later. They ward off each other so that their share is not taken away. As indicated by the title of the segment and by its visual scheme where the workers appear nearly buried beneath the chunks of meat, Glawogger is actually comparing them with a pack of lions fiercely holding on to what they’ve hunted – quite a reproachable comparison I’d say.

Workingman's Death - BrothersThe fourth part of the film, titled ‘Brothers’, sees the film shift base from Africa back to Asia, this time to a shipyard in Gaddani, Pakistan. We witness workers dismantling large ships, piece by piece, where one false move could result in death (In fact, all the workers shown in the film stand on the verge of death. They risk their lives in order to survive). The group consists of a large number of native and immigrant workers – perhaps from Afghanistan – who help and motivate each other at the workplace. They pine for their beloveds, whom they get to see only during the year ends. We also get to see one photographer who visits the shipyard, offering people a chance to get photographed with a rifle for ten rupees. Are we supposed to pity these workers that they are misguidedly revering terrorists? Or are we supposed to see how deep the Islamic resistance to westernization goes? Glawogger doesn’t answer, and perhaps rightly so. The problem in this section, however, lies in its aesthetics. Glawogger shoots the dismantling work from various angles and distances, creating a symphony of destruction. He uses ultra slow motion and lets us see every speck of dust that rises as the pieces fall. The sense of awe near completely undoes the drudgery that we are witnessing. That Workingman’s Death is shot in film makes it all the more beautiful and hence very objectionable. But that is not the biggest flaw of this segment.

There is no apparent reason why both ‘Lions’ and ‘Brothers’ should be shot where they have been. The slogging that we witness at both the shipyard and the slaughter house is neither geopolitically specific nor a result of global politics. As Michael Atkinson says, there is no reason to believe that it the condition of these workers would have been much better during some other century (the film is subtitled “5 Portraits of Work in the 21st Century”) or if they were in some other country with similar political climate (one worker in Nigeria says that they would be better off if their country allowed them to export meat – a statement that called for further examination, even if it seems shortsighted). Perhaps Glawogger’s exploration is metaphysical rather than political, but the fact that he sets the film entirely in socialist or third world countries throws that argument into question (I guess it would have done the film some good had there been a segment chronicling workers living in developed countries). Moreover, three of the five segments document certain religious practices of the workers, two of which involve animal sacrifice. In all the three segments, the workers have a deep faith in God, deterministically accepting what God has preordained for them. The suffering is taken as a given and some of them are even proud of what they do. Perhaps they find solace and meaning in religion. That all the three countries are Islamic is somewhat troubling (the film was made in 2005 – a time when the demonizing of Muslims was at its peak), especially given that Glawogger could have chosen any three countries for his purpose since there is nothing very specific about Nigeria, Pakistan or Indonesia that he underscores.

Workingman's Death - FutureHowever, the film comes right back on track (or should I say, west of the track?!) in the final segment – the shortest and the best – of the film, “Future”, set in Liaoning, an industrial town in northeastern China. The segment opens with a bunch of men writing text on a platform at the town centre, moving backwards (Mandarin is written vertically), with what looks like volatile ink. The soundtrack plays the voice of chairman Mao extolling industrial workers. The point is clearly made: everything that we see and hear is transitory and is a relic of the past. This phenomenon of getting trapped in failed visions and unfulfilled promises of the past is what forms the central theme of ‘Future’ (in contrast to the disillusionment of ‘Heroes’). The focus soon shifts to the workers in the smelting factories of the township. The workers who are interviewed seem to have deep faith in their country and what it is doing for (and to) them. They acknowledge that times have changed, but retain that by equipping the factories with newer technologies, the nation could be back on the path of progress. These interview snippets are followed by a short conversation with a couple of youngsters standing near a people’s monument, located in the town, depicting workers enthusiastically toiling around a giant statue of Mao. The youngsters tell us that they like coming to this place and getting themselves photographed while assuming the poses of their ancestors. Of course, this attitude seems indicative of the workers as well, who insist on repeating rhetoric of the past even when the nation has moved into a market economy like the west.

There is also an epilog to the film, set in Duisburg-Nord Country Park, Germany – once the Duisburg-Meiderich Steelworks. The factory is evidently in a deplorable condition. We sense that only the phantom of the smelting plant remains. Kids have infested the rusted factory premises, hurling water balloons at each other. As night falls, we see teenagers making out. A narrator gives us the history of the smelting factory and what became of it later: “Then came the last shift. But not the end; rather a new beginning. The smelting plant was transformed into a unique leisure park. When night falls in Duisburg, the blast furnaces flare up. In neon green and fantastic colors. ARTificial light in the truest sense.” We realize that the factory was closed down, but we wonder what happened to the workers. Glawogger, meanwhile, seems to be wondering what happened to “the worker”. May be that’s what he was trying to ask – however objectionably, however inconsistently – throughout the film. As the attractions at the park wind down, as the teenagers and kids move out, as the neon lights fade to black, the manager at the theme park asks a question (which also happens to be the final line in the film), in the public announcement system, whose answer was already given by the image of the solitary statue of Andrey Stakhanov standing in the snow in the first segment: “Have we left anyone sitting in the dark?

Tie Xi Qu: West Of The Tracks (2003)
Wang Bing
Mandarin

We have to leave sooner or later anyway. Can’t hold back the tides of progress.

 

Tie Xi Qu: West Of The TracksI’d so far thought that it was Jia’s The World (2004) that truly summed up the state of the third world in the first decade of the new century. While I’ve not changed my opinion entirely, Wang Bing’s phenomenal DV work Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks (2003) forces me to. Epic in scope and size, West of the Tracks is divided into three films subtitled Rust, Remnants and Rails. Between 1999 and 2001, when China had embarked on a mission of mass privatization of the country, Bing lived and shot this film in the district of Shenyang located in the city of Tie Xi in northeastern China where smelting and electrical industries were to be closed down. These industries were purportedly established by the Japanese to help them produce ammunitions for the war, but were nationalized after Japanese retreat. Although these factories were doing well till about the eighties, the profits started waning by the mid-nineties (due to bad management, some workers say) and, by the end of the decade, the factories had filed for bankruptcy resulting in mass layoffs and appalling cuts in pay of the workers. The film is a Herculean effort by a single man, who is credited as the producer, director, cinematographer and the editor of the film (which is ironical considering that this is the kind of film that tries to efface authorship). Bing apparently shot several hundred hours of footage for this film and edited it secretly and illegally in a TV studio. The result is one of the greatest films of the decade.

Rust, the longest of the three parts of this monumental work, opens with extended tracking shots photographed from a train that succinctly sum up the nine-hour film that is to follow. The snow-tainted lens of the handheld camera tells us the attitude of the filmmaker towards his subject – that of a empathetic and trustworthy observer who will place himself amidst the people he will be documenting – and the train, which comes to a halt after trudging through the snow-clad premises of the Shenyang smelting complex, itself becomes a fitting metaphor for the underproducing factories that will soon come to a full stop. In Rust, Bing chronicles the everyday life of the workers at the copper, iron and zinc smelting factories of Shenyang and through it, the failure of a utopian socialist dream. A large part of this section gives us workers going about doing their routine – unloading the metal ores, refining them, operating the blast furnaces and processing the extracted metals – and relaxing at the break rooms where they play chess and mahjong, involve in verbal fights and talk cynically about the state of the factory. This technique is crucial for the film since it is this very technique that aids the film to abstain from making any overt political statement and helps us empathize with the workers’ plight and way of life. It is this experiential mode of identification that justifies the running length of the film too. Had Bing cut down the film to a more viewer-friendly runtime, the product would have been a more analytical and agenda-driven film rather than a humanistic work that it is.

Tie Xi Qu: West Of The Tracks - RustIt is in these decidedly mundane sequences that we witness how inhuman the work at the factories is. The communist dream of the glorious worker seems a mere propaganda when one observes what happens at these industries. We are told that the lead content in the factories’ atmosphere is hundred times the allowable limit. The workers later go to a hospital to rid their bodies off the poison that they have taken in from the factory. The machines have literally infested their lives. The workers have become functional accessories required to keep the machines running, literally and figuratively (This personal sacrifice asked of people for a supposedly greater good – a motto that seemed common only to totalitarian socialist regimes – manifests in even more objectionable terms in the second part of the film), but they would have to almost kneel begging for pension before the government. The toughest part in this whole ordeal seems to be to come to terms with the fact that the faith that the workers had towards their government turned out to be an act of naïveté. Rust is the least narrative of the three segments and it is indeed tough to get hold of a perspective through which you can assess the happenings. In fact, the only probable protagonist of this section is, like Tsai’s cinema hall, the industrial complex itself. The complex, through its days of glory and disgrace, appears to denote the death of a civilization – from being a place full of people and public baths to a cold, deserted wasteland. After the industry is shut down, one of the workers, ransacking the now-empty break rooms, finds the identity card of a worker among the debris. We do not get to know the name on the card. We needn’t. It’s the condition of all the industry workers at Shenyang.

The three hour long second segment of the film, Remnants, takes place in the residential complex that houses the family of the workers at the Shenyang factories. Bing employs the same identification technique as in the previous film, following a large number of people living in the area and getting us accustomed to the way of life in the place. The first hour mostly deals with a bunch of teenagers knocking about the township during Valentine’s Day without any apparent work or education to care about. Some of these directionless youth take to violence and turn hoodlums for petty sums of money. It is in this infinitely rich segment that the film opens up numerous avenues for analysis of class, crime, justice and human rights. Like the Shenyang industries, the residential complex is to be torn down as per orders and is to be replaced by privately constructed and owned chain of apartments. Some of the residents, who realize the power of the institution they are up against, decide to dismantle their own houses (like the workers who take the industries apart), sell off whatever scrap metal that remains and move into the criminally unfair amount of compensatory space they are being allocated elsewhere. In that regard, the dilapidating neighbourhood that they live in becomes highly expressionistic and indicative of the moral and psychological downfall they are experiencing.

Tie Xi Qu: West Of The Tracks - RemnantsThe more gutsy ones, on the other hand, decide to stay put and force the private organization and the government to give them their due. The latter retaliates by cutting off the town’s supply of water and electricity. The people, again, try to obviate the need for electricity by harnessing daylight as much as possible. Like the gestures of these people, Wang Bing’s film is also an act of resistance, of documenting what remains unheeded and unsaid and of rethinking accepted notions of progress and development. His refusal to stay with the people who don’t leave instead of those who move on clearly exemplifies his stand. What we see in this second segment is the same kind of human rights violation that takes place in every developing country around the world, be it due to the Three Gorges project in China or the Narmada project in India. There are only a few films such as Jia Zhang-ke’s Still Life (2006), Yu Yan’s and Yifan Li’s Before the Flood (2007) and Simantini Dhuru’s and Anand Patwardhan’s Narmada Diary (1995) that act as voices of resistance amidst the cries of national glory and pride. The important thing to recognize is that these voices exist and need to be heard. One old man in Bing’s film, who is on the verge of throwing in the towel, tells us that we “can’t hold back the tide of progress”. One might call the statement cynical or practical, but the point is that an attempt should be made, even if in vain, to hold the tide back so that there are no more such tides.

The third segment of the film is called Rails and charts the final months at work of the employees of the Shenyang Railway system that manages shipments into and out of the district. This section could be seen as a conglomeration of the first two in the sense that it deals with both the workplace and the residential space of the workers. It is also in this segment that Wang Bing gives the film the semblance of a narrative and boils his character set down to two people – Old Du, a coal gleaner working in the railways with the cooperation of the workers who run the trains, and his son Du Yang. The driving force of this segment is the arrest of Old Du by the railway authorities which causes Yang to break down from his passive state. In the film’s most affecting sequence, Bing photographs Yang in his house on the day following his father’s arrest. Yang shows us a bunch of family photographs, talks about his mother who has left him alone and, just when the clock strikes ten and a melodious tune plays, starts crying. It’s a divine moment in filmmaking. Not once does Bing use non-diegetic music in the film but just at the moment when Yang stands on the verge of a breakdown, the clocks chips in with its heartwarming music (Bing reflexively pans to reveal the source of music, as if vindicating himself!). Earlier, Old Yu tells us: “There aren’t many people who would be willing to live the way we do”. It’s a devastating statement that shows how deep the social ladder descends.

Tie Xi Qu: West Of The Tracks - RailsThe film’s critical stance against the feverish rate of privatization of industries and public spaces might make Bing seem like a staunch leftist, a leftover Maoist of sorts. But a close look at the film, especially its first part, reveals that Wang Bing is only championing human rights, regardless of what ideology it entails. He is critical of the rapid privatization, but he is also reflecting on the failed socialist dream of the nation. Songs full of empty Maoist rhetoric abound the soundscape (all diegetic, of course) humorously counterpointing the utopian vision of the Cultural Revolution with the systematic corporitization of the country by the same party. As seen in Rails, Mao and Lenin have becomes mere names to be bandied about in conversations. Even in his subsequent film, Fengming: A Chinese Memoir (2007), his interest lies in exploring how the hunt for the rightists of the “black clique” (Maoist counterpart of the red hunt in the United States) resulted in the oppression of individuals, even those who worked for the party, and the confiscation of their basic rights. This passing of national dreams and political visions into the realm of speculation and wishful thinking is one of the numerous thematic connections that Bing’s films share with those of Jia Zhang-ke. In fact, echoes from West of the Tracks can be found in all of Jia’s works – from the impact of the Cultural Revolution in Platform (2000), through the wayward youth of Unknown Pleasures (2002), the ever increasing class rift in a globalized world in Still Life (2006) to the disintegration of the socialist dream in 24 City (2008, the film that starkly resembles Rust). Although these two artists have worked on similar themes, they have, however, done so in their own idiosyncratic ways, with wondrous results

As such, West of the Tracks (and Fengming: A Chinese Memoir more so) does not have a premeditated aesthetic that imposes an external meaning on the reality of the film. The cinematography and editing are almost purely functional and there is barely a cut or a reframing that suggests personal authorship. The film seems to lie so close to the end of that Bazinian asymptote to reality, that it opens up possibilities to read life as art, even if the filmmaker does not intend to create such a meaning. One might say that the naked men who walk around on screen are suggestive of the workers’ identity being stripped down to nothing, but it is only their workplace routine. One might say that the workers are dwarfed and marginalized by the humongous machines they are working on, but it’s just a material truth. One might say that the wife swapping story that the workers share in good jest has considerable parallels in their national politics, but it is just small talk that they indulge in. Same is the case for the trains that often switch tracks. What West of the Tracks does is to create that essential distance between reality and art to give us (pardon the pun) a better picture of ourselves, to create poetry from everyday activities, to aestheticize life. But more importantly, the film makes a strong case for DV filmmaking. Bing’s cinematography is entirely handheld and he prefers to shoot from amidst the workers and from their eye level. Only Digital Video could have provided this material flexibility for Bing. He religiously performs the role of a historian, capturing passages that would otherwise be relegated to the level of footnotes. He neither exploits the grief of the people he’s filming to create his art nor does he try to analyze their situation and make an overarching statement. He merely lives among them, staying in the sidelines with humility and standing witness to the downward spiral they are thrust into. This way, Bing’s film makes a strong case for cinema itself, taking it closer to what it out to be and what it was devised for – to capture and save reality from destruction, negligence and falsification.

Bush Mama (1976)
Haile Gerima
English

The wig is off my head.
 

Bush MamaEthiopian-born Haile Gerima, who was a part of the UCLA rebellion alongside the likes of Charles Burnett and Julie Dash, made Bush Mama (1976) as a part of his coursework at the university. The film follows a thirty-ish African-American woman named Dorothy (Barbara O. Jones) living with her daughter Luann (Susan Williams) and her new partner and Vietnam veteran T.C. (Johnny Weathers). Dorothy is unemployed, pregnant with T.C.’s child and lives on funds from a national welfare scheme intended for unemployed parents. T.C. is arrested one day on his way to a job interview and is imprisoned for a crime he apparently did not commit. Devastated, Dorothy vainly haunts the reception hall of the employment office. Meanwhile, the officials from the welfare department exhort Dorothy to abort her unborn in order to avoid giving her more funds. Decidedly, this is not what Hollywood, or any of the mainstream media, is willing to show us. For one, the protagonist is an African-American, a woman and a pauper, arguably the last combination the mainstream looks at. Then there is the plethora of volatile topics that the film alludes to or even confronts including Nixon, the Vietnam War, AFDC, Malcom X, the Watts riots and the legalization of abortion. Bush Mama’s function is to show that we sure might have seen all that in our mass media, but through the wrong words, wrong sounds and wrong images.

There is that very rare feeling of witnessing history being recorded as it is being made while watching Bush Mama. All the things it says and shows – all so detailed and so lived-in – seem so strongly hinged to the reality within which the film was made. You can sense how the welfare scheme was perceived by some sections as one of the causes of increase in crime rate, whereas Gerima’s film shows that the scheme was merely namesake and inconsequential (The echoes are felt even now when certain parties distort “from the rich to the poor” to “from those who earn to those who don’t”).  Bush Mama clinically analyzes how the choices presented to this community of African-Americans (and also to other minorities, as Dorothy’s visit to the clinic indicates) are not really choices at all, exposing why the legalization of abortion and sterilization plans go hand-in-hand with the welfare scheme. Gerima adorns with film with all types of black people. People who believe that white folks have nothing to do with their problems and all the trouble is due to the blacks not behaving properly. There are those who think that it’s better to go on as it is. There are those who pretend that nothing’s wrong at all (There’s a sidesplitting vignette with a man whose experience limits his imagination). Then there are those, like T.C., who want to bring in a whole new order.

Bush Mama marries two distinct styles of filmmaking through its two narrative threads. The first section, which mostly follows Dorothy and her travail, is shot in text book cinema vérité format and is especially redolent of the early social films of Béla Tarr, which too deal with clear-cut issues like the national housing policy, unemployment and growing urban population. Like the Hungarian wunderkind, Gerima relies heavily on improvisation, draining the film of all theatricality and infusing each moment with utter spontaneity. He embraces ambient noise of the city and its streets, uses copious amount of handheld shots and effectively blurs the line between documentary and fiction (the ‘fiction’ here is only a thin veil over the truth anyway). If this first narrative thread hinges itself to melodramatic tradition, the second one flips it over, operating in a purely agitprop mode (a la early Makavejev and post-New Wave Godard) that attempts to drag back the film from the defeatism of the other segment towards activism. Characters talk to the camera, as if addressing the audience and provoking them to reassess and expand their sociopolitical view of the world. In a way, this dialectic between the two threads of the film – between passive acceptance and active resistance, between fatalism and existentialism – is the whole point of the film. Likewise, Dorothy herself stands somewhere between Joan of Arc and the militant African-American woman in the poster on her bedroom wall (During the final minutes, Gerima rhythmically cuts between the pregnant Dorothy, a masked Jesus Christ and the black man shot by the LAPD).

Bush MamaGerima maintains a very dynamic aesthetic throughout in which the camera is rarely static, tracking, zooming and panning all the way (Burnett is credited as one of the DoPs). The director employs a range of camera angles and frame rates, cutting between them in a staccato fashion (also resembling Makavejev) that both reflects the protagonist’s kafkaesque view of events and provides a sense of immediacy to the proceedings. Gerima periodically cuts from reality to alternate reality, from objectivity to subjectivity, from the real to the surreal and from plot point to dead time. Shots of Dorothy wandering the bustling streets of the city (of which there are quite a few) are first shown in negative and only then are developed back to normal monochrome as if playfully flipping racial constructs and then drastically bringing the protagonist back to brutal reality. The production design accentuates the black and white colours of the mise en scène and the grainy 16mm stock provides a newsreel authenticity to the fiction that unfolds. But what is really striking about the visual design of the film is the director’s minimalist use of off-screen space in all the scenes. Be it scenes of comic relief, slice-of-life sequences in the African-American neighbourhood, dramatic episodes or sequences full of pathos, Gerima almost always fixates his camera on Dorothy’s face, capturing every gesture, contour and emotion on it. And through it, Gerima provides a comprehensive sketch of the African-American way of life.

The film’s real forte lies in its sound design. Gerima uses a potpourri of sounds, noise and music for his soundtrack that goes well with the collage-like nature of the film’s visuals. Right from the first minute of the film, certain sounds and lines dominate the soundtrack. One of them is the voice of a woman reading out the terms and conditions of the welfare scheme and the seemingly endless number of questions to be answered to be eligible for it. “Do you understand? Do you agree?” they voices keep asking, as if the answer is going to make any difference at all. As the film proceeds, we share Dorothy’s frustration at these irritating sounds that seem to be floating everywhere in the air. In fact, these are indeed TV and radio waves. Bush Mama also touches upon the representation of African-American culture in popular media (the older women in the film seem to believe in the authority of television). The music, mostly jazz, that supplements this clutter of voices is rendered commendably by Onaje Kareem Kenyatta and the lyrics, too, serve either to supplement the narrative or to comment on the sociopolitical situation. Speaking of music, Bush Mama could be considered as the cinematic equivalent of a certain genre of hip-hop music as far as its basic aesthetic and cultural conventions are concerned. Actions and gestures that are improvised, the rhythmic editing, the recycled shots and the depiction of racial and economic discrimination could be mapped to their direct counterparts in rap and hip-hop.

The prime motif of the film is, quite clearly, that of the prison. One of Gerima’s targets in the film is the police’s seemingly baseless and systematic imprisonment of African-American men. In fact, the film’s most impressive sequence is shot in the jail T.C. is put in. The extended monologue begins with T.C. talking to the camera about the injustice towards black men by the city’s police. Shortly afterwards, the camera tracks over the adjacent prison cells where, too, black prisoners are held. One of the cells contains what looks like just the shadow of a man.  It is only after a while that we see that it is in fact a person in flesh and blood standing deep inside the cell. It’s a bravura sequence, with a power and honesty seldom seen in propagandist cinema. Dorothy, on the other hand, is put in a whole different form of social prison. She has to act as the welfare officers say or she’ll go nowhere. They decide if she can have her baby or not. The police can put her in jail on whim and rape her daughter in her house. In parallel, Gerima imprisons Dorothy in visual (through his use of décor, the frustratingly chopped framing, restrictive mise en scène and suffocating close-ups) and aural (the white noise of the soundtrack that she can’t seem to get rid of) prisons. In all the cases, the characters seem to be in jail for a deed they did not commit or for a reason they do not understand.

Bush MamaBush Mama fits well as a companion film to the most acclaimed work of the movement, Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1977). While poetry oozed out from the edges of Burnett’s film, it is anger that emanates from the rough seams of Bush Mama. If that film was about conscious perseverance and the need to stick to one’s morality in the most troublesome times, this one is about doing away with such difficulties altogether. In other words, if Killer of Sheep was a romantic mini-spectacle about the indomitable nature of the human spirit, Bush Mama is the harsh behind-the-scenes making of that spectacle. Not that one is more inspiring or effective than the other. Dorothy speaking to T.C. at the end of Gerima’s film is as moving and affirmative as Stan waltzing with his wife in silence. Both are films that profess, albeit through radically different channels, that one can go on despite the adversities. However, unlike Killer of Sheep, Gerima’s film seriously questions if it could be done without a militant revolution and hence its agitprop mode of discourse. Consequently, the film ends with a call for revolution, explaining the need for “calculation” (perhaps a term which has found new meaning after 1968) and the necessity for the revolution to reach the grass roots. As Dorothy says: “I know you’re in jail, T.C., and angry. But most of the time I don’t understand your letters. Talk to me easy, T.C., coz I wanna understand.

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