Paradesi (“foreigner”, “nomad”), the latest by noted Tamil filmmaker Bala, is a film that’s not going to win any new converts for the director. Those who find his work to be representative of the best of Tamil cinema are going to come out nodding while those who question its merit, among whom I’m moved to classify myself, will find themselves shrugging. It’s either the next logical step in the evolution of a personal vision or the result of a filmmaker becoming prisoner of his own image. Perhaps it’s both. The title “Bala’s Paradesi”, two words that feed into each other, kicks off the opening credits, which consists of a series of monochrome sketches depicting a community of natives forced to pose for the artist. Locating Bala’s film in the representative, visual tradition, the sequence also unwittingly bestows upon its author the role of a chronicler, a mute observer and of a person in and colluding with power. In the first shot, the camera cranes down quickly from a bird’s eye view of a village down onto the ground, as though indicative of a world where God has fallen, before nimbly snaking in and out of the muddy alleys to give us a sense of life in this village. This is India a few years before independence, we are told, but the seemingly anachronistic village seems to be completely isolated from the happenings elsewhere in the country. We are introduced to the local announcer and workhorse Rasa (Atharva Murali), a quasi-outcast who falls in love with an upper caste girl – a union that gets rejected by the local council thanks to his profession, which primarily involves trumpeting news of death. To marry the girl, he tries to rise above his position and find a more honorable job outside the village. By turn of events, he, along with hundreds of others from the village, ends up as a bond labourer at a tea plantation estate owed by an undesignated Briton. Doomed fatalism and an affable mythic simplicity characterize this first half, which functions as a portrait of Man’s dignity and the transformative power of love. More importantly, this section of the movie is studded with images of silhouetted bodies and huddled masses endlessly traversing through barren landscape. Human body and land – the two chief material elements of Paradesi, as much as DI-inflected brown and green are its two major chromatic elements – are in perpetual conversation in Bala’s movie. The Marxist transformation of nature through physical labour and decimation of bodies by and for the sake of land are two actions that recur throughout. The second half of the film, which bears an aesthetic and thematic symmetry to the first, comes across as something of a heightened, contorted version of the former. At the tea estate, the classified community of the village is flattened, with slavery of one person, Rasa, transmogrifying into the slavery of an entire populace. This juxtaposition is becoming of Bala’s film, which comprehends slavery less as a political phenomenon and more as a human condition. This stance enables Bala to wallow in his signature brand of miserablism, with its characteristically condescending camerawork and wailing soundtrack. For his film, slavery is a universal condition enforced upon one people by another with no room for resistance. It elides, on a conceptual level, the question that the plantation owner in Quentin Tarantino’s new film asks: Why don’t the slaves all rise up and kill the masters? (For a Hegelian examination of slavery, see Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s Vidheyan (1993).) There’s an unknowing yet eerie parallel between the idea of a group of lumpen workers surrendering their bodies to an all-powerful plantation owner on the promise of remuneration and the way Bala uses non-professionals and their bodies in his film. If Tarantino the filmmaker, like his bounty hunters and plantation owners, deals in corpses, Bala, like his many mythical villains, deals with human bodies, exotic and imperfect. (One shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that Bala, like Tarantino, is incriminating himself here. The film itself is oblivious to the similarity and the parallel is curious, at best.) Of course, I could list all my fascinations and problems with the film, but I would only be repeating myself. Bala’s method here, despite the film’s CGI-finish and surface gloss, is at times reminiscent of Third Cinema films, both in its cut-and-dried ideology and roughhewn dramatic values – broad acting, blunt satire, authorial omniscience and a superficial mythic allegory that reveals its social criticism as much as it conceals it.
March 16, 2013
March 2, 2013
The Attacks Of 26/11 (2013)
Ram Gopal Varma
Ram Gopal Varma’s latest exploitation venture, The Attacks of 26/11 (2013), which purports to illustrate what happened during that long night in Mumbai when 10 armed men entered the city via sea and carried out a series of assaults in key public locations, killing over 150 people, opens with a statement that only a certified cultural amnesiac like Varma could have made – that 9/11 is the most heinous crime to have occurred in the history of mankind. That it brings in an incident that happened 7 years ago in the US is not an analytical move that geopolitically links these two events, not even a naïve leveling of the two incidents as interchangeable acts of absolute Evil, but – bizarrely enough – a betrayal of the film’s ambition to emulate Hollywood-styled Realist-reportage pictures. However, Varma is too straight-shooting and tactless for employing questionable Hollywood screenwriting tricks and, unlike most successful Oscar darlings, Attacks does not refract its agenda through a protagonist in order to surreptitiously validate itself. It wears its ideology on its sleeve, telling us exactly what we want to hear. Sure enough, there is the account of Joint Commissioner (an indefatigable Nana Patekar), whose voice of reason (which is clearly Varma’s own unoriginal voice, as are all the other voices in the film) tries to pass off what were essentially stupid, haphazard attacks as a clear-eyed, exactingly-planned project, but, for most part, the narrative remains dispersed and free of character subjectivity, serving as illustrations of unshakeable truths – fictionalized Reality rather than Realist fiction. Inventive like a child, and just as intelligent, Varma’s film consists chiefly of a high-speed handheld digital camera sweeping the many enthusiastically arranged, corpse-ridden tableaus, with violins wailing in the background. Not artful by any stretch of imagination, of course, but it would do well to those complaining about the lack of subtlety (a currency that Varma doesn’t ever deal with) in the film to remember that the nation’s real-life response to the events of 26/11 itself had the subtlety of a shark in a bathtub, making Varma’s movie pale in comparison. Condemning the movie would only serve to conceal the fact that our response to the attack was no better than a tacky exploitation flick. Varma’s aesthetic has consistently celebrated Hindu belligerence, which was lapped up by the public when it was married to the ‘right’ subject, and it becomes especially problematic here, despite Varma’s vain attempts to undermine it with the film’s professed secularism and its tacked-up, self-defeating Gandhian ending. In an interesting gambit, Varma abstains from showing us how most of the attackers themselves were shot down, which keeps postponing gratification for the audience. This 90-minute-long-foreplay-without-a-release results in a special challenge for the film, with the sole possible means of retribution coming through the figure of Ajmal Kasab (Sanjeev Jaiswal), the only attacker captured alive, who is saved from graphic violence thanks to the film’s loyalty to reality. How the movie appeases the audience hereafter unfolds in two monologues that are better left undescribed. Besides its moviemaking aspirations, Varma’s film also has the obvious ambition to narrativize history, to resolve the necessary contradictions in our understanding of the events, to assure us that we have obtained closure, to simplify complex causalities of the real world and provide a ready-to-eat account of events that the audience can digest without trouble. It took America eleven confusing years to tell its story to itself. We took just five.
January 6, 2013
Conversations With Mani Ratnam
Somewhere near the midpoint of noted Indian film critic Baradwaj Rangan’s Conversations with Mani Ratnam lies a startling, self-referential moment, a moment so out of step with the rest of the book that it becomes a poetic aside in itself. In the middle of a dialogue about one of Ratnam’s movies, Rangan, with his characteristically keen eye for minor details of the mise en scène, makes a comment about the director clutching a bunch of pencils. Ratnam, perhaps as startled as the reader, asks Rangan if he’s found some deeper meaning to this gesture as well. He goes on to note that the problem with critics is that they try to find a hidden meaning when none exists. This confrontational exchange, the only moment in the entire book when the critic and director aren’t separated by the screen that is Ratnam’s body of work, embodies the central dialectic of Conversations, between a critic who sees an authorial presence, a motivation, an intention behind distinctive film elements binding a filmography and a filmmaker who considers them merely the product of logistical necessity or an instinctive thought, at best, between a professional who relies on bringing to surface structures and mechanics of films and another whose job is to conceal them.
Rangan’s book consists of a set of 17 conversations between him and Ratnam that takes us through the latter’s twenty-odd films in chronological order. This conversational format, as opposed to a paraphrased version¸ has the benefit of retaining the director’s voice, with all its conceptual blind spots (this book is perhaps the best source to understand my reservations with late-period Mani Ratnam’s naïve humanism, where personal dramas are planted obliquely on topical issues, almost like an afterthought, essentially making them, despite his refusal, “message movies”) and anecdotal digressions intact, instead of glossing over gaps and presenting a smooth, monolithic view of Ratnam’s oeuvre as a fully-formed, theoretically integral body of work. It also saves the reader a lot of time since he/she can read the simple, pragmatically-worded conversations quickly instead of having to stop regularly to admire the elegance of Rangan’s typically graceful prose. On the other hand, it results in passages where the two participants aren’t on the same page, where Ratnam, neither complementing nor contradicting, unhelpfully goes off on a tangent in response to certain questions.
It doesn’t help when a convincing critic opens his book with a review of his own and Rangan’s introduction to Conversations serves both as a sharp review of the material that follows as well as an autobiographical piece that details the author’s personal journey with Ratnam’s cinema and his motivations for taking up this project. In it, Rangan characterizes Ratnam as being specifically a “Madras” filmmaker – a term with both geographical and historical connotations – who, he believes, captured the sensibilities of a generation of Madras-dwelling urbanites and the rhythms of the city like no other filmmaker of the time. He also goes on to bifurcate Ratnam’s filmography into his Madras films – movies where the city and its inhabitants became the focal point – and his non-Madras films – ones where his concerns diffused and his field of vision widened. Intriguingly, on a lighter note, he points out two personal tendencies that he traces in this project: a desire as a man of science to document the thoughts of a filmmaker he considers very important in the national film scene and as a man of faith to channel the words of an artist who was a veritable god to his generation.
The duality is vital here. In a modest, reverential and otherwise undistinguished foreword, composer and long-time collaborator A. R. Rahman makes a striking contrast between his profound faith and Ratnam’s considered atheism after having elaborated on the symbiosis between him and the director. Dichotomies such as these, besides paralleling the book’s critic-filmmaker split, presage the book’s crystallization of the bipartite structure of Mani Ratnam’s films. The conversations gradually reveal the bed of binaries that the director’s films are founded on and the centrality of the number “2” in them. (Iruvar (“The Duo”, 1997), admittedly the director’s best effort, literalizes the image/text conflict that cinema itself wrestles with). They help trace this preoccupation, though not overtly, to Ratnam’s thought process as a screenwriter, wherein he eschews western scriptwriting models and instead constructs his screenplays around a single conflict involving two persons, geographies, ideologies, time-lines or emotions.
Throughout the conversations, Rangan keeps tracing auteurist strains in Ratnam’s work, deftly pointing out consistencies in plotting, character sketches, filmmaking style and world view across the movies. There appear to be three typical ways in which Ratnam reacts to these critical reflections. At best, Ratnam’s acknowledges these observations with no acknowledgement. Alternately, he would downplay Rangan’s remarks with peripheral comments that replace artistry, voice and authorial intention with accidents, logistical and functional necessities. At worst, like John Ford, he plainly denies the obvious. (Case in point, his denial that Laal Maati (“Red Earth”), the name of the tribal village in Raavan (2010), has no Maoist undertone is so moot that one is tempted to doubt the truthfulness of his other statements). Ratnam’s modesty here is, in turns, gratingly vehement, as when he extensively uses first person plural or second person for explanation, and gratifying, especially the manner in which he avoids people politics and convenient namedropping.
But the most fascinating and, perhaps, the most important aspect of Conversations with Mani Ratnam is its unequivocal establishment of the director as a mainstream filmmaker. Neither does Rangan picture him as a “middle cinema” auteur straddling arthouse and grindhouse nor is Ratnam apologetic about his status as a popular filmmaker embracing all the conventions of the industry. (The latter uses the word “product” five times in the book to describe finished films). The conversations explore in detail Ratnam’s grafting of personal stories on tried-and-tested screenwriting tropes – familiar character arcs, interpersonal relationships, the mid-movie interval and devices for moral justification – that Rangan characterizes as a flirtation with melodrama and casting tricks (Ratnam’s fine point about casting famous faces for minor parts to do away with the need for building an emotional connection from scratch and to harness their screen legacy warrants further analysis). Most of all, Ratnam’s opinion of songs in Indian cinema as powerful, mood-enhancing trump cards that give the filmmaker the freedom to take to poetry, abstraction, secondary narration and cinematic experimentation makes for a strong counter-argument to the line of thought that advocates abolishing this tradition as the first step towards a better cinema.
February 6, 2012
November 19, 2011
Roland Barthes (Translated by Richard Howard)
Vintage Books, 1993
At first glance, Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida (1980/1981) appears to be the sort of material the author of Mythologies (1957/1972) will blow a hole through. Part a study of the nature of photographs, part a work of commemoration of the author’s mother, Barthes’s final book hovers frighteningly close to what, in his early years, he had deemed to be an act of bourgeois mythmaking: stripping a decidedly historical phenomenon of its sociopolitical traces and presenting it as an undisputable truth, a ‘nature’, a human essence. True, Camera Lucida finds Barthes’s interest turning away from the historicity of photography to its metaphysics, from the question of how a photograph signifies to what it represents, from a near-scientific system of classifying images to unwieldy pseudo-theory of the photograph, from the idea of signifier and signified to the material referent itself. (This sharply defined arc, in fact, follows closely the trajectory taken by critical theory itself.) Barthes himself makes no effort to underplay this recantation (“…a desperate resistance to any reductive system”) and keeps undermining any approach that could lead to the formation of a totalizing framework like the one proposed in that early book of his.
Camera Lucida, nevertheless, also underscores a significant attitude that illustrates an unassailable continuity between these two books – a continuity that’s most characteristic of Barthes’s thought: a vehement resistance to ‘Naming’. Both Mythologies (“[Astrology] serves to exorcize the real by naming it”) and Camera Lucida (“What I can name cannot really prick me”) work against a culture in which tends to naturalize ideas – dominant and dissenting – and provide immunity against possible threat by naming it and defining its bounds. The crucial difference, however, is that the Barthes of Mythologies, if not a full-fledged, had his sympathies overtly aligned with the Left, whereas in the latter book, written over two decades later, he seems to be holding onto an ideological zero point. Like many critics who are disillusioned by the rigidity of narratives of the Left and the Right and their daunting tendency to pigeonhole people and ideas into stable, tractable categories, Barthes, here, seeks to find the ground for a kind of writing that can not be assimilated, so to speak, by either of these ideologies.
Graham Allen, in his excellent introduction to Barthes’s works, points out that Barthes found the ideal neutral point in the figure of his own body – a site that scandalizes both the rational Left with its individualist inwardness and the moralist Right with its hedonist underpinning. Camera Lucida, perhaps also a result of his mother’s passing and his subsequent mourning, is rife with bodily terms (‘wound’, ‘laceration’ etc.) that are used not only in the evocative passages of the book, but also in association with the various theoretical terms presented. Further, Barthes extends this essential neutrality of the body to the photograph (another commonality between them being the dread of death that both invoke instantly), which, according to him, retains its wholeness, eluding the grasp of dominant forces and ultimately remaining irreducible. For him, the photograph perpetually resists mechanisms that attempt to pin down its meaning and it is in this non-thinking, non-partisan, non-determined nature (“indifferent”, “impotent with regard to general ideas”, “image without code”) of the image that its power rests.
The central theoretical framework of the book is grounded in a dichotomy between what Barthes calls the stadium of a photograph –all its theorizable aspects the engagement with which necessitates the involvement of external baggage such as the observer’s political and historical awareness – and its punctum – that unaccountable, non-conscious, partly-accidental detail or feature – a point of reversibility of text, a Derridean supplement – that defies classification and sets the meaning of the photograph into play. The stadium, we are told, is that which cries out to be read and around which discourses are constructed while the punctum remains invisible to precisely these forces. The latter, it appears, keeps changing shape, never becoming a concept or following what could be called an objective pattern across various photographs. Barthes’s own definition of the punctum keeps assuming various forms (“shock”, “idle gesture”, “undevelopable”, “cries out in silence” etc.), abandoning its history and avoiding coagulating into anything might be called a theory. What Barthes leaves, as a result, is the trace of a method, instead of a fleshed-out hermeneutic system, so that the readers never latch onto it, but merely discover newer ways of engaging with the photograph,
In the second part – a split among many others – of the book, Barthes moves from a description of the punctum as a material detail in the referent of the photograph – a definition that could be assimilated into the stadium by artful photographers no doubt – to one that is based on an experience of time. His reading of the photograph as an “image which produces Death while trying to preserve life” plants him firmly in the tradition of image-theorists like Walter Benjamin and Siegfried Kracauer (“Seemingly ripped from death, in reality [the photographed present] has succumbed to it]”). Andre Bazin famously traced photography’s roots to Egyptian mummification process and hence to a desire to transcend mortality and preserve one’s image for eternity. Barthes, in contrast, suggests that in the photograph’s assurance that what it represents is real and has been there before the camera in flesh and blood (unlike painted objects) only invokes utter dread, a sense of “double loss” where the beholder is made aware that not only is the person she is looking at already dead now, but that he is going to die some time after the development of this photograph – a moment that the photograph directly channels. In Eduardo Cadava’s words: “memories of a mourning yet to come”. (One is reminded of Scottie’s predicament when he sees Judy after his first loss in Vertigo (1957); Barthes himself calls this experience a “vertigo of time”.)
In itself, the central idea here is not entirely unheard of. Benjamin (a writer who deeply shares Barthes’s fascination with the visual) works towards a similar relationship in his Little History of Photography (1931, “No matter how artful the photographer, no matter how carefully posed his subject, the beholder feels an irresistible urge to search such a picture for the tiny spark of contingency, of the here and now, with which reality has (so to speak) seared the subject, to find the inconspicuous spot where in the immediacy of that long-forgotten moment the future nests so eloquently that we, looking back, may rediscover it.”) and Barthes himself touches upon similar notions in his earlier essay on Eisenstein. But Camera Lucida presents it in so many seemingly tautological forms, aided in no small part by the book’s structure (a string of minor theses), which prompt the reader keep shifting perspectives, to undo and redo the mental image of the ideas the book presents. In a way, then, the book itself enacts the duality that it proposes, continuously unsettling its model of the photograph – the stadia that most books are – with specific, eccentric punctum-like inflections on the text.
Camera Lucida is self-consciously grounded in on a number of such contradictory thrusts: Science and sentimentality, phenomenology and method (“I dismiss all knowledge, all culture, I refuse to inherit anything from another eye than my own”), the empirical and the theoretical, the universal and the ungeneralizable, For Barthes, such apparent paradoxes – these twin movements – are not indicators of the fallibility of his approach. Rather, it is a gesture in a direction opposite to the one taken by reductive, structuralist approaches. Instead of applying a universal rule to the specific and deeming the latter a mere variation, Barthes’s approach takes the specific – the present, the undeniable – as the starting point and extrapolates the result for every other instance in the world (“…to extend this individuality to a science of the subject”, to achieve “the impossible science of the unique being”). What he achieves by taking this almost anti-scientific route is a strong resistance to reduction of the individual – in this case, his mother. Barthes treads the precarious line between the necessity to remember his mother and the threat of his mother becoming Mother, a universal truth. (That he does not supply us with the crucial Winter Garden photograph of his mother indicates a refusal to generalize the specific). Camera Lucida is a work that conceals its radiant center, allowing us to only sense its emanations and forces us to become the center of our own image-theories. As Barthes puts it:
I am the reference of every photograph, and this is what generates my astonishment in addressing myself to the fundamental question: why is it that I am alive here and now?
Note: There is surely something to be said about the way Barthes examines photography in opposition to cinema. For instance, his insistence that there is no possibility of a punctum in cinematic imagery, thanks to the forward-thrust of montage. I think I disagree. Going by what I understand when Barthes speaks of it, I would say that the punctum – the wounding arrow that catches one off-guard, the spark of contingency – manifests itself in various shapes and sizes in cinema. See Daniel Kasman’s writings, for instance, for the ways one can find oneself moving away from the zone of general interest – the area where films consciously work – into a field of personal commitment – that point where, perhaps, cinema betrays its photographic roots.
October 9, 2011
There are 30 shots in all in Hungarian couple Béla Tarr’s and Ágnes Hranitzky’s The Turin Horse (2011), 29 of which involve a moving camera and most of which are elaborately choreographed amalgam of camera movements. The first and possibly the most exhilarating shot of the film is a compounded crane and tracking shot in which we are presented with a horse cart and its driver. The dolly tracks at the pace of the cart and its craning arm films the cart primarily from two directions perpendicular to each other: a view lateral to the line of action and a view of the horse head-on and up close. (This combination of lateral and head-on angles of the camera will form a major visual motif in the film.) We see the horse pushing hard against the gale, with its mane fluttering backward. We see the man, equally haggard, with his hair swept back by the wind like the mane. We also note that, by himself, the man is static while the horse is the one moving forward and taking him along – a minor detail but also an illustration of the film’s chief theme. The equivalence between the horse and its driver becomes even more pointed as the film cuts to the second shot, where we see the man – now on foot – pulling the horse into the stable (also reiterated in shot no.22 where the man’s daughter does the pulling). After the second shot, the film shifts indoors, where the major part of the film unfolds.
Inside, we follow the man, Ohlsdorfer (Janos Derzsi), and his daughter (Erika Bok, who plays a counterpoint of sorts to the character she played 17 years ago in Satantango (1994)) as they go about doing their daily work for 6 consecutive days: she gets up first, wears the countless number of clothes hanging on the wall, adds firewood to the hearth, fetches water from the well, dresses up the man, who has a paralyzed right hand, and boils the potatoes so that they can have lunch. Much of the action involves, as does the latest Dardennes feature, closing and opening of doors, necessitated by the beastly windstorm that plagues the outdoors. Their house is sparse and functionally furnished. Not only are the walls entirely unadorned, but the coating is coming off. The man seems to be a cobbler and he, possibly, sells the belts he makes in the town. The family does not seem to particularly religious. It does not have appear to any neighbours or visitors, save for the man (Mihály Kormos) who comes to their house to get his keg of country liquor filled, and the band of gypsies which arrives at their well for water, only to be shooed off by the old man.
The day-to-day events repeat over and over, of course, but Tarr (Please rest assured that I’m not forgetting the contribution of Hranitzky here and elsewhere) and regular DoP Fred Keleman photograph them from different setups each day, trying out various possible configurations and presentations and as if illustrating the Nietzsche’s concept of Eternal Recurrence that informs the structuring of the film. The effect of ritualization and repetition of everyday events with religiosity is bolstered by Mihaly Vig’s characteristically organ-laden cyclical soundtrack (reminiscent of the thematically apt Que Sera Sera of Almanac of Fall (1985)) that meets its counterpoint only in the boisterousness of the winds that sweep the plain. Keleman and Tarr light and shoot the interior of the house so painstakingly and evocatively, that even commonplace objects achieve a throbbing vitality of their own. They often light overhead, as they regularly do, imparting a luminous visual profile to the characters, who now seem like spectres haunting this dilapidated house. Unusually, there are also few instances of a voice over, which is new for Tarr, which acts as like the voice of an anti-God looking over the man and his daughter during the course of the film and their eventual fall.
It soon appears as though the horse (Risci) is neither at the centre of the film’s lean narrative nor at the focus of its apparent ideas. Indeed, it simply looms in the background like an unwelcome guest or an illness that is preventing the old man from riding into town to do business. However, actually, the animal not only provides a stark thematic contrast to the human characters of the film, it is at the very foundation of its metaphysics. The film opens with a hearsay anecdote about Friedrich Nietzsche. Apparently, in January 1889, when the philosopher was in Turin, he witnessed a cart driver flogging his recalcitrant horse. Nietzsche is said to have stopped him in haste and leapt on to the cart, embraced the horse and cried profusely. It is also said that this was the day after which he started losing control of his mental faculties. Of course, at the outset, what Nietzsche felt was simple empathy for a tormented creature, like any kind person would have. But because the person we are talking about is Nietzsche, the event holds a very special implication. What he was going through was also a sudden experience of intersubjectivity and, as importantly, the awareness of its existence.
A small detour to Dostoyevsky, a writer Nietzsche deeply admired, would be instructive here. In Crime and Punishment (1865), protagonist Rodion Raskolnikov, a bona-fide Nietzschean character, is haunted by dreams of a horse being cudgeled to death for the entertainment of those around it. It is, in addition, an expression of the owner’s power over and possession of it. Rodion, who believes that certain superior individuals have the right to disregard law and conventional morality if they feel that they are doing so for a greater good, discovers here the fallacy of his worldview. Like Nietzsche, he proposes a philosophy of guilt predicated on the effect of a “crime” on the conscience of the actor and not on the acted upon. But what this idea assumes is that moral consciousness of a person is a given, fully-formed whole, independent of other consciousnesses. Rodion realizes, in this nightmare, the toxicity of appointing oneself a superordinate being, especially when the relationship is that of master and slave, owner and owned. Nietzsche, in a classic case of life is imitating art, faces the same situation at Turin. His tears are an acknowledgement of the interconnectedness of all consciousnesses, an equivalence of each one of them.
The opening text of The Turin Horse tells us that we know what happened to Nietzsche after the incident but not the horse. The film’s recognition of the horse as a being as important as Nietzsche begins right there. The first image we see is that of a mare trotting against heavy wind, very close to the screen, dominating the frame – as if the camera is embracing it – suggesting its centrality to the film’s ideas. (Actually, we are never told that this animal is the same as the one Nietzsche wept for. The cut from the anecdote to the horse prompts us to assume that. This is only the first instance of lack of specificity that pervades the film.) The Turin Horse treats the horse as a fully-formed consciousness in itself – as vital as, if not more, its human counterparts – capable of understanding the world and, more crucially, reacting to it. The two human characters at the centre of the film do recognize the doom that surrounds them, but do not seem to do anything to change or respond to it. On the other hand, it is their horse that protests the cruelty of its master and offers resistance to the decay all around by refusing to eat or work. In other words, the mare seems to possess a higher degree of self-awareness than its human owners. In one shot, the camera lingers on the horse long after the humans have left the scene, with the same solemnity that it displayed towards the people in the film. It is not some overblown anthropomorphism that we are dealing with here. It is a radical decentering of humanity as the locus of consciousness.
This tendency to displace humans as the centre of the universe also furthers Tarr’s and frequent collaborator László Krasznahorkai’s long-standing anti-Biblical programme. If, with the ending of Satantango and the upshot of the Nietzschean Werckmeister Harmonies (2000), the writer-director pair tried to overturn the Scripture, here they take on the Creation narrative itself. Divided into six days, which no doubt serve to echo the six days of the creation of earth, The Turin Horse chronicles in detail the progressive disintegration of the world back to nothingness before time. In this anti-Genesis-narrative, neither is man created in the image of God (one that’s not dead, that is), nor are beasts inferior beings to be tamed and controlled by man. (“Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.“) In Tarr’s and Krasznahorkai’s Scripture, it becomes increasingly difficult to separate night from day, the seasons from each other. (There are only two seasons in the film’s world – windy and otherwise). Beings, instead of being fruitful and multiplying, become scarcer and scarcer. Earth returns to the formless void – the void that we witness in the evocative last shot – that it was at the Beginning. One imagines that the film would agree with Genesis on the seventh day: “Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them”.
[The Turin Horse (2011) Trailer]
Commentators have noted the striking silent film-like appearance of The Turin Horse. Indeed, Tarr, who has never been as metafilmic, parallels the anti-Creation narrative with a similar trajectory on the cinematic plane. A number of sub-shots are presented with the set and character in full view, arranged against a flat background and shot head-on with the décor in parallel to the image plane, just like a silent movie. Many of the shots are parenthesized by vertical or horizontal bars of film grain that wipe across the screen. Father and daughter, themselves, resemble the monstrously mismatched prospectors of The Gold Rush (1925), eating a non-meal every day and the smaller one always drawing the shorter straw. This is compounded by the fact that the film is set in 1889, just about the time cinema came into being. Moreover, the two interruptions that disturb the routine of the silent family are marked by excessive talk and cacophony. The film begins with pure movement of cinema and ends in absolute stasis of photography. (It is telling, in this respect, that the only completely still shot of the film is the last one.) It is as though cinema, like the film’s world, has regressed into non-existence, from broad daylight to total darkness.
Judge him, but this affinity for depicting disintegration to rubble has permeated Béla Tarr’s filmography. In a way, each of his film is a document of structural destruction: of urban spaces (Family Nest, 1979), of the modern family (Prefab People, 1982), of society (Almanac of Fall, 1985), of political machinery (Satantango, 1994), of civility (Damnation, 1988) and of civilization (Prologue, 2004). The Turin Horse takes the logic further and locates itself at the probable end of humanity itself. If Tarr’s latest work appears to lack the analytical rigour or satirical edge of his previous films, it is because it distills key ideas of these earlier films into a highly abstract conceptual examination devoid of urgency and pointedness. Looking at the director’s oeuvre, one can see this coming. Tarr started with very topical, socially critical films made in vérité aesthetic. Realizing that surface realism could only get him this far, he took a stylistic as well as epistemological break with Almanac of Fall, after which, instead of recording reality as it appears, he dealt with increasingly abstracted forms removed from everyday experience and a philosophy that replaced materialism with metaphysics.
Such departicularization is the modus operandi of The Turin Horse. The film systematically removes any trace of specificity from within it and builds an extremely generic framework that one can liken to the confident broad strokes of a paintbrush. Such sucking away of particulars would have been fatal in a film with concrete political ambition. But The Turin Horse, in contrast, works in a philosophical and cinematic realm so rarified that such distillation seems tailor made for it. Beyond the very specific opening story (Who: Friedrich Nietzsche; Where: Door No. 6, Via Carlo Alberto, Turin; When: January 3rd, 1889), we are not sure about any narrative detail. The place could be Turin, or not. The year could be 1889, or not. It could be autumn, or not. The long monologue that the first visitor delivers is what Pauline Kael would call a Christmas tree speech: you can hang all your allegories on it. What is the threat he is talking about? Why is the town ruined? Who are “they”? We don’t get any answer. If, at all, Tarr makes another film and intends to take the idea further, he’s, in all possibility, going to find himself in the realm of pure avant-garde, with nothing concrete to hold on to except the truth of photography.
Undoubtedly, Tarr is as cynical as filmmakers can get. His cynicism, like Kubrick’s, is the cynicism of great art, to borrow a sentence from Rivette. But with The Turin Horse, Tarr seems to have punched through to the zone beyond. We have, here, entered the realm of the absurd, where cynicism itself is rendered impotent. In this film, doom is a given, inevitable. Instead of charting people’s downward spiral into the abyss as in the previous films, Tarr and team observe with resignation the insularity of people from their situation. Foreboding gives way to fatalism, cynicism to amusement. Robert Koehler correctly compares the film to the works of Samuel Beckett and The Turin Horse is a veritable adaptation of Waiting for Godot (1953). Right from the lone tree on hill top, through the dilemmas of vegetable eating, the sudden logorrhea of a stranger, the perpetually cyclical nature of events, to the ritualization of actions, especially the changing of apparels, Tarr’s incomplete tragicomedy in 30 shots echoes Beckett’s incomplete tragicomedy in two acts. Like Beckett’s bickering pair, or Buñuel’s angels, father and daughter find themselves unable to leave the house for some reason. And like Vladmir and Estragon, or Pinky and Brain (“Tomorrow we’ll try again”), the two– stuck in their house for eternity with only each other to stand witness for their existence – sit by the window everyday gazing at, or waiting for, a Godot that could be anything ranging from revolution to death.
But there are two key cinematic predecessors to The Turin Horse as well. The first of them, Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman (1976), lends Tarr’s film its finely spiral structure, in which a continuous process of disintegration is made palpable by minute changes in what appear to be unchangeable routines. Like in Jeanne Dielman, another film with an inclination for culinary detailing, the aquarium-like world of the characters is pierced by changes in the outside world, leading to their downfall. Then there is Sohrab Shahid Saless’ Still Life (1974) with which The Turin Horse not only shares its strong comic undercurrent, but also the idea of rendering chronology and the passing of time irrelevant by making it go in loops; the eternal return if you will. But, unlike the makers of these two films, Tarr filters his film from any direct comment on contemporary social organization. (Akerman and Saless, on the other hand, are keenly focused on the issue of urban and rural alienation). But what these films, most critically, share is an acute eye for everyday details, for minor behavioral and physical variations and an unshakeable faith on inescapable specificity of the photographic image.
January 15, 2011
Nicolae Ceausescu lived in denial. In the first scene of Andrei Ujica’s The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu (2010), which is almost the last scene of his life, Ceausescu, in the makeshift TV trial that the revolutionaries have organized, denies that he had anything to do with the atrocities of the previous day. Given sufficient time, he might have denied that he had anything to do with Romania’s dilapidating condition at all. The prosecutors did not give him that privilege. Ujica does. Apparently the result of research on hundreds of hours of historical footage, Autobiography assembles three hours of newsreels that Ceausescu had, indirectly, made for himself, carefully putting together a nationwide mise en scène and a troupe as large as Romania’s population. Ujica’s is a film that resides on the edges of the frame, one that works only on hindsight, with knowledge of what really transpired. We mostly see Ceausescu waving hands and applauding amidst the countless Fordist parades in which people are reduced to flag-waving anonymities. He’s not particularly unlikable. In fact, he seems quite amicable. One could mistake him for a token detective from an American noir or a French film director of the 60s. Contradictory alliances are formed (Both Nixon and Mao seem to have had good relationship with Romania). In fact, Ceausescu seems to have been friends with every major leader. But Ceausescu’s downfall, in which the last hour of the film is interested in, is also, for better or worse, saddening. His words and gestures become more rhetorical than passionate Like Carlos, here is a man who is stuck in a time capsule adhering to his beliefs and illusions when the world has moved beyond him. Nicolae Ceausescu lived in denial.
The first thing that strikes us when watching Autobiography is that it does not insert alternate footage to counterpoint those that we see. (The only external contrasting force comes from our current knowledge of Romania during that period). Neither does Ujica employ shot footage nor does he use other Romanian films of the period to fill in the gaps. (This may be because, as it was the case in Stalinist Russia, the alternates to propaganda cinema were probably only apolitical melodramas or socialist realism). Unlike filmmakers such as Anand Patwardhan and Alanis Obomsawin, Ujica seems to place trust on the propaganda clips themselves to illustrate the interstices between them. He uses clips that Ceausescu himself would have used had he written a film autobiography. For instance, the famed footage of Ceausescu’s final speech and his consequent bewilderment and that of him and Elena fleeing in a helicopter are cleverly omitted. The film cuts from Ceausescu’s trial to the past as if going into a flashback. This shift could either imply Ceausescu trying to vindicate himself using the autobiography that is to follow or Ujica/the prosecutors trying to incriminate him using the same evidence. The film is both an encomium and a critique. It’s Rashomon situation on a national scale. Taking a deconstructive approach wherein he lets the contradictions in the footage surface by themselves and using custom soundtrack to multiply the pomp or, less often, provide irony, Ujica elucidates how the Ceausescu regime was marked by suppression of histories and silencing of oppositions.
After I watched Ujica’s picture, I wondered how it would have turned out if Ceausescu had indeed made his autobiography using the footage he had amassed. Of course, Ceausescu didn’t make such a film but, I guess any such self-serving propaganda made under a dictatorial regime should share traits alluded to by Ujica’s film. I couldn’t get my hands on any such Romanian film, but I did see a North Korean propaganda film made for (by?) Ceausescu’s friend and contemporary, Kim Il Sung, modestly titled President Kim Il Sung Met Foreign Heads of State and Prominent Figures April 1970-December 1975 (1976) which recites by rote the various meetings that the premier held during the aforementioned period. In fact, the title becomes amazingly self-parodying once you see the movie, whose script consists of the following line, with minor variations, repeated a hundred times: “On [Insert Date], President Kim Il Sung met [Insert Name], the [Insert designation] of [Insert name of communist country], in a brotherly environment to express his support for [the people’s struggle against imperialism/strengthening bilateral relationship]. [Name] praised General Kim Il Sung for [his noble virtue and leadership/his immense contributions to anti-imperialist struggle worldwide/his exploits in progressing mankind]”.
The film is never blatant as Ujica’s pseudo-autobiography might suggest, with even remotely problematic areas being cleanly pruned out, (The closest the film (unintentionally) gets to the truth is when the narrator points out that Kim Il Sung “brought about a spectacular reality in Korea”). However, one can still trace, with considerable effort, the counterpoints are seething underneath the rosy audiovisuals. Thousands of dressed-up people gathered for pomp, hundreds “being rounded up” to welcome the premier and the omnipresent absence of the individual are all dehumanizing in a way. The president praises his Japanese counterparts to no end while he talks elsewhere about Korea and China’s joint efforts to ward of Japanese imperialism during the war. In the meeting footages, Kim Il Sung is generally the centre of attraction in the frame – a fact understandable given his imposing physique. His counterparts are regularly pushed to the edges and appear nimble in relation to the composed stature of Il Sung. The president is always cheerful, applauding, waving, at ease and possesses a singular command of his space. One could mistake him for a veteran stage actor. The message here is clear: The world looks up to Kim Il Sung and the way he rules your country. This is the best you’ll get. Looking at the two films, it is clear how Ceausescu was influenced by the North Korean cinema (probably more than its policies), which, in turn, has echoes of Riefenstahl. They seem to have been directors more than dictators.
Ujica’s film is called The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu, but it also holds well as a biography of Romania because not only does it cover a huge ground in terms of historical time, it also seems to allude to attitudes that would define Romanian culture even after his deposition. The figure of Nicolae Ceausescu seems to loom large over contemporary Romanian cinema. Almost all the “New Wave” films from the country have had Ceausescu or his regime at their focal point. Films such as Tales from the Golden Age (2009), which no doubt treat history as a closed project, confront the past directly and provide a neat picture of what it is to live in a communist-dictatorial state (The “hat” and “pig” segments are simultaneously moving and hysterical) while even a work that is so hermetic and microcosmic on the surface like Radu Muntean’s Tuesday, After Christmas (2010), set during the 20th anniversary of Ceausescu’s execution, is haunted by the events of the past. Underneath, Muntean’s film seems to triangulate between a disillusionment with the present (post-globalization Romania), a nostalgia for the past (possibly the socialist age) and the dread produced by the knowledge that nostalgia, more often than not, is the longing for a past that never was. Both features of Corneliu Porumboiu deal with residual theatricality that marks contemporary Romania. In the first film, the revolution against theatricality itself makes way for theatrical claims to glory and pride while, in the second, the capital attempts to project itself as a city that is more significant than it actually is. In fact, this seemingly quintessentially Romanian affinity for theatricality is part of the curriculum in Ujica’s debut feature, Videograms of a Revolution (1992), which he co-directed with Harun Farocki.
Videograms, possibly Ujica’s finest film and clearly a masterwork, presents us shards from the Romanian revolution in the form of small “video packets” that were shot at various locations in Bucharest during the days just preceding Ceausescu’s death. We get to see history as it is happening, in all its tragicomic elements, with multiple parallel governments being set up, phantom enemies generated, impromptu civil wars brewing and the relentless efforts undertaken by either side to restore peace. Unlike any other period in history, possibly with the exception of the clashes in Chile two decades ago that were “immortalized” by Patricio Guzman in his fly-on-the-wall documentaries, we witness how technological progress has enabled us to document history with utmost fluidity and urgency. There is no need for an Eisenstein anymore to recreate the revolution and overwrite the actual event. This relationship between technological progress, the subsequent changes in modes of production and the possibility of social progress is of central interest to Videograms. It tries to find an answer to whether revolution is primarily the seizure of the forces of production from authority or if there are certain fundamental, subtler issues to be tackled.
Interestingly enough, the first thing that the protestors do after storming the party headquarters is to attack the television station. As the revolutionary forces take over the broadcast, we see not only their efforts to disperse the message to the public but also the theatricality that eventually overwhelms their exploits. Appropriation of the television station is taken for the appropriation of political power. Prisoners (generally party members close to the dictator) are presented on TV, subjected to mockery-of-justice type vengeance trials and sentenced by impromptu courts and law makers, The abuse of (TV) power that was to be corrected persists, only under a different political scenario and for a different end. We see this abuse of power off screen as well, where the acrimony towards Ceausescu is misguided towards prisoners. Videograms, however, remains highly ambivalent about the role of television and cinema in the phenomenon. Its view is more rounded and holistic than the critical or exalting stances one might expect. The camera, in Videograms, is as much imprisoning as it’s liberating.
Routinely, at the end of each of the separately titled segment, the narrator of the film startlingly steps back from the immediacy of the upheaval, to perform a formal analysis of the images we see in order to illustrate that the film is more about the revolution as it was perceived than as it happened. Throughout, it probes how the televising of a real event can guarantee its occurrence and authenticate a fictional event. We see European reporters filming the broadcast of Ceausescu’s trial (in place of the trial itself) as if television itself is a transparent window into reality. (This recalls Paul Patton’s account of how CNN reporters in the Gulf during the war were watching CNN in order to find out what was happening). Like great works such as Godard’s History of Cinema (1998) and Marker’s The Last Bolshevik (1993), but far less elegiac and more optimistic, Farocki and Ujica examine film, history and everything in between in Videograms. They note:
“Camera and event. Since its invention, film has seemed destined to make history visible. It has been able to portray the past and stage the present. We have seen Napoleon on horseback and Lenin on the train. Film was possible because there was history. Almost imperceptibly, like moving on a Möbius strip, the side was flipped. We look on and have to think: if film is possible, then history, too, is possible.”
Perhaps this is the biggest irony that marks Ceausescu’s life. The tool that helped him hold power for decades became the very tool that accelerated his downfall. The pageants that highlighted his reign would give way to his own trial on the national television. And all the clapping at the end of those grand ceremonies would only end up in the cheerful applause throughout Bucharest when his death is broadcasted on television. After images of the corpses of the Ceausescus are flashed on television for the confirmation of the event, one reporter yells as the screen fades to black: “That’s it then, turn it off”.
Ujica’s previous film, Out of the Present (1995), also involves a man cut off from the world, literally. Evocative, slightly frightening and borderline-experimental, Out of the Present chronicles Soviet cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev’s 10-month stay at the Mir station during which time his country collapses. Ujica intercuts between the tumults in Moscow and scenes of Krikalev’s floating about in free space to sketch the portrait of a world in transition. He’s a man who, in the process of leaping into the future, loses grip on the present. For Krikalev, like the citizens of Bucharest in the previous film, reality is what the media tells him it is. In addition to his physical severance, he is, like so many of his counterparts on earth, a man alienated from history through the very images that present history. But Krikalev’s case is even more heartbreaking given that fact that he is the only person from his country to have not witnessed this historical juncture and that he’ll be returning to a country totally different from the one he lived in. This idea of media as the appraiser of history and the diaristic construction of Out of the Present presage the autobiographical structure of Ujica’s latest.
Coming back to The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu, which attempts to sum up the entirety of Ceausescu’s regime as a large-scale theater with Romania as the stage, the Romanians as the performers and the Ceausescus as the stars. Ujica’s film suggests that in Ceausescu’s rule, cinema was treated like politics and politics, like cinema, that he was amassing wealth to no end while the whole country was in dire straits and that all was illusion. Although there might be some truth value to it, It seems to me that such a sketch is rather dangerous and complacent since it runs the risk of reducing a ruthless dictator to a charlatan who knew how to make the right moves. Ujica deals with Ceausescu more or less like how Assayas deals with Carlos. Both these political figures have been drained of their potency by their writer-directors and turned into interesting characters with simple psychology and behavioral pattern. There is little reason to believe that all the pomp and self-aggrandizement would have vanished had Ceausescu been a democratic ruler. The cult of the leader is largely independent of such scenarios. Given that Ujica intended to make a film critical of Ceausescu that would have resulted even if the latter had made it himself, it is understandable that he was obliged to leave out certain implicating footage. But this self-imposed restriction becomes a damaging limitation in Autobiography. Ujica’s message is clear even minutes into the film. In trying to develop a pseudo-laudatory autobiography and a stinging critique out of the same material, Ujica, I’m afraid, only dilutes the latter.
Compare this with the density that the remarkable BBC documentary The King of Communism: The Pomp & Pageantry of Nicolae Ceausescu (2002) achieves despite its flaws and its reduced running time. Like Ujica, writer-director Ben Lewis believes that Ceausescu’s regime was fuelled by such grand scale performances. But instead of relying on these very performances to elucidate the flipside, Lewis keeps interjecting anti-narratives of every sort that keep countering reductive narratives such as Ujica’s and Assayas’. One of those interviewed is a TV reporter who was filming Ceausescu during his infamous final speech. When asked why he did not telecast the agitation in front of the palace instead of the unrest at Ceausescu’s balcony, he tells us that it would have been against the ethics of his profession. It is not that he is deluded or against democracy. It is just that such an act would never have been unethical considering his situation. Lewis’ film is rife with such deadlocks that tend to disrupt totalizing narratives such as the one The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu presents. For instance, it probes why ever did the Romanian public cooperate in this mythmaking. After all, it was this nationalistic propaganda that enabled Ceausescu to resist the imperialism of the superpowers and to build a stable nation. Some of the interviewees still assert that Ceausescu represented their country with dignity at the world stage, although it was precisely this misplaced sense of self-respect that turned against both Ceausescu and Romania.
Through interviews with people who had really taken part and performed in these pageants, Lewis arrives at the conclusion that it was all propaganda by the public and for the public, and not a one man show as purported by Ujica’s film. We come to know that people actually looked forward to these shows that helped them regain their trust towards the nation. They’re even nostalgic about it. Lewis points out that the performer-audience relationship was reversed at the end of each show and illustrates how it was of double advantage for Ceausescu. For him, it was both an august propaganda and an effective distraction. For the public, it was both escape and replenishment. Through these accounts, we gradually get the idea that Romania was not being cheated some clever, omnipotent trickster, but that it was in a hyperreal situation where the truth of the matter was overridden by ‘appearances’ that didn’t appear so. One perceptive lady tells us that it might have been better if the Soviet had indeed occupied Romania instead of Ceausescu holding ground. At least then, she points out, the Romanians would have had a visible enemy to fight against. Ujica’s film rejects such nuances, instead replacing them with a blanket rejection of Ceausescu’s regime as totalitarian and deceiving. What it does (and admirably so), however, is to question the way we approach historical material (and, consequently, contemporary material). It urges us to look closer, to keep our eyes open for obscured faces and our ears open for silenced voices.
[The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu (2010) Trailer]