The Invention of Morel

 

“To be on an island inhabited by artificial ghosts was the most unbearable of nightmares,- to be in love with one of those images was worse than being in love with a ghost (perhaps we always want the person we love to have the existence of a ghost)”

- The Invention of Morel  (1940,  Adolfo Bioy Casares)

 

Vertigo

Vertigo

Vertigo

Vertigo

Vertigo

Vertigo

Vertigo

Vertigo

Vertigo

 

La Jetee

La Jetee

La Jetee

La Jetee

La Jetee

La Jetee

La Jetee

 

Les Carabiniers

Les Carabiniers

Les Carabiniers

Les Carabiniers

Les Carabiniers

Les Carabiniers

Les Carabiniers

 

Obsession

Obsession

Obsession

Obsession

Obsession

Obsession

Obsession

Obsession

 

Body Double

Body Double

Body Double

Body Double

Body Double

Body Double

Body Double

 

The Strange Case Of Angelica

The Strange Case Of Angelica

The Strange Case Of Angelica

The Strange Case Of Angelica

The Strange Case Of Angelica

The Strange Case Of Angelica

The Strange Case Of Angelica

Chris Marker avec Monsieur Chat
 

“I’m writing you all this from another world, a world of appearances. In a way the two worlds communicate with each other. Memory is to one what history is to the other: an impossibility.”

-         Sans Soleil (1983)

 

It is possible to build a case that a person called Chris Marker, who reportedly passed away two weeks ago in Paris, never existed; that the name is a mnemonic for an underground art collective, a projection of an auteurist film culture that tends to preserve the aura of a reclusive artist or a convenient label to denote audiovisual echoes from another world: a world of images, a world of appearances. Rarely photographed and even less frequently interviewed, Chris Marker, born Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve in 1921, is something of an invisible man in the hallowed halls of world cinema. Generally associated with the Left Bank of the French New Wave, alongside high priests of cinematic modernism such as Alain Resnais, Alain Robbe-Grillet, and Marguerite Duras, Marker has been credited as a pioneer of the Film Essay – a free-form genre marked by a strong authorial voice in which cinema most resembles non-fiction writing. Although it is true that he has produced some of the most groundbreaking, most challenging and most riveting film essays to date, it would be gross injustice to pigeonhole an artist who has not only engaged with a range of documentary forms like cinema vérité, agitprop, film diary, artist profile, travelogue and the home movie, but also wandered across media – literature, photography, video games, interactive multimedia and cinema – to explore his chief metaphysical and political concerns: time and space, history and memory.

‘Wandering’ was what Marker truly did. With the curiosity of a child, the fascination of a foreigner and the detachment of a drifter, he hopped media in search of the most eloquent articulation of that which haunted him the most. Unlike some of his New Wave peers, cinema, for him, was never an end in itself, but yet another medium – as powerful and as insufficient as any other – that could directly deal with ideas close to his heart. His films are incomplete in the sense they are not predetermined theses disbursing answers, but intellectual terminals where trains of thought depart from. There is a sense of mystery and rediscovery that these films impart to everyday experience, as though prompting us to look at the world anew, that could have been conceived only by a bonafide outsider, a person who does not belong anywhere but everywhere. A perennial globetrotter, an aesthetic voyager and an escape artist par excellence, Marker, as it were, never belonged to a single place or time. Such an elusive yet enchanting perspective is what informs the central theme of his most renowned work: the science fiction short La Jetée (1962), the tragedy of a man simultaneously stuck and unstuck in time.

Part a playful tribute to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), part a serious study about the nature of cinema, La Jetée is composed entirely of still photographs. In the film, a man possessed by the image of a woman he saw in his childhood – now long dead – goes back in time to meet her, with full knowledge that he will lose her again. Marker’s spellbinding film literalizes the “double death” that haunts every photograph and which Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag would expound on decades later: the realization that a person in a photograph one is looking at is already dead and will be dead in some time after the photograph was taken, the dread that Eduardo Cadava called “memories of a mourning yet to come”. It realizes that the photographic image has neither a history nor a future and that it is the actuating force of cinema that provides it with both. The idea of such a malleability of memory and history – personal and collective – and an obsession with the enigmas of space and time motivates another of Marker’s hypnotic films: the sprawling, shape-shifting Sans Soleil (1983).

A masterwork of the free-associative essay form, Sans Soleil endlessly tosses one idea against another, examining the way we restructure personal and collective memory and construct our identity – as an individual and as a society. The film is riddled with questions relating to the differences in human experience that a geographical and temporal dislocation brings. Why is it that one is alive here and now? What if one was born in a different place or in a different time? In one way or other, these concerns have pervaded nearly his entire filmography starting from the extremely witty, self-reflexive film diary Letters from Siberia (1957). Through the decades, Marker has proven himself to be a relentless chronicler and examiner of the visual media that surround and shape us. His films have probed, in various forms and to various degrees, the deepest tissues that connect us subconsciously to the moving images of cinema. And it is only befitting that we thank him, in true Markerian spirit, for all his discoveries we are yet to make.

 

(Originally published in The Hindu)

The Owl's Legacy

Chris Marker’s epic series The Owl’s Legacy (1989) is neither a deeply ‘auterist’ work nor a brilliant piece of Cinema. It is, plainly, the documentation of a thirteen-part symposium on Ancient Greece enabled by the Onassis Foundation and conceptualized by Marker. However, the amount of ground it covers and the number of new directions it opens up for us to think about contemporary politics, science, culture, law, economy and art (specifically, cinema) makes it one of the richest works of criticism that I’ve come across. It is extremely unfortunate, then, that it is neither available on video officially in any form nor spoken about really widely. Following a slew of earnest mails (OK, two mails) asking me if there was any site where the film can be viewed online with English subtitles, I decided to upload the copy I have of the entire series. Of course, all credits go to the original uploader who floated TV rip on the internet. It is because of people like her/him that the Internet has turned out to be the greatest repository of culture, globally.

[Note: There is no monetary interest for me in this endeavor and if you feel that the series shouldn’t be put online the way I have here, please drop a note in the comments section]

 


1. Symposium, or Accepted Ideas

 

2. Olympics, or Imaginary Greece

 

3. Democracy, or the City of Dreams

 

4. Nostalgia, or the Impossible Return

 

5. Amnesia, or History on the March

 

6. Mathematics, or the Empire Counts Back

 

7. Logomachy, or the Dialect of the Tribe

 

8. Music, or Inner Space

 

9. Cosmogony, or the Ways of the World

 

10. Mythology, or Lies like Truth

 

11. Misogyny, or the Snares of Desire

 

12. Tragedy, or the Illusion of Death

 

13. Philosophy, or the Triumph of the Owl

(Incomplete)

Junkopia (1981)
Chris Marker, John Chapman, Frank Simeone
France
7 Min.

 

In Junkopia, Chris Marker’s filmography, which is more than a simple collection of travelogues that it appears to be, extends itself to a territory that one is tempted to call entirely alien. The short begins with a shot of a bunch of strange mechanical “beings” floating on what appears to be water. Marker and co. confirm our suspicion, that this might indeed be earth, by giving us the geographical coordinates of the place we are looking at – 37º45’ North. A slew of close ups of these “creatures”, powered by an eerie electronic soundtrack, places them on the same dais as the very many interesting people from across the world that Marker has introduced to us through the years. You almost sense them staring at you. The illusion of this post-apocalyptic, other-worldliness is once again shattered as the directors reveal the relative position (in contrast to the meaningless absoluteness of latitudes and longitudes) of this “community” as being just next to a speedy highway located in our own world, in our own time. The soundtrack becomes even more dense as excerpts from radio, satellite communication, TV programs and popular songs arrive in bits and pieces, trying to overpower each other. A shot of vehicles moving on a distant bridge like objects on a conveyor belt. The terror is registered on multiple levels. Is this how we treat things, ideas and people that we deem to be “less important” and “less beautiful”, while unanimously moving towards a pointless destination? Or is this what our entire civilization, the beauty of our arts, our present culture going to be reduced to? Haunting stuff that is perhaps only paralleled by Tsai Ming-Liang’s Fish, Underground (2001)

2009 has been one gold mine of a year for world cinema with so many great directors across the globe attempting, one last time, to register their name in the decades’ best list. Even if most of these films turn out to be minor works of major filmmakers, the sheer richness and variety it has brought within a small time span is remarkable. Here is the list of my favorite films of 2009 (in order of preference, with a tie at No. 10). Please note that the movies considered for this list were only the ones which had a world premiere in 2009. That means noteworthy films (some of which could have well made their way into this list) such as Denis’ 35 Shots of Rum (2008), Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker (2008) and Bahrani’s Goodbye Solo (2008) were not counted. Unfortunately, I have not seen films from some big names including Rivette’s Around A Small Mountain, Resnais’ Wild Grass, Campion’s Bright Star, Herzog’s My Son My Son, What Have Ye Done?, Farocki’s In Comparison, Noé’s Enter the Void, Denis’ White Material, Costa’s Ne Change Rien, Mendoza’s Lola and Kinatay, Reitman’s Up in the Air, Eastwood’s Invictus, Kashyap’s Gulaal, Anderson’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox and Coens’ A Serious Man. So, sadly, they would have to vie for this list later. And needless to say, the following list will most definitely shuffle and change with time.

1. Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, USA)


I don’t know whether it’s a comedy or a tragedy, but in any case it’s a masterpiece”, says one of the characters, self-referentially, in Godard’s A Woman is a Woman (1961). I’m tempted to say the same thing about Tarantino’s deceptively irreverent, endlessly enthralling and relentlessly inventive piece of bravura filmmaking. At once paying tribute to exploitative war movies and incriminating them, Tarantino’s swashbuckling “WW2-film film” is a war movie that ends all war movies. Absorbing as much from Truffaut as it does from Godard, Tarantino’s film is as potent and as personal as the “genre explosions” of the French directors. Essentially a mere medium of conversation between cinephiles on either sides of the film, Inglourious Basterds is the movie that seals the American auteur’s status as a contemporary giant of cinema and one that has the power to make its mark, deservedly, in our collective cultural vocabulary. With Inglourious Basterds, to steal from Michael Powell, Tarantino becomes the ventriloquist and his doll, the singer and the song, the painter and his palette, the pupil and the master.

2. The Maid (Sebastián Silva, Chile/Mexico)


A sister film, in some ways, to Jonathan Demme’s brilliant Rachel Getting Married (2008), Sebastián Silva’s The Maid is nothing short of a spiritual revelation at the movies. What could have been an one-note leftist tirade about Chile’s class system is instead elevated into the realm of human where one facial twitch, one stretch of silence and one impulsive word can speak much more than any expository monologue or contrived subplot. There is no simplification of human behaviour here, no easily classifiable moral categories and no overarching statement to which truth is sacrificed. Nor does Silva suspend his study of the classes to observe his characters. He merely lets the obvious stay in the background. And just when you think that Silva’s vision of the world is getting all too romantic, he delivers a fatal blow to shatter your smugness – a single, deceptively simple shot during the final birthday party that masterfully sums up everything from the irreconcilable, repressed tension that exists between classes in capitalistic societies to our adaptability as humans to live peacefully with each other despite socio-economic disparities.

3. Eccentricities of a Blonde-haired Girl (Manoel de Oliveira, Portugal/France/Spain)


Rigorous but oh-so-tender, centenarian Manoel de Oliveira’s one-hour wonder Eccentricities of a Blonde-haired Girl is a film in one and a half acts. Oliveira translates the work of Eça de Queiroz to the screen, running the 19th century tale of romance through the current economic landscape and harnessing the resultant anachronism to paint an achingly beautiful picture about the inability to transcend class, escape reality and lose oneself in art. Despite its decidedly Brechtian and ceaselessly self reflexive nature, Oliveira’s film is rife with moments of poignancy and touches of humour. Using double, triple and quadruple framing and achieving a mise-en-abyme of art and reality, Oliveira writes a ruminative essay on the impossibility of art and reality to merge, the confusion that exists between them and the classism that exists within and with respect to art. Flooded with references to art and art forms, Eccentricities is such a dense and intricate fabric of the arts that even the past is treated in a detached manner like a piece of art, where each image looks like a painting, each sound feels like a melody and each movement cries out: “cinema!”.

4. The Milk of Sorrow (Claudia Llosa, Peru/Spain)


Of all the recent movies that have attempted to acknowledge dark chapters in national histories and advocated looking forward to the future instead of crying over what is lost, perhaps, none is as sober, ethical and uncompromising as Claudia Llosa’s Golden Bear winner. Llosa inherits her tale from the terrorist atrocities that plagued Peru two decades ago (Inheritance being the prime motif of the film) but, subsequently, discards every possible opportunity for sensationalism or propaganda. Tightly framing the lead character, Fausta (Magaly Solier), within and against claustrophobic structures, doorways, photographs, windows, paintings, mirrors and walls, gradually varying the depth of focus along the movie to detach the protagonist and integrate her with her surroundings and using extremely long shots to dwarf her in vast opens spaces of the tranquil town, Llosa concocts a film of utmost narrative austerity and aesthetic rigor. Punctuating and contrasting these downbeat images of Fausta’s life are slice-of-life sequences from the town depicting various wedding rituals and parties which tenderly highlight Peruvian people’s open-hearted embracing of capitalism and their resolve to come out of the trauma of the past and move on with life.

5. The Limits of Control (Jim Jarmusch, USA/Japan/Spain)


If Inglourious Basterds was a coup from within the system, Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control is an out-and-out war against the machine. The essential piece of cinema of resistance, The Limits of Control eschews simple genre classification and flips every ingredient of Hollywood’s conveyor belt products to surprise, appall, irritate and provoke us with each one of its moves. The complete absence of Jarmuschian brand of deadpan humour announces the film’s seriousness of intent. It is as if Jarmusch wants to establish once and for all that Hollywood does not equal American cinema and that the cinema that the former school marginalizes is truly alive and kicking. The Limits of Control is a film that can easily get on your nerves but, eventually, it succeeds in getting under your skin and evolving gradually to reveal how meticulously crafted it is. Using Cinematographer Christopher Doyle, production designer Eugenio Caballero and editor Jay Rabinowitz masterfully, Jarmusch creates a movie so meditative and relaxing that one feels exactly how William Blake (Johnny Depp) would have at the end of Dead Man (1995).

6. Police, Adjective (Corneliu Porumboiu, Romania)


Porumboiu’s follow-up to one of the most hilarious comedies of the decade, 12:08 East of Bucharest (2006), is a companion of sorts to Jarmusch’s film not only in the sense that both of them negate the function of the genre they are supposed to belong to, by completely de-dramatizing their narratives, but also because Porumboiu’s film, too, is a conflict between two types of cinema – the cinema of analytical contemplation represented by the detective-protagonist of the film (Dragos Bucur) and the cinema of thoughtless action represented by his ready-for-ambush boss (Vlad Ivanov). However, more concretely, Police, Adjective is an examination of how our own political and social systems, partly due to the rigidity of our written languages, end up dominating us and how individual conscience and social anomalies are effaced clinically in order to have the bureaucratic clockwork running smoothly. Like Bucharest, Porumboiu, often self-reflexively, sketches the portrait of a bland and pacific city that tries to ape the far west and project itself as more dynamic than it actually is. The film’s disparate themes crystallize deliciously in the final, side-splitting, Tarantino-esque set piece where we witness the police chief urging his subordinates to act by the book, literally.

7. Tetro (Francis Ford Coppola, Italy/Argentina/USA/Spain)


Tetro is a beautiful film. Not just in the way it looks, but in the sheer romance it has for a lost world. The only worthy B&W film of this year out of the four I saw (the other three being Haneke’s The White Ribbon, Villeneuve’s Polytechnique and Lu’s City of Life and Death, the last one being my candidate for the worst film of the year), Tetro is a wonderful expressionistic melodrama in the vein of Powell and Pressburger – figures whose films form the thematic and narrative focal point of this movie. Like many of the films mentioned in this list, but with more optimism, Coppola investigates the possibility of revival of the past and revelation of the obscured using art – movies, theatre and literature, in this case – employing a number of experiments with the film’s aspect ratio, colour and sound. Coppola also comments upon, nostalgically, the filmic medium’s ability to influence people to see cinema as a reflection of personal histories. But most importantly, Tetro is Coppola’s ritual of killing his patron-turned-authoritarian father (like his mentor Bertolucci did in The Conformist (1970)) – Hollywood – as his decisive farewell to industrial cinema and an autobiographical allegory about the obliteration of artistic vision by the alluring yet dangerous, powerful yet ephemeral flash of light called fame.

8. Vincere (Marco Bellocchio, Italy/France)


Writer-director Marco Bellocchio’s ballad, based on a nebulous part of fascist leader Benito Mussolini’s life, can teach those so-called historical dramas a thing or two about locating personal ideologies within collective history without being exploitative or pandering to pop demands. Bellocchio’s film is far from a detailed recreation of Mussolini’s political life. It is, in fact, a commentary upon such “detailed recreations” of history based on documents written by winners. Bellocchio’s formidable script and mise en scène keep probing and remarking upon the tendency of fascist systems to suppress histories – personal and national – and exploit popular media, especially the relatively young and emotionally powerful cinema, to blind people of truth and forge a faux reality – a theme underscored in Tarantino’s film too. What more? Bellocchio constructs the film exactly like one of those Soviet agitprop films – not by easy spoofing, but by retaining their spirit and rhythm – using rapid montage, expressionistic performances and operatic sounds. Be it common folk fighting in a cinema hall over a news reel or a bereaved mother breaking down during the screening of The Kid (1921), cinema registers its omnipresence and omnipotence in Bellocchio’s film.

9. Samson and Delilah (Warwick Thornton, Australia)


The perfect antidote to the summer blockbuster, Warwick Thornton’s Samson and Delilah is an extremely assured and undeniably moving piece of cinema that arrives, appositely, as the golden jubilee reboot to Herzog’s thematically kindred movie, Where the Green Ants Dream (1984). Cleverly relegating specific issues such as the Australian government’s intervention and relocation policies for the Aborigines to the background, Thornton frees his films of broad, propagandist political agendas, without ever making the film lack social exploration. With an extraordinary sound design, Thornton keeps the word count in the film to an absolute minimum, letting the stretches of silence shared by his lead characters speak for themselves. The film’s observations about banality of racism in contemporary Australia, exploitation of tribal art and its consequences, the effect of colonialism, especially due to Christian missionaries, on the Aboriginal culture and the ever growing chasm between the tribal and white life styles themselves are fittingly subordinated to the beautiful, unspoken love story that, essentially, forms the heart of the film.

10. A Prophet (Jacques Audiard, France/Italy)


Let me dare to say this: Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet is either the most profound or the most pretentious movie of the year. For now, I choose the former. Audiard’s decidedly unflinching feature breaks free from the limitations of a generic prison drama and takes on multiple dimensions as the apolitical and irreligious protagonist of the film, Malik (played by Tahar Rahim), finds himself irreversibly entangled in ethnic gang wars within and outside the prison. A trenchant examination of religion as both a tool of oppression and a vehicle for political escalation, A Prophet is an audacious exploration of Muslim identity in the western world post-9/11. Although the plot developments may leave the viewer dizzy, it is easy to acknowledge how Audiard confronts the issues instead of working his way around it or making cheeky and superficial political statements. Strikingly juxtaposing and counterpointing Sufism and Darwinism in Malik’s search for identity, Audiard creates an immensely confident and nonjudgmental film that trusts its audience to work with the rich ambiguity it offers.

(Images Courtesy: IMDb, The Auteurs, Screen Daily)

[EDIT: 7 Jan: Since it seems like The Beaches of Agnes had its premiere in 2008, I'm removing it from this list. That leaves exactly 10 movies on the list]

After watching Inglourious Basterds last week, I skimmed through a few films I was referring to in my review and felt that Tarantino’s movie, its last chapter in particular, refers to them in a manner slightly deeper than mentioned. What I present here may be plainly speculative, but the very fact that Tarantino’s film retains enough ambiguity to generate such arguments makes the film one to be celebrated. Inglourious Basterds, more than any other movie, seems to be closest to Jean Luc Godard’s History of Cinema (1988-98). If one considers Godard’s film as a classroom lesson in cinema (Why not? The movie even resembles an office presentation!), then Tarantino’s movie is a student project (that would easily get an A+) based on that lesson. It seems that everything that the French discusses in his video anthology is absorbed and blended cleverly into a mainstream flick by Tarantino. For the sake of simplicity, I lift and reproduce the same lines from my post on Godard’s film to compare it with Inglourious Basterds.

“If we had to single out Godard’s most favorite quote it has to be the misattributed Bazin one: “The cinema, substitutes for our gaze a world that corresponds to our desires”. And this is where the series kicks off. Cinema as a substitute for our dreams – the dream factory. Godard explores the meaning of “dream” as interpreted by the two functioning extremes of cinema then. He presents the occident interpretation as one that had converted cinema into a portal offering an alternate reality, a second life, to the audience whose “dreams” were the fodder for the larger-than-life images that the films projected -one that continues till date.”

Tarantino’s film, on a basic level, as the director himself confesses, is a form of wish fulfillment. As with his other films, Inglourious Basterds unfolds as a revenge saga. But by situating his plot amidst real life events, unlike its predecessors, Tarantino is able to involve his audience more and provide better justification to the characters’ actions, rather than dealing with simple morality.

“[Godard] argues that cinema could have prevented unfortunate tragedies and averted genocides rather than merely crying over damages dealt and observing helplessly the misery of its subjects.”

Here, Tarantino seems to deviate. He seems to be of the opinion that cinema, perhaps all art, can’t ever change the world (unless, of course, you consider the way he uses it in the movie!). Proof? Take a look around. What it can do is to change the image of the world when it is passed onto a new generation.

“And in resonance with this ideology, instead of bemoaning what is lost and what could have been, Godard anticipates the death of cinema (He apparently asked Henri Langlois to burn the archives). Death, so that it can rise again from the ashes. “Art is like fire. Born from what it burns.” says Godard and that is precisely what he desires – Cinema to go down with all its exploitations and restrictions and rise in its purest form. Back to infancy, so that it can learn everything out of free will, without rules and without vanity.”

This is exactly what Marcel does when he burns the films – destroying those exploitative propagandist films of the Nazis and perhaps also those WW2 films that insist upon being loyal to reality and hence impotent. With the fire at the cinema hall that flips conventional reality, Tarantino places us at the beginning of a new history – of cinema (courtesy Tarantino) and of the world (courtesy Marcel).

“Godard attempts to reconstruct history as seen in retrospect. He utilizes existing film fragments to fabricate various histories of film – the one that was and the ones that weren’t but could have been. He examines how cinema could have been made independent of historical accounts and even made to influence them.”

This theory seems to form the core of Inglourious Basterds. Why should art ever trail history? As Bazin would say, Realism in cinema should just be the means, not the end itself. Tarantino, like Godard, sure can’t change history, but, at least, he can examine the history – again, of cinema and of the world – that could have been.

“Godard elucidates this servile relation that cinema bears to history using images of dictators and authoritarians. He highlights how the visual medium itself is being manipulated by a few people in power and how in turn, modern cinema manipulates the audience. Godard reproaches this moral policing and expresses his disapproval of the hypnosis that the TV-driven audience is subjected to. He appeals for a cinema that provokes but doesn’t direct, a cinema that gives you options but doesn’t select one, a cinema that makes you think and doesn’t think for you and a cinema that is only complete with its audience. As he quotes in one of the segments, “Cinema does not cry. Cinema does not comfort us. It is with us. It is us”.”

Tarantino, also, fills the film with fascists who seem to be exploiting the medium for questionable purposes. Goebbels’ film, like many a mainstream film that are made by another kind of fascists, has manipulated reality and wants its audience to buy that as truth. And Shoshanna’s film (like Tarantino’s) is what Godard seems to be wanting in place of Goebbels’.

“There is an intriguing recurrence of the image of human hands in the film. Godard urges artists to think with their hands – their real tools that have the potency to both create and destroy, to beautify and to horrify, to document and to change. He argues that these are the instruments capable of changing and redefining history and it is the weakness of the mind that hinders the possibility.”

Marcel, who had ‘created’ the small film with Shoshanna, is the one who would be setting fire to the pile of nitrate films. Tarantino, too, highlights his hand as he flicks the cigarette on to the heap – the hand that went from mere documentation of reality to direction of reality.

Brandon Colvin is of the opinion that Inglourious Basterds is primarily a comedy. I’m going to take a diametrically opposite path and say that this movie, when reduced to its human elements, stripped of all its film references and modernist facets, is a tragedy with a martyr called Shoshanna at its heart. The word ‘tragedy’ is often used loosely and seems to denote every tale that has a pathetic, miserable and depressing outcome. But, surely, Tragedy does not base itself upon emotions. In fact, it is quite the opposite. A tale is said to be tragic when two morally unquestionable and righteous forces are made to clash and a situation evolves when one of them has to let go of its stance, despite all convictions and emotions for the greater good. Tragedy is always the result of a choice that calls for a great sacrifice to go with it. As they say, it is our choices that define us. And a tragic choice defines us for life – either as a hero or as a coward (“merely human” would be the euphemism). Sansho the Bailiff (1954), even with its heavy pathos, is a melodrama whereas The Dark Knight (2008), despite its uplifting upshot, remains a tragedy. Shoshanna could well have married Zoller and led a very content life. Instead, she repudiates that path and takes up the task of liberating the Jews at the cost of her own life. Tarantino, apart from using Ennio Morricone’s moving piece Un Amico, employs mythological and historical iconographies to underline the magnitude of this tragedy.

The final chapter of Inglourious Basterds has got to be the densest that Tarantino has ever filmed. The chapter is ambiguously titled “Revenge of the Giant Face” as if recalling some B-movie from the 50s. But more than that, it seems to me now, it tries to allude to two of the most iconic “giant faces” of women that we know. The first would be that of Maria Falconetti in Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) – a film that is constructed out of hundreds of such giant faces. The tale of Joan of Arc by itself is a tragedy in which Joan sacrifices a normal life for the good of her people, much like Shoshanna, who, too, goes down in flames at the end of her journey. Only that Shoshanna doesn’t just suffer and prefers to take all of them down along with her. And then there is the most dreaded giant head in Greek mythology – that of Medusa the Gorgon – a mere gaze into whose eyes is supposed to petrify you. Daniel Ogden (source: Wikipedia) describes this stare of Medusa’s as “seemingly looking out from its own iconographical context and directly challenging the viewer”. Now, the Nazi officers in the final chapter are watching a fictional film, seated safely away from real life action, without any apparent threat from the images on the screen. When Shoshanna slips in her own film, with her gaze directed towards the Nazis, she essentially “looks out of context of the movie”, challenging, literally, the viewers, in a manner in which the modernist director used their actors, and petrifying them by dragging them out of their passive state.

The Passion of Joan of Arc - Dreyer

Medusa - Franz von Stuck

Inglourious Basterds - Tarantino

But then, our ideas about these two iconic characters are derived only through images and shadows – through paintings, through Dreyer’s film and through textual accounts. As George Steiner put it, “It is not the literal past that rules us. It is images of the past.” With the passage of time, history and mythology mingle to such an extent that it becomes virtually impossible to separate them. In Chris Marker’s magnum opus The Owl’s Legacy (1989), Jean-Pierre Vernant illustrates the mythos behind this practice of image (which is a word that referred to doubles, miniatures, copies and ghosts in general in Ancient Greece, the land of tragedies) creation. He tells us that images, for Ancient Greeks, were a means of facing man’s worst fears by reducing them down to caricatures. In Medusa’s case, this meant that they could see her directly in the eyes (a la Perseus who used a mirror – an image creating device – to slay her) and subsequently use these images to intimidate enemies. In Vernant’s own words: “So there is a way, though images and through stories of disarming the horror of death that the monstrous face expresses and which the image carries out so that what can’t be seen can be depicted in many ways” (recalling Godard’s quote about movies in History of Cinema: “How marvelous to be able to look at what we cannot see.”)

In the final chapter of Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino absorbs these images of dead characters from tragedies in mythology and history, blends it with the “image” of the tragic Shoshanna, who too is now dead, and, in essence, creates a mythology (Shoshanna the martyr) and history (Shoshanna the WW2 hero) of his own. Now, this is not far from what he does with his other characters in his movies, wherein he imbibes mythos and facts from within cinematic history to create new ones for his own characters. Only that, in Inglourious Basterds, his canvas seems to have expanded, with his universe transgressing boundaries defined by the history of cinema.  Furthermore, Tarantino uses the images of the movie – his Medusa mask – to “look at what he cannot see” in reality. Throughout the movie, he keeps attacking Hitler’s “image”. He depicts Hitler as a weak and paranoid individual with vermin like attributes. When he kills him in the final shootout, it is the “image” of Hitler that he wants to kill (much like the mentality behind voodoo and effigy-burning practices), for he can’t kill him in reality – exactly the same thing that Florya (Aleksei Kravchenko) does in Come and See (1985) when he fires at a photograph of Hitler in an attempt to undo the images of history, if not history itself.

In The Conformist (1970), Bertolucci equates the fascists with Plato’s prisoners of the cave, suggesting that they are blinded by fake ideologies fuelled by personal insecurities. In The Owl’s Legacy, Marker equates the audience in the cinema hall (citing Simone Weil) to those prisoners, proposing that they are blinded by images they see on screen and take them for reality. In Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino combines both these notions and presents us Nazis watching movies in a cinema hall. These “blind” Nazis enjoy the massacre that Zoller is doing on the screen, assuming that this is how it was. Zoller, on the other hand, is the only person there who knows it wasn’t so and leaves the cinema hall, breaking free from one of the captive caves he is occupying. Additionally, Tarantino does not forget to free his audience from the chains of their cave. Like it was done in Bertolucci’s film, he keeps reminding us that we are watching a movie and whatever we are seeing is a mere paining on a plastic canvas (contrary to what other films on historical subjects want us to believe). In chapter two, Raine, seated at the centre of an arrangement that resembles a Greek theater, tells the captured Nazi officer that “watching Danny beat the Nazis to death is the closest we ever get to going to the movies”. Raine seems to know that he is just the shadow of a man placed on a simple image. And because he regularly attempts to remind us of the fakery of it all, Tarantino’s violence also helps to serve the same purpose – to try to disengage us from whatever is depicted on cinema screen even when it is unmitigated and concrete. As the movie’s title confesses, its all a fraud and a very beautiful one at that.

[The Conformist (1970)]

[The Owl's Legacy (1989)]

(Images Courtesy: Imaginary Year, Hellenica)

Talk about shooting a picture. Is this what they mean when they say  Cinema can be used as a weapon? Who knows, this may just make its way into the next Tarantino movie!

“This may be the only working example of Medvedkin’s camera which he invented while working at the front. He’d had this extraordinary idea. He needed soldiers who’d agree to serve as cameramen. He chose volunteers from the disciplinary battalions. Choosing these battalions was a shrewd move since, like Stalin’s camps, they recruited mostly educated people: Civil engineers, teachers, lecturers… people who already had the basics of technical knowledge. Teaming up in twos or threes, they would sneak up the rear of the German lines and achieve some incredible feats: Two men would capture a German as the third would film the operation.”

- Nikolai Izvolov explaining Medvedkin’s wartime invention in The Last Bolshevik (1992).

Schastye (1934) (aka Happiness)
Aleksandr Medvedkin
Russian/French

“Go and find happiness.

 

HappinessIt is now generally accepted that if not for the efforts of another less talked about filmmaker Chris Marker, the world may not have come to know about his mentor Alexandr Medvedkin and his work. Standing somewhere between the films of Dovzhenko and those of Pudovkin, Medvedkin’s most famous movie Happiness (1934) offers a radically different perspective to the political and cinematic developments in Stalinist Russia. The discussions about Soviet cinema have been dominated by the films and theories of major figures like Eisenstein and Vertov, and perhaps rightly so, obscuring inevitably other stalwarts who may have been. Much less a theoretician than his contemporaries, Medvedkin produces a film that may never make it into classrooms. But one thing can’t be denied and that is the fact that Happiness is a film with a heart. Happiness does work very well as a stand alone piece, but the fact that it is a culmination of a larger and a nobler mission makes it all the more special.

Happiness follows the life of a poor Soviet farmer Khmyr (Piotr Zinoviev) and his “horse-wife” Anna (Elena Egorova) before and after the October Revolution. During the Tsar’s rule, we see Khmyr struggling for existence and envying his wealthy neighbour Foka, who also happens to be the loan shark of the village. So he goes in search of happiness and gets it in the form of a sum of money. He buys a horse for farming but the animal goes on a strike. He manages to harvest by substituting Anna for his horse and gathers a rich output. His celebrations don’t last long as Foka and the Church figures are quick to grab it back from him. He contemplates suicide, but the Church prevents him from doing this “sin”. Now, it decides to punish him by whipping him but not allowing him to die. Years pass by and the country is now in the hands of the communists. The collective farming system has been implemented. Anna seems to have adapted to the system and seems to be doing exceptionally well, becoming the breadwinner of the family. Khmyr, on the other hand, lazes around, making one blunder after the other, desperately tries to become an honest farmer. But the disinvested Foka plans revenge.

Happiness would seem like a very directionless film, if one does not take a look at Medvedkin’s modus operandi outside of the film. Medvedkin was one of the founders of the famous Cine Train of Bolshevik Russia that aimed to travel into the hinterlands of Russia, document the lives of peasants and workers and show it back to them in order to make them understand their strengths and weaknesses. The country had just entered the Bolshevik regime and the common folk, it seems, found it difficult to adapt to most of the improvement measures. Medvedkin and group understood this problem and used the cinema as a medium of introspection to illustrate the situation clearly to the people. Be it public service messages like the importance of hygiene (as in the film Watch Your Health), critical documents about absenteeism, inefficiency and negligence (as in Journal Number 4 and The Conveyor Belt) or queries for betterment of living and working conditions (How Do You Live Comrade Miner?), the Cine Train seems to have never hesitated in putting everything that is right and everything that is questionable about a system on the same plane. And that is very true about Happiness too.

HappinessJoseph Stalin banned the movie apparently because he thought that Happiness was mocking his collective farming system – the Kolkhoz – but spared Medvedkin knowing his service for the state. But surely, what Medvedkin was doing was neither a satire on the state of affairs nor a propaganda movie that the Soviet cinema was famous for. What he was presenting was merely an honest view of the newly born farming system, without any form of prejudice or support. For this, Medvedkin pays equal attention to both the positive and the negative ramifications of the collective farming. Through a largely objective eye – a common eye called cinema – Medvedkin makes a transparent reading of the Kolkhoz, its strong points and its limitations. If Stalin is pleased by Medvedkin’s attack on the exploitative and irrational nature of the church in the Tsar’s regime, he would be turned off by the vignettes of the Kolkhoz, where there are a bunch of goons waiting to ruin it all for themselves. If he would be laughing at the director’s depiction of the Tsarist army as a bunch of men wearing the same grumpy plastic masks, he would be annoyed by the possibly individualistic upshot of the film. But by no means is Medvedkin taking a centrist stance, for his stance is that of the people. As confirmed by Happiness, his interest is not the upholding of a political ideology, but a desire for people to have better lives.

“Every man is seeking happiness. Some see it in wealth, but the Russian peasant who struggled in poverty dreamt of it in his own way. Anton Pavlovich Chekhov noted in his diary: “What is a Russian peasant’s dream? If I were tsar, I’d steal 100 roubles and run away!” A Russian proverb says that the peasant’s reply is: “If I were tsar I’d eat the fat of the bacon and I’d go to sleep.” What an idea of happiness! Just having a piece of bread, not being hungry, having a horse, a barn, having a few possessions, a sack of wheat… Such an idea of happiness, so little, but linked to the age-old harshness of a Russian peasant’s life, that’s the basis of my comedy Happiness. I tried to show the tragedy of such a man, and the effort he makes to find his ideal life. His dreams couldn’t be very elaborate, of course, they were on his own scale, but in his own way he was looking for happiness. And in this film I tried to tell a story that’s funny, sad and tragic, the story of a peasant like him, Khmyr, for whom nothing goes right. His life is a struggle, just as his grandfather’s and great-grandfather’s had been, just as his father’s had been. And, totally unexpected to him, at the end of the film he finds that there are others who care about him, friends, neighbours, the government too. And in a collective farm he comes close to happiness. That’s the story of the film. Throughout my life the film train has been a wealth of ideas and themes. It made me love themes linked to the people, it made me love the life of the people, their dreams, hopes, joys and pain.”

As he says above, Medvedkin fascination lies with the people of his country. Instead of making his film into a moral tale about the truth about happiness, he is content is depicting the struggles, aspirations and triumphs of a common man – a simple man whom he has seen throughout his life in the Cine Train. That is why, I believe, it is not fair to call Happiness as a politically charged film even though it provides a good indication of the politics of Russia at that time. His Khmyr is not an icon of satire or propaganda, but of the Russian peasant himself. Khmyr is like Chaplin’s Tramp, not fitting easily into preformatted social structures, only that Khmyr is not the happy-go-lucky type like his American twin. Medvedkin seems to be of the opinion that, however strong and simple a system is, there will always be anomalies who will take time to settle down. This idea is reinforced by his other films The Story of Tit (1933) and Stop Thief! (1931), where too we have lazy or incompetent peasants trying to malinger and wriggle their way out of duties at the Kolkhoz.

HappinessIn Chris Marker’s brilliant film The Train Rolls On (1971), he recounts the rise and fall of the Cine Train, employing meditative voiceovers, stock photographs and interviews of Medvedkin himself. The Train Rolls On starts (and ends) with the image of a moving train, denoting at once the beginning of this film, the beginning of cinema and the beginning of revolutionary cinema heralded by the Cine Train. Marker, not without a tinge of sadness, documents the activities of the Train, from its inception to its death, and attempts to bring to light how revolutionary the vision of the group was. In the interviews, Medvedkin recalls the experience of traveling in the train, stopping at villages, carrying out the mission’s objective and working against all odds to give to people what he had taken from them. Marker’s work is a documentation of a (lost) documentation of history, of revolution and of change. Marker tells us that although most of the Cine Train’s work has gone into oblivion, the spirit of the undertaking has lived on. As he puts it: “The biggest mistake one could make would be to believe that [the Train] had come to a halt”.

What is perhaps most unique about the Cine Train is its conviction that cinema is a medium that is of the people, for the people and by the people. That it can indeed bring a change in the lives of common people. That it is the only art which can create a revolution for good. This view is remarkably similar to Medvedkin’s contemporary and fellow Russian Dziga Vertov’s Kino Pravda theory. Nikolaï Izvolov, who headed the restoration of Happiness, narrates the strange phenomenon that Medvedkin and Vertov shared. Even though both lived in Moscow and were even next door neighbours for some time, they seem to have never met each other officially. And just before they had an opportunity to work together in the 50s, Vertov passed away. One only wonders what course cinema would have taken if they had joined hands. Herzog’s belief that cinema is the art form of the illiterates seems so true when watching the films of these pioneers. Somehow, it feels like cinema has moved backwards from where it started. One should at least be glad that their followers – the Dziga Vertov Group (Godard et al) and the Alexandr Medvedkin Group (Marker et al) – have tried to sustain the vision of their mentors, if not achieving the desired results.

HappinessIn Happiness, Medvedkin sets up a hilarious contrast between Khmyr and his wife Anna by reversing the conventional notions of masculine and feminine. As Khmyr goes out in search of “happiness”, Anna grabs him by the collar and kisses him goodbye.  She defends him against Foka’s exploitation. She steals a horse from thieves and rescues Khmyr from execution. She drives a tractor and runs the house. Heck, she even carries the horse down from the top of their hut! Medvedkin almost always frames her above the feeble Khmyr producing an amusing effect. Sergei Eisenstein called Medvedkin a “Bolshevik Chaplin”. Although I’m sure many will be surprised by that statement since the slapstick in Happiness seems to have aged a bit (but only as much as many of its American counterparts), there is much dark humour in Happiness to make up for that. I haven’t seen any Russian comedy of this period, except Pudovkin’s magnificent Chess Fever (1925), so I am not sure how this film stands out as a comedy among its contemporaries. But where the success of Happiness (and Medvedkin’s work in general) really lies, in hindsight, is in the fact that it offers us an alternate prism to view a country’s cinema, which has been reduced by text books to mere political messages and then a few cutting techniques.

La Jetée (1962) (aka The Pier)
Chris Marker
French

Since humanity had survived, it could not refuse to its own past the means of its own survival.

 

The PierWho would have thought that one could make a sci-fi masterpiece in just 27 minutes? Well, I didn’t. I was wrong. La Jetée (1962) has left behind it, a legacy that many filmmakers have attempted to inherit, time and again, through the years. Its vision of the future of the world and its inhabitants – a sunless earth, cold expressionless faces and almost machine like emotional states – and the possibilities of experiment with cinematic and real time, that it has opened up, have become almost a standard template for sci-fi movies. If only a certain movie monument wasn’t made six years later, La Jetée, hands down, would stand out as the greatest sci-fi film ever made. The surprising fact is that the script of the film wasn’t adapted from some visionary short story, but one written loosely and directly for the screen by Chris Marker, the director, himself. And further, the script is just a minor contributor to the film’s success.  Here is the thing: The word has been destroyed by the ominous nuclear war and humans are forced to stay underground. The “victors” of the war are trying to find a way to contact the past and the future of mankind to prevent the imminent annihilation of the human race. One of the lab rats for this is The Man (Davos Hanich), who retains vivid memories of his childhood and carries with himself, puzzles from the troubled past.

The very nature of the plot, like the slick ones that play with time and its properties, is potent enough to lock its audience into eternal conversations about the science behind it and the implications that it presents. Scientifically, the basic issues of time travel – like the law of conservation of energy and mass-energy equivalent – are revived. At an emotional level, questions about the inner tension of The Man and about his (and ‘his’) perceptions during the “confrontation” come into the picture. Furthermore, the woman’s untroubled indulgence with the man, who not only lacks a past and a future, but lives an interrupted present, raises concern about the woman’s own identity. Is she one of the guinea pigs too? Is she the specimen of another similar experiment? Or is she one of “them”? Marker leaves such questions unanswered, for his concern is not the drama “of the moment”. Actually, Marker doesn’t even rely upon the convolutions of plot and time to make the film seem significant. As a matter of fact, Marker unravels the proceedings of the film in a lucid and patient manner in his soundtrack, where the narrator explains every action that takes place, till the last detail. Marker could have easily diverted his audience’s attention into a process of untangling the plot by having the narrator conceal some of the facts. But by providing complete information about what happens, Marker utilizes that attention to persuade the audience to recognize how it all happens. We process the aural data simultaneously without any effort as we also begin to note the significance of individual images and the relationship between them.

The PierThere is a remarkable scene in La Jetée where The Woman points at a cross-section of the tree trunk to denote her age. The Man jokingly (and self-referentially) points at a region outside the periphery of the trunk suggesting that he is from the future. This scene isn’t just an isolated homage to Vertigo (1958), but one of the many indicators that La Jetée is, in fact, laid on the very themes of Hitchcock’s film. Plainly, both films could well be seen as subjective accounts of treatments of psychological inhibitions – acrophobia and depression. In Vertigo, Scottie is a man who has lost his beloved (and whose face hypnotizes him for some reason) in an accident and is determined to reanimate her back to life, no matter what it takes. The Man, here, is no different from Scottie. The Woman could well be dead too (as he, also, suggests at one point). The Man’s tools for this “ritual” of resurrection are his memories and experiences, because of which he too, like Scottie, is nudged into the vicious cycle (rather, the Vertigo spiral) of resurrection and loss. In another extended sequence in La Jetée, The Man and The Woman visit a museum where stuffed animals are kept as exhibits. The range of animals there – giraffes, elephants and rhinos – make it seem more like a zoo than a hunter’s exhibition. The couple watches them with utmost fascination. Marker photographs the animals and the couple as if they were on the opposite sides of a mirror.  There is great contradiction at work here. Are these live animals trapped in a time frame that is outside their own or are these really dead creatures resurrected back to life by some passionate enthusiast? Either way, they only reinforce that The Man and The Woman are, in fact, one of them.

Surely, La Jetée’s glorious triumph is a consequence of three brilliant artistic choices by Marker. The first of them is the use of black and white imagery for his film (Note that Vertigo had already been made in colour four years before this film). For The Man, the past, the present and the future are essentially the three sides of a Penrose triangle – one leading to the other endlessly. Although he can make clear distinctions between the states he is in, he can’t possibly determine his future, his past or even his definite physical location in any given stage. Marker exploits the homogeneity of the monochrome to denote the plasticity and interchangeability of The Man’s memory and experience and the film’s narrative chronology. Incidentally, in his tour to the past, The Man is fascinated by a shop filled with plastics, ceramics and other fibrous materials – another token of the ever malleable world around and within him. Secondly of interest is Marker’s choice of employing voiceover instead of providing conversational dialogues to his protagonists. Surely, Marker is far removed from the concerns of momentary suspense and immediate gratification. Instead of developing an atmosphere for each scene, he creates a tone for the whole film. Alternating his musical score between expressionistic chorus and chilling, low-key drumbeats, Marker hijacks us away from the search for petty dramatic confrontations into the bleak one for a seemingly elusive resolution. Not surprisingly, the whole narration is in the present tense, as if pitching a story to the producer, for neither can Marker place it in the future since that would betray the tenets of realistic storytelling nor can he locate the tale in the past, thus guaranteeing a resolution. Incidentally, the film doesn’t close with “The End”.

The PierBut it is Marker’s use of still images for his narration, almost entirely throughout, that is the masterstroke. He could have used muted motion clips, but that would have added no vitality to the themes of the film. The Man is forced to go back to his past, even after all those traumatizing events of the world.  Predictably, his memory is fragmented, much like the images of the film. He synthesizes his “past” from his subsequent experiences, passionate fantasies and remaining shards of memory. His memory seems to document, eventually, not how the events were, but how he wants to believe they were. Marker uses an array of match cuts to emphasize the dependence of The Man’s memory and vision of past on the present state of his mind and of the world. In a critical scene in the film, The Man and The Woman visit a museum where they observe stone sculptures with missing heads or other parts of their bodies. Just then, an apparently tormented face in the sculptures is juxtaposed with The Man’s own distressed countenance. Are these the just figures of ancient art or are these “products” of the mutilated bodies of the war that The Man witnesses? Most of Marker’s images are spontaneous, with each of them seeming like a freeze-frame ending for intense moments. Each of these images seems like straight out of a dark comic book, with tension and horror oozing out of each pixel. Each one carries with it a past and a future that is as troubling as The Man’s own. Interestingly there is one single shot where motion photography is employed. The Woman, after assuming various poses during sleep, opens her eyes gradually. This is, perhaps, the only time where The Man really feels alive, witnessing movement, hence freedom and hence life. The only moment of escape from his physical existence in a world trapped under the surface of the earth – a world where people don’t live, they exist, a world where they don’t die, they expire.

[Watch the whole film below]

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