2015 was a fine period for me. I went to the Mumbai Film Festival, something that I’d been meaning to do for some time now. I could also go to Experimenta to meet and interact with several interesting artists and curators. I wrote a little more at this blog than I had last year and I also started a blog in French that I hope to write more for in the coming months. I watched fewer films and read fewer books than any of the preceding few years. (I had read more books and seen more movies in the first 6 months of 2014 than I did in the whole of 2015.) Yet, I had a much more wholesome experience these past 12 months. For one, abstinence made movies better, providing me the necessary mental space to deal with them more meaningfully. But more importantly, my rejection of the voracious cinephilia that I was practicing helped me better integrate the films I watched with real world experience and further disabuse myself of the notion that cinephilia is a worthy activity in itself. As a result, I could give films their proper place in my life – an act of relegation that ironically made them more valuable. I think I harmonize myself better with the world around now, which I am convinced is what any ‘-philia’ worth its salt should ultimately be about. I look forward to further cutting down on films and books the coming year.

The year was full of surprisingly good films. Besides the following list (strictly consisting of works that world-premiered in 2015), I was really, really impressed by the masterfully-directed Carol (Todd Haynes), the nervous energy-dynamics of Standing Tall (Emmanuelle Bercot), the perspective-bending Scrapbook (Michael Hoolboom), the structural intelligence of Interrogation (Vetrimaran) and the fascinating image-making and commentary of The Lobster (Yorgos Lanthimos). Other films I liked very much are The Assassin (Hou Hsiao-Hsien), Bridge of Spies (Steven Spielberg), Digging for Fire (Joe Swanberg), Masaan (Neeraj Ghaywan), My Golden Days (Arnaud Desplechin), My Mother (Nanni Moretti), Night Without Distance (Lois Patiño), Results (Andrew Bujalski), Sleeping Giant (Andrew Cividino) and the three cine-essays by Mark Rappaport.

 

1. Francofonia (Aleksandr Sokurov, France)

 

FrancofoniaAt a time when Daesh funds itself by trafficking cultural artifacts and Europe announces asylum for threatened art works, Sokurov’s marvelous, piercing film offers nothing less than a revisionist historiography of art itself. For Francofonia, History is not the content of art but its very skin. Museums flatten time, and justifiably present their contents as the highest achievements of a culture, obfuscating, in effect, their history as objects involved in power brokerage, class conflict and market manipulation. Sokurov’s film flips this perspective inside out, identifying art as being frequently the currency of diplomatic power possessing the capacity to purchase peace and as being instruments in service of totalitarian collaboration. Napoleon, who made art the object of his wars, perambulates in the Louvre alongside Lady Liberty Marianne, personifying the antipodal instincts of not only this emblematic institution, but also of European civilization itself. Sokurov’s complex film, likewise, holds together with great equanimity and curiosity antithetical views of museums, acknowledging simultaneously their timelessness and particular historical meaning(s). Francofonia poses questions about nationality, ownership and, really,  the value of art and leaves your head whirling with its far-reaching implications, making sure that you will not approach art the same way again.

2. No Home Movie (Chantal Akerman, Belgium)

 

No Home MovieThe jeu de mots in the title says it all. Not only is this deeply death-marked, Ozuvian film an unordinary home movie, but it is also a film about not having a home. Composed of footage shot in the filmmaker’s mother’s Brussels apartment and recorded video-conference sessions between the two, No Home Movie contrasts Akerman’s professional nomadism with the perennial confinedness of her mother Natalia. Between Chantal’s constant off-screen presence and Natalia’s self-imposed captivity (within the apartment as well as the computer screen), between Here and Elsewhere, lies the film’s true space – a part-real, part-virtual space of filial anxiety and affection. Akerman’s matrilineal counterpart to Porumboiu’s The Second Game (2014) investigates heritage and origin as the director meditates on what she has inherited from her mother – a reflection that continuously brings Akerman back to an examination of her own Jewishness. A document of physical decline and decline of the physical (“Je t’embrasse” over Skype), the film crystallizes a collective Jewish narrative of eternal exile through the personal history of the director’s mother, while vehemently refusing to reduce the unique being of Natalia Akerman the individual. Akerman’s harrowing swansong is cinema’s own Camera Lucida.

3. Taxi (Jafar Panahi, Iran)

 

TaxiTaxi opens with a shot of downtown Tehran photographed from the dashboard of a car. Announcing Panahi’s first cinematic outdoor excursion since his house arrest in 2011, this shot sets up the dialectics that would define the film: home/world, individual/social and freedom/captivity. Through the course of Taxi, the spied-upon filmmaker drives around the city in the guise of a cabbie, chauffeuring clients-actors from various strata of the society, and realizing a pre-scripted scenario with them whose urgent, didactic purpose can’t be more obvious. The Iranian state has forged a private prison for Panahi from the public spaces of Tehran, allowing him a mobility and false freedom that’s regulated by its watchful eyes. Panahi turns this power dynamic upside down, transforming the private space of the vehicle into a public space for debate, discussion, instruction and critique. Watching the film, I was constantly reminded of that saying beloved of Wittgenstein: “It takes all kinds to make a world”. Panahi’s very presence in the film – his image, his voice – becomes an audacious act of political defiance, a gesture of tremendous existential courage that stares at the possibility of death floating in the air. Taxi makes cinema still matter.

4. The Pearl Button (Patricio Guzmán, Chile)

 

The Pearl ButtonA beautiful marine cousin to Guzman’s previous film, Nostalgia for the Light (2010), The Pearl Button turns its attention from the arid stretches of the Atacama to the waterfront and ice field of Southern Patagonia. Threading metaphor over metaphor, the director fashions a typically associative, richly suggestive essay film that turns the nature documentary form on its head. Guzman’s film plumbs the depths of the ocean, trying to uncover traces of suppressed, unseen history embodied by countless “missing people” – a project that derives its impetus from the filmmaker’s bittersweet childhood experience of the sea. Despite Chile’s economic indifference to its 4000-kilometer-long coastline, he notes, the sea has been indispensable those in power, serving first as the entry point of the European invaders, who wiped out the Patagonian natives, and then as the dumping ground of political prisoners during the Pinochet regime. Guzman teases out the different values that the sea holds for him, the autochthons and the Chilean state, in effect politicizing and historicizing that which conventional wisdom takes to be apolitical and ahistorical: geography and the perception of it. The result is a film of immense poetry and horror – a horror that only poetry can convey.

5. Shift (Alexandra Gerbaulet, Germany)

 

ShiftThe most impressive debut film of the year, Alexandra Gerbaulet’s ambitious, intoxicating Shift excavates the evolution of her hometown, Salzgitter, along with that of her family with archaeological care and scientific detachment. In Gerbaulet’s heady narration, anchored by a powerful, quasi-declamatory, rhythmic voiceover, Salzgitter’s transformation from a Nazi mining stronghold and concentration camp, through a waning industrial hub and to a nuclear waste dump parallels the gradual disintegration of the Gerbaulet family under the weight of unemployment, sickness and sexual repression. The filmmaker closely intercuts photographs and diary entries of her mother with impersonal material from popular and scientific culture, weaving in and out of both registers with ease. Gerbaulet’s film is literally an unearthing project, as the director scoops out the various historical, political and geographical layers of this war-weathered city whose tranquil current-day model housing sits atop a makeshift Jewish graveyard consisting of camp workers buried using industrial debris. “Man gets used to everything, even the scar”, declares the narrator bluntly. Shift unscrambles such a habituated view of things, observing the tragicomic tautologies in which history revisits the city. The more you dig, it would seem, the more of the same you get.

6. A Century Of Energy (Manoel de Oliveira, Portugal)

 

A Century Of EnergyOne of my favorite films of the year is a commercial for a major power corporation made by a 106-year-old artist. Manoel de Oliveira’s last work of his 84-year long career revisits his second film White Coal (1932), a documentary about power generation at the Central Hydroelectric Plant at Ermal, Rio Ave, founded by the filmmaker’s father. The silent film is projected indoors as a string quartet and a trio of ballerinas interpret the film in the space before the screen. Oliveira moves beyond the primary purpose of chronicling the evolution of renewable energy in the past century, charting the evolution of cinema itself during this period. Splicing together shots from the older films with images of the same locations today, he synthesizes a densely dialectical film that brings into dialogue silent movies and talkies, film and digital cinema, youth and old age and power and grace.  Part tribute to the legacy of his father, part meditation on his own long life and transformed perspectives, Oliveira’s film is celebration of the beauty of forms, natural and man made, whose final shot – ballerinas moving like little windmills at the crack of dawn – captures something like pure energy – a supremely befitting parting shot.

7. Spotlight (Thomas McCarthy, USA)

 

SpotlightThomas McCarthy’s dramatization of Boston Globe’s exposé of child abuse in the Church is a robust, smart procedural that is less about picking apart the Catholic establishment than about elucidating the epistemological processes of the Information Age. Set at the transitional period between print and online news media, the film underscores the soon-to-be-outmoded physical nature of journalistic investigation. There are no antagonists of the traditional kind in Spotlight. The only obstacles to the knowledge required to carry out the exposé are the numerous procedures and institutional protocols that have for objective the protection or publication of information. It is telling that the entire film is about a pack of newswriters seeking information that’s already out in the open. What’s more, the film recognizes that the Spotlight team’s attempts to mount an institutional critique is itself inscribed within kindred ideological biases, operational strategies and structural iniquities of Boston Globe as an institution and that the metaphysical crisis that their story can potentially wreak amidst readers is but similar to the disillusionment the newsmen experience vis-à-vis their Protestant weltanschauung. With relatively uncommon formal and ethical restraint, McCarthy crafts an arresting film about how a society’s narratives are made, predicated they are as much on the dissemination of information as on their marginalization.

8. The Event (Sergei Loznitsa, Russia)

 

SThe Eventergei Loznitsa’s formidable follow-up to Maidan (2014) furthers the earlier film’s exploration of the aesthetics and mechanics of revolution, capturing a people coming together to make sense of a political limbo. Without context or a framing perspective, the film drops us straight into the streets of St. Petersburg just after the attempted reactionary coup d’état in Moscow in 1991. Confusion and mundanity – not heroics and determination – reign as we observe the formative process of a people’s movement and the imagined/imaginary social glue that causes individuals to cohere into a group. State apparatuses compete with each other for imposing a narrative onto the events, while the very toponymy of the city becomes an ideological battleground. Working off priceless archival footage, much of which is incredibly reminiscent of the filmmaker’s own cinematographic style, Loznitsa provides an invaluable glimpse into the unfurling of history, chronicling how numerous banal, unsure gestures and actions snowball into Historical Events. If Eisenstein’s better-than-the-original recreation of the October Revolution was the abstraction of materialist history into ideas, Loznitsa’s film, taking place at the same Palace Square 63 years later, rescues history from the reductions of ideology and brings it right back into the realm of the material.

9. In Transit (Albert Maysles & Co., USA)

 

In TransitA remarkable American counterpart to J. P. Sniadecki’s The Iron Ministry (2014), In Transit unfolds predominantly as a series of interviews with a mixed bag of travellers on board The Empire Builder, a long-distance passenger train running over 3500 kilometers and spanning almost the entire width of the United States. The accounts of passengers seeking out professional and financial breakthroughs evoke the pioneer myth hinged on a “Go West” imperative while the stories of those aboard in search of their ‘calling’ demonstrate the essentially spiritual, even religious nature of their pilgrimage-like journey. The diversity and range of the interviewees and their interactions help the film depict the train as a miniature America, à la Stagecoach, and carve out a quasi-utopian space in which members across class, race and gender divides get an opportunity to converse with each other without personal baggage. Nonetheless, In Transit is less a cultural vision of a possible America than an existential meditation on what makes people embark on these journeys. One elderly war veteran remarks that he’ll never be able to see these plains again. To cite John Berger, “the desire to have seen has a deep ontological basis.

10. Wake (Subic) (John Gianvito, The Philippines)

 

Wake (Subic)One of a piece with Gianvito’s Vapor Trail (Clark) (2010), Wake continues its precedent’s important investigation into the ecological consequences of the presence of America’s largest military bases in the Philippines during most of the 20th century. Like Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind (2007), Wake is guided by the spirit of Howard Zinn’s approach to history and sketches an economically-founded account of US-Philippines political and cultural relations – a history that seems to be have been lamentably wiped off from the Filipino national consciousness. Gianvito juxtaposes images from the Philippine-American war with current day images from the contaminated Subic naval base area, suggesting, in effect, the poisonous persistence of an agonizing, unacknowledged history. Wake is imperfect cinema – unwieldy and resourceful – and employs fly-on-the-wall records, talking heads, on-screen text, photographs and news clips to mount a potent critique of a historiography defined political amnesia and economic opportunism. More importantly, it is a necessary reminder that imperialism is not always about presence, action and exercise of power but sometimes also about the refusal of these very elements, that history is not only a matter of events but also processes and phenomena and that geography is always political.

 

Special Mention: Chi-raq (Spike Lee, USA)

Experimenta

The ninth edition of Experimenta, the now-biennial experimental and avant-garde film festival of India helmed by Shai Heredia, took place between 25th and 29th of November in Bangalore. Besides the international competition section, the roster consisted of sidebars on the politics of film form, the materially violent personal films of Louise Bourque (curated by Lauren Howes), the digital-video and television-based experiments of Bjørn Melhus (himself), the tranquil cine-haikus of Helga Fanderl (herself) and contemporary Indonesian (Akbar Yumni) and Filipino experimental cinema (Shireen Sono), each of them introducing me to unexplored territories of the avant-garde. The festival also sought to respond to the recent happenings in the country and show solidarity with the student protests at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII). Three realizations from the festival:

  1. Although a forward-looking curiosity to explore what the formats of the new century have to offer finds a salutary counterpoint from a tendency to militate for film (Melhus’ cinema, always in conversation with the latest technological developments, and Fanderl’s Super-8 partisanship that includes the act of changing-reels as part of the presentation), the exigencies of festival programming and the ease of breaking in to the filmmaking scene has, at least in this festival, rendered digital video ubiquitous (only 4 of the 30 films in competition were made on film, and these too were projected digitally).
  2. Dictatorship and state repression, for better or worse, continue to be very productive frameworks to work within and supply artists with perennial inspiration. The Philippines has come a quarter century since the Marcos regime, Indonesia’s been recovering for 17 years since Suharto’s fall and Thailand’s reeling from last year’s military coup. The films from these countries in the festival all respond to them in ways direct and oblique.
  3. Apichatpong’s opened a Pandora’s box.

(The following are some notes on 23 of the 30 films in competition. I could not see the rest and will update this post if I get to see them any time soon.)

 

32 AND 4 (Chan Hau Chun, China, 2015, 32min)

32 And 4Chan’s diaristic digital work is divided into chapters named after family members and unfurls as a process of piecing together of familial history. Through various confrontational interviews with her mother and father, the filmmaker attempts to understand their failed marriage, her strained relation with her step-father and the violence that has structured them both. Chan’s decision to put her entire life-story on film is a brave gesture, but the film closes upon itself, satisfied to be a melodrama valorizing personal experience over broader frameworks. (Consider, in contrast, the rigorous domestic formalism of Liu Jiayin or the socio-political tapestry of Jia Zhangke’s early work.) Chan misses the forest for the lone tree. Winner of the Adolfas Mekas award of the fest.

BEEP (Kyung-man Kim, South Korea, 2014, 11min)

BeepBeep assembles anti-communist propaganda material from the 60s and the 70s commissioned by the South Korean state that was based on the mythologizing of a young boy, Lee Seung-bok, slain by North Korean soldiers. With the unseen, absent boy-hero at its focus, Kim’s film depicts the dialectical manner in which a nation defines itself in relationship to an imagined Other. Kim makes minimal aesthetic intervention into the source material – our relation to it automatically ironic by dint of our very distance from the period it was made in – restricting himself to adding periodic beep sounds to the footage, producing something like a cautionary transmission from another world.

BLACK SUN (Truong Que Chi, Vietnam, 2013, 12min)

Black SunBlack Sun opens with a composition in deep space presenting a metonym for a country in the process of development: high-rise buildings in the background as a pair of actors in period costumes rehearse a scene in the foreground. In a series of Jia Zhangke-like vignettes of Saigon set in middle-class youth hangouts scored to pop songs and television sounds, interspersed with images of a metamorphosing city, we see the distance that separates art from reality and the middle-class from the changes around it. The film culminates in a complex, home-made long take following the protagonist across her house and out into the terrace, where she dances, presumably to the eponymous song.

CLOUD SHADOW (Anja Dornieden & Juan David Gonzalez Monroy, Germany, 2015, 17min)

WolkenschattenThe most challenging and elusive film of the competition I saw is also the most hypnotic. Cloud Shadow gives us a narrative of sorts in first person about a group of people who go into the woods and dissolve in its elements. The film is obliquely a story of the fascination with cinema, of the trans-individualist communal experience it promises, of the desire to dissolve the limits of one’s body into the images and sounds it offers. With an imagery consisting of sumptuous tints, and nuanced colour gradation and superimpositions, the film enraptures as much as it evades easy intellectual grasp. The one film of the festival that felt most like a half-remembered dream.

DOG, DEAR (Luca Ferri, Italy, 2014, 18min)

Dear DogFerri’s teasing, playful Dog, Dear appropriates the filmed record of a Soviet zoological experiment in the 1940s in which scientists impart motor functions to different parts of a dead dog. In the incantatory soundtrack, a woman – presumably the animal’s owner – repeatedly conveys messages to it, with each of them prefaced by the titular term of endearment. Ferri’s film would serve sufficiently as a blunt political allegory about the dysfunction of communism, but I think it’s probably fashioning itself as a metaphysical question: the dog might well be kicking but is he alive? His physical resurrection will not be accompanied by a restoration of consciousness. He will not respond to his master’s voice.

ENDLESS, NAMELESS (Mont Tesprateep, Thailand, 2014, 23min)

Endless NamelessPut together from footage apparently shot over twenty years at a Thai army officer’s residence, Tesprateep’s film shows us four conscripts working in the general’s garden. We witness their camaraderie, their obvious boredom, the empty bravado in entrapping small animals and intimidating each other. The misuse of power by the officer in employing these youth to mow his lawn reflects a broader militaristic hierarchy, as is attested by the youths’ casual violence towards the animals and their brutal torturing of a prisoner. Endless, Nameless recalls Claire Denis in its emphasis on military performativity and Werner Herzog in its juxtaposition of idyllic nature and seething violence, all the while retaining an immediate critical concern.

FICTITIOUS FORCE (Philip Widmann, Germany, 2015, 15min)

Fictitious ForceIn Fictitious Force, Widmann incidentally poses himself the age-old challenge of ethnological cinema; how to film the Other without imposing your own worldview on him? The filmmaker smartly takes the Chris Marker route, avoiding explanatory voiceover for the rather physical Hindu ritual he photographs and instead holding it at a slightly mystifying – but never exoticizing – distance. Widmann’s film is about this distance, the chasm between experience and knowledge that prevents the observer from experiencing what the observed is experiencing, however understanding he might be. Fictitious Force’s considered reflexivity carefully circumvents the all-too-common trap of conflating the subjectivities of the photographer and the photographed.

FISH POINT (Pablo Mazzolo, Argentina, 2015, 8min)

Fish PointFashioned out of footage that the artist shot during his visit to the titular natural reserve in Ontario, Fish Point comes across as an impressionist cine-sketch of the locale. The film opens with Daichi Saito-esque silhouettes of trees against harsh pulsating light – near-monochrome shots that are then superimposed over a slow, green-saturated pan shot of a section of a forest. This segment gives way to a passage with purely geometric compositions consisting of alternating browns and greens and strong horizontals and verticals. Forms change abruptly and tints become more diffuse and earthly. We are finally shown the sea and the horizon, with a rough map of the area overlaid on the imagery.

HAIL THE BODHISATTVA OF COLLECTED JUNK (Ye Mimi, Taiwan, 2015, 7min)

Hail The BodhisattvaA music video for a song that reportedly riffs on a holy chant and the traditional cry of the local ragman, Ye’s film starts out with shots of old women and men lip-syncing to the titular melody before turning increasingly darker. The rag picker of the poem progresses from accepting material refuse to buying off diseases, emotional traumas and even intolerable human characters. Ye builds the video using shots both documentary and voluntarily-performed that portray everyday life in Taiwan as being poised between tradition and modernity. The junkman of the film then becomes a witness to all that the society rejects and, hence, to all that it stands for.

IMRAAN, C/O CARROM CLUB (Udita Bhargava, India, 2015, 14min)

ImraanSet in a suburban Mumbai slum, Bhargava’s film takes a look into one of the reportedly many carrom clubs in the area where young boys come to play, smoke and generally indulge in displays of precocious masculinity. Where Imraan, the 11-year-old manager of the club, seems reticent before the camera, his peers and clients are much more willing to perform adulthood in front of the filming crew. While some of them are acutely aware of the intrusive presence of the camera, urging their friends not to project a bad image of the country, the film itself seems indifferent about the ethics of filming these youngsters, asking them condescending questions with a problematic, non-committal non-judgmentalism.

MASANAO ABE – CLOUDGRAPHY (Helmut Völter, Germany, 2015, 5min)

CloudographyVölter’s visually pleasing and relaxing silent film is a compilation of scientific documents of cloud movement over the Mount Fuji recorded from a static observatory by Japanese physicist Masanao Abe in the 1920s and 1930s. Abe’s problem was also one of cinema’s primary challenges: to study the invisible through the visible; in this case, to examine air currents through cloud patterns. The air currents take numerous different directions and these variegated views of the mountain situate the film in the tradition of Mt. Fuji paintings. The end product is a James Benning-like juxtaposition of fugitive and stable forms, a duet between rapidly changing and unchanging natural entities.

MEMORIALS (Korou Khundrakpam, India, 2014, 25min)

MemorialsThe most narrative film of the competition, Memorials situates itself in the tradition of 21st century Slow Cinema with its elliptical exposition, stylized longueurs, (a bit too) naturalistic sound and its overall emphasis on Bazinian realism. A young man revisits his father’s house long after his passing and starts discovering him through the objects of his everyday use, while a dead fish becomes the instrument of meditation and grieving. Though rather conventional in its workings, Memorials offers the details in its interstices fairly subtly and touches upon the usual themes of inter-generational inheritance and posthumous rapprochement, while also gesturing towards a necessary break from the past.

NATEE CHEEWIT (Phaisit Punprutsachat, Thailand, 2014, 20min)

ExperimentaPunprutsachat’s work is a straightforward document of the protracted rescue of a water buffalo from a man-made well on a sultry summer afternoon by dozens of village folk. Shot with a handheld digital camera and employing mostly on-location sound, the film presents to us the efforts of the villagers in chipping away at the edifice, restraining the animal from agitating and finally allowing it to go back to its herd. Natee Cheewit attempts to encapsulate the idea of eternal struggle between man and animal and, more broadly, between nature and civilization. The remnants of the demolished pit and the dog wandering about it are reminders of this sometimes symbiotic, sometimes destructive interaction.

NIGHT WATCH (Danaya Chulphuthiphong, Thailand, 2014, 10min)

Night WatchNight Watch is reportedly set in the days following the military coup in Thailand in May, 2014 – a period of state repression dissimulated by triumphalist propaganda about reigning happiness. Chulphuthiphong’s debut film showcases one quiet night during this period. Jacques Tati-esque cross-sectional shots of isolated apartments and office spaces show the citizenry complacently cloistered in their domestic and professional spaces, much like the sundry critters that crawl about in the night. Someone surfs through television channels. Most of them are censored, the rest telecast inane entertainment.  Night Watch underscores the mundanity and the ordinariness of the whole situation, which is the source of the film’s horror.

REPLY; REPEAT; REPEATED; DELETE; FAVORITE; FAVORITED (Ouchi Reiko, Japan, 2014, 6min)

reply repeat repeatedA rapid editing rhythm approximating the audiovisual assault of the information age, a visual idiom weaving together anime, pencil-drawing and Pink Film aesthetic and a soundscape consisting of reversed audio and noise of clicking mice and shattering glass defines Ouchi’s high-strung portrayal of modern adolescent anxieties. In a progressively sombre, cyclic series of events, a teenager navigates the real and virtual worlds that are haunted by sex and death around her. Ouchi’s pulsating, mutating forms and her preoccupation with the hyper-sexualization of visual culture are reminiscent of Nobuhiro Aihara’s work and the spirit of Maya Deren also hovers above in the film’s centralization of the female body and mind.

SCRAPBOOK (Mike Hoolboom, Canada, 2015, 18min)

ScrapbookOne of the high points of the festival, Scrapbook consists of videograms shot in 1967 in a care centre in Ohio for autistic children with commentary by one of the patients, Donna, recorded (and curiously re-performed by a voiceover artist at Donna’s request) in 2014. Donna’s words – indeed, her very use of the pronoun ‘I’ – not only attest to the vast improvement in her personal mental condition, but also throw light on the psychological mechanisms that engender a self-identity. For Donna and the other children-patients filming each other, the act of filming and watching substitutes for their thwarted mirror-stage of psychological development, helping them experience their own individuality, reclaim their bodies. Bracing stuff.

SECOND SUN (Leslie Supnet, Canada, 2014, 4min)

Second SunCanadian animator Leslie Supnet’s hand-drawn animation piece is an extension of her previous work First Sun (2014), with the monochrome drawings of the latter giving way to bright primary pencil colours. Like its predecessor, Second Sun extensively employs basic geometrical shapes to represent cosmic phenomena and is scored to an exhortative percussive soundtrack hinting at a ritual, a summoning. The figures move strictly horizontally or vertically on checkered paper as though underscoring their mathematically precise cyclicity, with the central solar circle spawning clone stars, moons, planets and an entire solar system. The overall impression is that of witnessing a trance-inducing cultic invocation.

THE ASYLUM (Prapat Jiwarangsan, Thailand, 2015, 10min)

The AsylumAccording to the program notes, the project brings together a real-life DJ who has lost her job after the coup d’etat in 2014 and an actual illegal immigrant boy from Myanmar at a secluded pond in the woods to allow them to do what they can’t in real life. We see the DJ perform for the camera, talking with imaginary strangers, giving and playing unheard songs, while the boy is content in tossing stones into the moss-covered pond. Like a structural film, The Asylum, alternates between the DJ’s ‘calls’ and the boy’s quiet alienation, taking occasional albeit unmotivated excursions into impressionist image-making, to weave a vignette about ordinary people made fugitives overnight.

THE BACKYARD (Yusuf Radjamuda, Indonesia, 2013, 12min)

The BackyardA Kiarostami-like narrative minimalism characterizes Radjamuda’s naturalistic sketch in digital monochrome of a lazy holiday afternoon. A young boy perched near the window of his house engages in a series of self-absorbed activities, while actions quotidian and dramatic, including a hinted domestic conflict, wordlessly unfold around him off-screen. A series of shallow-focus shots rally around a wide-angle master shot of the backyard to establish clear spatial relations. Literally and metaphorically set at the boundary between the inside and the outside of the house – home and the world – Radjamuda’s film is a pocket-sized paean to childhood’s privilege of insouciance and to the transformative power of imagination.

THE LAST MANGO BEFORE THE MONSOON (Payal Kapadia, India, 2015, 19min)

THe Last Mango Before The MonsoonThe shadow of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s work is strongest in Kapadia’s three-part work about the cycles of life, death and reincarnation and the interaction between mankind and nature, between the real and the surreal. Set in various regions of India and in multiple languages and shot predominantly between dusk and dawn, the film has a beguiling though mannered visual quality to it, with its appeal predicated on primal, elemental evocations of the supernatural. While Kapadia’s superimposition of line drawings on shot footage to depict man’s longing for and transformation into nature demands attention, the film itself seems derivative and a bit too enamoured of its influences.

THEY’RE NOT FAVA BEANS, THEY’RE SCARLET RUNNER BEANS (Tânia Dinis, Portugal, 2013, 10min)

Fava BeansA potential companion piece to Porumboiu’s The Second Game (2014), Dinis’s digitally shot home movie unfolds as a commentary upon itself. Consisting of scenes from the everyday routine of the filmmaker’s animal-loving grandmother, overlaid with a spontaneous conversational commentary on them by Dinis and her rather talkative and humourous granny, the film is partly a tribute to the latter personality and partly a reflection on the capacity of cinema to preserve memory of people, time and place. Like in Porumboiu’s movie, cinema furnishes the possibility of continuity between generations and the opportunity to meditate on the similarity and difference between them.

WHAT DAY IS TODAY (Colectivo Fotograma 24, Portugal, 2015, 13min)

What Day Is TodayAt least as formally innovative as Rithy Panh’s The Missing Image (2014), What Day Is Today, made by a young film collective from Montemor-o-Novo based on testimonies from older compatriots, digitally carves out from newspapers and newsreels human figures that act out the history contained in them. Charting the course of Portugal from the fascist period, through the Carnation Revolution and up to its Eurozone woes, the film depicts a nation which overcame oppression, poverty, superstition and inequality only to lapse into a passive consumerist catatonia, in the process abandoning the vision of the revolution and letting itself be hostage to a host of external economic forces.

WIND CASTLE (Prantik Basu, India, 2014, 14min)

Wind CastleWind Castle opens with a complex composition made of an unfinished (or destroyed) building behind a burnt crater, with the moon in full bloom. We are somewhere in the Indian hinterlands, a brick manufacturing site tucked inside large swathes of commercial plantations. Basu’s camera charts the territory in precise, X-axis tracking shots that form a counterpoint to the verticality of the trees. Noise from occasional on-location radios and trucks fill the soundtrack. A surveyor studies the area and trees are marked. ‘Development’ is perhaps around the corner. But the rain gods arrive first. Basu’s quasi-rural-symphony paints an atmospheric picture of quiet lives closer to and at the mercy of nature.

(Images courtesy: Various film festival websites)

Park Lanes

First of all, Kevin Jerome Everson’s Park Lanes is a conceptual coup. It might be the best response to the Lumières’ earliest factory films this side of the 20th century, and a pertinent update to Harun Farocki’s work on the same subject. Unlike the Lumières’ films, there are not scores of workers pouring out of the factory at the end of day’s work. Nevertheless, the political, psychological and social transition that the exit from the work place represents – a transition that Farocki magnificently examines in his 1995 video project – persists in all its contrast. It’s well past the sunrise by the time the workers in Park Lanes leave the floor, and the blinding sunlight that awaits them at the gates directly impresses upon us the idea of a personal life beyond the threshold.

Having his film play out over a duration equal to the legislated eight-hour work day gives Everson a chance to establish a number of interesting parallels between industrial labour and filmmaking, an equivalence that avant-garde filmmakers have time and again emphasized. For one, shooting with the camera held in his hand, and not using a tripod, for almost the entire duration, Everson is, in fact, involved in manual labour. Secondly, Everson, like the workers, is handling raw material for his work whose final shape he will not be able to see right away, though he might have a general idea of it in mind.

Further, the film’s structure is defined by the structure of the work on the factory floor. We are taken through various sections of the factory dealing with bowling alley equipment. We do not see how each of the tasks segues into the next or how it fits into the overall final product – which I think is how the film is also organized. We synthetically piece together the work flow as much as the film and its spaces.

Everson avoids the usual pitfalls presented by such a subject – aesthetization, condescension and, especially, the idea of worker alienation. (The workers, I wager, know what they are working on and can well enjoy an evening bowling and appreciating in some basic form what they have done.) He pitches the film between humanist and post-humanist perspectives of industrial labour. But I get the feeling that, trying to avoid the pitfalls, he has boxed himself into some problematic false neutrality. I think the choice of not having a voice over or any explicit theoretical framework betrays a form of non-committal plurality inviting multiple interpretations. (Of course, I must admit that not having seen any other of Everson’s films perhaps deprives me of a pre-existing framework with which to approach Park Lanes.)

Moreover, I could sense a lack of transparency between Everson and the workers. Granted that the workers know and comment upon the director’s and the camera’s presence and Everson’s shooting at eye level intelligently preempts any similarity to surveillance aesthetic, but for long stretches of the film, the workers perform their everyday duty as if the camera’s presence didn’t matter, which I think is pretty impossible. I insist that there is nothing exploitative about this, at least not more than what is involved in the workers working in the factory in the first place, but the discrepancy between this obviously intrusive alien presence and the seeming normality of proceedings crops up to my mind as an unaccounted variable.

The film appears to have been shot with a relatively long lens, which results in a shallow field that helps Everson focus on either faces or hands or the objects and instruments of the factory. This, of course, has practical benefits of avoiding disturbances in the near field of the camera and being able to be at a distance from the work site and give the workers and the filmmaker some maneuvering space. And perhaps there is an ethical point to be made there.

I admit I found Park Lanes very difficult to watch, unlike similar films by Sharon Lockhart and Denis Côté. True that the smaller runtime is a factor, but I think that the ease of watching has more to do with the latter filmmakers’ direct and transparent aesthetic intervention into their material. Park Lanes is insistent upon not judging or even describing what it is showing. On one hand, this approach confronts us with the relentless, ritualistic, meditative and, at times, comforting simplicity of industrial labour today, allowing us heartwarming glimpses of multicultural utopianism and unfeigned proletariat camaraderie. At the same time, the multiple fields of inquiry that the film’s lack of commentary opens up appear to me to neutralize each other. We don’t know whether to read many of the passages from a political or a humanistic standpoint. Long stretches of the film depicting monotonous work in a space that employs safety measures and has advanced equipment go in internecine counterpoint with the recesses in which the workers are enjoying movies on tablets and smart phones. We don’t know what they earn. We don’t know if they are in a union and whether they want to be in one either. I must clarify that I am not arguing for pigeonholing the worker experience into an overarching Manichean thesis. I’m trying to say that I think the film conflates a kind of non-judgmental presentation of reality as it is with a nuanced irreducible perspective. The various elements of the film seemed to me to go off on tangents rather than dialectically conversing with each other. Perhaps an analogy from photography would help me articulate better. The opposite of capturing a scene in shallow focus and reducing it to a Grand Theory is not capturing everything in deep focus. It is to use the deep focus to relate the foreground to the background in ways that couldn’t be expressed by each of them individually. By subtracting personal subjectivity altogether, Everson renders the film subject-less.

Finally, I do think the film is not as rigorous as it should have been. Besides the demands placed by the framing concept, the length of many sequences – length of each one in itself but also in comparison to the others – does not seem to be justified, if I may be allowed to say so. There is a two-minute shot of a bunch of bowling pins towards the very end. Though that duration is next to nothing for an eight-hour movie, I can’t see the motivation for such a slack shot. Are we expected to ponder on the ontological nature of bowling pins? I know better than to try and hold a filmmaker intellectually responsible for all his decisions, but I’m beginning to wonder whether the freedom from considerations of resourcefulness, economy and preplanning that digital cinema offers has also started impacting directorial intuition for the worse.

Shuddh Desi Romance - Hunterrr

Two recent Hindi films – Shuddh Desi Romance (2013), directed by Maneesh Sharma and written by Jaideep Sahni, and Hunterrr (2015), directed and written by Harshavardhan Kulkarni – try to trace the different contours of modern Indian romance with interesting results. The first film is produced by Yash Raj Films – not just a pillar of the Bollywood establishment, but the very face of the brand of idealist romanticism generally associated with the industry – in a spirit of keeping up with changing social norms. The latter is partly produced by Phantom Films, the self-styled outsider institution that’s building an impressive repertoire primarily targeting cosmopolitan audiences. Varied though they might be in their origin and temperament, they converse well with each other and, I believe, together provide a very good window into the evolution of both culture and the Hindi film industry.

Hunterrr, the more provocative of the two and understandably so, follows Mandar (Gulshan Devaiah), a handsome, middle-class urban man in his 30s. Mandar is a ‘player’, constantly in pursuit of flings, who dreads being tied down by marriage but who acknowledges nonetheless that he isn’t getting any younger (which means not that he needs to get married, but that his chances of scoring are diminishing). In Shuddh Desi Romance, Sushant Singh plays Raghu, a street smart man-child working odd jobs, who gets cold feet every time he tries to get hitched. Raghu’s aversion to marriage could only be taken at face value – a fear of the finality of the institution and its increased stakes – because it finds its exact echo in the female protagonist Gayatri (Parineeti Chopra), whose failed pregnancy seems to have made her skeptical of all long-term relationships. Mandar’s marriage-phobia, in contrast, stems for a multiplicity of polarizing forces he is caught amidst. For one, he juggles in vain modern and traditional belief systems, trading in libertarian values while shouldering the weight of tradition in the form of societal expectations of ‘settling down’.

In other words, Mandar leads a double life – one of a socially atomized womanizer and the other of a member of a family with specific duties towards father, mother and fiancée; one driven by testosterone and the other by conscious suppression of it. This, of course, is the Madonna-whore complex turned inside out, to show that such a dual perspective demands role-playing from the person who holds it as well. These two parallel words come crashing into each other in the airport sequence of the film, where Mandar tries to move in on a family member by mistake and gets caught. And this collapse is what the entire film is structured around, cuts as it does between Mandar’s imminent present-day crisis and his formative years. (More on this cross-cutting later.)

Furthermore, the film presents his refusal to get married as his inability to accept the responsibilities that a patriarchal setup requires of him (to earn, to drive, to support a family) while enjoying the privileges that it offers (of unproblematic mobility, of freedom from moral judgment, of unquestioned predation). It is as though he realizes his status as a gendered-being only when standing at the gates of matrimony. To be sure, Mandar’s conquests aren’t as much fodder for male ego-polishing as responses to genuine carnal urge, free of social-programming (as is evidenced by the freedom of the men surrounding him from such a perennial urge). But the ease with which he can go about these making these conquests is what I think is invoked here as privilege.

Hunterrr

This privilege, in Hunterrr, manifests in Mandar’s relationship with the space he moves in. He sexualizes the zone around him wherever he goes. The hunter, one might say, examines his space carefully and prowls before making his move. Quotidian gestures by women become triggers for him, while the same gestures retain their banality when the men do it. The film partakes in this sexualization in such a way that we always know when we are to share Mandar’s perspective (and, at times, when we are to break away from it). On the other hand, he senses his mastery of space thwarted in the closely knit residential complex he lives in during his university days in Pune. He finds himself always under scrutiny, continuously challenged to carve out a judgment-free space where he can maintain his love life. The anonymity offered by city life is undone by the closed nature of the residential complex.

Space in Shuddh Desi Romance, on the contrary, is more clearly demarcated. The two leads who refuse marriage almost literally live in an ivory tower. They occupy a penthouse on one of the tallest buildings in a mixed-use neighbourhood in Jaipur. This apartment of non-marital coupledom, cloistered from the prying eyes on the ground and free from traces of the characters’ past, stands in direct contrast to the horizontal sprawl and constant scrutiny of the wedding parties the two attend frequently. The bathroom, which figures prominently throughout the film, is a transitional zone of no-morality that links these two kinds of spaces that function according to their own value systems. But these separate spaces, in themselves, are free of gender hierarchy, unlike the masculine spaces of Hunterrr. Shuddh Desi Romance keeps emphasizing the equivalence between its characters, who physically and figuratively take each others’ positions throughout the film. Raghu, moreover, is only too glad to share responsibility with Gayatri.

But then all is not egalitarian in the film’s trajectory. Early in the movie, Raghu runs away from his wedding, leaving his fiancée Tara (Vaani Kapoor) stranded. Later, Gayatri deserts him in their wedding. Tara tells Raghu that Gayatri left him because she just wouldn’t have been able to imagine life with a man who fled his wedding. Raghu is, by this logic, guilty not just for what he did to Tara, but also for what happened to himself. Raghu buys into this twisted rationale and carries the double-guilt for the rest of the film, not knowing really how to comprehend his status as a victim-aggressor. This, in other words, is the famous blame-the-victim manoeuvre used on a man for his failure to ‘man up’. It is no wonder that Raghu is passively held hostage by both women in the end where he ends up the guilty party no matter what he does.

The film’s view of marriage is decidedly reductive, compares as it does the institution to a house locked from outside. In Shuddh Desi Romance, weddings are literally simulacrums – Goyal saab’s (Rishi Kapoor) firm provides fake invitees for hire for brides or grooms whose parents have deserted them because of their choice of partners – in which, we are told, the double standards of Indian culture come to the fore. The film, it needs to be said, pats itself on the back now and then for its radical stance and there is some amount of vain posturing at work here. Nevertheless, Jaideep Sahni, who is growing from strength to strength with every movie he writes, populates the film with sharp observations about the role of ego in non-committal romance and with characters capable of casual cruelty.

Shuddh Desi Romance

Shuddh Desi Romance is, without question, the more accomplished of the two films. Its fine-grained structuring that relies on repetitions, doublings, mirroring and minor variations on major motifs – reminiscent of the work of Korean filmmaker Hong Sang-soo – renders the film very robust. Its use of extra-diegetic talking heads, where characters tell the viewers in direct address what’s going through their head, is never too clever, as it typically is when the device is employed. Actors are capable and personal enough to hold interest even in long takes. More importantly, the film unfolds as a string of fully fleshed-out scenes, instead of vignettes or impressions as is too common nowadays, and this greatly cuts down the possibility of narrative flab.

This, unfortunately, cannot be said of Hunterrr, whose scattershot structuring and juvenile inserts of fake scenes cry frivolity. It’s a film that wears its wide-ranged cinephilia on its sleeve and belongs alongside the movies of Anurag Kashyap (who must hold some sort of record for the amount of second-unit material he uses in his films). The early sequences portraying Mandar’s childhood are vivid and refreshing, but its shuffling of narrative timeline tries to build a dramatic causality where none exists. Few films swing so wildly between honesty and disingenuousness as Hunterrr. A spate of genuine notes lie scattered amidst false ones. The conversations, evidently, have the frankness of lived experience. So does Mandar’s conflicted view of himself as an everyman to be treated ordinarily and a pathological exception to be specially understood. On the other hand, there is a completely unwarranted death that is thrown in simply to add gravity to the flighty proceedings and which is immediately undermined by a cut back to flippancy.

That said, the film also contains what must count as one of the most graceful portrayals of romance in all of Hindi cinema, in the affair between Mandar and Jyotsna (Sai Tamhankar), the housewife next door. There is a nobility and tenderness in this segment that is very, very rare to come by in movies. The liaison is, of course, transgressive but is devoid of the cynicism and sleaze that it usually accompanies it. In their relationship, Hunterrr captures an intimacy that can be evident to no one in the world but the two involved. The scene where Jyotsna tries out the saree that Mandar buys for her radiates an image all too familiar of a personality rubbed down and dissolved by the weight of the mundane. When she confronts him for the last time and he tries to convince her, a little too forcefully, that something can be worked out, she tells him “You ran away, but where will I run?”. It’s the one point where Mandar realizes, despite looking eye-to-eye with Jyotsna, the insuperable gulf of tradition and culture that separates the two; a moment so personal that, as Baradwaj Rangan put it once, that you want to look away.

Papanasam (2015)
Jeethu Joseph
Tamil

 

PapanasamPaapanasam’s director Jeethu Joseph likes a few things. He likes the fade. He likes the Jimmy Jib. He likes filming his female actors in decreasing order of height. He likes the chimerical simple life. He likes the family. And boy, does he like the family? His film leisurely introduces us to the life of Suyambulingam (Kamal Haasan), a fifty-ish cable TV operator who spends nights at his office watching movies, away from his wife and two daughters – an effective enough shorthand for a middle-aged everyman whose love life is as unyielding as his wallet and who channels his libido onto cinema in ways more than one. So that’s what Paapanasam is – an elaborate odyssey for Suyambu to reassert masculinity, exacerbated it is as much by his perceived lack of education as by his age, and take the reins of his family. (It is one of those therapeutic films which entertain the trivial possibility that the whole narrative takes place inside the protagonist’s head to serve as an antidote to a fear or a lack – a direct parallel to the filmmaking endeavour itself.) And there lies the biggest strength of this rare thriller that is unapologetic and conscious of which value system is at the wheel. The family is paramount in Paapanasam, the engine that runs the world, the institute meriting the highest priority, more than friendship, religion, law and even the individual itself. Sure, it’s a reactionary text, asserting patriarchy’s enterprise, rigour and sense of order prevailing over matriarchy’s apparent laxity, but there’s a sense of something well thought through unfolding before us instead of the unintentionally muddled politics of many a modern movie. It is a film that at least knows which god it is prostrating itself before – the phallus in this case – and I think this clarity deserves something other than outright condemnation.

 

The New Cinephilia
Girish Shambu
Caboose, 2015

 

In a letter I wrote to Girish Shambu about my qualms with 21st century cinephilia last year, I had said: “Part of the reason I am so ardently looking forward to your book is to understand how to give a form to an activity as variegated, vehemently personal and solitary as cinephilia.” Here it is now. Girish’s erudite new book seeks to etch a picture of cinephilia as it exists in the internet age. Bookended by references to Susan Sontag’s 1996 essay on ‘the decay of cinema’, it is a forward-looking, optimistic work that responds to Sontag’s lamentation about the death of cinema and of cine-love. Girish starts off by defining what he means by cinephilia:

“Cinephilia, as we know, is not simply an interest in cinema or the propensity to watch a great number of movies. These are necessary but not sufficient conditions for cinephilia. Not only watching, but thinking, reading, talking and writing about cinema in some form, no matter how unconventional: these activities are important to the cinephile. In other words, cinephilia involves an active interest in the discourse surrounding films.”

The New CinephiliaThe definition above is interesting – and crucial for the remainder of the book – both in terms of the individuals whom it characterizes as “internet cinephiles” and those it excludes through such a specific formulation. For one, it ascribes the cinephile label to those who are involved in the production, dissemination or consumption of ‘texts’ about films online – a cross-section that, whether we like to think of it that way or not, wields the privilege of language. On the other hand, the coinage leaves out not only the vast demographic obsessive film-watchers not involved in film-critical discourse (including film tribes and sub-cultures such as anime fandom), but also those who might be labeled the “cinephilic working class” – people and groups involved in alternate forms of distribution of films: hosts and seeders of torrent trackers, unorganized bootleggers, uploaders of rare VHS and TV rips and voluntary subtitlers, who are, in fact, the players responsible for the reincarnation of New Cinephilia as a global phenomenon. This underclass, as it were, is almost single-handedly responsible for the geographic and intellectual expansion of cinephilia in not only multiplying the breadth of material available to movie-lovers but also providing access to such material to cultures and regions without alternate distributors, arthouses, film societies, festivals or film discourse. Personal experience convinces me that the torrent is the most prominent birthmark of the internet cinephile.

With this definition in place, Girish goes on to touch lucidly on various aspects of this cinephilic upper class, especially those involved in production of film discourse: the internet’s transformation of the subjective after-experience of a film, the shift in style of film reviewing from generally descriptive to particularly analytical, the continuing centrality of conversation in cinephilic practice, the everyday experience of a cinephile on social networking websites and the importance of writing to cinephilia through the ages. Despite numerous commentators bemoaning a number of these changes, detailing the narcissism, knee-jerk reactions and philistinism they foster, Girish sees them in a positive light, viewing them as being organically liked to the continuous, necessary mutation of cinephilia. From his view of New Cinephilia changing foundational ideas about cinema to his affirmative response to the question of whether social change can be brought about by a cinephile qua cinephile, Girish’s indefatigable optimism is, in fact, daunting to a full-time cynic like me who, although he understands how cinephilia performs a useful social function by giving young folk something to construct their identities around, can only see the underbelly of cinephilic explosion in the new millennium. I quote here from my letter to Girish two reasons for my disillusionment with internet cinephilia:

One, that cinephilia in the 21st century, I think, has become a glorified form of consumerism. Not just in the way it facilitates the circulation of material commodities like DVDs, but in its very ratification of the desire to watch as many films as possible, in its insistence on the investment, in terms of time, energy or money, in practicing cinephilia. There was a time that I used to naively think that my cinephilia set me apart from more direct materialist pursuits around me because (a) I don’t collect films as objects and that they are an ‘experience’ (b) it is art appreciation and not consumerism. But it dawned on me, as it dawns sooner or later on anyone willing to think critically, that investing in experiences is the most rampant form of consumerism today. (I am thinking particularly of the valorization of tourism, extreme sports and social networking). I realized that I approached cinema more or less the way people around me were approaching electronic gadgets. I hear people talking about the history of a particular mobile phone, comparing it with its predecessors, appreciating its ergonomics and locating it within a historical trend and I see in it a equivalent to the commodified form of auteurism that the internet cinephiles have bought into en masse. Auteurs are brand names and wanting to consume their films seems to me to be little different from wanting to try out the next hot gadget. Commodity fetish, that was once a domain of material objects, is now displaced on to experiences, art experience in particular. Given that any film now is just minutes away from access, having missed out on a good film, new or classic, is considered an embarrassment and a reason for not being able to get into discussion circles. Obsessive shopping is denigrated while binge-watching is considered a reflection of one’s passion.

And two, that 21st century cinephilia is a direct descendent of the rise of nerd culture. I have been in programming circles, quizzing circles and cinephile circles – the major planets in the geek galaxy – and they are all united by their near-total absence of women. The new cinephilia (the only one I have experienced), not just the mainstream version of it, in its rapacious movie-watching, choleric debates and obsession of canonizing and classification feels to me to be characterized by a typically straight, young, male aggressiveness. This cinephilia, unlike the other honest, self-styled nerd groups, has the advantage of seeming to transcend geek culture under the garb of being a higher, more mature pursuit. The stereotype of the New Cinephile being an unkempt omega male in his early twenties, intelligent, atheist, left-leaning, piracy-supporting, career-agnostic, philosophy-loving social misfit derives from a general taxonomy of geeks, but is not without a modicum of truth. Reading many perceptive commentaries about what is now called the “millennial generation”, of which I am most certainly a part, I realize that cinephilia is the direct offspring of this tectonic geek-oriented generational/cultural shift.

But the most thought-provoking part – by which I mean the part I most vehemently reacted to – is the book’s centerpiece titled “Building a large conversation” in which Girish examines the reasons for the large gap between film studies and film criticism and reflects on the possibility of bridging it. To illustrate the reluctance of film critics to keep themselves abreast of the developments in film scholarship, he cites an Artforum roundtable where Annette Michelson puts down late-period Pauline Kael:

To have continued to write into the ’90s with no account taken of the advances made in our ways of thinking about spectatorship, perception, and reception meant that [Kael] ceased to renew her intellectual capital, to acknowledge and profit by the achievements of a huge collective effort. And so her writing, unrefreshed, grew thinner, coarser, stale.

Now, I have neither read the roundtable in its entirety, nor Kael extensively. But the excerpt above seems to suggest that film criticism has an intellectual obligation to learn from film studies. At the risk of antagonizing readers from academic background, I venture to suggest that film criticism has as much obligation to learn from film academia as experimental filmmaking has to learn from genre cinema. To be clear, I am not saying that film criticism has nothing to gather from film studies. Achievements of film theory can clear much rudimentary ground for film criticism by avoiding the need to reinvent the wheel. But the finest film criticism works in a territory that academia has not yet explored. In my mind, film criticism is the avant-garde to the arrière-garde of film studies, the punctum to the studium of scholarship. It must work on aspects of film that have not yet been theorized and institutionalized, that are untheorizable even. While most scholarship treats films as fodder for validating and perpetuating sacred theoretical frameworks, much like Thomas Kuhn’s scientific paradigms, film criticism takes each film primarily as an autonomous art object and derives from the object the analytical tools necessary for discussing it, which may or may not be found in film theory toolkit. I cannot imagine any consistent ‘method’ or ‘system’ of film criticism that will not undermine its essential openness to being surprised and rendered speechless by the art object. Every act of film criticism is like a surgery – always haunted by the risk of failure, always at the risk of discovering something ineffable. No matter how well you institutionalize it, there is always a good possibility that the best critical work comes from outside the establishment. What’s most exciting about film criticism in the internet age is that it is truly democratic: the best criticism can come from the most unexpected quarters, from personalities without any history or credentials in film criticism or studies. It is in this quality of perennially being a level playing field for film criticism that 21st century cinephilia is most promising, rejects as it does both the intellectual priesthood of the academia and the oligarchic taste-making of print criticism.

It’s hard for me to imagine how the dominant, non-formalist form of film studies, with its systemic handicap of abstaining from value judgment and not being able to treat the film as an independent aesthetic object capable of producing an infinite variety of affects, can be terribly instructive for the enterprise of film criticism, which necessarily calls for a hierarchy of values on the part of the practitioner and his/her acknowledgement being a sentient, unique subject capable of being transformed by the film. (Presumably to show that this is indeed possible, Girish, taking the example of Tom Gunning’s study of Fritz Lang’s films. tells us how theoretical research and film scholarship has demystified the romantic conception of the artist as an endowed being and challenged auteur theory’s far-flung claims. But then, it speaks only of an awkward state of film criticism if it requires film studies to disabuse it of artistic mythmaking.) These disagreements, rather than being drawbacks, are precisely what make the book so interesting to read because, to me, the book is a logical extension of Girish’s work at his blog, where such disagreements and conversations take place all the time. I can imagine making the same comments at his blog had the material of the book unfolded as a series of blog posts. And true to the spirit of his style of posting, the book is an ideal déclencheur, a trigger to get conversation going. That’s more than a good reason to get to it.

 

Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (2011) (You Don’t Get Life A Second Time)
Zoya Akhtar
Hindi

 

Zindagi Na Milegi DobaraThe deal with Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara is not bad; for the price of one ticket you get a 150-minute Tourist’s Guide to Spain, a parade of supernaturally-beautiful bodies and a good amount of dime-store philosophy. It’s a bit like window-shopping in malls – you know you can’t afford these things, you know they are not good for you, but you just can’t take your eyes off them. Zoya Akhtar’s second feature film revolves around three well-off bachelors each of whom is battling some sort of repression and who would liberate themselves over a three-week European road trip. It would be crude to attack this film – or any other – on the basis that it talks about the problems of the rich, isolated from the existence of the overwhelming majority. Sorrow, after all, knows no class. As long as such a work doesn’t become blind to values beyond its immediate context, I think there is little reason to object to its existence. Akhtar makes it amply clear at the outset that this is a film of, by and, most importantly, for the privileged and that all the wisdom it offers applies to those who have the luxury to indulge in them. So, at least, this is not an entirely dishonest or misguided project. Yes, it’s woven around the stereotype that men have trouble articulating their emotions and that it takes a Manic Pixie Dream Girl no less attractive than Katrina Kaif to snap them out of their hang-ups. And a trip to Spain. Nonetheless, the director takes pains to point out that the adventure sports that the three men play to overcome their inhibition is not an expression of masculine reassertion, accompanied nearly always as they are by at least one woman, but a contact with their vulnerable side. Like her brother’s debut film, Akhtar’s is a “guys’ movie”, but it regularly teases out values that are generally absent in this kind of cinema. Awkward moments that are typically dissolved by man-child humour are allowed to play out freely. On the other hand, despite the impressive sport sequences and the instantly beautifying quality of continental light, ZNMD has an impoverished visual vocabulary consisting of an endless series of close-ups, two-shots and three-shots that is ultimately rather exhausting. Oh, and what Thom Andersen said about personal filmmaking.

Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year (2009)
Shimit Amin
Hindi

 

Rocket SInghDirector Shimit Amin’s instinctive love for the underdog and screenwriter Jaideep Sahni’s seeming distaste for Big Business come together in Rocket Singh – a movie that is as perceptive and entertaining as it is naïve and predictable. It’s Rocky for the Generation Sell that pits corporate rapacity against homespun entrepreneurship. Ranbir Kapoor plays Hapreet – a barely-adequate everyman who tries to make his way through modern professional landscape – with great intelligence, internalizing the character’s religious repression, his lack of parental identification and the subsequent absence of retributive masculinity. Amin’s cheesecake aesthetic, on the other hand, recalls Wes Anderson and Edgar Wright in equal measure, with its geometric mise en scène, affinity for strong horizontals, the easy-on-the-eye symmetric composition, shrewd visual detailing and, especially, the sprightly editing, which telescopes actions with split second shots while letting conversations take their own pace. The office and its peripheral spaces are moral zones in Rocket Singh that define and delimit character behaviour. The workplace here is a veritable battle field – a characteristically male playground – fraught with surveillance and territorial dispute. (The cubicles’ layout itself reminds us of trench warfare.) The film succeeds in conveying to a good extent the crushing power of concentrated capital. And Amin is capable of fine subtlety, as is clear from the honesty and pronounced everyday quality of some of the sequences. But he is equally prone to repetition and overemphasis. Rocket Singh is a film that wants to put a human face on commercial enterprise, and it’s unable to understand corporate ruthlessness without putting grimacing human faces on to it. It appears to be unaware that modern offices are exactly what it laments they aren’t – employee-friendly, customer-oriented and rewarding of new ideas. Perhaps it makes for better drama this way. But it also immunizes its object of critique by characterizing its fallibility as product of human misconduct – big businesses are corrupt because the people running them are. Hapreet advices his boss towards the end: “Business is not numbers, business is people.” Guess what, that’s what every CEO says too.

PS: I admit I had fun throughout trying to guess what colour turban Ranbir Kapoor will come wearing next.

Aamir (2008)
Raj Kumar Gupta
Hindi

 

AamirRaj Kumar Gupta’s breakout debut, an adaptation of the Filipino-American indie Cavite (2005), starts off like a post-9/11, Hitchcockian wrong man thriller about an expatriate physician, Aamir (Rajeev Khandelwal), who returns to Mumbai only to be swept into a terrorist enterprise. Like Ghanchakkar (2013), the film presents to us the pathetic spectacle of a self-identity progressively disappearing. Aamir is a liberal, middle-class, rather unmarked Muslim who believes that a man makes his own life through hard work, until he is shoved into a tour of underprivileged Mumbai and an acknowledgement of his privileged upbringing. Through a grim series of manipulated tasks, he is forced to see the society from the fringe, to acknowledge the existence of people who invisibly shape his existence and to be an outsider in his own country. Gupta constructs his sequences tautly, without injecting adrenaline too artificially and without any major blunder except Amit Trivedi’s score. His film’s aesthetic of surveillance resembles that of Kathryn Bigelow, with a number of POV shots of Aamir from the viewpoint of the city’s buildings and inhabitants, and broadcasts the precise feeling of being monitored. The slow-motion, too, is used very effectively, in providing the audience not only with a breather to absorb the moral gravity of a scene but also the protagonist’s experience of being in the interminable now. Gupta’s Mumbai – an infernal, indifferent piece of alienating machinery – is the abyss in which Aamir discovers faith and the film’s got one of the most uplifting images of faith in my memory: Aamir embracing a suitcase during a moment of beatitude, itself couched inside unspeakable despair. Aamir treads a very fine line between sickening moral parable and cynical portraiture and does a remarkable stunt of balancing social determinism with spiritual individualism. Its philosophical virtue almost solely lies in its ending – in the mere existence of an ending – that calls out the intellectual fraud of films like The Terrorist (1998) and Paradise Now (2005).

Maqbool (2003)
Vishal Bhardwaj
Hindi

 

MaqboolVishal Bhardwaj’s Maqbool is set in a strangely sparse and ruralized side of Mumbai and tells the story of the rise and fall of Maqbool (Irrfan Khan), the right hand man of underworld lynchpin Jahangir (Pankaj Kapoor, doing a Marlon Brando) and the secret lover of his wife Nimmi (Tabu). Tabu and Irrfan are at the top of their game in this sparkling adaptation of Macbeth, which spins Shakespeare’s portrait of the toxicity of power into a searing study of masculine insecurity. Unlike the will to power of his classical counterpart, Maqbool’s actions are brought about by a kind of necessity born out of amorous desire and sexual jealousy. He is moreover possessed by the idea of legacy and bloodline. To know whether the child from Nimmi is his or Jahangir’s is literally a question of life or death for him because, you know, parricide runs in the family. While Lady Macbeth’s sudden descent into guilt and madness seems quite at odds with the cold and calculated nature of her act, Nimmi’s gradual disintegration is grounded in her perceived failure as a mother, in a doubt that her carnal desire has possibly deprived her child of a father. Her character is a screenwriting coup, for what could easily have devolved into a Grand Scheming Woman archetype is instead made as fully human and conflicted as Maqbool. Bhardwaj builds his world at a leisurely but steady pace and elaborates on The Bard’s lean tale, providing backstories to the originally secondary characters, especially Jahangir whose ignominious prise de pouvoir is but one turn in an unceasing cycle of power struggle. The only witnesses to this eternal recurrence are the two greasy cops (Om Puri and Naseeruddin Shah) who, unlike Macbeth’s Greek chorus of neutral witches, are active participants in the fulfillment of their prophecies by dint of deliberate inaction. Maqbool’s characters live in a limbo between the sacred and the profane – a universe where the pious turn debauchers, loyalists turn traitors and lovers turn murderers. It’s a film of great directorial rigour. The microscopically-tuned cinematography, cutting and performances hit the precise values each scene demands. I’ve put up three of the many extraordinary sequences below. Check out how seamlessly it constructs complete spaces and with what economy and accuracy each gesture, edit and change in framing conveys key details.

 Maqbool - Meeting

 

Maqbool - Gifts

 

Maqbool - Engagement

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