Modernism by Other Means: The Films of Amit Dutta

I’m elated to announce that my book on Indian independent filmmaker Amit Dutta has now been published! I’m really grateful to Lightcube for editing, designing and publishing this smashing-looking volume and to the Raza Foundation for its financial assistance.

The book is a critical study of Dutta’s work, from his earliest diploma films to his recent digital production, as well as his three books. It devotes special attention to formal qualities of the films and attempts to locate them within a broader national and international artmaking context.

I’m convinced that this is the most significant writing I’ve done so far, and I’m very hopeful this book will fill an important gap in the literature on experimental cinema in India.

Mubi India is having a retrospective of Dutta’s films till October (and a global retrospective is likely in the months that follow). For the first time ever, you can watch Dutta’s films from your home. And I’m confident this book will serve as a good reading companion to your viewing and provide useful insight into Dutta’s work and practice.

The volume has been published independently and with modest means. Its life will depend entirely on the backing of kind readers and generous patrons. I request anyone interested in supporting this book to share this information in their personal and professional networks. Please buy the book, yes, but more importantly, please review. That will help give the book some crucial momentum.

Links below for the book. We hope to bring out a paperback version the coming year. If you represent a publication and would like a review copy of the book, please drop me a message below or at justanotheremailid@gmail.com.
 

Description

Since the mid-2000s, Indian experimental filmmaker Amit Dutta has been producing work that defies easy categorization. His sensual, stimulating films are as removed from national mainstream cinema(s) as from the international arthouse tradition. They are, instead, incarnations of a personal quest, a lifelong project of research and self-cultivation. They propose newer forms of cinematographic expression through their constant, ongoing dialogue with ancient Indian artistic thought. Taken together, these films constitute a cinema of aesthetic introspection. Despite universal acclaim, including awards and retrospectives across the world, critical commentary on Dutta’s oeuvre has remained scarce.

Modernism by Other Means is the first book-length consideration of the output of one of the most compelling film practitioners active today. Through close-grained critical analysis of each of his films, it examines how Dutta’s work strives towards an authentic conception of modernism, one that bypasses Eurocentric rites of passage, inviting us to reframe our ideas of what being modern in art means.
 

Links

Link for the Kindle e-book: http://getbook.at/modernismbyothermeans

Link for a pdf copy: https://shop.lightcube.in/Modernism-By-Other-Means

 

Reviews

“A magnificent work, as complete as it is precise, analyzing in depth each of Amit Dutta’s films, intended to be a reference. Congratulations to Srikanth Srinivasan and his publisher, Lightcube. I would like every contemporary experimental filmmaker to find their Srikanth!”

– Dr. Nicole Brenez, Professor at the Sorbonne Nouvelle

Srikanth Srinivasan’s book on Amit Dutta is an invaluable foundational text for anyone wanting to explore the rich contours of Indian experimental film and is also an indispensable authorial study that opens up a far reaching interrogation and critical awareness of modernity and its relationship with contemporary filmmaking in India today.

– Dr. Omar Ahmed, UK-based Film Scholar and Curator

[From Luc Moullet’s Fritz Lang (1963/70, Seghers). See Table of Contents]

The Asocial Impulse

In these countries [that Lang migrated to], the difficulty consists in living without transgressing the law or becoming its victim. The heroes aren’t ambitious or vengeful anymore, like they were in Germany, but individuals like others, bogged down in the anonymity of apparently affluent and carefree crowds, common to both France and America.

Liliom (France, 1933) is loosely adapted from the play by Molnar. Liliom is a thug from the suburbs of Paris who once killed a man somewhat inadvertently. Will he go to hell or the purgatory? Up there, they discuss his case using movie projections of important moments from his life. A good deed allows him to return for a day to earth, where he meets his old friends. Liliom is something of a victim of his unfortunate circumstances and the film is an interrogation of his responsibility, his guilt or his innocence. The categorical affirmation found in the silent films makes way for an uncertainty about objectivity. That, in the film, it’s cinema that furnishes the case files comes across as a tribute to the art Lang has chosen. This intrusion of cinema into cinema will turn up again in Lang’s work from Fury to Die 1000 Augen des Dr. Mabuse, passing through Clash by Night. A tribute that’s at the same time a critique: appearances, as cinema unveils them to us, are misleading and could easily be contradicted with the evidence of another moment or of another camera angle. Adding to this fallibility of cinema is the theme of the sorcerer’s apprentice. Lang displays a real pleasure in dominating the world through film and seems to place himself under a slightly critical eye. A reflection on the notions of justice and responsibility, a reflection also on the value of his art, Liliom masks its seriousness with fantasy.

Lang’s humour, more substantial and more Bavarian in films between 1928 and 1932, turns out to be of a great finesse here; it’s accompanied by a certain nostalgia rather close to that of Max Ophüls, but more tender, less bitter. This nostalgia manifests particularly in the creation of a dreamworld that supplants reality. At that time, Lang was already doubly stateless: an émigré from the defunct Austro-Hungarian empire, an exile from a Germany defeated by arms and reduced to slavery by Nazism, separated from his wife whom he’d be forced to divorce, he had no ties other than those preserved by memory. As it happens, Liliom was made after the shelving of a project that demonstrated a nostalgia for old Vienna, Die Legende vom letzten Fiaker (The Legend of the Last Vienna Fiacre): in 1918, fiacres had to cede their favourite ground, the Hauptallee, to cars. The last coachman dies of bitterness and wants to take his fiacre to Heaven. They don’t allow the fiacre to enter. “Okay, I’ll go to Hell”, retorts the coachman. God intervenes: “Alright, alright, drive me in your fiacre…” The fiacre enters, getting mixed up with the Chariot, God’s regular vehicle. No doubt that Lang reused much of this project in Liliom.

We notice that the fable doesn’t reject reality, but moulds itself over the harshest, most unpleasant truth—that of the suburbs, its poor, and its apaches—affirmed here with power. This raw reality is always depicted with a poetry that transforms it into phantasmagoria. This dialectic gives the film its colour. The dialogues are deliberately theatrical and romantic. The actors deliver brilliant performances: chiefly of note are Antonin Artaud, Charles Boyer, Madeleine Ozeray, Florelle, Mila Parély and Viviane Romance, whom Lang discovered with this film. The amorous duo exhibits a rather outmoded romantic sensibility, notably in the flower scene. Unfortunately, Lang’s stylistic efforts in terms of sets and lighting don’t add up to much because the film, a commercial semi-failure, was massacred during its release by distributors, who mutilated it left and right, doing away with its Germanic aspect that threw the French audience off balance, and thus destroying the meaning of the work. It’s also unfortunate that the last reel of the film hasn’t been found yet.

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Chaitanya Tamhane’s splendid follow-up to Court (2014) deepens, inverts one of the primary themes of his debut feature. If the defence lawyer of the earlier film (Vivek Gomber, the producer of both projects) was an idealist groping his way through an indifferent system, Sharad, an apprentice Hindustani music singer not only finds himself unable to live up to the lofty ideals of his tradition, but is gradually disabused of these ideals themselves. Sharad (Aditya Modak, a Hindustani singer himself) is a conservative in the literal sense of the word. His occupation is to conserve: he works at a small music publishing house that transfers old cassettes and LPs into CDs. On a regular basis, we seem him physically caring for his aging, ailing Guruji (Pandit Arun Dravid), applying ointments, helping with his toilet, preparing food for him and accompanying him to concerts as well as clinics. Sharad is not the greatest of talents, he’s not even his Guruji’s best disciple, but imagines himself as part of a tradition, a tradition that gives a structural meaning to his life, but one that dissolves into legend the further one follows it into its past.

Sharad witnesses this tradition getting progressively ‘diluted’ under the pressures of modernity and technological advancement. He possesses rare recordings of lectures by his Guruji’s teacher, a fabled figure named Maai (‘mother’), none of whose music exists in any recorded form. Maai’s lectures call for an ascetic, spiritually rarefied, extremely demanding way of life on the part of the Hindustani musician (the words ‘disciple’ and ‘discipline’ sharing etymological roots). His own Guruji, on the other hand, concedes to a few intimate concerts to make ends meet. Sharad is scolded by Guruji for wanting to start performing concerts at the age of 24. He, in turn, finds it in order to set up a personal website and to teach music at a school, but chastises one of his teenage students who wants to join a ‘fusion’ band. On television, he watches kids without any musical lineage finding wide recognition, just as he notices on the internet that his peers have had larger worldly success without having to go through the rigours he has had to. The promise of omnipresence and instant gratifications of the modern world beckon him, but—spirit willing, flesh weak—Sharad soldiers on, hanging on to Maai’s words like St. Bruno to the crucifix: “While the world changes, the cross stands firm.”

On one level, the film is dramatizing artistic doubt, the musician’s feeling that he simply isn’t good enough. But, as a Hindustani vocalist, the stakes are higher for Sharad. His own failure to live up to certain ideals is one thing. But it’s when he learns from a music historian—or rather, realizes himself—that the tradition he enshrines is itself a bundle of legends that his life’s foundations are assailed. It isn’t, then, a dilution of tradition that modernity ushers in as much as a disillusioning, a reinterrogation. Maai and Guruji, it turns out, aren’t the exemplars Sharad had taken them to be. To be sure, he had this doubt all along, for he knows that his own father, despite his passion for and knowledge about the music of his tradition was a mediocre musician himself; for, at some point, Maai’s discourse becomes one with his own inner voice. The fountain is corrupt, innocence is lost.

Tamhane builds up gradually to this assault on Sharad’s worldview. But he isn’t particularly interested in showing how Sharad reacts to this epistemological violence. In fact, he takes particular relish in not giving us an idea of how he reacts. Throughout the film, he cuts from a popular talent hunt on television to Sharad watching it with a poker face; that is, Tamhane doesn’t tell us how to react to the TV show. That’s because it doesn’t matter whether Sharad regards the show with the condescension and contempt of a superior musician or whether he is jealous and resentful about its enticements. What matters is that he is exposed to socio-artistic structures outside his own.

In a very direct manner, The Disciple zeroes in on a fundamental, civilizational sentiment that underpins artistic succession in the subcontinent: that of filial piety, as opposed to the parricidal narrative that informs the Western conception of self-realization. Even when his faith has been questioned, Sharad continues his service to Guruji, caring for him till the final days, like icon worshippers who hold on to their idols even (and especially) when the meaning behind them are lost. Physically as much as psychically and artistically, he labours under the weight of Guruji, just as the rebelliousness of the lawyer of Court simmers under a begrudging respect (and dependence on) his father. In both films, this Oedipal repression is set against the pragmatism of the mother, who, in The Disciple, is more worldly, not possessing the redoubtably attractive idealism of the father. In the film, Sharad is estranged from his mother following his father’s death, and connects with her only after the idealist parental figures—Guruji and Maai—pass away in his mind. I must add that this bit of psychoanalysis isn’t at all gratuitous; it seems plain that the film is dealing in these simple, bold relations in a very frontal way.

Bold is not the adjective one may think of when speaking of the baby-faced Tamhane, who comes across as a well-behaved, dutiful child himself in his interviews, or of his two films, which seem rather averse to emphasis or overstatement. But some of the bluntness of The Disciple could hardly be described otherwise. One of Tamhane’s ostensible strengths is his belief in the importance of humour to his work. While comedy remained a sporadic visitor to the Court, here it is systematized, generalized in the way the filmmaker links two sequences. Some of it is pretty on-the-face: shot of Sharad sitting stunned in disbelief at losing at a competition cut to him meditating at a yoga class to let off the steam, moaning sounds from a pornographic clip spliced with Sharad’s belaboured aalap. If this is easy laughs, it also attests to a filmmaker’s increasing confidence about his material: the humour doesn’t undermine the characters’ values or the gravity of their situation.

Tamhane also has the very valuable knack of picking up interesting faces. His lead actors, many of them musicians themselves, are all very good; Modak undergoes an incredible physical transformation midway in the film, gaining a telling paunch that reinforces his kinship to the lawyer of Court. But I refer to the faces in the crowd, each of which seems individualized, with its own story. Tamhane’s sedate, wide-angle style was served well by the subject matter of Court, where almost every scene has a crowd. The Disciple, however, except in its fascinating shots of concert audiences, limits the filmmakers to a few characters, resulting in several conversations filmed tastefully as a two- or three-shot over a table, with the camera slightly arcing towards Sharad.

Equally of note is Tamhane’s decision to vary his compositions throughout the film. Firstly, we hardly see Sharad in the same place more than once. It takes a while for us to inventory all the spaces Sharad haunts: Guruji’s spare loft in a chawl, the independent house where he lives with his poor aunt, its terrace where he practices, the recording studio where he works, the yoga class, the various concert halls and patrons’ houses. Even when Sharad is in the same space, the composition is so starkly different that we don’t perceive right away that it’s the same location. The effect of this variation is that it doesn’t let Sharad settle into a routine, and he is constantly caught in a spatial flux. The only strong, anchoring image of the film finds Sharad on his bike, cruising on Mumbai’s deserted late-night roads, listening to Maai’s lectures—his sole guidepost in a changing universe. The Disciple is also a period movie that unfolds over several decades—and a meticulous one at that, picking out era-specific electronic gadgets, currency notes and porn clips—and ends in our time of the thumping return of conservatism (to be liberal about it), which imparts an ironic colour to Sharad’s disillusionment. Maybe it’s appropriate that, in our era of hollow idols, the film closes with Sharad stepping into his father’s shoes, giving up performing to run a music label, even though the hallowed values of his father have been rendered void.

[From Luc Moullet’s Fritz Lang (1963/70, Seghers). See Table of Contents]

Man Seeks to Conquer the World (1922-1938)

 

The defeated man of 1918 tries to gather himself, and with the improvement in his condition, he forges a less tragic metaphysics for himself. In this normal reaction, we find two successive variations: the revolutionary impulse, where man seeks to become the master of the whole world, and the asocial impulse, where he seeks simply to become the master of his own life and must transgress an all-too-arbitrary law in order to do that. The revolutionary impulse dominates in the German films, while the asocial impulse belongs rather to the American period.

 

The Revolutionary Impulse (1922-1932)

The theme of the man who wants to dominate the world was already present in Die Spinnen (1919), before sporadically resurfacing in the expressionist period (Siegfried, Metropolis). But it’s a motif deriving most of all from the convention of crime stories. As always, Lang starts from the thematic and artistic traditions of his time, and not themes particular to his personality, and deepens them, finding their latent meaning.

In the two parts of Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler (Dr. Mabuse the Gambler, 1922), the first carrying the same title and the second Inferno, we find not a deepening of the theme, but a realist depiction of facts and atmosphere which are its most evident components: secret societies, hidden vices, hypnotism, unlimited violence, multiple disguises, lust and depravity, secret doors and betrayals, thieves and forgers. Mabuse the sorcerer’s apprentice, whom we successively see as a psychiatrist, a drunk sailor and a great financier, seduces a degenerate, the countess Told, the top informant of his enemy, the prosecutor Wenk. He kidnaps her and does all he can to ruin her husband. He forces his regular mistress, the dancer Cara Carozza, to poison herself. He tries to get rid of Wenk twice. He hypnotizes him, drives him to commit suicide in his bathtub. The police intervene in time and rescue the countess as well. Mabuse ends up in an asylum.

Doctor Mabuse’s goal is of a practical, and not metaphysical, order: he seeks power for the benefits it brings him, material and sexual benefits in particular. This need for pleasure is justified as compensations for deprivations of the war and for the moral rigidity of the Empire. By way of an extravagant crime story, moreover, the film only reproduces facts prevalent in the depraved and divided Germany of the time: “The fight between the villains and the police recalls the street clashes ordered by Noske, the socialist home minister” (George Sadoul, Histoire du Cinéma mondial, p. 154).

Keeping things at a descriptive level means that there’s no moral judgment yet: Wenk employs the same sneaky means as Mabuse to defeat him, and he is as amoral as him. He intervenes, not as much to rid society of a criminal as to get back at a rival in love and win back his mistress. But one could say that this comes at a price: the first part, very different from the second as always in Lang, an excellent but banal soap opera, can be defined as a study of human gestures and attitudes, their movements and the relation between their movements, a phenomenological study that owes everything to improvisation and observation and almost nothing to expressionism, and which comes close to modern cinema, particularly Lang’s more recent works like Human Desire. With almost nothing—characters that move from one chair to another, light cigarettes and play cards—Lang creates an autonomous world more captivating and original than the mostly spectacular one of the second part, with its by-the-numbers fights and its car chases inspired from the exploits of the Bonnot Gang and the Apaches of Paris in 1910.

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Build the Wall (Joe Swanberg)

Why would Joe Swanberg, 39, feel the need to focus on the aging pangs of a fifty-year-old? Perhaps the precocious auteur, who had a body of work by the time he turned thirty, feels professionally, mentally much older than he actually is. Or perhaps forty is the new fifty. In any case, we are far from the interpersonal dynamics of Drinking Buddies (2015). Kent (Kent Osborne), who is the anchoring perspective of the film, is set in his ways. He is turning fifty, a fact he isn’t particularly fond of, and is having an old flame Sarah (Jane Adams) come over for his birthday. Unfortunately, another friend Kev (Kevin Bewersdorf) invites himself over at the same time, insisting that he will build the stone wall in Kent’s garden that he has long promised and that he will be as discreet as possible about it. Kent tries in vain to dissuade Kev because he has made romantic and work-related plans with Sarah that he doesn’t want to upset. But even Sarah occasions deviations from Kent’s routine; she gifts him a new vacuum cleaner he had made clear he doesn’t need. In a scene that’s literally a boner killer, he interrupts sex with Sarah only to get hung up on a shower curtain she keeps dislodging everyday. Kent’s mounting exasperation doesn’t derive as much from not ‘living in the moment’ as from the frustration of his wholly reasonable desire to keep his life simple and organized.

All of Kent’s expectations are thwarted: he falls out with Sarah, who ends up helping out Kev with the wall, around which a veritable community takes shape. The narrative partly hinges on the comic reversal that the over-serious, self-parodical, lone wolf Kev ends up forging a more wholesome relation with others than the sensitive, laid back Kent. But Swanberg doesn’t milk this scenario for its third-wheel comedy. (All the characteristically uncomfortable humour stems, instead, from Kent’s days out with Sarah.) He is rather interested in exploring the contours of romance at an age where you possibly expect to be accepted as you are. There is, equally, a simplification of form evident in the film, which runs for less than an hour. To be sure, scenes are still constructed around improvised acting and predominantly natural lighting, but there is an economy of exposition that feels positively mid-to-late career. With an exception of a pan shot here, a handheld shot there, most of the film unfolds in static shots, with the director occasionally drawing us in to the conversations using tighter setups. The more explicit flourishes, like cutting on sound cues, are muted by the overall austerity of the film. The film is set in a lush, wooded corner of Vermont and its meditative pace is redoubled by the natural expanse of the region. Swanberg also sets a series of formal counterpoints: intense, lone outdoor activities (wall building, axe throwing, woodcutting) that sublimate domestic frustrations, harsh sounds of sawing and stonework piercing the sylvan silence, and Kev’s DIY documentary sequences interspersed with Kent and Sarah’s fumbling. He perhaps forces the issue a little towards the end, but a shot of Kent in a jumpsuit sawing wood on his birthday is poignantly emblematic.

Coronation (Ai Weiwei)

A documentary on Wuhan’s COVID-19 outbreak made by Ai Weiwei: fair to expect that the artist’s iron fist will come down hard on China. It indeed does, but it’s the velvet glove that comes first. Coronation opens with overview shots of Wuhan’s impressive skyscrapers and advanced highways. Two people drive into the cordoned-off Hubei province and are interrogated by cops at the border. When they do manage to get in, the region registers like a ghost town from a modern horror movie, with no gas station open for hundreds of miles. They somehow make it to their home in Wuhan, only to find the fish in their aquarium dead. Ai constantly shuttles between such personal accounts of the lockdown and a macroscopic view of state-controlled healthcare and funeral activities in the province: treatment of patients on ventilators, extremely strict safety precautions followed at a hospital, song-and-dance exercises for patients that instruct them in best hygiene practices, construction of sprawling health facilities overnight, the equally rapid evacuation from the facility, package and delivery of the ashes of the cremated to the bereaved. A good part of the footage is slick, employing zany camera setups even in highly-restricted locations. Working from Cambridge, UK, Ai doesn’t reveal how he commissioned/obtained all this material (some of which were already circulating on the internet), nor does he get caught up with ethical questions such an approach raises. By all appearances, it’s a supremely efficient machinery that we witness in Wuhan. At times, Ai overlays these images with an 8-bit musical tune, as though to suggest the state’s video-game-like approach to problem solving. But the critique in these ‘macroscopic’ project remains muted as the sequences retain a Wiseman-like surface level neutrality.

The critical burden is, instead, placed on individual testimonies: a delivery man who is stuck in Hubei and is unable to return home, a lady who couldn’t see her father-in-law after he was diagnosed with the virus and died, patients at the hospital who claim they are being retained even after recovery just for image management purposes, a man who is prevented from collecting his father’s ashes without being accompanied by a ‘work unit’ in charge of his father’s case. A humorous sequence features an old woman, once a diligent middle-level executive in the Party, who fully trusts her government and refuses to consider information that might upset this faith. Earlier, workers at the hospital reception ask the cameraman to show only positive images of Hubei and to avoid emphasizing the outbreak. What emerges from this composite portrait is a sense that the source of China’s greatest strengths—executive efficacy, responsiveness, technological progress—is also the source of its more worrisome qualities—citizenry that lives in fear and denial, complete control over private data, an autonomous political will. Of course, none of this is news to anyone, but the personal testimonies introduce a grain of resistance that cuts down the stakes to human level. As the young man who is trying to recover his father’s ashes says, “one can’t just vanish silently in this world”.

A Shape of Things to Come (Lisa Malloy, J.P. Sniadecki)

Sundog (an inspiration for McConaughey’s Moondog in The Beach Bum?) is an elderly white recluse who lives somewhere near the Mexican border in a desert stretch of Arizona. He resides in his barely recognizable trailer, around which a tiny ecosystem has sprouted. Several cats live with Sundog, who also rears a battalion of pigs with great care. With his rifle, he hunts boars to feed himself and the cats. At one point, we see him catch toads, wash them and extract glue from their feet, which serves as smoking material once it’s dry. Save for a series of grunts and chortles, he doesn’t speak to the camera. At times, we see him calling someone, presumably his son, asking him to come over for a visit or pontificating on the state of things. This stilted exposition device, combined with the filmmakers’ decision not to be seen or to interact with Sundog, reveals a slight fictionalization at work. Like wildlife photographers, Malloy and Sniadecki are discreet, content in filming the old man in his routine. Almost exclusively, they photograph him in very tight shots such that we hardly get to see his immediate surroundings or even his actions. This, combined with the shallow visual field, inhibits our vision and produces a sense of unwelcome, suffocating intimacy. This way, the film dislodges Sundog from his environment while also avoiding picturesque images of the desert.

The film naturally calls to mind another fly-on-the-wall portrait of a recluse, Wang Bing’s Man with No Name (2009). But unlike Wang’s film, A Shape of Things to Come has little anthropological or philosophical inclination. Its attention is more on the human-interest story offered by the person of Sundog. Moreover, in contrast to the hermit in Wang’s film, Sundog is not a ‘primitive’, ‘naturally’ independent of human communities. He is, in fact, a sophisticate, an emissary from the countercultural movements of the seventies, who has deliberately removed himself from society. He wears jeans, has a mobile phone, drives a pickup truck, purchases books at the nearest shop from time to time, and listens to music on the radio. He even goes to the local concert, where he dances. He doesn’t need to be on his own; it’s a choice. Interspersed with vignettes from Sundog’s routine are images of military presence: A10s flying over the desert, border patrol presumably monitoring illegal migration, incongruent surveillance towers scanning the desert. Increasingly bothered by this ‘encroachment’, Sundog decides to take out a couple of towers with a powerful sniper rifle, and becomes something of an eco-terrorist in the process. As its title indicates, the film proposes Sundog’s story as one possible sign of things to come. I am not entirely sure if there’s any significant ideological inference to be made from Sundog’s actions. They could as easily represent a form of redneck libertarianism as much as a militant environmentalist consciousness. This is where the filmmakers’ refusal to intervene, either within the film or through a framing commentary, arguably hurts the work.

A Night at the Opera (Sergei Loznitsa)

The protean, prolific Sergei Loznitsa makes his documentaries using one of two kinds of material: original footage shot on location or archival footage. Considering his recent projects, I find that films fashioned out of Loznitsa’s own stock tend to be markedly superior to his found footage work. In both cases, the filmmaker assembles his sequences without any voiceover commentary and with hardly any on-screen text. The construction has a tendency to be deliberately diffuse, with shots of extended lengths furnishing very little narrative material at first glance. This approach turns out to be quite productive in the “original footage” films such as Maidan (2014) and Austerlitz (2016) because the impression of a synthesis at work is more evident. What is possibly also helpful is that what we see in these films doesn’t come with a received narrative, which means that the viewer is expected to do more work in negotiating with them. On the other hand, Loznitsa’s found footage projects, like The Event (2015) and State Funeral (2019), by the weight of their subject matter, greatly limit the number of ways the viewer could approach them. For instance, the latter film consists of a veritable onslaught of state-sponsored pageantry at Stalin’s funeral whose meaning is exhausted even before we are through with the film. There’s hardly any ‘justification’ of why one shot was selected over another or why the film lasts as long as it does. With Loznitsa vehemently refusing any discursive framework, the viewer is no more enlightened or surprised than at the beginning of the film, save perhaps an admiration for the enviable access that the filmmaker has to archival material.

I won’t push this objection too far, for it can be made to almost any found footage work. Moreover, The Event demonstrates why even such an approach can be illuminating in light of current global crises such as the one featured in Maidan. On the other hand, Loznitsa’s new archival work, A Night at the Opera, is another baffler. For just under twenty minutes, we see the who’s who of international politics and culture trickle into the Garnier Opera in Paris. The timeline can be roughly pegged at the late fifties, or the early sixties, but it isn’t clear whether the footage is of one single event or many. The VIPs arrive at the entrance, greeted by teeming fans, pose for the press and enter the opera. A few stray, intimate moments capture a smiling guard or little girls anxiously waiting with bouquets, but for the most part, it’s a high-society affair. After the national anthem, we see a telephoto sequence of a prima donna performing to great applause. As the film ends with images of the Parisian public celebrating on the road, I wondered what to make of it. The sole emotion the work evoked was the pathos inherent to all archival footage: a sense of death at work, all the pomp and power leading to the grave. Like those aristocrats in Russian Ark (2002), indulging in one last flourish before the fall, the top bananas at the gala affair seem ready to be culled by time. It’s a melancholy feeling, but it’s hard to deny that it’s also the product of laziness. With the absence of any knowledge about the Garnier Opera during the fifties or any accompanying text to ‘pin down’ the context, the material we see seems no more special than what you might find in the Agence France-Presse vault. That may not be Loznitsa’s problem. But then, maybe it is.

[From Luc Moullet’s Fritz Lang (1963/70, Seghers). See Table of Contents]

We must undertake a project, accomplish a more commendable task without fail, by voluntarily letting go of the various means of expression that rely on technical virtuosity and which, by that fact, will always reek of artifice.

Fritz Lang (1926)

Born in 1890 in Vienna, Fritz Lang entered the film world in 1916. Having studied architecture, studied and practiced painting and other related arts—caricature, interior decoration, etching etc.—having amassed a vast knowledge of the world through faraway journeys and diverse experiences, the most painful of which was the war, Fritz Lang approached cinema via the intermediary of theatre at a point where he had already attained a certain maturity as a man.

That explains why, in his first directorial efforts (1919-1921) and even in his first scripts (1916-1919), we find themes, guiding principles and figures of style that we notice even in his most recent films, the only difference being a deepening intensified by the years.

Fritz Lang’s body of work is therefore one and indivisible. It’s founded on a certain conception of the world whose rudiments are distinctly discernible even in the first scripts he wrote. Rather than studying the films in chronological order as common sense demands, we must first study this conception of the world, this Idea existing prior to the creations it brought forth. The only possible order then is the one that traces different evolutionary forms of the Idea, which respect chronology only loosely.

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[The following is a translation of Luc Moullet’s Fritz Lang (1963/70, Seghers). The book consists of two parts: Moullet’s monograph and a collection of writings by and on Lang. I have chosen not to translate the second part because (a) Lang’s articles and interviews were originally published in English and are thus available in English elsewhere, (b) many of the texts on Lang (by Bazin, Godard, Rivette etc.) are already translated in their entirety into English, and (c) I think the second part, with its patchwork of excerpts, registers more as filler material that adds little value to Moullet’s monograph.]

I. Search (1916-1949)

II. Maturity (1951-1960)

  • Critique (1951-1955)
    • Critique of Romanticism
    • Critique of Our Times
  • Contemplation (1954-60)

III. Conclusion

  • Lang and Our Times

[The following is a translation of a set of letters between Raymond Bellour and Marie Redonnet on Satyajit Ray’s Days and Nights in the Forest (1970), originally written in 1993 and published in Bellour’s Pensées du cinéma (2016, P.O.L.)]

Days and Nights in the Forest

It’s always strange to walk out of a film with another person when we don’t know them well enough to be sure (a dangerous certainty) that they are thinking what you’re thinking. Especially when the film surprised you, took unexpected turns that you felt you followed well, and you don’t know if the other person, who might not have the same relation to cinema, reacted to the film in a similar way, or will at least use similar words to describe it.

Here, on the other hand, was a certainty, still a silent one: we liked the film. Terribly so: it left us speechless for a while, but we knew we’d have time to discuss it in the evening (a civilized ritual around the 8PM screening: have the dinner after the film in order to work on it slowly, privately, like an event that you don’t want to overload with other things, or digest at the wrong time).

Like all memories, of course, it later becomes something of a dream (I have always admired, with perhaps an excessive mistrust, those who are able to recount old conversations as if they had recorded them: are they so different from me, or do they implicitly embrace a mixture of truth and fiction? Or maybe they take notes immediately. But in that case, etc. etc.) I remember latching on to some references to articulate my surprise, to rationalize my amazement: this Satyajit Ray, who couldn’t apparently be more different, made me think, at least in his setup, of Rohmer (this was suggested to me by a friend of mine who loved the film and urged me to go see it right away), of early Fellini (I Vitelloni, for example), or even of Hawks (the fate of groups, the games of men and women, the transition from light to serious, the logic of plot reversals: the miraculous balance of “classical” cinema, modern though it is). In short, it’s still about the Rules of the Game between ethics and aesthetics (now that I’m writing (to you), I recall that Ray had assisted Renoir on The River).

I perhaps told you this, we thought it was really extraordinary that we could prepare for this transformation, that we could retain all the trivial elements of this story, as though suspended in a fishing net, in order to fully make use of them, in the form of a viewer memory, when the story veers, first slowly and then suddenly (that’s where the dexterity, the miracle lies), into the tragic, assuming a sweeping density by endowing its four merry men with a touch of fate.

We didn’t need to recount the film to each other at that point because we had just walked out of it, but we have to play that (minimal) game here. It’s not wholly true though: we did recount it in way, in order to pinpoint the moments in the film that had struck us and to arrive, unwittingly, at what had transfixed us.

So I’ll recall the crux here: four friends leave Calcutta to spend some time in the countryside. Two of them, familiar actors in Ray’s films, look like respectable executives; the third is a famous sportsman (he’s the only one with a backstory, presented through a really unexpected flashback that occurs during their journey, in the middle of their banter, signalling the future course of the film: his girlfriend has left him brutally following a mediocre, incriminating letter from him.); the fourth is the joker of the gang. They move into a forest guest house after bribing its watchman. There’s another house nearby, and the men get to know the family living there: father, daughter, daughter-in-law and her young boy. There are also women of the village, Duli being one of them. The film tells the story of these four bachelors who are out seeking adventure, going around these women towards whom their desire remains vague, only to turn concrete before their imminent departure: Sekhar, the jester, doesn’t get anyone; the sportsman Hari is committed to Duli; Asim to the daughter, Aparna; and Sanjoy to Jaya, the daughter-in-law (I checked these names in Charles Tesson’s book on Ray).

We were hardly interested in Hari, I think, except in order to notice what was extreme about the beautiful native (Duli) who sells herself, who is of a sensuality at once raw and perverse, mastered and uncontrolled, but very autonomous in any case, during the love scene in the forest, the only scene of lovemaking, of which the hero ends up being the victim (after the young woman leaves, he is assaulted by a villager whom he had unjustly accused of theft: the villager had observed the scene, which thus becomes more intense)

But the impression left by the scene fed into what we were constantly thinking about: that here was an extraordinary film on men and women, extraordinary because of the stance taken by a man to show the superiority of women when it comes to intelligence and behaviour in romantic relations.

We soon arrived at the great scene between Asim and Aparna, which could appear to be the most beautiful moment in the film. The groundwork for it is laid by two previous scenes thanks to which the film takes a turn and speeds ahead: a memory game in the forest in which Aparna crushes everyone, Asim in particular, the only one who puts up a fight; and a visit to the local fair, during which the group splits into three couples, with the sensual counterpoint of traditional dances to go with it—it’s audacious of Ray to film these female bodies so modestly and so sensually, to show them in harmony with the couples trying to find their feet.

We were amazed by how Aparna’s character, quite enigmatic so far, somewhat charming but sarcastic and rather removed, bursts out with a contained violence towards a half-flirtatious, half-romantic and mostly childish man, to whom she nevertheless imparts a consistency because she confides to him: her ability to memorize everything since early childhood, her brother who killed himself three years ago seemingly without reason, her mother who set herself on fire when Aparna was twelve. All this to explain her distance, her inability to enter the game of explicit seduction and her marked singularity (I thought so later, I think so now: is this Ray’s romanticism, an idealism that bestows the woman with an extra bit of aura and depth? Or as we originally thought: the naivete and vulgarity of men with their simplistic, dull desire—or, at least, the image they give of that—which rejects not only what is singular in a woman’s desire, but also the identity proper to a mutual desire, its only chance of being shared.)

But we hadn’t yet come to the scene that became, for us, the scene—that’s why we wanted to see the film together the next day, to freely write a few pages each to prolong the memory of what we discussed that evening, before, during and after the sad result of the elections (I’m looking at this obscene image on channel 2 again, enough to singlehandedly condemn television, which can never be cinema: between Madelin and Longuet, presentable forty and fifty somethings passably done up, stands a pulpy student of twenty-three years, fleshy lips and long hair, supposedly representing French youth and especially showing the desire they may have for her).

I think it was I who stopped suddenly at the scene that was hiding beneath what we had discussed before, like how one stops before an evidence: I told you that we’d just witnessed one of the most violent scenes of desire that cinema has ever offered. Until this scene, Jaya seemed, in contrast to her sister-in-law, a rather simple character: a sociable, cheerful woman (we have just learnt of the suicide of her husband from Aparna, but our attention doesn’t shift to her). Jaya returns home with Sanjoy from the fair to which he had accompanied her; she offers him coffee; they are alone in the house, where Ray has set up a muted but very charged lighting scheme that tightens the space. Jaya goes into her bedroom for a moment (there’s a fluctuation of memory here stemming from one of those loose ends characteristic of great mises en scène) and comes out of it transformed, covered with jewellery bought with Sanjoy at the fair. She offers herself with an absolute immodesty that reinforces what she recounts: the death of her husband, widowhood, the wife’s desire expected to vanish with her husband’s death. Sanjoy listens to her in silence, terrified. He is unable to take a single step towards her or make even one of the gestures he evidently imagined and looked forward to; he can only clam up. The more Jaya’s desire saturates the space the more thoroughly Ray’s sequencing withdraws into itself, so as to suddenly limit the whole world to what is happening—or rather, what is not happening—between this man and this woman.

That is where we began to feel differently. I was with Sanjoy, lost, understanding of his terror, projecting something of myself onto the character without knowing where each of us was, caught in a vague no man’s land. I told you how, when confronted with certain bodies, bodies that are too strange but whose strangeness is fascinating, a kind of imaginary madness opens up; I guess everyone has his own, which he recognizes the day it happens (this is amplified for me here by the evident otherness of the Indian woman that Jaya embodies so strongly: heavy, somewhat fleshy body of a glowing sensuality that doesn’t coincide really with the material body and induces a disorder, a dissociation between seeing and touching, or even between two modes of seeing, two modes of touching, which we’d prefer keeping apart). You seemed surprised by this male thing; and you spoke to me about the woman. You told me (I couldn’t think of it that way): a woman can offer herself like that only in order to want to not be taken. She remains in her mourning, which she bears tragically, which she exhibits, to the point of obscenity. This excess she indulges in is what protects her; this excess in which the other is nothing, can’t project himself into, for she desires him in a dead man’s place, as though to prove to him that he has no place there. Writing to you, I wonder if it’s this very intuition that Sanjoy has, considering that his terror mounts to such a degree: the fear of being denied, like the fear among women, as they say, when they can’t tolerate a pure, immediate physical desire. The harrowing magic of the scene, which we must see again to know more about, at least on the means of producing such a shock, could be in not letting either the man or the woman, who are trying to talk to about it like us, decide whether there’s a shade of comprehension or an opacity in what surfaces and dramatically stops between a man and a woman, whether either of them is aware of the horror they provoke in the other or whether these two horrors simply coexist in a space that has become, either way, unbearable.

R.B.

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[The following is a translation of an article by critic and filmmaker Pascale Bodet published in Trafic 95 (September 2015). I’m immensely grateful to Mr. Samuel Bréan for finding me a copy of the article and to Ms. Bodet for her permission and generous support.]

The Golden Bird

Let’s begin with two dreamlike, unsettling fictional films made by Amit Dutta at the Film and Television Institute of India at Pune, the film school he was trained at: Kramasha (To Be Continued, 2007, 22’) and Aadmi Ki Aurat Aur Anya Kahaniyan (The Man’s Woman and Other Stories, 2009, 78’)[1].

Here’s one of the three stories in Aadmi Ki Aurat Aur Anya Kahaniyan. Married man Jainath is obsessed with the tattoo of his wife Krishna Bai, who has her own name tattooed on the hand. Jainath wants to cut his wife’s hand off. He wanders around with his friend who jokes (“Till the wrist, or till the shoulder?”), then incites Jainath to scrape the tattoo with a blade, then to attack it with sulphuric acid. In this tale, there are no good spirits to suggest tattooing both names—Krishna Bai’s and Jainath’s—on the same hand. The friend makes increasingly evil suggestions until the moment where Krishna Bai’s name appears, not just on her hand, but on the marital pillow. Noticing this new inscription, we understand that Jainath has let go of his evil spirit (who withdraws out of bitterness) to become his own good spirit. Jainath has another obsession now: he loves his wife; he forces her into embroidery. Independently of its sonic and visual (35mm) beauty, of the charm of its sound effects and of the tropical, diurnal, nocturnal dampness, I remember that the character of the friend/evil spirit renders this tale at once more prosaic (two friends wander about, talk, meet again and separate) and more fantastic (the friend is the evil double of an already malevolent hero).

Now, can we review the viability of cinema as an instrument for the search of truth? Money and human relationships always intervene in filmmaking but technology minimizes their necessity, giving more space and time to the inner journey. Filmmaking becomes more personal, almost intimate. It happens outside the purview of an audience, at least a real audience. No money to be earned, nor much fame. Then what is the reward left to the filmmaker? The answer for me could be: ‘the process’*. The possibility now to live one’s film more profoundly and intimately than ever. The kind of subject one chooses, the reading, learning and thoughts one lives through the making of a film become the most important reason for making it. Cinema becomes a way of searching and learning through culture, history, music, beauty, and eventually truth (?).

*In Kashmir Saivism, some scriptures have the concept of prakriya denoting a prescribed practice (of ritual or meditation), which is the same as the highest knowledge; the path therein is one with the destination. [2]

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Land of the Pharaohs (1955)
Within the first five minutes of Land of the Pharaohs (1955), a widescreen turkey directed and produced by Howard Hawks for Warner Brothers, the original audience must’ve gotten what they paid for: several thousand extras marshalled into a spectacular victory parade through the Egyptian desert. Teeming crowds are amassed on the sidelines and instructed to wave awkwardly at the passing army that, clad in multicolour uniforms, consists of soldiers supplied by the Egyptian military. I can imagine Harry Warner, or some other honcho at the studio, walking out of the preview after five minutes, assured that the money spent can be seen up there.

Land of the Pharaohs (1955)

If the parade and its reception vaguely resemble Nazi rallies, they are intended to be. The man leading the parade is the pharaoh Khufu. He’s just returning from a war campaign that has won him vast amounts of treasures and slaves. The pharaoh, a voiceover tells us, lusts after riches and power. In the ideology Hollywood sells (but doesn’t itself believe), this means only one thing: Khufu is going to bite the dust. Hollywood filmmakers were adept at condemning vice while harnessing its spectacular possibilities to the fullest. So the next hundred minutes of Land of the Pharaohs details the wrongheadedness of Khufu’s pursuit even as it invites us to marvel at the wonderful the result of his sin: the Great Pyramid of Giza he builds for his burial. This duality also dovetails with the production’s obligation to promote Egyptian tourism while upholding Christian admonition against pagan pageantry.

Land of the Pharaohs (1955)

But it isn’t Khufu who is the artist figure of the film. That would be the slave architect Vashtar (James Robertson Justice), recruited to design an inviolable labyrinth around Khufu’s future tomb. It isn’t clear what tribe Vashtar and his kinfolk belong to, but they serve as stand-ins for the film’s Western audience, covertly commenting on the barbaric practices of pharaonic faith and law. Vashtar is righteous, willing to sacrifice his own life for the freedom of his people. He bargains with the pharaoh, using his expertise to carry out his social vision. He is the filmmaker equivalent to the studio executive Khufu, who does little more than exploit his artists and workers to death in his quest to immortalize himself.

Land of the Pharaohs (1955)

Khufu is played by British thespian Jack Hawkins. Like Rex Harrison later in Cleopatra (1963), this stage actor, with his stately line delivery and swaggering gait, brings gravitas and finesse to a two-dimensional role. He’s absent for considerable stretches of the narrative, which only enhances the impression of his importance. There’s an impressive little gesture he does to get the prostrating crowd back on its feet. However, I am with Luc Moullet in wondering how it might have been with John Wayne in the role. Wayne, who was busy playing Genghis Khan at the time, would at least have bought something of the ridiculous and the sublime to the rather staid proceedings.

Land of the Pharaohs (1955)

Being a Hawks film, the romance between men overshadows the heterosexual ones emphasized by the script. The object of the pharaoh’s affection is his chief priest Hamar (a demure Alexis Minotis) who goes to the grave with his ruler at the end. When the jewellery-loving pharaoh returns home in the first scene, his fondness for women is on public display, while he reserves his affection for Hamar for his private chamber. He comes out of the shower bare-chested, eats a plum, and reminisces about his youthful days with Hamar. The conversation is interrupted by the queen, who has come to urge her husband to spend more time at home. Women, as is not unusual in Hawks, spell trouble: Khufu’s first queen discourages him from war, his second queen discourages him from peace.

Land of the Pharaohs (1955)

Too Soon Too Late (1981)

Watching the film, I was reminded of Straub-Huillet’s Too Soon, Too Late (1981), the second half of which takes place in the fields and streets of Egypt as well. I’m fond of Serge Daney’s article on the latter film, which makes a distinction between acupuncturist-filmmakers and meteorologist-filmmakers. Where the acupuncturist Straubs, through trial and error, attempt to feel out the only morally defensible choice of lenses and camera placement in each of their shots, Hawks the meteorologist always goes for the widest possible angle from the farthest possible distance, so as to pack the greatest number of extras within the wide frame. At times, like the Straubs, he films extended panoramas to expand the space and multiply its spectacular possibilities. It’s a proto-fascist idea—of reducing people to specks on a hagiographic canvas—that results in a number of awe-inducing compositions.

Land of the Pharaohs (1955)

Too Soon Too Late (1981)

Finally, while the Straubs are looking to capture something of the real present—the winds sweeping Egyptian fields, the gaze of the workers trickling out of a factory—Hawks’ film exudes Hollywood fakery on every level. The dialogue is heavily dubbed, with dilated, accented voices replacing the original. “They sang songs of their faith and of their joy”, tells the voiceover, even as we see thousands of men and women, who may have never been before a film camera, reluctantly march past, barely trying not to stare at it. The irony of an American super-production hiring Egyptians as dispensable extras to build a turgid monument in CinemaScope is, no doubt, lost on the film. But, hey, they got paid.

Land of the Pharaohs (1955)

Too Soon Too Late (1981)

[The following is a translation of an ‘ad review’ by Serge Daney published in Libération on 13 May 1982 and reprinted in Daney’s Ciné Journal Vol. 1 (1998, Cahiers du cinéma)]

May 1982. There’s always the temptation to put advertisements under the scanner of film criticism.

The scene takes place in a shop. There’s the saleswoman and there’s a client. What’s being sold? Rolls of fabric arranged in base cabinets or wrapped over an asexual mannequin placed on an old-fashioned sales counter? It’s not very clear. Everything melts into a fuzzy, pastel-coloured set: mauve, pink, green. The two women are in sober clothing. The saleswoman is modern, glowing, with sparkling eyes: she could feature on a leftist political poster. The client is a posh, snooty, idle bourgeois woman: she’s the kind that starts dancing abruptly in American musicals. At least twenty years separate the women. The shop window overlooks an abstract, scarcely-populated street. A pensive, bearded man passes by. The action begins.

  • Could I help you? (a revolving tracking shot, straight out of Universal-period Sirk, accompanies the client towards the counter).
  • I’d like to see that one… show me everything actually (the client is very mobile; she begins a kind of seduction dance in front of the saleswoman, who never leaves the counter).
  • Each one has its own scent… The pink one: rose; the mauve one (close-up of the saleswoman): lavender; the green one: vetiver, I’d say (adds the client dreamily) … Let me see the mauve one under the light (she goes off screen from right).
  • 2-ply, ma’am! (the saleswoman raises her voice from afar)
  • And what sizes do they come in? (Wide shot of the shop showing the saleswoman behind the counter, over the shoulder of the client, who is mincing in the foreground)[1].
  • Just one! (close-up once again). That should easily be enough. (Embarrassed).
  • Hmm! (pauses). Oh! I really don’t know which one to pick. Couldn’t you give me a sample from each? (The acting here is very good: a sudden cutaway shows the slouched body of the client from a three-quarter back profile, as if this body were saying, “I can’t take it anymore, I give up, I leave it to you” and falling apart dangerously only to pull itself together during the movement that brings the client back, beaming and childlike, towards the counter).
  • Certainly, with pleasure. (Close-up of the saleswoman who trots out these words with gleaming eyes, stressing on the word “pleasure”).

All this lasts thirty seconds and thirteen shots. The reader must’ve understood what I’m talking about. It’s about a commercial and it’s about pleasure. The object being sold isn’t silk or batik, but elegant rolls of Trèfle brand toilet paper. A final shot, the fourteenth, shows the multicoloured rolls as a voiceover coos: “Trèfle in four scents: a very fine collection”. There are so many reasons to love and analyse this anal, and hardly banal, commercial that I won’t resist the pleasure of listing two or three of them for cine-telephiles.

Selling toilet paper as though it were a collection of rare and priceless fabric is one idea. Imagining a shop that sells just that is a second (rather dreamlike) idea. To have two women play the scene is a third one. “Normal” sanitary ads generally begin with a dreadful observation about filth in order to construct the ideal of a miraculous cleanliness (one recalls the terrible Mr. Clean). It’s the opposite here. It’s because the whole scene is drenched in the cleanliness of a pastel-coloured dream that the evocation of filth assumes its entire weight. And that it’s a confrontation between two women introduces an undeniably perverse dimension.

This small masterpiece of classical shot sequencing could help introduce our film school students to things as serious as the shot and the countershot, the cutaway and the depth of field. It’s the entire tradition of American comedy that comes alive before our eyes, by way of the obvious reference to Jacques Demy. From McCarey to Cukor. The impossibility of showing certain (lowly) things compelled the American filmmakers to invent a very cunning mise en scène. The dirtier the idea, the cleaner their shot sequencing. It’s the same case here.

For this little film on the pleasure of wiping yourself clearly deals with the unspeakable. The RFP (Régie française de publicité [French advertising board]) wasn’t mistaken either. From what I’ve heard, they may have censored the film. A flushing sound was supposed to accompany the shot where the unrolled roll becomes a kind of umbilical cord between the two women. The RFP didn’t want this noise. Nor this desire.

And yet, the voiceover of the fourteenth shot tries pointlessly to make us memorize the expression “Trèfle in four scents”. But the damage has already been done: it’s the penultimate shot, the thirteenth, with the mysterious “Certainly, with pleasure” that remains in memory. At this precise moment, the saleswoman conveys another message, a message that no product can make us forget, something along these lines: I can satisfy your choice, whatever it may be. Your demands will always fall short of what I can offer you. And that is the real message of the commercial, of all commercials.

 

Footnote:

[1] Translator’s Note: A couple of details in the article are incorrect. Here, for instance, Daney describes the reverse view of what is actually seen in the ad. Two lines later, he ascribes the client’s movements to the saleswoman. I have corrected the text accordingly.