[On the inspirational teacher trope in films]

Blackboard Jungle

“The figure has been made familiar through countless Hollywood films: an initially-reticent protagonist who takes charge of a class full of “challenging”, “disadvantaged” or “impoverished” students, typically teenagers. The youth have no desire to make the teacher’s job easy and the teacher is faced with the daunting task of winning the students over. But (s)he believes it is possible and that the children could be saved, if only (s)he could find a way to gain their trust. The teacher then single-mindedly dedicates herself to her mission, generally at great personal cost. (S)he may, in a few instances, have a character flaw—alcoholism, drug abuse, minor moral transgressions—but is eventually redeemed through her work. These “classroom dramas” demonstrate a liberal charitability towards the wayward students, whose difficult behaviour and casual cruelty are tolerated with a Catholic forbearance.”

[Full article at Film Companion]

Generation Wealth

Lauren Greenfield’s latest work, Generation Wealth, finds her taking a plunge into a world of excesses, a culture obsessed with wealth, youth, beauty, sex, and power – permanent fixtures in her work as a photographer. Re-purposing material from her projects of the past thirty years, she reflects on the West’s continued fascination with having more, while also trying to understand her own fascination with this ideal. Generation Wealth is therefore a self-curated retrospective of sorts, a self-psychoanalysis, that brings into conversation topics as varied as high lifestyle of celebrity kids, eating disorders, plastic surgeries, new billionaires of the Communist world, pornography and the economic recession. While some of the connections seem strained and forced into a narrative, Greenfield’s conviction that these phenomena cannot be seen in isolation is admirable. Assembled using photographs from her previous projects and new interviews with the same subjects today, Generation Wealth weaves a Christian narrative of temptation, sin and redemption, complete with a pat message at the end.

A visual anthropologist by training, Greenfield admits that her method consists of documenting extreme examples in order to understand the mainstream. Through her VIP access to celebrity life (she comes in a line of Harvard graduates and went to the same elite schools as some of her subjects), she assembles a veritable freak parade of lost souls: a bus driver who went beyond her means for her plastic surgeries, a vulgar trader who was pursued by the FBI for fraud, a star-kid from LA who took to drugs, a toddler from the hinterlands who was catapulted to national fame, a stock broker who’s trying to conceive through IVF, a porn star who’s been through the unimaginable. Greenfield unveils their testimonies in bits and pieces and we are not sure until the end about what their current situation in life is. This withholding of information creates an unsavoury suspense that cheapens the investigation.

Greenfield has the unenviable knack of picking up the corniest lines from her interviews. She uses the most unflattering camera and editing choices, constantly undercutting her interviewees to make them look sorry or stupid. Subjects and authorities are clearly differentiated and grand-sounding theories about fame and money abound. We hardly get to hear from “the other side” without a judgment tacked on and this un-dialectical approach is aggravated by Greenfield’s simplistic association of words and images (capitalism + flashy disco lights). Having shown her interviewees’ failings, Greenfield proceeds to redeem them all by crosscutting their present-day situation – all of them having grateful meals with their children, choreographed for the camera – enshrining parenthood as the primordial purpose of life.

Of course, all this exploration brings Greenfield back to herself. In a criticism that’s actually complimentary, she equates her own workaholism with her subject’s fixation with more and more. In extended interviews with her parents and children, she meditates on the burden of legacy and the history of parental neglect as a source of success-obsession. There’s a shade of tragedy in that Greenfield is able to relate to her children only through her work and here she appears to be coming to terms with her anxieties about her own history as a mother. In a final scene reminiscent of JR’s Women are Heroes, her interviewees come to her new photo-exhibition (of which this film is an offshoot). They look back condescendingly on their younger selves, thankful for Greenfield for reminding them where they are from. The line between personal art and narcissism is thin and Generation Wealth often mistakes the latter for the former.

Everybody Knows

With Everybody Knows, Asghar Farhadi returns to Europe, this time to Spain whose harvest-season sun illuminates this story of open secrets and family intrigues. The setting also enables Farhadi to linger on some curious social rituals and gestures. Penelope Cruz’s Laura returns from Argentina with her teenage daughter for the wedding of her younger sister in Spain. Her birthplace is a medieval town with cobbled streets where her once land-owning family has been living for generations. Living in the same town is her old flame Paco (Javier Bardem) who manages the vineyards he once bought from Laura at a difficult time. While tensions in the family are visible even before the lovingly-shot wedding set-piece, the whole fabric unravels when Laura’s daughter goes missing on the night of the wedding. The audience constructs the characters’ history and their relationships piece by piece like a jigsaw puzzle, and the final image becomes clear only when the plot resolves itself.

Farhadi’s films are thrillers that are also character-studies, and Everybody Knows is no exception. Like its predecessors, it builds leisurely towards the crucial event that causes the characters to reassess their relationships with each other. Laura’s family resents her coming to the wedding without her husband and when her daughter vanishes it releases their long-suppressed resentments towards each other: Laura’s father brawls with neighbours who took his land in a game of poker thirty years ago, her sister confronts Paco for having short-changed Laura on the purchase of the vineyards, Paco’s wife objects to his taking so much concern for his old love, Paco detests Laura’s husband for his fake religiosity, Laura’s brother-in-law suspects her husband who hasn’t helped him despite being well-off. All the suppositions the characters make as to who might be involved in the kidnapping appear valid at first glance but are contradicted by subsequent developments. It’s to the plot’s credit that it doesn’t cheat the audience when it finally does reveal the details. And Farhadi’s anti-tourist approach to locales keeps outdoor scenes to a minimum.

On the other hand, Everybody Knows doesn’t have the same tragic weight as Farhadi’s other films. As it acknowledges right away, the secret at the heart of the film is really no secret and there’s no sense that the events would’ve turned out differently had the characters chosen to treat this piece of information differently. The real prime mover of the plot is the financial strain on the family and that dilutes the force of this melodrama given its focus is elsewhere. Moreover, the characters are related to each other through details of individual history and, except for Paco’s whose class pedigree is brought up, there’s no social friction palpable either despite the fact that part of the film involves the vineyards and the workers. There’s a feeling that, notwithstanding the revelations and outbursts, there is still so much to be discovered about the characters. That nobody really knows. As is usual for Farhadi, the actors carry the bulk of the film’s signifying burden and Barden and Cruz are always interesting presences. Mention must be made of the perversity of picking up the most beautiful people in the world and running them through less-than-beautiful situations: a dishevelled, frazzled Bardem in shorts sitting on his bed watching videos with earphones, a sleep-deprived Cruz lying face-down for an injection to the derriere.

Article 15

[Spoilers ahead, maybe]

Anubhav Sinha’s Article 15 takes as its subject the rape and murder of Dalit girls in a village in Uttar Pradesh. Rookie IPS officer Ayan (Ayushmann Khurrana) is posted to the wintry village of Lalgaon as punishment for an inappropriate exchange with his superior. He’s foreign-educated and comes with certain ideas about the country, only to be faced with sordid details about the murder. Encouraged by his estranged activist wife (Isha Talwar) and against the exhortations of his cynical, casteist subordinate Brahmadatt (Manoj Pahwa), Ayan decides to pursue the case, refusing to shut it as an instance of honour killing. He finds out that it’s not just the village outside, but his own police station that has a deep caste hierarchy defining relations between the men. Simmering in the background are an election, where an upper-caste politician forms an alliance with the local Dalit leader, and the threat of the case being handed over to a puppet CBI team headed by Panikar (Nasser).

Ayushmann Khurrana plays Ayan like a Western hero riding into an unknown town, with a combination of caution and authority. Continuing his established metro-masculine image, he portrays the character with a studied calm punctuated by bursts of rage. His hands are passive and generally kept close to his body. Outdoors or at the window of his car, he’s often seen in three-quarters profile, looking beyond the left edge of the screen. He maintains this skewed, cautious posture even as he walks and the off-centre framing of the actor accentuates the sense of instability. Despite being a police officer on a hunt, he never runs in the film. There’s a shot of him tiptoeing on brings to avoid stepping into the water – an unusual sight in a crime thriller. Khurrana’s self-effacing presence is thrown into relief by being pitted against the expressivity of the rotund Manoj Pahwa, whose mind the viewer can read even before his lips move. When Pahwa’s Brahmadatt smugly asks Ayan if he can close a case now that the minister’s vetoed it, the latter just walks out the room without outburst or repartee. Later, Ayan’s phone buzzes as he grills a suspect. It’s the minister on line to pressurize him. Instead of smashing the phone, he simply picks it up and leaves.

Ayan’s primary challenge is to understand whom to trust in this extremely-codified ecosystem where every man introduces himself with his second name. The cordial-but-distant façade Khurrana puts up as a bulwark also distances the audience from his thoughts. The film takes a convenient way out to address this, using the conversations between Ayan and his wife to let us know what’s in his mind as well as to convey us the film’s intentions. Clearly, the film wants the (urban) audience to identify with the out-of-sync Ayan, to discover the country as he discovers it, but there’s hardly anything in the film that anyone who’s lived in this country for long enough isn’t aware of. The script foists an unfair naivete onto Ayan, an IPS officer, just in order to make his observations sound like revelations. So much so that the audience frequently has an advance on Ayan on the turn of events. This naïve streak undercuts the intelligent aura Khurrana cultivates for Ayan and makes it hard for the audience to trust his authority when he finally gets his grand showdown with the CBI officer, who is also given a short shrift in order to make Ayan look righteous.

To be sure, Ayan is given his naivete because Article 15 also wants to problematize Ayan’s (and the audience’s) deracinated, urban perspective. The character’s status as an outsider, a pseudo-firang, is repeatedly underscored from beginning to end. In the second scene of the film, Ayan drives to the village he’s supposed to take charge of. Next to him is a copy of Nehru’s The Discovery of India, not the Indian constitution. On the soundtrack is Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind, not an old Hindi song. The driver of the car tells him a blunt parable about a village whose lights were out when Rama returned from his long exile. Ayan looks at a construction site in the countryside and wonders if it’s a mall. On phone a while later, he tells his wife that the place looks like the wild west, and his wife replies that he’s in “page 7 India” (meaning the India that doesn’t show up in the front page). In contrast to the unkempt faces and conveniently-worn mufflers of his peers, throughout the film, Ayan is clean-shaven, impeccably groomed and sports a blazer and a tie even though he has to run around in the muck. He’s advised not to “upset the balance” of the village with his meddling and to stay in line. Even the Malayalee CBI officer prompts him to speak in Hindi in place of English.

Article 15 traces the dissolution of Ayan’s faith in law and order and his disillusionment with the constitution. Ayan is a Brahmin whose privilege makes him unaware of his own caste. His wife points out the stranglehold of caste in “page 7 India” even as she turns down a boy selling trinkets at a signal. An admonishing remark about keeping Dalits in check in order to ensure water services is neatly cut to a shot of Ayan opening a tap. However, this criticism of Ayan’s outlook doesn’t have any force because it takes the final form of a general, post-emergency mistrust of politics so pervasive in Indian cinema: justice cannot be served because politicians on top are corrupt. This easy explanation of continued caste discrimination lets both Ayan and the audience off the hook. Compare this with Newton, another film where a protagonist representing the ideals of democracy comes up against a cynical feudal establishment. By the time the film ends, Newton’s unwavering belief in suffrage as a noble value in itself, so reflective of the audience’s, is upended and the unexamined beliefs underlying empty voting advocacy questioned.

There’s something else that erodes the dramatic quality of the film. By design or accident, Article 15 is not constructed like traditional thriller, which is what it’s marketed as. All the key information about the story is given to us early on in the film. In the very first scene, we know that two girls have been abducted, raped in a bus and murdered. In a couple of scenes later, Ayan notices both their bodies hanging next to each other off a tree. It’s obviously not a suicide – there’s not even an effort to make it appear as one – and the audience doesn’t mind since it already knows it’s a murder. A more conventional approach would have Ayan learn of missing girls and the plot would be the quest to retrieve them. Barely half an hour into the film, Brahmadatt is revealed to be a reprehensible character. So, a plot twist later in the film has no impact outside of a two-second shock. The dramatic progression of the film is flat because we learn things before Ayan does, and because Ayan doesn’t have any real obstacles in his investigation. Several story threads turn out to be stubs and characters are conveniently disposed of to wrap things up. The search for a third missing girl, which is the concluding passage of the film, has no emotional weight not because it succeeds the resolution of the plot but because there are no moral stakes in the discovery.

What does carry the film through despite these shortcomings is its ominous atmosphere. Director Anubhav Sinha and cinematographer Ewan Mulligan work out specific visual ideas for the film. Most of Article 15 is lit dramatically with angular light sources that produce strong shadows on actors’ faces. One of the scenes takes place under the flashing red-blue lights of police sirens. All the outdoor scenes are shot either at dawn or at golden hour to a point of self-parody. The crimson sky, the mist and the open fields of the countryside form a vast horizontal triptych against which actors are filmed in American shots. Many times, the camera glides down roads or marshlands and the actors walk towards it looking off-screen. The slow-burning sound design, with its low-frequency drones and intermittent percussion, constantly portends revelations that never come. This transposition of horror movie tropes on a social-realist film – and not the edgy name-dropping of castes and political parties – is what in the end gives the film its visceral quality.

L’Écran français no. 197; 5th April 1949.

            (After the preview of Jean-Paul Le Chanois’s Passion for Life featuring Bernard Blier.)

Passion for Life

            Too conventional. The film leaves you cold. The story about the “rights of man” is one thing I’d get rid of were I the filmmaker. Apart from that, the dialogue is good. Good performances by Juliette Faber and the kids.

(Luc Moullet, 12 years, middle schooler.)

 

[From Luc Moullet’s Piges choisies (2009, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

Shoplifters

[Spoilers ahead]

Imagine this scenario: a news item appears on TV about a group of squatters who have been caught sheltering a pair of long-lost children. The group has also been earlier implicated in other crimes petty and grave such as shoplifting, car-breaking, extortion and murder. The viewer is disgusted at the insidious outfit for having kidnapped and groomed kids to sustain their racket. He turns off the TV, more hardened, more cynical about the state of the society. This view of things is what Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Palme d’Or winner Shoplifters attempts to turn upside down, considers as it does these events from the inside. It takes as its mission to exemplify one of art’s important social functions: to cultivate understanding of and empathy towards lives other than one’s own.

Middle-aged Osamu (Lily Franky) and Nobuyo (Sakura Ando) live illegally with old lady Hatsue (Kirin Kiki) in the latter’s tiny independent house nestled amidst apartment complexes in a residential Tokyo district. They also have with them young Shota (Kairi Jō), a preteen who accompanies Osamu on his shoplifting excursions, and Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), Hatsue’s step-granddaughter moonlighting as a sex worker. On their way back from a raid one day, Osamu and Shota find toddler Yuri (Miyu Sasaki) alone at a house. They bring her home to feed her and discover that she is being abused by her parents. They decide to retain her at their home, showing great concern and affection towards her. Yuri warms up to the bunch as well and tags along with Shota on his outings. Like the group of children in Nobody Knows, the characters in Shoplifters are tied together in tenuous bonds and the exact relationships between these individuals is never defined until late into the film. The group, however, behaves as though they were family, assuming traditional roles of children, parents and grandparents and exhibiting genuine warmth towards one another.

As in Like Father, Like Son, Shoplifters mulls over the question of what makes a family and, while love is certainly a big part of it, writer-director Kore-eda’s answer is more materialist than you’d expect: a family is one that behaves like one. Much of the interpersonal relations in Shoplifters is embodied in particular gestures of the actors: Hatsue blowing a piece of hot gluten cake before feeding it to Yuri, Nobuyo claiming Aki’s attention by tapping her arm with a pair of chopsticks, a seated Osamu accommodating Shota between his legs, Nobuyo breaking a cob of boiled corn to feed a distracted Osamu, Aki overlapping her own hair over Yuki’s newly-cut hair to match their colours, Nobuyo scrubbing soap off Osamu’s back in the shower immediately after a death in the family. Several shots show the group lined up on one side looking at things off-screen: television, fireworks, waves at the beach. As is common in the director’s work, food, rather the act of consuming food, plays a crucial communal function: eating is what the “family” does when they are together. There’s also a touch of Kafka’s Metamorphosis here, with the family’s unity being contingent on the material value each individual brings to it.

Kore-eda pays equal attention to the group’s material living conditions. Contrary to popular depictions of poor households in cinema, the residence in Shoplifters is crammed with objects. Hatsue and company are clearly hoarders; their precarity doesn’t afford them to be otherwise. This space crunch makes for a spate of double-framed shots. Except for little Yuri, no one seems to fully fit the frame, their heads or limbs constantly cut off by the borders. Kore-eda makes interesting use of glass in moments conveying the emotional distance between characters. To emphasize how their relationship is regulated by material reality, he and cinematographer Kondo Ryuto constantly picture them with some object or the other intruding the image. When Aki questions Osamu about the lack of physical intimacy between him and Nobuyo in the house, they are each filmed with a piece of furniture in the foreground: Osamu need not spell out the impossibility of privacy in this house. The composition answers for him.

The actors, too, are mostly filmed in pairs or smaller groups. They make their way around the limited space of the house like pieces in a sliding puzzle, taking the place of others as they vacate their spots. Shota carves out a space of his own, living in a wardrobe like corner of the house with a partition. Divisions between living room, dining room, kitchen and bedroom are all fuzzy. The only time the characters move freely is when they are at the riverfront, an empty parking lot or at the beach, their working environments and the shops they visit being similarly overridden with objects. In contrast, when the actors are filmed in separate shots with space around them, it is mostly during moments of crisis: when Nobuyo has to negotiate with a colleague over who gets to keep their job or when the group is interrogated by the police after they are discovered. The frontal way the actors are filmed in these scenes with free space around them amplifies our impression of their vulnerability.

How do these characters endear themselves to us despite being in moral twilight zone? Much of it owes to Kore-eda’s bag of writer’s tricks. For one, Hatsue, Osamu and Nobuyo save Yuri early on in the film, much before we get to know anything about them. The toddler’s helplessness without them makes the liberal viewer want the family to hold together. The group’s manifest love for Yuri therefore trumps every revelation and turn of events to follow. By withholding compromising information until they are of no import, the plot makes sure the viewer is invested in the family. Moreover, the flaws that Kore-eda ascribes the characters – shoplifting, stealing, blackmailing – are all socially-defined misdemeanours without universal validity, with ample extenuating circumstances. On the other hand, in their interaction with and behaviour towards others, the characters remain faultless.

That’s why the film starts falling apart when the group is caught. As each person is cross-examined by the police, signalling the dissolution of the group, the film’s muted sentimentalism comes to the fore. Kore-eda has always been a melodramatist, but there’s a certain degree of disingenuousness in the way Shoplifters uses social ills as buttons to turn the viewer on and off: mistreated child, abused wife, self-harming youth, negligent parents. The moments where film reaches outside of its stated premises (namely the scenes not involving the family), wanting to be portrait of an entire country in the grips of social alienation and economic hardship, don’t sit well considering the understated manner in which the rest of the film explores amorphous communal formations.

The House That Jack Built

People begin to see that something more goes to the composition of a fine murder than two blockheads to kill and be killed—a knife—a purse—and a dark lane. Design, gentlemen, grouping, light and shade, poetry, sentiment, are now deemed indispensable to attempts of this nature. Mr. Williams has exalted the ideal of murder to all of us; and to me, therefore, in particular, has deepened the arduousness of my task. Like Aeschylus or Milton in poetry, like Michael Angelo in painting, he has carried his art to a point of colossal sublimity.”

– On Murder considered as one of the Fine Arts (Thomas de Quincey)

Serial or sex murder, like fetishism, is a perversion of male intelligence. It is a criminal abstraction, masculine in its deranged egotism and orderliness. It is the asocial equivalent of philosophy, mathematics, and music. There is no female Mozart because there is no female Jack the Ripper.

– Sexual Personae (Camille Paglia)

 

[Spoilers ahead]

Lars von Trier’s new film, The House that Jack Built, opens on a black screen with an exchange between a husky-voiced man (Matt Dillon) and an elderly guide (Bruno Ganz) who seems to be walking him through a water body. Despite the guide’s declared indifference, the man recounts the story of his life in five key incidents, which also form the chapters of von Trier’s film. The man, who calls himself Jack, is a serial-killer and the bulk of this film is an overly elaborate visual description of his exploits. We will also learn that the guide is, in fact, the epic poet Virgil (rhyming with Churchill as Ganz would have it) as he appears in Dante’s Inferno, and that he’s descending into hell with Jack to show him his new place.

Taking Inferno as a narrative conceit serves two main purposes. Firstly, it allows for a perspective of the events different from Jack’s, which is otherwise the viewer’s only optic into the film. Interspersed between the “incidents” are illustrated conversations between Jack and Virgil in which the latter, standing in for the audience, acts as the sardonic voice of reason, countering, interrogating and ridiculing Jack’s justification of his murders. Jack, in turn, pre-empts Virgil’s objections, urging him to look beyond moral binaries. The self-aware dialogue between Virgil’s defence of higher impulses of the soul and Jack’s pseudo-Nietzschean materialism is intended to create a distance and produce a dialectical line of thought in the viewer, who is always a vital component in von Trier’s cinema.

Jack places the viewer constantly at the vanishing point of its polemics. Jack’s actions, as they are presented to us are progressively depraved. The first murder, that of a persistent woman with a broken-down car (an unrecognizable Uma Thurman), unfolds like a horror story, moving with an uncomfortable inexorability towards its gruesome climax. While this killing is set up as though the woman were “asking for it”, the victims in the subsequent passages, also mostly women, come across as increasingly helpless and foolish and the murders, increasingly arbitrary. However, as Jack’s discourse moves from belittling women to turning dead children into mannequins and justifying the Holocaust, the film’s pattern becomes clear: von Trier is trying to turn us (and Virgil) off by desecrating what he takes to be bourgeois sacred cows one by one. It’s supposed to be a challenge to the audience’s conception of art, but one that the film itself cannot sustain and must resolve conservatively.

It’s necessary, by the film’s logic, that Jack’s actions be arbitrary and impossible to explain without morally absolute concepts like “evil”. But the film itself strives to give Jack a history, an explanation for his actions. We see Jack as a child in the countryside, isolated from the adult world around him. Even an invitation for punishment, such as snipping off a duckling’s feet, is ignored, apparently instilling a lifelong desire in Jack to invite attention by way of violence. As all serial killer movies must, his incapacity for empathy is summoned. Jack’s audiovisual arguments with Virgil, which in the beginning have an internal consistency however repulsive, culminate in a montage of disparate dictators from around the world – Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Mao, Idi Amin – as the subject of discussion moves to Holocaust and ethnic cleansing. It is at this point that the film drops all semblance of presenting Jack’s point of view without compromise or judgment: it’s impossible to speak of these historical figures collectively except in the negative.

Appropriating Dante, secondly, helps Jack foreground its autobiographical aspirations. Throughout, the film hammers in a parallel between the serial-killer and the artist. Beginning the exchange that follows the first murder is an archival clip of Glenn Gould at his piano. “He represents art”, says Jack bluntly, as if to forestall the film’s critics. The smashed face of the first victim is dissolved into a cubist painting, before Jack goes into an illustrated lecture on Gothic architecture. He speaks of the Gothic architects’ capacity to listen to the “will of the material”. Jack is an engineer, but considers himself an architect and his killings, works of art; but how he makes a living, we don’t know (just as we never know which country he is in). He photographs his victims with a film camera, strings them up and arranges them in expressive tableaux. As he commits more crimes, his OCD – the compulsion to forge order and beauty out of chaotic material – disappears and he learns to improvise.

It’s a parallel taken too far of course. Clearly, von Trier sees his own work as one involving physical and mental exploitation of human beings. In the dialogue about crimes against humanity, Jack talks about art and murder belonging to the same rarefied realm, and von Trier cuts to a montage of violent scenes from his films. Just as his own craft is about working with actors and improvising, the scenes of Jack’s murders have no meaning, they are all about process: we see in painstaking (and pain-inducing) detail the way Jack fumblingly goes about negotiating, manipulating and blackmailing his victims. And just as Jack’s primary interest is in the final photos his killings yield, von Trier, it appears, is appealing to look at his films rather than what it has taken him (and others) to finish them. Björk, singer and lead actress of his 2000 film Dancer in the Dark, recently came out about her traumatic working experience with von Trier. A couple of years earlier, the director was declared a persona non grata by the Cannes Film Festival for his backfiring joke about Nazism. So, Jack is perhaps von Trier explaining himself to the world, an apology by way of self-flagellation. It’s also a non-apology, placing his personal mistakes on par with Jack’s crimes and in effect diminishing them.

To be sure, The House that Jack built, is a formally potent film that derives its power not from its lurid descriptions of murder but from the associations it weaves in and around them. The protracted scenes of strangulation and dismemberment are followed by sober, dignified discussions about art and morality, accompanied by images and sounds that embody the highest achievements of humanity (or dead white males, if you please). In a parody of Renaissance still life paintings of game, von Trier continuously associates violence and death with bounty and health. Jack stores the corpses in a cold storage with deep-frozen pizzas, he compares his stocking up of dead bodies to wine-making, a reverse shot of him sniping a child is nauseatingly cut to close-ups of picnic food. This alternation of higher and lower spiritual impulses – the Apollonian-Dionysian duality that Jack and Virgil incarnate – lends the film a provocative dynamism hard to be indifferent to. But it’s a self-defeating project, over-determined as a metaphor, incomplete as psychological portrait. In an overlong, jokey coda, Jack and Virgil take a visual tour of hell up till the inner circle. It’s a redundant passage on any level, narrative, conceptual or emotional. All that you sense here is Lars von Trier nailing himself to a cross and offering it to us as an art installation.

Cahiers du cinéma no. 473; November 1993.

Zodiac

During the filming of The Sign of Leo, I’d shouted at Éric Rohmer: “How is it that you, a Christian filmmaker, have suddenly become an apologist for this sham called astrology?”

I’ve realized in the past few years that Rohmer was right: astrology determines even the future of filmmakers.

It’s the American critic Manny Farber who showed me the way. According to him, filmmakers born under the sign of Pisces were concerned with the dialectic between cinema and theatre (Guitry, Pagnol, Rivette) or with another related dialectic: between reality and dream (Minnelli, Rivette). I think we must expand the empire of Pisces filmmakers a little: it could be said that their work is based foremost on actors. This is the case not just of Guitry, Pagnol and Rivette, but also of Téchiné and of Doillon, of Jerry Lewis and his accomplice Tashlin.

We can also note the Pisces taste for never-ending, pretty much unplayable spectacles so dear to Rivette as well as to Marlow or Hugo.

The presence of Biberman, Clément, Rocha or Walsh in this category clearly shows that the dominant feature of a sign is just that and has no general or exclusive value. These aren’t characteristics that we usually attribute to Pisces. Nevertheless, there is a very common trait that we find in certain filmmakers of the sign such as Buñuel or Rivette: the presence of conspiracy, secret and occultism and mysticism.

Aries, sign of pioneers and innovators, brings together experimental or avant-garde filmmakers: Tarkovsky, Duras, Garrel, Epstein, McLaren, who take over from great, more or less marginal poets: Lautréamont, Hölderlin, Baudelaire, Verlaine.

Tauruses are especially great actors (Cooper, Fonda, Stewart, Welles, Mason, Gabin, Fernandel). Powerful, obstinate. But we also find great filmmakers, most often focused on the theme of the mirror (Ophuls, Sirk), on the baroque and on awesome tracking shots (Ophuls, Welles), on melodrama and portraits of women (Ophuls, Sirk, Borzage, Vecchiali, Mizoguchi), women – often prostitutes – murdered by ordeals.

Geminis demonstrate an extreme attention to image composition and plastic qualities. They often end up with a certain mannerism. Between the 29th of May and the 5th of June, we meet Sternberg, the Left Bank trio Resnais/Varda/Demy, plus the king of filters, Fassbinder.

On the 7th and 8th of June, we find three Italian specialists of unhappy childhood, De Sica, Rossellini and Comencini.

Wilder, Mocky, Chabrol, Hawks and the Stiller of Erotikon: dark or sarcastic comedy is the prerogative of Cancers. We can also notice in them the art of the storyteller (Hawks, Chabrol, Breillat), a pull towards the fantastic, futurism, occultism and mystery (Cocteau, Browning, Paul Leni, and also Bergman, the Marker of La Jetée, the Astruc of The Crimson Curtain, the Mocky of Litan and The Big Scare, the Chabrol of Death Rite) which we also find in another Cancer, Franz Kafka. A sign, then, with multiple dominant traits.

There is, in Leos, only one real leitmotif quite in keeping with their general reputation: among them, born a day apart, are two of the most widely known filmmakers, DeMille and Hitchcock, classic moonlighters, the only ones to have married highest quality with the top priorities of the box-office. Kubrick and Huston, to a lesser degree, are of the same breed. Of course, we find here many filmmakers from the United States, where it’s difficult to make a career without commercial success. Curiously, there are a number of mavericks (off-beat independents) among the Leos: Fuller, Ray, Boetticher.

Leos have very long careers (Hitchcock, DeMille, Huston, Autant-Lara) with systematic gaps (Boetticher, Fuller, Ray, Riefenstahl, Carné) or prolonged silences (Kubrick, Pialat). One also notices a long life-span (Riefenstahl, Autant-Lara, Carné) or, at the very least, an abundance of work (Ruiz, DeMille). Sometimes sport serves as a substitute to cinema (bullfighting for Boetticher, diving for Riefenstahl, flying for DeMille, boxing and hunting for Huston).

In one way or another, though always unconventionally, some among them could be linked to a right-leaning behaviour (Autant-Lara, Riefenstahl, Fuller, Pialat, or a Christian variant: DeMille, Olmi, Hitchcock, Leenhardt) which is perhaps inextricably linked to commercial success.

Nature is one of the favourite motifs of Virgos (Renoir, Sjöström, Dovzhenko). For these bon vivants, the world is bountiful, often bitter (Renoir, Stroheim, Gene Kelly, Preston Sturges, Germi). Their emotional lives are sometimes complex (Sjöström, Germi, Kazan etc.). One notices the shared birthday of both the master (Renoir) and the pupil (Becker).

Libras express themselves very well through the comic: Keaton, Tati, McCarey, Groucho Marx were all born between the 2nd and the 8th of October, the second decan.

I’m cross with my mother: had she hurried up a little instead of giving birth on the 14th of October, I would’ve belonged to the second decan and would’ve made much funnier films.

The first decan is characterized by a pronounced individualism and asceticism (Bresson, Antonioni).

Scorpios disappoint: to be sure, they comprise of some high-profile names (Gance, Visconti). But it’s a neutral category, hard to discern a central line. Perhaps a certain academic art (Clouzot, Clair, Malle, Visconti) counterbalanced by the other extreme, the marginality of Hanoun, Biette, Muratova, Medvedkin, Rozier.

One can say the same of Capricons, where it’s impossible to determine a common factor, except a taste for working as a collective (Sennett, Vertov) or as a pair (Straub and, more episodically, Leone, Sembene, Murnau): the negation of the ego. Both signs reveal an almost complete American absence.

In Sagittarians, on the other hand, is often a hypertrophy of the Ego: Allen and Godard, who are actors of the same model, Eustache. This egocentrism is the synonym for a persistent angst. One can’t skip over the fact that the only two great filmmakers of the capitalistic world to have shot themselves are Sagittarians, Eustache and Linder, which we can relate to the origins of the two filmmakers, the French South-West often being the seat of an anxiety-ridden expression. Also notable is the frequent frailty of those born in winter: Poe, Chekov and Molière had short lives too.

Among them are also several travellers, emigrants: Lang, Preminger, Dassin, Max Linder.

It is astounding to note the supremacy of Aquarians – conceived in spring and born in winter – as much in their quantity as their quality: two or three times as many great filmmakers (or writers) than in any other sign. These are unquestionable classics, Eisenstein, Griffith, Dreyer, Lubitsch, Vidor, Ford, Flaherty, Truffaut, Mankiewicz, Fellini and also Cottafavi, who succeed Stendhal, Joyce, Dickens, Simenon, Brecht, Lewis Carroll, Marivaux, Conrad, Strindberg, Byron, Beaumarchais, Jules Verne and Virginia Woolf, not to mention Mozart.

As a side note, we notice in them a certain attraction towards water bodies and marshlands, solids that become liquids (see all of Vidor, Louisiana Story, Bitter Rice, Alexander Nevsky, Way Down East, admiral Ford’s Tobacco Road and recall that 400 Blows and La Dolce Vita end at the sea).

It’s with Aquarians that we find the finest argument against sceptics.

There must surely be others: I should’ve deepened my search. But it’s very difficult to know the ascendancy, lunar inclination, the precise time and place of birth of Mizoguchi, Kiarostami or Jasset.

The history of cinema has been written by country (Charles Ford), by period (Sadoul), by genre (Mitry). Why not by zodiac sign?

The discoveries we arrive at will surely have a diminished value given that we know little about the reasons for the dominant traits of a sign. But they can have a great practical use: according to the desires expressed in a cinematographic policy, we could favour one sign over another; I think one must think twice before funding filmmakers of a certain sign, I’m not going to say which one: I’m too afraid of getting my face bashed in the next time I show up at the Filmmakers Association. Filmmakers trying to find their way, either at the beginning or in the middle of their careers, could orient themselves better according to the dominant cinematic traits of their zodiac signs. Had Delluc devoted himself to comedies, David Lean to the underground and Disney to the diary, they would’ve turned out much better films.

 

[From Luc Moullet’s Piges choisies (2009, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

 

Response to Libération’s major survey, May 1987

Luc Moullet

 

To make big bucks, to go on big trips and to meet pretty girls.

 

[From Luc Moullet’s Piges choisies (2009, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

Super 30

In a face-off marking the film’s intermission, the local IIT coaching business head Lallan (Aditya Shrivastava) comes to warn a renegade star professor Anand Kumar (Hrithik Roshan) of dire consequences if he continues running his free coaching centre for the poor. Pockets of sunlight trickling through the makeshift roof creates dramatic zones of shadow and light on the character’s faces. As Lallan cranks up his challenge using colourful metaphors of a horse derby, music swells and a wind from nowhere sweeps across the room, making the asbestos walls rumble. Lest we miss the cues, Anand asks Lallan to brace for a storm.

Multiplying signifiers is part of all melodramatic expression, but Vikas Bahl, the director of Super 30, uses it exclusively as a crutch to prop up an uninspired material bordering on formula. The strings are pulled even before the first shot, violins and choruses preparing us for a soundscape that will be set to 11 through the remainder of the film. The film opens in London in 2017 at a gathering to felicitate a successful student of Anand’s. After a brief rollcall of Indian-headed corporations, he pays tribute to his professor, who, even before the flashback, is presented as a genius educator to be lionized. The second scene is a gathering too, this time in Patna twenty years ago, and sets up a lazy opposition between education and politics that characterizes the film: a slimy education minister (Pankaj Tripathi) makes false promises to Anand, who has just won a top medal.

He goes to show the medal to his romantic interest Ritu (Mrunal Thakur). In the first scene of a gratuitous romantic track, shoehorned as in all biopics of men to show that these men have Feelings, Ritu sits wearing the medal looking sideways at Anand, who crouches on the floor, talking about PhD while playing pittu. The scene, like all others in the film, plays out exactly as you imagine; a romantic interlude between a math geek and a plain Jane: she expects him to declare his love while he, in a parody of 60s Hindi cinema bholas, holds forth on phi, the golden ratio. A first meeting with the girl’s father, Anand’s appointment with the minister seeking financial help, all the exchanges with Lallan, the minister’s rude dismissals of Lallan, a scene at the police station seeking protection, Anand’s pep talk as he shuttles between students standing around him in the room, they all proceed with the predictability of the Fibonacci series. The villains recognize themselves as villains, the amir log address themselves as amir log. A story’s dramatic value is already diminished when its antagonists themselves are convinced of the hero’s moral superiority.

This bloodless quality of the script might have been made up for with a dynamic style, but Super 30 is so formally inert and conservative that the sole visceral impact that Anand’s victories provide comes from its booming soundtrack. Outside of a few ominous close-ups of a cycle chain (whose delicious ambiguity is soon dispelled by the turn of events) and three meal scenes, none of which the film seems to be really invested in, there’s hardly an organizational principle at sight. The visual culture of IIT coaching institutes, with its fatigue-inducing self-promotional ads and banners, is dispensed in a single second-unit montage. The better part of the film is given a burnished DI look to evoke some vague sense of the rustic while once florescent-lit scene at a hospital, with stroboscopic effects on cue, sticks out like Hrithik’s grey eyes in the hinterlands of Bihar.

What does hold the attention and ground the film is, however, the figure of Hrithik Roshan himself. Successively outfitted in old sneakers, half-sweaters (= innocent man, per Bollywood), pilled T-shirts, checked shirts, oversized kurtas, his top button always open making his neck crane out even further in the frame, a pen in the shirt pocket, a large-dial wristwatch on the right hand and sometimes a red towel on the shoulder to signify his modest means, Hrithik is always interesting to watch here, despite the raw deal the script offers him. Like Gary Cooper, he effaces himself in the early part of the film, blending into the crowd and sticking to the edge of the frame. He squats twice in the film to indicate overwhelming joy – one when he gets an admit at Cambridge and again when his students clear IIT – he pulls up his belt that wraps around a too-tucked-in shirt when he meets the girl’s father (borrowing from his man-child repertoire from Koi Mil Gaya), he uses his middle finger to point at objects and stands in the classroom against the table leaning on his right elbow or with his right foot on a chair, looking like a pretty hieroglyphic. And, of course, he swallows his saliva to show that he is overcome with emotion. His Adam’s apple is a compositional element of its own.

Does Super 30 take on feudal forces as it repeatedly claims in its punchline? I believe not. The film inscribes itself into a Hollywood tradition of individual triumph in which the nominal social problem (the exclusion of the poor from the social ladder) becomes a wallpaper to the protagonist’s journey of self-realization (the success of Anand’s academy). Think Dances with Wolves, Schindler’s List, Amistad. Like the heroes of these films, Hrithik’s Anand is a paternal figure who not only must do his professional duty as a teacher, but also prepare his children to face life’s challenges. In an extended set piece – perhaps the film’s most inspired moment, pulling off with a straight face what is otherwise unintentionally funny – he orders his students to put up a play entirely in English in order to help them find self-respect and overcome their complexes of not being able to speak in English. The play, set at the town square on Holi day with coaching institute posters all around, starts out as a funny skit around Sholay, but soon becomes a resistance song against the hegemony of English. While Anand’s prowess as a life coach are amply demonstrated, the cognitive challenges in teaching and learning advanced mathematical concepts, themselves, are side stepped. Turning abstract physical problems into real world questions or pretty animations doesn’t, despite what the film thinks, make them any more pertinent, leave alone solvable.

The event the entire film prepares us for – the IIT entrance exam – is placed right after a shootout worthy of Anu Club, in which the students employ various scientific concepts to ward off gun-toting henchmen sent by the minister. The exam itself is not depicted and the day of the exam results becomes an excuse for the camera to linger long on Hrithik’s expression of relief and vindication. The film’s end credits present a list of international laurels for Anand’s programme, not what it did to its participants or what IIT means to its aspirants today. It reads no differently than the promotional banners of other coaching institutes.

Part of the problem stems from the film’s wholesale purchase of the bourgeois myth of Education as a ticket out of poverty. Not only will education help you get a job, but you can build slide projectors with rubber bands and fend off a criminal outfit with solenoids and lenses. Pervading the film is the idea that were the children allowed a shot at the IIT, all the systemic problems facing them for generations would vanish. No matter the lack of institutional support once you get into top-tier colleges as an underprivileged student or the continuation of inequalities in performance through accrued academic capital. The notion of education as panacea and an ultimate goal to be pursued reverberates throughout Super 30, with its thundering Sanskrit chorus about education, its unironic reverence of the IITs and its belief that education lies somewhere beyond the corrupting realms of business and politics. These are talking points that you will invariably find echoed in middle-class living rooms and corporate offices.

“A king’s son will no longer become the king. Only he who deserves it will become the king,” a line that’s uttered a handful of times in the film. This seeming rebuttal to zamindari era is actually a cover for the belief in pure meritocracy the film embodies. Super 30’s dodging of the question of reservation is not simply a curiosity, but essential to its functioning. It has to pit rich kids who have all the means at their disposal to prepare for the exam and poor but gifted kids who have to fight for everything. In a sequence depicting competition between the two camps, the former group turns out to be winners by a couple of marks, and the film plays it out as a defeat for Anand. It would not sit well within the moral fabric of the film for an underprivileged student with lower marks passing the exam over a rich student with higher marks. In an early scene at a university library, Anand Kumar is thrown out for not giving out his full name. What first appears to be a rebellious gesture to withhold caste name is extended to every character in the film, who are all to be read only as tropes such as evil politician, corrupt businessman, doting father, helpful reporter etc. I hope this objection to the film for trying to remap caste-class inequalities solely along class lines doesn’t seem like an unfair or irrelevant criticism. What I intend to point out is that, in doing so, the film falls in line with the same outlook it rebukes. Super 30, however, is not special offender. This narrative of the triumph of merit over mediocrity, talent over entitlement is part of the enduring myth that culture industries such as Hollywood and Bollywood – without a hint of irony – tell us, if not themselves.

The Image Book

“Before the talkies, silent films had a materialist starting point. The actor said: I am (filmed) therefore I think (at least I think of the fact that I am being filmed), it’s because I exist that I think. After the talkies, there was a New Deal between the matter being filmed (the actor) and thought. The actor began saying: I think (that I am an actor) therefore I am (filmed). It’s because I think that I am.”

– Letter to Jane (1972, Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Pierre Gorin)

 

“The fact remains that, thanks to machines, and in reference to the domination of the realm of images in our societies of spectacle, never have as many deaths been filmed as in the last five or six years. The corpse has become a more familiar, more ordinary image and is often not even an object of attention. A particular mise en scène, spontaneous or arranged, is needed, the shadow of a history must float over the corpse of this dead child, face against the sand, for the mediatic vortex to get going.”

– Daesh, Cinema and Death (2016, Jean-Louis Comolli)

 

“What shall Cordelia speak? Love, and be silent.”

– King Lear

 

In the beginning was the image, until it was tainted and supplanted by the word. Or so suggests Godard’s latest work, The Image Book, in which the filmmaker militates for the image against a world enslaved by words. It’s a full circle of sorts for Godard who has always alerted about the treachery of images and their power to deceive and corrupt. It’s also a full circle in a formal sense in that, after the digital cinematography of Film Socialism and Goodbye to Language, The Image Book harks back to his monumental Histoire(s) du Cinéma, and is made almost entirely of pre-existing footage and sounds. The footage and sounds, to be sure, are heavily manipulated – colour-saturated, over-exposed, slowed-down, chopped-up and noise-fed to a point of nonrecognition – but the film still remains a classical collage work deriving its meaning chiefly from the association of disparate elements rather than from the elements themselves. Montage is Godard’s primary form of thought.

Image and words: Godard’s eternal preoccupation are brought into conflict right in the first two shots of the film: a detail – the upward pointing finger of John the Baptist – from Leonardo’s painting followed by a text excerpt from Georges Bernanos’ Les enfants humiliés. As a hand goes over a reel of film on an editing table, Godard’s voice echoes: “Five fingers, five senses, five continents of the world, five fingers of the fairy. Together they make the hand. And man’s true condition is to think with his hands.” To think with his hands, by the way, is what Godard appears to be doing in the publicity spot he made for the Jihlava Film Festival: scrolling back and forth through the photos on his iPhone, as the voice-over rolls back and forth in response. And what is scrolling through a photo album but a form of ‘manual’ editing? Montage is Godard’s primary form of thought.

Five fingers, five senses, five parts in The Image Book. The first part, titled REMAKES/RIM(AK)ES pits images against words: images that speak truth, words that lie and kill. Shots of soldiers abusing a captured woman while the voice-over states that they are reviving a Vietcong combatant for interrogation. Shots of suffering and atrocity cut to Godard’s voice reading a Joseph de Maistre text hailing the divinity of war. In cinema, too, the images were mute until words came along to subvert their material, polysemous reality. Also in focus in this part of the film is the way cinema and war have fed off themselves and off one another, remade each other: Vietnam war footage, Les Carabiniers, shots of shark-faced jets from World War 2, Jaws, Blood of the Beast, images from the Holocaust. As Jean-Louis Comolli has written about at length, its precisely Hollywood spectacle that Daesh recruitment videos try to emulate and Godard acknowledges this perverse response of reality to his lament that cinema has never caught up with history by juxtaposing shots of soldiers drowning rebels in Paisan with clips of Daesh drowning its captives.

The second part of the film opens with shots from Sergei Bondarchuk’s War and Peace. Continuing with de Maistre’s text Les Soirées de Saint-Pétersbourg, Godard overlays its potent call for arms and doomsday prophesying with images of brutality and violence fictional and documentary. Words being on the side of war, it would seem, could only be given the lie by images of war. Like Lear choosing the seductive beauty of painted words over reality, history has been led astray by those wielding power over language. As the third section of the film implies, image, on the other hand, has always stood for hope and survival. A compilation of train footage through history – rather conventional given it’s Godard – the central part of the film takes the symbol of Western technological progress and the proto-image of cinema – the moving train – and reflects on how the same entity that helped civilizations thrive also culminated in Auschwitz.

The fourth part of the film, named after Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws, mounts a frontal attack on the machinations of language in the form of law. Sandwiching Montesquieu’s dreams for a harmonic state-subject relationship between Victor Hugo’s rather graphic description of state atrocities in Serbia, Godard underscores the normalization of violence and imperialism through the language of law. “The Law is always prepared to lend you a spare brain in order to condemn you without remorse,” wrote Barthes, “the spectacle of a terror which threatens us all, that of being judged by a power which wants to hear only the language it lends us.” At one point, Godard follows up a frame from Histoire du cinéma that says “montage interdit” (editing prohibited) – Bazin’s famous maxim – with excerpts from La Marseillaise and a shot from Gus van Sant’s Elephant where we see the school shooter firing at a victim in the same frame. This, perhaps, is also a joke of sorts for Godard, who was always a champion of the classical decoupage and editing in opposition to Bazin’s long shot filmmaking. As Comolli demonstrates, the “montage interdit” maxim now lives most emphatically in Daesh’s videos that show the executioner and the victim in the same frame.

The final portion, its title and some of its images drawn from Michael Snow’s La Region Centrale, trains its attention entirely on the Middle East – a subject of the filmmaker’s interest since long – albeit a fictional Middle East, a lost paradise. It’s an unusual passage for Godard, excerpting Egyptio-French writer Albert Cossery’s An Ambition in the Desert at length for the voice-over (spoken by someone else) and illustrating it with assorted documentary and cinema shots from the Middle East. The story, that of a Machiavellian emir who tries to stage a fake revolution in his oil-bereft Middle-Eastern country in order to attract Western attention, is interspersed with thoughts about the world’s political indifference to Arabs, the failures of Middle East itself to escape Western imperial forces and counter Daesh’s worship of the Word (Daesh’s production of images, of course, stems from its virulent anti-idolatry). An explanation of counterpoint in music finds echo in a title card containing the word ‘Palestine’ in Arabic and Hebrew overlapped.

Another joke perhaps: the film’s end credits roll five minutes before it actually ends. Godard, who’s regularly been said to retire since Film Socialism, follows the credits with key images from the film, now played without the context, as though to finally liberate images from the debilitating stronghold of words. “Word and image” reads the final title card, reversing the card “image and word” shown at the beginning of the film. In the film’s final words, pronounced on the soundtrack over a black screen, Godard repeats to a coughing fit a quote from Peter Weiss’ The Aesthetics of Resistance: “Even if nothing turned out how we’d hoped, it would not have changed what we’d hoped for.” The final images that follow, in turn, gives us a long, mute excerpt from Ophuls’ Le Plaisir, a masked Jean Galland dances himself to exhaustion. It’s a pure image, silent, beautiful, self-sufficient and liberated from the need to “speak up” – a return to cinematic zero of sorts that’s always been the filmmaker’s objective.