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[Possible spoilers ahead]

It’s of little doubt that there is a distinct personality behind Mysskin’s films. Thanks to his acting jobs and interviews, the director is such a familiar figure that it’s also hard to see his films without imagining him personally commenting on the proceedings. But watching his past couple of works, and hearing him speak, I’m beginning to wonder if this distinct personality is of any interest anymore at all. Whenever Mysskin’s body of work seems poised to deepen in a particular direction, he marshals some unrelated inspiration or childhood fascination into a project that takes him back to square one: Takeshi Kitano, Bruce Lee, Arthur Canon Doyle. His latest, titled Psycho, is a tribute to Alfred Hitchcock. What remained intact throughout Mysskin’s meandering filmography was his capacity to tightly plot a story and hold the audience in a state of melodramatic high—an ability that collapses in this new film.  

            This is a movie about a serial killer, whose identity and MO we learn in the very first scene. Shortly after, a psychologist explains to us the motivation behind his particular brand of murders. Soon the structure for a thriller falls into place in the form of three intersecting tracks. In the first, we see the killer (Rajkumar Pitchumani) going about his job, picking up his victims and dispatching them. In the second, the police force is seen investigating into the kidnappings and murders. And in the central track, a blind music conductor (Udhayanidhi Stalin, conveniently bespectacled) is forced to carry out a parallel investigation because the killer’s latest victim is his romantic interest (Aditi Rao Hydari). In that, he is helped by a foul-mouthed, quadriplegic ex-officer (Nithya Menen) and her mother (Renuka).

            All these characters are archetypes carrying echoes of Mysskin’s earlier creations. They have no social background, except that they belong to the filmmaker’s floating universe, where characters don’t need any logical reason to have names like Angulimala, Kamala Das and Sylvia Plath. This literal-mindedness has hardly been a hindrance to enjoying Mysskin’s films because these types are generally swept into a closely-knit narrative of tremendous forward momentum. Some of that is still present in Psycho, but the overarching structure is so lazily conceived that they are here revealed for what they are: a grab bag of character tics and story elements characteristic of the filmmaker assembled into an unsightly, unwieldy whole.

            The most obvious failure is the second thread involving the police force. It’s a dead-end narrative that’s ostensibly borrowed from some other of Mysskin’s unfinished scripts. Familiar forward and backward camera movement follows the cops as they discuss the case walking towards scenes of crime. The investigative unit is led by a plainclothes officer (filmmaker Ram), who sings old Tamil film songs when under stress. This idiosyncrasy promises a hidden intelligence, but he ends up doing something so stupid that you realize his modesty was well justified.

As for the serial killer, Mysskin hangs so many references and backstories on him that it’s plain he hasn’t thought through the character enough. Clean-shaven and well-off, the man appreciates classical music. He’s given a history of Catholic school abuse. There’s then the Buddhist fable of Angulimala, like whose bandit our killer collects pinkies. We are also told that the victims are women who are at the top of their respective fields. His lair is a pig farm lit in incandescent hues and production-designed in familiar bloody, metallic palette. All of this is swept under a last-minute sympathy for the devil. As is customary with crime movies, Mysskin sketches a parallel between the killer and the protagonist, both affluent orphans, driving luxury cars with fancy numbers, listening to Beethoven, but the equivalence doesn’t hold, mostly because our protagonist is a cipher.

            Finally, there’s the main narrative track, which starts with an aggressive romantic pursuit. It never takes off because it leaps to its emotional peak too soon in a moody night-time party scene lit by row lights. The hero sings of his love for the heroine, who bewilderingly conveys her hesitation by getting off her chair and sitting down twice in succession. Romance isn’t Mysskin’s strong point (his one sustained attempt at it, in Mugamoodi, was an embarrassment), and he’s clearly trying to force the issue in order to get the investigation going. A curious little subversion is at work in having a ragtag bunch of invalids (a blind musician, a quadriplegic cop, an elderly woman and a pot-bellied man) get ahead of the police in tracking down the perpetrator. But it soon becomes apparent that they exist in order to satisfy a concept. A colossally pointless drive sequence prefaces the climax, an excuse for an emotional transition through song with little logical link to the narrative.

            At first glance, it appears that what pulls the viewer along, despite all these failings, is the way the team unravels the killer’s identity and location. But Mysskin, who made Psycho between two detective movies, is evidently deploying a fixed formula. Every revelation is preceded by a perplexing demand or action of the protagonist—he now needs two pigs, he now needs a measuring tape—which leaves the viewer guessing until the next scene, where the reason for his demand is revealed. This sensation of being left behind momentarily by the plot is indeed pleasurable, but the strategy becomes mechanical when you notice that the scriptwriter is withholding information that could well have been given without a scene’s detour. The inferences that the musician ends up making aren’t always novel or even pertinent to the case.

Psycho is Mysskin’s ninth directorial venture. There’s a perceptible change in his technique. While there’s no reserve to be sensed in aural assault of the sound design and the anxiety-inducing score he gets from Ilarayaraja, his sequencing is more restrained, the camera placement and movement less showy. Mysskin’s filmmaking is indeed an idiolect. That it sounds nice doesn’t necessarily mean it’s meaningful. After nine films, it’s still not clear to me where he’s headed. What moves him, disturbs him, excites him, outside of the countless movies and books that he namedrops? His apolitical aestheticism is a welcome difference from his more intellectual peers, but he seems incapable of following up on a line of thought. Wholly derivative (from himself and from others), Psycho jeopardizes his sole defence against that objection—that style is thought. Remains the feeling that this film could’ve been made by someone parodying Mysskin.

It only takes two minutes for Sam Mendes’ WWI saga 1917 to set up its premise. A pair of lance corporals (George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman) are entrusted by the General (Colin Firth) no less to courier a message to another battalion camping nine miles away. Failure to convey the message before dawn will result in the sure death of 1,600 soldiers. Its implausibility aside, this is an extremely cinematic setup, allowing the story to follow a pair of characters from point A to B. But Mendes chooses to film the entire two-hour narrative in an apparently single take, in the process snuffing out the rich possibilities of the premise.

            Like Dunkirk, 1917 is an experiment in film narrative. And like Nolan’s film, it is a failure that’s instructive in the way it fails. The director of Dunkirk had interwoven not just three timelines, which is standard practice, but three timescales: unfolding over a week, a day and an hour but sharing the same screen time. But in popular cinematic grammar, multiple closely intercut narrative threads evoke a sense of simultaneity. Failing that, a thematic correlation as is the case with films like Cloud Atlas or Wonderstruck. Nolan’s consciously anti-grammatical film demands the viewer to actively shift the time markers in their head back and forth, compelling him/her to recognize the various ways war is experienced by its participants despite a unity of mission. Whatever the mechanistic thrills of this formal scheme, the process remains intellectual, far more exigent than the intuitive pleasures offered by the accelerated editing of The Dark Knight series.

            1917 complements the challenge, choosing to preserve the spatial and temporal integrity of the narrative by filming it in a single shot. We understand right away, thanks to the history of war movies, that the corporals are going to make it to their destination no matter what, but we also know that they cannot possibly cover nine miles in two hours of real time, considering that they travel mostly on foot. It’s then immediately clear that Mendes has to fudge his filmmaking for the story to reach its conclusion. While the single shot setup purports to offer a slice of real time, as in Jafar Panahi’s Offside, the narrative itself is telescoped artificially into two hours.

            Mendes conveys a sense of passing distance and time, without it actually happening, by chaining together a series of starkly different landscapes: cramped trenches, marshlands, lush meadows, drab fields, a surreally lit, ruined city, water bodies and trenches once more. The movement of the corporals from one landscape to another serves the same purpose as a fade-out in conventional movies: to evoke a sensation of ellipse in the viewer. What we then have is an edit-less edit, like in those commercials where the actor seamlessly moves from one vastly different environment to another while seeming to simply walk across rooms. The principle is that of video games, where we find the same idea of telescoping longer durations and distances into shorter screen time, even when the player has a feeling of contiguous experience.

            The lack of cuts undermines the effect in another way too. Given that the viewer is planted in the here and the now, there’s no suspense against which the corporals’ action is to be measured. Hitchcock’s theory of suspense involves the revelation of dramatic stakes by a cutaway (to a ticking bomb, for instance). But considering we never know what’s at risk while the corporals are getting delayed, or if they’re getting delayed at all, we don’t share the urgency that the protagonists express time and again. The French film critic and theorist André Bazin championed long take realism, but only insofar as it preserved the spatial tension of a scene. The shot of an Inuit trying to hunt a seal, in Bazin’s example, has more impact presented in a single shot because it reproduces the danger involved as is. In contrast, conceit of 1917 perennially relegates the danger off-screen, rendering every dramatic development merely a shock.  

            “We experience life much closer to one longer continuous shot”, says Mendes in an interview. But do we? Anyone who has ever watched two people converse across a table will realize that we don’t pay attention to the empty space between them as our eyes leap from one speaker to the other. Our cognitive processes don’t track our ocular movement; our brain incessantly edits out insignificant information. Even our eyes constantly shuttle within a scene, causing counterintuitive mental compensations. Classical Hollywood continuity editing, which relies on closely stitching together vital bits of information from a single space, is thus perhaps more truthful to real experience than the long take. Defending classical scene construction over long shot filmmaking, Jean-Luc Godard wrote: “I would even see in that spatial discontinuity occasioned by shot changes, which certain devotees of the ‘ten-minute takes‘ make a point of despising, the reason for the greater part of the truth which this figure of style contains.

            Indeed, the formal schema of 1917 ensures that it lacks the psychological charge that even the most rudimentary war films contain. Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins rightly suppose that their camera must be able to move 360 degrees around the actors to capture their expression. There are even a handful of closeups in the film to underscore dramatically important moments. But these closeups are simply relayed as discrete packets of new information (grief, shock etc.) without actually anticipating them. The viewer’s identification with a protagonist often passes through a combination of an action and the protagonist’s immediate reaction to it. Think of Kirk Douglas walking through the trenches looking at the cowering soldiers in The Paths of Glory. The continuous camera movement of 1917, however, prevents shot-reverse shot constructions. Here, the roving camera introduces a delay between action and reaction, allowing the viewer to get ahead of the protagonists. Or we see the actors’ reaction before the camera pans to what they are reacting to, which makes the reaction only mysterious.

            Finally, the notion of transforming the most horrifying of wars into an awe-inducing spectacle carries a stench of Big Money cynicism. To be sure, the idea is to immerse the audience into a time-space where there’s no time for mourning or contemplation, where the only action allowed is to move on, physically and mentally. “It doesn’t do to dwell on it”, tells a higher-up to one of the corporals after a tragedy. And there are references to the “horrors of war”, to death and destruction. But all of that is wrapped up in a triumphalist narrative closer to a speedrun through a particularly hard third-person shooter than a meditation on war. Deakins and Mendes concoct several visceral, stunning passages, breaking the monotony of the conceit with regular changes in scale, pace and tone. The viewer is perpetually aware of the creation of this spectacle, even when it tries to conceal it. This self-awareness, though, is led nowhere but a dumb submission to technical virtuosity.

Writing about his son’s enthusiastic visit to the offices of a comic book publisher, American critic Robert Warshow reflected on the benefits of disillusionment: “I think Paul’s desire to put himself directly in touch with the processes by which the comic books are produced may be the expression of a fundamental detachment which helps to protect him from them; the comic books are not a ‘universe’ to him, but simply objects produced for his entertainment.” Maybe 1917 is a new kind of war movie, a proto-Brechtian project that produces an illusion of the world even as it induces a doubt as to how that illusion was produced. And maybe that’s a good thing. We’ll know in time.

[From my column on studio-era Hollywood films for Firstpost]

“Produced by Warner Brothers, the film traces its lineage partly to psychiatrist Robert Lindner’s eponymous book on psychopathy. While its script does offer ample psychoanalysis of its characters, Nicholas Ray isn’t interested as much in offering a study of these wayward youngsters as obliging the viewer to share their viewpoint. Criminal behaviour is evoked, but it remains off-screen, registering simply as symptoms of a more fundamental problem. Classical Hollywood’s poet laureate of youth, Nicholas Ray immerses us into a world in which adults are only powerless spectators. His focus is on young people living through the final hours of a tumultuous period in their lives. The film unfolds in just over a day, a duration in which the teens break with their parents, make friends, experience death, find love and come of their own.

In one famous scene, the school takes its students to the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles for a show on constellations. The youngers’ rivalries and grudges seem positively petty set against the commentator’s remarks on the insignificance of human life on the cosmic scale. On the other hand, the emotions they are living through is a veritable end-of-the-world scenario for them. Jim and his peers are, as it were, “half in love with easeful death”, even though they don’t wholly understand the concept. They engage in a sensational knife fight outside the observatory in a display of one-upmanship. That night, they continue their battle in the form of a “chickie race”, which involves driving stolen cars towards a cliff and jumping off at the last moment. Jim survives, but his rival Buzz (Corey Allen) perishes. As Jim unsuccessfully explains to his parents that he should turn himself in and walks away to the police station, the other youngsters decide to threaten him against it. This leads to a long night of strife in which all the teenagers of the town are out on the streets, the adults relegated to the margins of this failed society. Running away from the mob, Jim, Judy and Plato end up at a deserted mansion near the observatory. They romance, crack jokes and horse around in the dark—a behaviour much removed from the death-stricken panic of the hour before. If the film’s depiction of the youngsters’ amoral power games was a sharp deviation from the clear moral binaries of classical Hollywood, this indifferent response to a fatal incident borders on the scandalous.”

 

[Full article at Firstpost]

Gantumoote (“Baggage”, 2019, Roopa Rao)

That a coming-of-age tale told from a girl’s point of view seems exceedingly fresh partly points to cinema’s conditioning of the audience to the primacy of the male gaze. Rao’s film is the hidden half of a story we are intimately familiar with: a lively, popular boy loses his way in life because of his romance. Rao filters the story entirely through the perspective of her protagonist Meera (Teju Belawadi, daughter of filmmaker Prakash Belawadi), in whose voiceover the film unfolds. At times superfluous and overpowering, the anachronistic voiceover oscillates between the adult Meera, trying to make rational sense of her experience, and her teen self, living life as it presents itself, and nevertheless provides fruitful tensions with the image. From the outset, Rao portrays the movie buff Meera as someone who likes to see (the interaction of screen and spectator has generally been the prerogative of male cinephiles). Through countless shot-reverse shot constructions, she makes the viewer share Meera’s awakening of desire. All through, the emphasis is on Meera’s autonomy, her right to be alone, to want alone, to suffer alone. Rao plays off specific gestures (Meera pulling her boyfriend by his shirt sleeves, his preventing her from biting her nails) against a series of moods (the anxious wait for first kiss in monsoon, the languid summer vacation), specific memories of Meera’s against her lack of knowledge of events beyond her purview. Even when it goes in and out of student film territory, Gantumoote is carried forth by Belawadi’s incredible turn. Her frame drooping in harmony with her eyebrows, she looks over the shoulders, hers or her beloved’s, her eyes conveying her inner life with the directness of subtitles. She is an instant star.

 

Ee.Ma.Yau (“R.I.P”, 2018, Lijo Jose Pellissery)

Ee.Ma.Yau deepens the suspicion I had watching Jallikattu: that Pellissery works like a painter. First comes the underlying structure; in this case, the social machinery of a small-town Christian community that springs into action following the death of a member. Overseen by a trusted friend of the deceased’s son, a doctor, a priest, a policeman, an undertaker, a printer, a coffin maker, a gravedigger and a music band galvanize around the dead alcoholic. Overlaid on this impersonal societal analysis, like colours on a drawing, are human emotions and characteristics: desire (of an man wishing a grand farewell to his dead father), malice (of a man who is bent on arousing suspicion around death), self-righteousness (of a priest who makes it his mission to complicate things), greed (of a coffin maker trying to sell an expensive unit), generosity (of a friend willing to abase himself to alleviate his friend’s suffering) and compassion (of a rival battered by the dead man). Like Jallikattu, this is a film about how these individual qualities overwhelm and destroy the community from within, turning a complex collective calculus to see off a man with civility into a spectacle of uncivility. Despite the (sometimes unwatchable) sordidness of the happenings, the stress is on the basic dignity of individuals. Pellissery’s characteristic, long Steadicam shots bridge indoors and outdoors, connecting the perspectives of characters that were only pieces in a communal mosaic before the death. The uniformly caffeinated performances are pitched above everyday realism, but below cartoonishness. While his work on the image is still strong—the floodlight-bathed coastal town has a distinct character—Pellissery has no qualms dealing in the abstract or being literal-minded: a blunt coda resumes the film’s philosophical motivations. A potent shot of cheap liquor you don’t want to try again.

 

Suttu Pidikka Utharavu (“Shoot at Sight”, 2019, Ramprakash Rayappa)

An unmitigated disaster. All it takes is five minutes to figure that this is the work of a bona fide hack. It’s the director’s third film and he’s apparently never heard of a tripod. One could say that Rayappa really puts the motion in motion picture. Three men (or four, who cares, certainly not the filmmaker) rob a bank and hole up in a cramped residential colony of Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu. A hot-headed officer (Mysskin, paying his bills) is on their heels. It so happens that a group of terrorists are hatching a bombing plot in an apartment in the same colony. The specificity of location suggests that the writer-director has a personal connection to it. But all we learn about the area is that it’s overridden by ostentatious and treacherous North Indians, and so the good policemen of Tamil Nadu are obliged to carry out a clean-up job. A big twist at the end is intended to overhaul our understanding of the events. The director is clearly aware that he’s been cheating his audience so far, and tries to cover his tracks with no avail. The result is a cheap prank in the vein of The Usual Suspects. There’s a monumentally irritating constable character whose stupidity is amped up solely for the big twist to work. The sole point of interest is the final reveal montage: in maybe fifty shots in three or so minutes, we get to hear the whole backstory—an indication of Tamil film audience’s increasing capacity to absorb a great volume of sudden information, a capacity thoroughly abused here.

 

Kavaludaari (“Crossroads”, 2019, Hemanth M Rao)

A valuable archaeological find was robbed and the family of the archaeologist murdered in 1977 at the peak of emergency—the original moment of the Indian public’s disenchantment with politics and its practitioners. The case, thought to be a stub, is pursued by a traffic policeman (Rishi) after 40 years when unidentified bones of three individuals are found during a road-widening project. The cop collaborates with the original officer who investigated the case (Anant Nag) to complete the puzzle. Co-writer of Andhadhun, Rao renders the idea of the police officer living with his case literally, as the people involved in the murder materialize in his apartment with post-production effects. The film starts out as a more ambitious portrait of men and their obsessions, problematizing the investigators themselves, but eventually settles on a traditional whodunit arc. Rao loads the narrative with information after information, plot thread after plot thread, whether they serve to enrich it or not, whether they are indispensable or not. The surfeit of information in itself—mimicking the cognitive experience of navigating today’s mass and social media—sustains a feeling of mystery and importance. The film is generally a couple of steps ahead of the audience, but imagines it is taking them along. In a crucial montage, the suspense is taken to an artificial crescendo through an intercutting between three different spaces. It’s supposed to create an anticipation about the identity of the killer, but what it does instead is produce an anxiety that something grave is underfoot. This mechanistic approach to thrill aside, Rao exhibits an admirable economy of exposition. Several sequences are constructed out of the fewest possible shots, the camera craning across space to furnish additional details. There’s a charming shot of the two investigators waiting in a car in which Anant Nag tries to trap a CGI fly as Rishi observes with amusement from the back seat.

 

Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum (“Evidence and Eyewitness”, 2017, Dileesh Pothan)

Having eloped, Prasad and Sreeja (Suraj Venjaramoodu and Nimisha Sajayan) are on their way to the north of Kerala when Sreeja’s matrimonial gold chain is stolen by a criminal (an ostentatiously self-effacing Fahadh Faasil) who swallows it when caught red-handed. The trio ends up at the police station of a tiny town to sort out the issue. It’s an open-and-shut case with no information withheld from the audience, and the film rejects novelistic suspense and epistemological mysteries. The director keeps riffing in scenes set in the police station by weaving in peripheral incidents of petty crime, which increases tension by delaying plot progression. This allows him to mix contrasting tones to great effect, visually (as in the shot of the devastated wife sitting next to colourful balloons), narratively (the triviality of the crime set against the seriousness of consequences) and conceptually (the sanctity of a marriage having to pass through a thief’s rectum). In an unusual characterization, he describes the police force as a rather transparent establishment where information trickles up and down with ease. The cops get comfortable with the plaintiffs on a first name basis, while the latter grow familiar with all the policemen. More sharply, the film spirals out of the story of small-time felony to weave a quasi-philosophical picture of individuals caught up in the whirlpool of impersonal institutional imperatives. The film’s Rashomon-like network of perspectives are centripetally held by the act of stealing a gold chain. The husband (seeking the stolen valuable), the wife (seeking honour and justice), the criminal (seeking liberty), the constable who lets him escape (seeking a closure to the case) are acting on a constant drive for self-preservation, but they are also capable of tremendous, sporadic grace. The equivalence between Prasad and the criminal—echo of another Kurosawa, Stray Dog—is perhaps overly stressed, but it doesn’t take away from the considerable accomplishment of this film.

 

Kirumi (“Germ”, 2015, Anucharan)

Anucharan wrote, edited and directed this debut feature. Kathir (Kathir) is an unemployed young man, offended by the disdain of his friends and family for his predicament. When he gets an opportunity to work for the police as one of their black-market mercenaries—employed to gather information, collect bribes and rough up suspects—he sees a way out of his impasse. He makes quick progress, soaring up the preferential ladder until he becomes too big for his shoes. There’s very little feeling for milieu here. We don’t get a sense of Kathir’s social situation. He seems to glide in and out of lower-middle class domesticity, rubbing shoulders with an unmarked pair of financially struggling friends, an underground police informer (Charlie, playing the kind of decent everyman that so well suits him), politically-enabled gambling lynchpins and, later, higher-up police officers. What it lacks in nuance and local colour, Kirumi makes up for with a smart structure. Taking the titular microbe as analogy, it sketches the tragedy of a disruptive agent that infects the corrupt body of the police institution—kept from total collapse by internal rivalries and mutual suspicions—only to end up strengthening its immunity and be rejected. Kathir is presented as someone resenting his lack of power and esteem, and his short-lived ambitiousness a product of his power trip. His horniness is regularly invoked, I suppose, as a reference to his compensatory, self-destructive masculinity. The filmmaking is cranked up for effect and the emotional peaks are somewhat misplaced. But the ending, with its perversely welcome cynicism in the mould of Chinatown, is refreshingly anti-climactic, understated and conceptually at home.

[From my column on studio-era Hollywood films for Firstpost]

“The film is adapted from a short story by Ernest Haycox, but there’s something European, particularly French, about its suspicion of mainstream society. It might have to do with the fact that Stagecoach traces its lineage partly to Guy de Maupassant’s short story “Boule de Suif”. Ford’s cinema isn’t particularly known for its affection for outsider figures, but Stagecoach exhibits a deep affinity for outcasts and deadbeats, conventionally unsuccessful characters who are “victims of social prejudice”. Perhaps Ford the Catholic saw in Dallas the fallen woman, Ringo the orphan, Boone the drunk and Peacock the unmanly a kingdom of the meek. In contrast, the Law and Order League, the group of society women that kicks Dallas and the doctor out of the town, is presented as a bunch of busybodies scandalized at the smallest gesture of nonconformity. When Dallas and Ringo drive away from the town at the end, the doc cries out, “saved from the blessings of civilization”.

            The critique of an exclusionary community is conveyed primarily through the character of Dallas, who is the heart of the narrative. All through the film, Ford emphasizes her pain of not belonging and her gratefulness at those treating her with dignity. Everyone, except the banker, eventually comes to respect her, yet she can’t become a part of them. Towards the end, when the group reaches its destination, Mrs. Mallory and company are taken indoors by the townsfolk, Dallas left standing at the doorstep. A contemplative moment finds her alone gathering her belongings from the coach. It’s a direct predecessor to the last shot of Ford’s The Searchers (1956) where it’s John Wayne standing alone at the entrance, incapable of taking part in the community.”

 

[Full article at Firstpost]

In Memory of John Baldessari (1931-2020)

Audiovisual installations in museums, when they are longer than a few minutes, tend to encourage the viewer to move on. Wandering through the wonderful Kunstmuseum in Basel three years ago, however, my eye caught a 16mm projection. It was John Baldessari’s Six Colorful Inside Jobs. I was riveted, and I sat through the entire 30-odd minutes. Like much of Baldessari’s other pieces, Six Colorful Inside Jobs is a work that revels in irony and paradox, elevating banality by subjecting it to a conceptual structure based on repetition.

The conceit here is simple: a man walks into an empty room of about 12×8 feet and paints it all over with a single colour. He performs this action six times over six days, going through the colours of the rainbow from red to violet. Despite the plainness of the idea, there’s some amount of mathematics underlying each ‘job’. Since each day is a single unbroken shot, sped up to five minutes of screen time, the painter must complete his task before the camera runs out of film.

This ingenious concept turns Six Colorful Inside Jobs from a whimsical idea into a study of the contrast between painting and cinema. The frame here is literally being painted, and the film is a document of the frame making itself. (A comparable notion is at work in Sharon Lockhart’s .At the beginning of each day, the room is a flat, colour field, undifferentiated except for the reflection of the overhead light. As the bearded man, dressed in white, starts painting, he emphasizes the room corners to produce an illusion of depth, or real space. This three-dimensionality, conversely, collapses into abstract flatness once the painter exits the room via the door on top right. Baldessari’s cool, impersonal art, though, is located beyond Greenbergian polemics, and his intervention here registers as a parodic take on the heated debates of post-war American painting.

A rather stark religious allegory, Six Colorful Inside Jobs begins with white light, which then breaks down into its individual wavelengths over the next six days. (In a bit of magic, the blue room at the end of Friday becomes indigo on Saturday morning.) The camera is fixed on the room’s high ceiling, and its wide lens embodies a ‘God’s eye view’ of the action. The artist in the room literally plays God, or an anti-God, creating a three-dimensional world from nothing, only to take it back to nothing.

In situating the act of creation in the humble task of painting walls, Baldessari also collapses the distance between the artist and the worker—a gesture that’s part of Baldessari’s general practice as well as a larger theme in 20th century art. A direct ancestor to Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson, Six Colorful Inside Jobs presents routine, structured as a six-day work week, as a source of unsuspected beauty. The painter carries out the same task every day, but the way he goes about constantly changes: his movement about the room, his brush strokes, his rhythm. He pauses now and then for a smoke break or to contemplate his creation. In a framework that leaves no room for qualities conventionally associated with artmaking—self-expression, innovation, skill—the painter nevertheless finds a space for an individual style. Six Colorful Inside Jobs is a cogent summary and entry point into Baldessari’s witty, provocative and ultimately edifying body of work.

 

[Six Colourful Inside Jobs (1977)]

 

The 2010s was the decade in which my film-love blossomed, matured, underwent crises, ended and made a late reappearance. My disillusionment with cinema and cinephilia resulted in a break of over three years, which offered me other interests and discoveries. 2016-2018 was a period in which I didn’t watch films as anything more than the casual moviegoer—this has also meant that I have missed the developments in world cinema landscape. Though I did ‘catch up’ on a few films from this period this year, it remains a significant gap, a marker of an enriching rupture in life.

While my memory of most of these films below has all but faded, I do remember them as works that made a stark impression on my cinephilic journey. I watched the first film on this list in a mountainous small-town cinema hall with a handful of other people. It was a very cold Monday evening in January 2017. I recall remaining seated in the hall after the film, quite stunned, and texting my friend Yvon that it was a “chef-d’oeuvre absolu”. There was a spring in my step during the familiar, ten-minute walk back home. For the first time in a long time, I felt confident about my decisions, about the place I was in life at that moment. I was reassured.

 

1. Paterson (Jim Jarmusch, 2016, USA)

2. The Death of Louis XIV (Albert Serra, 2016, Spain/France)

3. Son of Saul (László Nemes, 2015, Hungary)

4. The Turin Horse (Béla Tarr & Ágnes Hranitzky, 2011, Hungary)

5. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2010, Thailand)

6. Film Socialism (Jean-Luc Godard, 2010, Switzerland)

7. The Strange Case of Angelica (Manoel de Oliveira, 2010, Portugal)

8. Nostalgia for the Light (Patricio Guzmán, 2010, Chile/France)

9. The Truth (Hirokazu Kore-eda, 2019, Japan/France)

10. Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami, 2010, Iran/France)

11. Parasite (Bong Joon-ho, 2019, South Korea)

12. Goodbye to Language (Jean-Luc Godard, 2014, Switzerland)

13. Cosmopolis (David Cronenberg, 2012, Canada)

14. Francofonia (Aleksandr Sokurov, 2015, Russia/France)

15. The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese, 2013, USA)

16. This Is Not a Film (Jafar Panahi, 2011, N/A)

17. Holy Motors (Leos Carax, 2012, France)

18. A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, 2011, Iran)

19. Nainsukh (Amit Dutta, 2010, India)

20. The Second Game (Corneliu Porumboiu, 2014, Romania)

21. Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade, 2016, Germany)

22. Vitalina Varela (Pedro Costa, 2019, Portugal)

23. Austerlitz (Sergei Loznitsa, 2016, Germany/Ukraine)

24. Stranger by the Lake (Alain Guiraudie, 2013, France)

25. Pain and Gain (Michael Bay, 2013, USA)

Special Mention: Safari (Ulrich Seidl, 2016, Austria)

Filmmaker of the Decade: Sergei Loznitsa

2019 was a special year for me. I came back to cinema in an abiding way after a break of over three years. It was also this year that I quit my day job to write and translate full time, even if it has mostly been for this site. This second innings of my cinephilia has been more guarded, and I find it hard to be excited about watching this or that film, even if it’s by a favourite filmmaker. Part of the reason for this change, I think, is that I don’t repose as much faith in the taste-makers I was earlier guided by (major festivals, branded auteurs, critical consensus). This has weakened, if not completely collapsed, the structure in my mind of what constitutes important cinema of a particular year. Adding to this is the fact that the way I react to films has changed. In my writing, I see myself responding to certain aspects of a work rather than forming strong opinion on its overall merit. As a result, I’m as stimulated by lesser works with strong moments or ideas as I am by expectedly major projects. Whether this breaking down of hierarchies is a sign of openness to new things or a symptom of waning faith, I don’t know.

            The state of affairs in the world outside cinema hasn’t been easy either. The staggering return of the politically repressed around the world has found an expression in some of this year’s films too (Zombi Child, The Dead Don’t Die, Atlantics, Ghost Town Anthology, Immortal). Personally speaking, the increasingly dire situation in India hasn’t been without its influence on the way I relate to cinema. The brazenness of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) has now paled in comparison to the mind-numbing institutional violence towards the ongoing protests against the act. Looking at videos of police brutality on my social media feed, I wondered, as anyone else involved in matters of lesser urgency must have, if writing about cinema at this point even had a personal significance, leave alone a broader, social one. The directness of the videos, the clarity of their meaning and the immediacy of their effect made me doubt whether cinematic literacy—contextualization, analysis, inference, interpretation—was a value worth striving for. Weakening of convictions is perhaps part of growing old, but it makes writing all the more difficult. Every utterance becomes provisional, crippled by dialectical thought. I don’t have a hope-instilling closing statement to give like Godard does in The Image Book, so here’s a top ten list instead. Happy new year.

 

0. 63 Up (Michael Apted, UK)

 

1. The Truth (Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan/France)

 

While multiple films this year about old age have presented it as a time of reckoning, Kore-eda’s European project The Truth offers an honest, rigorous and profoundly generous picture of life’s twilight. In a career-summarizing role, Catherine Deneuve plays a creature of surfaces, a vain actress who struts in leopard skin and surrounds herself with her own posters. Her Fabienne is a pure shell without a core who can never speak in the first person. She has written an autobiography, but it’s a sanitized account, a reflection of how her life would rather have been. “Truth is boring”, she declares. Responding to her daughter Lumir’s (Juliette Binoche) complaint that she ignored her children for work, she bluntly states that she prefers to be a good actress than a good person. Behaviour precedes intent in the mise en abyme of Kore-eda’s intricate monument to aging, as performance becomes a means of expiation and a way of relating to the world. A work overflowing with sensual pleasures as well as radical propositions, The Truth rejects the dichotomy between actor and role, both in the cinematic and the existential sense. In the end, Fabienne and her close ones come together as something resembling a family. That, assures Kore-eda’s film, is good enough.

 

2. Parasite (Bong Joon-ho, South Korea)

 

The across-the-board success of Parasite invites two possible inferences: either that the cynical logic of capital can steer a searing critique of itself to profitable ends or that this twisted tale of upward ascension appeals to widely-held anxiety and resentment. Whatever it is, Bong Joon-ho’s extraordinary, genre-bending work weds a compelling social parable to a vital, pulsating form that doesn’t speak to current times as much as activate something primal, mythical in the viewer. With a parodic bluntness reminiscent of the best of seventies cinema, Bong pits survivalist working-class resourcefulness with self-annihilating bourgeois prejudice and gullibility, the implied sexual anarchy never exactly coming to fruition. He orchestrates the narrative with the nimbleness and legerdemain of a seasoned magician, the viewer’s sympathy for any of the characters remaining contingent and constantly forced to realign itself from scene to scene. Parasite is foremost a masterclass in describing space, in the manner in which Bong synthesizes the bunker-like shanty of the working-class family with the high-modernist household of their upper-class employers, tracing direct metaphors for the film’s themes within its topology. It’s a work that progresses with the inevitability of a boulder running down a hill. And how spectacularly it comes crashing.

 

3. Vitalina Varela (Pedro Costa, Portugal)

 

Vitalina Varela is an emblem of mourning. In recreating a harrowing moment in her life for the film, the middle-aged Vitalina, who comes to Lisbon following her husband’s death, instils her loss with a meaning. It’s a film not of political justice but individual injustice, the promise to Vitalina the that men in their resignation and madness have forgotten. It’s also a bleak, relentless work of subtractions. What is shown is arrived at by chipping away what can’t/won’t be shown, this formal denuding reflective of the increasing dispossession of the Cova da Moura shantytown we see in the film. Costa’s Matisse-like delineation of figure only suggests humans, enacting the ethical problems of representation in its plastic scheme. The film is on a 4:3 aspect ratio, but the viewer hardly perceives that, the localized light reducing the visual field to small pockets of brightness. Vitalina is a film of and about objects, whose vanishing echoes the community’s dissolution and whose presence embodies Vitalina’s assertive spirit. Her voice has its own materiality, her speech becomes her means to survival. Costa’s film is a vision of utter despair, a cold monument with an uplifting, absolutely essential final shot. A dirge, in effect.

 

4. Bird Island (Sergio da Costa & Maya Kosa, Switzerland)

 

The bird island of the title is a utopian place, a refuge for those wounded or cast aside by modernity. For sixty minutes, we are invited to look at five people working silently alongside each other in a bird shelter, tending to birds dazed by the airport next door. They don’t ask where these birds come from, nor do they expect them to leave soon. They simply treat the feathered creatures, re-habituate them into the wild and set them free. The reclusive Antonin, the new employee, is one such bird too, and his social healing at the shelter is at the heart of the film. Bird Island is full of violence, natural and man-made, all of which it treats with stoic acceptance, but it’s a work primarily about the curative power of community, the capacity for individuals to coexist in mutual recognition of each other’s frailties. In that, it’s the Catholic film par excellence, an allegory of the origin of religion. It’s also an exceptionally relaxing film to look at. Observing the participants absorbed like Carthusian monks in their individual tasks, even while working in a group, places the viewer on the same meditative state.

 

5. Heimat is a Space in Time (Thomas Heise, Germany)

 

Without question, Heimat is a Space in Time is the best 3½-hour film of the year. Heise’s sprawling experimental documentary uses largely personal documents—letters sent between family members, handed-down private documents—to evoke a broad history of 20th century Germany. As a narrator reads out the exchanges—Heise’s grandfather trying to reason with the Nazi state against his forced retirement, heart-rending accounts from his Jewish great grandparents describing their impending deportation, letters between his parents who were obliged to be in two different places in DDR—we see quotidian images from current day Germany and Austria, urban and rural. For Heise’s family, always made to justify their own place in the country and to never truly belong, the Germanic idea of Heimat seems positively a fantasy. While he reads out his great grandparents’ descriptions of their increasingly impossible conditions of living, Heise presents a scrolling list of Viennese deportees prepared. We try to look for the inevitable arrival of their names in the alphabetical list, our gaze forever deferred. When they do arrive, it feels arbitrary. In other words, what we hear could well be the story of any of the thousand preceding names. Perhaps all of them.

 

6. Slits (Carlos Segundo, Brazil)

 

A worthy heir to Tarkovsky’s Solaris, Slits draws its inspiration from quantum physics to explore patently human concerns of loss, grief and memory. The uncertainly principle it offers is a choice between being in this world, awake to the problems of living, and finding meaning in the elsewhere. Physicist Catarina (Roberta Rangel) makes ‘sound-photos’ to study quantum the properties of light. She makes extreme zooms into a digital image to perceive the noise issuing from particular coordinates. These ‘dives’ enable her to listen to conversations from another space-time. Grieving from the loss of her child, Catarina unconsciously attempts to find closure through her research. But trying to inspect the surface of things from too close, she loses sight of her immediate reality; trying to find solace in the objectivity of science, she ends up rediscovering the great lesson of 20th century science (and cinema): that the observer influences the observation. Shot in high-definition digital video, Slits is to this new format what Blow-up was to photography. It locates in the trade-offs of the medium—between details and stability, between richness of palette and noise—visual correlatives to its key idea of quantum uncertainty. A brilliant, sophisticated work of politico-philosophical science fiction.

 

7. Little Joe (Jessica Hausner, UK/Austria)

 

Of all the recent classical Hollywood riffs in mind, none reinvigorates the B-movie tradition as intelligently or potently as Little Joe. Hausner’s modernist creature feature is a monster movie unlike any other: the dangers of the genetically-modified “happiness” plant that biologist Emily (Alice Woodard) develops is exposed early on, and there’s no triumphal reassertion of mankind to counter its menace. What we get instead is a protracted, total submission of individuality to a hegemony of happiness. Little Joe is many things at once: a multi-pronged attack on the wellness industry straight out of Lanthimosverse, the difficulty of being less than happy in an environment that demands you to be constantly upbeat, the fallout of women artists trying to expunge their maternal complexes in their work and of mothers having to lead double lives. Hausner’s camera appears to have a mind of its own, settling on the space between people, which is what the film is about: the culturally mediated relations between individuals. It’s notable that the titular plant reproduces not biologically but culturally. With its terrific score and work on colour, Hausner turns the cheesecake aesthetic of the film against itself. The result is a film of unusual intellectual density and formal frisson.

 

8. Status and Terrain (Ute Adamczewski, Germany)

 

In Status and Terrain, the German obsession with documentation and due process is called to testify to the dialectical process of historical remembrance. Adamczewski’s gently moving camera surveys the length and breath of public spaces in the Saxony region, once a Nazi stronghold, now seemingly anaesthetized under liberal democracy. Official communication, bureaucratic reports and private testimonies read on the voiceover incriminate the buildings and monuments we see on screen, revealing their role in power struggles through the ages. Just as the documents vie for a narrative on the soundtrack, ideologies once thought dead and buried surface to stake their claims on the urban landscape in the present. Adamczewski moves through 80 years of German history non-chronologically, the collage of information pointing to the living, breathing nature of political belief systems. Nazi detention of political opponents in concentration camps, Soviet retribution and blindness to victims of persecution, rise of neo-fascist groups post reunification and the historically indifferent, bulldozing force of current-day neoliberalism play out on the surface of seemingly sedate cities and towns. Status and Terrain is a sober, bracing examination of the manner in which prejudice becomes writ, which in turn becomes history, but also of the way in which this history is contested.

 

9. Ham on Rye (Tyler Taormina, USA)

 

The premise is a throwback to the clichés of the eighties: a group of teenagers at a suburban school prepare for their prom night. But in Taormina’s sure-handed treatment, this banal event assumes a spiritual dimension. In the film’s cubist first half, different groups of boys and girls make their way to the restaurant-turned-dance hall, where they will take part in rites of initiation into adulthood and experience something like a religious communion. And then, right after this VHS-ready high, a void descends over the film, turning its raptures into a mourning, not for those who have left this small-town existence but for those left behind: disaffected youth drift about the town or going through robotic social rituals, devoid of magic or warmth. It’s a work evidently deriving from personal experience, but one that’s refracted through a formalist lens. The strength of Ham on Rye is not the depth of its ideas, but the vigour of its prose. Taormina’s manifestly personal style emphasizes the surface of things, the idiosyncratic shot division focuses on gestures and minor physical details to construct scenes, and the eclectic sense of music imposes a global consciousness on a narrative that is otherwise extremely local.

 

10. Just Don’t Think I’ll Scream (Frank Beauvais, France)

 

“Cinephiles are sick people”, said Truffaut. Frank Beauvais agrees. Following his father’s passing and a breakup, Beauvais shut himself up in his house in a trou perdu in Eastern France, and watched over 400 films in a period of seven months. Out of this glut, this sickness that Beauvais calls ‘cinéfolie’, came Just Don’t Think I’ll Scream, a film about looking, made wholly of clips from these 400 movies. Through a rapid, self-aware voiceover, the filmmaker reflects on his self-imposed isolation, his panic attacks, the poverty that prevents him from changing his lifestyle, his complicated feelings towards with political action, the conservatism of those around him and his relationship with his parents. Beauvais’s film is a record of his malady as well as its cure. In its very existence, it demonstrates what anyone sufficiently sickened by cultural gluttony must’ve felt: that the only way to give meaning to the void of indiscriminate consumption is to produce something out of it. Just Don’t Think I’ll Scream is not just a cinephile’s film, filled end to end with references, but the preeminent film about cinephilia, the solipsistic hall of mirrors that Beauvais breaks down and rebuilds inside out.

 

Special Mention: Gully Boy (Zoya Akhtar, India)

 

 

Frances Ferguson (Bob Byington)

Was it Beauty that killed the beauty? Frances Ferguson (Kaley Wheless) is pretty, and that is her problem. Byington’s “story of a woman cast adrift in the Midwest” follows the sin, punishment and redemption of Fran, a substitute teacher in a high-school in North Platte, Nebraska. Twenty-five years of age, Fran is going through a failed marriage to a sleazy, loafing husband. Sexual frustration and a mistaken replacement lead to an infatuation with one of the students. In vein of pornographic tales, she arranges to meet the boy secretly, tries to seduce him at a laundromat with a pathetic cheerleader costume (for the “Cougars”) and hooks up with him at the motel. She is promptly arrested, tried for abuse of authority to sexually exploit minors and incarcerated. Frances Ferguson outlines her parole life in detail, structuring it through different penal procedures Fran has to follow: probation debriefing, compulsory group therapy, behavioural counselling, community service, supervised visitation of her daughter, probation exit interview and even voluntary group therapy sessions. Life outside the prison turns out to be even more distressing, uninvited attention for her looks now compounded with the notoriety of being a sex offender. All through the ordeal, the question that arises is whether Fran’s good looks are responsible for her trouble as for the townsfolk’s vivid memory and negative perception of her. Her warden wonders why female sex offenders are invariably pretty. When she tells her therapist that she hardly had authority at the school to abuse, he retorts that beauty is a kind of authority.

The story is recounted by a humorous, at times tendentious, male narrator (Nick Offerman), whose personality constantly comes in way of his objectivity. He contradicts Fran, who also gets to narrate the story from time to time (“joie de vivre”, he corrects Fran who is trying to fake her way through a French class). He inserts his own opinion on the proceedings and acts as a Greek chorus for Fran’s impending tragedy (“Was this breaking the law”? he asks at every turn of Fran’s). The narrator calls to mind Listen Up Philip, but one that’s less world-wise and serious about himself. Byington avoids traditional shot-reverse shot constructions, preferring to build conversations out of separate close ups; the scene of Fran’s interrogation by two police officers is particularly well-edited. He employs an 8-bit video game-like music cue, and a camera that goes out of focus to bid farewell to characters, to funny ends. The sound-bridges and the on-screen texts introducing characters and situations sometimes recall sitcoms, but the comic sense here is much more subtle. It’s still characteristic American sarcasm at work, but Byington pares down the exchanges, cutting away the excess fat that usually burdens American comedies with an insufferable smugness: when the prison cab driver asks Fran to use regular cabs as they are cheaper, she only asks him: “the next time I’m released from prison?”, dropping out the obligatory “sure” at the end. Wheless’ blank-stare performance, accompanied by internal screams, is the visual correlative of this muted comic strategy.

Immortal (Ksenia Okhapkina)

The only contextualizing text of Ksenia Okhapkina’s Immortal speaks of the gulags that were built to industrialize the arctic stretches of Russia. When the camps were opened after Stalin’s death, we’re told, the prisoners stayed back in the town. It’s a telling detail, whether you choose to see it a gesture of helplessness or the product of Pavlovian indoctrination. This three-line title card has more insight to offer than the film that follows. Okhapkina’s 60-minute film presents impressionistic vignettes from one of these erstwhile gulags, a mining town in the arctic still bearing the visual signatures of the Soviet era: image and quotes by Lenin plastered on walls, alongside posters of other Russian heroes. It would seem that it wasn’t just the people who stayed back, but the ideology too. Immortal examines this persistence of ideology in two spaces. In the first, a group of girls are being trained at a ballet school. The instructor asks them to exert themselves and fall in line with others. This exigence, as well as the ballet music, overflows into the second space: a military camp mostly for boys and young men. We see different groups of children and youth being trained for various competences: instruction in training assault rifles, mission simulations, marching drills, shooting practice, screening of nationalistic videos about Soviet kamikaze pilots with promises of concomitant greatness. The boys are insulted by the instructors over looks and behaviour, punished for minor mistakes and questioned over their origin.

The synchronization of military drill to ballet music and the marshalling of soldier bodies into harmonious movement, filmed here in disorienting closeups, brings to mind Beau Travail. Both the ballet (?) and the military camp, it’s revealed, are preparations for an enlistment ceremony on Russia’s Fatherland’s Heroes Day. The show, and the oath, anthem and photography session that follow, seem remnants of Soviet pageantry. Okhapkina pads these two narrative strands with repeated imagery from the town: the spectral to-and-fro of freight trains carrying mined material, hooded miners knocking about in the snow, buses that convey the youth from their house to the camp and back, the dingy corridors of the apartments where they live, a worker using a blowtorch to melt ice off a national monument, an empty factory and the barbed wire fence around it, and so on. The deserted public spaces seem to belong to a ghost town, or a place with no sense of freedom and life. A lone dog barks in the snow, until its fur is covered with frost, forcing it to find shelter. Faces of young men and women are intercut with drawings of heroes, which themselves are intercut with shots of tombstones and cradles, suggesting individualities hollowed out by state apparatuses. Immortal is unquestionably successful in evoking a despairing mood, but it also feels like an exercise in shooting fish in a barrel. Curiously, the film is at its weakest when dealing with concrete events such as the ballet class and the drill—who’d ever suspect a military camp to be a space of ideological indoctrination? I can imagine the material better suited for a book of photos or illustrated poems.

For Sama (Waad Al-Kateab, Edward Watts)

Whatever Russia Today or Al Jazeera will have you believe, whatever you think of American deep state’s collusion with Islamist fundamentalism, whatever objections are raised about the funding of “rebel” reporters, the brute facts regarding For Sama are there for everyone to see: Waad Al-Kateab stayed back with her doctor husband Hamza in rebel-controlled east Aleppo, delivered a baby and lived through the worst months of Putin-backed state bombing of her district. She kept filming, even when the bombings were at her doorstep, even when bodies piled up at the makeshift hospital that she had made home. Edited and telecast this year on British television, For Sama is a record of Al-Kateab’s life between the first student protests in 2012 to her eventual emigration in December 2016. It is presented as a filmed letter to her baby, Sama, to explain her parents’ decision to stay back in east Aleppo despite the impossible conditions of living, despite the inevitability of defeat. Filmmaking here becomes an existential cry against an order of things that would rather not hear these voices. The regime denied that the student protests were going on, says Al-Kateab, filming was the only way to show otherwise. For Al-Kateab, it becomes increasingly important to film as the military makes advances into east Aleppo, reducing the rebels to a few square kilometres. Filming, she says, gives her a reason to believe.

“Silence makes you feel that the city is dead”, notes the filmmaker when she finally leaves the city. Indeed, the incredible shock of For Sama stems from the extraordinary disconnect between image and sound, between the visual illusion of normalcy and the constant noise of shelling. So much so that even Sama doesn’t react to the explosions. The film is an inexhaustible series of harrowing sights—a mother carrying her dead son wrapped in plastic, a baby resuscitated from the clutches of stillbirth, a pan shot from a dead child to Sama in the operating room, Waad and Hamza singing to calm Sama down as they sneak back into their district, a young boy talking about his missing friends, two hospital attendants warming themselves over the shell that has pierced the building—whose horror is redoubled by the facts of normal life punctuating them: a wedding, Sama’s birth and antics, reunions with other families who are staying back, everyday school, painting sessions, a persimmon fruit as a gift, Waad’s repeated declarations of love to Hamza. To be sure, Al-Kateab makes only a passing mention of the extremists running her city, and we don’t get a clearer idea of what’s holding them back from leaving this nightmare, except their faith in revolution. In a sense, it is problematic that For Sama excises politics out of its narrative, rendering it an account of the extraordinary bravery of people fighting an abstract force of annihilation. On the other hand, it’s a deeply disturbing reminder that peace is not a stable condition interruptions to which are wars, but a fleeting, fragile state that can be swept away overnight.

The Lighthouse (Robert Eggers)

The story of Prometheus, with its democratic challenge to the keepers of the fire, represents a metatext of Western modernity, but its tragic vision also dovetails with the Christian worldview. Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse reinterprets this pagan myth, infusing it with a stark (anti-)Catholic flavour. Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe play lighthouse keepers, Winslow and Wake respectively, posted on a remote, deserted island for a month. Wake the boss has Winslow do all the menial chores on the island, while he reserves the lofty task of maintaining the light on the tower. The bearded Wake, who is indeed a walking parody of a seaman, delivers long, literary monologues in sailorspeak, even when he’s only ordering Winslow to wipe the floor or cursing him for not liking his cooking. He pulls rank over Winslow every time he can, at times gaslighting his subordinate and weaponizing his original sin, which Winslow confesses during a night of drunken revelry. With mounting isolation, sexual frustration and a possibility that his stay on the island will be permanent, Winslow starts to lose it, abetted in no small part by alcohol. Soon, the pair bickers like the seagulls hovering above the island. The Lighthouse is set in no particular place or time, and it’s deliberately set at a register far above ordinary realism. This lack of particularity, combined with the simplicity of the outline, give the film a horror fable-like texture. This ethereal quality is countered by a grimy realism of mise en scène. Scenes of violence and physical degradation are visceral and the film features every bodily emanation possible.

There’s another reason that The Lighthouse floats unmoored to history. It’s evidently a very cinema-aware work, echoing if not quoting a range of films from the Expressionist classics to Ingmar Bergman and Bela Tarr. Its memorable monochrome cinematography, with geometric movements of the camera, looming shadows and an ominous atmosphere, its boxy aspect ratio, its actors staring back at the camera, and its use of medium and ‘American’ shots all make it feel familiar without locating it within a specific cinematic tradition or time period. That said, it is to Eggers’ credit that, despite the evocations, the film never feels like a pastiche. The Lighthouse employs horror movie tropes in its foreboding sound and visual design, but it doesn’t go where traditional horror films go. In fact, the stakes as well as the outcome of the premise, that the two men are going to go stir crazy, is clear right at the outset. The disintegration that does happen is played out with ample dose of comedy: Wake’s farts echoed with the sirens of the lighthouse, his towering self-seriousness that must inevitably mask a sense of uselessness, and Winslow’s eventual outburst when he blows his superior’s cover. Dafoe and Pattinson are fascinating to look at, especially in their very physical scenes with homoerotic undertones, but the film itself feels like a slight cinephilic sortie.

Walden (Daniel Zimmermann)

In the first shot of Austrian artist Daniel Zimmermann’s Walden, a camera pans from left to right in the middle of a forest. It’s still and quiet, and it isn’t until minutes into the shot that we have the first human presence. A lumbering activity is underway and we hear the hum of a chainsaw in the distance. Around the eighth minute of the shot, amid cries of timber, a tree falls, its tip just a few feet from the camera. When the camera completes full circle, the view has changed so much that we aren’t sure whether it’s the same spot the camera started at. Human action on the environment is what Walden is about, traces as it does the conversion of the fallen tree into planks and its transportation over rail, road and sea to a forest location in Brazil. Walden tangentially fits into a tradition of narrative documentaries that purport to demonstrate the workings of a globalized economy by focusing on the provenance of specific consumer goods. While its cross-continental movement is still enabled by international trade, the timber here isn’t following the regular route of imported goods. As the film’s supporting text points out, the path of the planks in Walden is the reverse of the usual trajectory of goods in a global economy. The film never reveals the mystery of why a consignment of sawn wood must move from Austria to a tribal region in the Amazon.

This refusal to explain can partly be understood by the fact that Walden also inscribes itself into another tradition. Constructed out of thirteen 360-degree pan shots of about eight minutes each, it has a direct kinship to structural films such as those of James Benning. It’s especially reminiscent of Benning’s RR in its emphasis on movement of goods described in predetermined cinematic formulae. The structure raises the questions: why 360-degree pan shots and why nine minutes? I think there are no extra-cinematic explanations to these choices and that these are foundational parameters—arbitrary givens of the problem—that are to be taken for what they are. Besides, the shots don’t exactly complete full circle, most stop at three-fourths. The duration, too, ranges from seven to nine minutes. While Zimmermann’s camera moves at a constant pace, it gives the illusion of slowing down or speeding up depending on the movement that happens along the sweep of the camera. The moving timber makes its presence in every shot either at the beginning or the end, but the milieu it’s moving through—whether it’s a scenic port city in Brazil or a tribal village in the woods—is of equal interest. The film starts and ends in the stillness and silence of the jungle while its middle section consists of constant movement, just as it begins and closes deep within the woods, with its central passages having to do with modern facets of civilization. Zimmermann’s camera always seems to be at the right place and time to capture the most interesting action in the vicinity. This aspect reinforces its pre-determined structure over its documentary aspects.

The Whalebone Box (Andrew Kötting)

For those who have seen any of Kötting’s work, the confounding associations of The Whalebone Box shouldn’t come as a total curveball. The sixty-year-old Kötting makes playful experimental films featuring friends and family that work off English folklore and geography. A frequent protagonist is his daughter Eden, an artist herself, who was born with Joubert Syndrome. Eden is both the narrator and the inspiration for this new film. Two dominant narrative strands emerge from the audiovisual thicket of The Whalebone Box. In the first, we see Eden dressed as a May Queen, seated in a forest on a fauteuil holding a hunting rifle and peering through binoculars. She is admittedly looking for a whale to hunt down. We also see her at a museum and, more frequently, in bed. Subtitles express her thoughts and dreams, which are about a box made of whalebone, an artefact she recreates in cardboard. The second narrative strand is actually about the legendary whalebone box, which was reportedly created by sculptor Steve Dilworth on the Scottish island of Harris thirty years ago. The island, we are told, is now afflicted with an unknown epidemic and the box might hold a cure. So Kötting, the writer Iain Sinclair and the photographer Anonymous Bosch set out with the box on a journey from London to the north. They stop at places of mythological import to “charge the box” with curative energy. Several shots of the film show the box on the dashboard of the group’s car or Sinclair lugging it around the English landscape. Interspersed with this journey is monochrome clips of children playing and recreating pagan myths.

Now, how much of this myth is fabricated, we don’t know (I suspect all of it is); Kötting’s rough-hewn home movie aesthetic imparts a found-footage like authenticity to it. But what is evident is that The Whalebone Box is partly a wish fulfilment project in which Kötting fashions a film after his daughter’s dreamlike fiction. He departs from the basic idea of a mysterious whalebone box and weaves in all the references that it evokes. There’s Moby Dick, for instance, which had already made its appearance in Kötting’s earlier work. The filmmaker expands on the MacGuffin with soundbites from Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly, also about a box with deadly powers, and Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. Other references include Pandora’s box, the black box of airplanes and Schrödinger’s box containing the cat, which here stands for the whale simultaneously in “a state of being on land and returning to ocean”. The artefact the trio carries is at times swapped with Eden’s cardboard version, making clear the playful, recreative intention behind the project. Shooting in 16mm, Kötting employs an amateur film style with handheld camera and washed out colours. He quotes titles from Philip Hoare’s book Leviathan and has poems read on the soundtrack. At times, he overlays recorded speech over the same words captured on location, imparting an oneiric rhythm and texture to the film.

So Pretty (Jessie Jeffrey Dunn Rovinelli)

Four gender-fluid youth spend their days in a shared apartment in Manhattan. They cook, have sex, paint protest posters, make music, organize reading sessions in the park and discuss communism. Trans filmmaker Jessie Jeffrey Dunn Rovinelli’s So Pretty presents the life of these young, queer folk as a self-sufficient world. Considering that we see it through the eyes of its participants and their friends, there’s no outsider gaze against which these lives are to be assessed. The camera often follows them walking the sidewalks of New York, this liberating gesture being a given. Their protests and the police crackdown of these protests are only suggested and remain in the periphery. Grafted on the documentary record of this everyday routine are details from the eponymous novel by German writer Ronald M. Schernika. So Pretty isn’t as much an adaptation as a dialogue with the novel. The actors of the film take turns reading passages from the book to each other. The film dramatizes what they read sometimes. Tonia, the “character” played by Rovinelli, is in fact in the process of translating the book and discusses with Franz (Thomas Love) on whether a particular word needs to be translated negatively as “coupledom” or positively as “togetherness”. At first, it appears that Paul (Edem Dela-Seshie) and Erika (Rachika Samarth) are a stable, “trans heterosexual” couple, but it soon becomes apparent that there’s no point boxing the desires of these characters. They make out and sleep with each other in every combination, their interlaced bodies on bed being a punctuating visual of the film.

Rather than the representational politics or particulars of the adaptation, it’s the film’s formal strategies that struck me the most. Rovinelli’s camera pans and tracks in extremely slow motion across the rooms, producing tableaux of people in ordinary interactions. In a remarkable early shot, six characters sit in the dining room making small talk in pairs. Some of them are off the frame, and their voices are mixed so that they vie equally for our attention. Like in a Robert Altman shot, there’s no central point of focus, and our ears and eyes shuttle from one pair to another, without every settling on any of them. In the following scene Franz and Tonia make their bed. Their heads out of the frame, our focus oscillates between the two across the vast negative space of the bed. I presume this asymmetrical manner of framing has a theoretical underpinning, but it’s also a visceral choice. Tonia suffers a heartbreak with Franz, but this never becomes a dramatic element. A long shot presents the two, now in a different apartment Tonia has taken up, cooking, doing dishes and eating in the kitchen, the tense, wordless atmosphere signalling the straining relationship. The film’s measured pace is further diluted as the relationship buckles and even more so when the police arrests Erika. The characters split up in two groups and the ambience becomes mournful. Towards the end, the film becomes a pure light-and-sound performance played against Erika’s music that mixes melody and atonality. In other words, a sustained mood piece.

Mother (Kristof Bilsen)

The Baan Kamlangchay centre in Chiang-May, Thailand, is a home run by a Swiss national for patients suffering from Alzheimer’s, dementia and related ailments. It shelters fourteen patients from German-speaking countries and employs three local caregivers. The film begins with the anguished thoughts of one of them. Pomm is separated from her husband and gets to visit her three children only occasionally. She works two jobs to pay back her debt and secure a future for her children. Bilsen’s film too juggles two narrative arcs. In the first, we follow Pomm’s routine: her comfortable rapport with her nonagenarian patient Elizabeth, her visits to her mother and children living several hours away, her interactions with her employer, her account of her father’s depression and eventual suicide, her mourning over Elizabeth’s passing, and articulations of her anxiety about her old age and her guilt over ignoring her mother. Running parallel to Pomm’s life is Maya’s in Switzerland. Maya is 57 years old and suffers from Alzheimer’s. After much deliberation and concern, her husband and daughters have decided to admit her to Baan Kamlangchay. They speak about the prejudice associated with sending your loved one to a home. Indeed, Maya’s family couldn’t be more loving. We see her daughters take her for daily walks, doing her hair and nails, preparing her move to Thailand, packing her medicines and clothes, and generally being there for Maya. Bilsen cuts between Pomm and Maya before they meet in reality, and when they do, he reinforces their almost predestined bond through a closed shot-reverse shot-reaction shot triad at the home.

Mother is evidently about caregiving and maternal affection, but it’s a detailed study in the cultural differences involved in familial bonds. Pomm is moved when she meets her mother after a while. She tells the camera that she wants to hug her, but wouldn’t dare to, given her cultural norms. On the other hand, we see Maya’s family expressing their love through embraces and kisses. Maya’s relation to her pre-teen children, in contrast, is much more intimate and physical than what Western parents would exhibit towards their adolescents. Bilsen intercuts between the two families to illustrate different verbal and non-verbal expressions of affection. Now, as an employee at the home, Pomm has to be much more physical with her Western patients, who are maternal figures to her, than she is with her own mother. This evocation of the effects of global capital on the most personal of relationships is what gives Mother its intellectual foundation. The very fact of the home being in Thailand, and not in expensive Switzerland, points to the economic underpinnings of the caregiving industry. Pomm discusses shifts and holidays with her boss, who calls his patients customers. But she is also genuinely caring of her patients. Mother doesn’t state that either capital or caregiving trumps the other. It merely throws light on newer forms of a labour that’s always been side-lined, and the contradictions that these new forms produce. Pomm reflects on the good fortune of her patients to be able to pay for the care, which she herself won’t be able to afford for her mother. In Marxist terms, Pomm is alienated from her own service, even when it doesn’t involve any means of production. What would happen to her, Pomm wonders, when she is old? Would her kids provide her the same care? If they move to Switzerland, perhaps.

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