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

“While the transition to sentimentalism can seem jarring for viewers used to tight film noir narratives of the era, Cloak and Dagger deems it important and just to give Gina this passage of peace and warmth before the spy film resumes with all its violence and mayhem. For Lang’s film is first and foremost a fable about the loss of innocence—a theme that preoccupied the filmmaker throughout his working life. In 1945, the year before the film’s production, the Nazi concentration camps were discovered, shaking western civilization’s deep-rooted faith in progress. It was also the year atomic bombs were dropped in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, catapulting humanity into an age of fear and uncertainty.

One of the first Hollywood films to deal with the moral and existential repercussions of the nuclear era, Cloak and Dagger evokes the disillusionment of a civilization with the stories it has been telling about itself. The film was written by Albert Maltz and Ring Lardner Jr., screenwriters blacklisted in 1947 as part of Hollywood’s anti-communist drive, and Jesper’s opening speech spells out their pacifist dispositions. In an interview years later with Peter Bogdanovich, Lang revealed that the film’s original ending had Jesper discover an abandoned concentration camp with several thousand deceased inmates who had been forced to work on the bomb. This conclusion, with its suggestion that the real danger had only begun, was too strong for producer Milton Sperling, who instead ended the film triumphantly with Jesper returning to America with Polda.

Jesper, too, experiences this loss of innocence in a stylized-yet-austere scene set in an apartment foyer, where he’s forced to fight a henchman tailing Polda. It’s an unsettling, very physical sequence of hand-to-hand combat in which the henchman digs his nails into his rival’s eyes while Jesper, with Gina’s help, strangles the man to death. That this peace-loving scientist of lofty ideals could suffocate a man with his bare hands is the kind of dark irony Lang was adept at driving home. A master of mixing tonalities, Lang amplifies the brutality of the sequence by cutting it with sweet accordion music playing in the streets. As the dead man lies on the floor, a ball comes bouncing towards him from the staircase—a quintessential Lang image of corrupted innocence that harks back to his German-language masterpiece M (1931).

 

[Full article at Firstpost]

Doesnt Measure Up to the Subject

Radio Cinéma Télévision no. 436; 25 May 1958.

This article was written just for its last line. Radio Cinéma was a very catholic weekly. But the bigots didn’t know that an American shot inevitably framed Eve from head to thighs.

The triple interest of such a film faithful to the book of Genesis in all respects: attract a crowd of believers, lure in fans of Christiane Martel, ex-Miss Cinémonde and Miss Universe, and finally, cut rate production. There is no need whatsoever for several settings, extras or even sound: the subject lends itself particularly to budget cuts. That takes care of commercial interest.

The skill and hypocrisy of Alberto Gout, producer, writer and director, earlier the maker of the rather successful Saint François of Assisi and Adventuress (!)—a Mexican Maurice Cloche of kinds—prevail over sincerity and creativity. A subject with so much nudity should’ve forced the filmmaker to be creative: but no! Perhaps to please both his audiences, Gout has made a film of unbearable dryness. It’s with great difficulty that we find here and there some nice shots of Christiane Martel, our charming compatriot; but our director was much better inspired by Ninon Sevilla.

The only originality that breaks this naïve monotony midway: the passage from medium shots to American shots.

 

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

Synonyms (Nadav Lapid)

Nadav Lapid’s third film, Synonyms, like its predecessor, The Kindergarten Teacher, exhibits a special attention to words. It comes in the form of Yoav (Tom Mercier), a young Israeli ex-serviceman who leaves his home country for France. In Paris, he picks up a French dictionary and amasses synonyms to describe his hate for Israel. He refuses to speak in Hebrew, even when he works at the Israeli embassy and rubs shoulders with fundamentalist Batar volunteers. Identity being socially determined, Yoav can neither completely abandon Israel nor assimilate into the French culture that he loves unilaterally. Lapid realizes that a realist approach to this autobiographical tale would be both tedious and unoriginal, so he pegs the film on a register where psychological causality doesn’t hold. A non-professional, Mercier invests all his energy into the shots, his extreme physicality threatening to spiral out of control at all times. The film is likewise rugged, mixing nausea-inducing handheld shots with more graceful movements of the camera. The extra space available offered by the widescreen also allows for much movement and dynamism within shots.

Inspired by the location as well as his sojourn in France, Lapid draws liberally from the art film tradition. Yoav, and the bourgeois couple who shelter him after he is robbed, are variants on Bresson’s disaffected young men, and their half-naturalist, half-theatrical line delivery is similarly inflected with poetic stylization even when the content is ordinary. The constant interaction between youth, poverty and the sense of dislocation also recalls Carax, while the makeshift ménage à trois Yoav forms with his hosts could be from any post-68 French film. It’s to Lapid’s credit that he’s been able to mould these influences into a personal style. On the other hand, there’s really no framework that contains Yoav’s actions. Just when Yoav obtains French citizenship through a sham marriage, he rejects the idea owing to some undefined moral compulsion. He belts out the Marseillaise and Israeli national anthem with equal zest at the integration class, but the film also undercuts the Republican values taught at the same course. Yoav’s contradictions, as a result, feel artificial, a dramatic contrivance with very little context to back it up.

Midsommar (Ari Aster)

Having tragically lost her sister and parents, Dani (Florence Pugh) leans on her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) for support. While Christian is understanding, his friends think she’s taking too much advantage of him, offering little in return. When one of Christian’s friends invites them to his village in Sweden to participate in midsummer festivities, Christian asks Dani to join them in order to not offend her rather than out of concern. When the film actually gets going, the group finds itself in an isolated commune in central Sweden. The commune, uniformly of Scandinavian extraction and sporting white costume, is welcoming of the strangers, offers them psychedelic drugs and lets them tour their facilities. But movies have prepared us to read communes as cults, and this one turns out to be no different. The summer festivities grow bizarre by the day and includes ritual suicides and sacrifices. Anthropology graduates, Christian and a friend, meanwhile, fight over the rights to write a thesis on the commune. Soon enough, the visitors make those idiotic moves characteristic of horror movies and end up disappearing, leaving Christian and Dani to fend for themselves.

If Midsommar takes its own time to move the story along, it’s because it fashions itself as an intimate film about lovers’ paranoia expressed in horror movie terms. If the film has an insight to offer, it’s that couples in isolation from each other are prone to being brainwashed into doubt, be it by well-meaning friends or by murderous cults, into believing that they deserve better than what they have. It would have served the film better then to have characters that aren’t off a stencil as they are here. Dani, especially, comes across as needier, clingier than the film supposes, and her constant anxiety about Christian ignoring her make her even less sympathetic. Nor does the film have any ambivalence towards the commune to genuinely propose it as a solution to Dani’s perennial loneliness. The tragedy of her past is inserted in flashes, claiming psychological weight in a film whose pleasures are on its surface. Midsommar succeeds primarily as an assured iteration of the last girl template and is noteworthy in how little it relies on traditional horror movie tropes: it’s shot in broad daylight of northern summer, all shocking information is signalled beforehand, and visitors to the cult meet the exact fate you imagine for them. The film has passages of alluring visual and sonic rhythm, and the long-tether narrative moves through different perspectives and spaces freely once at the camp. The camera has a life of its own, pushing and pulling, craning up and down to describe a world out of whack.

The Beach Bum (Harmony Korine)

Harmony Korine’s The Beach Bum immerses the viewer into the bohemian life of Moondog (Matthew McConaughey), a seasoned hedonist spending his days on the beaches of Florida in sex, alcohol and drugs. Moondog is a poet of unusual talent, we are told, and lives off the inherited wealth of his wife Minnie-Boo (Isla Fisher), who has an open affair going on with Moondog’s friend Lingerie (Snoop Dogg). When Minnie-Boo leaves behind a will that obliges Moondog to publish his long-pending book in order to inherit her money, the decadent poet becomes a nomad, reaching out to old friends for help. With a highly expressive colour palette, Korine’s sensual direction evokes a particular, self-indulgent view of life on the beach. Cycling through sunlit exteriors, interiors of gonzo tones and moody fluorescent streetlamps, the film progresses in a mosaic-like fashion, never lingering on any event for long, just like its protagonist, even as it deals with plot mechanics. Moondog’s treads light on the ground underneath, even when he’s pushed to a corner. And the film’s breezy aesthetic beguilingly captures this sense of transience of things.

Korine punctuates Moondog’s uncommitted life with moments of pathos, culminating in a charming romantic sequence with Minnie-Boo, the nightfall, the sea breeze, the white streetlight and Peggy Lee’s If That’s All There Is brought together into a fatalistic mix overseeing the tragedy that immediately follows. The Beach Bum is evidently on the side of Moondog, whose excesses it subsumes in a Romanticist notion of the downbeat artist who flouts conventions, but sees things more clearly than those around him. Moondog is a flaneur, perennially on the road with nothing but typewriter and a sack of books, depending on the universe to see him through the day. But the film also makes it plain that Moondog’s poetry is juvenile. He plagiarises from Lawrence, Baudelaire and Whitman, but his own work reads like bathroom scribbling. The people around him indicate again and again that beneath Moondog’s shallow life lies a core of genius, that behind his ironic relation to people and things likes a being of deep sensitivity—an intimation that never comes to fruition. These assurances of greatness subsidise his vulgarity and provide a reason to consider his humanity—an instrumental morality that goes against the film’s generous-seeming outlook.

The Souvenir (Joanna Hogg)

In contrast to The Beach Bum, Joanna Hogg’s Souvenir presents a modern, wholly original vision of the artist figure. Her autobiographical Julie (a heartbreakingly beautiful Honor Swinton Byrne, daughter of Tilda), a filmmaker in training, is neither a tortured genius, nor a social outcast. She is everything one doesn’t associate with artists: generous, unassuming vulnerable, passive, docile and supremely decent. She is in a romantic relationship with Anthony (Tom Burke), an opinionated, strong personality who looms large over Julie’s life. His yearning, poetic letters of love—presented as interludes read by Julie over shots of the countryside horizon—ascribe to her a power over him that (a) she doesn’t possess and (b) only serves to further disempower her. “Don’t be worthy, be arrogant”, he advises her. But Julie is incapable of feigning arrogance or authority, and that’s what gives The Souvenir its unique force. She is literally self-effacing, seen as she is at the edge of the frame for most part of the film. Julie is told to make films based on her experience, but she can’t bring herself to be arrogant enough to believe it’s worthy of being filmed. She’s always seen writing something else than her own life.

What The Souvenir gets so right is that Julie’s self-doubt as a person—in her relationship with her parents, with Anthony—feeds on and into her self-doubt as an artist. At shoots, Julie is never in control, allowing her work to be overshadowed by her collaborators. She’s mentally elsewhere, carrying the guilt of ignoring Anthony and regularly calling him back from the set. Hitchcock is invoked, and The Souvenir can be seen as a loose reworking of Suspicion, where Julie lets Anthony overpower her despite her better judgment. But unlike the swooning Joan Fontaine who is quite obviously head over heels in love with Cary Grant, Julie’s irrational attraction and jealously towards Anthony feels somewhat theoretical and laboured, added in retrospect. Shooting in 16mm in a beige-brown-white aesthetic, Hogg evokes the eighties through events entirely offscreen—money problems, Irish bombings, the flourishing of cinéma du look in France. She frames every shot with thoughtful consideration, with plenty of negative space. She often films Julie through reflective surfaces, accentuating the sense of her fragility, and cycles through familiar spaces and compositions, rendering them as intimate as the subject.

Karl Valentin’s The New Writing Desk

Bref no. 71; March 2006

This film, Valentin’s third, runs for nine minutes and thirty-one seconds; six minutes and twenty seconds in the copy projected, not at the original speed, but at twenty-four frames/second. This makes our assessment difficult: the acceleration gives too much prominence to stylization. We notice an idea of acting rather than a body language rooted in reality. Impossible to know whether, at the normal speed, Valentin’s acting remains as rapid.

He plays a scribe, may be an accountant (Valentin also wrote the one-act play The New Accountant in 1937) or a transcriber of official documents, happily living through life’s ups and downs, who orders a new writing desk to be able to write on. He realizes the desk is much taller than his chair. He saws the legs of the desk, but imprecisely and a little too much since the desk soon turns out to be wobbly and shorter than the chair, which Valentin then shortens with blows of hammer before sawing the desk again, still too high, and using a drill to further lower the chair even though it’s on ground level. He ends up drilling through the floor and falls on the customer of a barbershop below.

It’s a very simple scenario, based on the logical and the absurd. We are reminded of Ferreri’s Break Up: all Valentin had to do was to take exact measurements so that the desk is at the correct height. But Karl Valentin (1882-1948) milks all imaginable possibilities of a thin scenario, complicating things to the maximum (he sits on the chair by stepping across) and playing ‘village idiots’ (in 1936, in The Chequered Jacket, he unintentionally sells the jacket in which his rent money was tucked away).

Valentin, or tragic misunderstanding, through the comic gloom of poverty and everyday minimalism.

Valentin’s film is based on three acts: outdoors with the delivery men, then indoors—a single long act—with the delivery men and then alone, and finally the “punchline”1 at the barbershop, where the barber is shaving his costumer with a snow-white shaving cream, both men wearing white aprons; proper white suddenly invaded by the dirty white of the dust that falls from the drilled ceiling.

You will have noticed here a theme proper to Mitteleuropa or to Eastern Europe: this scribe is the little cousin to the government officers described by Kafka and Gogol. We clearly see Germany’s mediocrity in the 1900s, reduced to the piddling existence of an impoverished petite bourgeoisie, which we will encounter notably in Murnau’s The Last Laugh. The inanity of the protagonist has to do with that of the slaves of the bureaucratic system.

 

The art of the fugue

But it’s especially Bruegel that the portrait of these physically-deformed beings evokes: the “too big/too small” dialectic that we will later find sublimated in a film made in 1936, The Inheritance (where a couple discards all its furniture before inhering those of distant relatives who turn out to be dwarfs, with beds, chairs and wardrobes of their height, which the couple have to make do with, being completely broke). Next to the tall and skinny Valentin, one of the delivery men is fat and strong, the other seems to be a midget or a kid—an alternation visible right from the first shot in the street, containing extras of similarly contrasting and extreme appearance.

The crux of the film is based on a comic succession of Valentin’s efforts to resolve problems of size. Notice that he’s almost always dressed up in a false or a clown’s nose, which tends to diminish the illusion of reality. He plays with his instruments—saw, measuring tape, hammer, drill—with an assured virtuosity in harnessing clumsiness. Valentin is a practical man, carpenter by training, who lived frugally from this profession in his last years. Objects carry a secondary meaning: crouched or perched on his chair, with a quill over his ear, he evokes an owl on a tree. He plays with his saw as though it were a lyre, a bow to launch arrows with, all of this in a record time that lets us fully appreciate the effect without it being obvious: the art of the fugue. As Isou would say, the chiselling here is as much worked on as the discrepant. All objects are off-screen. He looks for them with a gesture of the hand: this invisible and immediate proximity gives the scene a highly enjoyable, unreal dimension.

The central static shot here is, in fact, made of many successive, similar-looking takes: same axis, same lens and with the same single character. He becomes an indispensable entity, a straitjacket that we can’t escape from any more than from the rigid monotony of the empire of Wilhelm II. The character works his way at the edge of the frame, which doesn’t grow bigger or smaller with respect to him or follow his movements. There are small jumps in continuity, which makes us suspect a positive or a negative damaged over time. But now, these are normal jump cuts that play on contrasts—for example, a woman in evening dress cut to the same woman, now naked—noticeable thanks to the similarity in their contents.

It’s completely against the grammar: Breathless half a century before there was Breathless. The presence of this device can be explained by the fact that there was no cinematic tradition in Germany at that time. The first, mediocre films date from 1910. One could hence do whatever one wanted. Valentin, who started in 1912, is a pioneer and the first auteur of German cinema. And it works just fine. That encourages us to reflect on the value of classical American continuity editing: does it have an ontological value? Or does it turn out to be the simple reflection of a dominant style based on a superficial order and harmony. I lean towards the second hypothesis. We have as proof Japan, whose films constantly cut across the 180-degree line forbidden by the Yankees. Had Germany and Japan won the war, film technique would have been upside-down. Film education, also in the clutches of Wall Street, needs a complete overhaul.

It’s surprising to discover a film so dense and accomplished, so modern and revealing of its time, only four years after the beginning of German cinema. And to think that it must’ve been shot in a day or two. There is even an assistant who enters the frame for a split second; it only shows the amateurism of the shoot.

 

Clown from the cabaret

Valentin’s film art was forgotten or despised for a long time, especially by all the histories of cinema. Valentin is, in fact, one of the great German filmmakers along with Lubitsch, Murnau, Lang, Fassbinder, Syberberg and Schroeter, and better than Pabst, who made one good film out of eight, than Riefenstahl, too pompous, than Wenders, who hasn’t stopped declining in the last twenty years.

He was forgotten because he came from cabaret and theatre, where he had a crazy success. So for many, he wasn’t a real filmmaker, even if only a few of his films are based on his plays, fourteen out of fifty-one, if I’m not mistaken. The same judgment was pronounced on Pagnol and Guitry—Chapin escaped this criticism because there’s no trace of his activity in London. Notice, however, that there isn’t a word written or said in The New Writing Desk:  we just see Valentin opening his mouth frequently for inaudible monologues. The final appearance of the floor below proves that it wasn’t a sketch written for the theatre, where a collapse into another setting would’ve been ruled out. Valentin’s future work—his career extends from 1912 to 1941—certainly gives prominence to dialogue: one thinks of Beckett.

Specificity my ass. What matters is not that Valentin shuttles indifferently from cinema to theatre, with the latter preceding only by five years. What matters is the achievement of a body of work that makes us laugh, that touches us, moves us, overwhelms us, like that of Chaplin (whom he perhaps influenced), through its innovation in acting, its verve, its sense of the absurd and of repetition, its darkness and its bitter outlook towards the human condition and towards the average couple, which he created with his wife, Liesl Karlstadt. He was forgotten because he was “into” short films: fifty in all, of which twenty-nine seem to have been lost. He is the only cinema genius (outside of animation and documentary) to have limited himself to short films, with the exception of The Eccentric (1928).

His sketches for the theatre, à la Davos, à la Dubillard, à la Bedos-Robin, never cross forty pages (The Dance Hall remains the longest). Brevity is often the synonym of concision and perfection, like in poetry. The cinema often attains the highest summits (Puissance de la parole) since it frequently spans the shortest durations, which remains a form of respect towards the viewer, expressing the politeness and the humility that you mustn’t make him waste his time.

Valentin was forgotten because he worked not in noble drama, but in comedy. And the Germanics don’t have a sense of humour. Since Valentin’s retirement in 1941, there has only been one good German comedy, Satan’s Brew, made by Fassbinder. Excepting Lubitsch and Wilder, the defectors, who fall into the category of Jewish humour2, we notice the lack of humour among the “great” Germans. There is no comedy by Lang. Murnau failed with his The Finances of the Grand Duke. A country too cold for laughter, like Scandinavia, which turns out to be slightly better (Dreyer’s Once Upon a Time, Bergman’s All These Women). If the Germans had had a sense of humour, the laughable Hitler would’ve been a fiasco and there would’ve been fifty million fewer deaths.

 

1[Translator’s note] A play on two meanings of the word chute (referring to both a fall and the punchline of a story or a joke).

2Isn’t the Holocaust also the hatred towards laughter, towards a civilization based on life-sustaining humour?

 

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

 

The Dead Don’t Die (Jim Jarmusch)

It must take a peculiar artistic temperament to follow up one of the decade’s best films with one of the year’s worst. Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die has no reason to exist except as the by-product of an old pals’ reunion. Adam Driver, Chloe Sevigny, Bill Groundhog Day Ghostbustin’ Ass Murray play cops Peterson (!), Morrison and Robertson respectively. They are the entire police force in charge of keeping order in Centerville, a town of less than 1000 inhabitants with an overpopulated juvenile penitentiary and cemetery. The officers don’t have much to do, except investigate missing chicken and keep an eye on Hermit Bob (Tom Waits), who lives in the woods. That’s only until the town is beset by strange incidents. A practice called polar fracking has reoriented the earth’s magnetic axis, resulting in exceptionally long days or nights. Animals go missing and the dead rise from their grave. Totally ill-equipped to handle the situation, the residents succumb to the zombies one by one. The linear simplicity of structure and composition that begins the film makes way for crippling hipster irony devoid of purpose or pleasure.

Besides this airless self-referencing, The Dead Don’t Die is also strewn with plugs to other films high and low. It’s clearly Jarmusch’s “take” on the now-buried B-movie tradition: the dialogue is expressly tacky (“Next to her dead body?”), the situations derivative, and the gore overdone. The actors are conscious of being in a Jarmusch movie—a stillborn idea that’s exhaustingly reiterated. But the film is invested in nothing, not even its own existence. The subtexts of Romero’s films are spelled out to intentionally keep them at arm’s length. Climate change is played out as a never-ending joke, as is a stilted redneck character played by Steve Buscemi. The zombies are of the most unimaginative kind, roaming around chanting ‘coffee’ (yes, coffee), ‘candy’, ‘drugs’, ‘wifi’ and other easy pickings like that. Jarmusch manages to make every element a grating presence, from the theme song to Swinton’s antics as a Japanophile mortician. Only Sevigny, with her completely misplaced sincerity and a subtle sense of self-deprecating comedy, livens things up in an otherwise dead undertaking.

The Traitor (Marco Bellocchio)

In The Traitor, Marco Bellocchio recreates the story of Tommaso Buscetta, a mafia boss from Palermo who turned government informant, leading to the arrest of hundreds of other members of the crime syndicate. The film opens in 1980, the year Buscetta was allowed to flee to Brazil where he’d be later picked up to be coerced into collaboration, and follows him through his “betrayal” over the next twenty years. Bellocchio and co-writers focus on the self-perception of the protagonist as an honourable man, whom Pierfrancesco Favino portrays with solemn dignity. While the mafioso and their workers take him to be a traitor, Buscetta sees himself as the true guardian of the Cosa Nostra tradition and the people he’s denouncing as the true traitors. This self-narrativization, the film underscores, is based on a notion of masculine honour above all else: Buscetta admittedly has a weakness for women (allowing the film to include gratuitous sex scenes); he resists aging and resents his wife supporting him financially in the US, where he’s put under witness protection. He spends his old age in the obscurity of suburban middle-class life, in constant fear of a retribution that never comes.

The 79-year-old filmmaker employs his characteristic, cocky style to dramatize mafia wars. A ticker of the body count flashes on the screen with every murder. Bold, brash texts filling the screen announce important dates and events. The arrest of a boss is rapidly intercut with a trapped hyena. An impressive bombing scene unfolds as a single shot from the back of the victim’s car. But Bellocchio is most attuned to scenes with a theatrical flourish: Buscetta’s deposition and subsequent cross-examinations that were televised. Unfolding in a vast courtroom with Buscetta at its centre and peripheral cells holding the denounced, the trials are filmed in wide-angle shots and echoing sound. Like the opening of Vincere, Buscetta’s composure is contrasted with the agitated, crazy reactions of his rivals. As the denunciations become a regular affair and the public interest vanes, the trials grow modest and the judges less scared of the accused. Despite its baroque touches, The Traitor remains a by-the-numbers biopic, choosing to tread close to history at the expense of insight. There’s another character whose collaboration runs parallel to Buscetta’s, and it is offered in elaborate detail for no other reason than to blink at the audience’s knowledge of the events.

The Golden Glove (Fatih Akin)

If Lars von Trier’s serial killer movie tempered the gratuity of its graphic descriptions with a dialectical organization, Fatih Akin’s The Golden Glove drops another layer from the wall separating art and snuff. Adapted from a novel of the same name, the film follows the exploits of Fritz Honka (Jonas Dassler) between 1970 and 1975, when he murdered and decapitated women in his Hamburg apartment. Unlike The House that Jack Built, The Golden Glove makes no claims to explaining Honka: barely any detail about his childhood, upbringing or inner life. Whatever we glean about this character comes from the faithful reconstruction of his apartment from photographs: the furniture and linen hint at a lived-in homeliness while posters of naked models coexist with chubby, matronly dolls. Instead, we are presented with shots of Honka binge drinking, forcing the women he picks up on street into violent sex, killing them and parcelling their bodies. Akin films the gruesome acts of rape and murder so that the architecture distances us from the events by partially blocking our view. This considered reserve, which sometimes increases the perversity of the crimes, vanishes as the film proceeds and we are treated to Honka’s fits of rage in full intimacy.

What takes the place of individual psychology is social description. Set in the seventies in West Germany, the film—likely following the book—portrays Honka as a product of his environment. Honka is at the bottom of the social pyramid: he works dead end jobs at malls and construction sites, lives in a cubbyhole and spends his money on alcohol. His face deformed after an accident, Honka is ruled out of the dating market as well. His only social life is at the Golden Glove, a seedy joint for freaks and outcasts (any of whom could be the protagonist of the story) whom Akin describes elaborately without affection. The corpulent, old women Honka lures with the promise of alcohol are also outliers of the free market economy with no social support or means of sustenance except through abject slavery. Seeing them showing no will to live and their old bodies being manipulated and mutilated like inanimate objects is the most distressing and repulsive aspect of The Golden Glove. Consequently, it’s liberating to witness the lucky few who escape this fate, thanks either to a Christian missionary trying to “save” the Golden Glove regulars or to sheer accident: a sentiment that the film structures itself around. The uplifting image of a blonde teen whom Honka idealizes unwittingly escaping Honka closes the film.

 

Pain and Glory (Pedro Almodóvar)

In Pain and Glory, Almodóvar lets go of the generic framework that imparted a sense of mystery and thrill to his narratives. The film is instead simply the story of a filmmaker reminiscing about his past, patching up broken friendships and coming to terms with his creative and corporeal disintegration. Weakened and frazzled, Antonio Banderas is exquisite in his role as Salvador, a successful movie director who has quit working and chooses to fritter away his time in his swanky apartment. Salvador suffers from a number of ailments stemming from his partially paralyzed back. On the occasion of the restoration of one of his older productions, he reaches out to the film’s lead actor from whom he’s been estranged for thirty years. This contact inducts him into a heroin addiction, which Salvador gladly chooses over resuming filmmaking. His heroin-induced stupor provokes memories of his pre-teen years: the suffering and hardship of his poor parents, his mother’s loneliness and resourcefulness faced with the absence of her husband and the precocious awakening of his sexuality in his relation with an older labourer he teaches. Back in the present, he meets an old lover, whom he unsuccessfully tried to save from drugs, and recounts to his doting secretary-friend his relation with his mother in her final years.

None of this information is offered as a revelation or a piece of a puzzle. Neither are they woven into a causal narrative. This lends the film a transparency and directness that critics, perhaps with justification, are quick to read as confession. The film is populated with references to the filmmaker’s life but also details so particular—his mother breaking a slab of chocolate to make a sandwich, mending a sock with an egg as support, Salvador placing a pillow on floor before bending down to access a safe—that they could’ve come from nowhere except experience. But Almodóvar avoids sentimentalism and undercuts the obvious emotions with counter-intuitive musical cues. When Salvador meets his old lover, there’s a cut across the 180° line that positions this film as a sequel of sorts to Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, heterosexual domesticity being the implied horror connecting both encounters. For the most part, though, the attention is on Salvador’s pain and physical degradation. The film opens with him suspended under water as though in a womb, and the presence of water bodies throughout the film suggests a time before birth. In that, it’s clearly an autumnal reflection on aging that appears to be favourite theme of the year.

Cahiers du cinéma no. 483; September 1994

The telecast of Jean de Florette has helped draw attention to an original treatment of colour, whose seeds were already to be found in A Special Day, made in 1977 by Ettore Scola.

The novelty of this film stemmed from a colour very close to black and white, whose justification was given to us by the director’s statements. He wanted to capture the style of postcards of the era in which the story is set (the Mussolini years) and their reduced colour range propping up ultra-conformist subjects and attitudes. There was, for him, an amalgam between this antiquated two-colour palette and fascist moral rigidity. So it was fun, per Scola, to use this particular format in service of an ideology completely opposed to the one it usually emphasized and, more precisely, to tell, among other things, a short love story between a brave, prototypical Roman matron, wife of a militant fascist, and a homosexual facing deportation (a hardly credible story for Italy in the 1930s, stemming from a very anachronistic soixante-huitard liberalism, but the problem isn’t that). A little like porno on stained-glass windows or machinations of hooligans on Bach.

The hiccup is that the washing-out machine of Scola and his cameraman Santis can only work after reading these statements. Non-Italians are unaware of these old, transalpine postcards, just like Italians under forty who haven’t lived under fascism—an ignorance that will only increase in the years following the film’s release and which thus will affect a large majority of viewers. And I’m not sure if, without the help of this footnote that is the director’s interview, even older Italians can appreciate Scola’s tortured intellectualism and discover his ironic intentions. Even with the help of this key, appreciation for the film remained theoretical since it could correspond only very rarely to visual memory.

Unjustified for nearly everybody, this format contributed nonetheless to the film’s success as the reflection of a totally gratuitous fantasy, originality and mannerism. What interests a good number of cameramen is above all a chromatic and stylistic unity, a distinctive look, a personal stamp. You get the impression that, before shooting, they try to prepare their Kodak ad. I’m referring to those articles written by image masters, promoted by the monopoly in question since many years, that highlight the particularities of their art and their plastic orientation in pompous and esoteric terms.

To be sure, this very specific definition of their activity allows cameramen to recognize themselves through their work, but we are within our right to wonder if it really serves the films.

Consider Jean de Florette. The plot revolves around Jean, the poor man who will be completely ruined, and his house whose ambiance is characterized by washed-out, reduced colours, notably a rather dirty, obscure and soft yellow of the ‘dead leaves’ variety. So be it. But it’s the same for scenes set at the residence of Papet, the villain who destroys Jean, and which should be differentiated aesthetically from the house of the poor man. Perhaps this is a gesture of supreme daring: Papet is a rich Scrooge who lives in the same mediocrity as the man he ruins. Oppressors and oppressed reduced to the same condition, vanitas vanitatum… But we must disabuse ourselves: we realize that the houses in the village are also marked by an identical tone, whereas they should look wealthier and emphasize their contrast with the physical and moral poverty and isolation of the one or two principal houses.

This yellow jaundice1 has spread its wings. All villagers from the 1920s—rich, oppressed, clustered, isolated—are put in the same basket of a rather reprehensible colour. To be sure, we can appreciate the value of the yellow better when we consider that all papers from thirty or more years ago—newspapers and wall decorations—have become of this colour. What we are witnessing is an aesthetic logic based on print and thus already biased. Not everything that’s old is yellow: I’m thinking of faces, furniture, objects and stones2. And, of course, papers in 1920 or 1940 weren’t already of this colour. It’s moreover impossible today to film a real newspaper from the past, Pour vous or L’intransigeant, since we’ll immediately see from its colour that it cannot be a newspaper read by an actor in a period movie, but an antique copy that has survived generations. So you have to use expert photocopies. In a film about the past, yellowness can be justified only by an intrusion of the present, by a subjective and powerful contemporary gaze—the Carlos Saura principle—or by the sudden appearance of an abandoned house, in High Aragon for example, that has remained as it is over several decades, which is not at all the case in Claude Berri’s simplistic and unitemporal narrative.

With time, the viewer has completely assimilated this very convenient and absurd convention: when we press the yellow button, comrade Pavlov, it means we are at the beginning of the century and maybe in the countryside3. Apart from this flattening of differences, yellowness produces two other negative effects. First: the filmmaker could’ve gotten a very pretty visual effect, like the haricots of The East of Eden, or conveyed the tragedy of man without showing its face, when the little field withers due to a water shortage brought about by Papet’s Machiavellianism. But here, on the contrary, we don’t get the impression of a drought since everything was already yellow to begin with. We understand the disaster and the filmmakers’ intention through the context rather than the image. We strain to see the field as more decayed than it actually is and convince ourselves that we saw it radiant before.

Second limitation: the obscure yellow hardly allows us to see the hero’s face, which is all the more unusual since these are top-paid superstars (Depardieu, Montand). We can credit the film with this provocative, almost Godardian daring, but we clearly see that it has no place in a film of this kind based on a classical narrative and that it upsets the whole with no real benefit.

We could broadly state that the mistake lies in the sacralization of formal unity. This norm harks back to an academicism at least three centuries old. To be sure, this can be easily defended in a film with a single setting such as a prison. But unity of style doesn’t function as well when it’s not linked to a unity of place and time. It’s not just with Jean de Florette that we lament this excessive extension of a plastic universe linked to a single setting to all the settings of the film. It’s a recurrent feature today. Cameramen in comedies struggle to find their famous look since colour often comes in way of laughter. How does the grain and the sharp contrast of the remarkable Nobody Loves Me help the performance of the actors, which is the strength of the film? In Three Men and a Cradle (which I love), the central apartment is rather retro, not far from yellowness. We find it hard to see how this setting serves this comedy. Perhaps the director had an apartment like this. But we come to terms with it. What we accept less is the echo of this basic tone in most other locations of the film.

Yellowness, which we find so often today, even in Madame Butterfly, succeeds the booming fad for black in 1976-80—how far can we descend into darkness? (cf. the admirable opening sequence of Mais ou et donc Ornicar?)—and the more dubious fad for dirty, Fuji-Polar blue around 1982-85 (of the So Long, Stooge variety). In their own way, all these fashions witness a reaction against Technicolor fireworks. Aren’t they more the work of cameramen than directors? There doesn’t seem to be a real conflict in this regard. It’s hard to imagine a cameraman working against the director all through a film. But a number of filmmakers remain somewhat weak in this subject and are satisfied when a man of image proposes something. They don’t think of all the consequences of their plastic choices.

After the admirable India Song and before Jean de Florette, Nuytten was responsible for the magnificent, original photography of Zoo Zéro, which seems to come out of nothing, or from another world, and remains internally coherent contrary to Fleisher’s film, which seems to want to go somewhere but doesn’t get anywhere. Nuytten’s earnest initiatives seem to have driven him, logically enough, to become a director.

 

1[Translator’s note] Moullet plays on the word jaunisse (referring to jaundice but also evoking yellowness). The word has been translated either way depending on context.

2Without slipping into gaudy Technicolour or the then-recent neon lights, people nevertheless liked colours in the 1920s.

3Another related reflex has to do with the status of black and white: since the reality of the years roughly between 1914 and 1950 is known essentially through monochrome films, we tend to identify, rather excessively, this era and its neighbouring periods with black and white (often made necessary by the lack of newsreel footage in colour, especially for war movies). To make use of black and white in one of my films, I was compelled by the producer to dedicate my film to a comic filmmaker of the silent era, since silent cinema necessarily means absence of colour…  The funniest part is that colour is an absolute must for epics, films on the Renaissance or the Belle Époque. Typically, everything should be in colour before or after this gap of thirty-five or forty years.

 

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

 

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

“Sirk and screenwriter Peg Senwick caricature the country club as a nosy, disingenuous, gossip-mongering and casually spiteful group. When Cary brings Ron to the club for the first time, in order for him to be accepted by the town, the club members treat him like an alien species and call him names: “nature boy”, “earthy type”. This exoticism, of course, derives from the perceived sexual promiscuity of coloured folk—a subtext that German filmmaker (and Sirk’s protégé) Rainer Fassbinder will make explicit in his remake of the film, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974)¸ in which the tanned Ron is replaced by a black man, an immigrant and Muslim to boot. On the other hand, the gathering of friends in the woods that Ron takes Cary to is a natural community, spontaneous in their joy and genuine in their affection. The first-name based intimacy of this group, consisting of rugged immigrants and other lively underclass specimen, is in direct opposition to the suffocative banality of the small talk at the country club, with its stiff formality and fake decency.

The two contrasting communities are an opportunity for Sirk—better placed as an outsider to do so—to bring two specific visions of America in dialectical opposition. Ron and his friends are spiritual inheritors of the 19th century transcendentalist movement, which advocated a life of solitude and self-sufficiency in harmony with nature, away from the corrupting influence of civilization. Cary and her town are, on the contrary, contemporary products of 20th century America. Sirk’s film was made during what is known as the Boomer era, a period of American post-war prosperity, accelerated consumerism and cultural conservatism. One of the defining phenomena of the period was the “white flight”: a large-scale migration of white people from the mixed-race urban zones to newly-developed suburban settlements. The war now over, once-employed women found themselves at home and away from entertainment options in the city, leading to an exponential increase in the sale of television sets across the country. When her son gifts her a television set as a cure to her loneliness, Cary is filmed as a reflection on the television screen, trapped by it.”

 

[Full article at Firstpost]

 

Unpublished

The striking feature of recent cinema is the scattering, disappearance even, of human presence, or at least the suppression of the individual, his dilution, his erosion, his erasure, his atomization, I don’t know what the right word is. In order not to compromise myself too much, I’ll speak of “rarefaction”.

 

The situation manifests itself in many forms.

Firstly, there is human erasure to the advantage of the animal. We have in this category some of our successful documentaries, Winged Migration, Microcosmos. But the phenomenon has expanded: the contagion also impacts fiction (The Bear, The Big Blue and its dolphin, Two Brothers and its tigers, Roselyne and the Lions¸ The Fox and the Child). We sense here a desire to seek “nature” in general, rather precious in an era marked by technology. Moreover, Jacques Perrin, the producer of the two aforenamed documentaries has also produced Himalaya, which shows life in a current-day society, but one untouched by civilization. Annaud, the man behind The Bear, also tackled Quest for Fire and His Majesty Minor, a prehistoric super-production, a nostalgia for barbarism that paradoxically requires the most sophisticated technical means.

The predominance of the animal over man already existed in Hollywood cinema in a more specific way through Rin Tin Tin, King Kong, the Disney factory and the products of MGM, which glorified the dog Lassie, the cervid of The Yearling, the nag of National Velvet, the MGM that was, by far, the most reactionary company in Hollywood.

We find a similar equation in France.

Brigitte Bardot, who admirably campaigns for seals, reveals herself through her Mémoires to be rather close to certain racist stances. It’s also true that there still exist canine competitions based on… the purity of breed. Love for animals and racist or right-wing behaviour (cf. François Nourissier) are often interrelated, just like how the love for sport or nature frequently coincides with a reactionary or pro-government ideology.

This massive animal intrusion in cinema is enabled by the very principle of the film exhibition system. Children often go to cinema with their loved ones, which makes for a large viewership. It’s thus a very, very profitable market, much more than that of children’s books, which only children read.

And what the child likes is animals. Many animals are of kids’ size, or even smaller (canaries, dogs, cats). The child can hence dominate them, whereas he is at the mercy of adults. He can even tame a large animal (there are ten-year old mahouts), generally and logically more stupid than the kid.

The infantilization of the entire cinema audience is hence a given, even though most animal films are made specifically for kids. The cream of the crop would be to make films for children that are not too stupid and which even adults can appreciate (Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, Demy’s Donkey Skin). Mind you, adults love showing their parental love by going to idiotic movies with their kids. It allows for quid pro quos like this: “You forced me to go see 101 Dalmatians. Now, you’ll help me by staying out of trouble.”

Animal and children’s movies have the advantage of lasting forever: a ten-year old child will go see Snow White in 2009 or in 2039 as much as in 1939. No need for expensive remakes, necessary on the other hand for fiction films, dependent as they are on new stars and modern costumes. Hence, colossal profits.

We see then that man’s erasure to the advantage of the animal, if it’s increasingly frequent in cinema, doesn’t offer much of interest. It’s pretty low-brow stuff.

 

On the other hand, there exists a temporary distancing of man, a distancing that I’d call “tactical”, which can turn out to be very productive. We find it in classical American cinema. It’s not a distancing of man in general, but an obscuration, a withholding of the hero, specifically at the beginning of a film. The hero doesn’t appear until several minutes, sometimes half-an-hour, into the film, and we find it hard to spot him. A good example would be the beginning of Sergeant York, where we don’t immediately recognize Gary Cooper, who appears at the end of the second reel, deep in the frame, somewhat hidden. The beginning of the film helps depict the ambiance. The other characters of the film, always blended into the story, seem to have been picked up on the spot, played as they are by less-known actors. The viewer hence has an impression of reality unfolding. A while later, there is the sudden entrance of the hero, who is not only the beloved star, but apparently also someone like the others whom we’ll have the pleasure of recognizing (we had paid to see him, we aren’t conned, phew!), someone who is close to you and anchored in the reality of a quasi-documentary. It’s the same device we find in Raoul Walsh, notably in A Lion is in the Streets.

This also corresponds to the structure of the classical novel: twenty or thirty pages of presenting the place, the milieu, the era, the secondary characters, before coming to the protagonists. It is, for example, Balzac’s approach in The Duchess of Langeais, whose main action starts very late.

We find this tactic in Tavernier’s films such as Captain Conan or Safe Conduct. The device doesn’t work as well in Conan given it’s not Gary Cooper, but less-famous actors, like Philippe Torreton or Didier Bezace, whom we don’t necessarily recognize. When it’s Gary Cooper, we at least understand right away that he’s the hero…

In every sequence of Safe Conduct, thanks to a colossal effort, Tavernier succeeds in making his hero, Gamblin, emerge after a few seconds in an ambiance that’s already carefully developed. Gamblin becomes part of the reality. His character becomes incontestable, irrefutable.

This initial erasure of the protagonist is a brilliant dramatic trick that glorifies his future presence all the more.

We find an even more modern approach that begins with Purple Noon (Réné Clément, 1959), where, in the middle of a police plot, the camera loses track of the story and lazily shows various stalls of a fish market—a nice diversion that Pierre Kast will repeat in 1978 with Le Soleil en face.

The principle will be amplified in Antonioni. In L’Avventura (1959), the heroine, Lea Massari, mysteriously disappears from a small island. The other characters will spend a good part of the film looking for her in vain (there will be a similar disappearance of the heroine mid-film in Hitchcock’s Psycho, made three months later, but it turns out better: we see right away that she is murdered).

And there’s the astounding ending of L’Éclipse (1961): Antonioni leaves the star couple Alain Delon-Monica Vitti once and for all to linger for about ten minutes on urban still life, roads, buildings, cars, trees etc., forgetting human beings altogether.

I confess that I don’t appreciate most of Antonioni’s films; they are boring, but I must acknowledge that he set a precedent, that he started something. He’s a precursor. In my opinion, he paid the price. But his influence, as well will see later, seems incontestable. He is singlehandedly responsible for the existence of more elaborate works his colleagues and imitators will produce.

Godard’s entire career seems to constitute a quest towards an increasingly provocative and radical erasure of man, of the individual, of the actor. Starting from the omnipresence of Anna Karina or Belmondo, he’ll proceed, step by step, to diminish the human being, to exclude him, forget him, to deny his identity. For a start, the dubbing of Belmondo by Godard himself in Charlotte et son Jules (1958) was prophetic. And later, there were the long theoretical speeches made by an invisible actor over the image of a silent worker in the middle of Week-end (1967). And even more drastically, the non-performance of the two superstars Yves Montand and Jane Fonda, often filmed from behind, in Tout va bien (1973): the presence of stars and their vacuity for the sake of the form; their fall from the pedestal… we can also wonder whether it’s the imposture of the star system or the minimalism proper to each human being, a simple atom lost in the world, that the film expresses. Or maybe both at once.

Godard will go farther with Nouvelle Vague (1990), where Alain Delon—decidedly destined for the suppression his personality seems to cry out for—occupies an insignificant place compared to the invasive trees, who will be the only stars of Germany Year Zero (1991).

 

Long live oaks, down with penguins. Such is the lesson of modern cinema1.

These films by Godard belong to his Maoist or post-Mao period, and so it wouldn’t be surprising to find a very similar perspective of man in Asian or Chinese filmmakers2.

 

To simplify things, I’ll take three examples (but there are many more): Goodbye South Goodbye (Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Taiwan, 1996), Syndromes and a Century (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand, 2006) and Still Life (Jia Zhang-ke, China, 2006). I’m certainly a little embarrassed to put in the same Asian bag filmmakers from distant places separated by three-thousand kilometres, different languages and belief systems. It reminds me of my guide in Peru, who clubbed the Spanish and the Finnish under the same word: “Europa” … But as we will see, there is nevertheless a number of commonalities.

Hou’s film certainly shows us human beings throughout its runtime. But our perspective of them is seriously disturbed by the mise en scène, which makes sure that we only see very little of them. They frequently remain in the shadows, they are filmed from behind, women’s faces remaining covered by their hair. And all this in vast, static group shots, in which humans appear lost. Characters have an important and animated discussion in the background, somewhat concealed and hardly visible, while in the foreground we clearly see a dog and a man who are simply eating. A while later, we see a rather dramatic scuffle deep in the frame. And there’s absolutely nothing in the foreground. Sequence-shots are often filmed from up high, which allows to pack more people into the frame and reduces human beings to puppets. Long sequences interrupt the story to show us a car or a motorbike in transit (line in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Blissfully Yours) or to present the city’s neon lights.

The image of the broken-down car with the protagonists in it is reduced to nothing by the darkness of the night. The petty intrigues of the principal characters are all the more diminished, minimized, revealed to be Lilliputian compared to the grand fresco of life, often centred on the car or the motorbike.

This is what surfaces from Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s film as well. Shots of green nature or of modern buildings break the fragile story containing two plots. The female character is only a stray reflection within the general image of the meadow. The unsettling, surrealist, round orifice of the airduct robs the actors of their star status. Perhaps to prevent the risk of our identification with the actor, the film changes its story midway, as is always the case with Weerasethakul. There are two vague centres of interest, one after the other. The relationship between them remains rather feeble, as in Still Life, which I’ll come back to. This predilection for the diptych or the triptych format is affirmed even more evidently in Hou’s Three Times, and the Singaporean Khoo’s Be with Me and Twelve Storeys. A single story would give too much importance to the individual, who must always be embedded in a collective fresco encompassing other humans and the universe.

We shouldn’t be surprised to find this importance of the collective and of unanimity in the China of Still Life, but it could seem more surprising in a Thai filmmaker and in the Taiwanese Hou, who, it is true, was born in continental China. It’s perhaps that communism has established itself all the more easily in these lands because the mental and religious ambiance of the Asian continent is inherently predisposed to facilitate this galloping collectivism. The suppression of man seen in films from the Far East can also be explained by the fact that Asian religions endure better than Christianity, torpedoed by triumphant individualism.

In Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s work, we find not only this scattering of the individual within the shot or the film (like in Hou), but also the increasing importance of the natural, temporal element, which make us forget about man a little. Syndromes is firstly the story of natural or artificial landscape, of the sun and the moon, just like how Blissfully Yours was the story of the Edenic forest and river, of their repetitive and haunting sonic ambiance. In Blissfully, characters exist through a part of their body—like in Bresson—and not through their face or their thoughts, rather mysteriously for us.

What counts especially is “time”. We might see an immobile character for eternity. What’s important is not the character, but the time that flows—a sprawl alien to the norms of film production.

 

Still Life makes this constant of Asian cinema even more evident. It involves, first and foremost, showing the relationship of man to the world3, his real, miniscule place within the universe. The two plots narrated here, which are finally the same despite their surface inversion (the search for the lost spouse is undertaken, in the first part, by a man and, in the second, by a woman), are a pretext to a quasi-documentary revelation of exterior world.

The word “pretext” is perhaps excessive since these plots are not uninteresting, nor devoid of meaning. But it’s that this expansion of romantic problems doesn’t last long since we feel that, beyond the temporal limits Jia sets them, it’s all likely to collapse into soap opera or melodrama.

Jia can thus end up, thanks to a discreet common thread represented by one character or another, with a “smooth-flowing” presentation, like the Yangtze River, of a cosmic whole that includes, among other things, light effects (the illumination on the bridge), the fascination of a new spectacle provided by the destruction and submersion of a city (a theme that Villier’s and Giono’s Girl and the River, Kazan’s Wild River and even Dovzhenko’s Poem of the Sea could exploit well), the customary plots, schemes and fights in contemporary China, a certain natural and artificial fantasy based on an astounding dialectic. I’m thinking of the building that collapses without warning in the background to the discussion between two protagonists and of the rocket that takes off while, in the same frame, a woman hangs her laundry on a cord. We have here, in the same shot, neorealism and Star Wars at once.

And the mutation of the city (thanks to a destruction that’s a nice change for us from the interminable, gigantic constructions offered by industrial, super-spectacular cinema) only reinforces the feeling of mutation of the characters during the time that has passed before the beginning of the film and which is invoked here.

Finally, in Jia’s work, the erasure of man, of the protagonist, is part of a general, cosmic plan for the film that requires that no single element—psychological, thematic, visual or aesthetic—be preponderant.

Of course, this rarefaction of the individual remains somewhat theoretical since each image is filmed by a team of invisible human beings, since the landscape of cities and fields has been elaborated by man. But let’s remember, on the other hand, that the films where we only see heroes talking in tight shots are often lazy and empty of humanity.

It’s clear that this insertion of the individual bit by bit into the film’s body, an uncommon sprinkling, is likely to unsettle western audience, used as it is to follow the hero’s journey from beginning to end, to whose eyes all shots without the protagonists or without humans are “longueurs”.

But our excessive glorification of individualism, beyond all ideological positions, opens up only limited and beaten paths in cinema in 2007, compared to all the perspectives that this new insertion into the filmic work offers: fragmentary, implicit and in outlines. The fixation on the individual has nothing do with a purported cinematic ontology, it was already brilliantly broached by some of our occidental filmmakers and by the loss, which I’d label Bressonian, of the fundamental role of the actor, doomed by Hollywood to cover up the shortcomings of a false, unbelievable and conventional American script through his art, his body language, his facial expression, his phrasing and his rhythm.

 

1Note the importance of trees in Straub and Serreau (Saint Jacques… La Mecque). Trees that outlive man.

2Antonioni was to make a long documentary on China himself. This new Sinophilia (cf. Ivens or Bertolucci) succeeds a return to India started from 1950 onwards by Renoir, Rossellini, Malle, even Lang and Cukor.

3Jia’s cinema, and Far Eastern cinema in general, make a more pertinent use of stereoscopy than Hollywood, too preoccupied with easy effects: man in the middle and, on the right and left of the screen, the rest of the world.

 

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

Jallikattu, the South Indian bull-taming sport, both lends its name to and serves as a metaphor for Lijo Jose Pellissery’s new film, which premiered in Toronto last month. Like the sport, which is not just an opportunity for young men to showcase their bravery and machismo, but also a yearly excuse for dominant castes to flag their importance, Jallikattu is about an animal that becomes a pretext for men to give expression to their aggression, resentment and anxiety. The film opens with a volley of shots lasting one second each—a metronomic editing pattern that will recur several times throughout the film—of yellow-lit faces opening their eyes to the dawn of a new day. Scored to the sound of percussions interspersed with vaguely primal choral utterings, the sequence weaves in shots of ants and worms in movement, in effect situating humans and nature on the same order of things. This rate of 60 shots per minute already puts us on our toes, but the intensity will unwaveringly increase without breather or detour until the nightmarish, all-consuming climax.

This mosaic-like scheme carries over to the first post-credits sequence as well. In a series of extremely brief shots cut to a monotonic rhythm, we see the routine of a tiny town in Kerala on a Sunday morning: a buffalo slaughtered before sunup, the meat sold to thronging crowds and delivered home by Antony (Antony Varghese), a mass at the church, an instance of domestic violence, another of uninvited romantic advance. There is some dialogue, but no central narrative movement except for the general description of the community with a few simmering tensions. It’s only when the film comes out of this pulsating rhythm that the narrative is set in motion. One particularly recalcitrant buffalo escapes slaughter and goes rogue, prompting men from the village and its surroundings to go after it. That’s it. The entire film is the increasingly violent hunt for the animal and its ugly repercussions.

The animal is presented at first as a force of proto-political anarchy that doesn’t see human constructs like fences, religion, private property and political parties. In a parody of communist revolution, it destroys plantations, shuts down businesses and galvanizes the villagers into a collective united in purpose. In a film without guiding perspectives or characters in the conventional sense, the buffalo serves as the absent centre that centripetally holds the separate points of view, presented here as fleeting vignettes. The existential reaction of an animal trying to evade death—a revolt of the Other, in the film’s cosmic view of things—binds the community in a common fear of the Other. But the buffalo turns out to be simply a catalyst that triggers the unstoppable combustion of the village. Long-repressed resentments, sexual jealousy and communal fault lines emerge, which find a violent expression in the course of the hunt.

As the animal flees from the deserted streets of the town into the jungle, the community too splinters into unruly mobs and regresses from civilization (like in Yojimbo, the gun-toting hunter proves to be less effective than the one with the machete). Like the animal, they stop respecting private property and enter other people’s houses. They catch an adulterer and humiliate him. Civility, law and order breaks down and the hunters—all men without exception—torch police vehicles and beat a cop up. Antony enters the house of the woman he desires and forces himself on her. Like in the Jallikattu sport, mob courage masks individual cowardliness, which resurfaces every time the animal charges at the men to disperse them into individuals. By now wandering the jungle harmless, the animal nevertheless becomes an issue of collective and individual male egos, leading to a bloody dogfight between Antony and his sexual rival, who charge at each other like raging bulls.

Progressively removed from naturalism and a sense of reality, the film escapes into pure abstraction after Antony stabs his opponent and runs out of the woods into a meadow. The discrete mobs meld into a fascist collective to pursue Antony. In the oneiric, painterly, Lars von Trier-like end sequence, an inexhaustible mass of possessed men jumps on Antony, continuously piling on top of him until they make up a single mountain of men, the formation covered in sludge, with Antony trying in vain to emerge out of it as an individual. In a brief, possibly redundant coda, the scene shifts to a cave where bare-chested men fight with torches over the carcass of a dead animal. If it’s startling enough to see a supremely tight, 90-minute film getting a mainstream distribution, the stylized final passage of the film—beyond the question of its merit—is a veritable miracle to have graced the screens.

The simplified, whirlwind tour of social ideologies that Jallikattu drives us through—capitalism, communism, anarchism, fascism, what have you—may not be for everyone’s liking, but it shouldn’t be the case with Pellissery’s exceptional sense of image making. Composing in deep space with direct sound, he has precise visual ideas for the film, which progresses from full field of daylight to reduced visibility of the night lit by flashlights and torches. The progression also corresponds to a shift from slender tracking shots through the village streets, relaying perspective from one character to another, to shots handling increasing amounts of humans in frenetic motion. The latter half of the film, with barely-lit animal and human bodies hurtling across the frame at high speed, push the image into the edge of perceptibility where, like in a Willem de Kooning painting, we notice the essential elements of form, but not the exact details. The sound mix, consisting of human cacophony in escalation, is equally a work of sonic abstract expressionism.

Pellissery hardly uses a closeup in the hunt, wide shots of men scouring the landscape being the norm. Characters insult one another, but there’s never a tight shot to capture reaction. Images of hundreds of men bearing torches descending the slope have a pointillist decorativeness. But for the most part, the emphasis is on depth of the frame. A large part of the movement in Jallikattu takes place along the Z-axis. Like Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, Pellissery’s fractured narrative uses a video game aesthetic where the Steadicam follows or leads character into and out of the frame—a pattern echoed in the numerous zooms in and out of tangential information on screen (a branch of a tree, insects, a sunset). These opposed movements are also characteristic of the men’s movement with respect to the animal: they rush towards it when it’s running away and fall away as it retaliates. In a mini set-piece within the larger set-piece that is the film itself, the hunters try to rescue the buffalo, now stuck in a pit, with a makeshift pulley system. Just before the animal lands on safe ground, Pellissery cuts away to secondary detail, returning only to capture the aftermath of the animal’s resumed rampage. It’s a striking example of how deliberate the film’s stylistic choices are. John Abraham invested masses of human bodies with meaning. Pellissery dissolves them in chaos.

[Possible spoilers ahead]

With his debut film, Maanagaram, writer-director Lokesh Kanagaraj staked his claim as an adept craftsman, but also showed the promise of a vision at work. In the film’s complex narrative tapestry, several outsider characters influence each other’s lives in anonymity, collectively enacting the mechanisms of the metropolis, here a visually denuded Chennai. At work was the kind of untouched idealism typical of debut works. His sophomore film, Kaithi (“prisoner”), while not without echoes of the talent that made Maanagaram, inducts the filmmaker into the commercial cynicism of the industry and assures him the passage to bigger, dumber projects.

Bejoy (Naren) heads a special unit of the police that has just seized a massive consignment of heroin. He stocks the captured cargo in the secret basement of the police commissioner’s office. A corrupt cop in the forensic department passes this information to the drug lord, who not only wants the payload back, but also the heads of the five cops who seized it. Bejoy meanwhile is at the Inspector General’s office eighty kilometres away for the IG’s big retirement bash. The drug lord manages to spike the alcohol at the gathering, causing every officer except Bejoy to collapse into a fit. Bejoy, with his fractured right hand, finds himself with forty dying officers and no one to help him transport them to the hospital. No one except Dilli (Karthi), a just-released lifer who was picked up on a whim by an officer before the party. Bejoy threatens Dilli into driving the truckload of unconscious cops to a hospital and then to the commissioner’s office, which is deserted except for Napoleon (George Maryan), a low-level cop who just reported for duty, and a group of college students retained for a petty crime.

This premise soon resolves into two discrete narrative threads that Kangaraj shuttles between, much like in his first film. In the first, Dilli and Bejoy drive in a lorry to the commissioner’s office while the drug cartel attempts to intercept the vehicle and kill the unconscious cops on it. In the second, a horde of the cartel’s henchmen tries to break into the commissioner’s office, as Napoleon and the students seal the premises. And there are minor interludes weaving in and out of these two threads: Dilli’s estranged daughter who tries to call him from an orphanage, the drug lords tracking the lorry through a mole hiding in it and the corrupt cop seeking to sniff out a police mole in the drug cartel. These five threads are connected within the film through phone calls of nearly every possible permutation, with each party informing, instructing, encouraging, each other and influencing each other’s spaces via telephone.

Like Maanagaram, Kaithi unfolds over a single night; in the first shot, the camera glides down from a clockface showing 8pm. Kanagaraj is so committed to the concept, which for him is as much a visual device, that he advances an event that should logically take place the following morning: Dilli meets his daughter, rather implausibly, right after a climactic bloodbath, in the darkness amid flashing red-blue lights of the police sirens. The camera work is similarly muscular, following characters from up close; there’s a nice, long shot of Karthi walking in his typically relaxed fashion, with the camera accompanying him as he walks from the lorry, traverses the poolside and goes to the buffet table. The visual texture, dominated by the yellow of headlights and streetlamps, is rather familiar, the dialogue is downright poor, and it’s in the delirious crosscutting that the film generates its entire thrill. Kanagaraj obviously loves to cut between sequences, so much so that he nests one parallel editing scheme within another: Napoleon’s defence manoeuvres inside the building are spliced with the students’ measures to seal entry points and the frenetic attempts of the gang trying to break in—a pattern that is itself couched within the larger, five-thread cycle.

Gripping as it is by its sheer mechanical force, does the parallel editing really work as it did so well in Maanagaram? It doesn’t, and for a number of reasons. Firstly, because the major narrative thread is dramatically flat. Dilli’s road trip with Bejoy is thwarted thrice by gangs trying to kill them. The excitement of this conflict vanishes right in the first instance, where Dilli is revealed to be a superhero capable to bringing down scores of men without trouble. Given this aspect, it is evident that the lorry will reach its destination against all odds. The fight scenes are confusingly edited to the point that we are unclear about what’s happening: a CG-shot cutting through three vehicles one behind the other sets up the peak moment of a fight, but what exactly follows is confusing in its spatial relations. A while later, the lorry is trapped on the hilltop with the henchmen surrounding the hill at the bottom (intertwined with the gang at the commissioner’s premise trying to get to the jail on top of the building). Dilli works out an escape, but again, it’s not clear what exactly he accomplishes.

Secondly, because the timelines are incompatible. Dilli’s transit takes a much longer time, especially with all the battles on way, than what Napoleon and the students have to defend the commissioner’s office. This long transit, as a result, dilutes the tight action of the second thread, which comes across as improbably protracted. Finally, because Kanagaraj diffuses the tension just as it hits a crescendo with a quiet passage: as the commissioner’s office is on the verge of recapitulation, we cut to Dilli reminiscing in a long, close-up about his past. It’s an unconvincing back story shoehorned to provide a showcase to Karthi’s acting prowess and to soften the hero. To be sure, it could’ve had no place earlier in the film, dedicated as the narrative is to cultivating a mystique to Dilli, but at this late point in the film, it stops the action dead in its tracks.

When the threads actually merge, one wishes they hadn’t. For, after Dilli reaches the commissioner’s office to save Napoleon and the students, the film devolves fully into a fascist aesthetic. Dilli uses a machine gun to take down the invading horde of drug traders (shorthand, of course, for anyone who is anti-cop, anti-law and order), who now fall like flies just like the poisoned cops of the opening passage. Shot with a borrowed seductiveness of flashing barrels and bullets falling down in slow-motion, the sequence is narratively, visually and conceptually gratuitous. It’s also cynical, as is the film’s tacked-on coda making claims for a sequel, because it gives in to a crowd-pleasing formula, pandering to a desire for violence and reserving berth for Kanagaraj’s transition to high budget moviemaking (he’s already roped in for the next Vijay vehicle).

There are, on the other hand, remnants of the imagination that made Maanagaram a success: the fairly tight narration without songs or flashbacks, drone shots of the lorry cruising the highway, the idea of a convict driving a truckload of switched-off cops, shots of the gangsters with white flashlights in the dark, a fight sequence in the commissioner’s office with papers on the floor cut to an intoxicating Ilayaraja number. The ironic beats are also present in the story elements. The police have collectively failed, corrupt or knocked out as they are after a night of revelry, and the only active cop is manipulative and virtually castrated. The brunt of their negligence falls on the innocent. The day is saved by a convict on the first day of his release and a constable before his first duty day.

Karthi, an intelligent actor who usually manages to convey a rich inner life beyond the script, is costumed like a religious man: a beard, a talisman on his ankle, holy ash on his forehead, a plain brown shirt, a lungi in which he conceals a smartphone, but also an iconic handcuff hanging from his right ankle. He eats and fights like a man possessed. After he’s finished his bucket-load of rice, he looks up and taps his thigh a couple of times before washing his hand in a pool. Karthi’s lazy gait and drawl projects a man who’s in control of the situation, but except for his two sentimental closeups, the actor doesn’t really seem committed to the role. Just look at him pretending to pour alcohol on the stab would on his back. Unlike Maanagaram, Kaithi is a closed film, satisfied with the pleasures of the genre. The plot revolves around drugs, a purely cinematic social issue of no real bearing—a choice indicative not as much as of a lack of seriousness as of the filmmaker’s sights on the big time.

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