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Autofiction (Laida Lertxundi)

Autofiction, the first of Basque-origin artist Lertxundi’s films I’ve seen, opens with an establishment shot of a city skyline. A while later, we are on the sunlit roads of the metropolis, where a cavalcade of police motorbikes prepares for a rally. Cut to bodies of various unconscious women being dragged on concrete and loaded on to a truck. Before we can figure out what’s happening, we are presented with short testimonies of women talking about motherhood, abortion and loneliness, testimonies that are cut with vignettes from the MLK day parade in the city. The bright pastel colours that compose the studio the women are photographed in, combined with the big, yellow typeface of the title and the sunny outdoors, suggest a pastiche of cheerful Reaganite suburbia. At one point, a woman crawls out of her living room couch into her large, suburban backyard to settle into a foetal position under the sun. But what’s the connection? I presume that the crimes taking place in broad daylight, whose perpetrators we don’t see, tie metaphorically with the women’s accounts, in which post-maternal deracination, post-abortive disorientation and post-separation depression are all conceived in terms of personal choices and experiences, independent of structural forces conditioning them. By intercutting these testimonies with a civil rights rally, Lertxundi is restoring the political character to these personal experiences. At the end, a rectangular opening on a card frames parts of women’s bodies separately, hinting at the unity behind these fragments, just as Lertxundi evokes the socio-political unity shaping individual experiences. The title, moreover, implies that Lertxundi might be articulating details of her own life through these accounts, thereby scattering her subjectivity and rendering it interchangeable with those of the women she films.

Orphea (Alexander Kluge, Khavn)

In Orphea, 88-year-old Kluge and 47-year-old Khavn revive the Orpheus-Euridice myth as an avant garde punk musical. In this version, Orpheus becomes a woman named Orphea (Lilith Stangenberg) while Euridice is a man called Euridiko (Ian Madrigal) and the underworld itself is Manila at night time. The filmmakers treat the myth rather loosely, converting it into a string of ‘set pieces’, in which Orphea is either navigating one lair of degenerates after another or reading out lines of Ovid from a teleprompter, or belting out arias and folk tunes in half a dozen languages in front of a matte screen. Unlike Straub’s inconsolable one, Orpheus here seems to get along just fine without Euridice. The result resembles a blithe experimental video game produced by Maya Deren and Kenneth Anger. Through Orphea’s valiance but also her ultimate impotence, the filmmakers mount something of an elegy for the revolutionary potential of art. One of the suppositions is this: what if, despite Orpheus’ desires, Euridice didn’t want to be rescued? Orphea is regularly transported to wartime USSR, and mourns its countless dead, seeking, like the Soviet ‘biocosmists’, justice for the dead. Towards the end, the present also makes its way into the film in the form of border surveillance footage and refugee camps. The connections are often only suggestive, such as Orphea’s descent in the Lethe river invoking the sea route of contemporary migrants. Strangenberg appears in most every frame and is a hypnotic presence, and there is never a dull moment in the film. Kluge’s heterogenous style—on-screen texts, multiple sub-frames, stop-motion animation, declamatory text readings, archival photos and found footage—goes really well with the atmosphere of pure play. But it is literally a mixed bag where anything goes, so your mileage may vary.

Movie That Invites Pausing (Ken Jacobs)

Ken Jacobs’ film is dedicated to his teacher and abstract expressionist painter Hans Hofmann, whose legendary classes are part of almost every historical account of 20th century art. Hofmann’s painting and pedagogy emphasized the use of flat colour fields to generate the perception of depth, the impression of planes emerging or receding out of the canvas surface. Jacobs finds a filmic equivalent to this idea, producing the illusion of movement and dynamic colour without relying on pro-filmic reality. This is the setup: over the camera lens lies a fabric (or a translucent material) made of a hexagonal beehive pattern that gradually changes orientation over the course of the film. With what seems like a slightly mobile camera, Jacobs appears to photograph a liquid surface, first, and then some crystalline solids lit by stroboscopic light flashing at 120BPM (either that, or he has inserted these ‘black leaders’ artificially). At first, the result registers like the sight of a patterned gold foil slowly melting, but soon the hexagons vanish ‘underneath’ the liquid. Towards the end of the film, however, the fabric/material dominates the foreground, with the hexagons strongly asserting themselves with their dark borders. This receding and the emerging of the textured plane and the creation of new depths ties to what Hoffman called the ‘push and pull’ of the painting, the feeling of airiness that you get when you stare long enough at a Pollock, for instance. The strobing light also causes the hexagons to ripple like the liquid and ‘animates’ the surface into repetitive, gif-image like movements. More than pausing, which allows you to see various hues of gold and orange on the image, it’s speeding it up or slowing it down that the film tempts you to; playing it at 0.25x or 4x its speed illuminates its process better.

Inventing the Future (Isiah Medina)

Inventing the Future, Medina’s second feature, is adapted from a book of the same name by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams. The text in question describes the limitations of the current ‘folk politics’ of the left and contrasts it with the long-term vision with which Hayek and the Mont Pelerin Society conceived, disseminated and installed Neoliberalism into the ‘political common sense’ through universities and think tanks. An accelerationist outline for the future, it calls for a radical increase in automation that would result in fewer jobs, which, combined with a Universal Basic Income, could help reinvent newer forms of the self and the social. These rather weighty political ideas of the text are concentrated and tossed at us by the soundtrack—as read out by a girl who appears on screen from time to time—which Medina uses as a foundation for some extremely aggressive imagery. His blindingly rapid montage solders together what may be 25,000 shots in such a way that, in many stretches, we barely have time to register what we’re seeing. Even when a locus of anchoring images—crowds, people with phones, Lego blocks, the voiceover girl—constitute a set of identifiable visual motifs, the truculent editing forecloses any possible synthesis. Even the voiceover text, whose relative simplicity allows us to gather ourselves, is periodically chopped up and interrupted by an atonal piano melody or by another overlapping voiceover saying something else. Medina’s film appears to bear a mimetic relation to its source text in the sense that seeks cinematic correlatives to the ideas expressed. While the lightning-fast montage may be said to imitate the cognitive processes of the schizophrenic attention economy, the notion of UBI translates here to a universal access to image-making—thanks to ubiquitous cell phone cameras—which questions the need for new image production and shifts the burden of creative expression onto editing—a proto-Godardian idea. Conceptually strong though it may be, the punishing formal violence of Medina’s film makes it physically painful to watch.

IWOW: I Walk on Water (Khalik Allah)

While it continues and refines the street portraiture of Field Niggas (2015), Khalik “Danny” Allah’s IWOW also addresses the central moral-aesthetic issue weighing down on the earlier film, namely the filmmaker’s fraught relation to subjects whose consent in collaborating with him may not be wholly free and who, by dint of this power imbalance, run the risk of being commodified. As though in response to this problem posed by his obscured authorial position, Khalik places his self squarely at the centre of IWOW, where he claims to be nothing short of Jesus himself. This claim is, of course, tongue-in-cheek as Khalik confesses to having been inspired by the psychedelic mushrooms he keeps consuming. But it’s also a dramatic ruse that allows him to brashly interpret his work of ‘saving people’ in terms of Christian iconography and test it against the charity of his well-meaning family and friends, who are understandably concerned by his radical altruism. Khalik interrogates the limits of his own goodwill through his relation to Frenchie, an elderly Haitian street dweller with a speech impediment and a drug addiction, with whom he has worked over the past seven years. By his own admission, Khalik is a universalist who sees the same human essence binding everyone. To this end, his editing pattern disregards social hierarchies, cutting between extreme close-ups of outcasts and his friends and family in a manner that is often very provocative. Yet his focus is on the stories of those at the absolute bottom of the social ladder living on the streets of Harlem. The reason for this comes by way of an explosive monologue by one of his subjects, who describes the historical process behind the neighbourhood’s impoverishment and the real threat posed by gentrification; we then understand that the people Khalik films won’t be allowed to exist as they are once the district becomes ‘respectable’, i.e. the kind of place that will screen Khalik’s films and organize his exhibitions—a contradiction that the filmmaker reveals to be fully conscious of.

Sportin’ Life (Abel Ferrara)

Ferrara’s new documentary follows works by Daido Moriyama, Vanessa Beecroft, Bret Easton Ellis, Gaspar Noé and Wong Kar-wai as the sixth project commissioned by Saint Laurent as part of their project titled Self, which purportedly celebrates self-expression in the arts. Running for just over one hour, Sportin’ Life combines personal footage from Ferrara’s festival Q&As, media interviews, his concerts as a bass guitarist, television reports, internet videos, sessions from the US congress, Ferrara’s family photographs and clips from his own films. The interview excepts are quite direct and present Ferrara, invariably accompanied by his favourite lead man Willem Dafoe, talking about collaboration, making films with friends and family, and his approach to his craft. Interspersed with them are news reports about the Covid-19 crisis, Donald Trump’s feckless response to it and the mounting deaths in Italy and the US. It’s indeed striking how Ferrara is able to mould such pre-charged, disparate material into recognizable, personal imagery, with its references to Catholicism, its sense of being locked indoors, and the general end-of-days ambiance that pervades so much of his films. It’s as though the world has finally caught up with the dystopian fiction of 4:44 (2011), and so Dafoe gets to deliver his Dalai Lama-like monologue once again. On one level, Ferrara, holed up with his family in his apartment in Rome, is meditating on creation at the time of global destruction. The way he ironically superposes his concert music on low-fi footage of people dying drives home the idea of art’s impuissance in a more unequivocal manner than does Orphea. But the film is also Ferrara’s answer of sorts to public narratives about his oeuvre. In interviews and Q&As, we see journalists attach labels to his work—dark, radical, indie—that Ferrara doesn’t bother acknowledging. With this film, he appears to be simply ‘making his next move’ unmindful of the end game, i.e. responding to his immediate circumstances, remaining alert to the moment and, if we go by the equation ‘Pasolini=Dafoe=Ferrara’, making films as an existential coping mechanism. Towards the end of the film, however, Ferrara casts these sundry elements into a malevolent vision of the universe; the killing of George Floyd, the ensuing riots and violence are all stripped of their immediate, political meaning and shaped into a metaphysical picture of chaos. Maybe Ferrara is playing Nero more thoroughly than he imagines.

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

Crime Dramas (1944-49)

The war about to end, Lang turned to more intimate, less general subjects set within the scope of contemporary America. The Woman in the Window (1944), Scarlet Street (1945) and Secret Beyond the Door (1946) form a new trilogy, to which we can add House by the River (1949) and which can be called psychological, even psychoanalytical, crime dramas. After the struggle against Nazism, here’s a struggle with oneself.

Featuring the same actors, three of whom are present in the first two, photographed by the same cinematographer, and the last two produced by the company Lang founded, Diana, these films are hinged on repetitions. An evolutionary repetition with corrective variations from one film, one scene to the next. Like certain great filmmakers, Hawks for example, Lang is a specialist of remakes, the first form of repetition. Remake of films by others: Scarlet Street is a remake of La Chienne (Renoir), Human Desire that of La Bête humaine (Renoir), Der Tiger von Eschnapur and Das Indische Grabmal those of Das Indische Grabmal (Joe May), only written by Lang. We must also count the four Mabuse pictures (1922, 1932, 1960), the multiplication of films through two versions or two very different episodes, whose fans know that one is always superior to the other: one must be “for” Das Brillantenschiff, Dr Mabuse, der Spieler, Kriemhilds Rache, Das Testament von Dr. Mabuse, Der Tiger von Eschnapur, and “against” Der goldene See, lnferno, Siegfried, Le Testament du Dr. Mabuse, Das Indische Grabmal, films of a more demagogic beauty. Not to mention constant reworkings from one film to the next, reworkings that are more often of themes than of forms. For the same theme, Lang would conceive of different forms, the second of which improved on the first; similar forms, however, appeared across different genres and subject matters. That’s why it’s impossible to distinguish between a still from Scarlet Street and one from The Woman in the Window, while the films seem very different when watching them.

Repetition from one scene to the next, because Lang, who seeks to deepen reality, realizes the complexity involved, corrects the first attempt with a second, contrary attempt. Hence the principle of double endings, partially considered in Fury. At times, Lang credits himself for it (cf. his statements on The Woman in the Window), and at times, he rejects it, attributing it to an interference by the production company afraid of the Censor Code (Beyond a Reasonable Doubt). It’s possible to believe that this denial served as Lang’s excuse against criticisms of implausibility that were made over the extraordinary twists towards the end of the film, or that it shows an influence of his detractors or his friends following the completion of the film. Perhaps the Hays Code did occasion these twists, but Lang was always able to integrate the corrective ending into his own world view. The consistence and sameness of this principle, at times admitted to by Lang and foreign to American cinema, has to do in fact with his metaphysics and moral codes: man constantly oscillates, as we have seen, between revolt and submission to law or to his own individual reasoning. His reasoning rests on trifles, and it isn’t unusual that there are multiple endings, because if chance plays an essential role in human life, the direction it takes is purely accidental. Reality always has two faces and undercuts the importance that tidy endings enjoy among the audience, which is used to neat dramatic structures in line with an artistic order reflecting a Social Order. Only the action counts.

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The Salt of Tears (Philippe Garrel)

A young man at a bus stop glimpses a girl across the road. She gives him directions, and they board a bus together. There’s a spark between them. They look at each other, making sure their eyes don’t meet. The girl has fallen in love, the man hopes for a sexual encounter that doesn’t happen. “I’ll never forget you”, he says before he leaves town. Weeks later, the girl sends him a card, pouring out her feelings for him. He reads it and locks it up in a drawer without a thought. It’s hard to describe The Salt of Tears, or any of Garrel’s recent films for that matter, without running the risk of making it sound like a bundle of French art movie clichés. These films are all resolutely focused on romantic and sexual entanglements between young, heterosexual people and the seemingly infinite range of emotions they sustain in the participants. Digital black and white cinematography, a voiceover articulating the protagonist’s predicament and a sweet piano score all attest to a grand decadence at work. But Garrel is able to infuse these abstract, almost archetypal character relationships with a vitality, thanks to the extremely controlled actor gestures that concentrate the whole emotional force of these relationships.

Luc (Logann Antuofermo), the young man, aspires to study carpentry on the wish of his father (a wonderful André Wilms), whom he loves and looks up to. Something of a skirt chaser and a jerk—wholly inadequate words, for Garrel is interested precisely in a detailed exploration of what these judgments and coinages mean—Luc abandons Jemila (Oulaya Amamra), the bus stop girl, because he is too cowardly to tell the truth to his current girlfriend Geneviève (Louise Chevillotte), who gets to bed with him right after they meet. He abandons Geneviève too and tells himself that he was never in love because his feelings for neither woman could overpower his professional ambition or his bond with his father. So despite being focused on the sex, Luc has a little of the tragic romantic, looking for love even though he believes that finding it with wreck all his current certainties in life. It’s a characteristically French type, also seen in Jean Paul Civeyrac’s Le Doux Amour des hommes (2002), in which a world-weary young man wants to experience a love so Deep that it will rescue him from his emotional tundra.

The strength of the writing is that it doesn’t categorise Luc’s relationships into love and sex, and instead lets them hover on a fuzzy zone between and around these poles. Why he continues to stay with Betsy (Souheila Yacoub), his third girlfriend with whose male colleague he shares a ménage à trois, is no more a mystery than why he chooses to leave Jemila and Geneviève. What is sure is that Luc destroys one life after another with his behaviour, leaving the kind of lifelong scars he himself is unconsciously wishing for. When he does find in Betsy the love he was looking for, he loses his ties with his father, as he expected and wanted, but also becomes vulnerable, beset by jealousy and helplessness. Nuances of character description aside, much of the film’s pleasures are on its surface: in the way actors look at or hold each other, in the calming interludes with Luc or his father working on pieces of wood. There is a dance scene at a disco with Luc and Betsy that is a thrilling number hinged on Betsy’s energetic, sensual movement around the floor. Someone watching The Salt of Tears without an idea of who made it might take it for the work of a 21-year old. That, I suspect, is both its strength and weakness.

Uppercase Print (Radu Jude)

Found footage filmmaking, especially the kind that seeks to perform an ideological interrogation of the past, and particularly of a socialist past, seems to have a special power to produce some astoundingly lazy works. The end of the Cold War has meant that younger audiences cannot relate to accounts of life in communist regimes except in an ironic, patronizing way. We get it: the politicians are conmen, the people sheep, the fashion corny and the media so crude and manipulative. Nothing that a video search wouldn’t throw up. To be sure, Uppercase Print isn’t wholly a found footage film. Adapted from a ‘documentary play’, Jude’s film intersperses archival footage from Romanian television shows and news reports of the early eighties with dramatizations of a police case file from the same period. The case involves pro-freedom messages written in chalk on the walls surrounding the party headquarters. The security office takes accurate measurements of the messages written in uppercase, analyses the handwriting and convicts a teenager in the locality. Jude employs a set of gigantic sound stages designed like a pie chart. He has his primly dressed actors utter lines from the report—charges against the teenager, testimonies by his family and friends, and records of the security personnel tailing him—in a declamatory manner staring at either the camera or each other. The boy confesses, but claims he was inspired by messages on Western radio, while his parents chide him and urge him to recant. His friends and teachers turn against him and his seemingly innocuous deed marks him for life (and beyond). All this dramatization goes in circles, and is pretty testing, and saps all our interest before it moves ahead narratively.

Some of the archival material is thematically linked to the case files, as when a graffiti about food shortage is cut to a TV report about new refrigerator models. But most seem to have been picked as quaint documents from the era: street interviews with traffic rule violators, Busby Berkeley-style musical numbers, televised cooking recipes, countless clips of children singing and as many of pageantry organized in honour of Nicolae Ceaușescu. With these assorted extracts, Jude may have been intending to give a picture of life in communist Romania comparable to what Harun Farocki did in How to Live in the German Federal Republic (1990). But, unfortunately, Uppercase Print doesn’t have necessary spirit of synthesis. The critique is hardly earned, and the film is even less instructive about life communist Romania than a broad comedy such as Tales from the Golden Age (2009).

To be fair, the juxtaposition of archival footage and the case files is interesting on paper. It taps into a fragility and paranoia underlying the functioning of the state which triumphalist propaganda tries to conceal: that the state perceives a boy’s zestful scribbling as a security threat is so absurdly out of step with the paeans to youth beamed across television sets. But there’s hardly anything here that hasn’t been explored already, and much more successfully, by the work of Andrei Ujică. For a film leaning so much on television footage, Uppercase Print intriguingly omits the televised struggles of the Romanian revolution itself. That’s because Jude’s film is less interested in TV as a medium than the messages its shows convey, among others the gradual incursion of capitalism into everyday life. To this end, the narrative makes a startling leap from 1985 to present day. As the camera pans across a cityscape in which large commercial banners cover drab, low-income housing, we hear the actors playing the security personnel justify their actions (of surveying and recruiting schoolchildren as informers), the implication being that these regime criminals have succeeded in blending into the anonymity of the new market economy. Nothing prepares us for this critical coup, though, and it’s a tedious journey by the time we arrive there.

Summer of 85 (François Ozon)

Whether Summer of 85 is in autobiographical in any way or not, I don’t know, but it certainly gives that impression. Adapted from the 1982 novel Dance on My Grave by British writer Aidan Chambers, the film tells the story of Alexis (Félix Lefebvre), a timid working-class teenager who finds love in a Jewish boy named David (Benjamin Voisin) after the latter rescues him from a boating accident. The year is 1985 and Alexis is 17, just about the age Ozon was at the time. When the film begins, he is in police custody, talking to us in a voiceover. As Ozon cuts between this gloomy present and the sunny few weeks preceding it, we are drawn into the mystery that looms over Alexis’s current situation and his relationship with David. We share Alexis’s confusion as David, aided by an excessively indulgent mother, seduces him, convinces him of their closeness and persuades him to work at his shop, even as David’s professor (Melvin Poupaud, the star of Ozon’s previous film, By the Grace of God (2018)) at school urges him to continue his literature studies. David seals Alexis’s trust by making a pact with him: the one who outlives the other will dance over the latter’s grave.

The ‘mystery’ itself is of no great interest; it’s Ozon’s highly cinema-aware way of unfurling it that holds the viewer’s attention. Ozon is evidently a cinephile, and while this sophistication weighed down heavily on the laborious Double Lover (2017), it treads rather lightly here. There are, firstly, the direct references to Joseph Mankiewicz’s Suddenly, Last Summer (1959, which features two queer stars, not to mention gay icon Liz Taylor) in the film’s title, the poster in David’s bedroom, the plot elements of David’s mother ‘procuring’ boys for him and Alexis’s explaining the mystery through a therapeutic confession. Consciously or otherwise, Ozon also draws on several Hitckcockian elements here: a gay romance sealed by a pact (Rope, Strangers on a Train), the creepy, mollycoddling mother figure (Strangers on a Train, Psycho, Birds etc.), the beautiful sea cliff against which the action takes place (North by Northwest, Suspicion), a violent outburst at a fairground (Strangers on a Train, Stage Fright), an older teacher who solves the mystery (Rope), David’s remaking of the docile Alexis’s look (Vertigo) and Alexis’ obsession with exhuming David’s dead body (The Trouble with Harry, Vertigo). And the diminutive Alexis’s insecurity recalls Polanski’s reworking of Hitchcock. There’s a very morbid, very funny scene in a morgue involving a cross-dressed Alexis and David’s corpse that is something Hitch would’ve fondly approved of.

Like Hitchcock, Ozon seems to have precisely story-boarded his sequences to the last gesture, last glance, especially in the early stretch of the film, where the dynamic between Alexis, David and his mother is conveyed with great economy and efficacy. But Ozon is also trying to go beyond Hitchcockian mechanics to something more tender, less cynical. Once the film reveals its entire mystery about one hour in, it becomes something of a coming-of-age tale, turning its focus to Alexis’ heartbreak over David’s betrayal, his confusion with his sexual identity, his nuanced relationship to his blue-collar parents and his grief over David’s death, which was so far only a theoretical preoccupation for him and which is now seen as another betrayal. There is a good amount of nostalgia and a desire to imitate the ‘eighties aesthetic’ at work in the film, especially in its choice of costumes and colour composition, but Ozon’s sense of time and place, as always, is very sharp. Shot through what seems like a diffusion filter, the film captures the sights and sensations of summer in a memorable manner. Summer of 85 may be one of the few films set in the Normandy region that doesn’t provide a lugubrious image of the place. The muted colours and the low-income housing complexes, for once, don’t take on a moral quality. They simply are.

Genus Pan (Lav Diaz)

I haven’t followed Diaz’s work this decade as closely as I would’ve liked to. The few hours of The Halt (2019) that I saw at the MAMI Mumbai Film Festival was very impressive in the way Diaz turns the film’s poverty of means into an advantage: the low-budget sci-fi atmosphere is so muted that it feels strangely contemporary. Clocking at 157 minutes—practically a short film by Diaz’s standards—Genus Pan is even more rudimentary in its production values. Three working-class men, Baldo (Nanding Josef), Paulo (Bart Guingona) and Andres (Don Melvin Boongaling), travel across the fictional island of Hugaw, returning from their temporary job. Baldo is mercenary and extracts commission money from the younger Andres, who wishes to save for his sister’s treatment. Paulo is a devout Catholic, and acts as a moderator between the other two, going so far as to reimburse Andres on behalf of Baldo. Not unlike the three characters in Stalker (1979), these men of different temperaments and beliefs wander about in a jungle where paranormal things may be happening. Hugaw, we learn, is a scarred land with several historical layers of oppression, violence and debauchery: once a trading post for intra-continental smugglers, it was successively colonized by the Spanish, the Japanese and the Americans. Today, it is ruled with an iron fist by a ruthless general who kills dissidents.

Diaz, as is his wont, is dealing in allegory, and we imagine that the island of Hugaw stands for all of Philippines. But there is also something universalist about Genus Pan, which is a reference to the undeveloped brain of the human animal. A radio broadcast tells us that many of us haven’t yet outgrown the traits of the chimpanzee. While parts of the film recall Hesus the Revolutionary (2002), the work that might be closest to this bitter, slightly misanthropic vision is Diaz’s Butterflies Have No Memories (2009), where too the political critique turns sour. The film changes rhythm once Andres comes back home to Hugaw to announce of the deaths of Baldo and Paulo. Paulo’s wife (Merly Bucong) and Baldo’s daughter (Diaz’s AD Hazel Orencio)—two of the most helpless creatures in all of Diaz’s cinema—suffer in silence, while one of the general’s slimy lackeys, Inngo (Joel Saracho in one of those sleazy roles that Diaz writes and casts so well), exploits them to exact personal revenge on Andres. The film is set days before Good Friday, and solemn processions of self-flagellating believers amplify the mournful ambience around Andres’s doomed fate. I’m certainly missing much of the social nuances of the story, especially concerning the tribes on the island, but I must add that Diaz himself abstracts much of the details, such as the Andres’ background as a dissident. It could be that these details were established in Diaz’s contribution to the omnibus film Journeys (2018) from which Genus Pan reportedly derives.

Diaz’s modus operandi is familiar: shooting almost exclusively outdoors, he plants his camera at such an angle that a deep field is carved out in the frame. There are no camera movements or musical accompaniments. Unlike The Halt, however, the deep space here remains largely static as the action unfolds in the foreground. Much of the visual interest lies in the specific ways actors enter and leave the frame or, in scenes where they don’t walk, remain scattered across it. Because Diaz shoots in vast open spaces, at times, we aren’t sure about the scale of things until the actors appear in the frame. As the film shifts to the village, the shades of the forest make way for stark sunlight; I get the impression that Diaz has deliberately overexposed his shots a little which gives a bleached out, slightly uncanny aura to human figures. There are two instances of flashback—a device I don’t recall in Diaz—including one which dramatizes a false testimony. Instances of violence are directed in a very offhand, amateurish way which, combined with the broad characterization of the general, gives the film an imperfect, agit-prop, ‘Third Cinema’ kind of quality. Finally, while the action is leisurely paced, the editing is functional, hinting at a desire to end shots quickly and move on. I think that it’s refinement at work.

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

Spy Films (1941-43)

With war looming over the USA, and much before Pearl Harbor, Lang began to contribute to the struggle against fascism. Not in order to exculpate himself from any affiliation to Nazism, as certain historians claim, but because of a profound and personal desire expressed in the second Mabuse film, among others. Five films in all, four of them in succession if we count Confirm or Deny (1941) which Sam Fuller speaks about elsewhere and which Lang quit during the shoot—just as with Moontide (1942)—which proves that Lang cherished his freedom of expression more than the beneficial domesticity imposed by Fox, Man Hunt (1941), Hangmen Also Die! (1942), Ministry of Fear (1943), and as addendum, Cloak and Dagger (1946).

The last one is a little odd: if it reuses all the elements of the other spy films, its aesthetic is based on an outmoded, even embarrassing sentimentalism, impressive and convincing in the audacity of its excesses than in its quality. It feels too loud not to be sincere. Is it the nostalgia of the exile that’s speaking? We can’t say.

These works, with the exception of Hangmen Also Die! with its 1961 rerun in Paris, were poorly received by critics. It is true that they bring nothing new to Lang’s work, but even so, they are undeniably successful, clearly superior to the spy films Walsh churned out serially at the time, and more perfect than even Foreign Correspondent and Saboteur, contemporary films by Hitchcock. It’s understandable that finicky critics don’t like these films, for what they have in common is a total disdain for realism, and particularly for local colour. The Austrians (Man Hunt), the Czech (Hangmen Also Die), the Swiss and the Italians (Cloak and Dagger) and even the English (Man Hunt, Ministry of Fear) are characterized, in their behaviour as in their living conditions of the time, with a schematism that could seem repulsive to local population and to those who knew Europe under occupation or at war, and which could be compared to Minnelli’s The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. But, with the ties between America and Europe severed, Lang only had access to second-hand accounts. This rejection of realism also seems voluntary. Everything holds together thanks to the implausible, the fantastic and the extraordinary. The synopsis of the plots is telling.

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City Hall, or 272 minutes of “the future that liberals want”. I don’t know if Frederick Wiseman intended his film to coincide with the run-up to the American elections. But what is certain is that this wide-ranging documentary on the day-to-day operation of the Boston municipal government presents the city as a kind of laboratory offering a glimpse into one possible future for the nation. Mayor Marty Walsh, who is a something of a protagonist in the film, says so in no uncertain terms: he hopes Boston will be a model for other cities to follow. If Boston is a laboratory, what are the experiments? More equitable contracting opportunities, better rehabilitation facilities, reinforcements for food banks, construction of homeless shelters, more funding for eviction prevention, pushback against discriminatory renting practices, certification for same-sex marriages, authorization of marijuana retailing, increase of inner-city school capacities, and so on. True to his style, Wiseman films all these processes non-intrusively, in which the subjects don’t interact with the filmmaker or even look at the camera. Most of the film’s scenes are either speeches to an audience or a group discussion, both of which allow the filmmaker to compose them with countless portraits of attentive faces.

While what we see is practically the ‘Democratic agenda’ made real, Wiseman remains focused on a central theme. Boston, we are told, is 55% non-white, a fact that the city hall hopes to reflect in its policies. Wiseman, likewise, picks out diverse faces in the audience speaking or listening closely, as though to mirror Boston’s demographic distribution. In a way, City Hall is a picture of how a multicultural city comes to terms with its ethnic reality, how identity groups gain in power and how values enshrined by institutions are challenged and modified, all through democratic, constitutional means. However, given Wiseman’s non-interventional style, we aren’t told what to make of these observations. Wiseman doesn’t provide any reaction to the municipality’s policies from people and institutions outside it. In this absence, the audience’s own opinion about the proceedings comes into play in a significant way. In other words, viewers from the extreme-right could find as much material to justify their beliefs as liberals might.

On the other hand, the fact that there is hardly any friction within the operations of the city hall itself tilts the film’s balance. For a film about democracy in action, we barely see any dissent within the meetings themselves. We get new angles into specific issues, sure, but nothing that resists the fundamental thrust of the institutional charter. Only a faintly humorous, somewhat superfluous sequence late in the film, in which businessmen seeking to commercialize marijuana in an impoverished district face the cross-examination of the district residents, comes anywhere close to capturing the fault-lines of the democratic process. Moreover, Mayor Walsh unequivocally comes across as a political hero dedicated to the cause of his people. The mayor is everywhere, now supporting a gathering of nurses on strike, now thanking a group of war veterans, now extending support to Latina hopefuls, now organizing an NAACP rally. The only opposition he faces in his work is Trump’s federal policies, which register as an abstract external threat that the paternalist mayor will help his people overcome. In this respect, the film veers uncomfortably close to propaganda.

So it’s ambiguous whether City Hall is really ambiguous. The film adds to the impression of objectivity by expanding sideways. Almost obsessively, Wiseman documents operations at every organ of the city hall, located all across the city: from traffic control to pest control, from animal shelters to archaeological repositories, from cross-cultural cooking sessions to construction sites. This breadth is aimed at exhaustiveness, to show that the municipality’s operations touch every aspect of the city’s life. To this end, Wiseman glues together his sequences with shots from the city streets showcasing residential and official architecture, commercial establishments and the sea port. This offers a dialectic in which the city hall’s work becomes the invisible labour sustaining the order and beauty of Boston’s visible surface. Conversely, these digressions also risk scattering the focus of the film, all the more so because they are presented in bits and pieces, almost half-heartedly. City Hall is at its strongest when it depicts Boston as a seismograph of the larger changes afoot in America. At the same time, when it remains on its focal point, it starts losing its nuances. More than Boston, it’s Wiseman’s film that is a real litmus test for its viewers.

Orson Welles has been quite productive of late, considering he’s been dead for 35 years. Produced by the same team as The Other Side of the Wind (2018), Hopper/Welles is a documentary born of the director’s filmed discussions with Dennis Hopper in 1970, prior to the making of Wind. Coming out of their graves to give us company in our collective confinement, Welles and Hopper hole up in a dark room with half a dozen technicians to talk filmmaking, politics, religion, love, magic, news, television and literature while dutiful assistants scurry about readying one refill of liquor for them after another. Talk is perhaps not the right word here, for what Welles to Hopper does may better be described as an interrogation, a grilling. He plays the Grand Inquisitor, pressing his timid interlocutor to state his artistic and political beliefs, pulling theories out of nowhere to counter him and never allowing him a respite or a resting ground. While part of it is low-key ragging, Welles’ insistence clearly comes from a place of goodwill and seeks to draw out the young man’s best. Hopper, in his early thirties, is rather unsure and self-contradicting before Welles’ towering figure. Sporting a hat, he constantly caresses his beard, qualifying all his tentative, half-joking answers with a nervous, self-protective giggle. What Hopper lacks in persuasiveness he makes up for with his keen attention and youthful vigour; his eyes are full of life. “You’re a hard man to talk to”, he tells his questioner.

At the beginning of the film, a short text let us know that both Welles and Hopper changed the face of movies with their respective debuts. In doing so, it places both filmmakers at par with each other. That doesn’t quite reveal the entire picture. Now, in 1970, Welles is a greatly respected, almost legendary figure, but whose glory days are behind him, something of a ‘has-been’ if he ever ‘was’ for Hollywood. Hopper, on the other hand, is a star hot off an era-defining blockbuster in Easy Rider (1968). Yet, in their conversation, they are able to find a common ground, namely the question of authenticity in filmmaking. We never see Welles, save for rare glimpses of his bellowing pin-striped trousers moving at the edge of the frame. Hopper’s eyes, wide in evident admiration, follow him everywhere he moves in the off-screen space. At several points, the Caravaggesque Hopper literally looks up at Welles, who appears to be playing some kind of metaphysical force, re-orchestrating a Kafkaesque trial for Hopper. What results is a stark power imbalance between the seen and the unseen, between the subject and the author, between the one who is recorded and the one who wields the camera. Hopper’s cinematic forefather looms large over him even as he speaks about the need to one-up his old man.

I can’t imagine what form the film would’ve taken had Welles edited and completed it himself, but as it exists, it looks nothing like what he has done until this point. Shot with multiple handheld cameras and a single lantern next to Hopper, the film never ‘settles down’. The operators constantly move around the room, seemingly for no reason, relocating the camera, changing focus, zooming in and out in a way that may be disorienting for those interested solely in the dialogue. The camera’s magazines run out and the clapboard cracks indifferently in front of Hopper’s face even when he is in the middle of an important point. Whether on Welles’ instructions or on editor Bob Murawski’s, the view keeps switching from one camera to another at a frenetic rhythm, with inexplicable black leaders inserted in between shots. The overall impression is that Welles is making something like a Cassavetes picture, improvising the whole film with his actor by placing him in a dramatic situation and teasing out his responses by way of direct questioning. Welles, we are told, is also in character, as the filmmaker from Wind, and Hopper calls him Jake (Hannaford) as well. So the film may be said to operate in some undefined region between documentary and fiction, a precursor to F for Fake (1973); as much a story about a director shaping and rehearsing with his actors as a record of a man eating, drinking and getting drunk over two hours.

But the primary pleasures of Hopper/Welles are rather straightforward: two maverick filmmakers in a terribly fascinating conversation. The movie-related anecdotes that emerge are very interesting, for instance Hopper’s relationship with the Fondas, or his work on Crush Proof (1972), a self-financed experimental film by architect François De Menil (scion of the Schlumberger family and a cousin to Sylvina Boissonnas, producer of avant-garde French films including the early work of Philippe Garrel), as are the political talking points, such as Welles’ support for Francisco Franco, his prediction about a black US president and Hopper’s observation about the rift between the counterculture and deep America as he saw it in the varied response to Easy Rider. Most of all, it is compelling to see two artists grapple with the cinematic-aesthetic problems of the time. As the discussion turns around the films of De Sica and Antonioni, Hopper and Welles reflect on the challenges in dealing with boredom and lack of drama on screen, a few years before Jeanne Dielman (1975), among other narrative films, would do away with drama altogether. Going public after 50 years, Hopper/Welles is both a standalone film and an anniversary celebration. It hasn’t dated one bit.

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

Should Man Revolt or Adapt? (1940-1949)

No matter its results, the revolutionary impulse seems to be condemned by Lang as foreign to nature and inspired by the desire to create a new social order, a new collective morality, while the asocial impulse—often stemming from the barriers that Society places around itself for protection—seems to him to be more congenial, as though reflecting an individual and natural morality. But these are only tendencies that we sense in the direction of actors, or which the dramatic construction hints at. Except when he’s dealing with some typical examples of the American society, ones particularly marked by it, Lang doesn’t judge and remains objective. He judges neither Joe Wilson nor Eddie Taylor, no more than he does the killer of Dusseldorf. He doesn’t show a path to follow. What counts for him are facts, their circumstances, their immediate significance. Even when there appears to be a moral significance, it is, more or less, simply the reflection of a metaphysics.

On the other hand, in this period, Lang becomes more of a moralist than a metaphysician. Not happy with simply showing reality, he now reflects on what he’s showing. His style becomes simpler, less lively, and more sober because he doesn’t have to recreate the world as he sees it anymore, i.e. through formal experiments, especially expressionism; Lang now simply shows how and why people act the way they do in a given milieu—which is the reason characters become more important than the sets—and tries to draw out a moral point of view.

America seems to be the chief reason for this evolution: in contrast to Germany, America is a country whose essential problems are moral and immediate. Now, Lang worked in three genres, the Western, the spy film, and the psychological drama. The first of these, especially, and the second, in part, are typical of America and are always conceived in moral terms. What we have here then is an adaptation of Lang’s world to existing genres, a period of trial and errors, of reflection which makes the oeuvre go around in circles, and which, though very successful, is less memorable than the previous period.

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There Is No Evil (Mohammad Rasoulof)

Jean-Luc Godard once remarked that the most illuminating film on the concentration camps would deal with the everyday routine of the camp guards. Rasoulof’s Golden Bear winner, There Is No Evil, takes off from a similar idea, imagining four stories of soldiers in Iran’s army whose responsibility it is execute prisoners sentenced to death. The first of the four episodes in the film deals with the home life of a middle-aged executioner, not a soldier, but a freelancer who carries out assembly-line executions in batches. In the second segment, a young musician, newly recruited to the execution unit of the army, refuses to kill and tries to hold his ground. One of his mates in the army, who doesn’t have these scruples about simply carrying out orders, constitutes the subject of the film’s third part. The final section revolves around another middle-aged physician who had, as a youth, refused to kill prisoners and was forced to be underground ever since. So the four episodes echo each other in direct ways: the hangman of story 1 could be the older version of the soldier in story 3, just as the doctor of story 4 could be the elderly equivalent of the renegade of story 2; stories 2 and 3 themselves are mirror images of each other, as are consequently 1 and 4, exploring two opposed attitudes faced with the compulsion of having to act against your conscience.

Working within a broadly mainstream narrative idiom, Rasoulof gives different textures to the four episodes. The first segment unfolds like a short story, immersing us into the domestic minutiae of a middle-aged head of the family. We see him pick up his wife from work, drive her to the bank, prepare meals for his ailing mother, go out with his family for pizza, shop at the supermarket and dye his wife’s hair for a wedding the following day. He gets up before dawn, heads for his work, where he pushes a button to send half a dozen prisoners to death. The ending shocks us, all the more because it comes at the end of a series of quotidian activities. It’s all part of a day’s work for the man, inured to the executions. The anxiety induced by this ending is sustained till the end by the second episode, an existentialist parable shot with the fluidity of a video game, in which a conscientious rookie executioner breaks out of the army camp by tying up the guards. The third, the longest and arguably the weakest section of the film, is novelistic in its examination of a personal relationship broken irreparably by the guilt of a soldier who has just killed his lover’s idol. Despite the ample presence of barren, rural exteriors, the closing episode is essentially a chamber play about a simmering family secret that is the consequence of a physician’s desertion from the duties of an executioner. While the film’s subject matter will dominate discussions about it—as it should; Rasoulof was sentenced to a year in prison following the Berlin premiere of the film—it’s the director’s versatility and stylistic nuance that register foremost.

Da 5 Bloods (Spike Lee)

Lee’s latest film is an action-adventure tale based on a pretty incredible outline: four Black Vietnam war veterans return to erstwhile battlegrounds in order to recover a chest full of gold bars they had buried forty years ago. The consignment, we are told, belonged to the US government, which sought to pay mercenary troops with it, but “Stormin'” Norman (Chadwick Boseman), their unit leader, now dead, convinced them that the gold must be used for the racial reparations that America hasn’t been willing to voluntarily make. As the “Bloods” trace and recover the gold, running into volunteer minesweepers and undefined guerrilla outfits, Paul (Delroy Lindo), the only fleshed-out character of the group, begins to succumb to greed and war trauma. This already eclectic, charged outline allows Lee to weave in quick history lessons as well as contemporary political talking points without upsetting the genre framework. He is literally delivering a Geschichtsunterricht when he intermittently cuts to photos of figures from Black political and cultural history that his characters regularly evoke in seeming self-satisfaction. But for the most part, the adventure story progresses robustly, with both character development and pamphleteering kept on the sidelines.

A film professor, Lee is very well aware that Hollywood movies tend to enforce a form of historical revisionism and that he is working within a subgenre that comes loaded with certain cinematic, social and philosophical baggage. On one hand, he is making yet another war fantasy in which Americans come out trumps. But he is also parodying, reconfiguring the image the Vietnam war—the ‘American war’ as the Vietnamese characters put it—has in the minds of movie audiences. Locating the Civil Rights Movement within the context of the Cold War, as the opening newsreel footage does, Lee’s film casts the Vietnam war as one without cause for the Blacks, one in which Black soldiers were sent to the front along with whites, even as they were denied equal rights back home—this injustice falling in the long line of unreciprocated acts of patriotism by Black people (ask not what the country can do for you etc.) Politically astute as he is, Lee inscribes this racial contradiction within the larger colonial context of Western presence in Indochina. While this trip is a therapy and even a means to racial justice for the Bloods, for the Vietnamese, their invasive, re-colonizing presence (first as soldiers, then as tourists—“they didn’t need us; we should’ve just sent McDonalds”, remarks one Blood) only revives the terrible injustices of an unequal war. Whatever they are back home, the Bloods are, for the rest of the world, GI Joes. Lee acknowledges this by periodically puncturing the film’s identification with the Bloods by testing it against the Vietnamese’s view of them, and also by including archival image of the war violence the Vietnamese suffered in the same manner that he includes photos from Black history. (Whether these images are drawn exclusively from Western sources is, however, unknown.)

The film’s various heterogenous elements don’t cohere as they would in a more classical film. But this disharmony is in keeping with Lee’s brash, all-accommodating, critic-proof style, which is hinged not just on assembling disparate formal and narrative elements, but also on ruffling simple, self-contained elements. Notice the way he cuts the plainest of conversation scenes to the point of upsetting spatial coherence. Conversely, he employs a more cohesive sequencing where a more frenetic composition is de rigueur, namely the battle scenes. The abrupt, almost cavalier manner in which he ends scenes is apparently agnostic to the emotional value scenes. If, at times, these cutaways seem premature, at several other places, they undercut the melodrama rather wittily. Finally, the fable-like quality of the story serves as a rather powerful mould for Lee’s political vision, all the more so because it is so general, so apolitical. The tale of a group of idealists losing their idealism under the temptation of individual, material gain goes perfectly with the parable of renewed racial solidarity the filmmaker wants to narrate. In the process, Lee is contributing to a new foundational narrative of America erected on popular Black mythology—what Birth of a Nation (1915) was for the Southerners, Lincoln (2012) was for the Unionists, or America, America (1963) was for immigrants.

Days (Tsai Ming-liang)

I haven’t closely followed Tsai’s work since Visage (2009), and because I regularly find myself disappointed by one-time favourites, I expected some amount of disillusionment with Days. I am relieved to report that Days is not just a fine film, but also one of Tsai’s most representative and resonant works. The filmmaker’s eternal muse, Lee Kang-sheng, plays a lonesome pisciculturist (?) who is ailing from some kind of nervous disorder. He travels to a city, or perhaps to another country, for treatment. In parallel, we see the everyday life of a young man, played by Anong Houngheuangsy, who lives out of his suitcase in a loft in a urban commercial complex. In long stretches, we see him prepare his meals and get ready for work. He works at a small clothing retailer at night and also freelances as a gay masseur. He meets Lee when the latter hires him for a full-body massage at his hotel room.

As is his custom, Tsai develops this outline very sparsely. In extended shots, we see either character performing one particular action. In the process, Anong’s modest but devoted meal preparation assumes a dignified, nearly religious quality, not unlike Lee’s perambulations as a Buddhist monk in Tsai’s earlier films. But Tsai’s sensorial radar is much wider and picks out the voluptuousness of everyday objects and settings. He is a filmmaker sensitive to the household textures of the Asian working class: patches on the wall left behind by the previous tenants of Anong’s loft, where probably lived children, its ivory-tinted doors of compressed-wood, the pastel-coloured tiles of the bathroom, the polish of fluorescent light as reflected on Anong’s humid skin, the extra-green vegetables he chops into an extra-red container, the reflection from his triangle-shaped steel ear piercing, the various objects of recycled plastic around the studio all compose a veritable symphony of the inanimate.

There has always been an undercurrent of ‘post-apocalyptic spirituality’ in Tsai’s cinema, a ‘neo-animist’ generosity that finds possibilities of rapture and communion in the most modern, lifeless settings. But equally, his work taps into the sensual charge that the human figure can have on screen. Critics often talk about the presence of a star, but Lee here is reduced to just that, a presence: at many places, his body is hardly anything more than still life. Even so, our attention is riveted on the human figure (no more than two or three shots in the film without it). I also believe that the current health crisis might have sharpened my (our?) general sensitivity to the human presence on screen: in their complete lack of human figures, for instance, the shots in James Benning’s Maggie’s Farm (2020) are haunted by an absence, crying to be ‘filled up’. All this to say that the super-erotic, super-relaxing massage sequence is only different in degree, and not in kind, from the rest of the film; a different note on the same scale.

There’s no intellectual algebra to be performed here. Tsai films loneliness, and the refuge from it offered by fleeting intimacy. That’s his great subject, the way reincarnation is for Apichatpong or romantic entanglements are for Hong. He also likes filming Lee (one is the corollary of the other). Here, as in the past thirty years, he films Lee eating, sleeping, walking, just sitting or staring into the void. Now, additionally, he also films him ailing, suffering, undergoing treatments and perhaps healing—making the film a sequel of sorts to I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (2006). It’s Warhol, on a less playful, more spiritual key. This inextricable nature of Lee’s presence in Tsai’s cinema is also the reason the equally important presence of the second actor, Anong, introduces a somewhat unsettling note. Days is, quite unequivocally, a series of contrasts between Anong’s blooming, young physique and Lee’s older, hurting body. Is Tsai changing muses, committing a form of artistic adultery? The film ends, not on Lee, but on Anong’s wandering on the city sidewalk, fidgeting with a sappy music box Lee has handed him—a decision that lends the preceding, wonderful shot of Lee’s face in the morning a valedictory aura. Tsai’s next project will, no doubt, throw more light on this seeming transition.

Malmkrog (Cristi Puiu)

Five Russian characters, variously of aristocratic and bourgeois background, assemble at a chateau somewhere in Mitteleuropa in winter and debate religion, morality, metaphysics, politics and aesthetics, as silent butlers serve them lunch, snacks, tea and dinner around the clock. Puiu simply parachutes us into this situation with no introductory information. Who are these people, why are they discussing these topics in French, and most importantly, why does no one give up? As the conversations progress, we learn that it’s sometime around the turn of the twentieth century. It is plain that the two men and the three women are all grappling with the intellectual upheavals of their times. Ingrida (Diana Sakalauskaité) is appalled by the desacralization of military duty, Edouard (Ugo Broussot) believes it’s Europe’s mission to civilize the entire world, Olga (Marina Palii) is convinced that a pacificism rooted in Christian teachings is the key to the question of violence, Nikolai (Frédéric Schulz-Richard) plays the devil’s advocate to her, taking the philosophical foundations of Christianity to its absurd limits, and Madeline (Agathe Bosch) assumes a moderating voice. Extremely polite and formal, the exchange reeks of sexless, stereotypically Caucasian sangfroid, even when it’s intimidating and contemptuous.

If there ever was a clinching argument for dubbing foreign films over subtitling them, this is it. It’s not just that the characters never stop talking. It’s that as you are reading the subtitles, you are likely to miss the minimal physical action unfolding on screen—just like the video where you don’t notice a bear crossing as you are busy observing the basketball being passed. Puiu expressly uses physical action to counterpoint the incessant pontification. All through, the butlers, especially the head steward Istvàn (Istvàn Teglàs) on whose movement Puiu often begins his extremely long but imperceptible shots, wander about serving refreshments to the five statue-like speakers, who are almost oblivious to their presence. They are also attending to the sixth aristocrat in the house, a bedridden general, who needs to be bathed, clothed and fed. At exactly the one-hour mark, Olga faints to the ground, producing the first significant movement, and the first break in the discussion, in the film to our great delight. Puiu’s curious but detached camera observes the speakers from a close distance, slightly panning left and right to follow a character now and then. Characters are regularly framed against doors and windows and, in conjunction with the many framed elements of the décor, are rendered as static and stuck-in-time as the furnishings.

Whether one finds these debates riveting, like I did, or insufferable is a matter of taste, but what is evident is that Puiu is interested in more than the subject matter of these discussions. Like in a William Wyler film, the working class is constantly present at the margins of a bourgeois chamber drama that takes centre stage. And this dialectical presence, along with the increasing clarity that we are close to 1905, forebodes a turbulence that comes, sure enough, in the middle of the film. We perceive that the supreme refinement and courtesy with which the debates take place, in fact, conceal a violence that is a response to the ethnic, nationalist and class agitations Russia and its bourgeoisie are facing at the time. The extremely hierarchized, class-coded relations of the butlers within themselves—exemplified by Istvàn striking one of the manservants under him for spoiling the coffee—provide a picture of the larger social structure outside the chateau.

But more than Wyler, it’s Buñuel that Malmkrog frequently recalls; whence the subterranean humour of the film. While its apparent why the characters are indoors—they’re snowed in—it’s absurd the way they refuse to perform even the smallest of physical gestures, like moving a chair or passing the plate. It’s patent that they can’t do an errand even if their life depended on it. We get the impression at the very beginning of the film that, for all their lofty discourse about the destiny of Europe and the meaning of war, the bunch is oblivious to the ferment right under its nose. When, in the middle of the film, the butlers don’t respond to their call, the characters sit at the table in disbelief, ringing the bell again and again as though that will set things straight. The punchline for this setup comes when the group is promptly sprayed down by a line of bullets. At the same time, despite this deliciously morbid humour, Puiu doesn’t undermine his characters or their beliefs, as is discernible from the way he arranges the six chapters of the film non-linearly. What the characters debate over, in the final analysis, are important philosophical questions in their own right. It’s just that their idealism is superseded by events that may only be made sense from a materialist perspective. So, in a way, these are tragic figures, spirited away by History just as they think they’re approaching enlightenment.

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

Lang and Me

In 1941, when rumours began to circulate that Hitler’s ships were assembling to cross the English Channel, then known as the Corridor of Hell, and invade England, I had an idea for a script: what would happen if the London office of the Associated Press were to be destroyed by bombardment, if the AP set up shop in the wine cellar of the Ritz, and if its head found himself trapped by a German time bomb in the same cellar with the official censor of the British press? I’d thought of this story from the particular point of view of a practicing war correspondent, whose work has its own rules and duties: when must he deliver the information? Should he instead keep it a secret? What should he decide, redacted or good for print? Who can judge? What is the best solution? My AP head, a prisoner of the cell and the bomb, decides it’s good for print. The government deems him wrong; the profession deems him right. You probably remember, or were at least told about it, that Hitler’s attempt to invade England failed. The boats were scuttled, the Channel was full of oil, the free countries heaved a sigh of relief. That was the general situation at the time. In my original script, the AP head was killed by the bomb.

Since I’d never set foot in England, I sought the help of an old friend, the late Hank Welles. He had covered the Great War for The Chicago Tribune and had, at one time, managed the Paris office of the Tribune. I asked him a load of questions about London’s streets, its slums, its cellars, about transatlantic cable terminals near Penzance etc.  I wrote ninety-two pages of the adaptation in fifteen hours. Hank prepared cocktails of coffee and cognac. As I asked him technical details about London’s atmosphere, I played the keyboard—I mean I worked on the typewriter—while listening to him. 20th Century Fox bought the story, titled Confirm or Deny, for $20,000.

Hank and I were delighted to learn that Fritz Lang was to direct this film. A peerless creator, Lang remains a symbol full of meaning for all filmmakers. Darryl Zanuck had Jo Swerling adapt the script.

A while later, we heard that Lang wasn’t involved in the film anymore and that Archie Mayo, I think, was to replace him. Why? What had happened? Mayo, I know, was also a filmmaker with a lot of experience. But there were certain touches, certain nuances, certain secret flashes as imperceptible as an exclamation point in literature that Lang could’ve harnessed to the smallest detail, with which he could’ve nailed it so perfectly that you’d have your hair standing on the head.

Whatever it was, I was very disappointed. I knew Lang’s stylistic signature from M until Fury, this admirable cinematic account of mob rule and blind justice.

I was disappointed by the film too. It was a cheerful, rather ordinary melodrama sprinkled with love scenes and punctuated by humorous touches. There was everything except my original idea: the journalist’s struggle with himself to decide whether to print or withhold an information of international importance at a time of war. There was a syrupy love story, with a dash of the sour cream of goodness, embodied by an old journalist. This sermon didn’t move anyone. The war cry seemed to be coming from behind a lectern rather than a teletype. One of my key scenes was when the editor, caught in the trap and finding it impossible to warn the hotel manager that a bomb is about to go off in the cellar, uses the Allied transmission code to send an SOS to the rest of the world, so that it can reach the manager, who is five metres away on the other side of the wall. I thought this scene was sensational.

One day, at the bar of the Screen Director’s Guild, I met Fritz Lang and asked him what had happened to the story of Confirm or Deny. If I remember correctly, he told me that he had read the adaptation I’d written, that he had liked it, and that the final script had nothing to do with the original anymore. So he left the film, which I’ll always regret. I often think that if he hadn’t left, he might have introduced some of the original flavour that had excited him in the first place.

Now, I have something else to reveal to you that will amuse you. In 1946, I had an idea for a film. It was set inside an insane asylum [1]. I sent the script to Fritz Lang. His assistant returned it to me on June 26th 1946 with a letter from Universal under the letterhead of Diana Productions. The letter said that Lang thought my script was very interesting, but that he was already preparing a film on the same lines.

(Unpublished, 1962)

 

Footnote:

[1] It was to become Shock Corridor.

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

The Asocial Impulse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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