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The Treasure

The Treasure, the fiction film Corneliu Porumboiu made between two splendid documentaries, The Second Game and Infinite Football, begins with an image of paternal anxiety that would be at home in either of the latter films. Seated at the back of a car, Alin (Nicodim Toma) is upset that his father Costi (Toma Cuzin), offscreen, was late to pick him up from school. Costi replies that he wasn’t late, merely hiding, and that Robin Hood is never late. Alin doesn’t buy it, and tells Costi he isn’t Robin Hood. This offhand exchange, which has little to do with the plot of the film, functions as a kind of primal wound in the father-son relationship that Costi will attempt to mend. A little further, when he learns that Alin is being bullied by a classmate at school, Costi kneels down to teach his son how to handle it. In a tender bit of education, he instructs Alin to push the bully away and scream, but not to hit him. Later in the film, Costi chides his wife for letting Alin know he’s out looking for a treasure because it will set him up for disappointment. Among the numerous pleasures The Treasure offers is an endearing but unsentimental image of a father who judges himself through the eyes of his son.

Like all Porumboiu protagonists, Costi is a functionary. He is responsible for resolving land disputes, for authorizing private property. Costi is a straight shooter, he cannot lie. When his unemployed neighbour, Adrian (Adrian Purcarescu), shows up at night asking for a large sum of money, Costi turns him down, giving a clear account of his situation. Unwilling to let go of Costi, Adrian tells him that his great grandfather had buried a treasure in their ancestral house before the communists took over, and that if Costi helped him hire a metal detector to fish it out, he’d share half of whatever they find. Skipping his bill payments, Costi arranges for the sum of money. The two set out on a Saturday to Adrian’s country home, where they’re joined by Cornel (Corneliu Cozmei), the metal detector guy. Working with two devices whose operation they can’t entirely trust, the trio scans the length of the garden and zeroes in on a spot. After a protracted quarrel with the impatient Adrian, Cornel drives away, leaving the neighbours to dig alone.

With its simple premise and single line of thought, The Treasure resembles a short story. Like Police, Adjective, the film is a procedural that emphasizes the duller, everyday facets of the treasure hunting process. Costi slips away from the office in the afternoon to go look for metal detectors. He discusses pricing and timing with a small agency, but finds Cornel at the exit willing to do it at a cheaper rate. Back at office, his boss confronts him about his afternoon absence, and Costi tells him the truth. Incredulous, the boss is convinced Costi’s having an affair. A considerable part of The Treasure finds the three men walking like zen monks in the garden, hoping that the detector reveals something. There’s a significant presence of technology in the film in the form of various electronic devices but also as numbers and charts. The men’s faith that these figures will announce good news resembles something like a superstition.

The Treasure is set against the backdrop of contemporary Bucharest—its problems of unemployment, mortgage pressures and wealth inequality—but is essentially a fairy tale. It is a fairy tale because it’s set against these harsh realities. Rendering Costi as a sympathetic man in financial distress, Porumbiou pegs the film as a rags-to-riches narrative of individual success, prompting the viewer to cheer for the man in his treasure hunt. Costi, for his part, does everything he can to spoil this: he tells pretty much everyone around him what he’s up to, the villagers around the country house turn nosy, and even the police get a whiff of it. But none of it hinders their project; true to template, they discover a treasure. Porumbiou, however, concocts an ending that pulls the rug from underneath us, turning the fairy tale’s ideology inside out. More precisely, the ending displaces the film from one fairy tale to another. We realize then that the film’s focal point was somewhere else, that the listener the story is being recited for isn’t us but Alin.

The Treasure explains this shift in historical terms. The three men are looking for a treasure buried in a land that may have been under dispute during the 1848 revolution in which, we are told, sons of landlords redistributed their elders’ property. Adrian believes the treasure itself was buried in the 20th century, before the communists’ time. It turns out it wasn’t; it was buried during the communist regime. The ancestral home was a school under the communists, became a bar after the 1989 revolution and came back to Adrian in 1998. As the men dig, they find evidence of the site being used as a brick-producing site and later a steel mill. Like Alex Gerbaulet’s Shift, The Treasure reframes the story of the present through several levels of history buried underneath. As the men excavate the history of Romania layer by layer, they discover constantly changing definitions of wealth and crime: from private property being theft to its infringement defining theft. In doing so, The Treasure imagines fairy tales as negations of the social conditions producing them. Robin Hood can flourish only in a greatly inequal society. What did communist kids dream about? Stock markets, probably.

Graduation

Dreams of escape is what Cristian Mungiu’s Graduation begins with too. Romeo (Adrian Titieni), a surgeon, imagines a better life in the West for his daughter, Eliza (Maria Drăguș), who needs to perform well in her high-school examinations if she is to get a scholarship to Cambridge. A day before the exams, she is assaulted on way to school apparently by a convict on the lam. Eliza is understandably traumatized and doesn’t perform as well as she should’ve in the first exam. Fearing this might ruin his plans for her, Romeo arranges for her next evaluation to be rigged against the wishes of his bedridden wife, Magda (Lia Bugnar). In this, he is aided by a chief inspector, a deputy mayor and an educational officer, all four trading favours with each other.

Graduation opens with a shot of someone digging outside Romeo’s apartment complex in broad daylight. It’s an image that’ll appear one more time, but one that won’t be explained. Similarly, we aren’t told who is it that’s throwing stones at Romeo’s windows. Romeo simply accepts these events and is convinced of the deep rot afflicting the world around him. A potentially damning bit of information about Eliza’s boyfriend at the scene of the assault is also left hanging, even by Eliza whom it concerns the most. Romeo is having an affair with an administrator at Eliza’s school, a fact that the long-suffering Magda knows about, but doesn’t bring up. Everybody in Graduation is ethically compromised—there’s no moral centre to the film—because that is the only way to cope with things around here.

When Magda doesn’t agree with Romeo rigging the exam results, he reminds her of their own broken aspirations. They had decided to return to Romania after the revolution, but things haven’t changed as they wished. He tells Magda that Eliza, having had a cocooned upbringing, won’t be able to handle with the sordid realities of the country and must do what they couldn’t. Romeo repeatedly asserts, spelling out the film’s anti-moral, that sometimes the results are more important that the means. In exchange for favourable exam results, Romeo prioritizes the deputy mayor, who put Romeo in touch with the education officer, for a liver transplant. It doesn’t seem like anyone is losing out by Romeo’s bypassing of the transplant waiting list, just as it seems no one is really affected if Eliza’s score is fudged. But, of course, someone is.

What Graduation continuously points out is Romeo’s willing blindness to things. He believes that Eliza wouldn’t have been assaulted had the police done their job properly, but who’s to say that the convict’s escape wasn’t one of these ‘harmless’ arrangements? He complains about corruption and stagnation, but dodges draft and thrives as a surgeon thanks to these very elements. The institutions the film revolves around—police, hospital, school, town hall—aren’t pictured as Kafkaesque labyrinths but intimate spaces made or broken by individuals in it—something like a family, which is here a tainted institution too. Romeo exploits and benefits from due process not being followed in these institutions. His downfall comes when people, for once, start doing the right things: the investigation bureau decides to examine the deputy-mayor’s dealings, the police sniffs out Romeo’s arrangement, Eliza refuses to follow his instructions and loses faith in him.

Like in an art film of the seventies, Mungiu takes considerable pleasure in charting the downfall of respectable middle-class Romania. Romeo’s sealed-off existence is hinted at from the very first scene, where it’s pierced by a stone hurled at his window. The doctor spends rest of the film trying to fix this hole, literally and symbolically. Mungiu composes several indoor shots with windows visible in the background, the opening scene having prepared us to expect them to shatter any moment. This sense of fragility and pervasive dread—peaking in a late scene in which Romeo wanders a shady neighbourhood pursuing Eliza’s assaulter, only to struggle to get away from the location—is counterbalanced by the rather affectionate portrayal of the father-daughter relationship. I was reminded of Ozu throughout Graduation, with its long shots of Romeo peeling fruits, changing shirts or just sitting in wait of his daughter’s imminent departure. The pain of generational shift is brought into focus through the figure of Romeo’s ailing mother, who doesn’t want Eliza to leave Romania. That Eliza is the one who saves her grandmother in one scene, when Romeo is at his lover’s place, reinforces the film’s implicit theme of the necessity to own up to the past.

Metaphysics of the Arabesque

Radio Cinéma Télévision no. 444; 20 July 1958.

The Quiet American

When it appeared in 1955, the Englishman Graham Greene’s novel A Quiet American was a big succès de scandale. With the recent guerrilla wars in Indochina as the backdrop, it tells us the story of a typical British journalist, Fowler, who colludes with the communists to plot the death of his rival in politics and love, his friend Pyle, the typical American. Pyle believes that neither the communists nor the French can find a solution to the Indochina problem. He supplies ammunitions to an army of dissidents that represents, for him, a life-sustaining “third force”. This fascist third force increases its horrible attacks, like the one where explosives are hidden in bicycle pumps. It’s because the lives of thousands of innocents are threatened, because Pyle, an always self-assured Bostonian confident of his ideals and convinced of the moral value of his acts, remains unconscious of his actions that Fowler agrees to his murder. The Americans made a hue and cry about this book, which violently expressed the eternal aversion the British have for them. Not without reason: Greene’s partiality crudely pitted the calm, sceptical and praiseworthy objectivity of the Englishman against the ridiculous, criminal and naïve self-assurance of the American. A puerile simplification that’s far from the truth: the particular stands for the general. And it’s obvious that all Americans aren’t like Pyle, nor all Englishmen like Fowler, that each civilization contains good and bad values in equal parts. Moreover, the style left a lot to be desired, with its false journalistic objectivity awkwardly inspired by the first Malraux.

Total change of tone in Mankiewicz’s film. The eighth quarter-hour makes us suppose that Pyle was a brave fellow and that Fowler, the intelligent and lucid Englishman, was taken for a ride by the communists, whose skilful manoeuvres had forced him to judge Pyle guilty. He was only too happy to condemn him: Pyle’s disappearance will allow him to win back the favours of his eternal mistress, whose hand Pyle had just asked. That’s the explanation of the third man, Vigot, the cunning French inspector. The most surprising part is that this interpretation corrects multiple plot holes and improbabilities of Green’s novel. And we’ll still never know the exact truth… Like for The Barefoot Contessa, we can quote Pirandello without being way off.

This dramatic turn of events, this unpredictable reversal is presented with a diabolical intelligence. No dramatic insistence whatsoever: a turn of dialogue just when our attention goes lax reveals the trick; the word “plastic”, based on whether it’s said with an s or without, whether it’s French or English, changes the face of the world. It’s appropriate here to insist particularly on the value of this reversal: some “modern” films and novels—it’s enough to name Orson Welles—go against the idea of the “message”, so dear to ambitious artists, and locate their meaning, just like the exceptional range of their aesthetic, on the destruction of a carefully elaborated message; truth lies way beyond moral stances. Critical towards Pyle and generous towards Fowler, the film finally inverts these values. Pyle’s self-assurance lay on a solid and honourable base. Fowler was just a coward, a victim led astray by the gullible idiocy of tortured, hung-up English intellectuals: the last shots make him a pitiable, ridiculous quiet Englishman. The film is the sum of these two points of view.

This explains the film’s surprising critical and commercial failure: Mankiewicz cheats his viewer, who thinks he’s watching a traditional display of anti-Americanism and gets a confirmation of his prejudices for two-thirds of the film, only to be taken for a ride at the end, just like Fowler. Mankiewicz has perhaps ended his career for having caught false intelligence, which seeks not the truth but to distance itself from tradition at all costs, and the famous fear of being fooled in their own trap. Some claim that the end was more or less imposed by the distributors; in truth, though, we have here one of the most independent films that America has ever sent us since it was even produced by our auteur-director and his company, whose name pays tribute to Beaumarchais.

Moreover, the aesthetic confirms the meaning of the work: it’s in the line of Giraudoux. Arabesques, an affectation and a literary style are its major features. The mise en scène takes pains to reproduce reality in all its forms for us: lightness and “fluidity” make way for dramatic composition and psychological study. The impression is that of liberty: things and beings seem to present themselves to us as though the auteur had nothing to do with them.

The film is more satisfying when objects occupy more space than characters. This can be explained by the literary, and not cinematic, character of the great Mankiewicz, who is only a good metteur en scène. This perfectly neutral Saigon as it presented itself during location shoot, with its suburban look cluttered with scrapyards and wastelands—while our detractors asked for local colour—is very curious. The festival scenes which open and close the film are among the most beautiful moments of contemporary cinema. This ballet with masques, confetti, garlands, monster heads and heroes scattered by the crowd represents in a typical fashion an 18th century universe, which is Mankiewicz’s own. It recalls The Rules of the Game and The Golden Coach without paling in comparison.

Over two hours, our protagonists talk in a room. Mankiewicz was thus hard put to find a novel way of directing actors. We have here a great progress over The Barefoot Contessa: to be sure, Audie Murphy, Michel Redgrave and Claude Dauphin seem to be acting in the same fashion, with their banal looks, creased foreheads and worried faces. But such performance corresponds more with the film’s subject than with the excellent and inventive direction of actors that we usually find in Mankiewicz’s work. In a ballet, individuality is subsumed in the whole.

Finally, one must point out the richness of the dialogue and their constant creativity. Mankiewicz is always on the lookout for the odd and the fantastic. He often plays on language conflicts and ambivalence of words. With him, cinema gives us not a filmmaker, but a genius litterateur. We are perhaps losing out on something there. But what are we complaining about? Even if the opposite is impossible, cinema can always contain within itself both cinema and literature. Even if the latter dominates, we don’t have the right become vociferous defenders of a cinematic specificity which, over the years, has proven to be highly fallacious.

 

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

Austerlitz

Ukrainian filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa’s Austerlitz is a typically rich and rewarding examination of the present’s relationship with the past and the commodification of history. Shot in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp near Berlin seemingly over one summer day, the film centres on tourists who visit the camp either on their own or as part of a guided tour. We don’t follow particular individuals or groups, but the general progression of the film follows the guided tour from the entry to the exit. We observe them through the architectural elements of the buildings on the camp, the double framing producing a necessary distance. The sound mix is dense and complex and picks up various different voices on the site. Guide commentary and tourist chitchat, mostly in Spanish and English, overlap to produce a disorienting palette reflective of modern confusions regarding historical interpretation: a speech about the isolation chambers at the site is overlaid with a tourist speaking about his South African trip, the camp tour perceived as being in a continuum with other vacation activities.

Loznitsa shoots with long lens, which allows him to remain at a distance from the tourists, who hardly notice or pay attention the camera; it’s to the credit of camera placement that he’s still able to get such long, uninterrupted shots, which always begin after the camera has been on for some time. It is also noteworthy that he doesn’t provide us any sights the tourists themselves might be seeing, remains as he does mostly outside the buildings. Austerlitz, like Shirin, is not about the observed but the observer, not about history but the consumption of history. In fact, we are never told which concentration camp we are in; I had to look it up. As is characteristic of the filmmaker, Loznitsa’s meditative and observational film offers no informational text or voiceover, leave alone indications as to what we are to make of these vignettes. A thoroughly non-polemical work, Austerlitz trusts the audience to not only supply the required historical context to understand the images, but also exhibit the moral sensitivity needed to garner insight from them.

The tourists behave as any group behaves in a culturally-significant space. They amble around the site in grudging respect; their blasé body language makes it seem like they are in a forced school trip or a not so amusing theme park. Naturally, they are in casual summer clothes, which includes dozens of message T-shirts. (One guy wearing a Jurassic Park tee is particularly helpful to the film’s cause.) Their mass-market clothing, advertised to them as embodiments of their individuality, turns them—like all of us—into walking banners for corporate branding, and this tension between mass consumption and individual inclination is also present in the way they consume the sights of the camp. Except for a few fleeting moments of solitary contemplation, they are pulled into the rhythm of the guided tour, with its regular snack and toilet breaks. They pose at torture poles and the ovens as they would at an amusement park. Austerlitz, however, does not incriminate them or deem them shallow. It is what it is, and the viewer is free to make his own judgments about their comportment. Loznitsa’s choice to shoot in black and white, in fact, refuses the potentially jarring presence of colours at the site.

There’s clearly a sense that something is missing from the images and sounds of Austerlitz. That something, the negative space of the film, is history itself. The past in Loznitsa’s film exists in an inverted relation to the present, for what we see in the film completely belies our knowledge of the concentration camps. The somewhat frivolous behaviour of the tourists, who dawdle as though they were in a shopping mall, is a negation of the sombreness of camp life. The crowd of tourists is unregulated, moving in all directions. They enter and exit the different facilities of the camp at will. They have food and drink at hand at all times. Most significantly, they possess an abundance of recording equipment that photograph every inch of the site. In contrast, hardly any images exist of the Holocaust, this “black hole of history” in Georges Didi-Huberman’s terms, one of whose defining features is the suppression of any documentation about it. Photography is also an existential act. Photographing a monument is a testament to the photographer being present at that place and partaking in the longevity of the monument, which will no doubt outlive the photographer. In that sense, Austerlitz is a snapshot of our life today, with all its fears and anxieties seen reflected in the Holocaust.

Loznitsa’s work has consistently engaged with the way history is recorded and given shape to. It has brought to surface the intimate relation between history and theatre, between the meaning of events and their appearance. In Maidan, the theatre of revolution is indissoluble from the revolution itself. It is in the form of the protests—the choruses, the banners, the slogans—that people recognize themselves as actors of history. In The Event, the conflict between the revolutionaries’ unsure understanding of what’s happening and the narrative imposed by state apparatus crystallizes into a synthetic vision of history. Both these films centred on a collective recognizing itself through a shared revolutionary identity. In Austerlitz, the tragedy of history resurfaces as commercial theatre. The mass is no more the subjects of history but its consumers. If the Nazis benefited from production at the camps, private and public operators now profit from the mass tourism industry. It is significant that Loznitsa’s film ends with a reference to the Lumières, with the visitors leaving the camp, now a veritable tourist factory. Unlike Lumières’ workers, though, they are in no hurry to get back home. They linger and take selfies at the gate. They are, after all, on vacation. Arbeit macht frei, indeed.

Donbass

Donbass opens in what it calls “Occupied Territory in Eastern Ukraine”. Calling the region that—and not Novorossiya or Donetsk People’s Republic or Luhansk People’s Republic—makes it clear that Loznitsa’s latest fictional film is partisan. The scene is a make-up room and the actress in frame complains about the pay. A woman in military outfit barges in and evacuates the dozen or so people inside. They actors aren’t surprised and rush out as per instruction. The handheld camera follows them in long shots to a location where they wait for further indications. Following the sound of an explosion, the crew is led to the site of a bus bombing, where they enact a TV reportage. The actress pretends to be a shopkeeper who rushed to the location after the blast. Loznitsa has perhaps never been more direct. This revelation of the mise en scène of false flag terrorism and manufactured news in Russia-backed secessionist Ukraine, which boomerangs back on its participants later, spells out both the filmmaker’s sentiments and the film’s modus operandi.

Donbass is divided between “Ukraine” and “Occupied Territory in Eastern Ukraine”, but spends most of its time describing life in the occupied region. Like Loznitsa’s first feature My Joy, the film is a series of aborted vignettes, stubs that vanish after they’ve served their purpose. This employment of interruption as a stylistic element helps the film paint a mosaic-like picture of the region and liberates it from the need to give a narrative envelope to such disparate threads. After the opening bombing, we move to a maternity hospital in which the new official-in-charge denounces his predecessor’s crimes while being in cahoots with him, a drama during a Ukrainian political meet where one libelled lady pours a bucket of goo on a political leader, a reportage of people living in bunkers in the occupied territory, an anticlimactic meeting between a Christian pacifist and a newly-minted official, an ingenious description of corruption where the new army hijacks cars of businessmen and extorts money from them, a confrontation of the insurgent soldiers with a visiting German journalist whom they denounce as fascist, the punishment of an erring soldier by the rest of his regiment, assorted scenes at various checkpoints, exchanges among common people in the bus reminiscing about their losses in the war, and several other scenes and stray incidents. Loznitsa trains his attention on the power trips common people willingly embark on given the chance.

But Donbass is not some falsely-neutral study of the human condition; it clearly takes sides without reducing the complexity of the matter at hand. It is Loznitsa’s documentary eye that nuances proceedings. In the film’s most remarkable detour, we attend a partly-grotesque, partly-endearing wedding in a registrar office in the occupied region—the first wedding in the self-proclaimed Novorossiyan union. Two “revolutionaries” are getting married and their uniformed, gun-toting comrades are here to wish them. The incredible energy of the scene apart, what registers is the attempt of a fledgling nation trying to define itself through rituals and symbols: the Novorossiyan marriage certificate, the national flag, the national anthem and the patriotic hails. Similarly, in another scene, a captured Ukrainian soldier is displayed at a bus stop, where the public humiliates and assaults him. There’s a hint of sadism in Loznitsa presenting the discomfiting affair in its entirety, but the stories of the people accusing the captive of rigging mines that killed their near and dear are equally distressing. In this sequence, setting image against sound doesn’t cancel them out; it enhances their truth value. In both scenes, it isn’t clear whether Loznitsa is critical of the participants in the ceremony. His success lies in making us look for values beyond that question.

Like Austerlitz, Donbass is full of shots making and unmaking themselves: we see elements constantly filling and emptying the frame. This alternation of density and rarefaction gives the film a rhythm akin to breathing, as does its combination of highly nervous action and anodyne conversations. Despite its scattershot narrative, we are always sure of where we are and what the dynamics between characters are. This is partly because the filmmaker guides our attention by placing the Ukrainian and Novorossiyan flags in nearly every shot. Loznitsa is a filmmaker with a remarkable eye for large groups of people, and Donbass contains several shots of individuals vanishing into the crowd or coming out of it. In one scene, we see people having set up camp outside a police station, dinner table and all. It’s a succinct image of the transitional period of revolution, right in line with the film’s thematic interests. The regiment without a chief, the maternity hospital with conflicting leaderships, the army unit without official funding, all point to a nation in the process of defining itself. A country in its mirror stage of development, it could be said, if only Loznitsa weren’t such a materialist.

Austerity of Style

Radio Cinéma Télévision no. 408; 10 November 1957.

A King in New York

In this quixotic narrative, whose only point of reference is the central character, various themes intertwine as they do in music. This style goes hand in hand with the expression of a complex reality that words can hardly express: everything can be both irritating and pleasant. “Life would be dull without all these worries”, affirms King Shahdov. Hiding behind the hysteria of rock’n’roll is the beauty and sensitivity of a night club singer. Polemist, Chaplin still is, but having become wiser and more lucid with old age, he towers over events and ideologies.

His style? He presents facts without technical affectation and in a very concise manner (see the revolution scene), but lingers over that which seems secondary to us. Every other scene is a discussion in a hotel room, an interlude but also a reflection of reality: modern life alternates action with the rhythm of a telephone. The triteness with which the scenes are presented without relief only increases the force of the smallest original notation, be it dramatic – the young hero’s tears – or comic – Dawn Addams’ play with legs in the shower – or the king’s abrupt emotional attack.

Like all creators, Chaplin forces himself into extreme austerity. Dramatic surprise is avoided, the gags pitilessly dissected and the end effect predictable from a long way away (see the fire hose). Product of subtractions more than additions, the result is better, bringing to cream pies their intellectual coefficient.

 

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

24 Frames

24 Frames, Abbas Kiarostami’s last film, begins with a brief description of its genesis. The late master tells us that he wanted to imagine the before and after of still images—one painting and 23 of his own photographs—by supplementing it with four-and-a-half minutes of additional footage, animated or filmed. Why he chooses 24 frames is fairly obvious, but why four and a half minutes? I suspect it’s a musical idea and the number does remind one of John Cage’s 4’33”; some of the musical pieces used in the film are just about that length. On a conceptual level, 24 Frames operates close to the structuralist mode of Five and the photograph-oriented poetics of The Roads of Kiarostami. The 24 numbered vignettes that constitute it, however, contain no accompanying text or voiceover, and take place within a fixed frame. Through computer-animated imagery and the sound mix, they imagine the negative space of the photographs: the stretch of time whose absence structures the presences within them. This stretch of time registers via the actions depicted: falling snow, trees swaying to the wind, waves at the beach, animals and birds eating, brooding, lazing, copulating, and generally being around in the frame. There’s a touch of sentimentalism in the vignettes in their focus on animals pairing up amidst the harsh weather. Romance, as Phil Coldiron observes, has been an anathema to experimental filmmaking and this appearance of love as a structural concept within an ontological examination of cinema is, despite my programmed discomfort, a welcome and perhaps even a radical idea.

The first vignette takes as its basis the only painting used in the film: Pieter Breughel’s iconic The Hunters in the Snow, which has a privileged existence in cinema, having previously appeared in several films including those of Tarkovsky. (It also has a privileged existence in my room: a copy hangs next to the Hitchclock™.) Kiarostami animates the painting not by changing or removing any of its elements, but by adding extraneous components such as smoke from a chimney of the house in the middle ground, a pair of cows crossing the horizontal, snow-covered road in the distance, a mutt that makes its way around the hunting dogs and a couple of additional crows. The manner in which the animation calls attention to only the incremental modifications to the painting is characteristic of the rest of the film, in which movement is played off against static constituents of the frame. The fact that it’s the chimney that is the first animated element gets to the heart of Breughel’s overwhelming canvas, which is most of all an ode to the feeling of homecoming, to the notions of domesticity, warmth, belonging and society. The spectre of The Hunters in the Snow looms large over the other vignettes of the film, both in its imagination of the possibility of companionship in a hostile environment and the oppositions between warm and cold, inside and outside, home and the world.

On a formal level, a tension between X- and Z-axes—horizontality and depth—characterizes most of the 24 vignettes. This, to be sure, is the basis of much of representative visual art that seeks to furnish a three-dimensional model of the world. But Kiarostami films his subjects symmetrically and head on, without any vanishing point in the compositions, not giving us any depth markers. He uses windows, pillars, fences and other foreground elements as framing supports. In some of the vignettes, he confines the “action”—and hence our attention—to a specific point in the frame, not unlike the handling of humans lost in the landscape in the Koker trilogy (recall our eyes fixated on Hossein vanishing into the field at the end of Through the Olive Trees): two crows huddling at the corner of the image, lions seen mating through a natural alcove in the landscape, swallows fighting for a hole in the snow. Sometimes there’s a counterintuitive piece of accompanying music, a choral work, an opera or a folk or pop song, which runs for the length of a shot—a structural device reminiscent of James Benning. And like Benning, 24 Frames registers incremental changes in the ambiance: slowly varying light and whether conditions, the advancing profile of wet sand on beach, a progressing deforestation mostly suggested on the soundtrack.

Except for vignette 15 with a group of tourists staring at the Eiffel Tower and the last one with a woman in front of a screen, we don’t see people in 24 Frames. Human presence is, however, felt all through, either in the form of the unseen hunters killing or threatening the creatures in the shot or through the existence of a framing perspective, a gaze, as is the case with the second vignette in which we see a pair of horses through the window of a moving car. Like in Breughel’s painting, Kiarostami’s film invokes an eternal struggle between man and nature, the former trying to constantly impose his will on his environment. A number of sequences end the same way they begin, suggesting cycles of nature that override human presence. The four seagulls perched on four posts at a beach in vignette 8 are driven away by a mass of birds approaching land; four other seagulls occupy that place once the canvas is empty. In vignette 14, birds on the road are dispersed by approaching bikes, only to assemble on the road again. Likewise, the vignettes embody a dialectic between man’s creative and destructive tendencies. The hunters are certainly destroying nature but, as Breughel’s painting hints, it is this practice that has made civilization possible. The architectural elements that frame nature in the vignettes are products of human will to shape order from the chaos and rapaciousness of nature. 24 Frames itself, with its CGI-enabled animation and microscopic orchestration of natural behaviour, is a testament to these Apollonian instincts.

Death hangs in the air, both in the form of the hunters shooting down animals as well as in the winter atmosphere. In trying to animate photos, Kiarostami brings to surface the violence underlying beauty of his photographs. In his last work, Roland Barthes wrote that photos of people carry a sense of “double loss”: they are pointers to people no more, but also reminders that these people will have died in the time after these photographs were made. Kiarostami’s expansion of still photographs into “motion picture” incarnates Barthes’ definition of the photograph as the “image which produces Death while trying to preserve life.” Cinema is, of course, only a trickery that projects photographs at a rapid rate to give the illusion of continuous time. Kiarostami, whose work has always ensured the viewer is aware of the production of this illusion, pulls the curtains in the last vignette: a computer screen plays a film clip at such a slow rate that it disintegrates into a series of incrementally varying photographs. In other words, the opposite of 24 Frames. It’s an apt and beautiful end to a heartbreakingly lyrical body of work that, over thirty years, has genuinely expanded our conception of what cinema can be.

Nothing but Facts

Radio Cinéma Télévision no. 383; 23 June 1957.

Men in War

If war movies make for the best box office in America, they are also highly subject to commercial and philosophical conventions. And rarely has this amalgam been rewarding: From Here to Eternity or Attack (whose last shot is reprised here in contrast), despite their audacities, don’t entirely win us over. Men in War, last of the series, rejects both philosophical theories and traditional psychology about the small group. The synopsis is extremely barebones: in the course of the Korean War, seventeen American soldiers separated from their division must, in order to get back on track, conquer “Hill 465”. Only two of them will make it. To mention a few elements of secondary interest borrowed from the original novel – war novels today are constructed on the image of films: the Black foot-soldier with a soft heart, the paralyzed colonel and his hot-headed companion. But these bits of information, rather than being harnessed by the mise en scène, are neglected in favour the mystery that the simplicity of each character’s traits hints at. Anthony Mann likes heroes who are all of a piece since these are the richest. Each of them being more or less crudely stereotyped, it would have been easy for him, as it is for his peers, to fill his hundred minutes of film with detailed psychological analyses, tedious dialogue about homesickness. He didn’t do that: at one point, the exhausted captain looks at the photo of his wife and kids. This simplicity of trait has all the power of evidence.

This new style is to be explained by the fact that we are dealing with the work of a metteur en scène and not that of an auteur. And, for once, it’s for the better. There’s nothing here that isn’t justified by some notion of a purely physical order. For example, the character of the sergeant is a purely cinematographic creation: he is fascinated by the immobility of his paralyzed colonel, which contrasts with this ever-changing world, and devotes great care to him. “Tell me the story of the foot-soldier, and I will tell you the story of all wars”, goes the epigraph. And the story of the foot-soldiers is summarized through an accumulation of facts: the best shots of the films depict soldiers, dishevelled, sweaty but always active, the one scratching himself, the one removing his shoes in fatigue, the one contorting on ground, the one struck down dead with a weapon in hand, like a Hugo hero (played remarkably by Anthony Ray, son of the director); others show us, thanks to excellent photography, all the sparse “black and white colours” across nature, shadows of clouds that cover combatants in darkness, the sun that seeps through the woods, the blades of grass of unreal tones that form the real setting for the battle. One should also note some very nice ideas, the paralyzed colonel getting cured suddenly while mechanically holding the cigarette he smokes, the sergeant who pretends not to see the enemies on his heels and kills them in one blow, the lieutenant’s clenched fist on which the film closes.

Despite inspired by a classicism of admirable reserve, Men in War could be criticized for some overly studied shot sequences, especially the first one, for some borrowings from the crude art of ellipses, the radio face cut in two by the framing, the militiaman’s hand spread over the tree he hides behind, a soldier’s death seen through the movement of his feet. But the discretion of the mise en scène that seeks, most of all, the effectiveness of a simple and unique detail, there where others prefer to disperse interest, succeeds in imposing itself on us. Let’s note, finally, the remarkable musical score by Elmer Bernstein (whose services are sought by the greatest directors today).

Is Men in War warmongering or anti-militarist? I would be hard pressed to say since it’s one of those rare films whose impartiality we can praise. The work of a man preoccupied solely by appearances and their infinite richness, it allows us to see, and therein lies the essential. Up to you to make up your own mind.

 

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

Safari

Markets don’t pass judgment on the desires they satisfy.

– What Money Can’t Buy (Michael Sandel)

 

At first glance, neither does Safari. Ulrich Seidl’s remarkable, disturbing film accompanies a German-speaking white family on their big game-hunting trip in Africa. Each member of the family leads an outing in which they track down an animal on their wish list, shoot it, exchange congratulations, feed it its notional last meal, prepare the dead creature for the photograph and pose with it. Interspersed with these hunting scenes are interviews with the family members, who speak about topics ranging from their ideas about and feelings during hunting to their preferred choice of weapons and animals. There are also comic interludes with an elderly white couple relaxing at the same facility. If Safari’s subject and quasi-structuralist approach is reminiscent of Hatari!, it’s because Seidl’s film uses the same alternating pattern as Hawks to closely interrogate the notion of a group of white people hanging out in the African wilderness as something more than just Christian men and women enjoying their God-given right.

A more pertinent kinship, however, is with fellow Austrian filmmaker Peter Kubelka’s 1966 experimental travelogue Unsere Afrikareise. It appears that much has changed in the game-hunting scene in the fifty years since Kubelka’s film. The industry’s more organized, with licenses for hunting ranches given to private players, including European settlers. There’s no interaction with the locals necessary anymore, every detail of the tour having been prearranged as part of the package. Most importantly, the technology has improved: rifles are now mounted on tripods instead of the bare shoulders of accompanying Africans. The rifles themselves have become more accurate, resulting in fewer shots fired and cleaner kills—a moral and aesthetic question as much as technological, since it avoids the unseemly sight of animals suffering long because of low-grade ammunition and bungled shots. But where Kubelka’s work sets sound against image from the get-go to subvert the original meaning of these sounds and images, Seidl remains much more withdrawn, presenting the hunting scenes largely as they happen in real time.

Seidl’s film has been called a documentary, but there’s ample evidence why that label doesn’t wholly stick. The hunting scenes that we see are fly-on-the-wall documents in which none of the participants recognize the presence of the camera, even in passing. Their voices and the sounds of the environment are captured in a hyper-realistic sound mix that could only have been possible with elaborate preplanning. Unlike in Kubelka’s film, it’s never clear if an animal has really been shot or if the camera’s recoil and the gunfire are manufactured. The interviews and the shots of the elderly couple are frontal tableaux typical of Seidl, and possess a carefully crafted vertical symmetry and a horizon way above or below the median. Seidl is interested in the process of game-hunting, its technique, its rituals, the social and psychological stakes in it for the participants. A large part of the film involves the hunters tracking, holding their breath, waiting for the animal to be at an appropriate spot and shooting range. There’s a tension between movement and stasis within the hunting episodes as well as between these passages and the interviews.

Safari doesn’t overtly take a moral stance here. In fact, it gives the family members, the elderly couple and the ranch owner, another German, sufficient scope to present their point of view. Their testimonies are frank; they don’t claim their actions to be morally defensible but they do evoke nuances of game hunting that often gets lost in passionate outrage against the practice: not just the economic benefits to host countries, but also the fact that the animals they target are invariably old alpha males that obstruct younger males from breeding and need to be put down in any case. The ranch owner invokes the problems of doing business in a recently-liberated African country as a white man, the importance of game-hunting to conservation as well as the necessity for humans to be mindful of their impact on the environment. Except for the elderly couple’s well-meaning racist comments, the film diminishes none of these testimonies and invites its audience to cut the Gordian knot itself if it wants to. The very presence of Europeans in Africa, lording over its animal resources thanks to the fruits of capitalism, produces an afterimage of colonial history that need not be overemphasized. Additionally, the family we see is a typical bourgeois unit, the patriarch overseeing each hunt and the son inheriting the practice from his father.

Instead, Seidl shifts the rhetorical responsibilities wholly on to the film’s editing: alongside the field trips and interviews are extremely graphic scenes of the killed animals being skinned, dismembered and disembowelled by the local African employees at the ranch. Everything about the hunt so far was “neat”: the shooting was done from a distance under guidance with one clean shot, the stuffed heads on the ranch owner’s walls are spotless as though they were ordered off a catalogue, even the transport of the bodies was taken care of by the tour operator. But the process of the dead animal becoming a trophy is anything but clean. These passages, in which African men take the animal apart with axes, saws and kitchen knives, serve as the underbelly to the more sanitized image of game-hunting the white people of the film experience. The very choice of including these images constitutes a stand against game-hunting; it de-aestheticizes the practice in the same way the revelation of the mechanism by which cultural objects are produced distances their consumer. The sight of a wobbly giraffe neck is a psychologically-potent undermining of the phallic force of the rifles.

Seidl’s interest, as in Paradise: Love, is also in the ways the tourism industry has inflected the traditional relationship between the Western world and the Global South. In this light, the people in the film make up a microcosm of the workings of multinational capitalism: the European ranch owner caters to his European clients while outsourcing the “back-end” operations of the service to Africans. The final section of the film turns to Africans who live with their families on the ranch in huts. They pose for Seidl’s camera holding smoked meat and other products of the animal they’ve just treated. It is plain that Safari intends this to be a contrast, but here it runs the risk of reproducing the discourse it seeks to overturn. The Africans, it appears, are the only ones really close to nature, the only ones engaged in hunting for the purpose of sustenance. They eat meat and exotic roots for the camera without a word, enjoying the fruits of their unalienated labour. Despite Seidl’s motivation, these tableaux echo the noble savage myth in their refusal to make it a more participatory affair.

On the other hand, these shots of the locals do throw into question the market-driven argument that game hunting improves the financial situation of the host countries. The money, clearly, hasn’t trickled down, the cosy bungalow of the ranch owner being a far cry from the ramshackle huts of the locals. The idea that sacrificing a few animals for the greater cause of preservation and human well-being rests on the belief that a monetary value could be ascribed to lives of these animals. In an early scene with the old couple, the man names various animals available at the resort for hunt while the lady reads the price per unit of each from the catalogue. A while later, the family lists out the roster of their favourite rifles as well as the animals on their bucket list. The success of Safari lies in its non-polemical invitation to reflect on the limits of markets, on our basis for ascribing values to things and beings. For, as Sandel has demonstrated, once moral questions are formulated in economic terms, it’s a slippery slope of brute logic.

Frozen in Hate

Radio Cinéma Télévision no. 392; 21 July 1957.

The Last Hunt

We know that almost all Westerns are of great topical interest. The journey back in time gets the viewer interested in political theses and it gives progressive filmmakers a greater latitude in establishing their ideas.

The Last Hunt, like certain other films by director Richard Brooks (Blackboard Jungle, Something of Value) attacks racism: it tells us the struggle of two buffalo hunters, who have directly contradictory ideas about their professions, at the turn of last century. Charlie kills for the pleasure of killing; Sandy needs money and is repulsed by the massacre he commits. This contrast explains the attitude of the two heroes towards their fellowmen. Charlie has a profound contempt for Indians, whom he kills every time he has the chance, and for humanity in general. Disgusted, Sandy leaves, taking with him the squaw who refused Charlie’s animal love. The last hunt is not to be, since Charlie, on watch outside Sandy’s refuge one winter night, dies in the cold. This statue of ice from the film’s last images – the evil eye, revolver in hand – resumes in a striking way the sterility, impotence and the ridiculousness of ultimately self-destructive, racist hate.

The intelligence of Brooks’ scenario lies in the fact that it explains the conflicts of a racial order through psychological motifs, through the taste for violence: killing Indians or massacring buffaloes helps satisfy one’s unhealthy needs without being pursued by justice. In contrast to literature, like that of a number of directors from across the Atlantic (Losey’s The Lawless, Biberman’s Salt of the Earth), it refuses pure and simple racism and relates it to the vagaries of individual conscience with great objectivity.

However, the film takes into account only one aspect of the problem, whereas the transposition should have allowed it broach more burning topics without fear of repercussions: if racial prejudice still exists in the United States, it’s to be explained first of all by a certain intellectual movement, typically of academic origin and completely alien to the desire for violence. Discrimination today affects Whites too, who are now victims of Blacks or, especially, dissident Whites, as much as it does Blacks.

Richard Brooks’ well-known honesty, so far rewarded, finds its limits here and the mise en scène affirms both the high and low points of the script. The Last Hunt is a curious Western, extremely slow and barely commercial. Brooks substitutes for the application and inventive sobriety of his previous films a somewhat belaboured sobriety. And there’s no contradiction between these two propositions: it’s a question of placing the characters within a framework that eliminates elements foreign to the psychology and the intentions of the auteur, particularly grand spectacle, fights and situation scenes. But if this kind of intellectual cinema is new and more probing than in the rare films that inaugurated it, is it desirable? Does it indicate progress? It seems to me, perhaps wrongly, that the anti-racist plea would’ve found a greater force in the exploitation of genre conventions than in this rather literary style, which instils – deliberately, I believe – sadness, boredom, barrenness through a sluggish narrative, perpetually dark colour palette and uncertain direction of actors.

These comments don’t stem from a misplaced sense of severity. The suspension of the mise en scène can be explained by the orientation of the script: the film describes beings in flight, real bodies without soul, and their blood-tainted existence. One must recall the splendid final image in this regard, which justifies the film’s style to the letter. None of this is cheerful. If The Last Hunt stands the test of time, it’s perhaps because the cinematographer, Russell Harlan, foremost of the chief operators in Hollywood, has been able to pin down this curious universe in images and because Stewart Granger and especially Robert Taylor, who gets his best role here, have been able to “embody” beings who are tortured and tormented for no reason other than the emptiness of their conscience, beings “devoid of life”.

 

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

Arjun Reddy

That it’s a rickety, confused film aside, the fulgurant popularity of Arjun Reddy, Sandeep Vanga’s debut about a macho young doctor’s failure in love, his suffering, his suffering, his suffering and his salvation needs consideration: Kabir Singh, its Hindi remake, is the biggest hit of the year and the film is being remade in other languages as well. At a point in time when public imagination is mostly occupied by films “inspired by true events”, the success of Arjun Reddy seems almost anomalous. The negative publicity around the film, with protests from the moral brigade as well as women’s groups, which felt it necessary to attack it by policing young people dating, can explain the box-office, but not the film’s apparently genuine acclaim, especially among women. It’s perhaps that the protagonist, Arjun Reddy (Vijay Devarkonda), represents the self-image of a new generation that knows what it’s doing, “doesn’t see caste”, and questions the values the previous generation took for granted, but he is far from the first to do so, being only the next step in the evolution of the modern Indian male Nagesh Kukunoor portrayed in his debut film Hyderabad Blues twenty years ago.

While the key to the film’s popular triumph might simply be the combination of a handsome lead actor, angsty music, edgy violence and a wily marketing campaign, part of the film’s appeal, I think, also derives from the oppositions Vanga brings into play. Arjun is a genius surgeon with a character flaw. We first see him dipping a bottle of alcohol into the apartment tank to dilute the booze—an epigrammatic image of self-centeredness. He constantly smokes or drinks; the only time his mouth is free is when it’s under the surgical mask. The first time we see his face, it emerges from wisps of smoke, as though he were literally on fire. Hot in his pants, he barges into a neighbouring apartment, brandishes a knife at a friend-with-benefits to force her to remove her pants. He is interrupted, so he tosses a handful of ice into his trousers to cool down. But a while later, he heads to the hospital, where he explains the imminent procedure with great patience to an elderly man in Hyderabadi Urdu. This split image assures us that, personally tarnished he may be, he is professionally unimpeachable and, since his profession involves people, morally too. The flaw, which changes through the film, only serves to reinforce his righteousness and certitude.

Even though she is only half a foot shorter, Shalini Pandey (as Preethi, Arjun’s romantic interest of a higher caste, Tulu background) seems diminutive in comparison to Devarkonda—a difference in perceived height that gives a paternal dimension to the motherless Arjun. The film cuts back and forth between Arjun’s ruined present and his halcyon days at the medical college, between the clean-shaven boyish youth of the university and the brooding Apollo of emanating locks of today, between the upright man of action and the horizontal, inertial being. Vanga has a taste for tonal contrasts: a fight scene at the college quickly turns into a man-to-man talk over cigarettes; Arjun and Preethi’s first meeting is cut to a Carnatic song; even the film’s upbeat ending is scored to a wistful score denoting a bitter victory. It may be that the audience takes an instant liking to outrageously good-looking people put in dark situations: it gives the feeling of being closer to otherwise unapproachable figures. Just as when Arjun later sulks against pretty landscapes of Europe later in the film. Vanga rallies his scenes around the firsts of Arjun’s life—the first glance, first kiss, first smile, first sex, first slap, first drink, first drug, first accident etc.—the endless repetition of which renders them banal.

Arjun Reddy has been taken apart for putting Arjun’s obnoxious behaviour on a pedestal and for its apparent misogyny. It’s an important, valid objection, but one that doesn’t take into account how the film’s formal strategies work against prevalent misogynistic principles of Indian cinema to an appreciable degree. It is true that Preethi is a docile cipher with no character—par for the course—but it is also true that the character is intentionally hollowed out for the film to present an idea of ghostly romance in which a strong, fully-formed personality completely takes over a weak, unformed one. Except for one false scene at her home, where she vainly imitates Arjun, the film is never about Preethi and always about him. There’s no courtship involved in their romance, only Arjun’s compulsion to protect her from perceived threat. The film clearly registers the discomfiting quality of their dynamic: till her smile following their first kiss, the baby-faced Preethi is completely passive to Arjun’s actions. Shots of her huddled with her equally hapless classmates, combined with the lack of any approving reaction shot from anyone to Arjun’s behaviour, cut a sorry—not romantic—image.

Preethi is harassed by a guy from another college. It is of note that the harassment itself—which would have been photographed in all its sordidness in another film—is elided and the viewer is not given the chance to partake in that humiliation. All we see is Arjun’s reaction to the event and Preethi’s ensuing relief. Arjun slaps Preethi once in the film. The action is presented in two shots joined by a cheat cut: we see him moving his hand and then we see her flinch. Again, the film refuses a chance to make the slap seem more ‘realistic’. (Preethi slapping Arjun earlier, in contrast, is part of the master shot). The scene in which he forces a woman at knife-point is played as a comedy, but not without turning it back on to Arjun, who remembers his dean’s warning about the scalpel turning into a weapon in his hands. Finally, unlike most Indian film heroes, Arjun doesn’t turn hateful of all women when his romance fails. Sure, he still loves her, but the film doesn’t present this failure as some injustice meted out to him. This is one reason the unending stretch of Arjun drinking, drugging himself don’t elicit pity as much as a low-key disgust.

Another reason these passages don’t settle into self-sympathy is because the film is too much in love with the actor to reduce him to that. Arjun Reddy is wholly a film about Vijay Devarkonda. Like the title that fills the screen edge-to-edge, the actor suffuses the film with his very being. Vanga’s camera is fixated on Devarkonda walking, sitting and, more often, sleeping. When he is seated on a chair after a surgery with his bloody gloves on, talking to a nurse who crouches in a mix of fear and maternal attention, the camera also crouches and the actor appears like a king on a throne. It’s curious how reluctant the director is to cut away from shots of Devarkonda. A good part of his scenes takes place in the master shot where actors come into the frame to talk to Arjun rather than getting their own shots. In an exchange with a college administrator, the camera remains on Arjun’s face—again, photographed from below—even when it’s his interlocutor that’s speaking. Elsewhere, Arjun scares his friend away from the bathroom and, even though the dialogue between the two is underway, the camera is fixed on Devarkonda speaking to his friend screen.

The director demonstrates considerable trust in the two principal actors to hold their shots, which results in far fewer edits than mainstream films hurl at us. The film’s central scene of the couple arguing (about others) is mostly a single shot, with the two actors approaching the camera as the argument grows more dramatic. It’s a dumb idea of blocking that imitates a passer-by’s point of view, but it holds our attention in its dumbness. In the subsequent shot, she clings to him, begging him not to go, as he tries to writhe out of her grasp—he wants to only hold, not be held. It’s a key image of the film, for it’s the first (and maybe the only) time we see him uncomfortable in his space. Brought up in a mansion in Banjara Hills, Arjun is a master of the universe for whom there are no barriers. He gets to any place just by wanting to: lecture halls, women’s hostel, shooting spots, other people’s houses. He wills private spaces into being and the rest of the world enables it for him. Even when he’s thrown out, he makes it clear that he leaves of his own accord.

Arjun is, however, a static character—he remains the same from start to finish. In one early scene, his grandmother (Kanchana) tells her friends about Arjun being persistent about finding a lost toy as a child. Bizarrely enough, her friends interpret this symptom of pig-headedness as a sign of hope against hope. You expect that his character arc will involve him learning the importance of letting go, of learning that the world is not always for his taking. But no. Persistent, Arjun is till the end. Even as a grown up, he behaves like an entitled child, complete with a diaper at one point. He points at people and they come and go per his wish. The girl he chooses to fall in love with, too, first appears before him among a row of other girls, like products at a toy store window. Preethi is a toy, and he moves her limbs like an action figure. Arjun’s selfishness is amply underscored throughout the film; he attempts suicide on the day of his brother’s wedding. Back in medical college, the dean scolds him for turning a football match into a bloody skirmish and shaming the institute, Arjun tells him that the fight was justified and he did it for the sake of the institute. “That’s how I am”, he tells the dean.

And so, despite its vivid detailing, the film turns out incurably blinkered. It wants us to see barriers when none exist. It sidesteps the chief question the plot poses: why does Arjun’s romance fail? He thinks it was the caste system and the tradition of arranged marriages that did him in. For a character who is proven to be above institutions and people—all those invisible barriers real people have to put up with—this faux-victimization doesn’t cut it for a moment. There’s no answer, for instance, as to why Arjun doesn’t go pick Preethi up the day after he’s been thrown out of her wedding. (Her consent was never a question anyway.) The real answer is that the film needs time to wallow long in the sorrow of a man whose only grief in life so far is a lost toy. “Suffering is private”, says Arjun’s grandmother understandingly. But Vanga makes a show of it: the spectacle of a vampire left with nothing to feed on but itself. Because nothing really changes at the end of the whole ordeal, pretty much anything can (and does) go into the final one hour of the film. Scenes ramble, organization goes haywire and filler shots abound. Secondary actors get more work in entirely dispensable scenes: there’s a particularly trying set of scenes with a housemaid.

Through all the physical and professional degradation Arjun goes through—he gets into trouble after he operates under the influence—he remains morally and philosophically sound. The more he goes into the dumps, it appears, the more he is capable of seeing things better than others. He maintains that it’s only a phase that he’s going through; the very conviction that it’s only a phase bestows on him a wisdom superior to the clamouring crowd around him. It’s evident that the film will snap out of this stupor only with a sacrifice: it’s predictably his grandmother, the only person with an intellect and moral sensitivity comparable to Arjun. They are given a tender final eyeline match that doesn’t correspond with the film’s reality. Her death cures everything—in other words, nothing was wrong in the first place—he reconciles with his family and friends, and goes on an Italian vacation. In a self-parodical, incredibly hackneyed sequence, Arjun stares into the infinite indifferent to the pretty sights of Cinque Terre (the film isn’t indifferent though). We are supposed to read this as some sort of grieving and maturation, wholly at odds with the static character of the picture. The film is wrapped up with a glibly conservative photo finish as Arjun, non-ironically, is shown assimilated in the same structures he earlier railed against.

I think Sandeep Vanga is justified in making Arjun Reddy all about its titular character at the expense of others. But his belief that the spontaneous combustion of an absurdly overprivileged male is of interest in itself is not backed up by the insight required to validate it. Between defenders who champion it as a film that goes into sticky territories of human experience in disregard of liberal holy cows and critics who have objected to its narrative politics, I tend to favour the latter. Asking filmmakers to be more morally accountable and to interrogate the choices they make is not antithetical to a pursuit of truth. Images don’t simply translate reality according to the artist’s ideas. They inscribe themselves into a representational history that modulates their meaning and affect. It would do well for filmmakers to be aware of the language they speak.

A “Nonsense” Gem

Arts no. 471; 23 September 1959.

Never Give A Sucker An Even Break

We aren’t surprised that Passez muscade, whose original title is the deliciously euphonic and mysterious Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, appears in France some eighteen years after it was made. This attempt, which the Surrealists gladly categorize among the twenty greatest dates in the history of cinema, perhaps constitutes the best example of nonsense offered to us on screen. W. C. Fields’ film, like Hellzapoppin’ which follows it chronologically, goes farther than the Marx Brothers without however equalling them. And the public is likely to express its frustration by a certain reserve.

The champions of nonsense for the sake of nonsense will praise it to the skies for its intentional alone. Those who hate nonsense will leave the theatre furious at the end of fifteen minutes. However, in fact, if this film is so amusing, it’s somewhat despite the nonsense. Because the idea of this genre is to go against all established rules, especially those of good taste, quality and reason. To put it simply, let’s say that the result tends to become better when the film becomes worse. The critic has nothing to counter this perfectly-founded argument, all the more so because Fields has thought ahead. Through a device often reused since, he tells us the story of a crazy old actor who submits a nonsensical script to a director, a script which will obviously be rejected but whose unfolding on screen we follow.

To be sure, it’s not unpleasant to see the cinematic materialization of automatic writing, which so far has seemed to be the domain of animation. Animation makes everything possible and it’s been a long time since the viewer has batted an eyelid to such excess of improbability. On the other hand, the unreality of the filmed image, rarely highlighted, strikes us at every step. These mad car races, these inaccessible rocky peaks, these free falls of the hero across space fire our imagination. But a film like Rally ‘Round the Flag, Boys!, which accepts the laws of logic, is ten times funnier, ten times truer and also ten times more beautiful. To discover the real through falsehood, or falsehood through the real, is a more successful approach than that of Fields, forced to remain forever in a purely critical universe.

The absurd soon becomes tiresome and the amusing aspects that remain could also have been part of a more realistic and commercial movie. I’m thinking of the beautiful scenes between Fields and the bar owner, between the director and his young actress. Such observational humour, which has no place in a burlesque and which is generally banished from the Marx brothers’ films, is ultimately Fields’ greatest success.

 

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

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