Cinema of France


The Owl's Legacy

Chris Marker’s epic series The Owl’s Legacy (1989) is neither a deeply ‘auterist’ work nor a brilliant piece of Cinema. It is, plainly, the documentation of a thirteen-part symposium on Ancient Greece enabled by the Onassis Foundation and conceptualized by Marker. However, the amount of ground it covers and the number of new directions it opens up for us to think about contemporary politics, science, culture, law, economy and art (specifically, cinema) makes it one of the richest works of criticism that I’ve come across. It is extremely unfortunate, then, that it is neither available on video officially in any form nor spoken about really widely. Following a slew of earnest mails (OK, two mails) asking me if there was any site where the film can be viewed online with English subtitles, I decided to upload the copy I have of the entire series. Of course, all credits go to the original uploader who floated TV rip on the internet. It is because of people like her/him that the Internet has turned out to be the greatest repository of culture, globally.

[Note: There is no monetary interest for me in this endeavor and if you feel that the series shouldn’t be put online the way I have here, please drop a note in the comments section]

 


1. Symposium, or Accepted Ideas

 

2. Olympics, or Imaginary Greece

 

3. Democracy, or the City of Dreams

 

4. Nostalgia, or the Impossible Return

 

5. Amnesia, or History on the March

 

6. Mathematics, or the Empire Counts Back

 

7. Logomachy, or the Dialect of the Tribe

 

8. Music, or Inner Space

 

9. Cosmogony, or the Ways of the World

 

10. Mythology, or Lies like Truth

 

11. Misogyny, or the Snares of Desire

 

12. Tragedy, or the Illusion of Death

 

13. Philosophy, or the Triumph of the Owl

(Incomplete)

O Estranho Caso de Angélica (2010) (The Strange Case of Angelica)
Manoel de Oliveira
Portugese

 

The Strange Case of AngelicaAndré Bazin famously remarked that the photographic image, by its very conception, seeks to ‘embalm’ dead objects and preserve them for posterity. Cinema, suggests Manoel de Oliveira’s wondrous new work The Strange Case of Angelica (2010), does one better in that it also resurrects these dead objects back to life. Quite literally here. At heart, it’s the story of amateur filmmaking and budding cinephilia – the joy of discovering the marvel of the moving image, which, like the discovery of sexuality, is a private ecstasy. Two well-read men in the film discuss how matter and anti-matter unite to form pure energy while our anachronistic lead man Isaac (Richard Trêpa) is still bewitched by how mise en scène – his profession – can meet montage to create pure magic. Like the director’s previous film, Angelica straddles two worlds – ‘contemporary’ and ‘classical’ periods – both of which tease and pull and push Isaac. Isaac, admittedly, is a man of old ways (he’s probably exactly 115 years old), marooned in the present economic landscape, who finds his romance thwarted not just by class (as in Eccentricities) but also by religion and by the fact that his love interest is dead. He, however, trusts that he can find love through the power of his art and escape his current predicament. (Alas, he has to die so that he can enter his art). Using unpolished CG that’s almost as old as the protagonist, Oliveira takes us back to (rather, attempts to recreate) the historical juncture at which we might snap out of our sensual numbness in order to start all over and, once again, discover the magic – of romance, of cinema.

Allow me to begin with a cliché: 2010 has been an insipid year at the movies. I really struggled to come up with this list because it just didn’t feel like there were many contenders for it. The tail of this list is shaky at best and I wouldn’t want to defend it with all my heart, I think. I’m not saying that there were no great films made in 2010. One bizarre phenomenon of the recent years has been the growing time difference between the world premiere of a film and its distribution/release. Movie lists this year have been almost entirely made of films that actually premiered in 2009 (or earlier) and, going by the trend, it wouldn’t be really a surprise if the 2011 lists consisted wholly of movies that premiered in 2010. (This list, however, is based on world premieres alone). This is not a wild thought at all, considering how stellar the list of filmmakers who premiered their films this year, without a release, has been. (Trust me, there are about 50 big titles that haven’t been mentioned in many of the lists. My biggest misses this year include The Strange Case of Angelica, The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu, Nostalgia for the Light, The Ditch, Meek’s Cutoff, Get Out Of The Car, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Aurora and The Four Times, among others. Rest assured that I’ll drop an updated list here around March, hopefully). Given this, 2011 is truly going to be one hectic year for film buffs, with dozens of vital films from both years to be seen. Fasten your seat belts.

 

1. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand/UK/France/Germany/Spain/Netherlands)


Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past LivesThat Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is the greatest feature by the Thai director is only worthy of a footnote. It is, in fact, what Nathaniel Dorsky calls Devotional Cinema. Boonmee is a work that amalgamates the process of film, human metabolism and the intermittence of our being like no other. Treating life as one continuous entity without a beginning or an end, where death and reincarnation are just various modes of existence, Boonmee so lovingly examines how these modes are integral to functioning of film where, in each frame, the past dies, yet persists and projects itself into the future. Furthermore, the film is also Weerasethakul’s response to the recent upheavals in his country where the political past of the country seems to resist death, reincarnating itself in kindred happenings of the present. Weerasethakul’s picture is at once a tribute to national cinema of the past, an elegy for film and a welcome note to digital filmmaking. It is at once a return to nascence and a leap into the future. Uncle Boonmee is cinema. Uncle Boonmee is cinema.

2. Film Socialism (Jean-Luc Godard, France/​Switzerland)


Film SocialismEven if Godard confirms the rumour that he’s going to call it a day, there’s nothing really to get vexed about. That’s because he has produced a body of work that is yet to be discovered in its full form, qualitatively and quantitatively. Film Socialism is not his last film because it is his last set of films. Yes, like that gargantuan video work of the 90s about the history of cinema, Film Socialism is a work that reconfigures and renews itself every time one sees it. It might all seem like a loosely connected set of arbitrary images, sounds and words. But that’s because arbitrariness is in its very DNA. If not anything else, it is “about” arbitrariness – of value, of ideologies, of laws and of languages – and the death of grand truths. Itinerating between the 70s style agitation, 80s style humanism and 90s style lamentation of his works and with a novel appreciation for individual images, words and objects, Film Socialism is simultaneously a summation of his career and an undoing of it. From the self-deprecating opening line of his first feature, to the “No Comment” 50 years later, Godard has probably said everything in between. Film Socialism is his signature.

3. Honey (Semih Kaplanoglu, Turkey/Germany)


HoneyYoung Yusuf always looks up to his father. Literally. This might be partly due to his undernourishment, but it is also because he refuses to grow up. The final and the finest film in Kaplanoglu’s trilogy, Honey evokes the experience of childhood, or rather the experience of its end, like a few films do, intertwining reality, memories, dreams and anxieties of the age. It so affectingly captures what it means to be thrust into a fatherless world: a family without father, a film without a hero, a universe without God. (The previous film in the triad deals with Yusuf’s relationship with his mother). Yusuf’s conversations with his father, themselves, resemble private confessions to a higher power. Kaplonoglu’s picture is somewhat of a paradox. The reverse chronological structure of the trilogy prompts psychoanalysis while Honey itself is, cleverly, non-reductive. Like Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) and Kiarostami’s Where Is the Friend’s Home? (1987), Honey is a film about childhood confronting adulthood against its own wishes. Ana dares to leave behind her childhood. Ahmed survives the confrontation. Yusuf refuses to grow up.

4. Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami, Iran/France/Italy)


Certified CopyAbbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy, at its worst, is a rundown of modern western philosophy, especially its key questions about perception, beauty and the self. So allow me to steal some from old Fred to sum up the film: “Artists alone hate this lazy procession in borrowed manners and left-over opinions and they reveal everyone’s secret bad conscience, the law that every man is a unique miracle; they dare to show us man as he is, unique even unto each move of his muscles; even more, that by strictly in consequence of this uniqueness, he is beautiful and worth regarding, new and incredible, as every work of nature, and never boring.”. Kiarostami probes the validity of every clause above and keeps examining what the ideal way to live is and whether there is an ideal way at all. Does one understand the world through grand mechanisms and regard what one sees and hears as abstractions of invisible truths or does one confront these concrete objects as they are and deem the ideas uniting them as abstract and removed from experience? Kiarostami’s film is an irresolvable tug-of-war between subtexts and surfaces, accidents and forethought, conservatism and radicalism and, well, form and content.

5. My Joy (Sergei Loznitsa, Ukraine/Germany/France/Netherlands)


My JoyI can’t believe I’m including this patently cynical, relentlessly dystopian and ideologically simplistic film in this list, but the talent and craft here are undeniably overwhelming. Sergei Loznitsa’s My Joy is a film that threatens the uniqueness of Uncle Boonmee in that it too collapses historical time to sketch the sociopolitical portrait of a country that has ceased to progress and is moving around in circles of betrayal, oppression and violence. Its causes might be varied – residual bureaucracy, newfound market economy, WW2, Cold War – the manifestations nevertheless, Loznistsa suggests, are the same. Echoes of a scene are felt in another, similar situations and outcomes permeate historically different periods and essentially nothing changes except costumes and period details. It’s as if the director and the set of actors are trying in vain to recreate another age that might offer escape. Loznitsa uses interruption itself as a stylistic device wherein the genre (road movie “detours” into a sci-fi nightmare) and the narrative (character identification killed) are disrupted for treatises on power and its abuse. As presaged in the opening scene, it is the director as tyrant and the audience as victim.

6. Of Gods And Men (Xavier Beauvois, France)


Of Gods And MenAt a time when blanket rejection of all religion is the most advertised and subscribed worldview, Xavier Beauvois’ Of Gods and Men comes as a much needed dose of sobriety. A worthy successor to that staggering Winter Light (1963, plugs to Bergman galore), Of Gods and Men is a expertly mounted tightrope act that strikes a tense balance between faith and reason, individualism and collectivism, idealism and materialism and democracy and authoritarianism. True to this spirit of philosophical investigation, the best shots in the film are composed like tableaus from ancient Greece, of which either God or the audience is regularly made a part. The stance here is, clearly, neither pro-religion nor anti-terrorist. The film is neither a critique about the perversion of religion by politics nor a lamentation about the loss of faith in a Post-Enlightenment world. It is about what Faith means to the individual. The monks in the monastery are neither theists deluded by the promise of a paradise nor victims caught in the vortex of international events. They are merely Kierkegaardian knights who leap beyond rationality to discover what it means to be human, to be mortal, to believe.

7. Shutter Island (Martin Scorsese, USA)


Shutter IslandAn hommage to Alfred Hitchcock among others, and possibly a remake of Vertigo (1958) as well, Martin Scorsese’s atmospheric wonder Shutter Island is about the absolute loss of control, about not being able to know whether you’re awake or dreaming, about being swept off solid ground and left floating and about the agony of losing everything that was dear to you. For filmmakers, especially ones as authoritative as Hitch and Scorsese, this fear of losing hold is so palpable and justified. Set in post-war America, where red signaled danger in more ways than one and where either you were crazy or the entire world around you was, Scorsese’s film has someone or the other consciously playing roles throughout. The sense of artificiality and instability is accentuated all through with tribute-providing rear projection and matte backgrounds. As literalized in its story, Shutter Island is also a battle between modernist paranoia and postmodernist schizophrenia wherein the director’s playfulness is pitted against ambitions of serious, personal expression. And I’m sorry to spoil it for you, but there’s no twist in the film.

8. I Wish I Knew (Jia Zhang-ke, China)


I Wish I KnewThe greatest filmmaker of the last decade continues to do what he does best: make great films. Jia Zhang-ke’s I Wish I Knew, a cousin to his previous film, is a symphony of city symphonies. The sheer scope of Jia’s investigation and the humungous historical and geographical ground he covers is daunting. Walking a thin line between state propaganda and personal vision, dispassionate observation and critique and aesthetization and respectful documentation, Jia has created a film that might look like the most reverential and non-committed of all his works. Like his last film, Jia probes how the older Shangainese’s history and identity has inextricably been linked with that of the city and the state and how the younger generation seems to have found the luxury to be apolitical and the freedom to move beyond. Globalization isn’t so bad after all. Or is it? One could arrive at two wholly different films by just editing the film in two different ways – one film that the state wants Jia to make and the other that we want Jia to make. Jia’s probably made the film he wants.

9. The Social Network (David Fincher, USA)


The Social NetworkAs the marketers of old studio films would say, The Social Network is a film for everybody. It truly is a film for every ideology, every reading and every level of engagement. The film is whatever you want it to be. There’s something about Sorkin’s Zuckerberg that’s both seductive and repulsive. His triumph is one that’s both inspiring and horrifying. Barring the last scene of the film, which probably kills off the ambivalence thus far and impresses itself on our memory of the film a little too heavily, the film does a remarkable balancing act, placing immense trust on the details for the maintenance of this ambiguity. It doesn’t have as much to say about how we live our lives online as it does about how we generally live in a world infested by final clubs of every sort, all the time conforming to popular ideas about the price of genius. That’s why The Social Network works much better when read as a slightly metaphysical tale, displaced from its context, than as a critique of the new world. There’s a vicious, Greenberg-like bitterness about this new phenomenon no doubt, but there’s also a sense of optimism beyond its control which acknowledges that there might be a way out after all.

10. Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World (Edgar Wright, USA)


Scott Pilgrim vs The WorldA hundred years from now, when social researchers (or aliens, if you are a Mayan) attempt to find out about this little curiosity called the internet, they will refer not to Fincher’s white elephant but this wicked termite that has volumes to say about how most of us perceive the world today. If The Social Network is about Web 2.0 as seen from outside, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is the same experienced from within. If Fincher’s film is the Facebook movie, Wright’s is the Twitter movie. There is barely an action, a line or an event that is allowed to complete. Everything that is marginally superfluous or even implicit is edited out. Information travels at the speed of light and it is, more often than not, trivial, useless and self-parodying. Time and space melt down to form a unified, nearly irrational warp zone where there’s almost no difference between reality and dream. This confusion of identities, so typical of our era and often alluded to in the film, is reflected in the pastiche-like nature of the film which borrows as much from web design and TV commercials as it does from comic books and video games. Devilishly inventive, “sublime”.

 

(Image Courtesy: Various)

Carlos

Of Girls and Guns 
(Image Courtesy: DVDTalk)

Olivier Assayas’ ambitious five-and-a-half hour biopic Carlos (2010) is obsessed with movement. For one, it attempts to chronicle at length the activities and philosophy of those radical counterculture movements of Europe in the 60s and the 70s. It is also keen on charting the movement of history in relation to its central figure – an aspect that is perhaps the most fundamental part of the film’s text. Then there is its endless preoccupation with physical movement: of people and of goods. Some commentators might point out that Carlos plays out as a good history lesson. Actually, it makes for a better geography course. From South America to Europe, from Africa to Asia, Carlos is always on the move. One could say that, like the shark, he will perish the moment he stops moving. (In this respect, the picture’s last line, after Carlos is captured by French feds, is terribly befitting). He is almost entirely defined by his location and his political orientation at any given point in time can be deduced if the country he lives in is known, which is why Assayas’ film is as much a travelogue as it is a biography. For Carlos, men are no different from the countries they represent – a mentality that eventually turns against him for good. Carlos is always on the move too, with its syntax infested with zooms, pans, tilts and dollies, as though it’s breathlessly trying to catch up with its subject. That’s why the film’s most telling shot is almost purely photographic: a very gradual zoom-out shot of a plane standing still at the Tripoli airport after it has been denied permission to land. Following the juggernaut that the film hitherto was, this decidedly incongruent shot leaves the viewer gasping for air. This is probably how Carlos feels at that moment as well, for he stands on the brink of a massive failure. Till this point, the film’s heady trajectory and Carlos’ cardiograph would have looked exactly the same.

Now, all this talk about Carlos in the present tense might sound nonsensical given that the real Carlos is an old man serving life sentence in northeastern France. But one must also keep in mind that Assayas’ Carlos is purely a fictional character built upon the filmmaker’s vision and based only partially on the real Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, as is noted in a clear-worded disclaimer flashed at the beginning of each of the three segments of the movie. This deviation is what saves the film from becoming an insipid reportage like The Baader-Meinhof Complex (2009), another genre film that tried to tap into the zeitgeist of the age. (In fact, the first section of Assayas’ film is no better than Edel’s, with the director spending hours together reconstructing what could have been dispensed with an intertitle or a newsreel; but narrative telescoping is not even remotely a part of the agenda). Shot on 35 mm (although I bet at least a few shots were done on video) and spanning about 25 years, Carlos religiously charts the rise and fall of the eponymous terrorist/revolutionary, played by fellow Venezuelan Edgar Ramirez, in a surprisingly straightforward fashion. Painstaking production design that pays attention to period, geographical and cultural details – no mean job for a picture that spans numerous years and countries – and a nearly-anachronistic soundtrack which is almost always used in contrast to the imagery mark the major deviations from the genre. And Assayas’ camera is more than willing to parade these details, in addition to Ramirez’s seemingly malleable physique, and the result is a film with myriad empty, connecting shots.

To a large extent, Assayas’ film views Carlos as a chronic narcissistic turned on by weapons and women. “Weapons are an extension of my body” he tells a woman before thrusting a grenade under her skirt. He caresses firearms as if they were his lovers and kicks around women as though they were his handguns. Throughout, Carlos’ physical prowess and virility are equated with his military power. Scenes depicting his military exploits are interspersed with his conquests in bed. His political career in the film is bracketed by shots of him standing stark naked in front of a mirror and admiring well-built body and him lying on a stretcher clutching his private parts under the paunch. All this sounds awfully contrived on paper, but the fact that Assayas derives these metaphors from undisputed biographical details helps turn such tepid arthouse tricks into a clever piece of artistry. However, all this is made evident an hour into the film and Carlos remains more or less an unchanging protagonist for the rest of the film. Like Sorkin’s Mark Zuckerberg, Carlos is the fixed centre of the film around which the universe rearranges itself, in turn redefining and reshaping him. (In retrospect, the last line of Fincher’s film describes him to a T). Does he hypocritically change sides despite his apparently unchanging cause or is it the volatile course of events that have remapped his loyalties? Is the world too dynamic for an old timer like him to catch up or is he a mere mercenary – a selfish, two-bit petit-bourgeois, as his friend puts it – afraid of death? It is probably the latter, although he would like to think not.

Curtained and distorted by wisps of cigarette smoke, Carlos is an amorphous figure, with ever changing identities, loyalties and worldviews, and a master of disguises (like Assayas himself, who seems to be hopping genres and feeding on them). Like your typical movie star, he appears to be always conscious of what he’s wearing and not half as much about what he is speaking or doing. As a matter of fact, the film illustrates, he is more a performer than a revolutionary or a terrorist. Throughout, Carlos revels in theatricality. Like Edgar Ramirez, he is a polyglot and before one thinks that he might not know a particular language, he delights himself with a mini-performance delivered in that very language. Fifteen minutes into the film, in its first explosive conversation, we get a sneak peek into the five-hour play that is to come. Carlos’ friend points out to him that he is only craving for applause. He tells her, “You’ll be hearing my name a lot”, and asks her to look at him when he’s talking. During the OPEC raid, he models himself after Che Guevara, complete with the beard and the beret (an actor playing a half-actor-half-revolutionary playing a revolutionary), and introduces himself as “My name is Carlos. You may have heard of me”. The conference room itself resembles a theatre, where he directs his seated audience-actors and performs before them from the end of the hall, Elsewhere, regularly, he shouts, he throws tantrums and he flips, occasionally spouting hyperbole without apparently understanding them a la actor extraordinaire Jules Winnfield.

[Carlos (2010) Trailer]

Without newspapers you don’t exist”, says one interviewer to him – a day before he finds a bullet in his medulla – winning a half-affirmative smile from Carlos. And why not? It is, after all, of his doing. He is the writer, director, the actor and the PR man of his life. He is, also, his own audience. Carlos lives outside himself. If his inner life comes across as something enigmatic to us in the film, it must be the same to him as well. Assayas does not push hard on the psychological front and is concerned more with the “what” of the story than the speculative “why”. It is not a human character, but the totality of events involving Carlos that is the hero of his film. He does not try to delve into the psyche of the man, or some such thing, to make his point. Instead, he lets Carlos’ actions reveal how self-contradictory a person he is. (Ramirez’s non-Method portrayal itself comes across as all surface and no center, as if he’s playing a mummy that’s been totally hollowed out) One might wonder whether he really believes in all those flowery platitudes that he mouths off now and then. (After all, he respects the truth value of clichés). It doesn’t really matter, suggests Assayas’ film, for his actions turn out to be far removed from the directives of these rhetorical remarks. He announces that he is a man of peace and that he loves life while he is more than happy to lodge an extra bullet or two into a man who only tried to resist him. He tells the interviewer that he studied dialectics in Moscow but also insists that no one tell him what to do. He speaks to the Saudi Arabian oil minister in fatalistic terms while, elsewhere, he comments that he is entirely responsible for his men. Possibly the greatest irony that marks Carlos’ life, which one federal agent notes towards that end, is that, for all his anti-capitalistic, anti-American baloney, he really had no criminal records against America.

In fact, this whole enterprise that Carlos sets up and develops is more symptomatic of corporate capitalism than anti-capitalistic revolution. Missions are throttled and determined by the inflowing funds rather than their agenda. A delayed assassination plan allows for competition to seal the deal. We witness countries nourishing anti-state organizations for political gains in the exact manner that corporations fund parties for fiscal benefits. The world is a market and revolution, a business. Pretty much like modern economics, Carlos illustrates how the numerous political maneuvers in different parts of the world are linked intricately to each other and often in contradicting ways (which reminds one of Godard’s observation regarding Jews, Hollywood, cinema halls and Mecca in his last). The film, itself, is directed and edited like a corporate thriller full of roundtable discussions and cutthroat business strategies. Moreover, Carlos is ostensibly a “gangster movie” as well, with its detailed account of the rise of an underdog, his notoriety and his disgraceful fall (in addition to its multiple nods to The Godfather (1972)). But then, there’s only a little difference between the two genres anyway. Mike Wayne notes in his book Political Film: The Dialectics of Third Cinema that the gangster figure – a man who steals from the rich and keeps it for himself – in popular cinema is emblematic of the dark side of capitalism while the bandit – the Robin Hood variant – represents a subversive if temporary threat to the same system. One could take this further and observe that the revolutionary goes one better than the bandit in that he is interested in not merely providing temporary monetary relief for the poor, but in toppling the establishment that creates a need for bandits. The tragedy about Carlos (and many of his cohorts) is that he fails to recognize if he is being the revolutionary that he wants, an ineffective bandit out of touch with the masses or a parasitic gangster running a reign of terror.

Placing Carlos’ example in a broader context, Assayas’ film makes a strong if not the ideal case against armed struggle. It probes, as does Bellocchio’s masterful Vincere (2009) (although Assayas’ ideological investment is relatively insubstantial), into a hermetic passage in history and opens it up for present day-analysis. Like Edel’s film, but with a far more focus and detachment, Carlos examines how an armed movement with an urgent, uncompromising objective is bound to foster authoritarianism and how a revolution is deemed to go against itself when its operative hierarchy branches out from a single spearhead – the father, if you will. Make no mistake, whatever organizations Carlos was associated with, they were, thanks to their pigheaded adherence to a shallow and monolithic view of the world,  undemocratic (“soldiers must fear their leader” goes the rule of thumb), racist (anti-Zionism easily mutates into anti-Semitism), sexist (especially when radicalism is uncritically married to certain religions, one of which Carlos is reportedly a proponent of), imperial (a pro-Palestine stance, it seems, reads as an anti-Kurdish one), bourgeois (by forming a bohemian clique far removed from the lumpenproletariat, the group it pretends to champion) and downright fascist. All these symptoms are even more relevant in the post-9/11 world where the resistance to occupation has translated into such a blanket rejection of western traditions that movements often lose sight of what is genuinely progressive and what is not.

 

Rating:

Film Socialism

Persistence Of Vision 
(Image Courtesy: Cannes Festival Site)

A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of its own past. So seems to suggest Jean Luc-Godard’s golden jubilee work Film Socialism (2010), the one film of recent times that has produced the least insightful body of criticism so far (with some of them being downright vengeful; one wonders if the film would fared better with the critics if Godard’s name wasn’t attached to it). The latter observation should come as no surprise for neither does the film provide the comfort of a clear,  overarching authorial voice as in History of Cinema (1988-98) nor does it overtly embrace – as some recent works of the director have – the free associative essay form. What we have, rather, is a documentary with conscious fictional texts embedded within or a self-conscious documentary of a shoddy fictional production. Film Socialism’s ontological confusion might be a throwback to Godard’s films of the late eighties, but the picture that is closest to this one, to my mind, is Last Year at Marienbad (1961, more on this later).

The film is divided into three segments (or “movements”) the first and longest of which, titled “Things such as”, is set on a cruise ship (which has been noted to possibly denote a floating Europe – both financially and historically), whose passengers seem to represent a microcosm of Europe present and Europe past (including intellectuals who carry out dialectical conversations). Amidst the fragments of dialogues, scenes and visuals runs a plot involving an ex-Nazi turned Jew who might have appropriated a huge sum of money from the Bank of Spain. The brooding environment of the ship’s deck at twilight, the seeming absence of contact between various groups of people on the vessel, the contemplative images of the sea (water being equated to money right from the first line) that punctuate the segment and the general sense of hopelessness that pervades it – all serve to create a post-apocalyptic atmosphere redolent of Tsai Min-liang’s cinema. Likewise, the filmmaking here seems both like a desperate act to salvage and synthesize from what remains of a glorious civilization and a typical Godardian attempt and appeal to return to zero. The first facet is reflected in the fractured nature of this section, wherein shards of banal, familiar images, texts, words and sounds are sewed together (a treatise on Husserl gets to sit alongside Lolcat videos) using equally eclectic assortment of digital media (ranging from cheap cell phone camera footage to crisp high-definition, from unfiltered, noisy microphone recordings to studio-mastered sound), while the latter manifests as an intermittent but perennial discourse on the value of things and the possibility of reversion to barter system where, probably, the concept of surplus labour vanishes. (Godard’s use of nearly-unintelligible Navajo subtitles, in this sense, might be an offer to barter the film’s half-articulated ideas for our participation).

The second section, called “Quo Vadis Europa”, involves a middle class French family whose ‘head’ is disillusioned by the state of affairs of the nation. The children of the family take to anarchistic politics following which they adopt rigorous policies in the usage of language and show an increased involvement in the arts. Whether this is a straightforward parody of the Leftist agitation of the 60s (whose poster boy Godard undeniably has become, when it comes to cinema) or a serious consideration of an atavistic return of student radicalism (and the consequent sloganeering) is somewhat unclear, but these sequences marry the apparent emotionality and solemnity of the director’s post-eighties work with his flamboyant rigor of the years before in a manner that seems like new territory even for Godard. (It is mainly the absurd scenario – reminiscent of the filmmaker’s works featuring Jean-Pierre Léaud – of this segment that prompts the former reading. Both Melville and Herzog compared student anarchists to children and dwarfs respectively during the seventies. However, Godard’s insistence here that the spirit and ideas of the age persist through language seems more sober and hopeful and less nostalgic and playful).

The third part of the film – “Humanities”, an epilogue of sorts resembling the scintillating “Hell” segment of Our Music (2004) – takes us further back in time, into ages which are now considered ancient. I say ‘considered’ because the film appears to refer to our perception of those time periods than the periods themselves. This is an era where we see images of relics of Aegyptus, prisoners of Palestine and ruins of Naples alongside Eisenstein’s version of the Odessa massacre and Rossellini’s documentation of an archeological excavation. There is no logical reason for us to consider the first set of images as belonging to a remote past and the other to a more recent time (the same way it is illogical to consider one set as fictional and the other as real). Mythology and history interpenetrate irreversibly. (Elsewhere, Godard points out how Eisenstein’s restaging of the October Revolution now passes off as the actual event). In every case, cinema distorts, realigns or plainly obscures our perception of history, as does the written language to an arguably lesser extent. “It’s not the literal past that rules us, but the images of the past” said George Steiner. Like film technology, these images have persisted in our vision through the ages, distilling and redefining the past along the way. The visual language of photography, with its deceptive simplicity and misleading verisimilitude seems to have ‘become’ what it sought to represent. (“Roman Jakobson shows during the winter of 1942/43 that is it impossible to separate sound from meaning” quotes the film). Cinema is not just the defining phenomenon of the 20th century, it is the 20th century. Like the inhabitants of the cruise ship, we all seem to be aboard this boundless, floating fleet of images having almost no anchor to reality, in this quagmire of symbols where to say is to be, in this inverted world where our own footmen – our languages, our currencies – have become our rulers.

[Film Socialism (2010) Trailer]

Language is, of course, the central object of investigation in Film Socialism (as it is in almost all of Godard’s pictures; he calls Film Socialism his “Farewell to Language”). Money is treated as a language for communication at the outset and an examination of the possibility of returning to zero of economics is also extended to the possibility of return to zero of communication (Someone utters the maxim: “silence is golden”). (The Navajo text for the film is perhaps the first attempt at this, with its unambiguous, rudimentary words being uncontroversial and untainted in comparison to the meaning-laden sentences a proper set of subtitle would have provided. Like the Navajo subtitles, Film Socialism is composed of discrete, clear, nearly incongruous images which sacrifice meaning for concreteness). Speaking of concreteness and directness, Godard seems to have found a new respect for objects and surfaces in this film. The first movement of the picture, at least, is a cinema of superficies. Be they of the wet floors of the ship or of a slot machine at work, the images of this segment seem to acknowledge objects for what they are rather than as symbols or props. One could suspend the movie at any random point and admire the beauty of the objects seen, without any consideration of the context. Each image, each cut and each sound seem to have found their proper place, like these objects. Given that this section is a reflection on the value of (manmade) things, this apparent piety towards commonplace articles – made more palpable by the ‘immediacy’ of digital video and the use of static shots – is perhaps Godard’s (and cinema’s) way of appraising the objects he films.

Furthermore such use of images as objects invokes the issue of copyright and intellectual property, which the French has been long against. (The film’s opening credits cites all the film clips, sounds and texts used in the film and there’s the FBI copyright warning, surprisingly, at the end with the text “when the law is wrong, justice comes before the law”, as if asking if images of objects could be subjected to laws of private possession at all. Godard’s plundering, of course, ranges from John Ford to YouTube). During the seventies, Godard was not just concerned with making political films, but, as James Monaco points out, making films politically. Godard and company recognized that the whole enterprise of cinema – production, authorship, marketing, distribution and exhibition – inherently espouses an ideology and to subvert the ideology called for a subversion of all these systems. This also meant an effacement of individual authorship and ownership (for a person who had been at the forefront of auteur criticism). The movement, of course, fell apart and Godard went back to an even more personal mode of filmmaking. However, even with their esoteric eccentricities and idiosyncrasies, his films continued to possess the same critical charge and formal rigor. In that sense, Film Socialism might not (just) be a film about socialism but one that is made socialistically in the way it lets its audience take responsibility for and ownership of its text.

I’m, of course, only speculating. Part of the problem in properly responding to the film arises from the confusion regarding whether we should take what we see at face value or as symbols, metaphors and allegories, whether these things exist for the sake of an interpretation and not as themselves. Each shot simultaneously prompts interpretation and invites us to explore its surface. Susan Sontag, against all temptation to interpret it using literary prisms, praised Last Year at Marienbad for “the pure, untranslatable, sensuous immediacy of some of its images, and its rigorous if narrow solutions to certain problems of cinematic form”. The same could be said about Film Socialism, which, for me, replicates the experience of watching the Resnais film. More than the fluidity of form or the repudiation of grammar, it is the lingering feeling that it might all just fall into place if we only stayed with the film – if we could just enter the film – for long enough that makes Film Socialism resemble Marienbad. “Conversation flowed in a void, apparently meaningless, or at any rate, not meant to mean anything. A phrase hung in midair, as though frozen, though doubtless taken up again later. No matter. The same conversations were always repeated, by the same colorless voices” could well be a paragraph from a description of Godard’s film. Like the floating phrases of Marienbad that are periodically picked up, the Film Socialism is a work that would, no doubt, be visited regularly by those fascinated by it, as I am, even if that fascination isn’t all for the right reasons. If the rumours are anything to go by, Godard might just have retired at the peak of his prowess.

 

Rating:

[Raavan (2010) Trailer]

Copie Conforme (2010) (Certified Copy)
Abbas Kiarostami
French/Italian/English

 

Certified CopyA possible manifesto for postmodernism, Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy (2010) reminds one of a million other pictures – from the director’s own early films, through Godard, Rossellini, and Hitchcock, to Scorsese, Hou and Jarmusch – in both its major and minor strokes. This actually goes well with the film’s central argument of there being no originals in art as well as life. It asserts, as does Jarmusch’s latest, that meaning and authenticity exist in one’s gaze of objects rather than the objects themselves (Like the director’s previous film, this one reverses the artist-audience relationship and suggests that the viewer is the original author of works of art), that the question of authenticity is obviated if a (relative) truth could be arrived at through artifice, that no art can be inherently original given that it is feeds on and reshapes reality and that all aspects of human existence – appearance, language, behaviour, relationships and gestures – are reproductions of existing templates. Building upon the latter argument, the film examines the importance and inevitability of role-playing in our lives through the lead characters/actors (Juliette Binoche and William Shimmel), who bear an original-copy relationship themselves. Through them, the film proposes that there is no absolute ‘self’ and that it is only within context and within a relationship that each ‘role’ we play obtains a meaning. It is not that these two characters are faking it during one half of the film, but just that – like Sartre’s waiter – these inauthentic people segue from one level of role-playing to another (On one level, Certified Copy is a film where actors play characters playing characters playing characters). Akin to Shutter Island (2010), Certified Copy is divided into two realities, with the verity of each half being valid only in relation to that of the other. However, there’s much more to Kiarostami’s film than such straightforward illustration of philosophical ideas. (Like Scorsese’s movie, this one wears its themes on its sleeve, thereby undermining them.) Throughout, it probes where the essence and authenticity of a film rests: in its grand, ethereal ideas or in its banal, concrete physicality. Does the spirit of Certified Copy lie in its precise, recursive structure and its intricate mise en scène or is it in the minute, magical gestures of Binoche’s visage and the gentle eroticism of her loose-fitting gown?

L’homme Sans Nom (2009) (Man With No Name)
Wang Bing
Silent

 

Man With No NameA refreshing and welcome relocation for Wang Bing from the decrepit industrial landscapes of post-Mao China, Man With No Name (2009) finds the director pointing his ever curious, never condescending, hand-held digital camera towards the eponymous, anonymous man living in a deserted wasteland in an unnamed part of the country. A Dersu Uzala incarnate, he lives in an underground shanty – an earthen igloo – in this harsh and otherworldly geography that seems to be entirely cut off from civilization, save for some broken plastic containers that the man uses. From an anthropological perspective, Wang Bing’s account is the idea of man being reduced to his most rudimentary elements. This unnamed man is largely seen taking care of his basic needs – food, clothing and shelter. But, additionally, he also appears to have developed an aesthetic need and we see him compacting heaps of earth and mending the mud walls of his neighbourhood during his “free time”. However, such a reading runs the risk of undermining the political question that the work raises. The moment a film relates one person to another, it goes political. And films such as Man With No Name become political by, ironically, being exceptions to that rule – politicization due to resistance to it. The man in Bing’s film is also a political concept, a new man who refuses to leave the (literal and figurative) womb of the earth, a man who, like Lisandro Alonso’s woodcutter, has seemingly succeeded in freeing himself from all ideology and leading a genuinely self-sustained life.

Sharunas Bartas

Sharunas Bartas 
(1964-)

Lithuanian film director, one of the most outstanding representatives of cinematographers. His contacts with cinema began in 1985 with the TV serial “Sixteen-years-olds” (dir. Raimondas Banionis), where Bartas played one of the main roles. He is a graduate of the Moscow Film School (VGIK). He made his directorial debut with his diploma film, the short documentary “Tofolaria” and mediocre-length film (which called spectators’ attention) “For the Remembrance of Last Day” (1989), where the real personages are “acting themselves” according to the principles of feature film. The author further “purified” the specific cinema language in the full-length film “Three Days” (1991), which was awarded the prize of oicumene committee at Berlin Film Festival (for the problems, the importance of the theme, the profundity) in 1992, and FIPRESCI Prize for the originality of the style, the significance of the theme, the beauty of pictures. This is a story (almost without plot) about three young Lithuanians visiting Kaliningrad-Karaliautchus-Kionigsberg – a moribund, outraged town. The traditional dramaturgy is ignored in later Bartas’ films, as well: “The Corridor” (1994, it was shown at Berlin Film Festival), “Few of Us ” (1995, shown in Cannes, in the program “Other Point”), “Home” (1997, shown in the same program in Cannes). All of them are works of free structure, minimalistic form, philosophical associations. The works of Bartas are not well-known and analysed in Lithuania, but they have a small, faithful round of admirers in the West. (Bio Courtesy: The Auteurs, Image courtesy: Wikipedia)

 

Lithuanian auteur Sharunas Bartas is the kind of filmmaker one would immediately be tempted to label “pretentious” and “self-indulgent” because there is absolutely no concession whatsoever that he gives to the viewers in terms of the narrative, artistic, political and personal ambitions of his films, burying them deeply within their part-hyper real and part-surreal constructs. All his films have hinged themselves onto a particular moment in Lithuanian history – the nation’s independence from the USSR, just prior to the latter’s complete collapse – and they all deal with the loss of communication, the seeming impossibility of true love to flourish and the sense of pointlessness that the political separation has imparted to its people. The characters in Bartas’ films are ones that attempt in vain to put the dreadful past behind them, traverse through the difficult present and get onto a future that may or may not exist. With communication having been deemed useless, they hardly speak anything and, even if they do, the talk is restricted to banal everyday expressions.  Consequently, Bartas’ films have little or no dialog and rely almost entirely on Bressonian sound design consisting mostly of natural sounds. Also Bresson-like is the acting in the films. There are no expressions conveyed by the actors, no giveaway gestures and no easy outlet for emotions.

The outdoor spaces are deep and vast in Bartas’ films while the indoors are dark, decrepit and decaying. The landscapes, desolate, usually glacial, nearly boundless and seemingly inhospitable, are almost always used as metaphors for a larger scheme. His compositions are often diagonal, dimly lit and simultaneously embody static and dynamic components within a single frame. Interestingly, his editing is large Eisensteinian and he keeps juxtaposing people, their faces and landscapes throughout his filmography. But since the individual images themselves possess much ambiguity of meaning, the sequences retains their own, thereby overcoming the limitations of associative montage. Another eccentric facet in Bartas’ work is the amazing amount of critters found in his films. There are puppies, kitten, frogs, seagulls and flies seen around and over his characters regularly. May be, not considering the specific connotations that these creatures bring to these scenes, the intention is Eisensteinian here too – to indicate that the characters have been reduced to a level lower than these beings, unable to either communicate with each other or be at peace with nature, devoid of the notions of nationality and politics.

In many ways, the cinema of Bartas stands in between that of Andrei Tarkovsky and Béla Tarr – both filmmakers concerned with chronicling life in a communist state. While the childhood memories, existential crisis and spiritual yearning in Bartas films directly has its roots in Tarkovsky’s films (all the films starting from The Mirror (1975)), the visual (dancing in entrapping circles, meaningless glances and chatter over banquets and eventual self-destruction of the drifting characters) and aural (the Mihály Vig-like loopy and creepy score consisting of accordions, accentuated ambient noise) motifs, stark cinematography and political exploration are reminiscent of Bartas’ Hungarian contemporary. But, more importantly, it is the attitude towards his characters that puts him right in midpoint between Tarr and Tarkovsky. Bartas’ work has so far been characterized by two impulses – a warm nostalgia and sympathy for his characters that betrays the director’s hope and love for them, as in Tarkovsky’s cinema, and an overpowering cynicism, clearly derived from the (post-neo-realist) films of Tarr, that keeps remarking how the characters are all doomed and done for. This (unbalanced) dialectic is evident in Bartas aesthetic itself, which employs copious amounts of extremely long shots and suffocating close-ups. In the former, characters are seen walking from near the camera and into the screen, gradually becoming point objects eaten up by the landscape while, in the latter, Bartas films every line and texture of their faces with utmost intensity in a way that obviously shows that he cares for them and the pain that they might be experiencing. This conversation between optimism and pessimism towards his people also places him alongside the Armenian filmmaker Artavazd Peleshian – another historian of traumatized lives in a Soviet state before and after independence.

 

Praejusios Dienos Atminimui (In Memory Of The Day Passed By, 1990)

In Memory of the Day Passed ByOne of the finest films by Sharunas Bartas, In Memory of the Day Passed By (1990) is a somber, evocative mood piece set in post-independence Lithuania and opens with the image of large flakes of snow moving slowly along a river. This is followed by a shot of a woman and her kid walking on a vast, snowy plain and moving away from the viewer until they become nonentities assimilated by their landscape. This pair of shots provides a very good synopsis of what Bartas’ cinema is all about. The rest of the film presents us vignettes from the daily life of the people living in the unnamed city, possibly Vilnius, and from the garbage dump outside it. One of them presents a tramp-like puppeteer wandering the streets of the city without any apparent destination. Like the puppet that he holds, the people around him seem as if their purpose of living has been nullified, now that the national strings that had held and manipulated them so far have been severed. Consequently, there are many shots that deal with religion and the intense Faith that these people seem to be having, perhaps suggesting a yearning for the replacement of a superior power that guides them. Bartas suffuses the film with diagonal compositions indicative of a fallen world – a world that can go nowhere but the abyss. Appropriately, the film closes with a variation of its opening image: flakes of snow flowing downriver – an apt metaphor for the many nations that would drift without a base after the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

Trys Dienos (Three Days, 1991)

Three DaysThree Days (1991), Bartas’ maiden feature length work, unfolds in a harbor town in Lithuania where two men and a women search for a shelter in the largely uncaring place, possibly to make love. The first Bartas film to feature his would-be collaborator (and muse) Yekaterina Golubeva, Three Days plays out as a post-apocalyptic tale set in an industrial wasteland, complete with decrepit structures and murky waters, where both positive communication (Even the meager amount of dialogue in the film turns out to be purely functional) and meaningful relationships (Almost everyone in the film seems to be a vagrant) have been rendered irrelevant. Every person in this desolate land seems to be an individual island, stuck at a particular time in history forever. The visual palette (akin to the bleached out scheme of the director’s previous work) is dominated by earthy colours, especially brown, and the production design is highly redolent of Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979). The actors are all Bressonian here and do no more than move about in seemingly random directions and perform mundane, everyday actions. Like in Bresson’s films, there is no psychological inquiry into the characters’ behaviour and yet there is much pathos and poignancy that is developed thanks to the austerity of Bartas’ direction and the intensity of Vladas Naudzius’ cinematography. The film is titled Three Days, but it could well have been titled ‘three months’, ‘three years’ or even ‘eternity’ for, in the film, all time is one, the notion of future nonextant and hope for escape futile.

Koridorius (The Corridor, 1994)

The CorridorIf Three Days presented people stuck in time and moving aimlessly through desolate landscapes, The Corridor (1994) gives us ones stuck geographically and drifting through abstract time. Bartas’ most opaque and affecting film to date, The Corridor is a moody, meditative essay set at a time just after the independence of Lithuania from the USSR and in a claustrophobic apartment somewhere in Vilnius in which the titular corridor forms the zone through which the residents of the building must pass in order to meet each other. Extremely well shot in harsh monochrome, the interiors of the apartment resemble some sort of a void, a limbo for lost souls if you will, from which there seems to be no way out. Consisting mostly of evocatively lit, melancholy faces that seem like waiting for a miracle to take them out of this suffocating space, The Corridor also presents sequences shot in cinema vérité fashion where we see the residents drinking and dancing in the common kitchen. Of course, there is also the typical central character, played by Sharunas Bartas himself, who seems to be unable to partake in the merriment. Conventional chronology is ruptured and reality and memory merge as Bartas cuts back and forth between the adolescent chronicles of the protagonist, marked by rebellion and sexual awakening, and his present entrapped self, unable to comprehend what this new found ‘freedom’ means. Essentially an elegy about the loss of a sense of ‘being’ and ‘purpose’, The Corridor remains an important film that earns a spot alongside seminal and thematically kindred works such as Paradjanov’s The Color of Pomegranates (1968) and Tarkovsky’s The Mirror (1975).

Few Of Us (1996)

Few of UsFew of Us (1996) is perhaps the least political of the already highly noncommittal works of Sharunas Bartas. Not that this film does not base itself strongly on the political situation in Lithuania, but that the now-intimate backdrop of independent Lithuania is transposed onto a remote foothill in Siberia where a tribe called the Tolofars maintains a spartan life style. It is into this rugged, almost otherworldly land that the beautiful protagonist of the film (Yekaterina Golubeva) is air-dropped like an angel being relegated to the netherworld. She seems as isolated from the people of this land as the Tolofars are from the rest of the world. However, as indicated by the incessant cross cutting between the worn out terrain of the village and the contours on Golubeva’s face, this mysterious, hostile and unforgiving landscape is as much a protagonist of Bartas’ film as Golubeva is. With an eye for small and intricate changes in seasons, terrains and time of the day comparable to that of James Benning, Bartas pushes his own envelope as he lingers on eyes, faces and landscapes for seemingly interminable stretches of time. Each image of the film carries with itself an air of a still paining, vaguely familiar. All this sure does bring to surface the experimental and, I daresay, self-conscious nature of Bartas’ work, but what it also does is familiarize us with the hitherto alien and draw connection between this abstract representation of protagonist’s cultural disconnection in Tolofaria and the typical Bartas territory of desolate, directionless lives lead by the people of post-Soviet Lithuania.

A Casa (The House, 1997)

The HouseThe House (1997) opens to the image of a mansion as the narrator reads a confessional letter written to his mother about their inability to communicate with each other. The house and mother are, of course, metaphors for the motherland that would be explored in the two hours that follow. It seems to me that The House is the film that Bartas finally comes to terms with the trauma dealt by the country’s recent past that he has consistently expressed in his work. Consequently, the film also seems like a summation of the director’s previous films (One could say that the characters from Bartas’ previous films reprise their roles here) and a melting pot of all the Tarkovsky influences that have characterized his work (especially the last four fictional works of the Russian). Shot almost entirely indoors, The House follows a young man carrying a pile of books as me moves from one room of the Marienbad-like mansion to the other, meeting various men and women, none of whom speak to each other and who might be real people of flesh and blood, shards of memory or figments of fantasy. The house itself might be an abstract space, as in The Corridor, representing the protagonist’s mind with its spatial configuration disoriented like the chessboard in the film. Furthermore, one also gets the feeling that Bartas is attempting to resolve the question of theory versus practice – cold cynicism versus warm optimism – with regards to his politics as we witness the protagonist finally burn the books, page by page, he had so far held tightly to his chest.

Freedom (2000)

FreedomSharunas Bartas’ chef-d’oeuvre and his most accessible work to date, Freedom (2000) is also one of the most pertinent films of the past decade. Taking off from the wandering trio setup of Three Days, Freedom begins with a chase scene right out of genre cinema transposed onto Bartas’ highly de-dramatized canvas. The two men and women seem to be illegal immigrants who are on the coast guard’s wanted list. If The House was national politics distilled into a claustrophobic setting, Freedom is the same being set in seemingly limitless open spaces. The most rigorous of all Bartas films, Freedom is the kind of film Tarkovsky might have made had he lived to see the new century. Like the Russian’s characters, the people in this film are all marginal characters (and are often aptly pushed from the centre of the frame towards its margins) who want to escape the oppressive, unfair politics of this world and become one with nature and the unassailable peace it seems to possess. Alas, like in Blissfully Yours (2002), they are unable to depoliticize their world and start anew. The tyrannical past is catching up with them, the present is at a stalemate and is rotting and there is no sight of the future anywhere. Bartas expands the scope of his usual investigation and deals with a plethora of themes including the artificiality and fickleness of national boundaries, the barriers that lingual and geographical differences create between people and the ultimate impermanence of these barriers and the people affected by it in this visually breathtaking masterwork.

Septyni Nematomi Zmones (Seven Invisible Men, 2005)

Seven Invisible MenThe most unusual of all Bartas films, the pre-apocalyptic Seven Invisible Men (2005) starts off like a genre movie – a bunch of robbers trying to evade the police after stealing and selling off a car. It is only after about half an hour, when one of them arrives at a farm that is near completely severed from the rest of the world, that the film moves into the world of Bartas. Seven Invisible Men is the most talkative, most rapidly edited and the most politically concrete of all the films by the director and that may precisely be the idea – to serve as a counterpoint to all the previous movies. All though there is too much talk in the film, rarely do they amount to meaningful conversations, bringing the characters back to the hopelessness of the director’s earlier works.  Like Freedom, all the characters here are people living on the fringes of the society – con men and ethnic and religious minorities – who seem to have sequestered themselves with this settlement of theirs. All these characters seem to be trying to escape their agonizing past and the politics of the world that seems to give them no leeway in order to start afresh (The heist may have been the last attempt at escape), in vain. In the final few minutes that recall Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice (1986), we see the house, in which the characters have been living in, burn down to dust. But, unlike Tarkovsky, it is Bartas’ cynicism that overwhelms and he sees his characters as ultimately self-destructive beings that have lost all control of their lives and hope for a better future.

Indigène d’Eurasie (Eastern Drift, 2010)

Eastern DriftThe trajectory of Bartas’ filmography, in a sense, runs anti-parallel to that of Béla Tarr, with whom the former shares a number of artistic, political and philosophical inclinations, and has moved from extreme stylization to rough-hewn naturalism, from near-total narrative abstraction to flirtation with generic structures, from semi-autobiographical meditations set against the backdrop of Soviet collapse to highly materialist tales of marginal lives in the Eurozone. (In fact, one could say that the exact tipping point occurs at Freedom.) Eastern Drift finds the filmmaker moving one step closer to conventional aesthetic as well as dramatic construction and follows Gena (Bartas himself), who is on the run after he knocks off his Russian boss after an altercation over a hefty sum of money. Even though the film has the appearance of a Euro-thriller, with the protagonist hopping from one major city of the continent to another, each of which regularly gets its token establishment shot (and all of which look very similar for the untrained eye), it actually moves against the grain the sub-genre. Unlike the traditional European action picture, in Eastern Drift movement – the prime action over which the narrative is founded – itself is problematized. A large part of the proceedings is made up of Gena trying to sneak in and out of buildings as well as countries and finding himself thwarted at almost every move. An antithesis to the utopianism of Eurozone and its myth of intra-continental mobility, Eastern Drift crystallizes and futhers Bartas’ preoccupation with suffocating national borders, although the scenario over which he builds his argument remains moot.

[“Children Lose Nothing” – Sharunas Bartas’ segment in Visions of Europe (2004)]

(Continued from Part 1)

Shijie (The World, 2004)

The WorldIf there is a film that perfectly sums up the state and outlook of the third world in the first decade of the new century, it has to be Jia Zhang-Ke’s The World (2004), first of the director’s film to be made with official consent. The very premise and setting of the film – a bunch of youngsters working a world park where you can witness life-size replicas of wonders from across the world – provide us with the various undercurrents that characterize the film without being ostentatious. Much like the previous Jia films, the people in The World are terribly out of sync with the environment surrounding them. This is a land where the terrible distances of the real world are pruned down to a few miles, yet the distance between individuals has increased manifold (The cramped and decrepit dressing rooms provide a counterpoint to the grandeur of the park’s front end). This is a zone which enables one to fulfill one’s desire to escape into a whole new world, yet one has to lose every shred of his/her individuality to do so (One of the early shots shows us a bunch of uniformed workers who don’t appear much different from the props they are carrying). This idea of one’s identity being stripped off, layer by layer, is built into the whole structure of the film. Dialects are normalized, costumes are changed by the minute and passports are confiscated. One of the characters towards the end tells: “It’s nice being in someone else’s home” – a delusion that seems to be common to all the residents of this synthetic world.

Sanxia Haoren (Still Life, 2006)

Still LifeStill Life (2006), which might be the best film by Jia Zhang-Ke yet, presents two stories sewn together thematically and temporally by two significant pan-and-cut shots. The first of them presents a coal miner, Sanming, from rural China moving to Three Gorges to meet his wife after 17 years and the second one gives us a young woman, Shen Hong, traveling to the same place to meet her husband whom she hasn’t seen for 2 years. Using these two threads connected by the China’s Three Gorges Dam project, Jia examines both the disparities, including that of class (Sanming works at the bottom of the rung while Shen Hong’s husband supervises the project), generation (Sanming’s traditional values are pitted against Shen Hong’s strength and resilience) and gender (Sanming and Shen Hong can be seen as the antithesis to each other’s spouses), and the commonalities that characterize the two different worlds that Sanming and Shen Hong inhabit. The prime motif that permeates Still Life is the destruction of the old and the birth of the new. Sanming yearns to return to the past while Shen Hong runs away from it. Residences are cleared to make way for the dam. English language shows its head regularly. And songs about eternal love play on the soundtrack ironically. Lastly, Jia’s film is also a paean to the marvels of the human body – the body that can create and destroy structures much, much larger than it, the body that is ultimately rendered inconsequential (as underscored by Jia’s striking compositions of man constantly being loaded down by the weight of his own creations) by the national importance of the structures themselves.

Dong (2006)

DongMade as a companion piece to the superior film Still Life, much of whose footage it shares, Dong (2006) sits somewhere alongside The Mystery of Picasso (1956) and The Quince Tree Sun (1992) in the way the director uses another artist – a painter, as is the case with the other two films – to examine the nature of his own work. Dong follows actor and painter Liu Xiao-Dong (who makes a brief appearance in The World) as he completes two of his five-piece paintings – one at the Three Gorges Dam construction site and the other in Bangkok, Thailand. Like Jia, Liu is a realist. Even he prefers to document his subjects from a distance as it provides him “better control and precision”. But when one of his subjects dies in an accident, all he can do is patronize the deceased person’s kids. Is Jia reflecting on the purpose of his own work? Perhaps. Although I believe that there has been an indictment of patriarchy, especially its presence in art, throughout Jia’s body of work, it is most manifest in Dong. In the first segment, Liu admires the body of his naked male models and paints them with utmost enthusiasm while, in Bangkok, he calls his models as “scantily-clad women” and completes his work somewhat dispassionately. We then notice that he is in an alien land not just in geographical terms. Again, it would not be an overstretch to consider much of this satire as self-criticism, given that Jia himself has been unrestrained in marveling the male body in his work, specifically in Still Life.

Wuyong (Useless, 2007)

UselessUseless (2007) could be considered as a logical extension of Still Life and Dong because it deals with a number of ideas common to those two films. Divided into three segments each of which takes up a unique perspective of the Chinese textile industry, Useless is a dense, meditative essay on production, consumption and function of art. It’s hard not to think of the film as an attempt by Jia to discover his responsibility as an artist and to locate himself within the cinema of his country. Throughout the film there is a battle between aesthetic and functionality of art – a struggle that seeps even into the film’s form – that is manifest in the segments involving mass depersonalized production, custom “auteurist” design catering to the west and smalltime tailoring to suit individual needs. However, Jia’s film does not take a pre-determined stance and shares our indecisiveness. The very fact that the director chooses “impersonal” high-def over the intimacy of film illustrates the complexity underlying the question. Furthermore, Jia’s film also examines the chasm that exists between the oriental and western perceptions of beauty and art. What is a fact of life in China – soiled bodies, dirty and worn out clothes – is considered an exotic, delicately assembled work of art in the west. Female nudity is commonplace in western art whereas male nudity takes its place in the oriental counterpart. When Jia pans his camera over female models getting ready for a show at Paris Fashion Week, one is reminded of the opening shot of Still Life where Jia’s male models sit unclothed in a boat, ready for their performance in the film.

Er Shi Si Cheng Ji (24 City, 2008)

In 24 City (2008), the latest of Jia’s great works, the director interviews several people all of whom are connected in some way to the prestigious aircraft manufacturing site, Factory-420, in Chengdu city that is now being torn down to make way for a residential complex. What Platform does in the present tense, 24 City does in the past. Each of these accounts so clearly elucidates what is essentially positive and what is not about life in a communist regime. The sheer joy of living as a symbiotic community seems to be counterbalanced by a tendency of individual wishes getting overridden by collective objectives. Throughout, these testimonies effortlessly present how, once, personal tragedies were invariably connected to national decisions and how an individual was able to define himself only with respect to his community (One character even clarifies her name using a city as reference). Furthermore, these accounts also give a vivid picture of the depersonalized and dehumanized way of work at the same factory after China’s cultural reforms in the late seventies. Jia juxtaposes images of the factory being destroyed with the faces of his subjects suggesting the demise of a wholly different way of life and thought. But all is not so sweetly nostalgic about Jia’s film. The set of interviewees consists of a mixture of people who’ve actually been through what they say and actors enacting such people. Are these accounts the absolute truth or are they the comfortable versions of the past concocted by memory with the passage of time? How much of an actor is there in each of these people? Jia, never ever cynical, is content in playing the Godard-ish ethnographer. Brilliant.

Heshang Aiqing (Cry Me A River, 2008)

Cry Me A RiverPicture Jia repenting for not being completely nostalgic in 24 City and deciding to assuage that guilt with a purely fictional feature. The 20-minute short Cry Me A River (2008) is just that. A group of middle class friends, well in their thirties, meet up, have dinner with one of their professors and talk in pairs about how their lives have been after they went their own ways. This must be the first time Jia is working within the tepid confines of a genre and he does remarkably well to leave his signature all over. But it is also true that Jia is one of the few directors who truly deserve a picture in this genre, given the consistency with which he has dealt with the theme of cultural transition in his films. Wang Hong Wei and Zhao Tao seem to be almost reprising their roles from Platform, which gives the film a touch of autobiographic authenticity, considering how often the director has used former actor as his alter ego. We are far from the sweet old days of Platform where the very sight of a train was rare. It’s now a matter of a few hours crossing the whole of China. As the professor and the students have their dinner, two actors in traditional theater costume perform at the restaurant with a huge bridge as the backdrop. Two characters travel on a boat in a river whose banks are adorned by old buildings, reminiscing and confessing how much they still love each other. They are, of course, going down the river of time with a clear knowledge that they can’t reverse its flow.

Hai Shang Chuan Qi (I Wish I Knew, 2010)

I Wish I KnewA project commissioned by the state in view of the upcoming Shanghai World Expo, Jia Zhang-ke’s I Wish I Knew (2010) is a thematic extension of 24 City and is much more freely structured and much broader in scope compared to its predecessor. The larger part of the film presents interviews with older residents of Shanghai (along with those of Taiwan and Hong Kong) who gleefully recollect their family’s history, which reveal the ever-growing chasm between the city’s past and present. Personal histories seem to be based on and shaped by the city’s tumultuous politics and culture. We see that the people being talked about were viewed as mere ideological symbols incapable of erring or transforming. In addition to his employment of mirrors and reflective surfaces suggesting both documentation and subjectivity, Jia films the interviewees in extremely shallow focus as if pointing out their being cut off from the present (It takes them the sound of breaking glass or the ring of a cellphone snap back to reality). This tendency is contrasted with the final few interviews of younger people where we witness how life can change course so quickly and how one can assume multiple social personalities on whim and float about like free entities. Losing one’s sense of existence in a particular environment is perhaps not a big price to pay after all for the seeming freedom of choice it gives. One’s history is no longer defined by one’s geographical location. One is no longer bound by dialectical ideologies. There is apparently no influence of the past on the present, in every sphere of life, whatsoever. Mistakes of the past are obscured by the glory of the present and the loss of values, by cries of progress. Jia’s view of the city is, against our wishes for a disapproving perspective, neither nostalgic nor rosy. It’s holistic.

 

[“Black Breakfast” – Jia Zhang-Ke’s segment in Stories on Human Rights (2008)]

Jia Zhang-Ke

Jia Zhang-Ke 
(1970-)

Born in 1970 (Fengyang, Shanxi Province), Jia Zhangke studied painting, developed an interest in fiction, and in 1995 founded the Youth Experimental Film Group, for which he directed two award-winning videos. He graduated in 1997 from the Beijing Film Academy, and his first feature, Xiao Wu (1998) was very successful at the Berlin, Nantes and Vancouver festivals. The following films Zhantai (Platform, 2000), and Ren xiao yao (Unknown Pleasures, 2002) were selected in competition respectively at Venice and Cannes. He established Xstream Pictures in 2003 in order to promote young talented directors from all over China. He directed Shijie (The World) in 2004 and his latest film Sanxia haoren (Still Life) received the Golden Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival 2006. (Bio Courtesy: Cannes Festival, Image courtesy: Glamour Vanity)

 

“Juxtaposing a person with an environment that is boundless, collating him with a countless number of people passing by close to him and far away, relating a person to the whole world, that is the meaning of cinema.”

– Andrei Tarkovsky

 

If the filmography of Jia Zhang-Ke is to be summed up in a single line, it has to be the above statement. Along with Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Jia appears to be the pick of the past decade and has made his way into almost every best-of-the-decade list out there. With a body of work that spans only a decade and a half, the Chinese has already authored at least four great works that clearly illustrate the director’s consistency of vision and his command of the filmic medium. What sets Jia apart from his contemporaries like Tsai Ming-Liang and Hou Hsiao-Hsien is the narrative and thematic specificity that pervades the whole body of his work. While the latter directors have sometimes de-contextualized their narratives and resorted to broad strokes in order to, perhaps, deliberately universalize the issues they are dealing with, Jia almost always particularizes. It is true that, like the other two senior directors, Jia keeps coming back to the same set of motifs and questions, but there is always a thread that runs through his films alongside these investigations that examines his own role and responsibility as a Chinese, as a filmmaker and as a Chinese filmmaker.

Jia seems to have established his signature aesthetic very early on in his career. Even in an early and relatively minor work like Pickpocket (1997), one can see that Jia, like Tsai and Hou, favours long shots, filmed from at a distance, and uses direct sound to wondrous effect. Then there is the trademark pan shot, which Jia treats like a brush running over a very wide canvas woven in time, whose use only proliferates with the years. Jia employs this pan shot to often depict people separated by space and time and the relationship they bear with the environment they live in. This unhurried, evocative shot directly ties Jia’s cinema to those of Tarr, Wenders, Polanski, Tarkovsky and Angelopoulos, the last of whom is the filmmaker Jia seems to closest to, thematically and formally. His actors are regularly seen squatting – a primal and distinctly human gesture that distinguishes man from the artificial, industrial universe around him. Most times, his scenes unfold in the master shot itself, as Platform (2000) and The World (2004) clearly testify. When the scenes are not shot in natural light – night scenes, for instance – they are, more often than not, lit by a single light source that is present in the diegesis itself.

From In Public (2001) onwards, Jia seems to have taken a liking for the HD digital format (shot masterfully by Yu Lik Wai) that seems to impart an extra layer of realism and intimacy to the films. Additionally, the director does not hesitate to shift the tone within his films abruptly – a playful tendency that is also palpable in Weerasethakul’s films. One moment you witness a solemn, moving conversation and in the next, you see characters floating about in animated spaces or buildings lifting off the ground like rockets. Apart from this, Jia’s vertically unsymmetrical framing is redolent of Godard’s early political features and he similarly embeds his characters within images of reconstruction and modernization of the place they live in. Also Godardian is the fact that there are hardly any “empty shots” (Godard’s terminology) in Jia’s films. He never depicts an action just for the sake of carrying the story forward or supplying petty information. To borrow Godard’s example, if a man crosses a street in a Jia film, one can be sure that either the director is interested in the man’s gait and gesture or the details of the street he is walking on or, as is usually the case, the relationship between the two.

 

Xiao Wu (Pickpocket, 1997)

PickpocketThe only Jia film with a single protagonist that I’ve seen, Pickpocket (1997) is also the director’s most accessible film. With a script whose likes one would find in the neo-realist films of yesteryear, Pickpocket chronicles the life of the titular small-timer, Xiao Wu, played charmingly by Jia regular-to-be Wang Hong Wei, as he loiters about doing his work in the streets of Fengyang, the director’s hometown. The questions of identity and cultural dislocation, which would intensify in the filmmaker’s subsequent works, already register a strong presence in this film. Jia employs direct sound to capture ambient and stray noises of the town that suit the film perfectly. Often, Xiao Wu’s voice is overpowered by the noise from the town streets or by the blaring pop songs that flood the soundtrack, which also particularize the film’s time line, suggesting the beginning of China’s globalization process. The soundtrack is complemented by the seeming omnipresence of the local television network that seems to either intrude into people’s private affairs or feed people with more dollops of pop culture. Xiao Wu is the quintessential Jia character, a flawed individual who has failed to catch up with the changing times (while all his colleagues have successfully boarded the train) and, as a result, pays the price. It is only after he (literally) sheds his old attire and learns to sing pop songs that he somewhat feels he is a part of his surroundings. As he sits arrested to an electric pole at the end, with the townsfolk staring at him curiously, one only thinks of the inevitability of this outcome. Forget the train, Xiao Wu hadn’t even got on to the platform.

Zhantai (Platform, 2000)

PlatformPlatfrom (2000), widely regarded as the director’s finest film, opens with a theatre performance that extols Mao’s communist revolution, setting up the theatre motif that permeates the entire film. Set at a time when China’s globalization measures were put into action, Platform is an epic film that actually gives the viewer the feeling of being there and drifting along with this endearing team of travelling players that stands for a whole generation – that of Jia’s – struggling to cope up with the drastic cultural transition that the measures have induced. That Jia sets the film in his hometown of Fengyang is of much importance because, according to Jia himself, it is one of China’s many towns that is far removed from the decision making machinery at Beijing and merely rolls along with the impetus given by the culture shock. Jia builds his film accumulating one insightful observation upon another, taking his characters through various signposts, such as screening of foreign films, permission for pop songs and private owned apparel shops, which indicate the direction the revolution is taking the country in. Characters go into sudden flights of fantasy, as they would in later films too, and step into improvised dance sequences and on-stage performances in an attempt to transcend the stalemate they are presently in. Jia’s film is a finely balanced mixture of nostalgia, elegy, cynicism, and hope, but never does it criticize its characters for their acts. It recognizes shares their surprise and alienation, recognizing and embracing them as flawed individuals who are yet to get onto the speeding train of progress and off the platform of cultural disjunction.

Gong Gong Chang Su (In Public, 2001)

In PublicIn Public (2001), made when Zhang-Ke was scouting locations for his next film, is the most abstract of all the director’s works for it completely sacrifices a narrative for something more expressive. Running for just over half an hour, In Public is the first film by the director to be shot in digital and presents vignettes from various public places, including a railway station, a bus stop, a bus, a pool hall and a discotheque, whose images inherently bear what Jia explored in his previous two fictional features. The key sequences come towards the end, in which we see people enthusiastically participating in activities at the pool hall and at the karaoke, where the effect of China’s modernization on a remote town’s populace is most evident. Even amidst the interesting impromptu dancing lessons that are taking place in the room, Jia’s ever-curious camera (often easily spotted by the people it shoots, helmed by regular collaborator Yu Lik Wai) keeps going back to a bald man sitting on a wheel chair at one end of the room. As the camera tilts down to the chair, we see a portrait of Mao Zedong hanging from the down. If not anything else, In Public serves as a distillation of the director’s techniques with its long and medium length shots, slow pans and his discerning eye for industrial landscapes. Jia’s attention is as much on the public places as it is on the people who inhabit them. He takes equal pleasure in dwelling on an arbitrary face that attracts him and in filming people from a distance, studying their behaviour in these public spaces.

Ren Xiao Yao (Unknown Pleasures, 2002)

Unknown PleasuresIf Platform was Jia traveling along with the touring theatre and sharing their culture shock, Unknown Pleasures is the director stepping back and looking at his counterparts of the next generation. The fact is underscored with the help of Wang Hong Wei who, as usual, remains the director’s alter ego and makes a cameo appearance, playing a variant of Xiao Wu. Slightly more cynical than all other Jia films, Unknown Pleasures is also the most light-hearted of them all, betraying a love and sympathy that the director has for his characters. A couple of middle class teenagers – Bin Bin (Zhao Wei Wei) and Xiao Ji (Wu Qiong) – knock about the town without any apparent motive when one of them falls in love with the mistress, Qiao Qiao (Zhao Tao, modeled after Mia Wallace), of a local gangster. In one scene, Xiao Ji, a parody of himself, talks to her about the bank robbery in Pulp Fiction (1994). In fact, the whole film borrows much from the Tarantino film. Xiao Ji dances at the local disco with Qiao Qiao, only to get repeatedly beaten up by the gangster. He decides to rob a bank which turns out to be only marginally less funny than a Woody Allen sketch. Jia’s film apparently has China’s “single-child” policy for population control as its backdrop and Jia might just be pointing out how this has resulted in an entire generation feeding and growing up on ideas and attitudes proposed by pop culture. But, keeping in mind the director’s previous couple of works, one may conclude that Jia’s primary intention is to portray the aftermaths of a cultural shift that is just too drastic for its participants to cope up with.

 

(To Be Continued…)

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