Cinema of the USA


Project Nim (2011)
James Marsh
English

 
Project Nim

Project Nim (2011), directed by James Marsh of Man on Wire (2008) fame, gives to us the life of Nim Chimpsky, the chimpanzee at Columbia University that was being trained to communicate in sign language, as narrated by Dr. Herbert Terrace (the head of the project) and his team of trainers. We see the animal being taken away from his mother by force, brought up along with human children at one of Terrace’s friends’ home, transferred back to the university, sold to a drug-testing facility and, finally, to a private ranch. We witness the devastating tragedy of Nim’s life, as he is deracinated, trained for years to become human-like only to be expected, subsequently, to behave like chimpanzee. Throughout, there is an ambivalence based on the nature versus nurture question that we experience: Is Nim’s rapid learning curve an indication of the dominance of social relations in shaping communication or is his random acts of violence a clinching proof for the presence of an innate animal essence? The interviewees describe their relationship to Nim in very human terms and one wonders if some of it is not the projection of their own anthropomorphic understanding of the animal’s behaviour. Consequently, Nim becomes something of a MacGuffin that everybody is talking about, but no one knows what it exactly is. The film’s sympathies clearly lie with the animal, to such an extent that it refuses to see the complexity of the situation. Abstracting scientific research as animal cruelty, the film fails to take into account the more pressing issues that are being addressed by such projects. To add to this gross simplification, Marsh’s questionable fictional restaging of facts and regular use of unrelated footage in order to prevent the film from becoming a talking-heads documentary betrays a lack of faith on the material and an unwarranted fear that a straightforward presentation would be ‘uncinematic’.

Grey Gardens

Grey Gardens

Grey Gardens

Grey Gardens

Grey Gardens

Grey Gardens

Grey Gardens

Grey Gardens

Grey Gardens

Grey Gardens

Grey Gardens

Grey Gardens

Grey Gardens

Grey Gardens

Grey Gardens

Grey Gardens

Grey Gardens

Grey Gardens

Grey Gardens

Grey Gardens

Life In A Day (2011)
Various
Various

 

Life in a DayRidley and Tony Scott’s production house Scott Free, in association with LG and YouTube, invited users from around the world to submit footage of their lives shot on July 24, 2010 as a part of a socio-cinematic experiment. Out of the 4800 hours of video gathered, chief director Kevin Macdonald and co. wove this exhilarating 90-minute ride, Life in a Day, which, on its surface takes us through one day in the life of people from around the world. If Dziga Vertov attempted to sketch a portrait of a pulsating city as seen through the Kino-Eye over a day and Medvedkin had Soviet peasants shoot their own lives, edited the obtained footage in his Cine-Train and played it back to them, Life in a Day combines both these ideas and realizes them in a post-globalized cultural-economic climate – a time where the omnipresence of branded consumer products is matched by the ubiquity of low-cost image-making instruments. An endless play of presence and absence, lack and excess, similarity and difference, the homogenous and the un-normalizable and the empowered and the marginalized, Macdonald’s virtually inexhaustible film is a snapshot of planet earth in all its glory, stupidity and complexity. So much film theory has sprung up since Vertov et al made their films and what is of interest is not only the relationship between individual shots, but also the dense cultural content within each one of them that enriches our response manifold. Sporadically erratic and miscalculated, Life in a Day nevertheless achieves the remarkable feat of synthesizing a coherent, mesmerizing and, indeed, philosophically ambitious film from the very elements that have become the antithesis of these traits. What appears as a paean to narcissism to some commentators seems to me as a heightened awareness of one’s own existence. The act of photographing oneself – on a particular day and for a particular purpose – prompts one to be continuously conscious of the passing of time and the finitude of experience. One frustrated lady sums it up in the film’s final line: “Today, even though nothing great happened, tonight, I feel as if something great happened.

The Turin Horse

The Turin Horse 
(Image Courtesy: MottoMagazinBlog)

There are 30 shots in all in Hungarian couple Béla Tarr’s and Ágnes Hranitzky’s The Turin Horse (2011), 29 of which involve a moving camera and most of which are elaborately choreographed amalgam of camera movements. The first and possibly the most exhilarating shot of the film is a compounded crane and tracking shot in which we are presented with a horse cart and its driver. The dolly tracks at the pace of the cart and its craning arm films the cart primarily from two directions perpendicular to each other: a view lateral to the line of action and a view of the horse head-on and up close. (This combination of lateral and head-on angles of the camera will form a major visual motif in the film.) We see the horse pushing hard against the gale, with its mane fluttering backward. We see the man, equally haggard, with his hair swept back by the wind like the mane. We also note that, by himself, the man is static while the horse is the one moving forward and taking him along – a minor detail but also an illustration of the film’s chief theme. The equivalence between the horse and its driver becomes even more pointed as the film cuts to the second shot, where we see the man – now on foot – pulling the horse into the stable (also reiterated in shot no.22 where the man’s daughter does the pulling). After the second shot, the film shifts indoors, where the major part of the film unfolds.

Inside, we follow the man, Ohlsdorfer (Janos Derzsi), and his daughter (Erika Bok, who plays a counterpoint of sorts to the character she played 17 years ago in Satantango (1994)) as they go about doing their daily work for 6 consecutive days: she gets up first, wears the countless number of clothes hanging on the wall, adds firewood to the hearth, fetches water from the well, dresses up the man, who has a paralyzed right hand, and boils the potatoes so that they can have lunch. Much of the action involves, as does the latest Dardennes feature, closing and opening of doors, necessitated by the beastly windstorm that plagues the outdoors. Their house is sparse and functionally furnished. Not only are the walls entirely unadorned, but the coating is coming off. The man seems to be a cobbler and he, possibly, sells the belts he makes in the town. The family does not seem to particularly religious. It does not have appear to any neighbours or visitors, save for the man (Mihály Kormos) who comes to their house to get his keg of country liquor filled, and the band of gypsies which arrives at their well for water, only to be shooed off by the old man.

The day-to-day events repeat over and over, of course, but Tarr (Please rest assured that I’m not forgetting the contribution of Hranitzky here and elsewhere) and regular DoP Fred Keleman photograph them from different setups each day, trying out various possible configurations and presentations and as if illustrating the Nietzsche’s concept of Eternal Recurrence that informs the structuring of the film. The effect of ritualization and repetition of everyday events with religiosity is bolstered by Mihaly Vig’s characteristically organ-laden cyclical soundtrack (reminiscent of the thematically apt Que Sera Sera of Almanac of Fall (1985)) that meets its counterpoint only in the boisterousness of the winds that sweep the plain. Keleman and Tarr light and shoot the interior of the house so painstakingly and evocatively, that even commonplace objects achieve a throbbing vitality of their own. They often light overhead, as they regularly do, imparting a luminous visual profile to the characters, who now seem like spectres haunting this dilapidated house. Unusually, there are also few instances of a voice over, which is new for Tarr, which acts as like the voice of an anti-God looking over the man and his daughter during the course of the film and their eventual fall.

It soon appears as though the horse (Risci) is neither at the centre of the film’s lean narrative nor at the focus of its apparent ideas. Indeed, it simply looms in the background like an unwelcome guest or an illness that is preventing the old man from riding into town to do business. However, actually, the animal not only provides a stark thematic contrast to the human characters of the film, it is at the very foundation of its metaphysics. The film opens with a hearsay anecdote about Friedrich Nietzsche. Apparently, in January 1889, when the philosopher was in Turin, he witnessed a cart driver flogging his recalcitrant horse. Nietzsche is said to have stopped him in haste and leapt on to the cart, embraced the horse and cried profusely. It is also said that this was the day after which he started losing control of his mental faculties. Of course, at the outset, what Nietzsche felt was simple empathy for a tormented creature, like any kind person would have. But because the person we are talking about is Nietzsche, the event holds a very special implication. What he was going through was also a sudden experience of intersubjectivity and, as importantly, the awareness of its existence.

A small detour to Dostoyevsky, a writer Nietzsche deeply admired, would be instructive here. In Crime and Punishment (1865), protagonist Rodion Raskolnikov, a bona-fide Nietzschean character, is haunted by dreams of a horse being cudgeled to death for the entertainment of those around it. It is, in addition, an expression of the owner’s power over and possession of it. Rodion, who believes that certain superior individuals have the right to disregard law and conventional morality if they feel that they are doing so for a greater good, discovers here the fallacy of his worldview. Like Nietzsche, he proposes a philosophy of guilt predicated on the effect of a “crime” on the conscience of the actor and not on the acted upon. But what this idea assumes is that moral consciousness of a person is a given, fully-formed whole, independent of other consciousnesses. Rodion realizes, in this nightmare, the toxicity of appointing oneself a superordinate being, especially when the relationship is that of master and slave, owner and owned. Nietzsche, in a classic case of life is imitating art, faces the same situation at Turin. His tears are an acknowledgement of the interconnectedness of all consciousnesses, an equivalence of each one of them.

The opening text of The Turin Horse tells us that we know what happened to Nietzsche after the incident but not the horse. The film’s recognition of the horse as a being as important as Nietzsche begins right there. The first image we see is that of a mare trotting against heavy wind, very close to the screen, dominating the frame – as if the camera is embracing it – suggesting its centrality to the film’s ideas. (Actually, we are never told that this animal is the same as the one Nietzsche wept for. The cut from the anecdote to the horse prompts us to assume that. This is only the first instance of lack of specificity that pervades the film.) The Turin Horse treats the horse as a fully-formed consciousness in itself – as vital as, if not more, its human counterparts – capable of understanding the world and, more crucially, reacting to it. The two human characters at the centre of the film do recognize the doom that surrounds them, but do not seem to do anything to change or respond to it. On the other hand, it is their horse that protests the cruelty of its master and offers resistance to the decay all around by refusing to eat or work. In other words, the mare seems to possess a higher degree of self-awareness than its human owners.  In one shot, the camera lingers on the horse long after the humans have left the scene, with the same solemnity that it displayed towards the people in the film. It is not some overblown anthropomorphism that we are dealing with here. It is a radical decentering of humanity as the locus of consciousness.

This tendency to displace humans as the centre of the universe also furthers Tarr’s and frequent collaborator László Krasznahorkai’s long-standing anti-Biblical programme. If, with the ending of Satantango and the upshot of the Nietzschean Werckmeister Harmonies (2000), the writer-director pair tried to overturn the Scripture, here they take on the Creation narrative itself. Divided into six days, which no doubt serve to echo the six days of the creation of earth, The Turin Horse chronicles in detail the progressive disintegration of the world back to nothingness before time. In this anti-Genesis-narrative, neither is man created in the image of God (one that’s not dead, that is), nor are beasts inferior beings to be tamed and controlled by man. (“Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.) In Tarr’s and Krasznahorkai’s Scripture, it becomes increasingly difficult to separate night from day, the seasons from each other. (There are only two seasons in the film’s world – windy and otherwise). Beings, instead of being fruitful and multiplying, become scarcer and scarcer. Earth returns to the formless void – the void that we witness in the evocative last shot – that it was at the Beginning. One imagines that the film would agree with Genesis on the seventh day: “Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them”.

[The Turin Horse (2011) Trailer]

Commentators have noted the striking silent film-like appearance of The Turin Horse. Indeed, Tarr, who has never been as metafilmic, parallels the anti-Creation narrative with a similar trajectory on the cinematic plane. A number of sub-shots are presented with the set and character in full view, arranged against a flat background and shot head-on with the décor in parallel to the image plane, just like a silent movie. Many of the shots are parenthesized by vertical or horizontal bars of film grain that wipe across the screen. Father and daughter, themselves, resemble the monstrously mismatched prospectors of The Gold Rush (1925), eating a non-meal every day and the smaller one always drawing the shorter straw. This is compounded by the fact that the film is set in 1889, just about the time cinema came into being. Moreover, the two interruptions that disturb the routine of the silent family are marked by excessive talk and cacophony. The film begins with pure movement of cinema and ends in absolute stasis of photography. (It is telling, in this respect, that the only completely still shot of the film is the last one.) It is as though cinema, like the film’s world, has regressed into non-existence, from broad daylight to total darkness.

Judge him, but this affinity for depicting disintegration to rubble has permeated Béla Tarr’s filmography. In a way, each of his film is a document of structural destruction: of urban spaces (Family Nest, 1979), of the modern family (Prefab People, 1982), of society (Almanac of Fall, 1985), of political machinery (Satantango, 1994), of civility (Damnation, 1988) and of civilization (Prologue, 2004). The Turin Horse takes the logic further and locates itself at the probable end of humanity itself. If Tarr’s latest work appears to lack the analytical rigour or satirical edge of his previous films, it is because it distills key ideas of these earlier films into a highly abstract conceptual examination devoid of urgency and pointedness. Looking at the director’s oeuvre, one can see this coming. Tarr started with very topical, socially critical films made in vérité aesthetic. Realizing that surface realism could only get him this far, he took a stylistic as well as epistemological break with Almanac of Fall, after which, instead of recording reality as it appears, he dealt with increasingly abstracted forms removed from everyday experience and a philosophy that replaced materialism with metaphysics.

Such departicularization is the modus operandi of The Turin Horse. The film systematically removes any trace of specificity from within it and builds an extremely generic framework that one can liken to the confident broad strokes of a paintbrush. Such sucking away of particulars would have been fatal in a film with concrete political ambition. But The Turin Horse, in contrast, works in a philosophical and cinematic realm so rarified that such distillation seems tailor made for it. Beyond the very specific opening story (Who: Friedrich Nietzsche; Where: Door No. 6, Via Carlo Alberto, Turin; When: January 3rd, 1889), we are not sure about any narrative detail. The place could be Turin, or not. The year could be 1889, or not. It could be autumn, or not. The long monologue that the first visitor delivers is what Pauline Kael would call a Christmas tree speech: you can hang all your allegories on it. What is the threat he is talking about? Why is the town ruined? Who are “they”? We don’t get any answer. If, at all, Tarr makes another film and intends to take the idea further, he’s, in all possibility, going to find himself in the realm of pure avant-garde, with nothing concrete to hold on to except the truth of photography.

Undoubtedly, Tarr is as cynical as filmmakers can get. His cynicism, like Kubrick’s, is the cynicism of great art, to borrow a sentence from Rivette.  But with The Turin Horse, Tarr seems to have punched through to the zone beyond. We have, here, entered the realm of the absurd, where cynicism itself is rendered impotent. In this film, doom is a given, inevitable. Instead of charting people’s downward spiral into the abyss as in the previous films, Tarr and team observe with resignation the insularity of people from their situation. Foreboding gives way to fatalism, cynicism to amusement. Robert Koehler correctly compares the film to the works of Samuel Beckett and The Turin Horse is a veritable adaptation of Waiting for Godot (1953). Right from the lone tree on hill top, through the dilemmas of vegetable eating, the sudden logorrhea of a stranger, the perpetually cyclical nature of events, to the ritualization of actions, especially the changing of apparels, Tarr’s incomplete tragicomedy in 30 shots echoes Beckett’s incomplete tragicomedy in two acts. Like Beckett’s bickering pair, or Buñuel’s angels, father and daughter find themselves unable to leave the house for some reason. And like Vladmir and Estragon, or Pinky and Brain (“Tomorrow we’ll try again”), the two– stuck in their house for eternity with only each other to stand witness for their existence – sit by the window everyday gazing at, or waiting for, a Godot that could be anything ranging from revolution to death.

But there are two key cinematic predecessors to The Turin Horse as well. The first of them, Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman (1976), lends Tarr’s film its finely spiral structure, in which a continuous process of disintegration is made palpable by minute changes in what appear to be unchangeable routines. Like in Jeanne Dielman, another film with an inclination for culinary detailing, the aquarium-like world of the characters is pierced by changes in the outside world, leading to their downfall. Then there is Sohrab Shahid Saless’ Still Life (1974) with which The Turin Horse not only shares its strong comic undercurrent, but also the idea of rendering chronology and the passing of time irrelevant by making it go in loops; the eternal return if you will. But, unlike the makers of these two films, Tarr filters his film from any direct comment on contemporary social organization. (Akerman and Saless, on the other hand, are keenly focused on the issue of urban and rural alienation). But what these films, most critically, share is an acute eye for everyday details, for minor behavioral and physical variations and an unshakeable faith on inescapable specificity of the photographic image.

 

Rating: 

At Sea (2007)
Peter Hutton
Silent

 

At SeaPeter Hutton’s hour-long At Sea (2007), voted the best avant-garde film of the decade by Film Comment, draws upon the director’s city portraits, landscape films and at-sea sketches, the last of which is informed by his decade-long experience as a marine merchant. The first section of At Sea, set in an advanced South Korean shipyard, showcases the assembly of a container ship. We witness monstrous machine components moving about slowly and rhythmically as they give birth to the vessel, making it seem as though we have been prodded into the maternity ward of a futuristic machine-hospital. (At times, we are not sure if it is the machines or the camera that is moving.) Arguably, the camera is in awe of these machines framed against the sky. Hutton employs two types of visual schemas – an intricate, crisscrossing array of verticals and horizontals (of the structures and the machines) and large, blank spaces (created by the ship’s surface and the sky) – which, often, reside in the same shot, resulting in unbalanced compositions that suggest both the vastness and the complexity of the man-made objects that we are looking at. We also see the workers working on and within the machinery, not only dwarfed by these behemoths but also assimilated into them. Even though they appear to be at the mercy of these metallic monsters, we know that they are in control of these machines. Even if one prefers to read it as a critique of dehumanization of labour, one can’t help but trace a sense of fascination and artistic pride about mankind’s ability to construct such enormous, complex objects. This unsettling mix of political criticism and scientific veneration is exemplified by the penultimate shot of the section in which executives, officials and captains sit in front of the finished product for a photograph. As such, they have nothing to do with the construction of the ship, but as members of a scientific project, their pride is justified.

In the most rewarding, middle segment, which lends the film its name, we are on a cargo ship in the middle of a sea. We observe both the sea and the crates aboard at different weather conditions and at various times of the day. Few films set on a ship convey such an exact sense of being in the ocean as this section. The gently bobbing camera which also suggests the speed of the ship (In one shot, we see the water alternately rising above the rails of a deck and hiding from our view) and the weather that registers its nature on the lens of the camera (as raindrops gather on the viewing surface, the rigid crates appear as if they are melting away) evoke both the romance and the fatigue of living for days together over deep waters. In one extended rearview shot, we see the agitated water at the ship’s wake move towards the horizon, where it appears to freeze to stillness, just like how a sea journey etches itself in memory. The use of a tripod here is highly ironic in how the instability of the camera is facilitated by it being coupled to the sway of the vessel. The compositional patterns in this segment echo the first – horizontal bars on the deck cross the vertical motion of the raindrops creating a visual grid like the architectures of the opening section; the geometrically fragmented, variegated set of crates juxtaposed with the monolithic, monochromatic texture of the sea and the occasional mist – facilitating an aesthetic continuity across the sections.

At SeaAlso in common with the previous passage is the disturbing mixture of poetic inspiration and materialist inquiry that the images invoke. Even if one is enraptured by the beauty of the sea, one also keeps wondering what these crates contain, where are they coming from and where they are going, not unlike the feeling when we observe the goods trains traversing the screen in James Benning’s RR (2008). Such a comparison to Benning’s cinema doesn’t seem gratuitous because At Sea exhibits the same sensitivity to minor changes in landscape, shadows and light and the same affinity to locate major visual changes alongside gradual, barely perceptible ones in the same shot. (The tension between the dynamic and the nearly-static exists throughout Hutton’s imagery.) Most importantly, this central section of the film portrays a world in a permanent state of flux. Shape-shifting and transition become underlying principles – this middle section as a converter working on two contrasting ends of the ‘narrative’, transport of goods as a prime mover enabling globalization, sea journey as a transitional period between two stable periods and the sea as a turbulent passage way between two worlds – and is typified by the travelling shot of the sea water at night that looks like an abstract painting in motion, with its thick, dark strokes interspersed with impressionistic stipples of light. The image also recalls the opening shot of Film Socialism (2010) in how the dark waters are made to look like crude oil and in how water is equated to money (respectively as a metonym for seaway capitalism and a metaphor for public commodity).

The concluding part of the film is set in a scrap yard in Bangladesh, where discarded ships from other countries are torn down manually using the most archaic of methods. A squalid, post-apocalyptic space, it is the hell to the heaven and purgatory of the previous two segments. We observe kids playing football amidst the mess and silhouetted figures lurching towards decrepit ship parts for a hard day’s labour. The awe of the South Korean section makes way for total repulsion and scientific marveling, for political investigation. The visual patterning of crossing lines and juxtaposed surfaces carries over into this segment as well, but talking about style in this particular segment becomes rather dangerous. Like Glawogger’s Workingman’s Death (2005), which covered a ship wrecking yard in Pakistan in one of its passages, the third section of Hutton’s film walks a tight rope between ethics and aesthetics. This section of At Sea is neither as detailed nor as visceral as the former, but it shows the moral restraint that Glawogger’s work sometimes neglects. There is no obvious aesthetization of menial labour here, no soaring music to guide us; just a sober documentation of the appalling working conditions. The stylization is subdued and it derives its merit mostly from the continuity and meaning that the overall placement of section within the film’s structure provides. That is why the sudden shift to B/W in the segment is a little troubling, even if it never comes across as objectionable. This shift appears to take us back in time – to the nascent days of cinematography where passersby stare curiously into the camera – as does the transition from the advanced shipyard to the medieval wrecking grounds.

At SeaHutton knows that sound in film can potentially gloss over critical questions and inconsistencies and make the viewer complacent. Like most of his earlier films, At Sea contains no sound and the whole responsibility of communication falls upon the visuals. This helps the audience distance itself emotionally from what it is watching and engage with the questions and ideas that the film prompts. Although this achievement comes at the heavy handicap of having no soundscape, Hutton’s choice not only aids the audience achieve true alienation from the work, but also comes across as highly ethical in the way it attenuates the realist aspect of the film (and all its concomitant issues). However, At Sea is not devoid of sensual pleasures. The mid-section, specifically, is rich with images marked by a poetic outlook. For instance, the protracted shot of the sunset, seeming as though a giant ball of fire is plunging from the sky into the sea, and the image of the sea bathed in moonlight, evoking a sense of the infinite and the unknown, directly convey the romance of sailing, which no doubt inform many of Hutton’s films. The film opens with a quote by Joseph Conrad: “A man who is born falls into a dream like a man who falls into the sea…” The idea of sea journey as a dream, a shape-shifting psycho-space, finds its echo in the hypnotic images of the second section of the film.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of At Sea is how it absorbs given tenets from narrative cinema and transforms them for particular end uses. I’m thinking specifically of the three-act structure, which the director himself describes, in generic terms, as the “birth, life and death” of a container ship. (The fictionalized nature of Hutton’s film is revealed right there, for we are made to believe that the film is a story of one ship, while we see a different ship in each section). Like narrative cinema, the first act bears a strong, antithetical relationship with the last act: construction/destruction of the ship, glory/shame of our civilization, birth/death of the vessel, rigid structures/boggy seaside, smooth movements/total stasis, advanced automated engineering/prehistoric manual methods, photographing of achievement/ photographing of distress and, most notably, the triumph/failure of global capitalism. This association becomes a strong indictment if we consider, like narrative cinema, that the first act is the cause of existence of the third.  This collocation raises the same question as does Workingman’s Death: Where is the worker in the modern world? Both the opening and the closing sections attempt to answer this question. The structuring of At Sea helps unveil what is hidden in each of the segments considered separately: workers across the world connected with each other, without their immediate knowledge, by larger, imperceptible forces. The second act, then, comes across as both redundant in terms of end result and absolutely critical in terms of thematics and meaning. Without it, not only will the film come across as crudely polemical, but will also cease to be a work as connected to personal experience as it now is. It is the middle section, most of all, which prevents the reduction of the film to any simple political or philosophical statement. The dissonant feelings and ideas that it generates contribute to the holistic richness of the film. It is here that we are, truly, at sea.

We Can’t Go Home Again (1976)
Nicholas Ray
English

 

We Can't Go Home AgainNicholas Ray’s We Can’t Go Home Again, ostensibly the director’s most personal and complex film, was made by the director and his students during his stint as a film professor at State University of New York, Binghamton, under abysmal financial conditions (which is also what the film is about). Ray kept editing the film for almost a decade and the final version never saw the light of the day. The second cut, which dates to 1976, is as far from the studio pictures made by the filmmaker as it can be. We are far from the eye-popping days of ultra-widescreen, for one, with its 4:3 ratio. Instead of the frame becoming an infinite canvas in front of us, it keeps diminishing, sharing screen space with a bunch of similar frames. (The film was shot on a number of formats, projected on a single screen, which was then recorded on 35mm). This splintering of the visual field, the generally pathetic sound and the entire filming method highly befits both the ideological fragmentation of Ray’s radicalized students and the progressive mental and physical breakdown of Ray himself (who appears to play a slightly fictionalized version of himself). This sharing of screen space by multiple smaller frames, like a cubist painting, seems to suggest the amorphous worldview of the misguided youngsters – types from an era – who see the equally vacillating Ray as some sort of secondary father figure, one away from home. The one-eyed Ray, as if throwing light on the politics of his films, seemingly advises them, without condescension, that no ideological position must blind them of the human elements that make up the system, that an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.

Star Spangled to Death

 

A film adrift in the cosmos… A film found on a dump.” – Week End (1967, JLG)

 

Whatever one attempts to say about Ken Jacobs’ sprawling, pointed, majestic, self-deprecating, playful, serious, enrapturing, frustrating underground work Star Spangled to Death (1957-2004), apart from becoming contradictory, only turns out reductive, for it is an unwieldy beast of a film. A relentlessly fragmented and remarkably sustained reflection on war, xenophobia, imperialism, religion, ideology, racism, resistance, justice and truth – although always in the American context – Jacobs’ film is simultaneously an anarchist critique of the USA and a celebration of its (possible) glories. Constructed using a dizzying amount of news reels, second rate TV specials, Disney cartoons, excerpts from early Hollywood productions, political speeches and amateur footage, among others, Star Spangled to Death is both a history of America constructed using its mass media and a deconstruction of historiography based on mass media. Rather than trying to write an inevitably insufficient review of this massive film, I chose to embark on a much more mechanical, much more pointless, much more painstaking, much more fascinating and, really, much more rewarding exercise.

For the uninitiated, Jacobs plants hundreds of single frame flash texts – besides equally elusive shards of images and sounds – throughout the seven hour film, each of which lingers for about one twenty-fifth of a second on the screen, into the film. These texts perform the paradoxical function of aggravating the slippery nature of the film and presenting its ideas cut and dried. Of course, this hit-and-run approach is anything but subtle. It’s more like Freudian seepage from the film’s unconscious to its surface. Much like how Jacobs counterpoints narratives of the establishment with the film’s overall structure and trajectory, these texts prove to be the perfect foil to whatever assertions these dominating materials make. There’s another paradox at work here. One one hand, Jacobs’ film – specifically these flash texts – is one that’s uniquely encoded in the film format. These frames – with fixed position in time and space – are much easier to zero in on a reel of film than on an intangible stream of binary numbers. One the other, it’s only a home video that provides one the luxury to navigate the film with ease in order to grab these frames. If cinephilia, in a sense, is defined as an odyssey to capture for life that elusive frame, Star Spangled To Death literalizes the notion and takes it to its extreme.

There is probably no point to this undertaking at all, but I do think it will be useful for viewers like me who actually feel the itch to read all those transitory intertitles without choking the remote buttons. Of course, I must add that I might have missed a number of frames here. Please feel free to point them out to me or, if possible, provide the missing screenshots. (One of the ones here, thanks to the copy of the film I have, is smudged as well. I’d be grateful if anyone could provide a replacement). Without further ado, I present you those notorious twelve and a half seconds of Star Spangled to Death which, I’m guessing, only a few might have seen in its fragmented entirely. Or whatever.

[Readers who are already cursing me (and will be cursing, until this post ages off the main page) for the increased load times, here (6.7Mb) is the collection in a downloadable pdf format]

 

Chapter 1: Jack Is The Spirit Not Of Life But Of Living













































































































 

Chapter 2: Jerry Is Suffering

 


















































































 

Chapter 3: The Height Of Folly

 



























































































































The Oath (2010)
Laura Poitras
English

 

The OathThe approach of Laura Poitras’ documentary The Oath (2010) is akin to having your cake and eating it too. And your neighbour’s. And the next one as well. Split between two geographies and worlds – Yemen, where Abu Jandal – erstwhile Al Qaeda member and Bin Laden’s bodyguard – drives the streets for a living, and Guantanamo Bay, where Salim Hamdan – Jandal’s brother-in-law and a driver in the same organization – is imprisoned by the US government on charges of “supporting terrorism materially” – The Oath attempts to indirectly examine both the alleged indoctrination of young Jihadis for the purpose of suicide bombing and the Bush regime’s seemingly opaque and opportunistic justice system. Cutting back and forth between conversations with the loquacious, confident and charming Jandal and the uninhabited, melancholy premises of the detainment facility where Hamdan is held, Poitras establishes a parallel between the two men: both are prisoners over whom the possibility of death looms every instant and who, paradoxically, find safety in the very jails that hold them. (Jandal, placed high on Al Qaeda’s hit list, seeks refuge in the prison of TV images while Hamdan ghettoizes himself out of fear after he returns). “I’m a soldier, I’m not a martyr”, says a hypocritical Carlos in Assayas’ latest work. Jandal maintains the same, even though he sees no wrong in blowing up passenger planes. Poitras does enough to build on Jandal’s self-contradictions to paint a portrait of him as a conflicted buffoon whose only oath of loyalty is to life – not God, religion or political cause. But then, the film’s agenda doesn’t stop there. Poitras is liberal enough to dispel the conservative notion of Jihadis as mean killing machines and to label all her subjects as being “merely human”, but she’s also selectively neocon in that she develops a Freudian sketch of Islam and Jihad which does nothing to challenge the equally-distorted western perception of these larger institutions. This self-serving worldview notwithstanding, The Oath makes for an intriguing watch in the way it keeps stressing the gargantuan role that the visual media has come to play in our daily lives and administrative systems where the presence of a camera is the sole screen that separates memory and forgetfulness, justice and tyranny and life and death.

Exit Through The Gift Shop (2010)
Banksy
English

 

Exit through the Gift ShopNoted British street artist Banksy’s Exit through the Gift Shop (2010) is a confounding beast in that it purports to be a documentary by Banksy on a man called Thierry Guetta who attempts to make a documentary on Banksy (along with other street artists). The first section of the film brings us the essence of street art, its intention to democratize art by bringing it out of arthouses and into the streets. (One of Banksy’s “guerilla installation” works depicts a lady wearing a gas mask). Gradually, the film’s focus shifts to Guetta himself. He is presented as an inarticulate, passionate camera buff fetishizing the recorded image (presaging his unrestrained fetishizing of pop culture later on), as a romantic who believes that recording every moment of one’s life increases the value of one’s gaze and, in a sense, as a Banksy-like artist working on the streets of life. Along the way, it takes a lot of potshots at the reception of avant-garde art centered on the grand debut of Guetta. The interesting thing here is that it doesn’t judge Guetta’s works till the very end, thereby toying with our perception of these works as well (some of them indeed seem praiseworthy and were probably made by Banksy himself). But then, Exit does have an agenda of its own. It evidently stands against celebrity culture and the commodification of street art. It seems to propose that street art has to be a physical endeavour more than a conceptual one and that the physical presence of the artist during creation is of utmost importance. Ironical it is that Banksy himself has held a number of exhibitions and is a revered name in art circles. This is perhaps the whole point of the film. Exit could be read – if not as a self-serving promotional campaign – as Banksy’s attempt to come to terms with his failed anonymity, as an effort to resolve the contradictions associated with his name (through the figure of Guetta) and as a form of self-criticism which recognizes that he has become a brand despite himself.

Sharon Lockhart

Sharon Lockhart 
(1964-)

Sharon Lockhart was born in 1964 in Norwood, Massachusetts. The American artist and filmmaker studied at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, and at the San Francisco Art Institute. She lives and works in Los Angeles. Her work has been shown in numerous exhibitions and screenings in America, Europe and in Japan and has won many awards. Lockhart is the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Asian Cultural Council. Her films NO and TEATRO AMAZONAS both screened at the Berlinale, Forum of New Cinema. In February 2006, her work, PINE FLAT, was shown at the Berlinale within the context of Forum expanded, the new platform for video art and installations, hosted by Forum and KW Institute for Contemporary Art. [Bio Courtesy: Split Film Festival, Image Courtesy: Walker Art Center]


 

Photographer and experimental filmmaker Sharon Lockhart’s cinema is one that straddles multiple realms. It has been noted that her film works attempt to explore the boundary between photography and cinema. For one, most of her films are composed with a static camera and with self-conscious framing that photographs actions head on. The compositions serve to remind us that the camera’s vision is highly restricted and there’s a world that lies beyond its four edges. This is also reinforced by the numerous activities that take place off-screen in the films. Since the prime distinguishing factor between cinematography and photography is time, these works are highly conscious of their temporal dimension. While Lockhart introduces the element of time in her photography by perturbing the order in which the photographs were taken, she chooses to preserve the linearity of time in her films. Instead, she invokes the sense of passing of time by retaining the photographed image for a long time – by using overly prolonged shots of largely unchanging actions. It is perhaps best to look at her films in relation to her photographs and vice versa. Another prominent aspect of her cinematographic work is the relationship between people and the spaces they inhabit. These surroundings may counterpoint (an opera house in the Amazon, a basketball court in Japan) or define (a labyrinthine industrial corridor, dusty Polish courtyards) the way of life of the people within them, but, in all cases, the kinship between the two remains of central interest.

Another dialectic that permeates Lockhart’s filmography is that between art and ethnography/anthropology – between straightforward documentation and authorial stylization. Lockhart seems to be conscious of the fact that such a tug-of-war always runs the risk of entering the territory of exploitation and unwarranted anesthetization (“I was well aware of the problems of filming in another culture and had begun to think about the way ethnographic film works within an art context.”). She overcomes this deadlock, as do other documentary filmmakers, by choreographing routines (there are dance trainers and movement advisors who work in Lockhart’s films), by making the subjects active participants in the filmmaking process and by not imposing preformed psychoanalytic notions on them. She cites Jean Rouch as a major inspiration (“I became even more fascinated with ethnographic film, especially Jean Rouch. He took ethnographic film to a whole new level. His ideas of collaboration and being a catalyst are especially interesting to me, like the way he lets his subjects choose fictional characters or roles, through which something very real comes out”). Consequently, the actions in her films are both spontaneous (the anthropological) and rigged (the aesthetic) wherein the participants both perform and behave. They are carrying out their daily tasks and, at the same time, executing the choreography they have practiced.

Goshogaoka (1998)

GoshogaokaLockhart’s debut project, Goshogaoka (1998), shot in 16mm in a basketball stadium in Japan, opens with the image of a theatre curtain, thereby setting up the motif of theatricality that pervades the rest of the film. The stillness of the image is interrupted as we witness almost two dozen high school girls in sports outfit running in and out of the frame – apparently in a circle – making the shot indicative of the cinematic system itself – the projector and the screen (In one segment, the “actors” run towards the camera, projecting themselves on us, as if mirroring the light particles that bombard the screen within the film). In fact, Goshogaoka, in its entirety, could pass of as a metaphor for filmmaking where seemingly random acts are shaped and stylized into a coherent whole (“everyday routines recontextualized and reinterpreted as dance”), where order is arrived at through disorder and where the banal moulds itself into the beautiful. The impeccably ritualized nature of the activities in the early part of the film – as one would associate with the Japanese-ness of the participants – gives way to more improvised individual tasks where the girls “perform” consciously in front of the camera, floundering at times, as if on the audience’s demand. The illusion of the work being a straightforward documentation of routines is also broken by Lockhart’s self-referential framing and utilization of off-screen space wherein we are made to acknowledge that all that we see is as much posed as it is improvised. This concept of the cinema space, by its very purpose, being a zone of contemplation would be explored further in Lockhart’s next film.

Teatro Amazonas (1999)

Teatro AmazonasTeatro Amazonas (1999) is set in the eponymous opera house in Manaus, Brazil, which one might remember from Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (1982), and consists of a single half-hour shot filmed in 35mm of a native audience listening to a piece of avant-garde music (scored by Becky Allen). As the film progresses, the voices of the audience completely overpower the vocals of the music in the same way our concentration is distracted by the length of the shot. The camera is on the stage and observes the audience head on, essentially making the film screen a portal of sorts through which cultural exchange – between two worlds, one might say – takes place. One is reminded of Kiarostami’s Shirin (2008) in the way the screen additionally acts as a mirror where one audience – watching Lockhart’s experimental work – resembles the other – listening to Allen’s experimental work. Being set in South America, the reversal of the subject-audience relationship here elicits other intriguing responses from us as well. Lockhart’s camera places us on the stage, with the Native American audience staring at us, and hence manages to reverse the colonial gaze (if one makes the fairly questionable assumption that the audience is predominantly European/North American). The “colony-wise” credits at the end only compound this revisionism. In that sense, each passing minute ratchets up the tension instead of accustoming us to the new space. Although Lockhart’s films don’t possess such overt political objectives, this particular film works on such an extreme Brechtian level that such a response doesn’t seem invalid.

NŌ (2003)

NoA companion piece to Goshogaoka in a number of ways, (2003) is a highly formalist work that attempts to study the properties of the film frame with the agricultural process of mulching as the backdrop (the ethnographic aspect of the film is very subdued). The film documents two Japanese farmers (Masa and Yoko Ito) amassing heaps of hay and later spreading them out on a field. We see that farther the farmers are from the camera, the longer they take to traverse the breadth of the frame. As the amount of hay gathered decreases with decreasing distance of the workers from the frame, we realize that the geographical and representational areas of a region are in inverse proportion to each other and that the field of vision of a camera is conical rather than cubical. Although is an examination of the relation between the XY plane and the Z-axis, it also functions as a painting unfolding in time. The screen is bisected by the horizon which separates the black soil from the reddish sky. As the farmers spread the hay over the soil, they end up coloring the lower half of the frame, literally assembling it. Coupled with ambient sounds of bird chirps, is like an impressionist painting on film in which both rapidly and gradually varying hues of light are registered (A little more plot and it could pass off as Jean Renoir). In that respect, the semi-static-semi-dynamic composition of the film largely resembles those of James Benning, where, too, quick changes in landscape are pitted against microscopic ones.

Pine Flat (2006)

Pine FlatLockhart’s longest feature to date, Pine Flat (2006) is shot in the eponymous rural area in California where she apparently lived for four years. Consisting of twelve silent ten minute sketches – most of them presented through skewed compositions – all of which deal with kids and teenagers residing the locality, Pine Flat preoccupies itself with the study of cinematic time. The first six sketches deal with children who are alone and the next six with groups of teenagers and kids hanging out together. Lockhart reveals that she wanted to investigate the subjective experience of time in both these types of situations. In both cases, the kids seem to be somehow beating boredom by indulging themselves and each other (The viewer’s experience of these stretches of time also plays a part in the film’s exploration). Lockhart’s idea of disrupting chronology in her photo works translates to prolongation of the film image in this work. Consequently, the segments are reduced to their functional minimum and come across as little more than photographic – a girl reading a book, a boy playing the harmonica, a kid waiting for the school bus, a boy sleeping on the ground and so on. This return to cinematic zero (if one can approximate cinema as photography in time) is also mirrored in the implied return to zero of nature. The kids playing and carrying out their petty activities happily in the lush woods is the image of serenity itself. Alternately, this sort of persistence on mundane gestures defamiliarizes them, elevating the quotidian into the realm of art (similar to Walhol’s works) and eventually urging us to see them with fresh eyes.

Lunch Break (2008)

Lunch BreakIn Lunch Break (2008), Sharon Lockhart seems to have taken to heart the Douglas Adams quip that time is an illusion and lunchtime doubly so. Shot in Bath Iron Works, Maine during the titular break period on a typical day, the film consists of a single tracking shot through the central corridor of the factory slowed down digitally to 75 minutes (It is probably the only film I’ve seen that takes longer to see than to shoot!). The dolly moves along the Z-axis of the frame – reminiscent of Kubrick’s tracking shots in the WW1 trenches – as rusty lockers and other furniture trudge past us. The film almost entirely consists of vertical planes, straining and training our eyes to such an extent that we start recognizing the minutest of lateral movements that the camera undergoes. Beyond a point, our eyes start playing tricks on us. If we concentrate at the centre of the image, the edges seem to melt away and the camera seems to move pretty fast and if we choose to pay attention to the edges, the camera seems slower than ever (an illusion that might be very useful in genre filmmaking). At times, when there are only machines in our view, we are not sure if we are witnessing a tracking shot within a real space or a zoom into a photograph (The one Lockhart film that most resembles Wavelength (1967) is this). It is only when the humans enter the frame that we have reference for the camera’s motion. Likewise, it is only during the lunch break that the human elements, for once, triumph over their mechanical counterparts, which continue to drone even during this cherished recess time.

Exit (2008)

ExitOver a 110 years after the Lumiére brothers photographed workers coming out of a factory, Sharon Lockhart embarks on a similar project, attempting to chronicle workers exiting a factory – Bath Iron Works again – over a time span of five days. Unlike in the earlier film, we don’t get to see the worker’s faces. Only a few of them even seem to notice the presence of a camera. Over the week, we see a number of workers walking into the frame, moving away from the camera and vanishing at a point near the centre. There is no strict pattern – in attendance, in attire or in mood – that is evident as we move from Monday to Friday. No insight into the psychology of the workers is given either. Instead we are left to speculate about the contents of the lunch boxes (which had made their debut in Lunch Break) and back packs (which many seem to be carrying), about the kind of work these workers are doing (not all seem to be involved in physical labor) and about the time of the day and season of the year (given the changes in the intensity of natural light). It’s kind of like guessing the contents of those mysterious trains in RR (2007). A man stops to chat with another. We barely hear their voices and are left wondering about the poetry of their lives. One striking thing that is evident is that the majority of the workers are wearing denim. This might give us an insight into the taste and economic standing of these people, but it is also suggestive of mass production of commodities, discrediting of human skill and homogenization of culture.

Podwórka (2009)

PodworkaPodwórka (2009) is shot in Lodz, Poland and consists of six sketches depicting the kids of the neighbourhood playing with each other in the courtyards of the city. A miniature version of sorts of Pine Flat, this film, too, presents a string of vignettes from the lives of children of a particular city. But, unlike Lockhart’s earlier film which shot the kids from at eye level and from a close distance, the kids here are photographed with a detached perspective and in long shots as if integrating them with their environment. This, in effect, presents them as human elements maneuvering through industrial landscapes which are – a la Lunch Break – marked by rusted pipes and seemingly defunct structures. Like Pine Flat, Podwórka attempts to study a locality by viewing it from different angles and through different people and to synthesize a version of the region that stays true to the filmmaker’s experience of it (although I don’t understand the geo-specificity of Poland for this project) – as if trying to hold on to the fleeting memories of childhood, which is influenced only too deeply by one’s environment. If it was the green trees in Pine Flat, it is Lodz’s mellowed courtyards that seem to be engulfing the children in Podwórka. The soiled, dilapidated walls of the neighbourhood seem to be of no bother to the kids, who are gleefully engaged in playing with mud, bicycles, footballs and the surrounding buildings. In that sense, one could say that the film is, as is Weerasethakul’s debut feature, a paean to dead times of the afternoon and to the power of human imagination.

 

(You can watch two of Lockhart’s films here)

 

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