To Be Or Not To Be (1942)
Ernst Lubitsch


To Be Or Not To BeErnst Lubitsch’s divine To Be Or Not To Be (1942), which is arguably the greatest American comedy of the talking era alongside Dr. Strangelove (1964), opens with a sequence in which Adolf Hitler wanders the busy streets of pre-war Warsaw for apparently no reason. We are immediately taken into a flashback that purports to explain the faux-historical scene we just witnessed only to, eventually, reveal it as a piece of fiction – a provocative performance art – within the film. In fact, in Lubitsch’s movie, which is the most direct precursor to Inglourious Basterds (2009), History itself unfolds as theatre, with characters impersonating other characters, with Nazis playing Nazis, with timing, blocking, make-up and diction becoming questions of life and death; politics becomes theatrical and theatre becomes political. The funniest line in the film is perhaps also the most trenchant: “What he did to Shakespeare, we are now doing to Poland”. For these aesthetes of war, Warsaw becomes a theatrical space to be controlled, its inhabitants, actors to be directed and history, a grand narrative to be shaped. On the other hand, for the Polish acting troupe, the stage becomes the most politicized space, with even the most harmless subversion stamped out. In a disturbing way, History haunts Lubitsch’s film as farce, before unfurling as a tragedy a few years later. Like in Dr. Strangelove, History had not yet happened to separate comedy from horror. Now that it has, it has ensured that To Be Or Not To Be is not cheap propaganda but biting satire. Hysterical and terrifying from start to end, Lubitsch’s film is a coup de grâce from the greatest weapon that the Allies possessed: Hollywood.

Dancer In The Dark (2000)
Lars von Trier


Dancer In The DarkThe least everyone could agree on Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark (2000), without getting into a debate about its artistic merit, is that it is a work of immense range. Juxtaposing Dogme-styled kitchen sink ultra-realism with musical numbers replete with chorus dancers, it ambitiously attempts to marry genres that are positioned at the opposite ends of a spectrum. It’s a marriage that is perhaps doomed by construct, but in Trier’s film it is intended to be an unholy, internecine union. The flights of musical fantasy that Selma (Björk) launches into, like the stripped scenery of Dogville (2003), serve as Epic Theatrical devices that seek to thwart audience’s uncritical surrender to the film’s drama and continually remind them of the artificiality of the film’s construction. That even such a blatant disfiguration of the film’s tonal integrity doesn’t successfully prevent the audience from total emotional identification with Selma is less an indicator of the film’s conceptual failure than a demonstration of why a multi-generic cinema, like Bollywood, works on the same audience-character dynamic as the straightforward genre entries of the West and why a mixed-mode narrative doesn’t necessarily avoid the pitfalls of Realism. That’s because von Trier the screenwriter is an incurable melodramatist (tempered by von Trier the director), who, by heaping misery upon his protagonists, makes sure that there’s not a single dry eye in the house. (Unsurprisingly, he cites Douglas Sirk as a major inspiration here, but I’d think Sirk’s assimilation of Brecht’s method is a tad more successful). On the other hand, as a musical, von Trier’s film leaves a lot to be desired. He shoots musical numbers like action scenes (in contrast to Peckinpah, who shoots action scenes like musical numbers), forgetting that the secret to a great musical number lies in the Bazinian conquest of space and not time.

Der Fluss War Einst Ein Mensch (2011) (The River Used To Be A Man)
Jan Zabeil


The River Used To Be A ManJan Zabeil’s bone-rattling debut film The River Used To Be A Man (2011) revolves around an unnamed German tourist (Alexander Fehling) who embarks on a trip in the marshlands of Botswana. Early on, we see him on a boat – lying face upward, soaking in the atmosphere and, so to speak, reliving an imperial past – as an older local guide (Sariqo Sakega) rows him through the shallow river. He is the quintessential master of the universe that we have come to know through the movies: a young white male who can negotiate the thickest of woods and tame the wildest of rivers, an Übermensch for whom the world is a puzzle to be cracked, a finite space to be conquered. It is this all-too-pervasive, Caucasian, colonial Weltanschauung internalized by most of the world today that the film systematically dismantles when the guide suddenly dies in the middle of the forest and literally becomes the white man’s burden. The man dumps the corpse in the river and somehow ends up in the nearest village, where he is told that the deceased would come back for revenge unless his body is found. With no choice, he goes back, in vain, to look for the body, while occasionally witnessing the spectre of the dead man. We notice that he has not only acceded to the laws and beliefs of this pre-modern community but assimilated, interiorized and ratified it. Zabeil’s wildly inventive film tackles nothing less than the Enlightenment project itself – its Cartesian and Albertian perspectives and its ultimately arrogant repositioning of Man as the centre of the universe – and upends Renaissance-inflected rationalist approaches to filmic narrative. The final shot, in which the man – defeated and disturbed – looks outside the windows of his flight – presumably back home – only to feel as if he still floating in the river, is perhaps the most philosophically upsetting ending in cinema since The Birds (1963).

Kadal (2013) (The Sea)
Mani Ratnam


KadalThe title of Mani Ratnam’s latest feature, Kadal (“The Sea”, 2013), conjures images of vastness, infinity and extremity. Like the sea monsters of many a folklore, it has a mythic ring to it, which is very apt considering the last half hour of the film takes place entirely in the realm of the abstract, the mythical and the elemental. There is a leap of faith that is to be made on the part of the viewer if one is to take Ratnam’s film for what it is – a leap that corresponds to a risky gambit that the film makes towards its third act. It is a manoeuvre that catapults the film from a temperamentally placid, naturalistic portrait of stunted childhood and sea-side romance to a melodrama of heightened emotions and larger-than-life stakes. The jump is grating, sure, but those willing to hold on would see that Ratnam manages to find a more cogent articulation of the misplaced metaphysical arguments of Raavan (2010), especially because he thankfully divorces his tale from political topicality. At heart, Kadal works upon the classic temptation parable, wherein Thomas (Gautham Karthik) must choose between the ways of the Devil and God, which is tweaked here to posit the tainted nature of an Absolute Good or an Absolute Evil, the impossibility of a foundational morality. When, in the end, Bergmans (Arjun Sarja) laughs at Father Sam (Aravind Swamy) hanging upside down like Nolan’s Joker – a universe cut from the same moral fabric as Ratnam’s – we discover a deconstruction of the Good/Evil binary that is more thorough, pointed and pulsating than anything in Ratnam’s previous film.

Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
Kathryn Bigelow


Zero Dark ThirtyKathryn Bigelow’s mostly redundant Zero Dark Thirty (2012) begins with one of the most repulsive opening sequences in cinema – an assembly of American voices from the World Trade Center and the flights that crashed into it minutes prior to and after the incident. That the scene emphatically introduces the film as an American narrative is not even remotely as problematic as its cannibalization of what is a most private moment to oil its genre gears. Presented without visuals, with an apparent intention to de-sensationalize the event, it does exactly the opposite and provides – not unlike the war on terror itself – a convenient, ahistorical, faux-humanist inciting reason for the film to dive headlong into act two. “The history of battle is primarily the history of radically changing fields of perception”, wrote Paul Virilio, and Bigelow’s film is a extended demonstration of how the Get-Bin-Laden enterprise was essentially a manipulation of the logistics of perception. The film’s major theme of the centrality of “seeing” and the predominance of the image over material acquisitions in war dovetails with Bigelow’s signature aesthetic, which consists of strings of POV shots emphasizing spatial integrity and a Realism fetish that approximates Jordan and India to Pakistan and Afghanistan. There is something of interest, of course, in the progressive defeminization of Maya (Jessica Chastain), which results in a portrait of wartime masculinity as performativity. The rest of the film, however, reinforces cinema’s status as, to quote Virilio again, “a bastardized form, a poor relation of military-industrial society”, especially the final showdown, where the attempt to make cinema as exciting and visceral as “the real thing” becomes a parody of itself. History as commodity. War as entertainment. Don’t worry if you don’t know what happened at Abbottabad that night, it’s on DVD.

The Queen Of Versailles (2012)
Lauren Greenfield


The Queen of VersaillesHinged on the economic crisis of 2008, Lauren Greenfield’s cautious, measured The Queen of Versailles (2012) charts the riches-to-proverbial-rags trajectory of David A. Siegel,  American real estate magnate, and his family as they plummet from being revoltingly rich to being nearly have-beens who are forced to relinquish the largest American home ever built. Greenfield’s film is full of improvisational metaphors, bitter little ironies and strokes of poetic justice, such as how the many employees whom Siegel laid off – not the big banks which refused to fund him – end up helping his family through thrift shopping. The most interesting aspect of the film, however, is how it throws light on how the familial fabric of the Siegel family, which no doubt is used to typify middle and upper American households, is dictated by factors outside their control and much larger than them, such as the global economic downturn – a direct demonstration of family being superstructural organization shaped by an economic base. These passages of the film play out like Metamorphosis as we witness the bourgeois family structure falling apart when the financial adhesive that held it together vanishes. Like Kafka’s novella, these scenes evoke a mix of revulsion and pathos: the repulsion one feels watching how thoroughly these relationships are founded on a bed of material transactions is counterbalanced by a pity for the children who seem to be oblivious to how tainted by excess wealth they are. If there is a lingering feeling, despite the film’s efforts to remain nonjudgmental and neutral about the events that transpire, that we feel pity for a group of people who are going from being extremely rich to merely rich, it is because the film rightly preserves the basic humanity of the Siegel family.

anders, Molussien (2012) (differently, Molussia)
Nicolas Rey


differently, MolussiaMaterialism is a theory of the invisible and is about those who have a material interest in the invisible above them and the invisible below them”, says an industrial worker to his comrade in Nicolas Rey’s splendid 16mm work differently, Molussia (2012). Consisting of 9 segments, apparently projected in a random order during festival screenings, Rey’s film, not unlike Landscape Suicide (1986), is a study of the visible and the invisible that structure a society. What we see in the film are barely inhabited suburbs, industries, woods and farmlands redolent of the landscape studies of James Benning or Sharon Lockhart, which Rey regularly interrupts with unhinged camera movements and abstractions of the visual field. The voiceover, on the other hand, draws from the writings of anti-fascist philosopher Günther Anders and gives us snippets of conversation between two politicized working class men living in the fictional fascist state of Molussia. Rey’s film sets up a remarkable dialectic between the visual and the auditory, in which the seamless veneer of a seemingly unproblematic and utopian world is rent apart by the theories of the invisible unfolding on the soundtrack. The result is a complete overhaul of our relationship with the images, wherein we start reflecting on the political substructures underneath the most apolitical of objects and practices. “Under capitalism, different strands of the economy achieve a quite unprecedented autonomy…The underlying unity, the totality, all of whose parts are objectively interrelated, manifests itself most strikingly in the fact of crisis”, wrote Lukács. The voiceover of differently, Molussia serves precisely to disrupt the appearance of autonomy of what we are seeing, by producing fissures on the surface of visible reality.

All That Jazz (1979)
Bob Fosse


All That JazzSometimes I don’t know where the bullshit ends and the truth begins”. So says filmmaker-choreographer Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider) in Bob Fosse’s flamboyant All That Jazz (1979), incidentally commenting on the film’s structure as well, which shuffles between past and present, reality and fantasy. With palpable influence of both of 8½ (1964) and A Clockwork Orange (1971), All That Jazz is a hysterical, heady, unvarnished and often stinging portrait. Fosse’s film is a record of total self-annihilation – a spiraling descent into abyss beyond which redemption is impossible – of an artist with possible delusions of grandeur and of a man who obsessively squanders every opportunity given to him to begin anew. There is something convenient and self-pitying about artists using their works as confessionals, where a modicum of inbuilt repentance tries to fish for unwarranted redemption, but there’s also something irresistibly human and disarming about it. Gideon of All That Jazz is not merely flawed, he is a downright jerk, casually cruel and holding double standards. And yet, this does not undermine his sincerity when he says things that he does not mean. For him, truth and falsity blend into each other so much so that there is barely a difference between a lie that sounds sincere than a true statement. Beyond this point, it makes no sense whether he is an actor in his life or whether he is consciously directing it. Edited and directed with verve, All That Jazz is potent and electric, especially when it hits the raw nerve.

The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Christopher Nolan


The Dark Knight RisesFor a large part of its long runtime, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises is riveting and conjures up messy themes and moral paradoxes that question the assumptions of the genre the film belongs to. The canvas is bigger than ever in the trilogy, the narrative knottier and the possibilities richer. The film is marked by a preponderance of vertical movements – Bane’s ascent from the sewers, Wayne’s escape from the pit, the Batman’s flight from the cops – and I guess one could tenuously map this to the notion of a Freudian return of the politically (Gotham’s seemingly huge underclass) and psychologically repressed (Wayne’s childhood trauma). But The Dark Knight Rises pursues no such apple-cart-upsetting ideas to completion and instead chooses to couch itself in the rarefied realm of Batman mythos, where the stakes for the non-fan are nearly non-existent. Nolan’s film channels everything from the Old Testament (Gotham as Sodom, Blake as Noah, the plagues, the Great Deluge), through the French and the October revolutions (the storming of Bastille, the twilight of the tsars), to the recent Occupy movements in America in a way that only politically non-committed studio products can afford to. That does not, however, mean that the film has no political viewpoint. Vehemently reactionary, The Dark Knight Rises nearly reduces every issue to a question of bad parenting. The film is rife with appeals for the need of responsible fathers and father figures, with the incurably paternal Batman being something of a godfather overlooking his hapless Gothamite children. (There’s a chuckle to be found when you see Gordon unveiling a statue of the Batman). And yet, I’ve not seen a film as classically solemn and tonally consistent all this year, with all other movies coming across as glorified sitcoms in comparison.

Onna Ga Kaidan Wo Agaru Toki (1960) (When a Woman Ascends the Stairs)
Mikio Naruse


When a Woman Ascends the StairsMikio Naruse’s When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960) could have well unfolded in post-war Los Angeles, in its dark alleys and seedy bars, for it reveals itself as something of a hard-boiled film noir told through the eyes of a woman. Set in the upscale Ginza district of Tokyo, the film centers on a bar manager Keiko (Hideko Takamine), a widow of thirty years, who must choose between remarrying into a respectable family and starting her own joint. Keiko is in a race against time, against the disappearance of her youth, and her tragedy is the tragedy of most women in modern society. Appearance is of paramount importance. “I hate liquor, yet I drink my fill every night” she says. She must be glamorous; she must smell good; she must be young or perish. She must don this Sisyphean role that is decided for her, never to complete her ascent and always returning to the bottom of the eponymous staircase. Positioned somewhere between the cool, satirical detachment of Imamura’s The Insect Woman (1963) and the melodramatic viscosity of Ghatak’s The Cloud-Capped Star (1960), Naruse’s empathetic yet never simplistic film offers no easy way out, not once letting our sympathies get tuned to a particular character. Constructed nearly as a string of conversations – all shot exquisitely in widescreen with striking centralized compositions marked by tense negative space – When a Woman Ascends the Stairs charts a single woman’s ultimately futile stabs at success in a grossly lopsided industrial society. Towards the end of the film, as Keiko ascends the stairs one more time, now more determined perhaps, Naruse’s film nearly attains the spiritual-existential intensity of Winter Light (1963). She can’t go on. She will go on.

« Previous PageNext Page »