Filmmakers


[The following is a translation of Serge Daney’s interview with Satyajit Ray published in Libération on 9 February 1982 and reprinted in Daney’s Ciné Journal Vol. 1 (1998, Cahiers du cinéma). With kind help from Laurent Kretzschmar of the indispensable Serge Daney in English blog.]

Satyajit Ray by Nemai Ghosh

February 1982, Calcutta

In which we go meet Satyajit Ray at his home in the city that he never stopped loving.

At any rate, he’s stands tall. Heads and shoulders above the rest. He just celebrated sixty years of life and twenty years of cinema. To the rest of the world, he is “Satyajit Ray”, the symbol of Indian cinema. But in his country, where films are made on an assembly line (743 films in 14 languages in 1981) and dreams are ruthlessly manufactured, he’s the first one to have left the factory. It happened between 1952 and 1956, here in Calcutta, and the film was called Pather Panchali. Since then, with his baritone voice and his impeccable English, Ray has never yielded on the most important thing: to shoot at home in his language (Bengali). A little less than thirty films in twenty-five years. But Indian cinema, the “all India film”, hasn’t yielded to him either. The struggle has been long. When you leave Bengal and ask the man in the street, no one knows Ray anymore. When you remain in Bengal and talk to any kid coming your way: he knows the names of stars, of cricket players and of Ray.

He’s at home in Calcutta. This inconceivable city, where it seems so easy to live and so easy to die, oozes with culture. Ray writes, produces drawings, composes music, and one day, in 1947, the year of independence, he starts the first film club in Calcutta. Ever since, this old capital of colonial India (from 1773 to 1912), this “premature metropolis” that has become a giant village, remains the conscience of Indian cinema. The film festival (called “filmotsav” here) is a genuinely popular event. The theatres—New Empire, Metro, Jamuna, Society, Jyoti, Paradise, Elite and Glove—are full. A ticket is a precious commodity. Tickets for second-class seats are sold on the black market.

Reaching Satyajit Ray’s house isn’t hard. Bishop Lefroy Road isn’t far from Chowringhee, the aberrant centre of this decentred city. Overcrowded arcades face an empty stretch of land where, amusingly, the Russians and Hungarians have been pretending for years to construct a metro that, all of Calcutta likes to think, will collapse with the first train (they still have ten years to go, says Ray who finds the idea funny). The filmmaker’s house is located in a central district of Calcutta, in a rather calm and posh neighbourhood. The houses, their windows and balconies have been fittingly corroded by humidity. Their ochre is turning into black. Ray lives on the top floor of a mansion barely older than him. I notice the spacious office where he receives me. I make out the rest: slow domestic helps, plants, film reels piled up, a diorama of greeting cards on a small table (it’s January, and the winter weather is wonderful), books of course, an old radio, two windows overlooking two streets, folded newspapers and, in an armchair, Satyajit Ray, very relaxed and even cheerful. Ray expects admiration from a visiting Westerner. He knows he deserves it. This respect pleases him but doesn’t surprise him anymore.

That’s for the image. As for the sound, the pitch is set by crows that caw with as much repressed hate as on the soundtrack of India Song. Traffic jams, human cries, honking automobiles, street vendors and assorted birds make for the rest. It’s simple: the city enters by the window.

(more…)

[A report on Mirza’s masterclass at the Bangalore International Centre in February]

Saeed Akhtar Mirza in conversation with Aakar Patel.

“Asked about the long, revealing titles of his films, Mirza speaks of a democratic dialogue with the audience, of not wanting to deceive them. When the viewer buys a ticket, he says, he has an idea of the film he’s walking into. “It’s not some Khandaan or Jurm.

In no other film is the title as illuminating as in Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro (1989). The instruction—don’t cry over Salim the cripple—positions the film as a tragedy, with the fate of its lead character sealed from the start. Salim, a low-level hustler with dreams of making it big as a gangster, gets a rude awakening when he’s showed his place by a system that views him differently. The Mumbai slang of Salim and those who abuse him are far from the Byron-quoting urbanity of Mirza, who had to undertake midnight trips to Dharavi to talk to real underworld figures as part of his preparation.

            Mirza describes the last of his five major films, Naseem (1995), as the final nail on the coffin of the idea of India. Set in the months preceding the destruction of the Babri mosque, Naseem paints an elegiac portrait of a syncretic, tolerant nation, thrown into disarray by the events of and after December 1992. Like Salim, but on a lower, more heart-breaking key, the teenager Naseem (Mayuri Kango) is forced to confront her social identity as reflected in reaction of those around her. Naseem finds Mirza articulating space with greater surety, with the fluid camera stitching the rooms of Naseem’s middle-class household into long, unbroken shots.”

 

[Read full article at SilverScreen]

A for American Cinema

Perhaps more than any of his Nouvelle Vague comrades, Moullet retained a fascination with classical American cinema all through his writing and filmmaking life. Some count with numbers, some others with John Ford’s filmography.

B for Backpacking

Moullet has stated more than once that his real profession is trekking (which explains his love for movies with people on the move). That cinema is just a hobby. A hobbyist’s cinema then, free of the need to make statements or find a purpose.

C for Cinephilia

A great fidelity towards cinema over other arts. There’s are a few literary references, hardly any to painting and almost none to music or theatre in Moullet’s work—quite unlike his New Wave peers. The Cahiers du cinéma is the abiding literary material on screen.

D for Doors

Probably as many as in the Dardennes. There are four or five door-related events in the very first short film, including an appearance by Moullet himself. There’s a whole film about the different ways of bypassing the Paris metro turnstiles.

E for Economics

A perennial obsession with finances, both from a macroscopic, economic point of view and in the transactional, everyday sense. A shopkeeper recounts her dealing with a serial killer. Moullet: “Did he settle his account?”

F for Fake

Master of false histories and forged statistics, Moullet was a devoted explorer of the mockumentary. His short films, in particular, dwell in the slippage between the documentary form and the fictional nature of things being said.

G for Geography

Mountains, plateaus, marshes, rivers, grasslands, slag heaps are the central characters of Moullet’s cinema. It is what he paid the most attention to in his writing as well. Many of his works are virtually excuses to film certain landscapes.

H for Housework

No helping hand to lend, no shopping to do, no firewood to pick up, or dishes to wipe. Everyone is condemned to the anti-dialecticism of intellectualism. Write, write, write forever. I think, therefore I am… but no, I think therefore I don’t wipe, for there’s nothing to wipe.” Not in his films though.

I for Irony

The Moullet persona is a product of contradictory impulses, his great delusions of grandeur undone by the pettiness of his concerns. A neurotic, self-deprecatory figure somewhere between Jerry Lewis and Woody Allen, with a touch of the silent greats.

J for Joke

The Moullet screenplay is an occasion for chaining together quips and visual gags. The joke is often a radical simplification of a situation (Moullet stealing newspapers from a vending machine) or a radical elaboration (a two-minute sequence of a man noting down something from a newspaper).

K for Kitchen

Food, of course, is at the centre of Genesis of a Meal, but has a tangential presence all through. Hunger grounds the intellectual being, the act of cooking, preparing the table and consuming all serve a purpose of reverse-transubstantiation.

L for Lists

“I have 72 ideas for key scenes, I arrange them to have a logical order”. Enumeration is the chief manner by which Moullet builds his films and texts, which overflow with lists of all kinds, often rattled off by the characters themselves.

M for Maps

The capital of French cinema, he wrote, is a rhombus in the Centre region of the French hexagon. The capital of madness, we are told, is a pentagon between the Alpes-Provence regions. A body of work suffused with cartographic imagination.

N for Nowhere

The cinema’s poet laureate of boondocks and bleds paumés, Moullet takes particular pleasure in discovering and deriding the most disconnected and isolated settlements in the country. Mean? Perhaps, what comedy isn’t?

O for Omnidirectional

A Moullet film is a collection of unicellular entities with no central nervous system or sense of time and space. It wants to go nowhere and everywhere at once. The longer the film is, the more apparent its atomization.

P for Province

For a filmmaker born and working in Paris, Moullet gives the city of lights awfully little representation. His cinema doggedly heads for the provinces, militating for a relocation of French capital to the town of Imphy, population 4000.

Q for Quantity

Moullet, who determined that 3.5m² was enough for a new parliament, is nothing if not metrically rigorous: “I had to buy half a dozen cutlets, a half-hour worth of wine, 100 metres of noodles, a litre of fresh eggs, 4 francs of olives, and a pound of cake.”

R for Resourcefulness

Shots, soundbites, narrative threads from one film, one piece of film criticism will be reused in other. Repetitions abound, and not just for the sake of humour. The Moullet cinematic universe—and one could speak of a veritable universe here—is finite and ever-shrinking.

S for Statistics

I’d gather technical information—number and duration of shots and shooting, budget, box office of the film etc.—which made subjective positions sound objective.” “Contrary to expectations, certain statistics are even more subjective than critical opinion.

T for Transport

Four people depart from Paris for the provinces. One leaves in train, one on a motorbike, another on a bicycle and the last one takes a car. The time to their destination is in inverse proportion to the speed of their modes of transport.

U for Unemployment

Moullet might be the filmmaker most concerned with unemployment, of all of France as much as his own. The sight of waste heaps strewn across Nord-Pas-de-Calais is for him as much an opportunity for job creation as it is aesthetic real estate.

V for Vélo/Love

“Here I had a satisfying relationship that could last hours. One I could dominate, one which involved no problems. I tried to ride in a straight line. The more circuitous things got to be, the more I liked straight lines. I wish my life were a straight line.”

W for Whip pans

The camera oscillates between two points of interest, expressing indecisiveness, or an act of comparison. This dishonoured device finds shelter in Moullet’s cinema, a veritable refuge for such kind.

X for Xerophilia

Fear of water is the main subject of Ma première brasse, but water bodies (or lack thereof) are permanent fixtures. Moullet stays away from the coasts and is attracted to the driest of regions in France. The one film he made in the US was set in Des Moines, Iowa.

Y for Youth

A perennial boyishness, self-styled petulance and a lifelong refusal to grow up and “be serious”. A film on mortality he made at seventy is shot through with an adolescent flippancy towards death.

Z for Zsygmondy

Like the eccentric accommodation scheme of the eponymous refuge, Moullet’s writing and films are often demonstrations of analytical frameworks that are in part or wholly arbitrary. Just like the setup of a good joke.

Adoor Gopalakrishnan in conversation with Maithili Rao

Adoor Gopalakrishnan is not much of a speaker. He has written the screenplay of all his films and composed several books on cinema, but the spoken language is something he appears to steer clear of. So it’s perhaps fitting that the two-day masterclass he conducted at the Bangalore International Centre on November 23-24 began with a screening of Kathapurushan, the story of a writer who suffers a speech impediment. It’s also perhaps the reason that the masterclass was conceived simply as a series of moderated Q&A sessions instead of a monologue supported by film extracts. While the moderators, film critic Maithili Rao and writer-filmmaker Basav Biradar, provided useful interpretive frameworks to give shape to the discussion, Adoor’s comments proved rather tangential, veering into generalities in response to specific questions, preferring to dwell on personal authorship over collaboration and remaining focused on the films’ literary aspects when probed on formal choices. But as with all significant artists, we are glad to receive whatever we get.

Adoor describes Kathapurushan (The Man of the Story) as an “incisive look” at himself. Spanning forty years, the film charts the life of Kunjunni (Vishwanathan), the scion of a feudal household who suffers from a stuttering problem. Kunjunni’s personal story—his legend-like birth, his fatherless upbringing, his relationship with the working-class family employed at the house, his blossoming into a young intellectual, his imprisonment and his eventual “cure”—is set against larger events from the history of Kerala. Like many of Adoor’s characters, Kunjunni is a barometer of the upheavals that saw social relations transition from feudalism to communism. His stutter goes just like it came: in reaction to a specific institutional violence. Adoor constantly jumps in time with ellipses that arrive unannounced. These vast temporal leaps are in contrast with the real-time sequences that populate the film. In Kathapurushan, the filmmaker accentuates his characteristic editing style that involves intervals of dead time bookending action or dialogue within a shot.

In the exchange that followed, Adoor touched upon the co-production offer by NHK, Japan, and described how he was urged by the film critic Tadao Sato to take up the offer even though he had no story idea at that point. Speaking about the colours in the film, he recounted how he wanted to shoot the film between rains in peak monsoon in order to capture the various shades of green proper to Kerala. He insisted that he storyboards his sequences beforehand, with the cinematographer responsible primarily for the lighting. This explains the stylized shot division of the film’s most memorable sequence: a raid at Kunjunni’s revolutionary press shown entirely through close-ups of typesets, pamphlets, strewn paper, marching feet and cuffed hands. This manner of synthesizing shots against continuity recalls the work of Sergei Eisenstein, as does the use of actors. Especially in Kathapurushan, the actor’s work is objectified into individual packets of information—gestures signifying discrete ideas like crying, grieving or rejoicing—whose purpose is to support the wider thematic scaffolding.

If Kunjunni represents the first type of Adoor protagonist, the individual who rises above the station his situation consigns him to, the principal characters of Vidheyan (The Servile) are wholly products of their environment. Both Patelar (Mammootty), the malevolent feudal relic who runs roughshod over a village in Dakshina Kannada, and Thommi (M. R. Gopakumar), a migrant settler who becomes his trusted vassal, are products of a social structure that has no legality anymore. Right from the first shot of the film, where Thommi is interpellated by Patelar’s humiliating call, the two are bound in a master-slave dialectic in which each derives social-existential legitimacy from the other. If Vidheyan remains Adoor’s supreme achievement towering over the other films, it’s perhaps because, here, his style finds a subject matter that’s an organic extension of it, inherent to it: the shot divisions, the backlight and the use of off-screen space all become emanations of the central idea.

Talking about the genesis of the script, Adoor said he changed the Patelar character from a serial killer in Paul Zacharia’s original short story to a naïve being out of step with the times. He also revealed that he had offered the short story to his friend and fellow filmmaker K. G. George. The latter, it appears, turned it down as he was more interested in the social politics of migrant Malayali settlers in Mangalore, in place of this abstract meditation on power. Adoor also rejected the moderator’s proposition—after Suranjan Ganguly—that his films were about outsiders, maintaining that they were only about individuals. Discussing his casting of Mammootty as the antagonist, Adoor said that he doesn’t differentiate between novices and professional actors and usually casts actors in small roles before giving them meatier parts in subsequent films. That this was his third production featuring Mammootty made the star comfortable in portraying as repulsive character as Patelar.

If Patelar and Thommi are products of a system, Basheer, the protagonist of Mathilugal (The Walls), rejects all isms and asserts his irreducible individuality. Adapted from Vaikom Muhammad Basheer’s autobiographical novella, Mathilugal, in fact, centres on the dissolution of an institution, namely the police force, into individuals. The story is set a few years before independence in a Travancore prison where Basheer (Mammootty) is held for writing against the state. At the facility, he gets a preferential treatment, with both jailers and fellow-prisoners willing to provide him with his indulgences. Basheer, in turn, is not only brotherly towards them, but affectionate to the plants and small animals on the premises as well. He thinks of a jailbreak, but the romance he develops with a woman prisoner across the high walls of the prison makes him rethink the meaning of freedom. Mathilugal is a tender film for Adoor, gives in as it does to the vagaries of human desire and behaviour instead of putting it under the microscope.

Adoor remembered his collaboration with V. M. Basheer with great fondness and respect. He described how the author was sure the film will turn out well when he learnt that the sole woman character in the story will not be shown, but only heard. Adoor spoke about the authenticity of the period details and the prison set that was built with brick and mortar. He stated that the central challenge of adapting the novel was to turn the ‘I’ of the novella into a flesh and blood character. Answering the moderator’s question about the casting of the Mammootty as Bashir, he said that, in his writings, Basheer had a lofty self-image, which he wanted to bring out through the image of the handsome actor. In the film, Basheer perambulates the prison corridors, amusing himself at first but soon descending into a marked depression—a change in tone that Adoor mapped to the Basheer’s real-life spells of schizophrenia.

The last screening was that of Elippathayam (The Rat Trap), arguably Adoor’s most academic, but also most rigorous film. Another chronicle of the response of the powerful classes to disempowerment, the film follows a landed family living in an ancestral house: the entitled, lazy-to-the-bone patriarch Unni (Karamana Janardanan Nair) and his two sisters, the suffering Rajamma (Sharada) and the self-absorbed Sridevi (Jalaja). Unni’s incurable fear of change eats Rajamma away and prompts Sridevi to flee the house in a gesture of self-preservation, while he remains locked up in the house like a trapped rodent. Elippathayam is a highly abstract work like Vidheyan, and Adoor gives each character in the film a single defining trait. Every shot, sound and detail of the mise en scène has a fixed place in the film’s meticulous structure and serves to illustrate the thesis. Adoor’s characteristic, Platonic attention to objects vested with social significance, such as ancestral furniture, saturates the film with meaning and intellectual heft.

Adoor mentioned that Elippathayam was a film about “sharing”, about our reluctance to respond naturally to change. He detailed the reasons why the film was shot in colour: the Moraji Desai government, having gotten rid of licensing limitations for the import of film stock, enabled the flourishment of colour stock in the country to the detriment of monochrome. The highly coded colour choices of Elippathayam were thus a virtue made of necessity. He asserted that films, whatever else they are, must function at least as social documents, pointing to the authenticity of the way of life depicted in Elippathayam. For all its ills, he added, the feudal system fostered a more intimate relationship between the landed class and the tillers, as well as between the tillers and the land—something that vanished with the disintegration of joint families and ancestral homes.

The four films screened at the masterclass, all of them Bluray projections, offered an excellent cross-section of Adoor’s body of work. Even with Adoor’s limited commentary on them, it was evident that they stake a claim for the filmmaker as one of the true modernists of Indian cinema. The novelistic, classical quality of his script—personal stories set against historic transformation like in John Ford—are given a critical edge by the self-conscious form, the countless doorways that double frame his shots and the carefully curated panoply of ambient and artificial sounds. In all the four sessions, Adoor reflected on the long periods of inactivity between his films. He explained that the hardest part is for him to be convinced that an idea is worthy of a feature-length production; the rest follows. It’s good to get stuck working on an idea and return to it after a while, he went on, instead of compromising the idea. He said that he constantly asks himself why the audience should see his films, that nothing will change if he doesn’t make films. The last thing the seventy-eight-year-old filmmaker wants to do is to repeat himself.

 

[A shorter version of this report was published in Film Companion]

I'm Going Home

 

“Life is a moment which is always past, which doesn’t exist anymore. It’s the genius of artistic creation to attempt to retain life. This is the function of literature, of painting, of sculpture, which preserve the passing life. Not its historic dimension, but the ephemeral dimension of things which flow like the water of a river. The place is the same, but the water isn’t.”

— Manoel de Oliveira, at 90

 

It is something of an irony that Portuguese filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira, who passed away at the age of 106 – a full life and a half – on Friday in Porto spoke frequently about the ephemerality of life. To cinephiles who have celebrated and cheered for him during each of his post-centenary birthdays, it seemed that Oliveira will be around forever, making the kind of films he makes, free not just from the ruthless exigencies of commerce, but also the passive-aggressive demands of film festivals, academia and cultural fads at large. Even the Venice Film Festival felt obliged to give him their lifetime achievement award a second time in 2004, having underestimated the late bloomer’s career plans the first time around in 1985.

To be sure, Oliveira’s vast body of work, the bulk of which was made after the filmmaker turned 70, despite regular critical acclaim, hardly fostered undying allegiance in his already niche audience. He was a thorough modernist, yet worked consistently with classical texts and themes devoid of political polemic or cultural commentary favoured by the academic establishment. He was at the vanguard of cinematic experimentation, but was so religiously bound to the written word as to frustrate “Pure Cinema” evangelists. The typical Oliveira shot is static, with the fixed camera squarely filming well-costumed actors flatly spouting dialogue in an anti-realistic, declamatory fashion. One recalls old Tamil films where actors, burdened as they were by the tradition of theatre, spoke looking at the camera than at each other.

Instead of shunning theatre for the critically venerated idea of film as a pure form, Oliveira’s cinema embraces and even subordinates its filmic elements to it. For the filmmaker, there is no real need for cinema to consciously distinguish itself from theatre, for its very nature sets it apart from the latter. Theatre is always material, contingent on actors and décor, while a movie, once filmed, is fixed and ethereal with its bodiless phantom actors. Theatre, cinema and reality form a triad in Oliveira’s films, each one feeding constantly into and illuminating the other two. Like Michel Piccoli in I’m Going Home (2001), who comes to terms with his old age only through the conventions of the stage, Oliveira believes that it is theater that helps us better understand reality.

So too with cinema, which captures fugitive moments of life and preserves it for eternity in order that we have a clearer view of it. Nowhere is this preservative quality of the moving image more piercingly and movingly portrayed than in The Strange Case of Angelica (2010), one of Oliveira’s last films and one of the greatest films of this century. Like so many of the director’s films, Angelica is a story of unfulfilled love and thwarted desire, in which Isaac the photographer (played by Oliveira’s grandson and regular collaborator Ricardo Trêpa) falls in love with the image of a dead girl he has photographed. Through Isaac’s attempts at bringing to life this girl through the imaginings of his art, the film becomes an ode to the redemptive quality of cinema in which impressions, people and memories long dead are resurrected through the magic of the medium.

Art and life: the two co-ordinate poles between which Oliveira’s cinema resides and oscillates. Characters in Oliveira’s films yearn that the shortcomings of life be dissolved in the perfection of art, while art harshly brings them back to bitter the quotidian reality around them. These romantics always want to be somewhere else – some other time, some other place, some other medium. Perhaps that is why these films routinely straddle multiple historical timelines that often meld into each other such that the contemporary seamlessly cohabits with the classical, the modern with the medieval. Oliveira’s is a cinema of longing, of this vain desire to be ‘somewhere else’, of the uniquely Portuguese feeling of Saudade, or what he himself calls, the nostalgia for the future.

(For The Hindu)

Transmissions

 

A man putting off a cigarette on his wrist, midwives being trained to handle childbirths with a plastic baby, an actor roleplaying as a traumatized war veteran with the help of a virtual-reality software, visitors at a Vietnam War memorial in Washington caressing the engraved names of the deceased, a group of architects discussing how to maximize the amount of time a buyer spends in a shopping complex, a mock Iraqi village set up in California with Iranians and Pakistanis intended to train American GIs. These are but some of the unmistakable images from the films of German documentary filmmaker Harun Farocki, who passed away last week at the age of 70. Farocki’s output, which spans the genres of filmic essays, Direct Cinema documentaries and multi-screen installations, is among the most intellectually piercing and artistically rich bodies of work made in the last 50 years anywhere in the world.

Born to an Indian father and a German mother in 1944, Farocki was taken at a very early age to the work of Bertolt Brecht, who, along with Theodor Adorno, had a deep impact on his filmmaking style. As a student, he was actively engaged in the student movement in West Germany and was, as a result, rusticated from the film academy. Inextinguishable Fire (1969), which Farocki made during that period, contrasts the horrifying effects of Napalm B on the human body with the amoral, scientific detachment with which it was developed in the laboratories of the Dow Chemical Company. This phenomenon of the alienation of labour from its products – the defining characteristic of industrial era – and the absence of individual moral accountability in hierarchical corporate capitalism haunts the entirety of his 45-year working life.

A lifelong Marxist, Farocki examined the ever-changing face of industrial production, continuously investigating what exactly constitutes such production and what labour means in an age in which the boundary between productive and not-productive work has become fuzzy. His last, unfinished installation project, Labour in a Single Shot (2011-2014), which consists of a collection of shots showing people at work in 15 different cities simultaneously projected on 15 screens, probes into this shape-shifting nature of labour and its increasingly invisible place in the scheme of things.

Such a desire to get to the heart of modern capitalist practice is also what informs the series of observational documentaries – fly-on-the-wall films in which the filmmaker abstains from intruding on what is being filmed and instead simply plays the non-participative spectator – which Farocki made from the 90s onwards. In these works, we typically see a group of white-collar workers coming together to conceive and realize a project, such as the construction of a mall, the forging of a deal between an investment company and a startup, training of interview candidates or the design of a new corporate office space. As they unfold we are made privy to something that is all too elusive in the technocratic society of ours – the presence of rational, human decisions underpinning the actions of systems larger than them. In these sound-proof rooms of glass and steel, we witness the crystallization of an entire socio-economic climate around individual choices – the materialization of ideology in the realm of the visible.

This constant osmosis between the domain of ideas and that of real things is a theme that binds all of Farocki’s work. These films recognize the progressive abstraction of tangible things into intangible notions – the translation of use value of commodities to its market value and the subsequent transformation of hard money to vague stock market numbers – and the continuous virtualization of the real. They throw in relief the fact that, in the sphere of production and marketing, material things are merely temporary containers in which one abstract idea (the idea of happiness and satisfaction for the consumer upon buying the product) is realized before it is converted to another (the advertising image). Taken together, these films form an elegy for materiality, a testimony to the loss of tactility of objects.

Nowhere else was this loss as sharp and complete as in Farocki’s own professional practice, in which he had to move from working with film stock, to shooting with analog video, and then to making films with digital cameras. The increased digitization of shooting, editing, storing and distributing of films, for Farocki, rhymes with the increased depersonalization of manual labour. Data from the real world is stored as electrical charge in computers, then abstract images are formed out of these charges and finally the real world is reshaped with these very images, thus closing the loop. The pre-existing filmic material used in Farocki’s films – surveillance videos, engineering models, reconnaissance footage, and scientific data feeds – attest to the centrality of machine-captured images in military, economic, social and legal processes today: supermarkets are architected according to the walking patterns of consumers, defense strategies are planned out based on video game designs, psychological traumas are treated with virtual-reality games and prison facilities are controlled and regulated through interactive CCTV setups.

The image, of course, is the primordial object of study in Farocki’s films. These works delve into the history of modern image making – from the diminishing perspective of Renaissance architecture which anointed sight as the preeminent sense to the flattened images of aerial photography that gave birth to both Cubist art and wartime telecasts – to explore how the cinematic image has time and again been the tool of choice for subjugation and how it has unwittingly played its part in the concentration and abuse of power. “The history of battle is primarily the history of radically changing fields of perception”, wrote Paul Virilio. Farocki’s films echo this observation and demonstrate how, in modern warfare, wars terrains are mapped out in amazing detail, war strategies simulated through software and variables of battle are controlled to such an extent that the actual war simply becomes a logistical formality. In such an asymmetric war, the side that controls machine-filmed, amoral and objective images of a region is the one that conquers it. To see is to capture.

Farocki’s cool, composed essay films remind us of the treachery of images, sure, but also keep pointing us to their possibilities and their liberating power. These works move beyond analyzing our extremely visual, late capitalist culture through its advertising images alone and reveal the epochal shift that machine sight has brought in every sphere of existence. One of the greatest strengths of these films is their genuinely open-mindedness towards the rapid transformations that mark our post-ideological age. Though they certainly take a political position, they are not monolithic, leftist diatribes perceiving every change as a machination of the powerful that leaves no scope for resistance. Neither pessimistic nor triumphalist, Farocki’s films distinguish themselves with the untainted curiosity and the openness to change with which they attempt to make sense of the time we live in. The same could be said of Farocki.

(For The Hindu)

Chris Marker avec Monsieur Chat
 

“I’m writing you all this from another world, a world of appearances. In a way the two worlds communicate with each other. Memory is to one what history is to the other: an impossibility.”

–         Sans Soleil (1983)

 

It is possible to build a case that a person called Chris Marker, who reportedly passed away two weeks ago in Paris, never existed; that the name is a mnemonic for an underground art collective, a projection of an auteurist film culture that tends to preserve the aura of a reclusive artist or a convenient label to denote audiovisual echoes from another world: a world of images, a world of appearances. Rarely photographed and even less frequently interviewed, Chris Marker, born Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve in 1921, is something of an invisible man in the hallowed halls of world cinema. Generally associated with the Left Bank of the French New Wave, alongside high priests of cinematic modernism such as Alain Resnais, Alain Robbe-Grillet, and Marguerite Duras, Marker has been credited as a pioneer of the Film Essay – a free-form genre marked by a strong authorial voice in which cinema most resembles non-fiction writing. Although it is true that he has produced some of the most groundbreaking, most challenging and most riveting film essays to date, it would be gross injustice to pigeonhole an artist who has not only engaged with a range of documentary forms like cinema vérité, agitprop, film diary, artist profile, travelogue and the home movie, but also wandered across media – literature, photography, video games, interactive multimedia and cinema – to explore his chief metaphysical and political concerns: time and space, history and memory.

‘Wandering’ was what Marker truly did. With the curiosity of a child, the fascination of a foreigner and the detachment of a drifter, he hopped media in search of the most eloquent articulation of that which haunted him the most. Unlike some of his New Wave peers, cinema, for him, was never an end in itself, but yet another medium – as powerful and as insufficient as any other – that could directly deal with ideas close to his heart. His films are incomplete in the sense they are not predetermined theses disbursing answers, but intellectual terminals where trains of thought depart from. There is a sense of mystery and rediscovery that these films impart to everyday experience, as though prompting us to look at the world anew, that could have been conceived only by a bonafide outsider, a person who does not belong anywhere but everywhere. A perennial globetrotter, an aesthetic voyager and an escape artist par excellence, Marker, as it were, never belonged to a single place or time. Such an elusive yet enchanting perspective is what informs the central theme of his most renowned work: the science fiction short La Jetée (1962), the tragedy of a man simultaneously stuck and unstuck in time.

Part a playful tribute to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), part a serious study about the nature of cinema, La Jetée is composed entirely of still photographs. In the film, a man possessed by the image of a woman he saw in his childhood – now long dead – goes back in time to meet her, with full knowledge that he will lose her again. Marker’s spellbinding film literalizes the “double death” that haunts every photograph and which Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag would expound on decades later: the realization that a person in a photograph one is looking at is already dead and will be dead in some time after the photograph was taken, the dread that Eduardo Cadava called “memories of a mourning yet to come”. It realizes that the photographic image has neither a history nor a future and that it is the actuating force of cinema that provides it with both. The idea of such a malleability of memory and history – personal and collective – and an obsession with the enigmas of space and time motivates another of Marker’s hypnotic films: the sprawling, shape-shifting Sans Soleil (1983).

A masterwork of the free-associative essay form, Sans Soleil endlessly tosses one idea against another, examining the way we restructure personal and collective memory and construct our identity – as an individual and as a society. The film is riddled with questions relating to the differences in human experience that a geographical and temporal dislocation brings. Why is it that one is alive here and now? What if one was born in a different place or in a different time? In one way or other, these concerns have pervaded nearly his entire filmography starting from the extremely witty, self-reflexive film diary Letters from Siberia (1957). Through the decades, Marker has proven himself to be a relentless chronicler and examiner of the visual media that surround and shape us. His films have probed, in various forms and to various degrees, the deepest tissues that connect us subconsciously to the moving images of cinema. And it is only befitting that we thank him, in true Markerian spirit, for all his discoveries we are yet to make.

 

(Originally published in The Hindu)

Interview: Girish Kasaravalli

[The following is an interview of Girish Kasaravalli I did for the latest issue of Projectorhead magazine. Talking in person to the director whose films I deeply admire was a rather revelatory experience in that it not only cleared me of many misconceptions about these works, but also exposed interesting differences between how a filmmaker conceives his films and how a viewer receives them. Heartfelt thanks to founders/editors Gautam and Anuj for giving me this opportunity]

 

Your films are rife with rituals, ceremonies and legitimization games. This is perhaps most apparent in Ghatashraddha (1979), your debut feature. What interested you in dealing with such conservative constructs?

Although they are present in the later films as well, rituals and ceremonies are central only to Ghatashraddha. I wouldn’t say I am interested in rituals or castes as such. I liked the scenario of Ghatashraddha, which is about this pair of people Yamunakka and Nani who are marginalized and outcast by this religious institution. She is a young woman who naturally feels the need for male companionship. Nani, otherwise rather sharp, finds it difficult to learn these scriptures. Both of them are ridiculed and outcast by the establishment.

Your direction of Meena Kuttappa in the film is highly stylized. It is not exaggerated, but it is not natural either. It is almost Bressonian. This kind of acting is not found elsewhere in your filmography.

Yes, we were familiar with Bresson’s cinema that time and Meena’s performance is similarly very stylized. It was a de-dramatization gesture. Much of our acting assumes that emotions are to be expressed. I wanted the emotions to be expressed not through the acting but the events of the story. Throughout the film, Yamunakka stays in a single register of suffering. Nani, on the other hand, undergoes a marked change. He realizes that he has to help Yamunakka. While he cannot do a whole lot, he does what his strength and age allows him to. That is why, his performance, along with other characters, is more naturalistic. Even the lead performance in Thayi Saheba (1997) is stylized the same way.

 

(Full interview at Projectorhead)

Mani Kaul

An enormous void has been created in world cinema landscape with the passing of Mani Kaul, one of the greatest Indian filmmakers. The least we could do is to cherish his works, spread the word and discuss about them and keep his grand legacy alive.

Here are some writings by and interviews of Mani Kaul. A heartfelt thank you to everyone who helped bring these pieces on to the internet.

Writings

Interviews

— Mysskin’s cinema is physical. The fight scenes in his films occupy the extreme ends of a spectrum. They are either divided into the simplest of images – where the cause and effect of an action occupy different shots and we rarely see two bodies in interaction – or are presented in their entirely, prioritizing spatial continuity over fragmentation and highlighting corporeality of an action over its meaning. The frames are chopped; characters’ heads cut off. In his world of action, hands and feet are all that matter. (Severing body parts is not an unusual act in this universe). People don’t have time for patient phone calls. They keep running, falling and scuffling. So does the camera, which crouches when they crouch, which lurches when they lurch, which sits back when they sit and which trembles from afar when they do. Mysskin is impatient with two shots and his restless, gently swaying camera converts these expository moments into a survey of the set, a documentation of an ensemble performance.

— These films are tightly plotted, very convoluted affairs; their solution always at an arm’s length. Instead of the clutter clearing up, it keeps growing knottier and knottier until cutting through is the only way out. These resolutions, themselves, come across as cathartic experiences. Characters barely know the trajectories of others and how they interfere with their own. Like mice in a maze, they keep holding on to their version of truth until they get the view from above. It is this partial concealment/ignorance of information through which the movies attain tragic proportions. Mysskin’s men make grave choices and often the wrong one. They try to vindicate themselves, only to hurt themselves over and over and descend deeper into guilt that is predicated on an equivalence that recognizes one’s own condition in another. They suffer, and come out as better men. Their redemption is possible because they suffer. Mysskin’s pictures, likewise, are at their best when under generic constraints. Mysskin is at his most liberated when tethered.

— The men and women in these films find themselves in similar situations time and time again.  Despite all their actions and choices, they seem to come back to where they started from. It is of little surprise that much of the acting in these movies consists of repeated gestures and words. Be it pacing up and down a hall, where we see them oscillating about like a human pendulum, or fighting a gang of armed men, each of whom comes forward individually – like ascending notes in a motif – for a showdown, invoking comparison to both the martial arts and dance choreography. Likewise, we see them getting stuck in language loops – repeated words and phrases – until they attain a rhythm that reveals more than the words themselves do. This inclination for repetition informs Mysskin’s aesthetic as well, with some loopy, shrill, Bernard Herrmann-esque score (at least one of his lead men recalls Scottie Ferguson) and a number of repeating compositions.

— Mysskin is one of the few filmmakers in the country who can take melodrama head on without falling back. He is not a minimalist trying to sap out the excess from it, but a director working on a grand canvas, blowing up the form. Much like John Ford, with whom he shares an affinity for the sky and the heroes who adorn it, Mysskin uses music to enrich the gravity of a situation than substituting for it, to multiply emotions rather than adding them; instinctive rather than instructive, expressionistic rather than expressive. Mysskin earns his violins. At times, the deployment is incongruous (and prescient) with what we are seeing, but, in retrospect, is overwhelming. Like Ford, he has this uncanny ability to elevate commonplace gestures and glances to mythical levels. A Western by Mysskin wouldn’t really be a surprise, given how his own filmmaking instincts and themes derive from Westerns, by way of Samurai movies: codes of honor, responsibility towards one’s men.

— Although God is never quite absent from the films’ worlds, His silence becomes too threatening. There is a myriad of God’s eye compositions that seem to witness all sorts of activities with equanimity, without judgment. It is perhaps the worlds themselves that have fallen and it is probably up to the people who live in it to sort it all out. Mysskin’s camera that keeps descending from the sky onto the ground, then, signals a universe where man has to take up the responsibility of God, in His silence. This goes well along with Mysskin’s deep-rooted distrust of institutionalized justice and his muddled yet ultimately silly plea for vigilantism. (He is much more comfortable and intriguing when dealing with metaphysical ideas than sociopolitical particulars). The men in his films never seem to be able to fit into rigid establishments and find law and justice to be concepts often diverging from each other.

 

(Filmography: Chithiram Pesuthadi (2006), Anjathey (2008), Nandhalala (2010), Yuddham Sei (2011))

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