Review


[From my column on studio-era Hollywood films for Firstpost]

“For a film that was made at a time when the wider public was wary of bankers and fat cats in general, Gold Diggers shows no resentment against the institutional power that Brad stands for. All anxiety about the Depression dissolves into a lukewarm comedy involving bumbling billionaires, shrewd showgirls and a cloying true romance. The film confirms Lawrence’s perception of showgirls as gold diggers all the way till the end, when their machinations are justified by profession of love. For the girls, on the other hand, the rich men represent a ticket out of the poverty permeating their lives. Like Hopkins’ show, Gold Diggers monetizes the Great Depression, but it offers hope and cheerfulness as the guiding response to economic problems. Like other contemporary backstage musicals, Gold Diggers is about people in need helping each other out. In its narrative of creative folks coming together to produce something beautiful amidst gloom and hardship, the films functions as an expression of the optimism that characterized the New Deal era.

The narrative, though, is little more than an excuse for Gold Diggers to chain together its main draws: the four musical sequences directed by legendary choreographer Busby Berkeley. Trained as a military choreographer, Berkeley had an unmistakeable style that directly or indirectly influenced scores of choreographer-filmmakers across the world, including Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Ashutosh Gowariker and Prabhu Deva. His orchestra of human bodies often involves an army of young men and women marshalled into striking geometric or organic patterns, supported by disproportionate, flamboyant props and stage design. Individual performers in these pieces are subsumed into a larger scheme made of repeating motifs, captured by a gliding, craning camera, which regularly pulls back or hovers above to record these formations.”

 

[Full article at Firstpost]

[From my column on studio-era Hollywood films for Firstpost]

“While the transition to sentimentalism can seem jarring for viewers used to tight film noir narratives of the era, Cloak and Dagger deems it important and just to give Gina this passage of peace and warmth before the spy film resumes with all its violence and mayhem. For Lang’s film is first and foremost a fable about the loss of innocence—a theme that preoccupied the filmmaker throughout his working life. In 1945, the year before the film’s production, the Nazi concentration camps were discovered, shaking western civilization’s deep-rooted faith in progress. It was also the year atomic bombs were dropped in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, catapulting humanity into an age of fear and uncertainty.

One of the first Hollywood films to deal with the moral and existential repercussions of the nuclear era, Cloak and Dagger evokes the disillusionment of a civilization with the stories it has been telling about itself. The film was written by Albert Maltz and Ring Lardner Jr., screenwriters blacklisted in 1947 as part of Hollywood’s anti-communist drive, and Jesper’s opening speech spells out their pacifist dispositions. In an interview years later with Peter Bogdanovich, Lang revealed that the film’s original ending had Jesper discover an abandoned concentration camp with several thousand deceased inmates who had been forced to work on the bomb. This conclusion, with its suggestion that the real danger had only begun, was too strong for producer Milton Sperling, who instead ended the film triumphantly with Jesper returning to America with Polda.

Jesper, too, experiences this loss of innocence in a stylized-yet-austere scene set in an apartment foyer, where he’s forced to fight a henchman tailing Polda. It’s an unsettling, very physical sequence of hand-to-hand combat in which the henchman digs his nails into his rival’s eyes while Jesper, with Gina’s help, strangles the man to death. That this peace-loving scientist of lofty ideals could suffocate a man with his bare hands is the kind of dark irony Lang was adept at driving home. A master of mixing tonalities, Lang amplifies the brutality of the sequence by cutting it with sweet accordion music playing in the streets. As the dead man lies on the floor, a ball comes bouncing towards him from the staircase—a quintessential Lang image of corrupted innocence that harks back to his German-language masterpiece M (1931).

 

[Full article at Firstpost]

[From my column on studio-era Hollywood films for Firstpost]

“Sirk and screenwriter Peg Senwick caricature the country club as a nosy, disingenuous, gossip-mongering and casually spiteful group. When Cary brings Ron to the club for the first time, in order for him to be accepted by the town, the club members treat him like an alien species and call him names: “nature boy”, “earthy type”. This exoticism, of course, derives from the perceived sexual promiscuity of coloured folk—a subtext that German filmmaker (and Sirk’s protégé) Rainer Fassbinder will make explicit in his remake of the film, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974)¸ in which the tanned Ron is replaced by a black man, an immigrant and Muslim to boot. On the other hand, the gathering of friends in the woods that Ron takes Cary to is a natural community, spontaneous in their joy and genuine in their affection. The first-name based intimacy of this group, consisting of rugged immigrants and other lively underclass specimen, is in direct opposition to the suffocative banality of the small talk at the country club, with its stiff formality and fake decency.

The two contrasting communities are an opportunity for Sirk—better placed as an outsider to do so—to bring two specific visions of America in dialectical opposition. Ron and his friends are spiritual inheritors of the 19th century transcendentalist movement, which advocated a life of solitude and self-sufficiency in harmony with nature, away from the corrupting influence of civilization. Cary and her town are, on the contrary, contemporary products of 20th century America. Sirk’s film was made during what is known as the Boomer era, a period of American post-war prosperity, accelerated consumerism and cultural conservatism. One of the defining phenomena of the period was the “white flight”: a large-scale migration of white people from the mixed-race urban zones to newly-developed suburban settlements. The war now over, once-employed women found themselves at home and away from entertainment options in the city, leading to an exponential increase in the sale of television sets across the country. When her son gifts her a television set as a cure to her loneliness, Cary is filmed as a reflection on the television screen, trapped by it.”

 

[Full article at Firstpost]

 

Jallikattu, the South Indian bull-taming sport, both lends its name to and serves as a metaphor for Lijo Jose Pellissery’s new film, which premiered in Toronto last month. Like the sport, which is not just an opportunity for young men to showcase their bravery and machismo, but also a yearly excuse for dominant castes to flag their importance, Jallikattu is about an animal that becomes a pretext for men to give expression to their aggression, resentment and anxiety. The film opens with a volley of shots lasting one second each—a metronomic editing pattern that will recur several times throughout the film—of yellow-lit faces opening their eyes to the dawn of a new day. Scored to the sound of percussions interspersed with vaguely primal choral utterings, the sequence weaves in shots of ants and worms in movement, in effect situating humans and nature on the same order of things. This rate of 60 shots per minute already puts us on our toes, but the intensity will unwaveringly increase without breather or detour until the nightmarish, all-consuming climax.

This mosaic-like scheme carries over to the first post-credits sequence as well. In a series of extremely brief shots cut to a monotonic rhythm, we see the routine of a tiny town in Kerala on a Sunday morning: a buffalo slaughtered before sunup, the meat sold to thronging crowds and delivered home by Antony (Antony Varghese), a mass at the church, an instance of domestic violence, another of uninvited romantic advance. There is some dialogue, but no central narrative movement except for the general description of the community with a few simmering tensions. It’s only when the film comes out of this pulsating rhythm that the narrative is set in motion. One particularly recalcitrant buffalo escapes slaughter and goes rogue, prompting men from the village and its surroundings to go after it. That’s it. The entire film is the increasingly violent hunt for the animal and its ugly repercussions.

The animal is presented at first as a force of proto-political anarchy that doesn’t see human constructs like fences, religion, private property and political parties. In a parody of communist revolution, it destroys plantations, shuts down businesses and galvanizes the villagers into a collective united in purpose. In a film without guiding perspectives or characters in the conventional sense, the buffalo serves as the absent centre that centripetally holds the separate points of view, presented here as fleeting vignettes. The existential reaction of an animal trying to evade death—a revolt of the Other, in the film’s cosmic view of things—binds the community in a common fear of the Other. But the buffalo turns out to be simply a catalyst that triggers the unstoppable combustion of the village. Long-repressed resentments, sexual jealousy and communal fault lines emerge, which find a violent expression in the course of the hunt.

As the animal flees from the deserted streets of the town into the jungle, the community too splinters into unruly mobs and regresses from civilization (like in Yojimbo, the gun-toting hunter proves to be less effective than the one with the machete). Like the animal, they stop respecting private property and enter other people’s houses. They catch an adulterer and humiliate him. Civility, law and order breaks down and the hunters—all men without exception—torch police vehicles and beat a cop up. Antony enters the house of the woman he desires and forces himself on her. Like in the Jallikattu sport, mob courage masks individual cowardliness, which resurfaces every time the animal charges at the men to disperse them into individuals. By now wandering the jungle harmless, the animal nevertheless becomes an issue of collective and individual male egos, leading to a bloody dogfight between Antony and his sexual rival, who charge at each other like raging bulls.

Progressively removed from naturalism and a sense of reality, the film escapes into pure abstraction after Antony stabs his opponent and runs out of the woods into a meadow. The discrete mobs meld into a fascist collective to pursue Antony. In the oneiric, painterly, Lars von Trier-like end sequence, an inexhaustible mass of possessed men jumps on Antony, continuously piling on top of him until they make up a single mountain of men, the formation covered in sludge, with Antony trying in vain to emerge out of it as an individual. In a brief, possibly redundant coda, the scene shifts to a cave where bare-chested men fight with torches over the carcass of a dead animal. If it’s startling enough to see a supremely tight, 90-minute film getting a mainstream distribution, the stylized final passage of the film—beyond the question of its merit—is a veritable miracle to have graced the screens.

The simplified, whirlwind tour of social ideologies that Jallikattu drives us through—capitalism, communism, anarchism, fascism, what have you—may not be for everyone’s liking, but it shouldn’t be the case with Pellissery’s exceptional sense of image making. Composing in deep space with direct sound, he has precise visual ideas for the film, which progresses from full field of daylight to reduced visibility of the night lit by flashlights and torches. The progression also corresponds to a shift from slender tracking shots through the village streets, relaying perspective from one character to another, to shots handling increasing amounts of humans in frenetic motion. The latter half of the film, with barely-lit animal and human bodies hurtling across the frame at high speed, push the image into the edge of perceptibility where, like in a Willem de Kooning painting, we notice the essential elements of form, but not the exact details. The sound mix, consisting of human cacophony in escalation, is equally a work of sonic abstract expressionism.

Pellissery hardly uses a closeup in the hunt, wide shots of men scouring the landscape being the norm. Characters insult one another, but there’s never a tight shot to capture reaction. Images of hundreds of men bearing torches descending the slope have a pointillist decorativeness. But for the most part, the emphasis is on depth of the frame. A large part of the movement in Jallikattu takes place along the Z-axis. Like Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, Pellissery’s fractured narrative uses a video game aesthetic where the Steadicam follows or leads character into and out of the frame—a pattern echoed in the numerous zooms in and out of tangential information on screen (a branch of a tree, insects, a sunset). These opposed movements are also characteristic of the men’s movement with respect to the animal: they rush towards it when it’s running away and fall away as it retaliates. In a mini set-piece within the larger set-piece that is the film itself, the hunters try to rescue the buffalo, now stuck in a pit, with a makeshift pulley system. Just before the animal lands on safe ground, Pellissery cuts away to secondary detail, returning only to capture the aftermath of the animal’s resumed rampage. It’s a striking example of how deliberate the film’s stylistic choices are. John Abraham invested masses of human bodies with meaning. Pellissery dissolves them in chaos.

[Possible spoilers ahead]

With his debut film, Maanagaram, writer-director Lokesh Kanagaraj staked his claim as an adept craftsman, but also showed the promise of a vision at work. In the film’s complex narrative tapestry, several outsider characters influence each other’s lives in anonymity, collectively enacting the mechanisms of the metropolis, here a visually denuded Chennai. At work was the kind of untouched idealism typical of debut works. His sophomore film, Kaithi (“prisoner”), while not without echoes of the talent that made Maanagaram, inducts the filmmaker into the commercial cynicism of the industry and assures him the passage to bigger, dumber projects.

Bejoy (Naren) heads a special unit of the police that has just seized a massive consignment of heroin. He stocks the captured cargo in the secret basement of the police commissioner’s office. A corrupt cop in the forensic department passes this information to the drug lord, who not only wants the payload back, but also the heads of the five cops who seized it. Bejoy meanwhile is at the Inspector General’s office eighty kilometres away for the IG’s big retirement bash. The drug lord manages to spike the alcohol at the gathering, causing every officer except Bejoy to collapse into a fit. Bejoy, with his fractured right hand, finds himself with forty dying officers and no one to help him transport them to the hospital. No one except Dilli (Karthi), a just-released lifer who was picked up on a whim by an officer before the party. Bejoy threatens Dilli into driving the truckload of unconscious cops to a hospital and then to the commissioner’s office, which is deserted except for Napoleon (George Maryan), a low-level cop who just reported for duty, and a group of college students retained for a petty crime.

This premise soon resolves into two discrete narrative threads that Kangaraj shuttles between, much like in his first film. In the first, Dilli and Bejoy drive in a lorry to the commissioner’s office while the drug cartel attempts to intercept the vehicle and kill the unconscious cops on it. In the second, a horde of the cartel’s henchmen tries to break into the commissioner’s office, as Napoleon and the students seal the premises. And there are minor interludes weaving in and out of these two threads: Dilli’s estranged daughter who tries to call him from an orphanage, the drug lords tracking the lorry through a mole hiding in it and the corrupt cop seeking to sniff out a police mole in the drug cartel. These five threads are connected within the film through phone calls of nearly every possible permutation, with each party informing, instructing, encouraging, each other and influencing each other’s spaces via telephone.

Like Maanagaram, Kaithi unfolds over a single night; in the first shot, the camera glides down from a clockface showing 8pm. Kanagaraj is so committed to the concept, which for him is as much a visual device, that he advances an event that should logically take place the following morning: Dilli meets his daughter, rather implausibly, right after a climactic bloodbath, in the darkness amid flashing red-blue lights of the police sirens. The camera work is similarly muscular, following characters from up close; there’s a nice, long shot of Karthi walking in his typically relaxed fashion, with the camera accompanying him as he walks from the lorry, traverses the poolside and goes to the buffet table. The visual texture, dominated by the yellow of headlights and streetlamps, is rather familiar, the dialogue is downright poor, and it’s in the delirious crosscutting that the film generates its entire thrill. Kanagaraj obviously loves to cut between sequences, so much so that he nests one parallel editing scheme within another: Napoleon’s defence manoeuvres inside the building are spliced with the students’ measures to seal entry points and the frenetic attempts of the gang trying to break in—a pattern that is itself couched within the larger, five-thread cycle.

Gripping as it is by its sheer mechanical force, does the parallel editing really work as it did so well in Maanagaram? It doesn’t, and for a number of reasons. Firstly, because the major narrative thread is dramatically flat. Dilli’s road trip with Bejoy is thwarted thrice by gangs trying to kill them. The excitement of this conflict vanishes right in the first instance, where Dilli is revealed to be a superhero capable to bringing down scores of men without trouble. Given this aspect, it is evident that the lorry will reach its destination against all odds. The fight scenes are confusingly edited to the point that we are unclear about what’s happening: a CG-shot cutting through three vehicles one behind the other sets up the peak moment of a fight, but what exactly follows is confusing in its spatial relations. A while later, the lorry is trapped on the hilltop with the henchmen surrounding the hill at the bottom (intertwined with the gang at the commissioner’s premise trying to get to the jail on top of the building). Dilli works out an escape, but again, it’s not clear what exactly he accomplishes.

Secondly, because the timelines are incompatible. Dilli’s transit takes a much longer time, especially with all the battles on way, than what Napoleon and the students have to defend the commissioner’s office. This long transit, as a result, dilutes the tight action of the second thread, which comes across as improbably protracted. Finally, because Kanagaraj diffuses the tension just as it hits a crescendo with a quiet passage: as the commissioner’s office is on the verge of recapitulation, we cut to Dilli reminiscing in a long, close-up about his past. It’s an unconvincing back story shoehorned to provide a showcase to Karthi’s acting prowess and to soften the hero. To be sure, it could’ve had no place earlier in the film, dedicated as the narrative is to cultivating a mystique to Dilli, but at this late point in the film, it stops the action dead in its tracks.

When the threads actually merge, one wishes they hadn’t. For, after Dilli reaches the commissioner’s office to save Napoleon and the students, the film devolves fully into a fascist aesthetic. Dilli uses a machine gun to take down the invading horde of drug traders (shorthand, of course, for anyone who is anti-cop, anti-law and order), who now fall like flies just like the poisoned cops of the opening passage. Shot with a borrowed seductiveness of flashing barrels and bullets falling down in slow-motion, the sequence is narratively, visually and conceptually gratuitous. It’s also cynical, as is the film’s tacked-on coda making claims for a sequel, because it gives in to a crowd-pleasing formula, pandering to a desire for violence and reserving berth for Kanagaraj’s transition to high budget moviemaking (he’s already roped in for the next Vijay vehicle).

There are, on the other hand, remnants of the imagination that made Maanagaram a success: the fairly tight narration without songs or flashbacks, drone shots of the lorry cruising the highway, the idea of a convict driving a truckload of switched-off cops, shots of the gangsters with white flashlights in the dark, a fight sequence in the commissioner’s office with papers on the floor cut to an intoxicating Ilayaraja number. The ironic beats are also present in the story elements. The police have collectively failed, corrupt or knocked out as they are after a night of revelry, and the only active cop is manipulative and virtually castrated. The brunt of their negligence falls on the innocent. The day is saved by a convict on the first day of his release and a constable before his first duty day.

Karthi, an intelligent actor who usually manages to convey a rich inner life beyond the script, is costumed like a religious man: a beard, a talisman on his ankle, holy ash on his forehead, a plain brown shirt, a lungi in which he conceals a smartphone, but also an iconic handcuff hanging from his right ankle. He eats and fights like a man possessed. After he’s finished his bucket-load of rice, he looks up and taps his thigh a couple of times before washing his hand in a pool. Karthi’s lazy gait and drawl projects a man who’s in control of the situation, but except for his two sentimental closeups, the actor doesn’t really seem committed to the role. Just look at him pretending to pour alcohol on the stab would on his back. Unlike Maanagaram, Kaithi is a closed film, satisfied with the pleasures of the genre. The plot revolves around drugs, a purely cinematic social issue of no real bearing—a choice indicative not as much as of a lack of seriousness as of the filmmaker’s sights on the big time.

The first half of Happy as Lazzaro, like Alice Rohrwacher’s previous work The Wonders, offers itself as a portrait of a community. The film opens at night time in the imaginary village of Inviolata. A group of men are serenading a young lady, but we see the scene from the point of view of the women in the balcony. There are about half a dozen of them of varying ages in the room—The Wonders prepares us to assume they are blood sisters. As the young man is asked into the house, we realize that this social ritual is a rite of passage for men and women alike. The women of the house offer drinks and snacks to the male visitors, sealing the relationship. Lit by a sole incandescent bulb, the scene is filmed like a home video and is chock-a-block with incident: grandma carried to her designated seat, a wine glass passed from hand to hand, a sleeping baby, an unexpected visit by a chicken. The specificity of these details makes it clear that they derive from Rohrwacher’s own memory, as is also evident a while later when a character from the city gives children candy after a tap on their forehead.

Inviolata, as the name suggests, is a commune untouched by time, geographically cut off as it was from the rest of the country following a flood in the seventies. There’s hardly any electricity, only a handful of light bulbs, no media and no technology save for one transport vehicle. The fifty-odd people of the village aren’t divided into families; they form a single social unit. They share accommodation and marry within themselves. Lording over them is the family of the marquise de Luna (Nicoletta Braschi), a tobacco baron who keeps Inviolata in the dark about the progress outside the commune. The villagers work as sharecroppers—a practice outlawed in Italy in the seventies—indebted to the marquise, who believes that exploitation is the way of the world. It’s not just the physical isolation of Inviolata sequestering the villagers; their fear and lack of curiosity turns them into sheep fenced in by legends and superstitions. Rohrwacher interweaves the oppression of the villagers with the barren landscape they inhabit, the juxtaposition producing metaphysical connotations about slavery.

One of the sheep in Inviolata’s womb is Lazzaro (Adriano Tardiolo), a cherub-faced, slack-armed, wide-eyed emblem of Doomed Innocence who is, in turn, exploited by the exploited villagers. Lazzaro is given the short shrift right from the first scene, where he’s the only one to get no drink and is sent out to guard the sheep while others celebrate. He is the village donkey, burdened with all chores, petty and heavy, of the villagers. Bullied by even babies, Lazzaro is at the very end of the oppression chain, abused by both the villagers and the young marquis, who manipulates him into a brotherly relationship as part of a kidnap ploy to extract money from his mother. Despite the string of disappointments that he faces, Lazzaro doesn’t show any emotion. He is, in fact, not human, floats as he does as a pure symbol amidst the physical reality of the film. At the midpoint, state authorities finally discover Inviolata and bring the villagers back to contemporary civilization. Lazzaro, as usual, is left out and remains in the deserted village for twenty years.

Part of the reason Happy as Lazzaro sustains interest is this intrusion of the fantastical into the realist tapestry of the film. In its first half, Rohrwacher’s film depicts the hardships of country life at what appears to be the turn of the nineteenth century in the vein of Olmi or Bertolucci. To be sure, there are anachronistic elements like the motor vehicles, but there’s no sense initially that the film is working against reality. We see the villagers at work, harvesting tobacco, tilling the fields and threshing hay. Their strongly Mediterranean faces, combined with the dazzling colour and light quality of 16mm film, recalls Pasolini, adding to the film’s lived-in aspect. But the magic-realist elements at the periphery—the rain of hay, Lazzaro’s catatonic spells—soon come to the fore, taking over the film once the villagers are rehabilitated. In the second half, when Antonia (a splendid Alba Rohrwacher) discovers that Lazzaro hasn’t aged a day unlike herself and the other villagers, she kneels in prayer to Lazzaro. Rohrwacher recognizes the comedy, but doesn’t undermine the piety the scene evokes. In a lovely shot coupling the profane and the sacred, she films Antonia and Lazzaro through a sheet in the back of a truck, making their profiles seem straight out of a religious painting.

Religion, as the opiate of the oppressed, is also at the crosshair of the film’s criticism: the hypocritical marquise gives Sunday classes to the folks of Inviolata, who are elated at the sight of a religious sticker. Rohrwacher’s sights, though, are on contemporary politics as well. Detailing the feudal relationship between the marquise and the villagers—and the villagers and Lazzaro—allows her to transpose these relations onto comparable power equations under capitalism. The first thing Lazzaro notices when he enters the city is a scene of immigrant workers bidding to get a fruit-picking contract. Lazzaro is the ideal worker: he doesn’t eat, sleep, shit or feel pain. Most importantly, he doesn’t question things. He is consequently at the bottom of the pyramid in either system. Despite the necessary progress it brings, modernity produces its own form of violence that one can’t put a face to. Happy as Lazzaro is a mannered but polyvalent work, with plenty of interesting details that can’t be reduced to a single idea. I look forward to Rohrwacher’s future films.

We see a man waiting at the beach, looking towards the sea. He is dressed in a purple frock coat, wields a sword and sports a tricorn. His left arm posed on the sword and his left knee bent, the man strikes a dignified pose. He’s filmed in profile, with the horizon bisecting the frame, like in a respectable oil painting. What is he waiting for? A ship to take him home perhaps. We don’t know yet, but waiting is what Argentinian filmmaker Lucrecia Martel’s fever dream Zama is about. The man, Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho), is a small-time magistrate in a Spanish outpost in South America at the turn of the eighteenth century. He doesn’t have much to do in the village, except solve petty disputes between European-origin locals like himself and Indians, who have now come to terms with the new colonial order and its institutional violence. Zama longs to get back home to Argentina, where he claims to have a family. In order for that to happen, though, he needs his superior to write a letter to the Spanish throne.

Adapted from a novel by Antonio di Benedetto, Zama trains its attention on the less-explored intersection between the colonial project and sexual politics of the period. Zama is a single white man besieged by tropical malady and romantic frustration. It appears that process of his transfer back home could be expedited if he fathers a child. We learn this only later in the film, so Zama initially comes across as a loner looking to let off steam. He solicits the daughters of his landlord, a group of three white girls who turn down his advances, taking him instead to be their protector. He then warms up to the wife of the local treasury minister, Luciana (Lola Dueñas), whose mixed signals lead him down a dead end. He finally does produce a child, but with a native woman, which makes the case for his transfer weaker.

Zama is a man split between his European ancestry and his South-American birth—a fact that is brought up by Luciana and others to put him down. This anxiety of not being a “real” European translates initially in Zama into a fear of losing his racial purity. Just after the opening scene at the beach, he spies on a group of women bathing, covered in mud. At first, it’s not clear if they are white, black or native. When a black woman spots him and tries to nab him, he slaps her twice. There are also instances of the Europeans around him “going native”: a white doctor comes under the spell of a witch doctor and loses his moorings. There are legends about a ruthless European renegade, Vicuña Porto (Matheus Nachtergaele), who does unspeakable things to his captives à la Colonel Kurtz. On the other hand, as Zama’s professional situation grows bleaker, his romantic criteria become looser. He seeks only white women in the early part of the film, while his interest slowly shifts to mestizos and then to natives.

Zama details the disintegration of the pompous official of the first shot, looming large over the colonial landscape, into a hapless man at the mercy of natives. While he despairs about his transfer, which is always postponed for fickle reasons, Zama contracts the cholera spreading through the colonies. He loses his job, moves into a ramshackle hut where he’s taken care of by native women. He hallucinates, sees ghosts, his rational worldview now questioned, as was the case with the European tourist in Jan Zabeil’s The River used to be a Man. He does pull through, though, and the film jumps a couple of decades in time. Zama is now part of a mercenary outfit searching for Vicuña Porto. He’s grown a beard; his frock coat and tricorne are tarnished, but he blends better with the landscape than he did at the film’s opening. The search ends badly and concludes with Zama reduced to a shadow of his imperial self.

Martel treats this narrative obliquely, in a pronounced anti-realist style that allows for inexplicable incident to occupy the frame. As Zama and his peers are torturing a native into confessing a crime he didn’t do, the camera remains planted on the calm face of the white men. Later, when Zama is captured by a group of natives, there’s a frantic bit of editing that imparts a misleading feeling of danger. When he visits his landlord’s daughters, one of whom is raped by a subordinate who will also compete with Zama for Luciana’s attention, the ladies move about him like the Three Graces. A llama walks into the shot as Zama is discussing with his superior in his office. Martel imprisons Zama in nested frames and details of décor, and she accentuates the environmental aspects of scenes: the heat, barking dogs, buzzing insects, the clinking of distant bells that amplify Zama’s fever-induced perception of hopelessness. I’m not sure if all of Martel’s stylistic and narrative choices are successful, but there’s a sense that every shot and edit is thought over, giving Zama an artisanal quality comparable to Jauja.

[From my column on studio-era Hollywood films for Firstpost]

Our Daily Bread

“Vidor was a filmmaker with a strong visual sensibility—he was also a painter—and it shows even in this modest production. The film opens with a markedly diagonal shot of a staircase in an apartment complex—a diagonality that will reappear in the wipe transitions linking different scenes. This vertical urban space is contrasted later with the horizontal sprawl of the open fields, and the upward movement of the characters in the first scene with the downward movement of the water towards the viewer in the final shot. A champion of camera movement, Vidor constructs his scenes with gentle pans and tracking shots, as when the camera follows the couple into the house after they have expressed surprise at its condition. He often composes outdoor shots with the horizon near the top of the frame, and his low angles produce a sense of wonderment at nature’s bounty. A Christian Scientist, he binds men and nature in a religious aesthetic, with the farmers in the foreground facing the vast fields in the background, whose fruits they have to earn through the sweat of their brow.

Vidor was also a filmmaker with social-realist aspirations that didn’t go down well with the established studios. The Crowd dealt with the struggles of the average Joe and Jane within the alienating machinery of the city during a time of general economic prosperity. Hallelujah (1929) was a production with a mostly African-American cast intending to show Black life in the South. In an introduction to Our Daily Bread, filmed years later, Vidor explains that he proposed the idea for the film to MGM, who were encouraging but didn’t want take the risk. As a result, Vidor had to secure funding independently, mortgaging his house in the process. Produced by Vidor himself under the banner “Viking Productions” and distributed by United Artists with the help of Charlie Chaplin, Our Daily Bread was also one of the earliest films to comply to the production code of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), the effect of which shows in the film’s coy dialogue and sexual dynamics”

 

[Full article at Firstpost]

The sixth edition of the Urban Lens Film Festival, organised by the Indian Institute of Human Settlements, Bangalore, opened with the premiere of Lalit Vachani’s Recasting Selves. Revolving around the Centre for Research & Education for Social Transformation (CREST) in Calicut, the film is a respectful but not a celebratory description of the institute’s activities. With an aim to hone students from Dalit, Bahujan and Adivasi (DBA) background for jobs in the private sector, where there’s no affirmative action, CREST conducts five-month-long diploma courses for batches of thirty-odd students. Participants are trained in public speaking, presentation, group work, assertive body language, positive thinking and personality development. They learn the basics of corporate etiquette through engaging audiovisual support. The teachers are dedicated and nurturing, but don’t have illusions about the course. They acknowledge that it’s too limited an experience to be transformational. Recasting Selves, which follows the induction and graduation of one particular batch of students, is not a success story; yet some progress is made at the end: some students get placed, some become first graduates from their community, and some others go back to their traditional professions.

The film is a mix of talking-head interviews with the institute’s staff, vignettes from the classroom and scenes at students’ homes in villages far from Calicut. In the latter, we get a peek into the Aranadan community, to which one student belongs, their non-Vedic beliefs and their disappearing language. At the home of another, we have a conversation between the student, who wants to start a fashion boutique, and her tailor father, who advises her to take up a stable job. These exchanges are performed for the camera, which is a little discomfiting for the viewer as it is for the participants. Back in the classroom, during the presentation sessions, the handheld camera stands close to the students, sometimes making them freeze in fear. It redoubles their consciousness of being seen and heard, which is what is the course helps them overcome. On the other hand, the students are more articulate when the camera is on a tripod. They talk about their aspirations. They recount their personal experience of caste discrimination, or lack thereof, and present their opinion on reservation. All of this in English.

The batch is fairly divided between boys and girls. It’s a much better gender ratio, in any case, than at the IIM campus they visit for a workshop on public speaking: the sight of CREST girls in their colourful salwar kameez, moving as a mass into the IIM lecture halls implicitly questions the gender distribution at IIMs. Recasting Selves points out that, beyond their social identity, these students are also products of a pan-social generation. Not just in their entrepreneurial ambitions and ease with technology, but in their tendency to substitute questions of opportunity for questions of rights. In their desire to rise beyond politics and assimilate into the corporate workforce, they represent a paradigm shift within Kerala’s social politics. One Adivasi student, we are told, was actually a BJP candidate of his constituency, a choice that he explains in terms of exposure and personal progress. Politics, whose ubiquity Vachani captures in shots of party posters across towns, appears to have lost its hold on this generation, whose symbolic counterpart is the English-language coaching centre banners competing with the party posters.

There are traces of institutional critique as well. Vachani asks the head of CREST about the lack of DBA teachers in their campus. The director doesn’t see that as being an issue, while quickly promising to include “at least one Dalit faculty” soon. In an awkward moment of hand-wringing, a programme coordinator says he doesn’t think there’d be Dalit pedagogues willing to teach the social theatre that’s part of the curriculum. Likewise, a famous newspaper that recruits CREST students as interns discusses the under-representation of DBA groups in their newsroom—a concern that comes across as a PR talking point. These institutional blind spots call to mind an early scene in the film, where the CREST direction, apparently none of them from a DBA background, is choosing candidates based on representational quotas. The scene prompts the question of self-sustaining privilege in even socially-conscious academic and journalistic institutions, of who gets to say which groups are more vulnerable and need opportunities.

Running through the film is a tension between an assertion of the students’ caste identity and its suppression. The film was shot just weeks after Rohith Vemula’s suicide, and the discourse surrounding the event prompts students to confront their identities. They take cognizance of the invisible barriers they have come up against during their schooling. They recast their experience in terms of discrimination and envy. It is plain that Vemula’s suicide has instilled feelings of vulnerability. One of the boys points out that it could happen to any of them. At the same time, many students make it clear that they want to move on. Recasting Selves brings this dialectical line into sharp focus in the final sequence of the film. As part of their end project, students are required to mount a street play together. The choice of subject is between Vemula’s suicide and Bengali immigration to Kerala. Working with activist and theatre director Dakxin Bajrange, they research the two topics, make presentations and take a vote. The second topic wins by a significant margin. Asked why they don’t want to talk about Vemula, one of them says discussing caste isn’t going to fill their stomach. Another is just fed up of having to talk about discrimination all the time.

Going by their line of questioning, the CREST faculty are strongly in favour of the first subject. So is the film: when the students present the perceived ills of Bengali immigration—criminality, terrorism, job loss, lack of hygiene, language barriers—Vachani accelerates his editing to produce a feeling of dread that wasn’t present in the presentation on Vemula. It is evident that the film is underlining the intersectional nature of oppression, and the irony of the film crew and the non-DBA faculty wanting the students to engage with DBA identity politics isn’t lost on the film. Recasting Selves recognizes this as a double-bind in the discourse around caste. The students’ refusal to perform caste is located in a political landscape where communist consciousness has suppressed discussion about caste (one faculty member mentions that Kerala accounts for the fewest inter-caste marriages), itself couched within a climate of assertive identity politics.

In this light, their choice to speak about Bengali immigration scans as the other side of the coin: by deflecting the question of caste onto immigration, the students, it appears, are able to assume a broader Malayalee identity—a mainstreaming that the subject of Vemula’s suicide doesn’t afford them. It also speaks to their generational anxiety about vanishing opportunities within the fixed pie of neoliberal order. Vachani’s film demonstrates that this dilemma of the students is, moreover, the institute’s own. CREST intends students to work through their complexes by owning up to their roots. Their curriculum involves participants researching into the history of their communities. Outside their classroom, the boys and girls unite in folk ballads about feudal oppression. At the same time, the institute is forward looking; through its training in the theatre of social relations, it helps students be corporate-ready, to shed their caste identity and blend into the wider middle-class. Recasting Selves resumes this identity crisis in its the cut from the hardy face of an Aranadan woman at her village to a laptop screen in the classroom.

 

[An edited version was published in The Hindu]

Asuran

After two modest, moderately successful projects in Polladhavan and Aadukalam, it seemed to me that Vetrimaran truly hit his stride with his third feature, Visaranai (“Interrogation”), an unflinching look at police brutality whose intelligent structure stoked and then implicated the viewer’s apathy towards the issue. But delusion of precocious grandeur caught up with the filmmaker sooner than I expected, his next film, Vada Chennai (“North Chennai”), a hollow, self-styled epic mistaking scale for vision, straining for import at every turn. Vetrimaran’s new film Asuran (“Demon”) assures us that Vada Chennai wasn’t a stray blip, but a sign of things to come. A mediocre work in terms of not just artistic merit, but even basic technical competence, it continues the rapid plunge of a director who was briefly the white hope of Tamil cinema.

Vetrimaran’s second literary adaptation after Visaranai, Asuran begins in medias res, with Sivasami (Dhanush, in his fourth collaboration with the filmmaker) and his son Chidambaram (Ken) making their way through a water body. They have murdered a VIP from the village and are being pursued by the dead man’s family. As they pause at a hilltop, a narrator (the director himself) takes us into the reasons for their flight. Sivasami’s three acres were being eyed by the upper-caste family owning most of the land in the area, and this led to a series of confrontations between Sivasami’s hot-blooded son Murugan (Teejay) and the landed family, resulting the murder that triggered Sivasami’s flight. A large part of the “present” traces Sivasami and his son walking day and night, traversing the lawless terrain of the countryside in the hope of getting to the nearest city, where they have a hope of surrendering themselves to the law.

Like Vada Chennai, the nested structure of Asuran seeks to dig beneath present-day conflicts to reveal the deep-rooted nature of oppression. In another flashback on their flight, Sivasami details his tragic past: his job as a toddy-maker with an upper-caste baron in another village, his romance with his sister’s daughter, the organized struggle of his brother towards getting back lands their community lost to the baron, Sivasami’s own political awakening following his boss’s betrayal, the escalation of violence succeeding a volley of public humiliations, ending in a bloodbath modelled on the Keezhvenmani massacre. In the present, Dhanush plays a character well above his age: a timid middle-aged drunk with a curved spine, a ridiculous patch of white hair, a loose shirt, a soiled veshti hovering above the ankle and a Palakkad towel on his shoulder. It’s a character that’s emasculated to prepare us for the Sivasami’s heroics in the past: the sight of Dhanush’s young, thin frame taking down scores of thugs, always punching above its weight.

These passages of poetic justice are also what vitiate the film. Every time the narrative pries open the question of structural violence, Vetrimaran sublimates it in the macho spectacle of Sivasami dishing it to his oppressors. In a film full of institutions failed and functional, it’s only the agency of brute person-on-person violence that’s given any real weight. And how? Vetrimaran depicts all acts of lynching, humiliation and aggression in full detail, allowing the audience to partake in it, while at the same time using these scenes to drum up sentiments in favour of Sivasami’s retribution. For a filmmaker who was so clear-eyed about audience participation in Visaranai, he treats the viewer like a Pavlovian dog, introducing an exhausting trumpet theme to whip up emotion every time Sivasami moves in shallow-focus, slow motion to take down a gang in a bloody skirmish.

The first part of the film (the “present”) contrasts Sivasami’s non-violence with his son Murugan’s machismo, a trait that the younger Chidambaram inherits a while later. Chidambaram (and his mother played by Manju Warrier) belittle Sivasami’s submissive impotence, permitting film to restore his masculinity through a triumphalist assertion of Sivasami’s bravery through his violence. This presentation of Sivasami as a supremely macho, courageous man also allows the film to seal his lineage, Murugan’s and Chidambaram’s sense of honour being only a bequest of the respectable patriarch. Following the bloodshed of Sivasami’s youth, the narrator notes in all sincerity that Chidambaram understands now that his father isn’t useless. This demagogical bent of the film isn’t part of some legend-building exercise, for Sivasami’s political consciousness vanishes as quickly as it came. At one point, the wise, old Sivasami tells his son that acting on impulse is what led to his family—a patently untrue claim that falsifies the bigger battle his brother was fighting. At the end, he gives a hollow-sounding sermon about education (!) as the sustainable solution to their oppression.

But Vetrimaran’s focus, justifiably, is not on the politics but the spectacle. The entire thrust of the story is not on whether Sivasami will get justice, but on whether he and his son will get caught in their flight. And the director uses several devices at his disposal to bludgeon us into revulsion: a lynching that’s staged the same way a boar hunt earlier was, a public humiliation around a pair of slippers (a symbol of self-respect of the oppressed akin to the towel around Sivasami’s forehead) photographed and edited sensationally, the extended, CGI-enabled sight of a rotting, decapitated corpse. The tactic was the same in Visaranai, but the sadism there was integral to what the film sought to do. Moreover, the dubbed sound of Asuran is significantly out of sync with the image, which lets us suppose that that major rewrites were involved post-shoot or that last-minute self-censorship was called for. In any case, it suggests that Vetrimaran’s daring stems wholly from the script and, when that’s compromised, the filmmaking is too.

Of course, Vetrimaran is not a hack, and there are aspects that come through. He composes almost the entire film in wide shots, sometimes extremely long shots à la Mysskin that turns characters into mice in a maze. His eye for landscape is still intact: Sivasami and Chidambaram sneaking through marshes, shrublands, rocky fields and plantations like in a studio Western gives an existential counterpoint to the father-son relationship, which is one of the film’s focal points. He also emphasizes the difference between the well-lit, geometric streets of the upper-caste main village and the irregular, moonlit pathways of the theru, the kutcha settlement of Sivasami’s community. And it’s commendable that he resists the temptation to DI-enhance the dull colours of the landscape, which here simply exists.

On the other hand, there’s a markedly rushed quality to the shot and sequence composition bordering on embarrassing (at least two shots with the .ari file name on them visible!). The edits are constantly confusing and one particularly egregious scene of a Panchayat meeting cycles through scores of shots of random perspectives just in order to dramatize the proceedings. Sivasami’s past proceeds at a breakneck speed to show betrayal and revenge even before the initial dynamics are settled—clearly an afterthought to reduce runtime. Vetrimaran arm-twists Sivasami’s relationship with his elder son into a sympathetic register through a set of rather outmoded choices. The distance offered by his wide-angle, long-shot composition—with actors moving about the space like on stage—collapses when he is dealing with scenes of violence, which simply advances on auto-pilot. The sound-mix, likewise, is overly detailed with redundant information even when the shots allow the actors to breathe. A dire undertaking that continuously short-changes both its viewers and subject matter.

Joker

(Possible spoilers ahead)

You were never really here is what the Joker thinks the world is telling him. It is also the title of the film I was most reminded of watching Joker, nevertheless reminiscent of several other works whose influence it carries lightly. In Lynne Ramsay’s 2017 thriller, Joaquin Phoenix played Joe, a traumatized war vet living in a New York apartment with his eccentric mother. In trying to clean up the rotten system ruling the city, Joe also struggled against an inheritance of malady, a violent disposition that might already be running through his veins. Explicitly channelling Taxi Driver, Ramsay’s film was a meditation on violence and masculinity that offered a critical distance to events Scorsese’s film denied. Both Joaquin Phoenix and Robert De Niro feature in Todd Philips’ new film, but masculinity is hardly the pressing question here, for Joker is the story of a subjectivity reduced to dust.

When we first see Arthur Fleck alias Happy alias Joker, he’s in front of a mirror putting on clown makeup. He’ll be in front of mirrors two more times in the film, but he’ll look at his own image on the newspaper and television all through. There’s a split between Arthur’s external and internal selves that Philips and Phoenix emphasize through a range of formal choices. Arthur is a social outcast, and in the opening passages of Joker, he alternatingly comes across as a threat and a victim. The melodramatic scenes depict him being ridiculed and bullied, while his interactions with decent people forebode an outward aggression. Moreover, Arthur has a medical condition—he laughs uncontrollably in stressful situations—which makes those around him suspect he’s being funny, even though he’s feeling the opposite in reality. Arthur’s behaviour belies the conventional equation of laughter with comfort and control. And Phoenix does a phenomenal job of embodying this duality.

This split perspective of Arthur as a comic and a tragic figure suspends the viewer in an uneasy relation with the character. Scenes of Arthur’s debasement prompt us to sympathize with him and expect retribution, but it’s far from liberating when he does get back at his tormentors. Part of the reason for this is that Philips and co-writer Scott Silver remove the character from the mythos of the comic world and plant him within a realistic discourse around mental health. Arthur is admittedly deranged and acts of vengeance aren’t gratifying or cool; for the most part, they are untimely and disproportionate. Philips, in fact, distances his revenge from any sense of poetic justice. The first time Arthur hits back is in a subway where three Wall Street types are beating him wild. Arthur kills them with the gun he’s carrying, but Philips composes the sequence as though it were an accidental happening. The first bullet goes off during a scuffle under flickering light and Phoenix plays the scene like a survival attempt.

Arthur tries uneasily to comply to social codes, but he’s always laughing at the wrong lines. His internal life, on the other hand, is tenuously held together by a handful of relations: his self-deluding mother living in the past, the man she says is his father, the woman next door he grows close to and De Niro’s comic talk show host Murray Franklin whom he takes to be a father figure. When these relations are proven to be lies one by one, Arthur’s inner life collapses and he becomes a purely external being, a public image without connotation. Joker traces in these disappearing connections to the reality the seeds of the character’s nihilism. With all narratives about himself falsified, Arthur becomes a being without history or future, and the universe emptied of import. The money-burning, neutral chaos that the Joker stands for corresponds to a loss of internal signification. The anarchy he witnesses at the end of the film, consequently, is a pure spectacle without meaning.

When asked about his motivations, the Joker maintains that he’s apolitical and that he has nothing to do with the anti-rich movement his subway murders have initiated all over Gotham city. It’s the world around him that ascribes a political meaning to his actions. To be sure, the Gotham city of Joker is not a morally neutral space. The garbage flooding the town is as much moral as physical—a detail that is established in the first scene in which a teenage gang harasses and beats up a hapless Arthur. The head of the Wayne corporation, Thomas Wayne (Bruce’s father) is a neoliberal figure running for mayor’s office who thinks that the city needs to be cleaned of its super rats and that vigilantes like the Joker are losers hiding behind a mask. Funding for social welfare and healthcare is being cut down—Arthur’s medical visits are forced to end—and resentment about inequality is in the air.

Arthur too shares the sense of disenfranchisement the Blacks around him experience. But the Joker is no Bane. For him, the sight of protesters donning clown masks and taking to the streets has no political weight; it’s a show to be enjoyed. Even though the protesters appear to take him as a figurehead, he doesn’t represent any community and religion is wholly absent in this world. There’s no feeling of injustice (to him or to his mother) fuelling Arthur’s actions, which are merely reactions to an environment trying to erase his existence. Of course, there’s no such thing as a truly nihilistic act. That’s why the film’s climactic passage doesn’t wholly cohere: when Arthur (now self-christened Joker) is invited to Murray’s show to be humiliated, he launches into a screed about how the world is indecent and malevolent—hardly the words of a person who sees no meaning to things. What the harangue does is to provide a cri de coeur for someone who has been proven to be hollow.

This last scene also underscores the film’s starkly non-mythical bent. Though the Joker might be nihilist, the film is anything but. In trying to understand the origins of Joker’s anarchism, the film exhibits the sort of empathy and insight-creation that’s usually the reserve of realist cinema. Given the industrial context of superhero franchises and cinematic universes, which depend on fan loyalty and familiarity for their signification, I think it’s also commendable that Joker offers a self-contained work that uses the Batman mythos only as a remote backdrop, like the way, say, Ben Hur uses the Bible. Compare the film’s sustained engagement with Arthur’s experience to the third-act shift in The Dark Knight Rises, which few viewers outside of fans could find interesting. The result comes close to the semi-independent cinema of the seventies. Philips and cinematographer Lawrence Sher balance warm and cool colours in almost every shot—reflecting Arthur’s split image—to produce textures that, to my eyes at least, resemble 16mm. Their 1.85:1 ratio Gotham city seems painstakingly reconstructed from archival documents of Manhattan. Phoenix, in an evidently virtuoso performance, walks its sordid streets, going up and down staircases, looking up and down television images, contorting his emaciated body in a combination of ballet and tai chi. Thankfully, the film does justice to him.

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