Review


The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu

Rest Is Silence 
(Image Courtesy: Mandragora Sales)

Nicolae Ceausescu lived in denial. In the first scene of Andrei Ujica’s The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu (2010), which is almost the last scene of his life, Ceausescu, in the makeshift TV trial that the revolutionaries have organized, denies that he had anything to do with the atrocities of the previous day. Given sufficient time, he might have denied that he had anything to do with Romania’s dilapidating condition at all. The prosecutors did not give him that privilege. Ujica does. Apparently the result of research on hundreds of hours of historical footage, Autobiography assembles three hours of newsreels that Ceausescu had, indirectly, made for himself, carefully putting together a nationwide mise en scène and a troupe as large as Romania’s population. Ujica’s is a film that resides on the edges of the frame, one that works only on hindsight, with knowledge of what really transpired. We mostly see Ceausescu waving hands and applauding amidst the countless Fordist parades in which people are reduced to flag-waving anonymities. He’s not particularly unlikable. In fact, he seems quite amicable. One could mistake him for a token detective from an American noir or a French film director of the 60s. Contradictory alliances are formed (Both Nixon and Mao seem to have had good relationship with Romania). In fact, Ceausescu seems to have been friends with every major leader. But Ceausescu’s downfall, in which the last hour of the film is interested in, is also, for better or worse, saddening. His words and gestures become more rhetorical than passionate Like Carlos, here is a man who is stuck in a time capsule adhering to his beliefs and illusions when the world has moved beyond him. Nicolae Ceausescu lived in denial.

The first thing that strikes us when watching Autobiography is that it does not insert alternate footage to counterpoint those that we see. (The only external contrasting force comes from our current knowledge of Romania during that period). Neither does Ujica employ shot footage nor does he use other Romanian films of the period to fill in the gaps. (This may be because, as it was the case in Stalinist Russia, the alternates to propaganda cinema were probably only apolitical melodramas or socialist realism). Unlike filmmakers such as Anand Patwardhan and Alanis Obomsawin, Ujica seems to place trust on the propaganda clips themselves to illustrate the interstices between them. He uses clips that Ceausescu himself would have used had he written a film autobiography. For instance, the famed footage of Ceausescu’s final speech and his consequent bewilderment and that of him and Elena fleeing in a helicopter are cleverly omitted. The film cuts from Ceausescu’s trial to the past as if going into a flashback. This shift could either imply Ceausescu trying to vindicate himself using the autobiography that is to follow or Ujica/the prosecutors trying to incriminate him using the same evidence. The film is both an encomium and a critique. It’s Rashomon situation on a national scale. Taking a deconstructive approach wherein he lets the contradictions in the footage surface by themselves and using custom soundtrack to multiply the pomp or, less often, provide irony, Ujica elucidates how the Ceausescu regime was marked by suppression of histories and silencing of oppositions.

After I watched Ujica’s picture, I wondered how it would have turned out if Ceausescu had indeed made his autobiography using the footage he had amassed. Of course, Ceausescu didn’t make such a film but, I guess any such self-serving propaganda made under a dictatorial regime should share traits alluded to by Ujica’s film. I couldn’t get my hands on any such Romanian film, but I did see a North Korean propaganda film made for (by?) Ceausescu’s friend and contemporary, Kim Il Sung, modestly titled President Kim Il Sung Met Foreign Heads of State and Prominent Figures April 1970-December 1975 (1976) which recites by rote the various meetings that the premier held during the aforementioned period. In fact, the title becomes amazingly self-parodying once you see the movie, whose script consists of the following line, with minor variations, repeated a hundred times: “On [Insert Date], President Kim Il Sung met [Insert Name], the [Insert designation] of [Insert name of communist country], in a brotherly environment to express his support for [the people’s struggle against imperialism/strengthening bilateral relationship]. [Name] praised General Kim Il Sung for [his noble virtue and leadership/his immense contributions to anti-imperialist struggle worldwide/his exploits in progressing mankind]”.

President Kim Il Sung Met Foreign Heads of State and Prominent Figures April 1970-December 1975The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaucescu

President Kim Il Sung Met Foreign Heads of State and Prominent Figures April 1970-December 1975The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaucescu

President Kim Il Sung Met Foreign Heads of State and Prominent Figures April 1970-December 1975The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaucescu

President Kim Il Sung Met Foreign Heads of State and Prominent Figures April 1970-December 1975The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaucescu

President Kim Il Sung Met Foreign Heads of State and Prominent Figures April 1970-December 1975The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaucescu

President Kim Il Sung Met Foreign Heads of State and Prominent Figures April 1970-December 1975The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaucescu

President Kim Il Sung Met Foreign Heads of State and Prominent Figures April 1970-December 1975The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaucescu

President Kim Il Sung Met Foreign Heads of State and Prominent Figures April 1970-December 1975The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaucescu

The film is never blatant as Ujica’s pseudo-autobiography might suggest, with even remotely problematic areas being cleanly pruned out, (The closest the film (unintentionally) gets to the truth is when the narrator points out that Kim Il Sung “brought about a spectacular reality in Korea”). However, one can still trace, with considerable effort, the counterpoints are seething underneath the rosy audiovisuals. Thousands of dressed-up people gathered for pomp, hundreds “being rounded up” to welcome the premier and the omnipresent absence of the individual are all dehumanizing in a way. The president praises his Japanese counterparts to no end while he talks elsewhere about Korea and China’s joint efforts to ward of Japanese imperialism during the war. In the meeting footages, Kim Il Sung is generally the centre of attraction in the frame – a fact understandable given his imposing physique. His counterparts are regularly pushed to the edges and appear nimble in relation to the composed stature of Il Sung. The president is always cheerful, applauding, waving, at ease and possesses a singular command of his space. One could mistake him for a veteran stage actor. The message here is clear: The world looks up to Kim Il Sung and the way he rules your country. This is the best you’ll get. Looking at the two films, it is clear how Ceausescu was influenced by the North Korean cinema (probably more than its policies), which, in turn, has echoes of Riefenstahl. They seem to have been directors more than dictators.

President Kim Il Sung Met Foreign Heads of State and Prominent Figures April 1970-December 1975

President Kim Il Sung Met Foreign Heads of State and Prominent Figures April 1970-December 1975

President Kim Il Sung Met Foreign Heads of State and Prominent Figures April 1970-December 1975

President Kim Il Sung Met Foreign Heads of State and Prominent Figures April 1970-December 1975

President Kim Il Sung Met Foreign Heads of State and Prominent Figures April 1970-December 1975

President Kim Il Sung Met Foreign Heads of State and Prominent Figures April 1970-December 1975

President Kim Il Sung Met Foreign Heads of State and Prominent Figures April 1970-December 1975

President Kim Il Sung Met Foreign Heads of State and Prominent Figures April 1970-December 1975

President Kim Il Sung Met Foreign Heads of State and Prominent Figures April 1970-December 1975

President Kim Il Sung Met Foreign Heads of State and Prominent Figures April 1970-December 1975

President Kim Il Sung Met Foreign Heads of State and Prominent Figures April 1970-December 1975

President Kim Il Sung Met Foreign Heads of State and Prominent Figures April 1970-December 1975

President Kim Il Sung Met Foreign Heads of State and Prominent Figures April 1970-December 1975

Ujica’s film is called The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu, but it also holds well as a biography of Romania because not only does it cover a huge ground in terms of historical time, it also seems to allude to attitudes that would define Romanian culture even after his deposition. The figure of Nicolae Ceausescu seems to loom large over contemporary Romanian cinema. Almost all the “New Wave” films from the country have had Ceausescu or his regime at their focal point. Films such as Tales from the Golden Age (2009), which no doubt treat history as a closed project, confront the past directly and provide a neat picture of what it is to live in a communist-dictatorial state (The “hat” and “pig” segments are simultaneously moving and hysterical) while even a work that is so hermetic and microcosmic on the surface like Radu Muntean’s Tuesday, After Christmas (2010), set during the 20th anniversary of Ceausescu’s execution, is haunted by the events of the past. Underneath, Muntean’s film seems to triangulate between a disillusionment with the present (post-globalization Romania), a nostalgia for the past (possibly the socialist age) and the dread produced by the knowledge that nostalgia, more often than not, is the longing for a past that never was. Both features of Corneliu Porumboiu deal with residual theatricality that marks contemporary Romania. In the first film, the revolution against theatricality itself makes way for theatrical claims to glory and pride while, in the second, the capital attempts to project itself as a city that is more significant than it actually is. In fact, this seemingly quintessentially Romanian affinity for theatricality is part of the curriculum in Ujica’s debut feature, Videograms of a Revolution (1992), which he co-directed with Harun Farocki.

Videograms, possibly Ujica’s finest film and clearly a masterwork, presents us shards from the Romanian revolution in the form of small “video packets” that were shot at various locations in Bucharest during the days just preceding Ceausescu’s death. We get to see history as it is happening, in all its tragicomic elements, with multiple parallel governments being set up, phantom enemies generated, impromptu civil wars brewing and the relentless efforts undertaken by either side to restore peace. Unlike any other period in history, possibly with the exception of the clashes in Chile two decades ago that were “immortalized” by Patricio Guzman in his fly-on-the-wall documentaries, we witness how technological progress has enabled us to document history with utmost fluidity and urgency. There is no need for an Eisenstein anymore to recreate the revolution and overwrite the actual event. This relationship between technological progress, the subsequent changes in modes of production and the possibility of social progress is of central interest to Videograms. It tries to find an answer to whether revolution is primarily the seizure of the forces of production from authority or if there are certain fundamental, subtler issues to be tackled.

Interestingly enough, the first thing that the protestors do after storming the party headquarters is to attack the television station. As the revolutionary forces take over the broadcast, we see not only their efforts to disperse the message to the public but also the theatricality that eventually overwhelms their exploits. Appropriation of the television station is taken for the appropriation of political power. Prisoners (generally party members close to the dictator) are presented on TV, subjected to mockery-of-justice type vengeance trials and sentenced by impromptu courts and law makers, The abuse of (TV) power that was to be corrected persists, only under a different political scenario and for a different end. We see this abuse of power off screen as well, where the acrimony towards Ceausescu is misguided towards prisoners. Videograms, however, remains highly ambivalent about the role of television and cinema in the phenomenon. Its view is more rounded and holistic than the critical or exalting stances one might expect. The camera, in Videograms, is as much imprisoning as it’s liberating.

Videograms of a Revolution

Videograms of a Revolution

Videograms of a Revolution

Videograms of a Revolution

Videograms of a Revolution

Videograms of a Revolution

Routinely, at the end of each of the separately titled segment, the narrator of the film startlingly steps back from the immediacy of the upheaval, to perform a formal analysis of the images we see in order to illustrate that the film is more about the revolution as it was perceived than as it happened. Throughout, it probes how the televising of a real event can guarantee its occurrence and authenticate a fictional event. We see European reporters filming the broadcast of Ceausescu’s trial (in place of the trial itself) as if television itself is a transparent window into reality. (This recalls Paul Patton’s account of how CNN reporters in the Gulf during the war were watching CNN in order to find out what was happening). Like great works such as Godard’s History of Cinema (1998) and Marker’s The Last Bolshevik (1993), but far less elegiac and more optimistic, Farocki and Ujica examine film, history and everything in between in Videograms. They note:

“Camera and event. Since its invention, film has seemed destined to make history visible. It has been able to portray the past and stage the present. We have seen Napoleon on horseback and Lenin on the train. Film was possible because there was history. Almost imperceptibly, like moving on a Möbius strip, the side was flipped. We look on and have to think: if film is possible, then history, too, is possible.”

Perhaps this is the biggest irony that marks Ceausescu’s life. The tool that helped him hold power for decades became the very tool that accelerated his downfall. The pageants that highlighted his reign would give way to his own trial on the national television. And all the clapping at the end of those grand ceremonies would only end up in the cheerful applause throughout Bucharest when his death is broadcasted on television. After images of the corpses of the Ceausescus are flashed on television for the confirmation of the event, one reporter yells as the screen fades to black: “That’s it then, turn it off”.

Ujica’s previous film, Out of the Present (1995), also involves a man cut off from the world, literally. Evocative, slightly frightening and borderline-experimental, Out of the Present chronicles Soviet cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev’s 10-month stay at the Mir station during which time his country collapses. Ujica intercuts between the tumults in Moscow and scenes of Krikalev’s floating about in free space to sketch the portrait of a world in transition. He’s a man who, in the process of leaping into the future, loses grip on the present. For Krikalev, like the citizens of Bucharest in the previous film, reality is what the media tells him it is. In addition to his physical severance, he is, like so many of his counterparts on earth, a man alienated from history through the very images that present history. But Krikalev’s case is even more heartbreaking given that fact that he is the only person from his country to have not witnessed this historical juncture and that he’ll be returning to a country totally different from the one he lived in. This idea of media as the appraiser of history and the diaristic construction of Out of the Present presage the autobiographical structure of Ujica’s latest.

Coming back to The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu, which attempts to sum up the entirety of Ceausescu’s regime as a large-scale theater with Romania as the stage, the Romanians as the performers and the Ceausescus as the stars. Ujica’s film suggests that in Ceausescu’s rule, cinema was treated like politics and politics, like cinema, that he was amassing wealth to no end while the whole country was in dire straits and that all was illusion. Although there might be some truth value to it, It seems to me that such a sketch is rather dangerous and complacent since it runs the risk of reducing a ruthless dictator to a charlatan who knew how to make the right moves. Ujica deals with Ceausescu more or less like how Assayas deals with Carlos. Both these political figures have been drained of their potency by their writer-directors and turned into interesting characters with simple psychology and behavioral pattern. There is little reason to believe that all the pomp and self-aggrandizement would have vanished had Ceausescu been a democratic ruler. The cult of the leader is largely independent of such scenarios. Given that Ujica intended to make a film critical of Ceausescu that would have resulted even if the latter had made it himself, it is understandable that he was obliged to leave out certain implicating footage. But this self-imposed restriction becomes a damaging limitation in Autobiography. Ujica’s message is clear even minutes into the film. In trying to develop a pseudo-laudatory autobiography and a stinging critique out of the same material, Ujica, I’m afraid, only dilutes the latter.

Compare this with the density that the remarkable BBC documentary The King of Communism: The Pomp & Pageantry of Nicolae Ceausescu (2002) achieves despite its flaws and its reduced running time. Like Ujica, writer-director Ben Lewis believes that Ceausescu’s regime was fuelled by such grand scale performances. But instead of relying on these very performances to elucidate the flipside, Lewis keeps interjecting anti-narratives of every sort that keep countering reductive narratives such as Ujica’s and Assayas’. One of those interviewed is a TV reporter who was filming Ceausescu during his infamous final speech. When asked why he did not telecast the agitation in front of the palace instead of the unrest at Ceausescu’s balcony, he tells us that it would have been against the ethics of his profession. It is not that he is deluded or against democracy. It is just that such an act would never have been unethical considering his situation. Lewis’ film is rife with such deadlocks that tend to disrupt totalizing narratives such as the one The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu presents. For instance, it probes why ever did the Romanian public cooperate in this mythmaking. After all, it was this nationalistic propaganda that enabled Ceausescu to resist the imperialism of the superpowers and to build a stable nation. Some of the interviewees still assert that Ceausescu represented their country with dignity at the world stage, although it was precisely this misplaced sense of self-respect that turned against both Ceausescu and Romania.

Through interviews with people who had really taken part and performed in these pageants, Lewis arrives at the conclusion that it was all propaganda by the public and for the public, and not a one man show as purported by Ujica’s film. We come to know that people actually looked forward to these shows that helped them regain their trust towards the nation. They’re even nostalgic about it. Lewis points out that the performer-audience relationship was reversed at the end of each show and illustrates how it was of double advantage for Ceausescu. For him, it was both an august propaganda and an effective distraction. For the public, it was both escape and replenishment. Through these accounts, we gradually get the idea that Romania was not being cheated some clever, omnipotent trickster, but that it was in a hyperreal situation where the truth of the matter was overridden by ‘appearances’ that didn’t appear so. One perceptive lady tells us that it might have been better if the Soviet had indeed occupied Romania instead of Ceausescu holding ground. At least then, she points out, the Romanians would have had a visible enemy to fight against. Ujica’s film rejects such nuances, instead replacing them with a blanket rejection of Ceausescu’s regime as totalitarian and deceiving. What it does (and admirably so), however, is to question the way we approach historical material (and, consequently, contemporary material). It urges us to look closer, to keep our eyes open for obscured faces and our ears open for silenced voices.

 

Rating:
 

[The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu (2010) Trailer]

Carlos

Of Girls and Guns 
(Image Courtesy: DVDTalk)

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

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

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

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

[Carlos (2010) Trailer]

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

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

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

 

Rating:

Film Socialism

Persistence Of Vision 
(Image Courtesy: Cannes Festival Site)

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

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

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

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

[Film Socialism (2010) Trailer]

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

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

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

 

Rating:

[Raavan (2010) Trailer]

Udaan

A Summer At Pa's 
(Image Courtesy: Radio Sargam)

Udaan, one of this year’s entries at Cannes in the Un Certain Regard section, is a coming-of-age tale set in the heartland of India and tells the story of seventeen year old Rohan Singh (Rajat Barmecha) who is expelled from his boarding school in Shimla, along with three of his friends, and is forced to return to his hometown of Jamshedpur to his estranged father, Bhairav Singh (Ronit Roy). He discovers that he has to put up with not only the tyrannical ways of his father but also with his six year old step brother Arjun (Aayan Boradia) who is treated no better than Rohan by their father. Bhairav makes Rohan work out every day. He gets him admitted to an engineering college and instructs him to work in his steel factory. It is clear that it is not just the steel he wants to temper. Rohan regretfully abides, wearing the bland white jacket over his snarky one-liner T-shirts. More interested in the ambiguity of poetry than the precision of engineering drawing, Rohan starts bunking classes, winding up at the river bank to write. Naturally, writing becomes the tool for him to express himself, apart from other methods like shouting into a deserted basement at the dam and reciting largely improvised stories to patients and staff at the local hospital, where his brother is admitted for a few days.

Rohan is portrayed by debutant Rajat Barmecha. Barmecha plays Rohan straight, without the usual film vocabulary actors succumb to, and he is the greatest success for the film. With their long lashes, his eyes suggest everything from desire to rebellion. As Rohan, he appears to be the kind of person who seems to be willing to listen to your problems and the kind of person who hopes that you listen to his. With his “feminine” countenance (a feature that his father derides heavily in the film and the reason I predict that he won’t make it big in Bollywood), he’s also the person you believe won’t be parading his chutzpah or doing something alarmingly foolish. In short, he appears to be a person whom everyone will trust. Ironically, he lies to his father whenever he is in potential trouble (In a well realized arc, he later chooses to tell the truth to his father, not out of guilt, but because he knows that he knows his father well enough and that he can handle the consequences). He would probably have gotten away from his father and his rigid laws if it wasn’t for Arjun, whom he seems to view as a younger, not-yet-scathed version of himself. Predictably, he becomes Arjun’s surrogate father (and mother too, if we are to consider his oft mentioned femininity in the film). Meanwhile, Bhairav’s brother Jimmy (Ram Kapoor), who does not have children of his own, becomes Rohan’s surrogate father and the latter, his surrogate son. Each of the three otherwise unrelated characters is connected to the others via the beastly persona of Bhairav. These are all familiar writing tricks, of course, but first-time director Motwane treats the text with skillfulness of a semi-veteran.

You know that a coming-of-age film is on the right track when it starts with the protagonist jumping over the walls of his hostel into the city streets. In fact, Udaan strictly adheres to the path laid out by the genre, carefully working out culture-specific variations and steering clear of conventional pitfalls of the nation’s industrial cinema. The latter was possible perhaps because the film draws inspiration more from the west’s treatment of the genre than from the melodramatic traditions of Bollywood (more on this later). There seems to be an influence of virtually every landmark coming-of-age film in Udaan. Rohan and his college friends, high on booze, deliberately pick on a group of mooks at a pool hall – a scene that seems directly out of Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973, the appropriation doesn’t seem like homage or pastiche for it is employed in a very similar fashion for very similar effects. One might also recall that Anurag Kashyap, who has co-written and produced this film, had already harnessed Keitel’s LSD trip in his reworking of Devdas, which Motwane co-wrote). Rohan’s and younger brother Arjun’s having to put up with an authoritarian father they barely know has echoes of The Return (2003), but where, in the latter film, the father is a mythical, metaphorical figure looming over the kids like a phantom, Bhairav is an everyman grounded in reality (One of Rohan’s friends tells that every father in the city is like Bhairav). The teenagers driving like crazy through the city streets at night, too, might have been from Nick Ray. But it is The 400 Blows (1959) that Udaan seems to want to emulate the most. Right from Rohan’s breakout from the regressive boarding school, to the motif of running and up to the final freeze frame on his face (albeit on a less ambivalent note), Udaan smells of Truffaut’s masterpiece (There’s a fleeting, pretty stunning image of Rohan’s face, framed head on with harsh light from above, which recalls young Doinel’s). And that’s besides the fact that this is Vikramaditya Motwane’s debut film and might be highly autobiographical.

Udaan’s embracing of these films, especially The 400 Blows, and the tropes of the genre as treated by the west is of note because it is what defines the interesting politics of the film. Udaan is, at its centre, a war against tradition in all its shapes and sizes. Bhairav is the symbol of tradition and conservatism in the film. He acts like his father did and metes out the same kind of punishment to his kids as his father had to him. With his dark glasses, trimmed moustache and perpetually disgruntled look, he is the quintessential patriarch guarding the passage between tradition and modernity. He has married thrice, works out extensively everyday, drinks every night, smokes throughout, doesn’t hesitate to use his belt on his six year old, ridicules his first son’s feminine looks and is probably also proud of this skewed sense of masculinity of his. He admires the famed industrialists and other icons of Jamshedpur and literally prostrates before them. He calls his brother Chotu (“little one”, which he sure isn’t) and insists that the kids address him as “sir”. His brother Jimmy is the counterbalancing force to Bhairav in the film. He is a man who had chosen the road less traveled (and supposedly failed). He is a progressive man who believes that Rohan should do what he wants to. It is Jimmy who paid any heed to what Rohan’s mother felt her son should become. Bhairav, on the other hand, is disgusted by Jimmy’s impotence and obesity (he would have anyway called Jimmy impotent, given his definition of what being masculine is). The two vastly different father figures, resulting from a schism within the family, are the choices provided to Rohan, who similarly has to choose between industrial work and poetry. Obviously, he chooses to emulate Jimmy, and in a predictably rebellious manner.

[Udaan (2010) Trailer]

Along the film, Rohan repudiates everything that is traditional and everything that binds him to his biological father. He shatters the rickety old car of his father with a crowbar, he discards the familial watch that Bhairav gives him on his eighteenth birthday (a familiar cliché in Indian cinema) and he even punches his father right on the face. Towards the end, he manages to make his father chase him unsuccessfully, once and for all, after having run behind him everyday. He will perhaps become everything his father isn’t (which is exactly what the latter tries to prevent). There is also a conspicuous absence of women in the film. Motwane and Kashyap avoid the pitfall of succumbing to the view that all women are victims of tradition. There are two women who are alluded to in the film – Rohan’s deceased mother who wanted her son to be a writer and his friend’s mother who chastises her son for having thrown out his abusive father out of the house – who, too, reflect the dichotomy between modernity and tradition that Jimmy and Bhairav respectively represent. Moreover, Rohan being a very liberal person like his mother (whom he seems to have a lot of love for) and his wanting to break away from Bhairav’s patriarchy puts the film onto an oedipal course as well, which is not very alien to the narrative at hand. One reason why Udaan is one of the few truly liberal films out there is because it carefully avoids, through its script choices, subscribing to that awful pseudo-liberal axiom that you can follow your dream no matter who you are. By locating the protagonist in a regressive middle class setup (which is beset by the problems caused by the recession) and eventually shifting him into a more progressive, flexible middle class, Udaan comes across as an honest, non-exploitative bourgeois film. Of course, it does not mobilize this trajectory for more overtly political purposes (Rohan father is a steel industrialist in Jamshedpur while his friend’s parents live in Singur. This tempting premise is left unexplored), but that’s probably because the film chooses to work completely within the genre.

This liberal support of the individual, free of all traditional baggage, is what makes Udaan a very “western” film (“western” in the same way Kurosawa was) and it is perhaps what makes the film very offbeat with respect to Bollywood cinema as well. Where the typical film would have portrayed Bhairav as an ogre on the outside and a child within (he would probably have confessed his love for his son to a friend or would have spread a blanket over Rohan while he’s asleep!), Udaan retains him as a threatening force. There’s no gentle giant act that Bhairav is made to undergo. But that does not mean that he is merely a concept or a one-dimensional monster. What makes him very human is the fact that he seems to know that he’s acting it all out. He’s a man blinded by tradition no doubt, but seems to be aware of that limitation. He tells Rohan that he didn’t have much to say to him when he visited his school. Even when he apologizes to his kids (before he distracts them from reflection), he does so within the limits of dignity allowed by his “character”. The triumph of writing lies in its belief that it need not “prove” that Bhairav is a human being. He just is and Ronit Roy plays him with the same kind of conviction. This consciousness of one’s limitations and the choice to be what one is also goes down well with the basic libertarian idea, which the film espouses, of a man making up his own destiny (which is very frequently mutated to condemn crimes of all kinds).

Udaan’s one more connection to The 400 Blows must be noted. While Truffaut’s work tried to break away from a tradition and the moral squalor that it seems to have brought, it simultaneously represented a move away from the traditions of cinema, with its technical radicalism and its inclination to make cinema author-centric. It was a battle being fought against the tradition (of quality) on multiple levels, virtually kicking off the New Wave. Udaan, on the other hand, has its feet planted firmly on the genre. Motwane is not a strict modernist like Truffaut was. Even if he is opposed to tradition and might be using cinema as a medium of personal expression, he does not go to the extent of taking up genre-blending or self-reflexivity. Sure, it does break away from the conventional story telling methods of the national cinema, but it does so only to adopt conventions of a different cinema. The aesthetics of the film – sunrays scattered by tree leaves piercing the camera lens, faces gazing towards infinity from the edge of the frame, cute symbolism, characters dragged softly into and out of the shallow focus and guitar riffs trying to create the blues – virtually cry out “Sundance!”. Some of the lines feel very scripted (a shortcoming that is commented on within the film and nearly overcome by making the protagonist a writer). But there are stretches in Udaan that are also directed with considerable finesse. There is much restraint in the score. Where a lesser film would have tried to cover up the silence with piano pieces, Udaan dares to leave it as it is. In the film’s most striking moment, Rohan relaxes on a cot after having dragged his heavy trunk upstairs. There’s no music. Almost no sound. Just the anxious face of a teenager back from an arduous journey and ready to embark on a longer and more important one. The shot lasts a few seconds. You wish it went on – the shot and the journey.

 

Rating:

Raavan

Men On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown 
(Image courtesy: Raavan Official Site)

Towards the end of Mani Ratnam’s long-awaited Raavan (2010), one of the characters looks at the camera and says “You shouldn’t have turned back”. He might well have been talking to the person behind the camera. Raavan is a visual and narrative mess, with lots going for it and even more going against it. What seems to be a major hammering on a minor flash of brilliance has taken over three years to make. There is nothing much about the plot of Raavan that you already haven’t read in your schoolbooks and seen in your televisions. I suggest you read the Wikipedia entry on Ramayana and plug in the actors’ names beside the characters’ yourself. You wouldn’t be very wrong. There are, however, two major changes to the text that writer-director Mani Ratnam has done. One; the back story of Ram has been removed altogether and a new back story for Raavan has been added which attempts to put things in his perspective and to justify his acts. The second and the more important change is that Raavan has been relegated from a higher caste to a lower one. The second change opens up a number of new possibilities given the setting of the film.

Throughout his career, with a few exceptions, Mani Ratnam has been interested in writing stories in which personal drama plays out along and against national affairs and topical issues. Almost all these ‘issues’ that he deals with could be traced to newspaper articles or cover stories (communal riots in the city of Bombay, cross border terrorism in the far east and north, student protests down south, the LTTE, business scams etc.). It is true that there is seldom any rigor in these analyses, but where Mani really scores is in the other layer of these stories, in which he deals with people who are stuck in (or, less frequently, who help create) these social and political upheavals. He seems to be more interested in the lives of these ‘individuals’, without the trappings of any ideology, and the relationship between them. More often than not, these issues have been a pretext for exploring the fears, apprehensions and hopes of these individuals, who seem to be suddenly thrust into these agitations. As a result, the issues themselves stick out like a sore thumb even when they are handled with solemnity (Compare one of these with a film like Alaipayuthey (2000) where he completely de-politicizes the drama to break down the tale to human levels. The result is a completely bourgeois film, but also arguably the director’s most honest work to date).

Another facet of Mani Ratnam’s writing is his fascination with people working on the wrong side of the law. Right from Velu Nayakar, through Deva, Liaqat, Meghna, Inba/Lallan, Gurukanth Desai and up to Beera, all of Mani Ratnam’s central characters have been exploiting legal loopholes and even defying the legal system. All of them have a moral justification for their deeds and, with the probable exception of Inba (one of the director’s best characters, for he is the product of both an ideology and his free will), all these characters have their own definitions of what is objectively good and what is not. And this moral relativism is what they seem to consider as their redemption and it is what redeems them in the audience’s eyes (What makes the character of Velu Nayakar profound is his inability to morally assess this feature of his). Throughout, Mani’s attempt has always been to, if not construct a holistic and unbiased view of the world, recognize the ‘other’ as human and empathize with their situation. A fan might say that Mani is a silent rebel. But the truth remains that Mani Ratnam has always been an armchair liberal. In nearly every one of the cases above, he leaves the issues unresolved, as if they never existed in his film, and the audience unquestioned. He involves himself deep enough so as to raise questions and make us reflect about the state of the nation temporarily, but keeps himself aloof enough to avoid assuming or giving us responsibility.

But that is not to say that he should be resolving these issues and should propose a direction (which would be too much to ask and which runs the risk of making the films propagandistic – a fatal move for a director who works within the establishment), but the least he could do is test our own moral standings and elicit a complex response from us, as did the last Tarantino movie. Mani is a master of bad endings and even he can’t object to that complaint. Everywhere, he has resorted to either indifference or populist didacticism to restore the film to conventional pop-cinema trajectories. A special note must be made for the ending of Yuva/Aayitha Ezhuthu (2004), despite its crudeness, where, for once, the director throws away the armchair and retains the liberalism. That brings us back to Raavan, which sure does imbibe all these traits above. The villagers in the film are obviously based on the Maoist settlements of central and south-eastern India and their leader Beera is a resistance fighter combating the police and armed forces.  The plot points are heavily inspired by Operation Green Hunt, but the region of interest for the director, predictably, remains the triangle of characters at its heart. Oh, but there’s also something going on in the background of these characters. For the second time, after his reworking of the Mahabharata in Thalapathy (1991), Mani Ratnam resorts to an existing mythological text for a template.

 

[Raavan (2010) Trailer]

Mani Ratnam could have been faithful to the text, playing it out in its entirety and stressing and modulating key sections of it to reveal its inherent sexism and chauvinism and, subsequently, investigate how such a flawed text governs our behaviour. Or he could have stuck, as was his style so far, to the Maoist issue alone and examined the tensions underneath. Instead, Mani relocates the Ramayana into this politically charged narrative, making a few key changes for the sake of authenticity, and compromises both possibilities. Many of the characters in Raavan don’t exist for their own sake, but only to play other characters and to complete an existing narrative framework. Now, this isn’t the film’s biggest problem, but for viewers familiar with the text, it goes on to become monotonous and self-parodying. It is also a bit appalling to see a director like Mani Ratnam going for such banal character mapping. The film’s biggest problem is, however, its viewpoint. Now, the point that the film tries to be making is that there is a Ram and Raavan in every one and that it’s only a matter of context that one becomes the hero and the other the villain. But the whole film shows otherwise. There is not one virtue bestowed upon Dev or one vice assigned to Beera (Being an officer in the police force is the only positive thing about Dev, but Ratnam drains that position of any goodness). It’s all still black and white. The film never moves on to the grey area that it claims it is in. This lack of a moral complexity denies the film any real resonance. It is made clear from the very beginning that Beera is the one the audience needs to root for and Dev is the one to be cursed (The casting only worsens the problem, with Abhishek Bachchan being less easier to hate than the newcomer Vikram). Mani does not balance the sides, as is required, he merely swaps them.

However, the film’s redeeming factor lies in the way it sketches these decidedly good and decidedly bad characters. Dev (Vikram) is the icon of a perfect male god. He is macho, sporting a neatly trimmed moustache, well-built, determined and self-assured. But he also seems to be overconfident of his seemingly infallible masculinity to the point of being sexist. His egocentricity defines the world with respect to himself (the camera gyrates around him quite a few times). He considers his wife and his gun to be fairly interchangeable objects which could be used to demonstrate his power. Mani Ratnam floods the mise en scène with phallic symbols when dealing with Dev. Wielding razors, pistols, sunglasses and cigarettes throughout, Dev is the ultimate patriarch who can control the people around him at will. Or so he thinks. This vanity is his biggest vice. And the disillusionment of that masculine vanity is the cause of his fall. Dev seems to be more interested in killing the man who kidnapped his wife than rescuing her or finishing the mission he is assigned. It is the thought that his wife may have found a better man – that his wife’s fantasies might have outgrown his capacities – that frustrates him more than the fact that she is kidnapped. In that respect, Dev has a lot of counterparts in Hollywood including Dr. Harford of Eyes Wide Shut (1999). What Dev is fighting for is, then, his own potency that has been snatched away by this sociopolitical outcast. He can only do this by killing off any man whom his wife may have considered better. And that is what he sets out to do.

Beera (Abhishek Bachchan), on the other hand, lies exactly at the moral and physical midpoint between Ragini and Dev. He is a man who’s more self-aware and empathetic. He has already realized his own limitations as a ‘man’ the moment his sister was snatched away by the police force some time ago (“It was my fault” he says). Unlike Dev, he is a very progressively thinking person and believes in equality. And unlike that Ram, who can not see anything but lies on Ragini’s face, this Raavan trusts her with his life (and his phallic gun, if you will!). But he is also a man on the verge. He could flip over to the other moral side any time soon. His “jealousy” could turn out to be an obsession. Why, he teeters on the boundary between life and death every day. Each one of his ten imaginary heads might be saying a different thing every time. His temptation of avenging his sister by reciprocally violating Ragini is undone by the fact that both Ragini and his sister are merely variations of each other (This implicit aversion towards “miscegenation” in Raavan is but one of the very many narrative, visual and thematic elements that the film shares with The Searchers (1956), a film that is also set at the native frontier and the film that Raavan wants to emulate). These two people who leapt towards death without fear are the only persons who could stand up to Beera and speak. They are the only ones who prevent him from becoming a Dev. This idea of living on the edge is continually underscored by the film’s visual strategy that employs highly expressionistic landscapes. Beera is usually located on a dark cliff beyond which there are only the white waters of death (and redemption?). He is regularly seen straddling dark geographical structures and the white mist-like atmosphere. Even when he is a mysterious, dark, fearful figure, he is associated with harsh light. Samir Chanda’s production design is noteworthy in this regard. Beera’s idea of redemption is a very subjective one and his vindication seems to be in making Dev realize how morally integral he is, despite his caste, and how unethical Dev is, despite his social and legal standing. Of course, for this he throws his political objective to the wind, as does Mani Ratnam.

Ragini (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan) is the symbol of moral strength purity in the film. She’s the only character in the film who could safely be called “objectively good” (for one, Aishwarya Rai is significantly fairer than the other two men in the film. Politically incorrect? May be. Cliché? Definitely). In some ways, she is the mirror image of Dev, and surely the better half, and repudiates all that he stands for. She’s the only person in the film who gets to see the full picture. She acts fairly rationally and, unlike the men, knows no class, creed or ideology (Amusingly, she almost exclusively moves vertically within the frame throughout the film – plummeting and ascending, skidding and rising amidst the rocky mountains – as if transcending the rigid ‘horizontal’ notions of class). She knows no fear in front of Beera, for she has nothing to be afraid of, unlike Dev and his entourage. Beera is just an arbitrary terror for her. And this independence of hers is what brings Beera to earth from his demigod status. These are very interesting characters, no doubt, but our response to them remains highly one-dimensional. As a result, the film turns out to be as one-dimensional and biased as the text it wants to deconstruct. And yes, the film that Raavan wants to be has already been made ten years ago. And how!

 

Rating:

Love, Sex Aur Dhokha

Through The Rear Window 
(Image courtesy: BigOye.com)

Let’s not make wrong assumptions. Dibakar Banerjee’s Love, Sex Aur Dhokha (2010) is not an experimental film, although it is considerably avant-garde in comparison to the existing norms of Bollywood, with its premise, non-professional casting, sound design and somewhat non-conformist grammar. The promos may have given one the idea that it is a film that works in ultra-Brechtian mode. Far from that, the film doesn’t ever breach the fourth wall, thanks to its choice of making the film appear entirely subjective (It actually isn’t as is revealed by certain shots). Another misconception the promotional ads might have given birth to is that Banerjee’s film is highly agenda-driven. This was my biggest fear too, that Banerjee might be presenting an extended, dressed-up message pertaining to mass media and reality TV.  Thankfully, not considering its minor flights into Madhur Bhandarkar-ness, the film eschews making any overt statement and lets the implication of its choices speak for itself. Banerjee uses a number of clever and not-so-clever tricks to make the film straddle the zones of populist and experimental cinema, the brilliant and the banal and art and entertainment. But, perhaps, the best part about the whole venture is that it stands witness to the fact that it isn’t just because of the star or studio system that our cinema is in such a poor shape. And that good cinema can well be produced under shoestring budgets.

Love, Sex Aur Dhokha presents three stories, running for about 40 minutes each, each of which is introduced by an apt B-movie title, suggesting the highly fictional and staged nature of the segments to follow. Indeed, each of the three stories amounts to some form of performance or the other. The first segment gives us a student filmmaker, Rahul (Anshuman Jha), who idolizes Aditya Chopra and is trying to complete his diploma film that takes off from his mentor’s much loved Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (1995). The second part tells the story of a retail store manager, ironically named Adarsh (Raj Kumar Yadav), who is terribly pressed for money and plans to break through, not without much hesitation, by rigging up a sex scandal. And the third section gives us a television reporter, Prabhat (Amit Sial), and his aide, whom he saves from suicide, trying to blow the cover of a vulgar pop-star by setting up a sting operation. Banerjee uses the oldest trick of the new millennium to tie the three disparate stories together, using overlapping narratives and intersecting references and conversations, whose artificiality shows up at a few places, but not so much as to make the choice seem completely inorganic. In all three segments, there is at least one diegetic camera recording all the events – of Rahul’s professional camera, the CCTC cameras and Prabhat’s spy-cam – whose footage Banerjee splices and slices to form a seamless narrative.

The first segment, at first glance, seems cut off thematically from the other two. However, gradually, it reveals itself as a gateway to the other two segments, which starkly diverge from the idea the first one presents. Rahul, like the bumbling duo of Ishqiya (2010), does not understand the difference between life and art. He believes that life can proceed the same way as one of his mentor’s movies. He tries to port Bollywood culture on to his life – scribbling his beloved’s name on trees, eloping with friends’ help a la Saathiya (2002) and making late night phone calls to surprise his sweetheart. One even wonders if his real name is Rahul or if it is another one of his lame attempts at merging life with pop art. In other words, he does not realize that his life is the exact negation of the film he is making. A cut from the smiling face of Shruti within the film gives way to the image of her crying in reality. A scene in Rahul’s film is interrupted by a similar incident happening in real life. Shruti’s father turns out to be far from the generous father in his film. Rahul films his life 24×7, in order to send it to his idol some day, with a belief that it is as fairytale-like as the films he likes (there is even a kiss scene in this section that is severed from the frame in a manner characteristic of Bollywood). Rahul, eventually, pays the price for not understanding the vast chasm that exists between reality and its popular representation, an instance of which he is creating as his diploma project (I don’t understand why Banerjee feels the need to exaggerate the film within the film so much to emphasize this dichotomy. Comic relief, maybe).

[LSD Trailer]

Having established the disjunction between truth and its representation, Banerjee’s film attempts to explore the ethics of representation in the second segment of the film. Banerjee bases this part of the film fittingly in a supermarket – the temple of commodification and commerce. Characters, especially the two women in this segment, are almost always filmed standing amidst aisles filled with FMCG products, wearing clothing that is as colourful as the products themselves. One person in the mall tells us how commercially profitable the CCTV is, citing the hefty amount of money that the footage of a shootout brought. Welcome to the world of consumer capitalism, where violence and sex are commodities to be proliferated, packaged, advertised and sold. The moral conflict that Adarsh is presented with, when he has the option of switching off the CCTV system, is the quintessential moral question underlying capitalism – just how far will you go? In fact, the target is capitalism in all three segments of the film. Only that it is indicted through its powerful agents – mass media and Bollywood. Adarsh himself is a more polished and less addicted version of Rahul in the way he is unable to comprehend the difference between reality and its representation (and, hence perhaps, the gravity and possible consequences of his moral choice). In a cheeky homage to Jean-Luc Godard’s Band of Outsiders (1964), Adarsh gloriously “performs”, in true Bollywood fashion, a fake death stunt while he frets when an actual shootout follows. The sex scene itself is filmed head on and plays out between the storeroom shelf and a curtain suggestive of a theatrical performance.

Following this segment on the ethics of representation, Banerjee takes up the tautological (and Godardian) question of representation of ethics. This third section of the film, which deals with a sting operation performed by a private news network, is, on paper, the richest segment of the film for it’s the most morally ambiguous of the three. Morally ambiguous because, unlike the other two segments, we just aren’t able to embrace any particular side or character here. The pop-star’s activities may be highly questionable and even downright immoral, but so are the methods of the news network. Each character in this segment is prostituting himself/herself in one way or the other (Of course, here too, the punching bag is capitalism). Only that the news network, the self-proclaimed keeper of truth and justice, seems licensed to do it. More than acting as a medium of announcement, this news network, as in reality, likes to work as a moral police, telling its people what is ethically right, what is wrong, when to be enraged at someone and when to cheer for some lame event. There is apparently no difference between what the news network editor does and what Adarsh does. However, there is a ray of hope that is presented in this segment in the form of (again, the aptly named) Prabhat, the least unethical person in the film and the alter ego of the director himself perhaps, who refuses to hand over any of the footage that he has shot, sacrificing fame and money for integrity.

Of course, Banerjee’s film isn’t as consistent and ambitious in presenting us with such moral ambiguity. The characters in the first two segments are mostly black and white and we are told beforehand whom to root for and whom to curse. But as such, the film has a set of ethics (evident from its editing pattern), close to that of Prabhat’s, which it staunchly adheres to, even to the point of flaunting it. The possibly sensational sex scene is dimly lit and choreographed at a considerable distance from the camera that it is completely de-eroticized. So is the case with the murder in the first segment. In all three segments, reality is manipulated to a large extent for the sake of representation – Rahul’s film, the MMS clip and the sting operation footage – with a profit motive. Although the titular love, sex and betrayal form the prime motifs in the first, second and third segments respectively, it is clear that all three elements run though all the three sections of the film in a manner that betrays much cynicism about cinema. This cynicism towards such an important medium by a filmmaker is certainly off-putting until Banerjee presents the warm epilogue to the film, where a young girl wields the camera and charmingly interviews the various characters of the film. Yes, Banerjee does seem to recognize the power of cinema in preserving life’s most precious and fleeting moments, to convert them into art and preserve them for eternity.

 

Rating:

So, for the second time, the Pharisees
summoned the man who had been blind and said:
“Speak the truth before God.
We know this fellow is a sinner.”
“Whether or not he is a sinner, I do not know,”
The man replied.
“All I know is this:
Once I was blind and now I can see.”


Right after I posted my epic fail review of Ishqiya, bits and pieces of the film started to sink in. Many of the film’s odd choices seemed to gain a significance of their own and, before I knew it, like those clichéd second act endings, they all fell in place, presenting a whole new perspective to the film. Out of the dozen reviews I’ve read of the film, only my friend Satish Naidu’s review seemed to hit the right notes. I strongly recommend reading his review if you’ve seen the film. And yes, spoilers here too (Well, there isn’t really much in the movie that you can’t guess beforehand).

There is a post script, in Ishqiya, to the kidnap set piece where Krishna, amidst a serious argument between Babban and Khalujaan, drives the car away leaving them gaping. She might well be driving away the film there, for Ishqiya, more than anything, is about the resistance to a male view of a world by a female perspective. Ishqiya is a Western alright, with its war-torn landscape leaving no other philosophy to exist other than “might is right”. But that really doesn’t give anyone a license to call it a man’s world. The story unfolds, primarily, in the point of view of the two men, but, rather than being protagonists with clear cut objectives, they are frames of reference – a telescope – using which we view and, unfortunately, try to ‘solve’ Krishna, that obscure object of desire. Yes, they are characters of considerable depth, but they are also, ultimately, peripheral. A quick note, to begin with, about the casting of the film which seems to me like a stroke of brilliance. We have here Naseeruddin Shah and Arshad Warsi, men who have rarely been the flawless heroes, who have made a career out of bumbling and imperfect protagonists. They automatically bring into the movie with them flawed male visions that belong to two different generations. Krishna is played by Vidya Balan, who has had a popular image that could well pass off as an icon of the chaste Indian female. This incongruity between what appears and what is, which defines the whole of Ishqiya, is only furthered by this distance between Balan’s image and Krishna.

Babban and Khalujaan are closer to Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud) than any other film character I can think of. These men are (con-) artists too, like Doinel, as exemplified in their introduction scene, where Babban tricks Mushtaq with his story and flees with the money. Like Truffaut’s character, who spent a lifetime wondering if women were magic, these men can understand the opposite sex only in terms of art or, in this case, popular cinema (where Krishna is aptly photographed like being frozen in a film frame). It is only through popular film songs that these characters are able to even express their emotions. Khalujaan may make numerous mistakes in his real life, but never does he get the composer of a song wrong. Babban believes dressing up as a movie star will help him woo the girl. As noted earlier, these are men of flesh and blood. They are deeply flawed and they realize their limitations. Babban drags back Khalujaan from his macho, decidedly Western romanticism of taking Mushtaq head-on, as if reminding him that this genre movie is no place for them. In Leone’s Once Upon A Time in the West (1968), Frank (Henry Fonda), upon being asked if he is a businessman, says: “Just a man”. Like Frank, these two crooks understand every shade of men and their behavioral patterns, no matter what age group they belong to. However, for these men, like Frank, women just can’t fall in any category other than in the binary setup of the mother and the whore (Khalujaan tells Krishna that he can’t tell whether she is an angel or a courtesan) that popular cinema has given them.

But Chaubey doesn’t give a comic tinge to his characters as much Truffaut does. Yes, they do deliver those funny lines, but they are serious men. They have their own issues. Babban, also true to Bollywood morality, does not want Khalujaan to sully his mother’s name. Khalujaan, on the other hand, takes his past seriously too, through his possibly deceased (possibly non-extant) sweetheart. He really does believe that he can settle down in life. But these are not their mistakes. They are, after all, real men with real emotions and problems. These are not caricatures that we can disregard easily. In any other film, they could have been the backbone of fine drama. Their real mistake, however, is in believing that they are the only ones with problems, that they are the film. The sin of these flawed men is in believing that the woman they fall for would be unflawed. Krishna driving away the car should have given them a clue. But, products of a patriarchal society and cinema that they are, they never realize that. In fact, the whole film is built upon such male perspectives that see nothing more than what they want to see. Krishna’s husband chooses a male-dominated caste war over his wife’s love. Mushtaq prefers to keep his wife as a mere voice heard over a telephone like a horoscope (announced by a Bollywood ring tone, of course). For KK, the fidelity of the male is nothing more than a small joke. Even we, the children fed on the stereotypes of Bollywood, attempt only to classify Krishna into rigid adjectives – femme fatale, all-powerful, resilient, gutsy, seductive – whereas she may be as vulnerable as the men around her.

The key is the scene where Krishna meets her husband once again. She breaks down, for the first time in the movie, revealing her vulnerability. She stands there, with her motives exposed, being emotionally hit. All this while she had been toying along with the two conmen, for she was far assured of her modus operandi. She offers tea for the man who gives her a better kidnap plan, only to deliberately fire the other one up. Krishna, in the scene in which she sleeps with Babban, clearly reveals that she is only exploiting this lucky situation that has come her way for her own good and with the assurance that and that the plan is on track. Not now. The petty goons are all down now. It’s now man on man, so to speak. It’s the only showdown this revisionist Western will have (My genre-addicted mind would have liked a couple more extreme close-ups). Film critic Baradwaj Rangan, perceptive as always, notes that Krishna is essentially an updated version of Jill (Claudia Cardinale) in Once Upon a Time in the West. That, I guess, is the only kind of classification that Krishna can be subjected to. The strongest point of the movie is that it does not try to define her or push her into a single zone of existence in which she may be only be moral, immoral or amoral. She, like many of us, could well be straddling all three. What we may be having here, far from being a character study, is personal cinema in which the writer and director are sharing our own inability to understand Krishna, and by the fact that she is the only woman in the film (not considering the old woman, who might well be an aged Krishna), women in general.

We, the audience, on the other hand, are frustrated like Khalujaan because of this inability to break her down into stereotypes. When she sucks the blood out of Babban’s thumb, one is tempted to jump the gun and label her a vamp. But she might just be using another lucky opportunity there, to strengthen her chances of pulling off the kidnap. Or may be not. Krishna defies identification, which we have all been accustomed to, through standard templates reserved for women in Bollywood which, in turn, are derived from popular mythological figures. She might be sharing herself with many men, taking turns, but she is far from the ultra-faithful Draupadi that her name means. She might appear to be pining for her beloved, a la Meera, as she sings, but that pining is for something else altogether. She is like Savitri too, but she prefers dragging back her husband to death (Death and Krishna being the two people he tricked) rather than the usual way. In the final scene, she merely attempts to restore back a reality that wasn’t. When she faces her husband again, she might well have paraphrased  that legendary Bresson line: “I’d rather prefer you leaving me for the love of another woman than for what you call your intellectual life“. And when Babban watches her undress, there is not only the distance of voyeuristic cinema between them, but also this literal wound of Krishna’s past, which only breaks out during the final confrontation, that adds one more layer of enigma for Babban, and consequently us.

It is the opening and closing scenes, or even shots, that really tie the movie together. The film opens with a male perspective, fading out of black, with Krishna on the bed in a reclining, arguably sexist pose. She appears nothing short of a magical being, which is an opinion only the male could have here (Let’s stick to straight orientations for now). And it is a pose that typifies the attractive woman in Bollywood cinema. From this point on, the film’s male perspective, our own “male” perspective and the Bollywood perspective get tied together. And the film closes, literally, with another male point-of-view. Here, Mushtaq watches the three walk away through the lens of his sniper gun. Khalujaan and Babban walk happily, perhaps with the idea that they’ve understood Krishna and one of them will “get the girl”. What they don’t understand is that the real trouble begins after this (This real-drama-begins-after-the-end-credits-roll facet of Ishqiya is one of the reasons why I was reminded of that Almodóvar film whose title I borrowed for the review). Their belief that they will return to a more conventional cinema zone, in which women are easily deconstructed, may well be shattered the next minute by Krishna. As the film presents a POV shot of Mushtaq watching them through the lens, the black circle closes in on the three, thereby ending the film simultaneously through our perspective, Mushtaq’s and in a manner unique to classical feel-good cinema. Chaubey’s film is cynical in a way. It breaks into a new world from within a undoubtedly male world of Bollywood and, at the end, restores that new world back to its obscured state. It unveils the groundbreaking Krishna through a male vision and, then, locks her back using the same, as if suggesting that popular cinema, itself included, will never understand “the woman“. Well, that acknowledgment is a start.

Ishqiya

Once Upon A Time In The North 
(Image courtesy: NDTV)

Thanks to debutant filmmaker Abhishek Chaubey (who shares the writing credits of Kaminey (2009)), I’ve been able to watch a film that is absolutely unprovocative, after a long time. As the end credits rolled, I walked out of the cinema hall trying to recollect what felt like a distant memory, like the story of a film that a friend had recited when you were half asleep. Chaubey’s Ishqiya (2010) is a film that exists in some kind of a cinematic void, with only barebones of a relationship with its predecessors. Chances are that you’ll be pleasantly surprised if you thought the film would stink and disappointed if you expected too much from it. I fear that even if I toss a coin to find my stance regarding the film, it would land on its edge. What can you really say about a film that’s got a set of aesthetics tangible enough to arouse interest and uneven enough to restore your smugness, characters quirky enough to hold your attention and set pieces inefficient enough to allow you to not give a damn about them and a knowledge of cinema that’s impressive enough to tease us with the film’s choices and unambitious enough to not go all the way? Ishqiya is a film that seems to have landed, with considerable luck, smack dab in the eye of a cyclone whereby the film neither attracts nor repels, but just sits, like Bill Murray, in a vacuum. OK, this is getting too abstract.

Khalujaan (Naseeruddin Shah) and his nephew, Babban (Arshad Warsi), are two small time crooks who hit the road after getting their hands on a hefty sum of money. With nowhere to run for cover, they, somehow, land up in a village near the city of Gorakhpur where they find refuge at the residence of an old acquaintance, hoping to cross the national border into Nepal. After putting up with some dodging by their hostess, Krishna (Vidya Balan), they come to know that the man they have come here seeking has been long dead. By a tragic turn of events and the inevitable need to proceed to the second act, the money they’ve been carrying around gets pinched just as the duo get tracked down by the true owner of the money. With one last chance given, the pair, working on a plan charted out by Krishna, decide to kidnap a big shot in the city and make enough money to pay back the stolen sum and to settle down for life. But then, both of them eat the forbidden fruit as they fall for Eve – Krishna – who, in turn, does not give a clear indication to either one of them.  To get a clearer sense of the film’s script, take Mani Ratnam’s Thiruda Thiruda (1993, co-written by Ram Gopal Varma, whose film Rann, incidentally, opens this week and ) and strip down all its grand set pieces, action genre elements and ensemble cast. Bland? Yes.

The central conceit of Ishqiya seems to be that of a Western. The literally explosive opening sets the tone for the tale that’s going to unfold in this outwardly serene yet war-torn land. Speaking of war-torn lands, there are far too few shots of the landscape of the village which is really sad, for what’s a Western without the Wild West?! Apart from this basic glitch, you have broad syntax of the Western more or less intact. There are the typical outsiders – two of them, in this case – who enter a completely alien townscape and find themselves trapped in the local gang wars. These are perfect “road people” that we are talking about. Then there’s Vishal Bhardwaj’s Ennio Morricone-esque score that does a whole lot of good to the film. There’s even an ending where the triumphant “lone rangers” ride off into the sunset. But the fatal blow to this attempt at a wonderful transposition of a foreign genre into an indigenous landscape is dealt by the largely inept development of the protagonists. Let’s make no mistake about this. The Western genre has always been, primarily, about morality, about the need to hold a moral ground in an amoral and hostile environment and about the validity of one’s own moral standing (The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1966) – it’s all taken apart, right in the title!), thanks to which they retain a timeless, philosophical quality. Ishqiya, unfortunately, turns a blind eye to this requirement.

The lead characters here, on the other hand, are presented with no formidable moral choices at all. If I remember correct, there are exactly two points in the film where Khalujaan has to make a moral decision (the same goes for Babban, who isn’t much different, although we are led to believe otherwise, early in the film). The first is when he is asked to take part in a kidnapping and the second, when he is asked by Babban to kill Krishna. In both cases, Chaubey cuts away too quickly, sacrificing quality drama to carry forward the plot. This moral imbalance is only furthered by the presence of the most important and well rounded character in the film, Krishna, who, thank heavens, for once, does not advertise her moral universe using monologues or outbursts. She constructs her own moral fabric wherein she does not make a fuss about kidnapping a man to get what she wants. Here’s a married woman who does not mind seducing two men simultaneously as long as it helps her purpose (It’s not for nothing that her name is Krishna). She doesn’t flinch one bit to knock off her beloved husband just because he had ditched her earlier. So we have the all-powerful Krishna, who can go any length to get what she wants, on one side of the see-saw and the pair of charlatans, who are ready to even lick boots for survival, on the other. Right there, the moral tension is lost and film turns away from being character-driven, which is how it starts out as, to, sadly, being plot-driven.

[Ishqiya Trailer]

There’s really no problem with that except when you don’t provide any emotional anchor to root for a character (I’m going old school just because the mode of discourse Ishqiya adopts is generic). What happens here, as a result, is that we are only indifferent to the very many actions and gestures unfolding on screen. Consider the sequence where Krishna holds the duo hostages for one last time. This moment is followed by the duo tricking Krishna and getting the pistol back from her. Genre grammar tells us that dramatic tension should be cranked up when at least one of the parties is in power. No. We just don’t give a damn and wait for the next plot point. We don’t feel anything when Babban slaps Krishnaa following this. Why? May be because we never really sided with any of these characters. Only Naseeruddin Shah, with his characteristic quirks and improvisation, adds some flavor to Khalujaan. But even his character is presented with no real challenge in the script and, instead, is made to move along with the plot. Neither are our sentiments with the pivotal Krishna, who is but another instance of the militant brand of feminists “New Bollywood” cinema has been endorsing for some time now. In an attempt to break away from the stereotype of the divine, chaste female who sacrifices herself for her man, these films have resorted to the opposite end of the spectrum where the woman is the ultimate destroyer, which, I think, is equally questionable.

There is something very strange and intriguing, not necessarily bad, about all these characters in Ishqiya. Take the two crooks, Khalujaan and Babban, who, although played by stars, aren’t really heroes or even brave men. All they desire is to survive and, if possible, get the girl (Heck, they start their journey from the grave they have dug for themselves!). They do not wish to outwit the owner of the money they’ve stolen from. They don’t attempt to exploit the gang war for their benefit or for anyone’s (These are not Yojimbos!). They don’t carry out the kidnapping successfully. Why, they even require the help of a bumbling police force and an old woman to pull off the final stunt. These are truly flawed characters. All this takes these characters away from genre cinema, which Ishqiya seems to gleefully build upon, towards realism. In fact, call it the irony of Bollywood cinema, these characters seem so multi-dimensional when they are supposed to play cardboards. Even Krishna’s husband, who is allotted not more than ten screen minutes, feels true to life (and is, sadly, played ‘realistically’!). It is as if these real-life characters have been nudged into a genre movie after being given a brief and asked to improvise their way out of it (opposite of what Tarantino generally does). This does sound really interesting, but it never really amounts to anything. The actual triumph, in fact, comes in the form of a minor character – the owner of the stolen money – who is, probably, the only character who knows where he is and, thankfully, gets to close the film.

The first half hour is perhaps when the film is at its finest, with the relationship between characters being established using well choreographed compositions, and where the feminist stance of the film is at its most commendable. Early on, when both the audience and the two men are struggling to understand what kind of a person Krishna is, she is, fittingly, photographed almost exclusively behind bars, through doorways and within closed structures, as if she’s dodging analysis. We are even led to believe that she is like Meera, but it turns out that she’s far from a woman who pines for her man who’s gone away (This Meera doesn’t mind two more men meanwhile!). And at the end of the film, she’s seen out in the vast open walking peacefully with these two men, with nothing to hide. However, this attention to composition isn’t always consistent and the film, for most of its runtime, loses track of its own aesthetics. This kind of tapering off of intensity is visible within separate set pieces of the film too. What start out as a gritty genre pieces end up nowhere. The kidnap set piece, to cite one example, begins with standard thriller procedures but, eventually, moves towards deadpan comedy wherein it’s the common public that carries out the kidnap. This kind of attempt to work from within and, then, out of genre templates may have been intentional on part of Chaubey, but it doesn’t exactly give a whack. It doesn’t really hurt the film either. The film, somehow, seems to neutralize itself. Go stare at it if you want.

 
Rating: Whatever

Avatar

And Herzog Laughed... (Image Courtesy: Impawards)

James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) is a masterpiece. It’s a movie that is epic in its scope and groundbreaking in its techniques. James Cameron is one of the most imaginative minds in Hollywood today and, in Avatar, he presents us a whole new universe so rich in detail and so endlessly inventive that one can’t help but surrender to the magic of the film. But more than being just an exciting movie experience, it provides us with so many profound subtexts that will have you ruminating long after you leave the cinema hall. Avatar is not just the special summer blockbuster, it is a scathing satire about man’s plundering of his environment, a parable about the conflict between nature and machines and the inevitable victory of the former, an appeal for conservation of diversity and a trenchant exploration of human greed and its consequences.

Ya, right. Now, the review:

James Cameron’s Avatar is a summation of all that’s wrong about Hollywood cinema. The only difference between James Cameron and the teenage fanboy who never misses out on any summer action movie is that Cameron has got the money. Endlessly exploitative, determinedly commercial, cinematically incompetent and morally dishonest, Avatar makes the films of Michael Bay seem like Martin Scorsese’s. At least in Michael Bay’s movies, like any other low-budget B-movie, one gesture of honesty shines through – that the people behind the camera are merely trying to make a living, by whatever means possible. With these movies, you at least know that everything is manipulated and put together with little creativity to sell and earn something. Unlike self-proclaimed artists like Spielberg and Cameron, these directors know their scope and are satisfied with sticking to what they do best (Can you imagine Bay making a Holocaust movie? Neither can he). Cameron returns to the screen after 12 long years, following Titanic (1997), to make this tepid genre movie and one only wonders if he was too immersed in his “research” to keep up with the pace of Hollywood in these dozen years.

The plot? Not a new one at all. The year is 2154 and it is a fact that humans have set foot on an exotic planet called Pandora inhabited by a race called Na’vi. They are here to mine some very valuable minerals and take them back home. But alas, the Na’vi are not willing to relocate and make way for the American mining company SecFor, headed by Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi), that has set up a base in Pandora. The company has two schools of action. One, led by Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), believes in learning the Na’vi culture, becoming friends with them and proceeding with peaceful negotiations for the relocation. The other, headed by Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang), believes in brute force and has already mustered up enough arms to blow up the planet. Now, a disabled marine named Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is transferred to the station and he has to act as the bodyguard (using a different body, of course) to the peaceful group as they move about in Pandora, condescending on Na’vi kids and hugging trees. But then, he discovers that he is the brave soul that the Na’vi are looking for. And all of a sudden, he becomes everyone’s hero. Knocking about in Grace’s camp, reporting to Lang and bonding with the Na’vi, Sully’s life is only all too good for him until the day, well, it isn’t.

Avatar is a conformist film. It acknowledges, reinforces and perpetuates every myth that the popular media has created and disseminated throughout the world. Mixing all possible ethnic and gender stereotypes, Cameron creates an alien race that seems just like the human race, living in perennial Halloween (Yes, there are the token Japanese, Indian and black American characters too). The Na’vi are modeled on oriental and African types of Hollywood – tall, lanky and with large nostrils and broad nasal bones. All their women have hourglass structures and the men, six packs. Their English accent and exotic religious practices are clearly those of the African clans or Asian settlements that Hollywood gives us. Not only does Cameron anthropomorphize aliens (which is only expected from popular cinema), but gives them the stock status of the noble tribe who live by strict Victorian morals and exist in harmony with nature with their simple desires and dreams. Furthermore, their emotional pattern is same as ours (surprise, surprise) with all the popular notions of love, sacrifice and fraternity intact. James Horner’s score suffuses the soundtrack with quintessential African chorus and ethnic vocals, the likes of which one can find in those movies about Tibet or Uganda. What next – a MacDonald’s outlet in Pandora? James Cameron’s film may have attempted to make some larger than life statements about imperialism, but, in the end, it is Cameron who turns out as the cultural imperialist.

This attempt by the script to overreach and make broad political statements is what really kills Avatar. Remove the 380 million dollar cover of the film and you will find a B War movie chuckling beneath. Avatar regularly tries to call our attention to the parallel it strikes with the WW2 and the Vietnam War (One character calls the Na’vi “blue monkeys” in the bushes and another wants to blow up a crater on the Pandora surface that generations will remember. Oh, how subtle). The sheath it uses to cover its shallow liberal messages is as deep as thin ice. And the movie harnesses every possible chance to demonize these characters who want to plunder the resources of Pandora at any cost. Is this a gesture of introspection or self-criticism? No, it’s fake repentance. Avatar still remains a film that upholds the political ethics of America and continues the streak of white man’s victory in an alien land. Look how Cameron has the handful of guys in the film, who apparently want to negotiate peacefully with the Na’vi, side with the natives and take up arms all of a sudden (as if they didn’t see this coming) and, in effect, segregates the “good” Americans from the “evil” ones. By alienating one set of Americans by intense caricaturing and observing the other with considerable empathy, Cameron successfully preserves the popular morality of the American armed forces, wherein the just alone shall be rewarded. It still takes the leadership of a white man and the martyrdom of a few others to defeat evil forces. Now, why in Pandora couldn’t the Na’vi kick all the imperialist butts by themselves in the first place?

In Starship Troopers (1997), a film that I don’t really care much for, Verhoeven avoids most of these pitfalls as he stretches the film’s campy nature all the way to leverage the resultant the absurdity to make his statement. But no. Cameron wants us to engage emotionally with the characters – with these shallow characters. Complete with the corniest of lines, which are at least three decades old for Hollywood, each character in the film is a cliché. The American dude, the geeky systems engineer, the savage colonel, the resolute female scientist, the brave and virtuous native girl and her tough suitor are all familiar to us now and not one of them has any depth (No, not because I saw the film in 2D). Only rarely are the characters aware of the same (Weaver seems to be consciously reprising her character from the Alien quadrilogy), but Cameron kills of any such cinematic joy immediately. Not just the characters, each body gesture, each conflict, each set piece and each emotional conversation falls on predictable lines, as in ordinary animation films. One can actually spot the precise points where the first and second acts end. Unlike Peter Jackson’s Rings trilogy or even the Warcraft series of games, Avatar just doesn’t have meaty literature or memorable characters to build upon and nudge us into a complete new world. And did someone say that Cameron was a visual storyteller? For most part, instead of simple on-screen text, Avatar’s story is told to us through unbelievable conversations between characters where they sum up situations and emotions (Parker has to remind grace about their mission even after years of working in Pandora). Avatar could have well served as a commentary about internet culture, where one can assume a whole new personality and lead a whole new life, where one can try to undo all the wrong moves he/she might have done in real life and which, like cinema, is a zone of wish-fulfillment. But the film sets its gaze elsewhere.

Suspending all my complaints about the shallow and pretentious script and considering Avatar as an uncomplicated genre movie does not help either. One strong point for the movie seems to be the exhilarating experience and the visual inventiveness the film supposedly offers. But there, too, Cameron’s movie seems utterly deficient (I have only seen the film in 2D, but I do believe that 3D, unless used for Brechtian causes, is purely a gimmick). Cameron sticks to tried and tested genre grammar and compositions which are far from the breakthrough that the film is being hailed as. The diagonally descending camera as the characters commute, the arcing shots when a CG delicacy unfolds, the handheld through the woods or even the sudden exposure of vast, open spaces are all tools exploited and killed many times over right from the Indiana Jones (Spielberg, now there is a visually inventive director) to the Transformers series. A lot of times, I felt, Cameron sacrifices composition for cheap 3D jolts (the arrow has to hit you some time in the movie, that’s the basic), which one can identify easily in the two dimensional version too. His cuts serve the purpose of hiding CG defects than to provide a new way of depicting action. Then, there is Cameron’s excessive use of close ups of the Na’vi that seem like moves to show off character design (the science behind which is indeed praiseworthy). These are shots that cry out for technical attention and which will be, without doubt, played endlessly in technical conferences and in the DVD extras where the makers would explain how they used “emotion capture” to create the Na’vi out of the actors and how they had to design separate jaw and dental systems for the creatures (Yes, I’m taking about you, Mr. Button). Mr. Cameron, we are the audience, not the auditors. You need not justify your budget within your film.

Let the fanboy bashing begin!

 

Verdict:

The Limits of Control

Last Year in Jarmuschabad 
(Image Courtesy: Impawards)

If I had to resort to one of those crude movie equations to describe Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control (2009), it would have to be “Quentin Tarantino minus the hyperkinetics”. Studded with a plethora of movie references, Jarmusch’s movie is a film buff’s dream, literally. In some ways, Jarmusch is like Pedro Almodóvar, who has been consistently accused of being apolitical in his movies (Is it a mere coincidence that The Limits of Control is based and shot in Spain?). But a little investigation shows that the very nature of Almodóvar’s films – with their explicitness of ideas and visuals – reinforces the difference between contemporary Spain and Francoist Spain and, in the process, draws a portrait of a country that has come a long way since those oppressive years. Jarmusch’s cinema, too, does not exist in vacuum. With their plotless scripts and unhurried pacing, his movies are the perfect antidote to the summer blockbuster of Hollywood. These films have been relentlessly repudiating Hollywood’s ideas of filmmaking and its mantras for success through the years. However, with this movie, Jarmusch establishes himself as the absolute antithesis of the industry-driven cinema of America. It is almost as if Jarmusch believes that he exists only because an entity called Hollywood exists – a kinship like the one between The Joker and Batman. Hollywood and Jarmusch, it seems, complete each other. In that sense, not only is The Limits of Control Jarmusch’s most political movie, it is also his most personal and most complete film.

The Lone Man (Isaach De Bankolé) dresses in snazzy formal clothing and meets up with two men at an airport, one of whom speaks Spanish and the other translates. The conversation is completely tangential to the mission briefing, which seems like some illegal job, possibly an assassination. He listens to them keenly, gets up and leaves. Cut to Madrid. In the city, he visits art galleries daily before retiring for the day at the local restaurant, where he orders two espressos in separate cups. He is, of course, waiting for Violin (Luis Tosar), who, like all the other agents in the film, exchanges matchboxes with him. The Lone Man draws out a piece of paper from his matchbox, which has some kind of codes written on it. He memorizes them and eats the paper. A day or few later, he has a rendezvous with a blonde woman (Tilda Swinton). The matchbox routine is followed. This time the matchbox contains a bunch of diamonds, which the Lone Man hands over to the woman (Paz De La Huerta) who has been staying with him in his hotel room. He leaves Madrid and on the next train meets up with an oriental woman, Molecules (Youki Kudoh), who has her own scientific, religious and philosophical theories to tell him. After the matchbox ritual, he checks into the hotel at Seville. There, he attends a dance rehearsal and meets Guitar (John Hurt) who tries to derive the etymology of the word “Bohemian” and hands him over a priceless guitar. Lone Man leaves the town. On the way to his next destination, where he would meet a Mexican (Gael García Bernal), he snips off one of the guitar strings that he will soon use to assassinate an important man. Make what you will of this weird plot, but you can’t blame the film for what it does not have. Jarmusch has written and directed the movie exactly the way he wants it to be.

The Limits of Control continues to explore one of the director’s favorite questions – How aloof can a man be from his surroundings? Till this film, this idea was most manifest in Ghost Dog (1999) (which clearly takes off from Jean-Pierre Melville’ austere Le Samourai (1967)), wherein a Black American lone ranger living in Jersey City follows the code of the Samurai and, in effect, constructs his own moral and psychological world. In The Limits of Control, the Lone Man – an American who performs Tai Chi in dressing rooms, hotels and train compartments in Spain – is a blue whale in a baby carriage. The film opens with a quote by Arthur Rimbaud: “As I descended into impassable rivers I no longer felt guided by the ferrymen”, recalling the final scene of Dead Man (1995). This “impassable river” soon goes on to take multiple meanings in the film as Lone Man commutes from the labyrinthine western structures of Madrid to sparse and open locales of the Spanish countryside. This fitting quote is followed by the bizarre opening shot whose camera angle presents us the Lone Man in a seemingly reclining position, like that of William Blake (Johnny Depp) in Dead Man. The Lone Man has already entered the mystic river. Production Designer Eugenio Cabarello’s fabulous work gives us ominous vertical, horizontal, diagonal and spiral structures that attempt to devour the Lone Man. Christopher Doyle’s camera arcs and glides to trap the Lone Man within the convoluted architectures of the film, in vain. Evidently, the Lone Man is Jim Jarmusch himself, like a monk, relentlessly wading through from the corrupt, impassable and savage rapids of Hollywood.

The Limits of Control is an unabashed celebration of art, of its eccentricities and of losing oneself in it. The film is loaded with conversations about paintings, music, dance, films and books. In fact, Jarmusch’s film is closer to Last Year at Marienbad (1961) than any other. “It’s just a matter of perception”, says one of the characters in this movie. The world in The Limits of Control is one that exists solely in the mind of its protagonist. Like in Marienbad, Jarmusch uses parallel structures – hedgerows, pillars and hallways – to underscore the idea that what we see is not a physical world built out of concrete and cement but the labyrinths of the mind – memories and experiences, particularly, of art. If the surroundings, at times, seem highly artificial, it’s because that is how the Lone Man perceives it to be. It’s a world that is completely parallel to the real one, like Jarmusch’s cinema. It’s a world which is far more valid, uncorrupt, honest and truer than the real world for the Lone Man, very much like Jarmusch himself. One character quotes that “For me, sometimes the reflection is far more present than the thing being reflected” and that “La Vida No Vale Nada” (Life is worthless), as if believing that if at all there is some meaning to be found anywhere, it is in this world of art – the one which they live in. It is this alternate world that interests Jarmusch more than the real one. The film is parenthesized between shots of the Lone Man entering and leaving his dressing room –the portal to the film’s world. The first cut in to the movie signals, through the skewed camera angle, the other worldliness to come and the final cut out of the film, an unmistakable Jarmusch signature, segregates the film from squalor of the real world (This cut recalls the final one in Broken Flowers (2005), where the director nudges the hitherto Jarmuschian protagonist into the melodramatic clockwork of the pop cinema and cuts away to indicate the end point of his world).

Throughout The Limits of Control, there is the notion of interchangeability of art and life – of reality and memory. Representation becomes perception and vice versa. One character even believes that violins have a memory and can remember every note that is ever played on them. The Lone Man watches the paining of a nude woman, only to find a nude woman lying on his bed, in a similar position, a few minutes later. His point-of-view shot of the vast expanses of the city of Madrid is intercut with a similar paining of the city. Life becomes images and images come to life. The Limits of Control reinforces George Steiner’s theory that “it’s not the literal past that rules us, but the images of the past”, through works of art and through one’s own memory – the two carriers of history – that have preserved them from being destroyed completely. Jarmusch’s movie reflects on how these images of the past – our masters – are being rapidly corrupted and replaced by the ones from popular media in an attempt to forge false histories, destroy critical mythologies and homogenize world culture by influencing their past (art) and present (life), through endless stereotyping and manipulation of truth, to reflect kindred iconographies and system of beliefs (One can sense seething anger beneath the cool exterior of the film). The climax of the movie (that I, first, felt was crude and which, now, I feel is deliciously Lynchian) depicts the Lone Man in a remote region in Spain getting ready for a face off with his adversary, a typical Conservative, American executive (Bill Murray, top class), who does not understand or give a damn about these “bohemian” ideas of art and who has infiltrated the deepest of foreign regions on a mission, perhaps, to establish the biggest studios, worldwide.

[The Limits of Control Trailer]

The Limits of Control seals Jarmusch’s position as a reactive filmmaker. Each facet of the film seems like a move against the “industry norm”. The cast consists almost entirely of non-Hollywood actors. The film is shot on location in Spain, a world away from the cluttered studios of Fox or Universal. The average shot length is way too high compared to that of the blockbusters. The colour palette isn’t at all like anything we see on TV every day. On the surface, Jarmusch’s is the typical man-on-a-mission movie. His script, however, is made up entirely of in-between events that are taken for granted in such movies. There is a Bourne movie, a Bond movie and a McClane movie unfolding somewhere in the background. But that is not Jarmusch’s world. What Jarmusch did with cinematic time in his movies, so far, is applied to cinematic space in The Limits of Control. Jarmusch’s “dead time” has always complemented Hollywood’s “show time”. In The Limits of Control, he goes to the extent of dividing his protagonist’s world into Hollywood zones and non-Hollywood zones. The moment our man enters a “Hollywood infested zone”, the camera goes crazy, the editing becomes rapid and the soundtrack starts blaring, while at other times they remains sober. None of the “actions” of the mission are shown on screen. Like Le Samourai, which opens with an photograph-like shot of the protagonist, Jef Costello (Alain Delon), on his bed and goes on to show us a zombie-like detached figure walking through familiar checkpoints in a genre movie as if performing a ritual, Jarmusch’s Lone Man is seen, for most part, lying down on bed and walking towards his next strategic position. We come to know neither of the meaning of the codes that he gathers, not of his business with diamonds and matchboxes. Heck, we don’t even get to know his name.

Quentin Tarantino said about The Bride in Kill Bill (2003-04) that she was, in fact, fighting through all the exploitative cinemas from around the world. Tarantino’s movie both paid homage to and incriminated all the exploitative movies that the director had grown up on. Likewise, within his world of art, Jarmusch integrates cinemas from around the world in an attempt to illustrate that all art is one (Molecules tells us that Hindus believe the whole world to be one and that she thinks people are nothing but molecules rearranging themselves regularly). There are actors from almost every continent in the film. Like The Bride, the Lone Man wanders these empty corridors on a mission to keep art untainted. His arch nemesis seems to be the “art industry” that tries to infiltrate his perception (of the world, of art and of this art-world) and impose its own dynamics in it. The Limits of Control is a clash of these two perceptions where the title of the film refers to the ability of one to “think the right thing”, free from TV-driven emotional response systems. During the final scene, upon being inquired, not so politely, how he got into the heavily guarded building, the Lone Man says “I used my imagination” as if pointing out that one’s acceptance of rejection of popular beliefs is purely a question of the psychology. So the film also unfolds as one man’s journey into his own subconscious, to free himself from the chains that bind him to predictable ways of acting and thinking. It’s an odyssey to rid art of capitalistic models based on consumerism and marketability (The post credits sequence flashes a huge marquee that reads: “No Limits No Control”). The film is counteractive to every “formula” that pop cinema sticks to for keeping its “products” of art saleable (“No guns, no cell phone, no sex” quips someone in the film). Again, Resnais’ and Marker’s Statues Also Die (1953), an overt, one-sided but well-crafted bashing of the western world’s fetish for exotic art and its detrimental effects on lifestyles and cultures, comes to mind.

But, by no means is Jarmusch’s film a propagandist assault on this conveyor-belt mindset of ours. It is far too assured and composed for that kind of conversation. “I’m among no one”, claims the Lone Man. Jarmusch makes it clear that he does not have an agenda here. He just wants no other agenda to be made with respect to art. He is not against any particular system or a film industry, he is against the very notion of industries that try to regulate and quantize the quality of art. And justifiably, his movie is a celebration of all such films that have survived the concentration camps of major studios. Jarmusch adorns the movie with references to iconoclastic movies that have raised their voice against the oppressive, money-driven tendency of the studio systems. Early in the film, the Lone Man returns to his hotel room in Madrid to find a nude woman named, well, Nude on his bed. She asks him if he likes her posterior. This, of course, is the hyperlink to Godard’s polemical Contempt (1963), where the director bit not only the hand that fed him, but all such hands which feed only conditionally (Jarmusch even recreates the shots of Brigitte Bardot swimming). Later, Blonde, a film buff, talks about The Lady from Shanghai (1947), where Welles had to put up with a lot of meddling by the execs at Columbia Pictures. Jarmusch even sneaks in pointers to his own movies, effectively categorizing his movies under this kind of cinema of resistance, although he never takes sides. There are broken flowers, there are coffees and cigarettes everywhere in the film and the Lone Man, whose cousin lived by the Samurai code, travels in a mysterious train with that Japanese girl who we saw in Memphis a few years ago. There are also movies that Jarmusch loves and pays tribute to. There is Jean-Pierre Melville, there is Aki Kaurismaki and there is Andrei Tarkovsky, packed somewhere into this seemingly sparse and empty film.

Because of all this and more, watching The Limits of Control is like having a déjà vu marathon. Notwithstanding the fact that many lines in the movie, as is the case in other Jarmusch films, are recited over and over throughout, one gets the feeling of having seen these people, these objects and these setups somewhere, sometime ago – another Resnaisian trait of the film (specifically redolent of one of Marienbad’s powerful, enigmatic quotes “Conversation flowed in a void, apparently meaningless or, at any rate, not meant to mean anything. A phrase hung in midair, as though frozen, though doubtless taken up again later. No matter. The same conversations were always repeated, by the same colorless voices.”). It is the kind of experience some people have watching Vertigo (1958). “The best films are like dreams, you’re never sure you really had.” tells Blonde. Indeed. Like Allen’s Shadows and Fog (1992), The Limits of Control blossoms out as a dream in which you meet the most unexpected of movie stars in the most trivial of roles. Jarmusch’s self-referential tricks only add to this strange familiarity that we feel with the movie. Blonde likes movies where people just sit there, doing nothing. Ring a bell? She tells the Lone Man that Suspicion (1941) was the only film in which Rita Hayworth played a blonde. The Limits of Control must be the only film in which Swinton plays a blonde. Seemingly pointless lines such as “You don’t speak Spanish, right?”, “Life is a handful of dirt” and “The universe has no center and no edges” go on to become central to the ideas of the film (there is a strange little prank involving subtitles in the all important opening conversation of the film). The major attack against The Limits of Control, I imagine, would be regarding the self-indulgent nature of the film. Sure the film is self-indulgent, but it is also more than that. It is a self-indulgent movie that promotes self-indulgence. It is a movie that dares to almost profess that art can exist for only its own sake (what else can it exist for? World peace?). That there is nothing called “progress” or “superiority” in art. That all art is one and, to kill the most frequently uttered maxim in this movie and elsewhere, everything is subjective.

 

Verdict (Oh, The Irony!):

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