After watching Inglourious Basterds last week, I skimmed through a few films I was referring to in my review and felt that Tarantino’s movie, its last chapter in particular, refers to them in a manner slightly deeper than mentioned. What I present here may be plainly speculative, but the very fact that Tarantino’s film retains enough ambiguity to generate such arguments makes the film one to be celebrated. Inglourious Basterds, more than any other movie, seems to be closest to Jean Luc Godard’s History of Cinema (1988-98). If one considers Godard’s film as a classroom lesson in cinema (Why not? The movie even resembles an office presentation!), then Tarantino’s movie is a student project (that would easily get an A+) based on that lesson. It seems that everything that the French discusses in his video anthology is absorbed and blended cleverly into a mainstream flick by Tarantino. For the sake of simplicity, I lift and reproduce the same lines from my post on Godard’s film to compare it with Inglourious Basterds.

“If we had to single out Godard’s most favorite quote it has to be the misattributed Bazin one: “The cinema, substitutes for our gaze a world that corresponds to our desires”. And this is where the series kicks off. Cinema as a substitute for our dreams – the dream factory. Godard explores the meaning of “dream” as interpreted by the two functioning extremes of cinema then. He presents the occident interpretation as one that had converted cinema into a portal offering an alternate reality, a second life, to the audience whose “dreams” were the fodder for the larger-than-life images that the films projected -one that continues till date.”

Tarantino’s film, on a basic level, as the director himself confesses, is a form of wish fulfillment. As with his other films, Inglourious Basterds unfolds as a revenge saga. But by situating his plot amidst real life events, unlike its predecessors, Tarantino is able to involve his audience more and provide better justification to the characters’ actions, rather than dealing with simple morality.

“[Godard] argues that cinema could have prevented unfortunate tragedies and averted genocides rather than merely crying over damages dealt and observing helplessly the misery of its subjects.”

Here, Tarantino seems to deviate. He seems to be of the opinion that cinema, perhaps all art, can’t ever change the world (unless, of course, you consider the way he uses it in the movie!). Proof? Take a look around. What it can do is to change the image of the world when it is passed onto a new generation.

“And in resonance with this ideology, instead of bemoaning what is lost and what could have been, Godard anticipates the death of cinema (He apparently asked Henri Langlois to burn the archives). Death, so that it can rise again from the ashes. “Art is like fire. Born from what it burns.” says Godard and that is precisely what he desires – Cinema to go down with all its exploitations and restrictions and rise in its purest form. Back to infancy, so that it can learn everything out of free will, without rules and without vanity.”

This is exactly what Marcel does when he burns the films – destroying those exploitative propagandist films of the Nazis and perhaps also those WW2 films that insist upon being loyal to reality and hence impotent. With the fire at the cinema hall that flips conventional reality, Tarantino places us at the beginning of a new history – of cinema (courtesy Tarantino) and of the world (courtesy Marcel).

“Godard attempts to reconstruct history as seen in retrospect. He utilizes existing film fragments to fabricate various histories of film – the one that was and the ones that weren’t but could have been. He examines how cinema could have been made independent of historical accounts and even made to influence them.”

This theory seems to form the core of Inglourious Basterds. Why should art ever trail history? As Bazin would say, Realism in cinema should just be the means, not the end itself. Tarantino, like Godard, sure can’t change history, but, at least, he can examine the history – again, of cinema and of the world – that could have been.

“Godard elucidates this servile relation that cinema bears to history using images of dictators and authoritarians. He highlights how the visual medium itself is being manipulated by a few people in power and how in turn, modern cinema manipulates the audience. Godard reproaches this moral policing and expresses his disapproval of the hypnosis that the TV-driven audience is subjected to. He appeals for a cinema that provokes but doesn’t direct, a cinema that gives you options but doesn’t select one, a cinema that makes you think and doesn’t think for you and a cinema that is only complete with its audience. As he quotes in one of the segments, “Cinema does not cry. Cinema does not comfort us. It is with us. It is us”.”

Tarantino, also, fills the film with fascists who seem to be exploiting the medium for questionable purposes. Goebbels’ film, like many a mainstream film that are made by another kind of fascists, has manipulated reality and wants its audience to buy that as truth. And Shoshanna’s film (like Tarantino’s) is what Godard seems to be wanting in place of Goebbels’.

“There is an intriguing recurrence of the image of human hands in the film. Godard urges artists to think with their hands – their real tools that have the potency to both create and destroy, to beautify and to horrify, to document and to change. He argues that these are the instruments capable of changing and redefining history and it is the weakness of the mind that hinders the possibility.”

Marcel, who had ‘created’ the small film with Shoshanna, is the one who would be setting fire to the pile of nitrate films. Tarantino, too, highlights his hand as he flicks the cigarette on to the heap – the hand that went from mere documentation of reality to direction of reality.

Brandon Colvin is of the opinion that Inglourious Basterds is primarily a comedy. I’m going to take a diametrically opposite path and say that this movie, when reduced to its human elements, stripped of all its film references and modernist facets, is a tragedy with a martyr called Shoshanna at its heart. The word ‘tragedy’ is often used loosely and seems to denote every tale that has a pathetic, miserable and depressing outcome. But, surely, Tragedy does not base itself upon emotions. In fact, it is quite the opposite. A tale is said to be tragic when two morally unquestionable and righteous forces are made to clash and a situation evolves when one of them has to let go of its stance, despite all convictions and emotions for the greater good. Tragedy is always the result of a choice that calls for a great sacrifice to go with it. As they say, it is our choices that define us. And a tragic choice defines us for life – either as a hero or as a coward (“merely human” would be the euphemism). Sansho the Bailiff (1954), even with its heavy pathos, is a melodrama whereas The Dark Knight (2008), despite its uplifting upshot, remains a tragedy. Shoshanna could well have married Zoller and led a very content life. Instead, she repudiates that path and takes up the task of liberating the Jews at the cost of her own life. Tarantino, apart from using Ennio Morricone’s moving piece Un Amico, employs mythological and historical iconographies to underline the magnitude of this tragedy.

The final chapter of Inglourious Basterds has got to be the densest that Tarantino has ever filmed. The chapter is ambiguously titled “Revenge of the Giant Face” as if recalling some B-movie from the 50s. But more than that, it seems to me now, it tries to allude to two of the most iconic “giant faces” of women that we know. The first would be that of Maria Falconetti in Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) – a film that is constructed out of hundreds of such giant faces. The tale of Joan of Arc by itself is a tragedy in which Joan sacrifices a normal life for the good of her people, much like Shoshanna, who, too, goes down in flames at the end of her journey. Only that Shoshanna doesn’t just suffer and prefers to take all of them down along with her. And then there is the most dreaded giant head in Greek mythology – that of Medusa the Gorgon – a mere gaze into whose eyes is supposed to petrify you. Daniel Ogden (source: Wikipedia) describes this stare of Medusa’s as “seemingly looking out from its own iconographical context and directly challenging the viewer”. Now, the Nazi officers in the final chapter are watching a fictional film, seated safely away from real life action, without any apparent threat from the images on the screen. When Shoshanna slips in her own film, with her gaze directed towards the Nazis, she essentially “looks out of context of the movie”, challenging, literally, the viewers, in a manner in which the modernist director used their actors, and petrifying them by dragging them out of their passive state.

The Passion of Joan of Arc - Dreyer

Medusa - Franz von Stuck

Inglourious Basterds - Tarantino

But then, our ideas about these two iconic characters are derived only through images and shadows – through paintings, through Dreyer’s film and through textual accounts. As George Steiner put it, “It is not the literal past that rules us. It is images of the past.” With the passage of time, history and mythology mingle to such an extent that it becomes virtually impossible to separate them. In Chris Marker’s magnum opus The Owl’s Legacy (1989), Jean-Pierre Vernant illustrates the mythos behind this practice of image (which is a word that referred to doubles, miniatures, copies and ghosts in general in Ancient Greece, the land of tragedies) creation. He tells us that images, for Ancient Greeks, were a means of facing man’s worst fears by reducing them down to caricatures. In Medusa’s case, this meant that they could see her directly in the eyes (a la Perseus who used a mirror – an image creating device – to slay her) and subsequently use these images to intimidate enemies. In Vernant’s own words: “So there is a way, though images and through stories of disarming the horror of death that the monstrous face expresses and which the image carries out so that what can’t be seen can be depicted in many ways” (recalling Godard’s quote about movies in History of Cinema: “How marvelous to be able to look at what we cannot see.”)

In the final chapter of Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino absorbs these images of dead characters from tragedies in mythology and history, blends it with the “image” of the tragic Shoshanna, who too is now dead, and, in essence, creates a mythology (Shoshanna the martyr) and history (Shoshanna the WW2 hero) of his own. Now, this is not far from what he does with his other characters in his movies, wherein he imbibes mythos and facts from within cinematic history to create new ones for his own characters. Only that, in Inglourious Basterds, his canvas seems to have expanded, with his universe transgressing boundaries defined by the history of cinema.  Furthermore, Tarantino uses the images of the movie – his Medusa mask – to “look at what he cannot see” in reality. Throughout the movie, he keeps attacking Hitler’s “image”. He depicts Hitler as a weak and paranoid individual with vermin like attributes. When he kills him in the final shootout, it is the “image” of Hitler that he wants to kill (much like the mentality behind voodoo and effigy-burning practices), for he can’t kill him in reality – exactly the same thing that Florya (Aleksei Kravchenko) does in Come and See (1985) when he fires at a photograph of Hitler in an attempt to undo the images of history, if not history itself.

In The Conformist (1970), Bertolucci equates the fascists with Plato’s prisoners of the cave, suggesting that they are blinded by fake ideologies fuelled by personal insecurities. In The Owl’s Legacy, Marker equates the audience in the cinema hall (citing Simone Weil) to those prisoners, proposing that they are blinded by images they see on screen and take them for reality. In Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino combines both these notions and presents us Nazis watching movies in a cinema hall. These “blind” Nazis enjoy the massacre that Zoller is doing on the screen, assuming that this is how it was. Zoller, on the other hand, is the only person there who knows it wasn’t so and leaves the cinema hall, breaking free from one of the captive caves he is occupying. Additionally, Tarantino does not forget to free his audience from the chains of their cave. Like it was done in Bertolucci’s film, he keeps reminding us that we are watching a movie and whatever we are seeing is a mere paining on a plastic canvas (contrary to what other films on historical subjects want us to believe). In chapter two, Raine, seated at the centre of an arrangement that resembles a Greek theater, tells the captured Nazi officer that “watching Danny beat the Nazis to death is the closest we ever get to going to the movies”. Raine seems to know that he is just the shadow of a man placed on a simple image. And because he regularly attempts to remind us of the fakery of it all, Tarantino’s violence also helps to serve the same purpose – to try to disengage us from whatever is depicted on cinema screen even when it is unmitigated and concrete. As the movie’s title confesses, its all a fraud and a very beautiful one at that.

[The Conformist (1970)]

[The Owl’s Legacy (1989)]

(Images Courtesy: Imaginary Year, Hellenica)

Never mind the Schindlers, here come the Inglourious Basterds

Never mind the Schindlers, here come the Inglourious Basterds
(Image Courtesy: Scanners)

If there is any filmmaker whose single film could evoke comparisons ranging from Happy Gilmore (1996) to La Dolce Vita (1960), it would have to be Quentin Tarantino. But why not? Here is a director who has made a name with his unique style that more or less marries the crassest and the classiest of film elements. It almost seems like no matter what film you name, you can always find a connection to Tarantino’s. Here he is, with his ultra-violent WW2 epic Inglourious Basterds, releasing in India on the birthday of a person who has become an icon of non-violence. An unimaginably large number of essays, analyses, critiques, blog posts and reviews have cropped up within weeks of its release, with opinions running the gamut, and that just goes to show how provocative this one is. It has even raised questions about creative licenses and the unlimited freedom it has given artists through the years. With Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino strays out of what many people would have till now called his comfort zone and has proven once and for all his status as an pop auteur. Inglourious Basterds may not be the film of the year, it may not even be the director’s best film, but it sure is the most important film of the decade.

For the uninitiated, here is the central premise of the film. Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) has just produced a film titled Nation’s Pride involving the real-life exploits of a Nazi Private Frederick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), who plays himself in the movie and which is going to be screened a cozy little theatre in Paris owned by a Jewish woman Emmanuelle aka Shoshanna (Mélanie Laurent). A group of American Jewish soldiers now called The Basterds, led by Lieutenant Aldo “The Apache” Raine (Brad Pitt), along with inputs from the allied forces plans to blow up the theatre in order to get the leading Nazi men including Hitler (Martin Wuttke). However, to complete their mission they have to get through the cunning and powerful Colonel Hans Landa (Christopher Waltz) who is in charge of the security at the grand event and who never leaves any stones unturned to trace out the Jews that the Nazis are in search of. Meanwhile, Shoshanna, whose family was murdered four years ago by Landa plans for her own revenge by blowing up the cinema hall using inflammable nitrate films that she has stocked through the years. Of course, as always with Tarantino, this summary is completely unimportant in comparison to what he achieves in the film.

With Inglourious Basterds, gone are the romantic days of Renoir when a couple of gentlemanly officers could end the war over a cup of tea. Now, deals are meant to be broken, enemies are meant to be stabbed from behind their backs and friends are supposed to be ratted on. Enemy corpses aren’t supposed to be given a proper burial, but should have their scalps removed. Instead of receiving a gentle kiss on their hands, ladies have their necks wrung. “I respectfully disagree” makes way for a “*bleep* you”. “Nat-zi ain’t got no humanity” replaces universal brotherhood. And scheduled duels are substituted by under-the-table gunfights. Everything in Inglourious Basterds is guerilla-esque, everyone in the film remains true to the title of the movie.  Nothing is sacrosanct, everything is to be questioned. Tarantino’s army is one that lives and moves in the shadows. What you see most definitely isn’t what it is. Like the film hints in the card game that the officers play in the tavern in the fourth chapter, the inhabitants of Tarantino’s new universe wear so many masks one over the other that it almost reduces to a Scooby Doo adventure. One isn’t supposed to believe what one sees, even if it’s all written out there.

The idea is simple. Inglourious Basterds is a 5-set tennis match. The Jews win it 3-2. For every Nazi set, there is a Jew set that follows. Throughout the film we see characters trying to get the upper hand and stay on top in whatever way possible. Even within individual chapters small scale power games are at work and one isn’t always sure how it is all going to turn out. The final images of these chapters alternate between images of the Nazis and those of the Jewish characters – Landa kissing Shoshanna goodbye, Raine carving out a swastika on a Nazi soldier, Shoshanna planning the film, Landa digging out Hammersmark’s shoe and Raine, again, with his masterpiece – much like a close tennis match. Each sequence, each shot and each dialog seems and feels like a tennis rally. The director regularly places his actors on either side of the widescreen and the audience’s eyeballs are made to go left and right throughout each conversation. Tarantino’s editing pattern could well apply to a Wimbledon telecast, for it mixes over-the-shoulder shots and two shots effectively as if providing both the audience’s and the camera’s viewpoints of the “match”. And of course, Tarantino’s writing ensures that we get the reward for the tense stretch of time he puts us through during each conversation.

The mere skeleton of the plot would reveal that Tarantino is reversing conventions here. For once, he is allowing the Jews to kill Hitler. But Tarantino keeps underlining, hinting, presaging and highlighting this reversal of roles between the Jews and the Nazis throughout the film. There is some sort of reversal going on within each structure and substructure of the film. Take the magnificent first chapter of the film wherein Tarantino throws at us everything that the film will offer us in the rest of the chapters. As Landa sits at the table, surrounded by the farmer’s family, it looks as if it is Landa who is being questioned. We are soon proven wrong and Tarantino’s majestic train of role-reversals kicks off once Landa starts digging. In a Bertoluccian touch, Tarantino keeps breaking the 180 rule without any hesitation, allowing his camera (helmed by ace cinematographer Robert Richardson) to wander into both sides of the two-shot setup to suggest the inversion of the hunter-prey relationship that adorns the whole conversation. Even his dialogues are decorated with such rhetorical clauses like “If I were in your position…” and “If you were in my shoes…”. Or consider the way he writes the first and final chapters such that they mirror each other entirely. If the Nazis kill a few Jews hiding below them during the first chapter, the Basterds will similarly gun down hundred times that number of Nazis in the last one. If Landa lights up his pipe to create a small smoke cloud in the farm house, a whole cinema hall will be burnt by the Jews. If LaPadite (Denis Menochet) is the betrayer of Jews in the opening chapter, Landa will become the traitor among the Nazis in the final chapter. Both Tarantino’s camera angles and his actor placements locate and relocate the relative positions of the Jews and Nazis throughout the film in a manner that recalls the way young Bertolucci handled his mise en scène in The Conformist (1970), which too revolved around faked identities and interchangeable personas and which Tarantino seems to be alluding to in the final few minutes of the movie.

Inglourious Basterds - Landa

Inglourious Basterds - Raine

Tarantino really puts his audience in a dicey situation here. Inglourious Basterds has been called a revenge fantasy. But never does a character in the film mention that it is a mission of revenge. The Holocaust hasn’t yet happened in the movie time and there are only hints of the Nazi’s plans for the Jews. It is only in hindsight, with the knowledge of what happened in reality, that we are able to call the film a revenge saga. If there is someone in the audience who is oblivious to Holocaust, the film might just appear otherwise. Tarantino teases us with the notion that revenge is the same kind of crime as the one that instigates it, but aided and justified by the passage of time – an idea that was ineffectively explored in Gaspar Noé’s positively disturbing Irreversible (2002). Tarantino lets the two worlds – the “real” reality and the film’s reality – collide and one’s response just depends on how much of a balance one wants to maintain between “what happened” and “what happens”. We can choose to either draw the line between “what-might-have-happened” fiction and “what-couldn’t-have-happened” fiction early on in the film or wait till Tarantino draws it for us in the last chapter.

Some commentators have suggested that Inglourious Basterds tries to humanize the Nazis and gain sympathy for them. But, surely, it isn’t the fault of the movie that we pity the SS officer when the Bear Jew prepares for the homerun or when the Nazis turn to ashes in the theatre. It is simply the ways movies work. Given a pattern of narrative, we seem to generally tend to support the weak, the suffering and the oppressed, thanks to our morality. Be it aliens of sci-fi flicks, tribes of exotic countries or mute animals of the jungles, we tend to patronize them, putting them on our moral scales. When, in A Clockwork Orange (1971), Alex de Large (Malcom McDowell) is trained to respond in a predictable fashion to certain impulses at the reformatory, Kubrick, in some ways, is speaking in a self-reflexive fashion. Alex is pure evil and there can be no other justification for his acts other than the fact that he is an evil-doer. Even so, Kubrick makes us accomplices to his acts and eventually makes us root for him. It is Kubrick who is manipulating his audience as a cosmic joke. And it has taken around four decades for some filmmaker to stimulate us in such equally provocative fashion and, in the process, make us evaluate our own moral standing and the way we tend to judge characters – on and off-screen. Speaking of A Clockwork Orange, Hans Landa drinking his glass of milk is reminiscent of and as chilling as Alex holding it in Korova Milkbar

Tarantino adorns the movie with a slew of sight gags, much like the ones we see in the Bugs Bunny cartoons, almost none of which actually fails. During Landa’s interrogation of LaPadite, at one point, he unveils his gigantic, almost unreal, smoking pipe dwarfing that of LaPadite. In the fourth chapter, when the Gestapo officer comes from within the tavern to question the officers about their accent, we see a huge whisky glass in front of him that’s unlike anything we’ve seen in the scene. Even in the last scene, when Landa hands over his knife to Raine, we are shown that Raine’s knife is the bigger one!  Furthermore, during the second chapter, as we are introduced to Hitler, he is posing for a gigantic portrait, indicating that his image is much more formidable than the man himself, whom Tarantino is happy to caricature. In fact, all these in-jokes would have fell flat if Inglourious Basterds had indeed played out as a straightforward drama. Thankfully, Tarantino’s characters are themselves cartoon-ish in nature, hence justifying whatever deformation Tarantino does to them and his attempts to reduce intense and delicate power games to petty mine-is-bigger arguments.

Tarantino doesn’t just bend and blend genres here, he takes them along the movie. His characters don’t simply absorb from genres, they are the genres. Inglourious Basterds is the kind of movie that will happen if a filmmaker casts non-actor cinephiles to act in a WW2 movie. Tarantino’s history is not a history given to him by text books (which by itself is a corrupt version), but one given to him by cinema. His characters aren’t those defined by the WW2 setting of the film, but ones from our age that have strayed into a WW2 movie. These aren’t characters have evolved from the film, but ones that have been pushed into it. What Tarantino does here is that he picks stereotypes from every genre of popular cinema and cooks them up in his WW2 broth.  In Godard’s Pierrot Le Fou (1965), the titular character tries to chew more than he can bite by jumping from one genre of cinema to another and trying to pirate the film away from the director to places only he wants to be (Early in the film, director Samuel Fuller tells us that movies are all about emotions). Continuing the tradition of Godard’s influence on Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds too absorbs quite a bit from the French, especially Pierrot. In Tarantino’s film, too, each character tries to hijack the movie from the genre it is supposed to be, as if protesting the director’s decision of forcefully situating them out of place.

[Inglourious Basterds Trailer]

Almost every character in the film tries to own a sub-genre. With his ultra neat conversational ethics and table manners, not to mention the tinge of narcissism, Landa is the quintessential smooth-talking secret agent (Landa himself insists that he is a detective later on). Aldo Raine is the leader of the men who are on a mission type, with his I-don’t-give-a-damn attitude. Shoshanna thinks she is the next Beatrix Kiddo, with her all-red femme fatale act. Poor little Zoller tries to be the romantic hero despite his designation in the film. Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger), already an actress, wants to be the deadly female spy (someone mentions Mata Hari as she talks during the tavern scene). Lt. Hicox (Michael Fassbender) is altogether from a different country’s cinema, with all his ethnic and lingual idiosyncrasies intact (“Well, if this is it, old boy, I hope you don’t mind I go out speaking the king’s?” ha!).  Even Herr Goebbels seems to think that he is in a B-grade sci-fi flick (“I have created a monster” he says). Much has been said about the corny celebratory ritual that Donny Donowicz (Eli Roth) performs at the end of his “innings”, but that only conforms to the genre that he is – the B-Comedy subgenre (Apparently, Adam Sandler was to play this part – who else?). You’ll either love his lines (and his bizarre nasal accent) or hate them, depending on how much you appreciate such type of comedy.

Apart from playing out their genres in the movie, the characters in Inglourious Basterds keep assuming different nationalities and ethnicities. Faking accents, speaking multiple languages, feigning papers and changing appearances seems to be order of the day. Characters are recognized using ethic slurs and covers are blown with the minutest of faux pas (which sort of brings back the scintillating experience of watching last year’s treasure In Bruges, which got everything right when it tried to marry the most serious of genre elements with the most absurd of situations). “I am a slave to appearances” confesses Aldo Raine as he handcuffs Landa in the final scene. Everyone in the film is. The multilingual Landa wants the Italian names to have a ring to them. The “little man” is unhappy about the unfair nickname that the Germans have given him. Hitler is convinced that the Bear Jew is a golem. Shoshanna goes to the extent of performing a full fledged ritual for this purpose. Right from the misspelt title you are told that what it looks or sounds like isn’t what it is. Tarantino pulls our legs as he switches the subtitles on and off throughout the movie, giving us only the most basic of information and leaving the rest to our ‘expertise’.

Tarantino’s complete disregard for the content of his film and his prankster attitude towards it are characteristic of Jean-Luc Godard too. But even with all the influence Tarantino has managed to kill his “father” with a distinct style that borrows from Godard’s yet deviates starkly. The greatest asset that Tarantino seems to possess is the ability to maintain a consistent tone in the movie. Even when he marries genres as wide and fatal as melodrama and thriller, he maintains a certain kind of detachment from it that lends these sequences a tongue-in-cheek flavour which unites them under a single stylistic umbrella despite their vast disparity. One deadly flaw that Vishal Bhardwaj’s Kaminey (2009) had was that, in an attempt to marry genres, he ended up marrying styles too, which made the film be nothing more than a surface imitation. On the other hand, even when he cuts to cheesy in-movie documentaries (narrated by Samuel L. Jackson), again reminding us of Godard’s My Life To Live (1962) where the director seamlessly includes a mini documentary that lists down statistics and factoids about prostitution in Paris, Tarantino maintains a strong grip on the filmmaker’s gaze towards his subject, never allowing us to mistake him for inconsistency of style.

Tarantino’s idea of filmmaking is akin to blowing a balloon. He blows and blows, till the onlookers cringe and then he allows it to pop. The mantra, for him, seems to be not “if it bends its funny, if it breaks it’s not funny”, but “if it bends its funny, if it breaks it’s funnier”. This way, I guess one could call him anti-Hitchcockian. Hitchcock’s sums up his legendary theory of suspense thus:

There is a distinct difference between ‘suspense’ and ‘surprise’, and yet many pictures continually confuse the two. I’ll explain what I mean.

We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let us suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, ‘Boom!’ There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table, and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware that the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the décor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions this same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene.

The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There’s a bomb underneath you and it’s about to explode!’

In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second case we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed. Except when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story.

Take the case of Tarantino. The audience always knows the outcome of his set pieces – that the balloon is going to pop one way or the other. Additionally, he doesn’t inform his audience of the popping time. Instead of making us ask questions like what will happen, he makes us ask when will it happen (and here, Tarantino likes to stretch the audience’s patience). Furthermore, Hitchcock preferred not to make that bomb of suspense explode, for he believed that it will make the audience uncomfortable, whereas one can bet that Tarantino will relish in showing what you expect (Not only will the Hitchcockian bomb explode, but limbs will fly, heads will roll and blood will flow). In fact, in Inglourious Basterds, not only do the Basterds’ bombs explode, but the theatre burns as per Shoshanna’s plans, Landa’s “private” bomb goes off and Donowitz and Ulmer (Omar Doom) manage to machine gun down the Nazis. Talk about beating a dead horse. But, on the other hand, Tarantino also uses a lot of the master’s techniques in Inglourious Basterds as he builds the film with the aid of a series of Red Herrings and Macguffins (One could have sworn that Landa had Shoshanna when he orders the milk). I am, however, undecided about the violence that the director depicts since it doesn’t work just on a purely cartoon level as in the Kill Bill movies. Here, the violence is closer to reality and one only wonders if Tarantino would have lost anything at all if he had cut away before the moment of gore.

But Tarantino’s film, like all his other works, is at heart about cinema. His streak of film references and tributes continue as he recalls a number of films from the past that he has grown up with. He pays homage to German cinema throughout Inglourious Basterds with a large number of Dutch angles that never once feel forced or out of context. In the final chapter, which begins with images recalling Fassbinder’s The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979, complete with the 360 degree Ballhaus shot), Tarantino takes this fetish to a whole new level. The film within the film, Nation’s Pride (actually directed by the Bear Jew), presents to us a German propaganda movie made in the style of a Soviet propaganda movie, Battleship Potemkin (1925) in particular, forming an unusual alliance between two countries that could have only been possible in cinema. This whole set-piece works on multiple levels of realities. If Goebbels is making a fiction within the fiction based on a distorted form of reality within the fiction, Tarantino too is making a fantastical fiction that relies on betraying reality. Only that Tarantino’s ethics are far from Goebbels’ (which is actually the way Hollywood tells it). It’s certainly less exploitative to heavily exaggerate a reality that never was than to mildly dress up a reality that was.

Early this year, Tarantino called Woody Allen’s widely and undeservedly trashed Anything Else (2003) one of the 20 best films made after he entered the industry. And not surprisingly, much is common between these two films despite their stylistic differences. In Anything Else, David Dobel (Woody Allen) tries to break out of the schlemiel image that the director had created for himself through the 70s and the 80s. “The issue is always fascism” he says in the film and he smashes the car windows of two thugs who bully him out of a parking space. What Woody was trying here is to undo history – both personal and collective – as he guides his younger self, Jerry Falk (Jason Biggs), who prefers “writing a biting satire in the quiet and safety of some delicatessen”, away from what he has become. Tarantino realizes that the only way to undo history, if not in reality, is through art and that art, in many ways, does not owe anything to political and historical “reality”. When Shoshanna switches from one projector to another during the screening, she is actually shifting the movie from one reality onto another – from a history we all know to a history that could have been.

[Tarantino interview]

Tarantino’s mission of trying to carve out a fantastical alternate reality isn’t really a unique one. In Godard’s magnum opus History of Cinema (1988-98), he keeps talking about two kinds of histories – the history that was and history that could have been – of cinema and that of the world. He argues that cinema could have indeed prevented large scale mishaps and put an end to Nazism once and for all. Tarantino realizes that this is nothing more than an elegiac fantasy and makes a joke out of it all telling us that the only way cinema could have brought about a political change was physically – by blowing itself up. And that the only way it could have ended Nazism was by putting them all into a large room and burning it down. In a scene that echoes the final few minutes of The Cameraman’s Revenge (1912), which was a film that reflected our tendency to believe that if it is cinema it must be true, Marcel (Jacky Ido) burns the pile of nitrate films to blow up the theatre as a huge heap of bullets piles up on the screen resembling it. With that, Tarantino is happy to plainly flesh out his idea of history that could (should) have been.

His attempt, like Allen’s in Anything Else, is to shatter the image that, especially popular cinema, has bestowed upon minorities of America through its incessant ethnic stereotyping – the suffering Jew, the benign black and the noble Native American. Let’s face it; it would only be a miracle if we ever see a black/Native villain in a summer blockbuster. So in a way, the revenge, led by Aldo-Shoshanna-Marcel, isn’t merely a fantastical Jewish revenge for the Holocaust, but a revenge for all the minorities and nonconformists of a cinema (industry) whose fascist producers insist upon maintaining status quo and sticking to a “final solution” (No wonder Marcel burns the movie reels). For Tarantino, who has been a popular nonconformist throughout his career in Hollywood, this is surely the sweetest revenge fantasy possible. It is his fairy tale and he is telling it the way he wants it to be. When Landa finds a single shoe in the tavern following the shoot out he must have realized he is in someone’s Cinderella story. The truth is that it’s Tarantino’s.



P.S: Christopher Landa delivers the performance of the year. His scene with Hammersmark is one to worship.


Essential Reading:

Jim Emerson’s series of articles on the movie at Scanners

David Bordwell’s take on the film at Observations on film art and Film Art

The Auteur’s Round-up of articles in their Notebook

Mark Baker, Adrian Martin, Jan Epstein and Nathan Wolski discuss the film’s wider aspects at The Monthly

Ed Howard and Jason Bellamy in conversation at The House Next Door

Artavazd Peleshian

Artavazd Peleshian (Image Courtesy: Hetq Online)

Watching Artavazd Peleshian’s movies, I had this constant feeling of having seen such films elsewhere. A little deliberation reveals that the extraordinary Jean-Luc Godard compilation History of Cinema (1988-98) is, in fact, closer to the works of this Armenian auteur than anyone else’s. Furthermore, it becomes clear that almost all of Godard’s films made in the past couple of decades, especially the many short films, have a notable influence of Peleshian’s style, although they evidently bear Godard’s signature. With a total runtime of hardly three hours, Peleshian’s filmography may not be as prolific as the French director’s, but it shows such degree of consistency of style and unity of content that it almost feels as if Peleshian had decided beforehand what his résumé would read. I guess Peleshian’s films are what could be truly called film poetry. This is because they completely wallow in ambiguity that is so essential to poetry. By ambiguity, I do not mean that they elude meaning or try to deliberately confuse the viewer, but that their meanings are with the audience. That is to say that each viewer would draw out a different meaning or exhibit varied emotional responses that would solely depend on his/her accumulated experiences and thought processes. One might say that this is true of any film. But with Peleshian’s films, all of these responses hold good to some degree. As Peleshian himself says in his interview with Scott MacDonald (found in the book A Critical Cinema: Part 3): “It’s everything”.

I would probably go on talking about Godard’s later works when talking about Peleshian because the similarity here is remarkable. Much like what Godard does with the images from Ivan the Terrible: Part 2 (1958), Angels of Sin (1943) and many of his own films, Peleshian reuses and recycles a number of familiar images and sounds throughout his filmography. And likewise, each of these instances elicits a different meaning every time they occur. Peleshian seems to believe that photography is indeed truth, but alters its frame rate to underscore, enhance and provide meaning. It is as if the director is holding a photograph of stellar importance in his hand, commenting on it, animating and then stopping it, whenever required, to emphasize what he has said, going back to tell us more using the same photograph and, in essence, writing an essay using prefabricated sentences. Only that there is no text or speech as in Godard’s films. In fact, there is not a single word spoken in any of Peleshian’s films, highlighting the deliberately universal nature of his cinema. That is because people, beings to be precise, have always been at the center of Peleshian’s films. Peleshian seems to see humans as a monolithic entity whose ambitions, idiosyncrasies, struggles and emotions, although particularized by history, (to kill a cliché) transcend geographical and ethnological barriers.

But then, this history which Peleshian takes as reference for his examination always seems to be something that is close to Peleshian’s heart, which could perhaps be called truly “Armenian”. A mere look at the country’s history reveals large scale tragedies that have mercilessly plagued it throughout its life. A constant target of imperialism, oppression and, later, nature’s wrath, Armenia has certainly put up with some nasty things. With this knowledge, it is but natural for one to view Peleshian’s films as being also about the resilience of the nation’s residents. This reading seems quite valid at first since Peleshian’s films always seem to be about “movement“ – movement of time, movement of people and movement of life. In almost all of his films, we see various images that denote movement, change and constant transmutation – man made modes of transport, exodus of humans and animals, cycling of seasons, revolutions and of course, birth and death. And Armenia itself has been characterized by such movements and instability as its history tells us – the country’s constant transfer from the hands of one ruler to the other, people made refugees in their own country, forced evacuations and exiles and deformation by natural calamities. It is just too tempting to place these facts alongside and tie Peleshian’s films to a specific nation before generalizing them. But the director seems hesitant to attach any geographical importance to his films:

“The Armenians are simply an opportunity that allows me to talk about the whole world, about human characteristics, human nature. One may with also to see Armenia and the Armenian in that film. But I have never allowed myself to do it then, and would not now.”

Peleshian calls his technique “Distance Montage”, of which, I must admit, I could not make head or tail of, despite the director’s numerous attempts to clarify himself in the interview. But one thing that is clear from his films about his style is that it provides totality to them. That is, what the viewer takes away from the film is the whole and not any fragment or any individual aspect of it. Although certain images and sounds repeat themselves throughout the film, their order and composition are designed to evoke different responses depending on the context. As a matter of fact, without any impact on the individual films, all of Peleshian’s movies could be combined seamlessly into an indexed anthology that produces the same effect as its constituents, for the director’s style is too consistent to make any film seem out of place. Peleshian places the audience always at a distance, giving them an omniscient eye that concerns itself the whole of humanity instead of making them care about individual subjects and their petty objectives and aspirations. Perhaps this is why there are no “characters” in any of Peleshian’s films. It is quite impossible to distinguish between the archival footage and fabricated shots that Peleshian uses since none of these images show any trace of a motive to create a fictional world. The characters, for Peleshian, are already written and exist all around us, merely waiting to be read.

Earth Of People (1966)

Earth Of People (1966)

Earth of People (Mardkants Yerkire, 1966) is the second student film that Peleshian made while studying at the prestigious VGIK institute and already, it shows the author’s stamp. Early on we are shown images of massive man made structures – bridges, railroads and skyscrapers. As the twisted title starts to make meaning, Peleshian starts showing us human hands, humans at work and the world being constructed by humans. We see people from every profession – doctors, engineers, workers and scientists – carrying on with their routine robotically as the soundtrack suddenly stops giving us conventional score and starts gathering the most bizarre of mechanical sounds. But soon, the optimistic tone of the film gives way to distrust and we realize that we aren’t exactly masters of this world. We see these people are, in fact, trapped within their own creations (which strangely reminds us of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)), which gradually takes us back to the title: Whose world is this? No wonder the film opens and closes with the image of a thinker’s statue. Peleshian’s film is symmetrical, as would be his later works, with both the soundtrack and imagery getting reflected along the centre of the film.

Beginning (1967)

Beginning (1967)

Although Peleshian’s style already shows maturity in Earth of People, his official filmography begins with, well, Beginning (Skizbe, 1967). Chronicling the historical events that changed the course of the century following the monumental October Revolution of 1917, Beginning is a powerhouse trip that would definitely rank among the best political films ever made.  Running for a mere 10 minute span, Beginning exemplifies Peleshian’s preoccupation with mass movement like no other film. Employing an eclectic mixture of photographs, studio shots and documentary footage, manipulating their speed, repeating them regularly and eventually attaining a musical rhythm like the Soviet pioneers’, Peleshian emphatically registers our recent history that has been marked by an extraordinary number of uprisings and bloodsheds. Peleshian’s soundtrack is remarkable here. Using a combination of highway chase music, gunshots, screams and silence, Beginning shifts gears from a documentary, to an agitprop, to an essay and to an epic in no time. But the true revelation is the ending of Beginning where, after a brief visual and aural pause, Peleshian delivers a moment of epiphany, once again reminiscent of 2001 – an extended close up of a young child staring determinedly into the camera as the soundtrack plays a majestic, Thus Spake Zarathustra like score. Forget the Star Child, what is the human child going to see in the future?

We (1969)

We (1969)

Sheep and mountains have almost become Armenian identities of sorts, thanks to the films of Sergei Paradjanov. We (Menq, 1969), which begins and ends with the image of a gargantuan mountain, is perhaps the most “Armenian” of all Peleshian movies. We are shown images of mountains falling apart before being cut to a large funeral procession. This is followed by visuals of common people carrying on with their everyday work, – some utterly mundane, some shockingly risky – as if proving the adage “Life must go on”. For the first time, religion, which was a major reason for the Armenian Genocide, makes its presence felt in a Peleshian film. It isn’t just personal disappointments that these people seem to putting behind them, but shattering national tragedies, despite (and perhaps because of) which their faith stands affirmed – in religion, in life. The last third of the film acts as a meeting point and the resolution for these two types of calamities as we are presented visuals of reunions of families (and of people who seem to be returning from an exile). More than anything We feels like an ode to the resilience of, in particular, the Armenian people (although Peleshian himself denies this!), who have had to put up with a lot through the centuries and, in general, the spirit of everyday heroes. If at all anything can be made of Peleshian’s attitude here, it must be his unassailable faith on the ability of humanity to survive no matter how difficult it makes it for itself.

Inhabitants (1970)

Inhabitants (1970)

In contrast to the unusually large number of people in the Beginning and We, Inhabitants (Obitateli, 1970) is almost completely devoid of humans. Peleshian attributes this peculiar absence, quite strangely, to his audience being critical of him for We. Filled with shots of large-scale migrations and stampedes (with, surprisingly, even helicopter shots being present in the film), Inhabitants merely alludes to the presence of the human beings, in the form of a few silhouettes, who seem to be the central cause of panic. Shot in widescreen, Inhabitants, for most part, depicts wildlife, in panic. At first glance, with the anti-mankind tone of the movie, Inhabitants seems to take Peleshian back to the arguably cynical mode of Beginning. But once you begin to see that the humans in the film aren’t exactly humans but far from it, Peleshian’s faith in humanity comes to surface. Surely, the animals are just a normalized form of the people of We, of Beginning and of Earth of People. But the relevant question is whether Inhabitants is connected to the Armenian history directly or not. With the visuals showing us exoduses and captive animals and the soundtrack including gunshots and screams, it is not unfair for one to be reminded once more of the nation’s plight. Whatever the case, the film resonates with quintessentially Peleshian themes – of change, of resilience and of survival.

The Seasons (1975)

The Seasons (1975)

The Seasons (Vremana Goda, 1975) is perhaps the most famous of all Peleshian films and just its opening shot would show why – A man, clutching a sheep in his hand, trapped in a raging stream, trying to get to the shore along with the animal. Setting the tone of film and, to an extent, to the director’s whole filmography, The Seasons’ first shot effectively underlines the irony that forms the basis of the relationship between humans and nature. The Seasons, as the title suggests, deals with the change of seasons. In the first section Peleshian presents us images from sunny day in an idyllic pastoral life, where a family of herdsmen lead their sheep through a dark tunnel and then to light.  We then see a group of young men dragging huge stacks of hay down a hill slope and then trying to stop it. This scene, once more, illustrates our can’t-live-with-can’t-without relationship with nature, but never once becoming a contrived symbol or a metaphor. It is merely a glimpse of life which reveals a fact rather than expressing it. The same would be true of the sequence that is to follow, where the herdsmen risk their own lives in order to salvage their herd that is caught in the rapids. The film then shifts to an ethno-documentary mode as we witness a marriage ceremony in which a cow forms as much an integral part as the bride and the groom. In a rather prolonged scene that follows, in what looks like an amusing sport, we are shown a few men, each holding a sheep in his hand, sliding down a snowy hill, refusing to let go of the animal – A practice that is as strange as man’s kinship with nature – living with it, living against it, living despite it, living for it and living because of it.

Our Century (1983)

Our Century (1983)

What followed remains Peleshian’s longest film to date, the 50-minute feature Our Century (Mer Dare, 1983). Our Century concerns itself with some cosmonauts (and astronauts) preparing themselves for a space flight. Peleshian constructs the film around this event, quite predictably, exploring his themes through a complex editing system coupled with an equally complex soundtrack. Initially, Peleshian crosscuts between the footage of the activities at a space station, minutes before the launch of a shuttle, and a celebratory procession where the space-heroes are cheered and applauded by the mass. Peleshian frequently presents clips that show the immense stress that the cosmonauts are put under, during the test phase and in space, It is a period of sheer loneliness, physical and mental fatigue and, yet, of excitement and ambitiousness. He then goes on to depict man’s obsession with flight and, in general, his desire to conquer the various elements of nature, where he shows a number of bizarre experiments in aviation, most of which end unsuccessfully. As ever, individual turmoil gives way to and unifies with national tragedies to the point beyond which there is no difference between a nuclear explosion, a rocket launch and the human heartbeat. Our Century arguably presents Peleshian at the top of his game, converting both the form and content of the film into a highly personal mode of expression. In no other Peleshian film has the ecstasy over human achievement mingled with the agony of existence in such an intricate fashion. The point is not the establishment of a simple irony, but of an exploration of what makes humanity go on, against all odds.

Life (1993)

Life (1993)

There is some confusion regarding the order of release of the last two Peleshian films. The official Paradjanov site, however, suggests that it is, in fact, Life (Kyanq, 1993) that is the director’s penultimate film thus far. Peleshian uses colour film for the first time, perhaps to enhance the already optimistic tone of the film, and makes his shortest film till date. Running for a mere seven minute time span, Peleshian, for most part of the film, presents us extreme close-ups of a woman delivering a baby. Probably the most moving Peleshian film, Life is also the most overt manifestation of the ever-present Peleshian-ian conversation between human pain and ecstasy in his films. The soundtrack is comparatively simpler here, with only two audible layers – an evocative opera piece and an amplified track of the human heartbeat. Naturally reminiscent of that staggering Stan Brakhage work, Window Water Baby Moving (1962), Life is an equally personal (although far easier to watch), emotionally exhausting and visually stunning piece of film that has the power to dispel any trace of pessimism that anyone may have about humanity. The film ends on a freeze frame showing a mother and her young child looking towards the camera and, possibly, a bright future.

End (1994)

End (1994)

Although Life would have made an astounding end to a solid filmography, it is End (Verj, 1994) that provides a more rounded closure to it. End is a series of shots inside a speeding train, the passengers of which are of diverse age groups, ethnicities and emotional statuses. The train itself feels like a microcosm of the whole world, each of whose inhabitants is moving towards an individual destination but the totality of them going in the same direction.  End is perhaps the kind of vision that Damiel (Bruno Ganz) saw in the train in Berlin in Wings of Desire (1987), considering the voyeuristic nature of the camerawork in this film. There are also a few outdoor shots, of mountains (again) and of the sun, that punctuate End. If Life’s ending shot seemed to seal Peleshian’s faith in humanity, the closing shot of End brings back the lifelong dialectic between cynicism and optimism that has so consistently characterized Peleshian’s work. We see the train, after a very long passage through the darkness of the tunnels, suddenly plunging into blinding light. Before it is revealed to us what lies beyond, the end credits roll. Is it a man-made apocalypse foreseen by Earth of People? Is it the Great Armenian Earthquake? Or is it the ultimate redemption for humanity that Life suggests? Looking back at Peleshian’s body of work, it is probably the latter.

Also published at Unspoken Cinema

Histoire(s) Du Cinéma
(History Of Cinema)


History of Cinema (1988-98)

History of Cinema (1988-98)

The candidate for this concluding part of the Godard marathon couldn’t be anything other than Godard’s magnum opus History of Cinema (1988-98) – a one-of-a-kind film that isn’t like anything seen before, even by Godard’s standards. In what I like to call “Stan Brakhage meets Sergei Eisenstein” kind of cinema, Godard completely does away with the need for a film camera as he employs loads and loads of footage from the most obscure corners of film history to express his ever-baffling, ever-revolutionary ideas and eventually reconstruct history – of art and of time itself. His editing prowess coupled with his oceanic knowledge of art and history result in a barrage of images, sounds and texts that anyone calling himself a Godard scholar, leave alone film scholar, would hesitate to come forward. Nevertheless, History of Cinema remains an immensely enriching experience for those who are game and those who earnestly try to get a whiff of what Godard is getting at.

Though the film as such is considered an eight part series that Godard gradually completed within a span of 10 years, the sharing of thematic and formal content among the film is so strong that any demarcation between the segments seems valid only for documenting purposes. Each film is as much tied to the others as it is singular – an idea that carries over to the commentary on cinema that Godard delivers – Cinema as an art that is as much connected to the preceding arts as it is unique. He regularly intersperses critical works of painting, sculpture, music and photography with entities of pure cinema as though suggesting that not only does cinema bear a definite relationship with them, but also that history repeats itself in one form or the other. As a result, the tracing of history of cinema necessitates a journey back not just to the year of the Lumiéres but much before.

History of Cinema (1988-98)
History of Cinema (1988-98)

If we had to single out Godard’s most favorite quote it has to be the misattributed Bazin one: “The cinema, substitutes for our gaze a world that corresponds to our desires”. And this is where the series kicks off. Cinema as a substitute for our dreams – the dream factory. Godard explores the meaning of “dream” as interpreted by the two functioning extremes of cinema then. He presents the occident interpretation as one that had converted cinema into a portal offering an alternate reality, a second life, to the audience whose “dreams” were the fodder for the larger-than-life images that the films projected -one that continues till date. He crosscuts this with the adversarial position taken up by the Russian giants whose visions/dreams of the society after the 1917 revolution were the primary driving force that prompted the directors to make films that could make audience act and think, not get addicted to. Godard contrasts these notions and movements and laments the death of the latter while reconstructing fragments from pivotal moments of history and cinema.

In the centenary film Lumiére & Co. (1995), the filmmakers were asked a question: “Is cinema mortal?” If Godard had been asked the same thing he would have most probably said that cinema is already dead – killed almost as soon as it was born. In History of Cinema, Godard puts forth the idea, or rather the bitter truth, that cinema had infinitely more potential to influence history than any of its predecessors, but was ruthlessly narrowed down to a medium that tells “stories”. That, in an attempt to reproduce reality to utmost perfection, filmmakers have put on it a fake fabric of synthetic morals and eventually pulled over it a world of spectacle so as to mask the blunder. He argues that cinema could have prevented unfortunate tragedies and averted genocides rather than merely crying over damages dealt and observing helplessly the misery of its subjects.

History of Cinema (1988-98)
History of Cinema (1988-98)

And in resonance with this ideology, instead of bemoaning what is lost and what could have been, Godard anticipates the death of cinema (He apparently asked Henri Langlois to burn the archives). Death, so that it can rise again from the ashes. “Art is like fire. Born from what it burns.” says Godard and that is precisely what he desires – Cinema to go down with all its exploitations and restrictions and rise in its purest form. Back to infancy, so that it can learn everything out of free will, without rules and without vanity.

Having said that, Godard also calls for a preservation of cinema and hence a preservation of history, for cinema has recorded both beauty and atrocity with equal emotional bias, if not with justice. True that cinema has always been a runner-up to history, but at least it has mirrored history to some extent. But unlike traditional methods that document history as a direct function of time, Godard attempts to reconstruct history as seen in retrospect. He utilizes existing film fragments to fabricate various histories of film – the one that was and the ones that weren’t but could have been. He examines how cinema could have been made independent of historical accounts and even made to influence them. In essence, he projects history backwards to uncover the history of projection. Godard examines such dualities in a number of places in the film – Infancy of art and art of infancy, newness of history and history of news and reality of reflection and reflection of reality – employing a variety of footage ranging from newsreels to pornography.

Godard elucidates this servile relation that cinema bears to history using images of dictators and authoritarians. He highlights how the visual medium itself is being manipulated by a few people in power and how in turn, modern cinema manipulates the audience. Godard reproaches this moral policing and expresses his disapproval of the hypnosis that the TV-driven audience is subjected to. He appeals for a cinema that provokes but doesn’t direct, a cinema that gives you options but doesn’t select one, a cinema that makes you think and doesn’t think for you and a cinema that is only complete with its audience. As he quotes in one of the segments, “Cinema does not cry. Cinema does not comfort us. It is with us. It is us”.

History of Cinema (1988-98)
History of Cinema (1988-98)

There is an intriguing recurrence of the image of human hands in the film. Godard urges artists to think with their hands – their real tools that have the potency to both create and destroy, to beautify and to horrify, to document and to change. He argues that these are the instruments capable of changing and redefining history and it is the weakness of the mind that hinders the possibility. This motif is punctuated by quintessential Hitchcockian and Bressonian images of hands and their gestures that carry with them an air of graceful individuality. And amidst this theory, Godard expresses his deep admiration for Hitchcock and Rossellini (especially Rome, Open City (1948)).

It is naturally impossible to grab every reference and idea that Godard throws at us. Hence, History of Cinema becomes a film that one should watch multiple times with considerable spacing. Without doubt, uncovering each layer of its text, sound and image to see how Godard has constructed the history of cinema, just in order to rebuke it, is a progressive task that becomes possible only with much exposure to all the six arts that precede cinema. I, for one, am going to visit the film every year trying to gain something more out of every time and get a glimpse into the esoteric world that is Godard’s.


That brings me to the end of the series. This has been one heck of a ride for me – exploring a world that almost no one talks about. I must thank everyone who has been visiting the blog, especially Nitesh, Ed and Shubhajit who have presented some very interesting and illustrative facets of Godard’s ever-baffling works. And Godard himself, for I’ve never become so tired after watching a film. To get a measure of that, I spend around 3 hours watching an 80 minute film! His films extract so much out of you that following 1% of Godard is much more enlightening than absorbing 100% of the others. I do hope that I get my hands on more of his films some time in the future.

Of course, I have missed out on more than a dozen worthy Godard films and shorts including Here and Elsewhere (1976), the bizarre Keep Your Right Up (1987), the radical King Lear (1987), and the more recent Our Music (2004). I hope I can cover them in the Flashback series or elsewhere.

Till then, au revoir and a happy new year,
Le Petit Soldat

Russian Ark: Montage has always been a characteristic of Russian Cinema. Alexander Sokurov discards exactly that in this breathtaking film that takes us through the history and heritage of Russia in the past few hundred years- All in a single, continuous, unedited shot!. Makes us think how difficult it would have been to assemble the whole crew and sets. The film serves as an example of how long shots can be composed well by proper direction.

Salo: 120 Days Of The Sodom: Banned in many countries world over, Pasolini’s final venture is one of the most “indigestible” ever made. Call it a satire on capitalism or a commentary on misuse of power, the film is shocking and depressing by all means. The film never intentionally portrays graphic images even though the content is definitely not for the weak-hearted. A film that redrew the boundaries of rights-and-wrongs of cinema.

The Man With A Movie Camera: Though overshadowed by his Russian contemporaries Eisenstein and Pudovkin, Dziga Vertov managed to come up with this gem about a man shooting whatever he comes across in Moscow with his camera. Serves as a showcase of all the editing and camera techniques available in the nascent stages of cinema. Offbeat and way ahead of its times while the others were busy making films endorsing communism.

Un Chien Andalou: Kings of surrealism Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali co-script this less than a quarter hour long film that may be hailed as the most influential French film ever made. Carefully assembled sequences that do not have any solid meaning and plethora of shocking images pave the way for hundreds of surreal films that were to come from filmmakers around the world and from Buñuel himself.

Wild Strawberries: An old professor retrospects his life, its disappointments and his mistakes while he is on his way to receive an honorary degree. Bergman’s masterful direction utilizes the monochrome with such perfection, that the film has become a staple for any film student. Fraught with images that last for a lifetime, this is one film that may change the way you look at life.

Special mention must be made to Jafer Panahi’s Ayneh and Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez’s Blair Witch Project for redefining the lines between reality and fiction, the former in its typical Iranian fashion and the latter in the American camp style. Let’s hope more such movies come up in the future and explore this medium to the fullest possible extent.

“Photography is truth. The cinema is truth 24 times per second.”Jean Luc Godard

It is doubtless that the power of cinema, the youngest of all arts, is not exploited to the fullest. Though many masters of the medium continuously strive to provide a whole new look and feel to the seventh art, it still has a lot of unexplored content. I present here, ten of the very many films that had successfully utilized the power of cinematic expression and redefined cinema in their respective periods.

2001: A Space Odyssey: “Open the pod bay doors, HAL”– A line that has been etched in cinema history. Stanley Kubrick’s magnum opus provides a new interpretation to the classic man versus machine theme. Co-scripted with Arthur C. Clarke, the film’s amazing use of sound and time line has class written all over. With HAL’s cold yet human voice and the stunning “dawn of man” opening sequence, the film is definitely in the top ten movies ever made.

Apocalypse Now: Adapted from Joseph Conrad’s novella “Heart Of Darkness”, this Coppola classic is not only the journey of a disturbed man into the bowels of a war-torn nation but also into the darkness of his own mind. Classic portrayal of effects of war and the discovery of evil within oneself. The graded natural lighting throughout the film coupled with the short-but-chilling performance of Marlon Brando as Colonel Kurtz is the best combination you can ask for.

Jurassic Park: Special Effects – The latest boon given to cinema. Though used now to tasteless extents, the movie that made it big and neat is this Steven Spielberg fantasy. Oozing with the “Magic of the big screen”, it is just scintillating to see the big creatures roam about and live in the big screen. Spielberg’s unquenchable thirst for science fiction succeeds big time when his ideas meet the tools.

Koyaanisqatsi: Godfrey Reggio’s tradition-defying “movie” is a seemingly unconnected set of images powered by great music (Philip Glass). But there is definitely more to it than meets the eye. Unlimited number of plausible interpretations make this a brand new movie no matter how many times you watch it. This gem in interactive cinema requires the viewer to think and draw conclusions- a very rare thing indeed.

Rashomon: Perhaps the most influential Asian film, Kurosawa’s Rashomon was the prime reason for the inclusion of a best foreign film category in the Oscars. Endlessly imitated for its breakthrough screenplay and simplicity, the film has been remade and plagiarized many times over. Thoroughly exploiting the features of cinematic medium, Rashomon remains an object of amazement for filmmakers and film buffs around the world.