First Man

Made during the runup to the golden jubilee celebrations of the first moon landing, First Man begins in the middle of action: Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) manoeuvres his plane at the edge of atmosphere, veers close to catastrophe, but manages to land back on earth without much damage. The reason for his lapse of judgment, it is revealed, is that his toddler daughter is suffering from an incurable tumour. She dies shortly thereafter and Neil moves with his wife Janet and son to Houston, having been selected for the test programmes in NASA’s moon mission. Life in Houston has all the trappings of middle-class normalcy – sub-urban house with a lawn, grill parties with neighbours, pastel-coloured wallpaper – but Neil and Janet can never blend in. The moon mission is proceeding at full throttle against all odds, resulting in the loss of several astronauts, all Neil’s friends and neighbours.

It appears that, constantly touched by death, Neil is a stoic, melancholy man, not yet on the moon, but entirely not of this earth. He removes himself completely from family life, content to gaze at the moon every night. In the film’s most effective scene, he is forced by Janet before he leaves for the mission to have a final chat with his sons, which Neil completes like a press meet. Gosling channels some of his work from Lars and the Real Girl and one of the ironies First Man is going for is that this man, brilliant engineer but a social outcast, is constantly asked to bear the burden of history, to be in the eye of media attention, give press conferences, attend White House dinners, and be the receptacle of popular anger against the mission; that he had to go to the moon to be able to get back home. The thrust of Damien Chazelle’s interspersing of Neil’s incurable gloom and the agitations of the sixties is that, no matter one’s privileged social-historical situation, private grief is all-consuming and can’t be relativized.

In this, the film also seems to want to paint a metaphysical portrait of the sexes. Like Western heroes, Neil’s and his fellow male astronauts’ straying away from the pull of domesticity towards the unknown and the endless suffering of their wives and children comes across as descriptions of an eternal condition. The repeated superposing of the domestic scenes at home featuring Janet and children and NASA’s commentary of the mission is supposed to have an Odyssey-like weight, but only grows increasingly wearisome. Janet’s character, more than Neil’s, remains greatly underdeveloped (Claire Foy’s drama school tics condemn it to a type) and it’s symptomatic that this film, which namechecks various discontentment of the sixties, completely sidesteps the sexual revolution that could’ve given Janet a more rounded presence.

Some of the formal choices are interesting, especially its low-budget-movie tendency to avoid spectacle for suggestion of spectacle: most of the thrill is conveyed to us not through rocket ballets but via numbers on screen, the low-key score, the sound of metals clinging, the actor’s frenetic breathing and the claustrophobic setting of the capsule. Not allowing for sights outside the capsule makes for a subjective experience of impending death. It also reinforces the film’s parallel theme about man’s conflicted faith in technological progress. In a recruitment interview, Neil says that he wants to go to space in order to get a better perspective of life on earth, hinting at a distrust of technology that wasn’t able to save his daughter.

Given that everyone knows how Apollo 11 or the preceding missions panned out in reality, screenwriter Josh Singer pegs the dramatic power of his script on the time-limited nature of the mission. Kennedy’s declaration that an American will be on the moon within the decade taken alongside the impossible odds against which that goal has to be achieved lends the film the thrill of a countdown. Chazelle employs glass as a crucial element of his mise en scène and the material comes to reflect Neil’s emotionlessness, his distance from his family as well as the vastness of the unknown facing him. The last scene, loudly understated, is La La Land Redux.

High Life

The human aspect of space travel is also at the centre of Claire Denis’ first full-length English language production, High Life. Far in the future, death row inmates are given a choice to volunteer for a one-way mission to the nearest black hole. Strict rules are observed on board, the inmates are still treated like prisoners, with everyday tasks to be completed. Overseeing the ship is a slowly-disintegrating captain (Lars Eidinger) and a cookie scientist Dibs (Juliette Binoche), who is trying in vain to produce babies by artificially inseminating the female prisoners with semen samples from the male prisoners. With exposure to radiation mounting as they near the black hole, the prisoners get increasingly restless and Dibs keeps them sedated by adulterating their rations. But the strict prohibition of sexual contact between inmates leads to a breaking point and the mission is thrown into jeopardy.

Well, that is the story, but we don’t get to it right away. The film’s opening fifteen minutes constructs an otherworldly ambience. A glide through a misty garden with a mysterious shoe hints at earth. A baby is seen in a cradle surrounded by screens and electronic equipment, her father Monte (Robert Pattinson) speaks to her through the computers, but he’s perched on top of a spaceship trying to fix an issue. There’s no information about how these spaces are linked and the enigma creates fertile connections in the viewer’s mind. The film proceeds in several stretches through such mosaic of details, which are glued together through clumsy expositional elements such as an Indian professor in a train on earth spelling out the premise. The image of a man and his child aboard a ship heading nowhere is a combination of hope and doom that the film drops for the more ordinary spectacle of the inmates going bonkers.

The everyday events on the ship unfold gradually with sudden bursts of violence, causing the attrition of the crew. We are never sure how big the prison-ship is or what the exact relation between the spaces we see is, except that the garden is a more spiritually-invested zone that disinfects the inmates, gives them an experience of home and helps them come to terms with their dire situation. Monte resists Binoche’s charms to preserve his essence, but is overpowered by her and fathers a baby unbeknownst. His resentment and eventual acceptance of the child perhaps is perhaps what the film is most committed to, turning the story into an allegory of sorts for life on earth. The narrative shifts back and forth in time and there’s a twenty-year jump that finds the baby all grown, now picking up human concepts like faith and cruelty through videos still being transmitted from earth – an improbable Bildung we are asked to take on faith.

As is customary for Denis, particular attention is given to the various textures of the ship: the plastic curtains overseeing the garden, the fabric in “The Box” where prisoners go to let out steam, the padding on the ship’s walls, Binoche’s writhing skin, the actors’ hair which seems to have some special power in the narrative. Every bodily fluid that exists is roll-called and becomes a resource to be harnessed. Denis shoots in odd aspect ratios and that adds to the echo of Solaris resounding through the film. The film, to be sure, is a distinct auteur excursion into this derided genre. But it lacks the consistent ambiguity of The Intruder or the emotional beats of 35 Shots of Rum. Going one-up on the cynicism of Bastards, High Life seems to embody a bitter outlook towards not just civilization, but the human race in totality. Why bother?

Die, die, die, 2012! Besides being a period of personal lows, it was a bad year at the movies for me. Not only did the quantity of the films I watched come down, but the enthusiasm with which I watched, read about and discussed films plummeted. That the amount of good films made this year pales in comparison to the last doesn’t help either. Not to mention the passing of Chris Marker. Unlike the years before, there are barely a handful of movies from 2012 that I’m really keen on seeing (most of them from Hollywood). The following list of favorite 2012 titles (world premiere only) was chalked with some struggle because I couldn’t name 10 films that I loved without reservations. Here’s to a better year ahead.

 

1. Cosmopolis (David Cronenberg, Canada)

 

CosmopolisSurely, it takes a bona fide auteur like David Cronenberg to locate his signature concerns in a text – such as Don Delillo’s – that deals with ideas hitherto unexplored by him and spin out the most exciting piece of cinema this year. Holed up in his stretch limo – an extension of his body, maneuvering through Manhattan inch by inch as though breathing – Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) comprehends the universe outside like cinema, through a series of moving images projected onto his car windows. Why not? This world, whose master he is, is experiencing the epistemological crisis of late capitalism: the increasing abstraction of tactile reality into digital commodities. Packer, like many Cronenberg characters, is more machine than man, attempts – against the suggestions of his asymmetrical prostate and of the protagonist of Cronenberg’s previous film – to construct a super-rational predictable model of world economy – a project whose failure prompts him to embark on an masochistic odyssey to reclaim the real, to experience physicality, to be vulnerable and to ultimately die. At the end of the film, one imagines Packer shouting: “Death to Cyber-capitalism! Long live the new flesh!

2. Holy Motors (Leos Carax, France)

 

Holy MotorsUn chant d’amour for cinema, Leos Carax’s Holy Motors is an ambitious speculation about the total transformation of life into cinema and cinema into life – the death of the actor, audience and the camera. The European cousin to Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010), Carax’s return-to-zero work draws inspiration from the process of film itself – death, resurrection and persistence of vision – and takes cinema to its nascence – fairground attractions, popular theatre and zoopraxography – while opening up to its future possibilities. Uncle Oscar (Denis Lavant, the raison d’etre of Holy Motors), like Cronenberg’s Packer, cruises the streets of Paris in his limo in search of purely physical experiences – a series of performance pieces carried out solely for “the beauty of the act” – only to find that the city is a gigantic simulacrum in which everyone is a performer and a spectator (and thus no one is) and where the distinction between the real and the fictional becomes immaterial. At the very least, Holy Motors is a reflection on the passing of “things”, of physicality, of the beauty of real gesture, of the grace of movement of men and machines.

3. differently, Molussia (Nicolas Rey, France)

 

Differently, MolussiaNicolas Rey’s third feature, consisting of 9 short segments (reels, to be precise) projected in a random sequence, is a radical project that re-politicizes the cinematic image. Not only does the randomization of the order of projection of the reels circumvent the problem of the authoritarianism of a fixed narrative, it also exposes the seam between the semi-autonomous theses-like segments, thereby making the audience attentive to possible ideological aporias that are usually glossed over by the self-fashioned integrity of filmic texts. Furthermore, the existence of the film in the form separate reels is a breathing reminder of the material with which it was made: 16mm. The persistent dialectic between the visual – shots of highways, industries, farms and modernist suburban housing in the eponymous fictional city registering the sedate rhythm of everyday life – and the aural – snippets of conversations between two politicized industrial workers about the invisible tendons that enable a society to function smoothly – strongly drives home the chief, Althusserian concern of the film: the essential unity of the various, seemingly autonomous, strands of a state, contrary to claims of disjunction and autonomy.

4. Tabu (Miguel Gomes, Portugal)

 

TabuA film that is reminiscent of Weerasethakul’s many bipartite films, Miguel Gomes’ singular Tabu, too, works on a range of binaries – past/present, youth/old age, city/countryside, abundance/scarcity, modern/primitive, colonizer/colonized – and sets up a conversation between the carefree, profligate days of the empire full of love, laughter and danger and Eurocrisis-inflected, modern day Portugal marked by alienation and loneliness. The opening few minutes – a melancholy mini-mockumentary of sorts chronicling the adventures of a European explorer in Africa with a native entourage –announces that the film will be balancing distancing irony and classicist emotionality, donning an attitude that is in equal measure critical and sympathetic towards the past. In Gomes’ sensitive film, the heavy hand of the past weighs down on the present both on aesthetic (silent cinema stylistics, film stock, academy ratio, the excitement of classical genres) and thematic (collective colonial guilt, residual racism, punishment for forbidden love) levels and this inescapability of the past is also functions as (sometimes dangerous) nostalgia for the simplicity and innocence of a cinema lost and an entreaty for the necessity of exploring and preserving film history.

5. Paradise: Love (Ulrich Seidl, Austria)

 

Paradise-LoveWhat partially elevates the first film of Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise trilogy from its rather undistinguished concerns about emotional alienation and old age loneliness is the nexus of intriguing cultural forces that it brings into the picture by having a relatively affluent, 50-year old Austrian single-mother (Margarete Tiesel, in a no-holds-barred performance) indulge in sex tourism in Kenya along with five other women friends. The result is a rich, provocative negotiation along class, gender, race and age divides that upsets conventional, convenient oppressor-oppressed relationships. In doing so, the film wrenches love from the realm of the universal and the ahistorical and demonstrates that between two people lies the entire universe. Seidl’s heightened, bright colour palette that provides a sharp chromatic contrast to the bodies of Kenyan natives and his confrontational, static, frontal compositions (Seidl’s nudes are antitheses to those of the Renaissance), which make indoor spaces appear like human aquariums, both invite the voyeuristic audience to take a peek into this world and place it on another axis of power – of the observer and the observed.

6. With You, Without You (Prasanna Vithanage, Sri Lanka)

 

With You, Without YouSri Lankan filmmaker Prasanna Vithanage’s exquisite, exceptional adaptation of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Meek One (1876) aptly locates the Russian tale of matrimonial discord between a bourgeois pawnbroker and the gentle creature he weds within the ethno-political conflict between nationalist and rebel factions of the country. Unlike humanist war dramas that, often naively, stress the underlying oneness among individuals on either side, Vithanage’s intelligent film underscores how the political haunts the personal and how the tragic weight of history impacts the compatibility between individuals here and now, while deftly retaining Dostoyevsky’s central theme of ownership of one human by another. Though liberal in narration and moderate in style compared to Mani Kaul’s and Robert Bresson’s adaptations of the short story, Vithanage, too, employs an attentive ambient soundtrack that counts down to an impending doom and numerous shots of hands to emphasize the centrality of transaction in interpersonal relationships. The metaphysical chasm between the possessor and the possessed finds seamless articulation in concrete sociopolitical relations between Sinhalese and Tamils, between the army and refugees, between the poor and the wealthy and between man and woman.

7. Walker (Tsai Ming-liang, Hong Kong)

 

WalkerThere has always been something intensely spiritual about Tsai’s films, even when they seem to wallow in post-apocalyptic cityscapes and defunct social constructions. In Tsai’s hands, it would seem, an empty subway corridor shot in cheap digital video becomes the holiest of spaces ever filmed. Walker, a high-def video short made as a part of the Beautiful 2012 project commissioned by Hong Kong International Film Festival, crystallizes this particular tendency in the director’s work and centers on a Buddhist monk played by Lee Kang-sheng (a muse like no other in 21st century cinema). As the monk walks the hyper-commercialized streets of Hong Kong at a phenomenally slow pace for two days and two nights, his red robe becomes a visual anchor in stark contrast to the greys of the urban jungle and the blacks of people’s winter clothing and his very being, his eternal presence, becomes a spiritual grounding point amidst the impersonal hustle-bustle of this super-capitalist Mecca. Part performance art with a gently cynical punch line, part an exploration of the limits of DV, Walker is a deeply soothing and often moving work from one of Asia’s finest.

8. Celluloid Man (Shivendra Singh Dungarpur, India)

 

Celluloid ManMoving unsteadily with the help of a walking stick, the 79-year old founder of the National Film Archive of India (NFAI), P. K. Nair, despite himself, becomes a metaphor for the state of film archiving in the country. It is of considerable irony that, in a nation that prides itself for its rich cultural heritage, film archiving is considered a useless exercise. During the three decades that Nair headed the NFAI, he was instrumental in discovering the silent works and early talkies of Bombay and south Indian cinema, including those of Dadasaheb Phalke, the “father of Indian cinema”. Celluloid Man, bookended by scenes from Citizen Kane (1941), draws inspiration from Welles’ film and sketches a fascinating if reverential portrait of Nair constructed from interviews with international filmmakers, scholars, historians and programmers and curiously hinged on the fact of Nair’s “Rosebud” – ticket stubs, promotional material and assorted film-related curios that the man collected during his childhood. Shivendra Singh’s film is a irresistible romp through early Indian cinema and an endlessly absorbing tribute to a man who is fittingly dubbed the “Henri Langlois of India”. To paraphrase one of the interviewees, Phalke gave Indian cinema a past, Nair gave it a history.

9. Laurence Anyways (Xavier Dolan, Canada)

 

Laurence AnywaysAlthough it might appear that it is perhaps the hollowness of Xavier Dolan’s previous feature that makes his latest, 160-minute music video look like a cinematic coup, Laurence Anyways really does succeed in accomplishing more than most of contemporary “LGBT-themed independent cinema”. While the latter – including this year’s Cahiers darling – almost invariably consists of realist, solidarity pictures that use social marginalization as shorthand for seriousness, Dolan’s emotionally charged film takes the game one step further and probes the inseparability of body and character, the effect of the physical transformation of a person on all his relationships – a transformation that is mirrored in the flamboyant, shape-shifting texture of the film – without sensationalizing the transformation itself. Rife, perhaps too much so, with unconventional aesthetic flourishes and personal scrapbook-ish inserts, the film rekindles and enriches the youthful verve of the Nouvelle Vague – a move that should only be welcome by film culture. If not anything more, Laurence Anyways establishes that critics need to stop using its author’s age as a cudgel and look at his cinema du look as something more than a compendium of adolescent affectations.

10. Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson, USA)

 

Moonrise KingdomLet me confess upfront that putting Wes Anderson’s (surprise!) whimsy, twee and self-conscious Moonrise Kingdom in my year-end list is less a full-hearted appreciation of the film than a confession that I find Anderson to be an important voice that I’m genuinely keen about, but can’t entirely celebrate. I don’t think I’ve seen any film that employs so many elements of industrial cinema yet feels meticulously artisanal, a film that, on the surface, seems to (literally) play to the gallery yet is so full of personality and one that is oddly familiar yet thoroughly refuses instant gratification. Moonrise Kingdom appears to have every ingredient of an obnoxious family comedy, but the unironic, straight-faced attitude and the single-minded conviction with which it moulds the material into an anti-realist examination of the anxieties of growing up, alone, is something not to be found either in cynical mainstream cinema or in the overwrought indie scene of America. Anderson’s neo-sincere film is, as it were, a classicist text couched within a postmodern shell, an emotional film without affect. Paper blossoms, but blossoms nonetheless.

 

Special Mention: The Queen Of Versailles (Lauren Greenfield, USA)