Roma

Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma is no doubt full of memories. But the question is whose? Made as a tribute to Cuarón’s childhood nanny, Roma unfolds solely through the perspective of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), the indigenous-origin housekeeper of a middle-class white family living in the Roma neighbourhood of Mexico City. The family stands for the director’s own and one of the four young children represents Cuarón himself. But we don’t know which one. Roma is not about him or any of his family members. Unlike in Spielberg or Fellini, it’s not the child’s experience that the film intends to recreate. Instead, the film presents the life of Cleo as conceived by the adult Cuarón. This results in a greatly sympathetic and reverential portrait, but the sympathy and reverence often cloud the humanity of Cleo.

One’s intellectual reaction to Roma might depend on where one stands on the issue of appropriation in art: is it right for a white, male filmmaker such as Cuarón to narrate the life of a native woman? I think Cuarón’s decision to hinge a film based on his personal life to the point of view of someone outside it is admirable and shows a humility and maturity surprisingly absent in the most intelligent of filmmakers. Roma makes it amply clear that this is not about Cuarón or his family, even though they are at the centre of it all and have their own cross to bear. It’s the story of Cleo over one tumultuous year.

At the same time, the life that Cuarón imagines for Cleo is curiously circumscribed by his own limited perspective of it. Cleo has little life outside the family and, whenever we see her away from home, it’s in service of the larger narrative thread regarding her romantic betrayal and pregnancy. Played by a non-professional, Cleo barely speaks except for the functional chitchat with the children and never expresses herself. This, of course, could be an empirical reality Cuarón has lived, but he extends this trait to her life outside work as well. Cleo has no inner life and her interaction with the other maid of the house, Adela, are almost always responses to Adela’s remarks. Political and social reality are strictly in the background and Cuarón limits the film strictly to the description of an everyday, emotional reality. We never know, quite intentionally, what relation Cleo bears to others of her community and station, or what she thinks of the protests going on in the city.

Much of Roma exhibits this disconcerting dual-perspective. Cuarón fills the film not with general cultural artefacts of the period but very specific memories – the toys sold outside movie theatres, two men taking shelter from rain under a small protrusion on the street, the tune of a wandering flute seller, stuffed heads of dogs displayed like trophies, the fanfare of the military marching through streets, a Fellini-like forest fire following an evening of revelry – so specific that they couldn’t be anyone else’s but Cuarón’s. Outside of an unsettling shot of earthquake debris fallen over a baby on a ventilator, there’s no sense of Cleo’s memories finding a place in the film. This tension between two incomplete perspectives is never resolved: Cuarón’s commendable intent to give Cleo the narrative space is undermined by the limitation of his vantage point. He can only imagine Cleo as a noble sufferer giving her all to his family – a stance that runs the risk of dehumanizing the character.

Given the “unmarketable” subject matter, the acclaim for the film on either side of the Atlantic is surprising and perhaps even welcome. Roma has the logistical muscle of Hollywood and the calculated reserve of an art film. The long-shot filmmaking with real sound, the use of non-professional actors, the stoic rhythm enabled in part by slow pan shots, measured editing patterns and muted dramatic progression is complemented by the spectacle that the film’s expert set-pieces offer (the scene at the beach is as breath-taking as the opening sequence of Gravity). Too bad that the space left behind by Cuarón’s conscious self-effacement isn’t filled by what he wishes would fill it.

BlacKkKlansman

At the beginning of BlacKkKlansman, a clip from Gone with the Wind is cut to a fake-archival harangue about miscegenation delivered by a white supremacist (played by Alec Baldwin), whom we never see again. The point is blunt; that Gone with the Wind was racist. This cut-and-dried approach is not new to director Spike Lee, whose previous work Chiraq used a range of in-your-face agitprop devices to animate a classical text and imbibe it with a welcome urgency. But here that MO falls flat, applied as it is to a material that has other ambitions. Inspired by a true story, BlacKkKlansman follows Ron Stallworth (John David Washington, son of Denzel), a Black detective from Colorado Springs who manages to get a membership to the Ku Klux Klan.

The year is 1972 and, as his first mission, Ron has to attend a speech by Kwame Ture to sense the response of the black students who’ve invited him. At first ambiguous, Lee’s attitude towards the speech is clarified in the precious way he edits it to show its power and influence over the awakening of Ron’s own Black-consciousness. It’s an abrupt transformation for a character that we’ve just been introduced to as a man who knows what he’s doing. Lee’s film proceeds by several such fickle happenings. The supremacists of the KKK that the Ron’s stand-in, Flip (Adam Driver), meets are all intentionally cartoons. They whoop and holler at a screening of The Birth of a Nation – a film geek’s idea of redneck entertainment. There’s a lot of racist slur thrown around whose purpose is not realism but provocation.

Poised between the Black Panthers and the KKK is the Colorado Springs police department Ron is part of. While the racism internal to the department is a talking point, the police force finally comes off as a group of well-meaning, tolerant individuals marred by a few bad apples. There’s an interesting idea about race as performance in the film, but the film’s thrust is towards an emphatic reassertion of identities. Early on, Ron’s assurance that the talk about race war among the Black students is just that, empty talk, is matched with Flip’s comment that the KKK members are blowhards who won’t dare to get into action. Just as one thinks the film is setting up a false and dangerous equivalence, Lee cuts between initiation rituals at the Klan and a gathering of Black students listening to a testimony about the lynching of Jesse Washington. The idea is that the two congregations are fundamentally, qualitatively different: one is about a violent assertion of power and the other is about memory and resistance. The blossoming of Flip’s Jewish consciousness when faced with ghastly antisemitic speech reiterates the notion: that minority identity politics is a defensive reaction to the threat of majoritarian aggression.

Lee is nothing if not topical and BlacKkKlansman is wrapped in a presentist perspective whose target is the current American government. Ron is warned about David Duke’s attempts to become mainstream through politics, the Klan members rail against PC culture, and slogans about making America great abound. After the film wraps up its excuse for a plot, scenes from the 2017 far-right rally in Charlottesville are played: the tiki torch march, Duke hailing the renewal of the right, the car attack and, finally, Trump claiming that both sides are equally condemnable, clarifying Lee’s primary reason for making this film. As the final shot, an upside-down American flag becomes black and white, in case you just woke up.

2015 was a fine period for me. I went to the Mumbai Film Festival, something that I’d been meaning to do for some time now. I could also go to Experimenta to meet and interact with several interesting artists and curators. I wrote a little more at this blog than I had last year and I also started a blog in French that I hope to write more for in the coming months. I watched fewer films and read fewer books than any of the preceding few years. (I had read more books and seen more movies in the first 6 months of 2014 than I did in the whole of 2015.) Yet, I had a much more wholesome experience these past 12 months. For one, abstinence made movies better, providing me the necessary mental space to deal with them more meaningfully. But more importantly, my rejection of the voracious cinephilia that I was practicing helped me better integrate the films I watched with real world experience and further disabuse myself of the notion that cinephilia is a worthy activity in itself. As a result, I could give films their proper place in my life – an act of relegation that ironically made them more valuable. I think I harmonize myself better with the world around now, which I am convinced is what any ‘-philia’ worth its salt should ultimately be about. I look forward to further cutting down on films and books the coming year.

The year was full of surprisingly good films. Besides the following list (strictly consisting of works that world-premiered in 2015), I was really, really impressed by the masterfully-directed Carol (Todd Haynes), the nervous energy-dynamics of Standing Tall (Emmanuelle Bercot), the perspective-bending Scrapbook (Michael Hoolboom), the structural intelligence of Interrogation (Vetrimaran) and the fascinating image-making and commentary of The Lobster (Yorgos Lanthimos). Other films I liked very much are The Assassin (Hou Hsiao-Hsien), Bridge of Spies (Steven Spielberg), Digging for Fire (Joe Swanberg), Masaan (Neeraj Ghaywan), My Golden Days (Arnaud Desplechin), My Mother (Nanni Moretti), Night Without Distance (Lois Patiño), Results (Andrew Bujalski), Sleeping Giant (Andrew Cividino) and the three cine-essays by Mark Rappaport.

 

1. Francofonia (Aleksandr Sokurov, France)

 

FrancofoniaAt a time when Daesh funds itself by trafficking cultural artifacts and Europe announces asylum for threatened art works, Sokurov’s marvelous, piercing film offers nothing less than a revisionist historiography of art itself. For Francofonia, History is not the content of art but its very skin. Museums flatten time, and justifiably present their contents as the highest achievements of a culture, obfuscating, in effect, their history as objects involved in power brokerage, class conflict and market manipulation. Sokurov’s film flips this perspective inside out, identifying art as being frequently the currency of diplomatic power possessing the capacity to purchase peace and as being instruments in service of totalitarian collaboration. Napoleon, who made art the object of his wars, perambulates in the Louvre alongside Lady Liberty Marianne, personifying the antipodal instincts of not only this emblematic institution, but also of European civilization itself. Sokurov’s complex film, likewise, holds together with great equanimity and curiosity antithetical views of museums, acknowledging simultaneously their timelessness and particular historical meaning(s). Francofonia poses questions about nationality, ownership and, really,  the value of art and leaves your head whirling with its far-reaching implications, making sure that you will not approach art the same way again.

2. No Home Movie (Chantal Akerman, Belgium)

 

No Home MovieThe jeu de mots in the title says it all. Not only is this deeply death-marked, Ozuvian film an unordinary home movie, but it is also a film about not having a home. Composed of footage shot in the filmmaker’s mother’s Brussels apartment and recorded video-conference sessions between the two, No Home Movie contrasts Akerman’s professional nomadism with the perennial confinedness of her mother Natalia. Between Chantal’s constant off-screen presence and Natalia’s self-imposed captivity (within the apartment as well as the computer screen), between Here and Elsewhere, lies the film’s true space – a part-real, part-virtual space of filial anxiety and affection. Akerman’s matrilineal counterpart to Porumboiu’s The Second Game (2014) investigates heritage and origin as the director meditates on what she has inherited from her mother – a reflection that continuously brings Akerman back to an examination of her own Jewishness. A document of physical decline and decline of the physical (“Je t’embrasse” over Skype), the film crystallizes a collective Jewish narrative of eternal exile through the personal history of the director’s mother, while vehemently refusing to reduce the unique being of Natalia Akerman the individual. Akerman’s harrowing swansong is cinema’s own Camera Lucida.

3. Taxi (Jafar Panahi, Iran)

 

TaxiTaxi opens with a shot of downtown Tehran photographed from the dashboard of a car. Announcing Panahi’s first cinematic outdoor excursion since his house arrest in 2011, this shot sets up the dialectics that would define the film: home/world, individual/social and freedom/captivity. Through the course of Taxi, the spied-upon filmmaker drives around the city in the guise of a cabbie, chauffeuring clients-actors from various strata of the society, and realizing a pre-scripted scenario with them whose urgent, didactic purpose can’t be more obvious. The Iranian state has forged a private prison for Panahi from the public spaces of Tehran, allowing him a mobility and false freedom that’s regulated by its watchful eyes. Panahi turns this power dynamic upside down, transforming the private space of the vehicle into a public space for debate, discussion, instruction and critique. Watching the film, I was constantly reminded of that saying beloved of Wittgenstein: “It takes all kinds to make a world”. Panahi’s very presence in the film – his image, his voice – becomes an audacious act of political defiance, a gesture of tremendous existential courage that stares at the possibility of death floating in the air. Taxi makes cinema still matter.

4. The Pearl Button (Patricio Guzmán, Chile)

 

The Pearl ButtonA beautiful marine cousin to Guzman’s previous film, Nostalgia for the Light (2010), The Pearl Button turns its attention from the arid stretches of the Atacama to the waterfront and ice field of Southern Patagonia. Threading metaphor over metaphor, the director fashions a typically associative, richly suggestive essay film that turns the nature documentary form on its head. Guzman’s film plumbs the depths of the ocean, trying to uncover traces of suppressed, unseen history embodied by countless “missing people” – a project that derives its impetus from the filmmaker’s bittersweet childhood experience of the sea. Despite Chile’s economic indifference to its 4000-kilometer-long coastline, he notes, the sea has been indispensable those in power, serving first as the entry point of the European invaders, who wiped out the Patagonian natives, and then as the dumping ground of political prisoners during the Pinochet regime. Guzman teases out the different values that the sea holds for him, the autochthons and the Chilean state, in effect politicizing and historicizing that which conventional wisdom takes to be apolitical and ahistorical: geography and the perception of it. The result is a film of immense poetry and horror – a horror that only poetry can convey.

5. Shift (Alexandra Gerbaulet, Germany)

 

ShiftThe most impressive debut film of the year, Alexandra Gerbaulet’s ambitious, intoxicating Shift excavates the evolution of her hometown, Salzgitter, along with that of her family with archaeological care and scientific detachment. In Gerbaulet’s heady narration, anchored by a powerful, quasi-declamatory, rhythmic voiceover, Salzgitter’s transformation from a Nazi mining stronghold and concentration camp, through a waning industrial hub and to a nuclear waste dump parallels the gradual disintegration of the Gerbaulet family under the weight of unemployment, sickness and sexual repression. The filmmaker closely intercuts photographs and diary entries of her mother with impersonal material from popular and scientific culture, weaving in and out of both registers with ease. Gerbaulet’s film is literally an unearthing project, as the director scoops out the various historical, political and geographical layers of this war-weathered city whose tranquil current-day model housing sits atop a makeshift Jewish graveyard consisting of camp workers buried using industrial debris. “Man gets used to everything, even the scar”, declares the narrator bluntly. Shift unscrambles such a habituated view of things, observing the tragicomic tautologies in which history revisits the city. The more you dig, it would seem, the more of the same you get.

6. A Century Of Energy (Manoel de Oliveira, Portugal)

 

A Century Of EnergyOne of my favorite films of the year is a commercial for a major power corporation made by a 106-year-old artist. Manoel de Oliveira’s last work of his 84-year long career revisits his second film White Coal (1932), a documentary about power generation at the Central Hydroelectric Plant at Ermal, Rio Ave, founded by the filmmaker’s father. The silent film is projected indoors as a string quartet and a trio of ballerinas interpret the film in the space before the screen. Oliveira moves beyond the primary purpose of chronicling the evolution of renewable energy in the past century, charting the evolution of cinema itself during this period. Splicing together shots from the older films with images of the same locations today, he synthesizes a densely dialectical film that brings into dialogue silent movies and talkies, film and digital cinema, youth and old age and power and grace.  Part tribute to the legacy of his father, part meditation on his own long life and transformed perspectives, Oliveira’s film is celebration of the beauty of forms, natural and man made, whose final shot – ballerinas moving like little windmills at the crack of dawn – captures something like pure energy – a supremely befitting parting shot.

7. Spotlight (Thomas McCarthy, USA)

 

SpotlightThomas McCarthy’s dramatization of Boston Globe’s exposé of child abuse in the Church is a robust, smart procedural that is less about picking apart the Catholic establishment than about elucidating the epistemological processes of the Information Age. Set at the transitional period between print and online news media, the film underscores the soon-to-be-outmoded physical nature of journalistic investigation. There are no antagonists of the traditional kind in Spotlight. The only obstacles to the knowledge required to carry out the exposé are the numerous procedures and institutional protocols that have for objective the protection or publication of information. It is telling that the entire film is about a pack of newswriters seeking information that’s already out in the open. What’s more, the film recognizes that the Spotlight team’s attempts to mount an institutional critique is itself inscribed within kindred ideological biases, operational strategies and structural iniquities of Boston Globe as an institution and that the metaphysical crisis that their story can potentially wreak amidst readers is but similar to the disillusionment the newsmen experience vis-à-vis their Protestant weltanschauung. With relatively uncommon formal and ethical restraint, McCarthy crafts an arresting film about how a society’s narratives are made, predicated they are as much on the dissemination of information as on their marginalization.

8. The Event (Sergei Loznitsa, Russia)

 

SThe Eventergei Loznitsa’s formidable follow-up to Maidan (2014) furthers the earlier film’s exploration of the aesthetics and mechanics of revolution, capturing a people coming together to make sense of a political limbo. Without context or a framing perspective, the film drops us straight into the streets of St. Petersburg just after the attempted reactionary coup d’état in Moscow in 1991. Confusion and mundanity – not heroics and determination – reign as we observe the formative process of a people’s movement and the imagined/imaginary social glue that causes individuals to cohere into a group. State apparatuses compete with each other for imposing a narrative onto the events, while the very toponymy of the city becomes an ideological battleground. Working off priceless archival footage, much of which is incredibly reminiscent of the filmmaker’s own cinematographic style, Loznitsa provides an invaluable glimpse into the unfurling of history, chronicling how numerous banal, unsure gestures and actions snowball into Historical Events. If Eisenstein’s better-than-the-original recreation of the October Revolution was the abstraction of materialist history into ideas, Loznitsa’s film, taking place at the same Palace Square 63 years later, rescues history from the reductions of ideology and brings it right back into the realm of the material.

9. In Transit (Albert Maysles & Co., USA)

 

In TransitA remarkable American counterpart to J. P. Sniadecki’s The Iron Ministry (2014), In Transit unfolds predominantly as a series of interviews with a mixed bag of travellers on board The Empire Builder, a long-distance passenger train running over 3500 kilometers and spanning almost the entire width of the United States. The accounts of passengers seeking out professional and financial breakthroughs evoke the pioneer myth hinged on a “Go West” imperative while the stories of those aboard in search of their ‘calling’ demonstrate the essentially spiritual, even religious nature of their pilgrimage-like journey. The diversity and range of the interviewees and their interactions help the film depict the train as a miniature America, à la Stagecoach, and carve out a quasi-utopian space in which members across class, race and gender divides get an opportunity to converse with each other without personal baggage. Nonetheless, In Transit is less a cultural vision of a possible America than an existential meditation on what makes people embark on these journeys. One elderly war veteran remarks that he’ll never be able to see these plains again. To cite John Berger, “the desire to have seen has a deep ontological basis.

10. Wake (Subic) (John Gianvito, The Philippines)

 

Wake (Subic)One of a piece with Gianvito’s Vapor Trail (Clark) (2010), Wake continues its precedent’s important investigation into the ecological consequences of the presence of America’s largest military bases in the Philippines during most of the 20th century. Like Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind (2007), Wake is guided by the spirit of Howard Zinn’s approach to history and sketches an economically-founded account of US-Philippines political and cultural relations – a history that seems to be have been lamentably wiped off from the Filipino national consciousness. Gianvito juxtaposes images from the Philippine-American war with current day images from the contaminated Subic naval base area, suggesting, in effect, the poisonous persistence of an agonizing, unacknowledged history. Wake is imperfect cinema – unwieldy and resourceful – and employs fly-on-the-wall records, talking heads, on-screen text, photographs and news clips to mount a potent critique of a historiography defined political amnesia and economic opportunism. More importantly, it is a necessary reminder that imperialism is not always about presence, action and exercise of power but sometimes also about the refusal of these very elements, that history is not only a matter of events but also processes and phenomena and that geography is always political.

 

Special Mention: Chi-raq (Spike Lee, USA)

After seven months, 700 tags and several thousand keystrokes, The Seventh Art reaches its 100th post (or as many Indian bloggers would like to call it, my 100th ranting/rambling/musing). First off, my thanks to the handful of readers who have been increasing my hit counter over the months. It couldn’t have been possible without you (Well, it could have been, but thanks anyways). So being the 100th post, I would like to take the opportunity to scribble about an event that celebrated the number 100 in some other way.

It is now a widely accepted fact that the Lumiére brothers are the fathers of the seventh art, though a few films had already been made as early as 1888 (Roundhay Garden Scene, Dickson’s experiment, Carmentica et al). Their series of films starting in 1895 notably Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat and Employees Leaving the Lumière Factory have become pieces of historical interest. It is said that the audience fled the theatre thinking that a real train is heading their way!

Take a look at the piece:

Cut to 1995. To commemorate the event of 100 years of cinema, a project called Lumiére et Compagnie (Lumiére & Company) was undertaken. Its intention was to gather the most important contemporary directors at one place and give them a task – To make a film using the same camera that was used by the Lumiére brothers!. Not just that, there were three more rules:

1.    The movie should not be more than 52 seconds.
2.    The directors should not used synchronized sound
3.    Only 3 takes allowed!

The film as such follows the directors making their films with the bizarre device interspersed with miniature interviews upon various questions including their views on mortality of cinema and their own motives for taking up the medium in order to express themselves. Some interesting opinions come out during these sections.

Lumiere and Company - Gabriel AxelThe list of 41 directors by itself is mind boggling with the likes of Abbas Kiarostami, David Lynch, Theo Angelopoulos, Michael Haneke, Zhang Yimou, Wim Wenders and many more (See Tags for the list!). The result- 41 minute films with totally different perspectives. Abbas Kiarostami’s “Dinner for One” is typically his style as he makes an omelet.  David Lynch’s bizarre piece, as usual, set in a quiet little suburban town that has more mystery than meets the eye is an instant hit. Zhang Yimou’s “cultural piece” near the China Wall, Gabriel Axel’s tracking sot of the various arts and Wim Wenders’ extension of Wings of Desire are all immensely amusing to watch.

Here is David Lynch’s piece for you:

And Spike Lee’s cute one:

The film by itself is not very extraordinary. But it is all about the event and the massive operation of bringing all the masters under one place and putting them under such constraints that no one else would dare to in any other year. A celebration of Cinema and one for the cinephiles.