Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Bullet points: Ici et Ailleurs


It was in the middle of July 2014 – in the tumult of Operation Protective Edge – that I came across an article on an Indian news site. Mor Ostrovski, a 20-year old soldier in an IDF sniper unit, had uploaded to his instagram account an image of a target – the looming head of a very young Palestinian boy – dead centre in the crosshairs of his rifle. I saw this as an addendum to something I’d read a few days earlier – Instagram and Art Theory, which posited that the proliferation of photos on social media is not an aberration in the history of images but a continuum – through viral propagation – of existing modes of representation (selfies a bastardized form of self-portraits, food pictures a variation on still life and so on). Furthermore, the origins of these ‘original’, ‘classical’ modes were in themselves not really as respectable as we imagine them to be – for example, portraits developed partly because artists had to draw their royal patrons for subsistence. No image is therefore as innocent as it seems to be, no image too ignoble to be discarded without due thought. Social media had understandably exploded on poor Ostrovski but there was more to be spent on his image than mere outrage.

Now, on being asked to write something pertaining to Palestinian cinema, I was in a quandary: the only film on the conflict made by an insider (or a stakeholder) I’d seen was some four years back in a festival screening, little of which I remembered. My history lessons on the conflict were murky at best, so what was I to do with this assignment?

With the student protests of France in May ’68 a major filmmaker died, signing his penultimate film with a triumphant declaration: FIN DU CINEMA. The filmmaker reborn in the wake of this was no longer interested in placing himself in the history of the moving image, but in holding a photograph of Jane Fonda in Vietnam to task and questioning its implications. In 1970, this filmmaker, J-L Godard, and his young friend, J-P Gorin, went to Palestine to make a film on the resistance – Jusqu'à la victoire (Until Victory) – which never got released in its intended form.

“In 1970, this film was called Until Victory.
In 1974, this film is called Here and Elsewhere. Here. and Elsewhere.”

It is in this later film that I found something to chew on – an outsider’s perspective on strife; of what it means to be sitting thousands of miles away from Gaza and scrolling through the fine print of photos of its bombed remains on Facebook. Here. And elsewhere. Of being part of an image-saturated world and watching the subjects of the ‘sympathetic’ image, subjects without an equivalent access into our own ‘reality’. Elsewhere. And here.

It is in the image of a Palestinian fighter with his machine gun that we find a matching countershot to Ostrovski - a zoom-in that dynamizes the frame, ‘bringing us closer to the conflict’. The conflict here between these militarized images: Ostrovski’s instagram belonging to a lineage of ‘cool’ war and espionage iconography (action movies, video games), Godard’s/Gorin’s shot an appropriation of agit-prop third cinema documentaries. Seemingly different image-histories that share the same ideology – the construction of the image is in itself the argument for the respective 'political cause’. If one was to strip away the specific aesthetic of these images, the 'raw data' might be re-purposed for very different ends.

With the dissolution of the Dziga Vertov group and his subsequent encounter with Anne-Marie Mieville, Godard began to see the faultlines in his erstwhile project. Therefore he turned the raw images from his uncompleted Palestine film against themselves, with some new material filmed in France – in effect shifting the focus from the Palestinian struggle itself to the violent appropriation that ‘sympathetic’ outsiders unleash on it.

  • a hand adding four digit numbers on a calculator, 1917 + 1936 (and somewhere 1789), to try to arrive at 1970. Revolutionary maths that don’t add up because the references are all wrong.

  • a young Palestinian girl declaiming Israel in front of war ruins. Heroic gestures that date back to the public spectacles of the French Revolution.

  • five people holding photographs of the Palestinian resistance walk in a queue towards a camera, holding their photos up and leaving. Then they move sideways in a queue, simulating a montage.
And sound:
“A point in time when one sound takes power over the others. A point in time when this sound seeks, almost desperately, to keep this power.
How did that sound take power? It took power because, at one given time, it made itself represented by an image.”

How, then, does one think through these data-bytes of war? By juxtaposing relentlessly and constantly, one with the ‘other’, one with the ‘self’. If there is anything to be learnt at all from the work of Godard, it is that meaning can only be found in the abstract maelstrom of images and sounds that don’t add up. It is in not understanding fully – in struggling with meaning – that one grasps dialectics.

To return to Ostrovski, the real terror in his photo is the violent hierarchy in it: the blatant position of power than he wields over the boy, who’s unaware that he’s in imminent danger. To see, as a voyeur, is to exploit. The terrifying fact is that Ostrovski can jokingly think of shooting the kid and then magnanimously let him go, taking just a ‘cool’ photo as a record of his benevolence. To land as a Frenchman in Palestine and hold a movie camera is a luxury, as is flicking through photos of bombed-out Gaza on Facebook. We can just as well choose not to.

P.S.: I learnt while researching for this piece that the Ostrovski scandal actually happened in February 2013, a full year and a half before some enterprising Indian newspaper decided to recycle it as shocking news from the present warfront. Here. And elsewhere.

(written in September, 2014. Commissioned by, translated and published in bangla here.)

Sunday, 20 July 2014

We can be heroes: the star and his fan in My Name is Nobody

My Name is Nobody (Tonino Valerii/Sergio Leone, 1973) sits at all sorts of strange intersections: between comic and serious spaghetti westerns (the former typified by the Trinity series starring Terrence Hill, ‘Nobody’ in this film); between the old West of Henry Fonda’s idealism and the post-modern West of endless cultural references and tropes; but most crucially the intersection in a dark movie theater of a star and his awestruck fan.
From which came the Wild Bunch.
Fonda plays Jack Beauregard – aging, conscientious gunslinger who draws so fast that he can fire three shots in the space of one. A hero of the Old West, a ‘national monument’, he’s the star of Nobody’s eyes. Nobody is a comically fast draw (who, in deference to his idol, never exhibits his tact before Beauregard), Trinity wandered into the wrong set. He knows Beauregard’s exploits by heart (“82 was one of your best years”) and wants to see him go out with a bang against the infamous Wild Bunch (“150 who shoot and ride like there's thousands”). So he dogs Beauregard’s tracks and practically coerces him into a showdown.

The movement here practically plays as a riff on fan-culture myth: the movie star a graceful, kind fellow with super-powers; the star’s heroic exploits in movies (where the star and the character can never be separated) and the fan's own dream scenario starring the hero pitted against villains.

Hero-worship, however, is no one-way street. The dreamer fashions himself after the star: practicing his swagger in front of a mirror and, at least in his subjective estimation, outdoing him. The fan is a self-appointed successor to the hero, the one who inherits his legacy and displaces him.

Wearing the hero's hat.

It is then entirely fitting that the star has to enter the dream under the aegis of the devotee. The screen – the barrier between performer and spectator – dissolves. The kid in the theater saves his idol from a rut and gives him the perfect alibi for a peaceful after-life. A final gambit. Death in the space of the movie. To be staged in front of an audience, with a camera recording the proceedings for eternity (the players being asked to re-position to fit into the camera's frame).

In the after-life, three days after his ‘death’, the superstar writes a letter to his fan – thanking him for the trouble taken, for the favour done, noting how Nobody’s finally a Somebody, a standout from the crowd in the theater. The dream has been played out, the payback delivered. The star will ride out in a ship called 'The Sundowner' and the kid will take his position.

The aspect ratio of frames, wherein the meta-myth is constructed.
The old hero looking at himself in a 4:3 mirror: the frame of classic westerns.

The new hero in his Cinemascope frame.

The new hero displacing the old in the same space: the barbershop
(refer first still in this triptych) and its old-time 4:3 mirror.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Object-ifying trauma

The engine of the revenge movie plot is a tragedy. The (anti-)hero's very existence is defined by the all-consuming tragic incident which bereaved him, often to the extent where he's unable to feel love or happiness. The world - as he perceives it - has been thrown out of order. Only revenge will restore symmetry.

The problem is: trauma is a shapeless, blinding emotion that often erases the actual experience. So how does he deal with it? How does he preserve the memory of the loss?

[Spoiler alert for the rest of the post]

Notes from a spaghetti western
In Death Rides a Horse, little Bill (John Phillip Law) witnesses the annihilation of his family by a posse of bandits from a dark corner of the room. One of the kinder bandits saves and hides him in time before they burn the house down. The kid grows up to be one of the deadliest gunslingers in the territory, swearing revenge on his family's murderers. Except he didn't see their faces. He remembers each bandit by a specific object or mark - they have been stripped of their humanity, reduced to something on their person. These are the only permanent landmarks in the hero's subjective experience.

The witness

The other witness: time

The erasure of subjective experience
When he later encounters these bandits many years after, these objects/marks re-kindle what has been repressed. As the hero meets his aggressors in an almost episodic narrative, Petroni 's camera picks out the objects - the signifiers - with a zoom-in. Then we cut to a flashback of the tragedy - the screen tinted red, the kid's eyes in a huge close-up, witnessing, superimposed.

If revenge-cinema is perceived as a masculine genre it's because a large part of it is dictated by the obsession of a (futile) chase; the (anti-)hero does not let memory bury the 'ghosts of the past'. He fetishizes the tragedy - objectifies it - so that he'll remember. But Petroni is kind enough to give his protagonist wisdom before it's too late: the 'last bandit' in the posse is forgiven. The cycle of violence stops when Bill's obsession ends. He is free at last.

Trauma in '70s Bombay Cinema
I've been revisiting the classics of my childhood moviewatching days - the late '60s and '70s crime melodramas that defined my obsession. I'm struck by Prakash Mehra's Zanjeer because of the sheer ingenuity in the way it borrows from the premise of Death Rides a Horse. Here too, the protagonist witnesses the killing of his family (from a cupboard) - and here too is the signifying object associated with Evil, imprinted on his mind. 

But Mehra and writers Salim-Javed do not play their 'theft' down: they literalize it with a Death-like figure on a horse repeatedly riding into the hero's nightmares. (In fact, one of the film's strongest points is that it literalizes the central metaphor of the title - Zanjeer is both the fetishized object and the hero's existential condition, and in making the symbol physical, the filmmakers explode meaning.) The all-important tragedy is given a full-blown mythical irony: it happens during Diwali, the sound of gunfire lost in the noise of crackers.

Mehra-Salim-Javed further extend the object-ification of trauma to D'Silva (Om Prakash), an old man who gives the police anonymous tips about hooch smuggling. When he's first shown in the film, he's made up to be a drunkard - carrying an empty bottle, slightly lisping. It is only later when he reveals his story to Vijay (Amitabh Bachchan) that we come to know of the bottle's significance: poisoned chalice, the last physical memory of three dead sons.

Footnotes, post-script, etc.:
1.) I also recommend Zanjeer for Mehra's direction. He shows an innate understanding of classical framing and staging in many scenes.

The meeting with D'Silva.

Premonition of danger: small figure, huge space

I love the rows and rows of posts: very Alan Pakula

Post-shootout schema on a 'Tetris board'
2. Object-ification of trauma is actually a pretty common trope in retrospect. In spaghetti westerns, the most widely famous would be Harmonica from Once Upon A Time in the West: a man known by the name of the object which obsesses him. Unlike the tragedies which happen in 'real' spaces in the above cited examples, Sergio Leone stages the central tragedy of his film in a completely dream-like zone.


Revenge: perfect symmetry!
In '70s AYM melodrama, the other notable objectification of trauma is in Deewar (unsurprisingly written by Salim-Javed): मेरा बाप चोर है tattooed on young Vijay.

3. On literalization of symbols/metaphors, my all-time favourite is the climactic funhouse shootout in Orson Welles' The Lady from Shanghai: breaking down the very illusion of the make-belief universe literally, so that what remains is pure meaning without any disturbing static from the subtlety contingent.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Ab ki baar, #epicfail yaar

Short post on something which has been bugging me a little. When the Modi Sarkaar (or Mudi Circar if you follow the viral Norinder Mudi page) meme circulated, a lot of us felt that it had great potential as satire: by flattening and reducing the rhetoric of the Modi PR team to hollow sillyness. (I spun a couple of these too.) It turned out to be quite the opposite, the crowning achievement of Modi's social media campaign for office. How?

Let's turn to chacha Žižek for an answer (who has useful things to say inspite of the controversies he deservedly faces).

Because it's silly and catchy, the meme circulated widely, pretending to be implicit critique while never really making good on that agenda. In fact, because it had the pretense of criticism - or at least 'neutral, apolitical' humour - it reinforced the campaign (a funny slogan, howsoever meaningless, is ultimately more effective than a sombre one). Which means: media studies should probably look at how memes function in peddling ideology. Q.E.D.

Saturday, 24 May 2014

Two Existential Men: Une élégie à Jef Costello et Bauji

Jef Costello is an embodiment of purpose (another ‘f’ doesn’t serve any). His working-class living quarters are exemplary in the precise functionality of everything – all the water bottles lined up neatly on a shelf, a medical kit just in place. Even the canary in its cage has a function in Jef’s universe, as we learn in the course of time.

Jef's worldview in a key image.

Some of this dedication to the obsessive ordering of the physical world till it fits a worldview comes, one may surmise, from J-P Melville’s private search for symmetry. Therefore the consistent sameness of the colour palette in his late colour films (light blue/gray/light ochre) – especially here in Le Samourai or in his last film Un Flic – an ironic minimalism that establishes Melville’s moral universe even before the films have really begun. What doesn’t have purpose in the scheme is meaningless – therefore the near-comical effect of having Jef visit his ‘girlfriend’ only when he needs to establish an alibi.

Melville’s vision of a world that runs on its own rhythms of planned action is exact in ways Tati would have found comic. a.) Jef goes to a run-down garage to have the number plates of a Citroen changed, doesn’t exchange a word with the man there, hands him money and gets a gun in a total of about five movements. b.) One of Jef’s rock solid alibis is with a group of professional gamblers. He goes there after the job, cops come to pick him up ostensibly for a “routine checkup”. When Jef heads out, Melville stays back in the room with his camera for the coup de grâce. One of the gamblers who was pretending to take a nap while Jef killed time in his place comes back to the table, picks up his cards and the gentlemen resume the game at once with clockwork precision. The ‘arrangement’ is well-oiled. Everything in Jef Costello’s universe is.

On a metaphysical level, the very plot of Le Samourai is concerned with restoring symmetry in a world where something has gone off-register. The pianist – the only witness who saw Jef at the crime scene – doesn’t identify him at the police station. Jef doesn’t receive his dues from the people who hired him and gets shot at because he’s become a perceived danger. Until he figures out these aberrations he can’t let go.

Hence the entirely appropriate conclusion – Jef revisits the location of the first 
violation, this time exactly prepared for what is coming. A samurai without his master must dictate the terms of his existence. When he has been cornered he should know what to do.

Bauji, in his puraani Dilli mohalla, surrounded by the bustle of community. When he realizes that rumours about his daughter’s boyfriend are unfounded, he takes the simple-minded but radical decision not to believe anything he has not experienced first-hand. He gives up his job at a travel agency; how can he convincingly sell the charms of foreign lands when he hasn’t been to these places? Pretty soon a small cult gathers around Bauji, intently following every utterance and gesture he makes in a futile search for the ‘truth’. For a long time Bauji takes a vow of silence, finally making up his mind to let his daughter marry the boy. But all through the marriage ceremony he’s caught in a strange kind of sorrow, the reason for which doesn’t become clear until the very end. The end which takes his metaphysical drive to its necessary logical conclusion. How can Bauji know the true joy of flying until he has tried it?

This whimsical world with its inherent chaos is not for men of single-minded vision. The existential man achieves meaning - finds home - when he ceases to exist.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Apur Panchali: validation required

This must be the worst way to do it.

Kaushik Ganguly’s Apur Panchali is purportedly a fictionalized biopic/tribute to Subir Banerjee, the child actor in Pather Panchali. Banerjee played that one iconic role before settling down to the life of an everyman due to financial/social circumstances.

Ganguly’s film dramatizes Banerjee’s life – in flashback – by drawing parallels to Apu. And that is precisely my point of objection; it takes an enormous amount of disrespect for the ordinariness of the everyman to define his existence solely in relation to a cultural touchstone. This is the highest form of veiled elitism; if Subir hadn’t played Apu you could be pretty sure there wouldn’t be a film of his life. Irony being – and I don’t expect the filmmakers to understand this – the story of Apu is moving precisely because it could be, and was, story of anyone from a certain background.

Ganguly takes a lot of pain to establish how Subir Banerjee shies away from any mention of Apu – as I imagine he actually must – but the supposed empathy with this reticence is betrayed by the whole parallels business – some of them so overtly forced you’d have to strain your imagination – a dubious bit of the pilfering of Ray’s legacy that has been continually perpetuated through the years by Bengali filmmakers. Oh, the subtlety!

The silliest bit of the fictionalizing – mandatory “based on a true story” warning; and that always is a warning! – is when Nemai Ghosh, the stills photographer of Ray is being interviewed about Subir. Ghosh says something cursory before saying he has a photo of young Subir. Picks up one from a stack full of actual prints from the sets; a photo of Parambrato! (Who promptly plays his part with all the gravity that comes from someone knowing how he’s a cultural icon and everything – as the actor Parambrato, and the character Subir/Apu. The older actor, Ardhendu Banerjee, is far more sensitive, getting a lot of everyman nuances just perfect.)

As if to rub the point in, about how beautifully Ray-like Subir – and by extension this whole film – is you have the background score (an almost note-by-note copy of tribute to Ravi Shankar’s Pather Panchali theme) playing endlessly, trying to squeeze out that last teardrop stuck in the corner of your eye. Emotions on rent from The Greatest Indian Film. Go on, weep some more. For Bengali cinema is dead.


Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Transferences in The Leopard Man

A woman walks, 'tween shadow and light.

The gaze in horror films is a terrifying thing – a sign of imminent danger. Imagine a scene in a crowded restaurant. When the camera is neutral, a mere recording instrument taking in a whole group of people, it is no threatening presence. Now a girl leaves the party inside and walks out into the shadowy street. The camera follows her, tracking her long enough to shed off the veneer of neutrality. It is now very interested in her – morbidly interested – so the logic of cinema demands that something ‘happen’. She’s firmly in the gaze, trapped in the unwritten rules of the game, her fate sealed. They say that film is a very male-centric medium; naturally women have to bear the brunt of our objectifying desire.

Something very interesting happens in The Leopard Man (1943, one of the horror films Jacques Tourneur made at RKO for producer/writer Val Lewton). Clo-Clo, the exotic Spanish dancer at a nightclub, walks home after an eventful day. A leopard is on the loose and the police are looking for it. It’s a graceful example of the archetypal Val Lewton proposition: a woman walks alone between shadow and light (the most famous example is in Cat People). The camera matches pace with Clo-Clo as she walks, playing the castanets. She’s stopped by the tarot-reader who asks her to pick a card. Clo-Clo reluctantly agrees. She picks the Ace of Spades – the death card. The setting dictates that something happen to her in this very scene – the rules of the horror genre and Tourneur’s belief in the supernatural coincide to mark Clo-Clo for tragedy – but something strange happens. The camera stops tracking her once it chances upon another girl, Teresa, looking out a window. Clo-Clo greets her and leaves the frame; the camera’s gaze is now fixed upon Teresa. The very next shot is a cut to the interior of Teresa’s home as she closes the window.

Teresa is frightened by the news of the leopard. Her mother wants her to run an errand to the grocer’s shop but she’s afraid to step out. Mother can’t be dissuaded so Teresa has to go across the arroyo to fetch cornflour. This time however, the camera’s insistent gaze on her doesn’t mislead. Teresa is killed by the leopard.
So why does Clo-Clo escape what’s coming to her in the first instance? Is it because she’s happy; unperturbed by the knowledge of the leopard at large? The male gaze in cinema requires that the girl react to it. It is only because Clo-Clo is confident – self-contained, without the need for a protective man (the running joke is that she only wants a rich man for his money) – that the gaze has to be transferred onto Teresa (who’s reacting out of fear).

The Leopard Man is then a precursor in many ways to classic Hitchcock themes. Think of Vertigo: James Stewart tries to model Kim Novak after a lookalike he was in love with, who he believes is now dead, only so that he can consummate their relationship posthumously. The objectifying gaze is what excites him – even inspiring the camera into the most fantastic 360 degree shot of their fatal embrace. Conversely Kim Novak’s ‘actual’ death is sealed only when she participates in her objectification.

Or think of Psycho: another film where we follow a lone woman. The very constant gaze on Janet Leigh during those first 37 minutes – especially when it becomes openly voyeuristic (peeping through a secret hole in the wall) – marks her out for premature death. The audience is an implicit instigator in the world of horror: the death of the woman is our sought-after release.

Which brings us to ‘a very British Psycho’. In Peeping Tom, the underlying tension between death and sexuality is literalized. Carl Boehm’s pet project is to film the dying expressions of his female victims. The terror in their eyes fascinate him, leading him to commit the murders – a detail reflected in all the deaths in Leopard Man.

One can even go so far as to say that Tourneur’s film predicts De Palma’s reworking of Psycho in Dressed to Kill – the aggressor and the psychiatrist are no longer separate personalities, they are alter-egos. Only the first of Leopard Man’s three murders is committed by the animal – Dr. Galbraith, the town’s museum curator and animal psychiatrist, does the other two. Transference isn’t limited to the shifting of gaze, it is evident here in the interchangeability of personas. At various points, Tourneur establishes the equivalence between the key characters. Kiki Walker has her double in the cigarette girl, Clo-Clo and the leopard; Teresa/Consuela/Clo-Clo are the victims and Galbraith assumes the leopard’s role. The doctor’s attempts at understanding animals has leapt off the deep end: if Cat People can be simply summed up in cat/people (alternate states of being), this film proposes leopard/man.