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.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Blow Out as meta-film

An invisible prowler peeks in through the windows of a girls’ dorm. A girl having sex sees him, but her partner can’t. The prowler enters the corridor of the dorm, passing by several girls, none of whom notice him. He briefly enters the room of a girl pleasuring herself, then goes to the shower. The room is steamy. We briefly see this spectral presence reflected in the mirror, knife in hand. He parts the curtain behind which a girl is showering. The girl sees him and screams. Terribly. We’re now in a projection room. A B-movie director is going through the rushes of his latest sexploitation venture with soundman Jack Terry (John Travolta). The wind needs to be redone, the director says. The stock sound is so overused it’s insipid. And the scream has to be corrected, of course.

He goes to a bridge on the river at night, to get new wind. As he moves the mike around, recording, ambient noises rise and fall. The camera seemingly looks around, trying to find the source of the dominant sound before finally focusing on it. The serene uniformity of the soundscape – nothing particularly loud – is suddenly broken when we hear an explosion and then see a car hurtling down into the river. Every sound in this sequence is seeking its accompanying image – craving diegesis – before finding it and giving way to the next sound. Only the fully focused image of the source resolves the mini-pocket of suspense (“where does it come from?”) built around a ‘floating’ sound.

Terry jumps into the river and manages to rescue the girl in the passenger seat. The driver dies. It is only later that he learns who the dead driver is – Presidential favourite Governer McRyan, out for a fun night with a call girl. Convinced that the accident is a cover-up for an assassination Jack takes it upon himself to find and establish “the truth” – for which, he makes a sort of found-footage film from his audio recording and stills of the incident published in a magazine.

De Palma’s inspirations behind the film are well-known – Antonioni’s Blow-Up and Coppola’s The Conversation, as also the Zapruder film – but his thrust is in a whole different direction. The question here isn’t about the tendency of the medium to distort or hide the ‘essential information’ – like the noisy film stock/recording in Blow-up/Conversation¸ both of which become so open-ended when stripped down and amplified that one wonders if the mind is imagining things. De Palma makes it clear that McRyan has indeed been killed, so the drama for a good portion concerns the minutiae of Terry’s amateur filmmaking. In a reversal of roles with the Zapruder film what exists as primary document here is the sound of the incident. The image has to be constructed for Terry’s claims to be substantiated. He succeeds, sure, but at what cost?

What Terry believes in, of course, is a variation of the old wisdom about film editing – that it is only in the re-assemblage of shot footage that one finds meaning (or “truth”). In a world of uncommitted dime-a-day shlock he’s the last idealist, believing the medium must be put at the service of truth. What the guy doesn’t know is the other old adage – you can’t be in the business without giving up part of yourself. It is only through the loss of his naiveté – and the girl for whom he staked so much – that he completes the only missing bit in the sexploitation film: the scream. The relation has finally been reversed – if much of the film was a search for the perfect image by sound, the denouement has an image find the perfect sound it was looking for all along.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

The Rules of the Game: notes on Johnny Gaddaar

One persistent criticism of pastiche as a genre is how it really is about other works of art and therefore unrelated to reality; as Andrei T said, “Cinema uses your life, not vice versa.” Yet for something that is pure pastiche – nothing more than a series of quotations from the Sriram Raghavan canon – I find Johnny Gaddaar to be emotionally resonant in a strange way. And it isn’t a one-off impression. Having watched it about ten times by now, I’m still moved when Sheshadri (Dharmendra) crawls over to the tape-recorder to hear his dead wife sing after being gutshot. It is, like the rest of JG, yet another homage – a song from the early Dharmendra film Bandini – but one stamped with a precious sense of emotional experience.

That gets me thinking – how does Raghavan earn my emotional investment? The surfaces suggest otherwise. For one, the acting here is consistently hammy in keeping with the Vijay Anand tone. In the scenario leading up to Sheshadri’s murder, the line “shut up, you son of a bitch” is delivered so hilariously (cf. Dharmendra’s chinnery-sewing dog-blood-drinking days in the ‘80s) that it undermines the seriousness of the situation. And yet the murder ‘feels right’ because Raghavan knows how to switch moods – a pedestal fan provides the only ambient sound in tense dead-time (newspapers flutter) and then the ‘rupture’ occurs. But Raghavan doesn’t stop at that. The first thing Sheshadri hits when he tries to get to the tape-recorder is the fan, which falls with a loud clatter on the floor. This is the precise sort of consciousness about the medium’s plastic nature – and how to engage with it – that I wish more commercial filmmakers understood, given that they are in the best position to deal with plastic elements in the guise of ‘entertainment’.

How does Vikram (Neil Nitin Mukesh) get the idea of double-crossing? His girlfriend Mini (Rimi Sen) writes out the cash he’s going to make from a deal with lipstick on the bathroom mirror (they’re banking on it to ‘start a new life’), but she mistakenly writes the whole gang’s take instead of only his. Vikram corrects her. But later in the night he comes back to the bathroom to wash, having just had dinner while watching Parwana on TV. He looks into the mirror, the crazy Parwana plot fits in and he’s ‘sold’. Without quite understanding it the girl has set off her man into a bloody Macbeth-like quest for more than he wanted. (As if to validate my wild guesses, I found a basin filled with bloody water as a poster in Shardul’s office!)

But Vikram is not the only one falling back on Parwana. Prakash (Vinay Pathak) and his wife are watching it too in their home and she comments how no one could have foreseen in 1970 that the lanky awkward Bachchan – instead of sweet-faced Navin Nischol – would be the superstar. Prakash turns it into a wily excuse for ‘making the right decision at the right time’ and coaxes her into mortgaging her beauty parlour to raise extra cash for the deal. Same ‘reference’ but different people using it to different ends (both manipulative).

Making the right decision at the right time. Standing at the crossroads – the bifurcation between Pune and Goa, between a dirty scam and a clean life – Vikram wants to reconsider. Finding that he can’t take a definite call, he defers decision-making to a coin (who can you trust your conscience with but money?). Tails for a clean life, heads for the plot. First spin, tails. “Best of 3.” Second spin, tails. “Best of 5.” Third spin, the coin turns around. Fourth and fifth too, heads. Which is precisely when heads start to roll.

There’s a reference to Citizen Kane where a neglected wife plays jigsaw puzzle, but the more important debt might be to Welles’ method of cutting to the sound of the next scene while the image hasnt changed. This creates a sort of suspense through which the ‘drama’ of one scene segues into the other. Vikram is the only character for whom expressionistic sound design is reserved – as he stares into the lipstick writing on his mirror, a train passes by; then, sitting in Sheshadri’s house waiting for the other gang members to come – his plot exposed – the calling bell rings. In both these instances the sound is of horrors to come: a man hears more than what is real and in the present.

I can go on writing about how clever and ironic Johnny Gaddaar is, how every major plot point is coded in the colour red, how a crime caper like this is also a chronicle of three marital relationships – each of them telling – but that’s better left for you to find out.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

No Dumb Rocks: a little singsong on Routine Pleasures

Midway through Routine Pleasures, this exchange takes place…

[Gorin] The thing that amazed me is that you guys are running schedules for very, very long periods of time. I mean, once Corky has defined the great call board...
[Man] Mm-hmm.
[Gorin continues] it runs for one or two seasons, which is basically...
[Man] Pretty much the -
[Gorin] twelve months, no? I mean -
[Man] Yeah. Yeah. Maybe even longer. But you've got to remember it's - it's evolving all the time, for one thing. It's never quite the same.
And besides, the schedule isn't the whole story. I mean, the schedule says you run 10, 12 trains of an evening... you know, one direction or another at particular times. Well, there's a lot more activity than that... and, uh, that's really the fun of it all.
These trains go through at the same time all the time. You know when they're coming. So the other things that you do, you have to kind of fit it in between. That's part of the fun of it. For example, making switching moves and what not. Those you do differently each time.
[Gorin] So it's - that's what is difference... difference in repetition? I mean -
[Man] Yeah, yeah. The... so to speak, the schedule provides a matrix in which you do the fun part. Does that make sense?
[Gorin Laughs] Yeah. So the trains like, let's say, the Lark or the Delight are the permanent fixtures. They function like what, the landscape?
[Man] Almost, yeah. Call it temporal landscape. These things are going to happen at particular points in time. You know that. You have to work around it.

…and I start thinking this sounds familiar. But what really catches my attention are those two words sticking out from the rest: temporal landscape. My my, I think, the fellow doesn’t only know what drives him but also has the exact words to articulate his impulses. I’m beginning to grow jealous. I love this film, I tell myself, only I can’t place my finger on the why. It’s like that bit where the fellow explains the paint job on a train to Gorin and “at the end of it all, there’s only one thing left to say, "Good-looking train."”

Damn it, model railroad man! Damn it, Manny Farber! If only I could find my equivalent of temporal landscape or sinewy, life-marred exactness (“Manny, who in three words could pin down the way Cagney sliced through the space of a ballroom in Wellman's Other Men's Women…”)...

But maybe I better persist. If I sit down long enough and go through the motions… like writing down 10 sentences trying to say a thing without quite getting it… I might get it. (“For both Manny and the guys there was so much routine at the core of any flight of the imagination.”)

Sorry, I may be getting too ahead of the story. So like a dutiful Old Hollywood junkie, like in one of those movies by Wellman and Hawks that Gorin evokes incessantly, let me start at the beginning.

Farber (extreme left) and Godard: "old buddies" to Gorin
Jean-Pierre Gorin, one-time collaborator of Godard, came to the US in the mid-‘70s at the invitation of Manny Farber (a former film critic whose work from the ‘40s to the ‘60s remains vital and fresh today while Bosley Crowther has become a comic footnote on wikipedia). Farber was building up a visual arts department at the University of California, San Diego at the time. “The reading of his film criticism gave me a very different key to American cinema than the one I used in France, a way to ground it in the culture and its language, to pry it away from its own mythology.” Naturally Gorin was happy to shift base (Dziga Vertov Group had dissolved); excited and anxious in mapping the mythical land with his own images of it weaned through the movies and media. Part of his mission is to find out roots, the specific trills and cadences of a culture and understand identity – how much of an American had he become in the five years he’d spent in the country (“I wasn't French anymore, but I wasn't quite American either.”)? What does an “ex-Marxist” do with characters whose very existence is defined by their fascination with machinery and tools and the railroad – that trope of change from the westerns? These characters are the members of the Pacific Beach & West (PB&W) model railroad club – a group of middle-class homely types who gather every Tuesday on the Del Mar fairgrounds to be masters of, and slaves to, their miniature universe.

Routine Pleasures belongs at a glance to the genre of documentaries that is best exemplified by Errol Morris’ Gates of Heaven, or perhaps the Maysles’ Salesman – intimate portraits of the “simple folk” of small-town America that double up as sociological studies – but it combines the surface simplicity of those films with a formal approach that Gorin wears lightheartedly. There’s always the rhythm section of sly humour cutting through – the model landscape shot in extreme close-ups as if it were the real thing, played to a realistic soundtrack of trains and atmospheric minutiae, cutting from a woman sitting on a porch basking in the sun (as in Ed Hopper) to another woman frozen in the middle of a run to catch a departing car, her suitcase swaying back. And then Gorin does ‘long shots’ of the same landscape, from between which the “train people” (Cat People?) pop up Godzilla-like to dust up the tracks and do odd painting jobs.

And later I learned that they'd been hard at it since 1958... the time of De Gaulle's return to power and of my first stumble into politics.
Half the world away the train people had just been given a home on the Del Mar Fairgrounds... on the condition that they would have a show ready for the first fair.
And since then, every Tuesday night they had gathered to run trains... in this hangar on Jimmy Durante Boulevard across from the Bing Crosby Hall.
And it dawned on me that their layout was the only thing that had remained unchanged... in a landscape where corporate headquarters, malls and cities of 40,000-plus were popping up now by the month. If anything, they had a tale of permanence to tell.
Every now and then, the nostalgia bug bites. The men are united in their utter absorption in the world of trains, a shared camaraderie that is silent, bonds borne of working together to the same rhythm. Gorin wants to connect them to the train gangs from the ‘30s American films – maybe Bill Wellman’s Other Men’s Women – but he’s put on guard by Farber who admonishes him against nostalgia even as he is digging into his own childhood memories to paint expansive canvasses. "You are all Remembrance of Things Past. But they aren't your things and this isn't your past."
Movie house in shoe-box America/Remembrance of Things Past.
Gorin persists nonetheless. The club’s general manager’s calling card reads “Corky Thompson, train specialist”: the sort of name which “took me for a loop as if it had jumped out of a Howard Hawks movie... a name like Matthew Garth or Bud Kenley... a name that ties a knot under a personality... and that I saw somehow as the guarantee that I could pull a Howard Hawks of my own.” After all, how could he swim against the whole collective memory-churning of this bunch – guys who shot home movies of trains (in memory, Lumiere!) and remembered the “spot where 4449 was going upgrade with the diesel and dynamic braking…. and was workin' and slippin'”? It has to be a nostalgia film alright. The club had agreed to let Gorin film them if he promised to hand over unused footage so that they could make a film out of it. Money was never discussed. What good was it compared to the glorious sight of a train “pounding up the grade”?

Corky Thompson's home movies

Gradually one sees the fine notes in their activity. Like so much of the best of Old Hollywood, it is both restricted and set free by the rules of the game. You repeat certain lines so that you can take off from there and explore the other things before coming back and hitting base. It’s a decidedly Manny Farber-ish style of doing things – the termite’s way of “gnawing at the borders” without realizing if it’s “chewing on the Sistine Chapel or an old hangar on the Del Mar Fairgrounds”.
Midway through this memory trip, Gorin switches from black-and-white (a conscious homage to the ‘30s films) to his version of Life in Technicolor when shooting the club in action – the cragged, rocky Western landscape through which the trains run bring to mind the spaces from John Ford Westerns and Minnelli’s Some Came Running even as its scale undermines the mythological underpinnings. “Somehow I'd managed to convince myself that they were offering me a small-scale epic. America under budget and in a shoe box.” The guys put Gorin in a toy Citroen – the car he actually owns – and move it around the landscape every Tuesday, leaving him “to dream on the inside”, showing him the sights. In a lovely show of solidarity with the unwavering realism of these guys’ imagination Gorin narrates – “One day I took Farber to the airport. He was carting away to New York a load of paintings for a show. On the way, we got stopped at a crossing and watched an endless freight pass by.” – to this.

Gorin and Farber in the Citroen, waiting.
But once the clocks are out for a break, Gorin reverts back to monochrome. Time shifts gears and all you’ve got left is the past.


But how had Gorin come to be here at all?

One day I was looking over some Barney Googles. It was one of the tracks Farber had sent me to. And it hit me that if there was one trick that I'd learned from him it was an age-old one. When you want to say where you stand in a landscape, you draw an "X." Two lines crossing at a single point.

This other line – the one that may in fact have sent him to the train people – is Farber and his paintings, “Birthplace: Douglas, Ariz.” (Oil on board, 1979 / 44.5 in. x 53 in.) and “Have a Chew on Me” (Oil on board, 1982 / 58 in. x 134.5 in.). Canvasses painted flat on a table top, they have the forced perspective of a bird’s eye view with objects incongruously laid out flat or at an angle – especially in Birthplace, a sort of map of Farber’s hometown with its history littered all around in almost inconsequential details.

There were memories
that came back from the familial past...
and took the form
of an oversized fire sale sign...
next to a toy house...
a reminder of the time his mother
had torched their store...
and sold off the damaged goods
to follow his oldest brother...
to his campus life in Berkeley.

There were echoes of headlines...
in a group of lead toy gangsters
in the right-hand corner.
Some shoot-out memory, maybe,
between company toughs and miners...
during the copper wars.
Blowup from 'Birthplace: Douglas, Ariz.'

Blowup from 'Birthplace: Douglas, Ariz.'

Blowup from 'Birthplace: Douglas, Ariz.'

And so often, just as Gorin is about to round off a painting, something in the margins makes him re-evaluate everything.

With Farber, you were always
in the thick of things.
It was the same thing
that he was saying over and over -
- That it - life - wasn't too big a deal...
and that it shouldn't be painted like one...
that we're all like bit players
in a Preston Sturges movie...
ready to testify in front of a small-town jury...
in terms whose relevance
would escape everyone but ourselves.

I guess – with a final swell of music – that is how this film is to me.