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.

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