26 November 2009

SUBARNAREKHA / THE GOLDEN LINE (Dir. Ritwik Ghatak, 1962-1965, India) - Elliptical Elation

Ghatak’s exacting control over the rhythm of his films extended from Eisenstein’s theoretical and cinematic experimentation's with political montage. Elliptical editing inevitably invites an ambiguity and fracture into linear narrative, creating discernible gaps that disorient the spectator. After what is an admittedly schizophrenic opening twenty minutes, Subarnarekha settles into a familiar classical rhythm and the focus of dramatic conflict becomes the relationship between brother and sister. Ishwar (Abhi Bhattacharya) is unable to come to terms with his sister, Sita (Madhabi Mukherjee), marrying Abhiram (Satindra Bhattacharya) who hails from a lower caste. Such caste prejudices come to the fore when Ishwar orders Abhiram to leave for Calcutta. When Ishwar orders Sita to meet the family which has come to see her for a possible marriage arrangement, Sita’s refusal is met with a kind of patriarchal violence.

The triple jump cut in Ghatak's 'Subarnarekha'.

However, prior to this moment of violence, Ghatak opens the sequence with what is a triple jump cut of Sita who turns to face her brother whilst sitting on the ground caressing the sitar for comfort. It is a rhythmically organic series of edits which rightly draws our attention to the reflexive nature of Ghatak’s approach. The violence inherent in the triple jump cut that begins with a close up and finishes on a mid shot signals a disruption in the narrative and also act as the trigger for Sita’s abandonment of her brother, choosing to elope with Abhiram. Ghatak’s ideologically intense use of the triple jump cut may seem a normalised practise today but it reminded me of Martin Scorsese’s breakthrough feature ‘Mean Streets’ which opens with another striking and creative example of elliptical editing immortalised in the three carefully juxtaposed edits of Charlie’s head hitting the pillow to the sound of ‘Be My Baby’ by The Ronettes.

The opening to 'Mean Streets' - Scorsese's use of the triple jump cut.

22 November 2009

KURBAAN / SACRIFICE (Dir. Renzil D'Silva, 2009, India) – Regressive Politics

Problematic in many different ways, the latest from Karan Johar, 'Kurbaan' raises a number of ideological points:

1. It makes for regressive cinema.

re·gres·sive - opposing progress; returning to a former less advanced state.

2. Godard was right about mainstream popular cinema and its film makers. (April 1959)
‘Your camera movements are ugly because your subjects are bad, your casts act badly because your dialogue is worthless; in a word, you don’t even know how to create cinema because you no longer even know what it is…’

‘And we attack you for your betrayal, because we have opened your eyes and you continue to keep them closed. Each time we see your films we find them so bad, so far aesthetically and morally from what we had hoped, that we are almost ashamed of our love for the cinema…’

The above quotes are used in ‘The Altering Eye’, Robert Kolker, Oxford University Press, 1983 but are taken from ‘Godard on Godard’, Tom Milne, New York: Viking Press, 1972, pp. 146-47.

3. Advocating religious and racial tolerance whilst subscribing to the dominant point of view is a social and political contradiction. Here is what writer George Monbiot had to say about Ridley Scott’s xenophobic representations of Somalis in the 2001 film ‘Black Hawk Down’:
‘The Somalis in Black Hawk Down speak only to condemn themselves. They display no emotions other than greed and the lust for blood. Their appearances are accompanied by sinister Arab techno, while the US forces are trailed by violins, oboes and vocals inspired by Enya. The American troops display horrific wounds. They clutch photos of their loved ones and ask to be remembered to their parents or their children as they die. The Somalis drop like flies, killed cleanly, dispensable, unmourned…’
Both saviour and victim, George Monbiot, The Guardian, Jan 2002

What is the difference between the xenophobic representations of Muslims compared to that of Ridley Scott’s racial stereotyping in ‘Black Hawk Down’? Very little, if any, would be my conclusion. 'Kurbaan' backs away from showing us the context of terrorism; instead it asks us to simply listen to the absurd sentimental banter of fanatics who relay their stories with tears and predictable Sufi chants. Though the Islamic terrorists may be victims themselves, we are offered no physical representation or narrative time to explore their resentment. In the end, it is the Americans who we see bloody and wounded, victims of an unchecked fanaticism.

4. Ritwik Ghatak was right about the state of mainstream Indian cinema:
‘People are changing. Things are changing. Times are changing. If you on showing some kind of trash ad infintum, there is a limit after which people will not go with you. Besides this, people are having experiences in their own lives and they cannot be satisfied with the old hash for long now. So either, one should get rid of set formula of hoodwinking the people, which is extremely difficult for unimaginative producers and risky too, or one should come clean, striking harmonious chord with contemporary urges, which can only be done by really creative and conscious artistes…'
What ails Indian film making, Ritwik Ghatak, Cinema and I, 1987, Ritwik Memorial Trust

5. Film reviewer Taran Adarsh had the following to say about the film 'Kurbaan':

‘On the whole, Kurbaan is the most powerful film to come out of the Hindi film industry in 2009, so far.’


Not only is this misleading in my opinion, it simply proves that Internet websites like India FM/Bollywood Hungama are inextricably tied to the very fabric of populist cinema and repeatedly fail to be critical of major film releases each week. Unfortunately, vital journalistic imperatives like impartiality, autonomy and independence become invisible when faced with tent pole films – to write ‘critically’ would inevitably mean limited access to the glamorous world of Bollywood. (Is 'Kurbaan' a critic proof film?) However, a little honesty and pluralism might attract much needed credibility for film reviewers like Taran Adarsh who can shape populist audience opinion. The other thing that makes me suspicious of IndiaFM/Bollywood Hungama is its increasing acknowledgement in the opening titles of major Indian releases; it is merely an extension of Bombay cinema’s metamorphosis into a hegemonic corporate entity.

6. Exploitation or serious social concerns?

Is it right to merely keep exploiting the sensitive and prescient issue of international terrorism for mainstream commercial purposes or do films like ‘Kurbaan’, ‘New York’ and ‘Faana’ realistically and convincingly debate such concerns? Indian cinema seems to have had more critical success with exploring domestic terrorism in films like ‘Dil Se’, ‘Aamir’ and ‘Black Friday’ then one’s which deal with 9-11. Part of me feels that films like ‘Kurbaan’ are merely exploiting an issue that has largely been made prominent by the media and offering very little in terms of concerted ideological engagement. Producer Karan Johar is merely reacting to the idea of topicality which in essence is what most producers tend to do but this does not seem to answer the crude and dominant stereotyping.

In the film, the terrorist Ehsaan (Saif Ali Khan) hails from Pakistan and the film seems to suggest that 9-11 was carried out by Islamic extremists from this region yet this historical engineering obscures the reality that most of the hijackers who orchestrated and carried out the twin towers atrocities were in fact of Middle Eastern origin. (Michael Moore argues this point endlessly in his documentary polemic ‘Fahrenheit 9-11’) Karan Johar argues that his film is a ‘love story’ and merely entertainment yet this does little to prevent the misleading representations of Muslims in the film from affecting the dubious ideological intentions of those involved.

7. The absence of secularism.

‘Kurbaan’ promotes a very dubious, if not reckless, political message by demonising Muslims and it subsequently rejects secularism for a culture of fear and religious anxiety. I’m not sure if such a slighted message fits in with the progressive and liberal attitudes of film makers who have tended to exist on the fringes and margins; Ritwik Ghatak being an illustrative example.

‘There can be little doubt that it was Jawaharlal Nehru, more than any other political leader of the Congress, who fought for secular principles in post-independence India. His triumph was complete, or so he thought, when India adopted a new constitution and declared itself a republic on 26 January 1950. Its new constitution was the longest in the world, but more importantly it was totally secular in character. There was no state religion; there was a complete separation of state from religion; schools were to be run on secular principles; there were to be no taxes to support any religion. All citizens were equal before the law and anyone could hold the highest offices of state; religious liberties were guaranteed to individuals as well as associations. The preamble had a distinctly social-democratic flavour. It promised all its citizens: ‘Justice, social, economic and political; liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship; equality of status and of opportunity…’
The Nehru’s and the Gandhi’s, Tariq Ali, 2005, Picador, pg 83.

If religion is a form of repression and an instrument of social and political control then it is not good enough for films like ‘Kurbaan’ to continue examining the affects of international terrorism without providing a graphic and contextual exploration of how American hegemony and imperialism creates poverty, subjugation and daily humiliation for the millions of oppressed who do not have a platform or voice with which to articulate their frustrations.

20 November 2009

BAKJWI / THIRST (Dir. Park Chan-Wook, 2009, South Korea) - Strangers in the night

Song Kang-ho is one of South Korea's most popular film stars.

Is Park Chan-wook an iconoclast or is he simply aspiring to be the next Tarantino? That was the question I kept coming back to whilst watching his latest film. Or perhaps it is wrong to equate him with Tarantino when he surely is a film maker who follows more in the vein of someone like Shohei Imamura; provocative, controversial and stylistically prescient. Actually, the imagery of Seijun Suzuki in films such as ‘Branded to kill’ and ‘Tokyo Drifter’ also come to mind when trying to trace a cinematic linage through the poster boy of Hallyu cinema. The other thing about Park Chan-wook is that his films don’t seem to be the event that they once were. Gone is the fanfare and publicity that came with his vengeance triptych. Though still celebrated at film festivals (‘Thirst’ predictably went down the traditional Cannes route before attracting critical acclaim) ‘Thirst’ arrived at UK cinemas almost under the radar, as if distributors were smuggling in a Trojan horse of sorts.

With all his films one can find very little to criticise in terms of technical achievements as his grasp of camerawork surpasses much of mainstream American cinema, which is often trying to imitate him. However, I was slightly disappointed with his allegorical retelling of the vampire myth. A note about vampires; their infiltration of popular culture in the form of the troubled youth ‘Twilight’ movie franchise and American imports like ‘True Blood’ has emerged as a response to the gloomy recession. If the disillusionment of the seventies is anything to go by then maybe we should prepare ourselves for a cinematic renaissance. Somehow that doesn’t seem likely as an aspiration when considering how the latest bombastic high concept juggernaut ‘2012’ (starring John Cusack?!) has only just triggered a renewed interest in the dormant disaster movie genre that plagued the mid nineties.
'This film was originally called "The Bat" to convey a sense of horror - after all, it is about vampires. But it is also more than that. It is about passion and a love triangle. I feel that it is unique because it is not just a thriller, and not merely a horror film, but an illicit love story as well.'
Park Chan-wook, Director’s Statement

‘An illicit love story’ is perhaps one way of reading a film that wraps itself in the conventions of the vampire film. Park Chan-wook says it was Hitchcock’s film ‘Vertigo’ that got him interested in film making, providing a rich starting point in terms of attempting to trace intertextual links and the influence on wider auteur concerns. This idea of metaphysical possession so often repeated in the Vampire myth is not unlike Scottie’s (James Stewart) attempts to reconstruct the vision of Madeleine that he obsesses over. This being Park Chan-wook, the love story broaches a taboo – the relationship between a priest and a young woman is eroticised and played out like an operatic melodrama whilst the film’s strangely predictable ending is lifted from Del Toro’s ‘Blade II’ sequel. I’m not sure if Park Chan-wook made this film purely out of reaction to some of his long time critics who felt he was anti-genre. By taking on the most universal of genres, it is hard not to see why the film has been one of the biggest hits at the Korean box office this year. However, closer interrogation reveals something insidiously clinical about the construction of Park Chan-wook’s films which makes many of his characters quite emotionless and very difficult to identify with – one becomes distanced very easily and adopts an observational spectator position. With ‘Thirst’, empty surfaces prevail and one is left deliberating over the declining critical status of Park Chan-wook as an auteur. However, the film did give us one of the best film posters of the year:

17 November 2009

MEGHE DHAKA TARA / THE CLOUD CAPPED STAR (Dir. Ritwik Ghatak, 1960, India) - Aesthetics of Realism

The aesthetics of realism feature notably in the work of Ritwik Ghatak, rigorously disseminated in the austere compositions of landscapes. The allegorical motif of the train segregates and divides transparent histories, haunting Nita (Supriya Choudhury) in ‘Megha Dhaka Tara’ so that the trauma of partition becomes an infinite process, possessing her completely.

11 November 2009

UN PROPHETE / A PROPHET (Dir. Jacques Audiard, 2009, France) – Iconic Ascension

Jacques Audiard's fifth film as a director returns to the male psyche.

The systematic failure of the neo liberal and embarrassingly transparent French establishment to offer an inclusive policy of constructive social integration has fashioned an absence of mythological imagery for the French Arab youth. All cultures and social groups should unhesitatingly draw from a shared mythology but if one cannot relate to such myths then a natural resentment lingers that inevitably leads to a poisonous alienation. Kassovitz’s activist polemic refused to gloss over such cracks in the fabric of society and the political resistance of a film like ‘La Haine’ invoked a fiercely sentimental radicalism denied to such disaffected youth. Audiard’s compelling prison melodrama is comparable to Garrone’s ‘Gomorrah’; both elucidate a primitive masculinity that demands a voyeuristic gaze and wider sociological problematic – ownership is what makes those on the periphery dominant masters of human exploitation. In the context of Audiard’s ascension narrative, the voracious metamorphosis of the slave to the master in the prison system produces a quasi-religious ‘prophet’.

The harsh nondescript concrete walls, cold steel edges and fake plastic furniture are familiar iconographic elements of the prison genre yet their inclusion reminds us of a disparaging mise en scene recognisable in most facets of daily life including the workplace and even home. Prison as a microcosm of racial and class inequity suffocates Malik (Tahar Rahim), subjecting him to a litany of brutal masochistic rituals but the internal strength he draws from his constant humiliation creates an indifference in terms of his political position. The metaphysical dimension surfaces in the most benign of feral imagery, the deer; hurtling through the dreams of Malik whilst smashing across the windscreen as a reminder of the sincere, magnified abstractions generated by art cinema. Intellectually scored by Alexandre Desplat and anchored by what is a marvellous ensemble of unsentimental performances, Audiard’s fifth film as a director attests to his unrivalled status as one of the pre-eminent European auteurs at work today.