26 April 2012

The Films of Mani Kaul: USKI ROTI (A Day’s Bread, 1970) - 'The film is about waiting; it is deliberately slow.’

The opening shots of Uski Roti: the outstretched hand - a Bressonian idiom.
'The environment of my kind of cinema, which is not experimental because I’ve always known what I’m doing and what the result will be, does not exist.'
'I am opposed to story-telling'
Mani Kaul in conversation with Sameer Shah
The Sunday Observer, 11 July 1982

This is the first in a series of posts on filmmaker Mani Kaul who passed away in 2011. Kaul is a filmmaker who has alluded me for a long time, largely because his films are so difficult to get hold of. However, three key works including Uski Roti, Duvidha and Nazar have been restored and released on DVD. Additionally, more of Kaul's work has been cropping up on either YouTube or as Torrents. Since his death, more has been written on Kaul and hopefully we will get to see more of his work appearing slowly on DVD. One of the sharpest and most comprehensive overviews of Kaul's work has come from cinephile writer Srikanth Srinivasan on his blog The Seventh Art.  Mark Cousins also interviewed Kaul on Indian cinema for his epic voyage through film history.

Of all the foremost Indian filmmakers to materialise from the Indian art cinema movement of the late 1960s director Mani Kaul is conceivably the one who endeavoured to modernise the language of Indian cinema, daringly shifting the focus from ideological study to cinematographic formalism. Although Robert Bresson also influenced Mrinal Sen it is Kaul’s work which demonstrates the sharpest realisation of Bressonian ideals such as introspection, ellipsis and delayed minimalism. Uski Roti, released in 1970, was Kaul’s debut and deservedly ranks alongside Ray’s Pather Panchali and Ghatak’s Meghe Dhaka Tara as a work that offered something innovative to Indian cinema, in this case facilitating to open up a new space for temporal and spatial poetics. In terms of aesthetics, most striking is Kaul’s repeated emphasis and foregrounding of objects, landscapes, faces and most notably hands. In fact, Uski Roti is a photographic compendium of hands, all strikingly captured by the eloquent black and white camerawork of K. K. Mahajan. The emphasis on hands in many of Bresson’s films was a signature motif and Kaul employs the same technique. In Uski Roti, hands tend to enter the frame with a poise and mystery that transforms communication into something metaphysically graceful and vividly abstract. What is most iconoclastic about Uski Roti is the way Kaul wholly rejects the traditions of narrative cinema by not only dispensing with plot but also inventing a radical ‘organic’ space that elongates the passing of time. Unlike Ray, Sen and even Ghatak who firmly drew narrative ideas from various established genres to manufacture melodramatic situations, Kaul allows the chosen locations to nurture and create the narrative, however negligible it is.

What follows are some quotes from Kaul, taken from various sources, on his filmmaking approach juxtaposed to screengrabs and key shots from Uski Roti.

‘When I made A Day’s Bread, I wanted to completely destroy any semblance of a realistic development, so that I could construct the film almost in the manner of a painter.’
A Critical Cinema 3: Interviews with Independent Filmmakers
By Scott MacDonald, University of California Press, 1998

A discernible style emerges immediately. Our view of characters throughout are obscured by the positioning of people and objects, creating a cinematographic ellipsis within the frame itself.
‘I constructed A Day’s Bread shot by shot, in this second way, so that the “figure” of the narrative is almost not taking shape in realistic terms. All the cuts are delayed, though there is a pre-empting of the generally even rhythm sometimes, when the film is a projection of the woman’s fantasies.’
A Critical Cinema 3: Interviews with Independent Filmmakers
By Scott MacDonald, University of California Press, 1998

The foregrounding of objects such as a tree in this instance deconstructs traditional cinematic space.
‘I believe the camera is not something you’re seeing through; it’s the way your body extends into life. You have to learn to hold the camera with your rhythm, and not just have an idea in your head and try to illustrate that idea.’
A Critical Cinema 3: Interviews with Independent Filmmakers
By Scott MacDonald, University of California Press, 1998

‘Now, do you think Bresson was visual? That will be a ridiculous statement! The man used one or two lenses all his life... 
Mani Kaul on Robert Bresson 
Cinema of Prayoga: Indian Experimental Film & Video 1913 – 2006
Eds. Brad Butler and Karen Mirza, London, 2006

...Most shots were static or had minimal movements. The models always stood at a medium distance from the camera. The eye-level was of an average human height – neither low nor high. No sharp angles. There was never a question of zooming in and out...

...The lighting was evocative of an overall environment and the philosophical context he was elaborating upon but never ever expressing something stridently individual – there is nothing in Bresson that can make us call him a visual artist... 
...His shots were ‘ironed’ out as he himself declared. There were no visual creases that could get our attention for their pictorial detail.’
‘The suggestion of time in Bresson, of what Deleuze described as the realisation of the time-image in his work, is of the greatest importance to the history of cinema. It will take time before we can grasp significance of Bresson’s work. People wrongly imagine that we have left the Bressonian vision behind and gone beyond, that he is old hat by now.’
Mani Kaul on Robert Bresson 
Cinema of Prayoga: Indian Experimental Film & Video 1913 – 2006
Eds. Brad Butler and Karen Mirza, London, 2006


Uski Roti (1970) 

Pickpocket (1959) 

Here is a final montage of shots from Uski Roti demonstrating Kaul's repeated emphasis on hands:

Channel Four will be screening Uski Roti on Sun 13 May as part of a season on Indian cinema.

20 April 2012

THE CABIN IN THE WOODS (Dir. Drew Goddard, 2012, US) – Old Testament Horror [spoilers ahead]

All the familiar horror archetypes are used inventively.
The Cabin in the Woods is a moderately sophisticated postmodern horror/science fiction hybrid and with Whedon as co-writer, the film has a lot of fun sending up various aspects of genre conventions especially modern horror films today. In many ways, The Cabin in the Woods shares notable similarities with two recent British horror films; The Descent and Eden Lake. The most obvious link to these two British horror films is the presence of composer David Julyan. This was slightly off putting because although Julyan is a credible horror composer, many of the cues used in the film recall, maybe deliberately so, The Descent and Eden Lake. The other common link between these three films is the centrality of Urbanoia as a sub genre and primary critical discourse. In its most simplistic terms, Urbanoia deals with a clash of cultures, namely the one between urban and rural ideals. Deliverance being the textbook for Urbanoia cinema. The Cabin in the Woods employs a familiar 1970s American horror narrative trajectory of a group of adolescent teenagers heading off into uncharted rural territory. Whedon and co-writer/director Drew Goddard smartly invoke a formulaic set up and first act of horny teenagers and gothic imagery which we interpret as a postmodern construct and thus participate in the intertextual humour it produces. Nonetheless, certain expectations attached to the horror genre tell us that the film will end in a recognisable way, but I guess, this is when Whedon and Goddard attempt to challenge the audience. If Urbanoia is characterised by the presence of the primitive warrior figure who emerges at the end victorious masked in blood then both The Descent and Eden Lake subvert such a convention by killing off the final girl. The Cabin in the Woods departs majorly from the Urbanoia template in the final third by constructing an ending in which our voyeuristic position as a horror spectator is turned against us by vanquishing a fictional reality. A clear difference between The Cabin in the Woods and much of the recent British horror films is the way American horror cinema still equates the genre with the youth and adolescent teenagers in particular. This is largely suggestive of the slasher film’s continuing influence on contemporary American horror films. Ideologically, it might be possible to situate The Cabin in the Woods as one of the first American horror films to reflect the politics of the Obama administration. If horror films have the innate capacity to tap into wider fears and anxieties then this one mirrors a key moment in the Obama presidency: the death of Osama Bin Laden. When Osama’s capture and execution was announced, the Whitehouse released pictures of President Obama having witnessed the events unfold through a live feed. A parallel can be found in the control room inhabited by the puppet masters (symbols of power and masters of ceremonies regularly displaced by reality shows) who cynically take bets on the killing games enacted. The image of the puppeteers shaping the parameters of a controlled reality for the unknowing contestants smacks of allegory to do with the way in which western power especially the American military acts with impunity and from behind a virtual screen to orchestra violence, murder and death. This is exactly what happened when Obama sat down to oversee the execution of Osama – it was a death that occurred within the dubious spectacle of a virtual and fake reality. The final third of the film is likely to polarise audiences as it segues into a somewhat preposterous discussion of ancient rituals and the existence of The Gods. This final ‘unveiling’ of the actual face of the puppet master invoked memories of The Wizard of Oz. In this case, the unveiling of the truth points to a reality that recalls an Old Testament interpretation of the rules of the horror film with transgression and punishment reinforced as puritanical values.

7 April 2012


The corridor is a substantial iconographic facet of the horror film, working entirely as a claustrophobic space from which there is commonly no escape. Though the corridor is strongly concomitant with the horror genre, it is an iconographic constituent that recurs across numerous genres (including notably gangster, science fiction and the western genre) and it is a conceivably an orthodox site which in many ways is a shared cinematic space. The corridor is seldom presented as an image of optimism but is one that invokes feelings of dread, captivity and even death. In many cases, walking down a corridor not only serves to generate dramatic anxiety, given the loneliness apparent, but it usually means some kind of confrontation with the unknown. Barton Fink draws much of its disquieting temperament from the art deco corridor of the Hotel Earle in which the writer Barton Fink becomes an unending denizen. The corridor in the film seems to function as a divergent character, taking on a life of its own and later when Munt (John Goodman) charges down the corridor with a shotgun, the walls of the corridor rage and pulsate, producing biblical phantasmagorias of a fiery Hades. In Road to Perdition when Michael Jr. goes to fetch his father for evening dinner, his reluctant walk down the corridor to call his father is filled with a familiar dread that we associate with children confronting the monster in fairy tales. In other words, Tom Hanks is the monster; the hypocritical hit man. If the corridor is a space easily suited to the horror film then you can see why it is deployed so effectually in the science fiction slasher Alien. The opening sequence of Alien as the camera tracks through the ghostly spaces of the lonely spaceship and down the corridors to reach the crew is a pattern that later Alien films would have to emulate. The contest between the Alien creature and Ripley eventually becomes isolated to the claustrophobic corridors of the ship. Neither is the corridor is a modern cinematic occurrence. The tradition stretches back to the 1940s and the studio films. Take for example, the definitive noir template that is Billy Wilder’s mordant Double Indemnity. When Barton Keyes with his ‘hunk of concrete’ pays an unexpected visit to Walter Neff, his departure from the apartment coincides with the arrival of Phyllis who hides behind the door of the apartment. Suddenly, as Keyes walks back to Walter for a match for his fat cigar, it seems as if the murderous lovers have been caught out. All of this staging between the characters takes place within the space of the corridor outside Walter’s apartment. For that moment, the corridor space becomes laden with doom: a familiarly redolent noir idiom. In his 1955 film East of Eden, director Elia Kazan reimagines the corridor as a realist space – a barrier between the disaffected Cal and his estranged mother who runs a brothel. For Cal, the corridor, which leads to his first encounter with his mother, is a violent one and yet it is also a space filled with trepidation. The corridor as a realist space is taken to its dramatic excesses in Sam Fuller’s 1963 film Shock Corridor, transforming into a battleground for 1960s socio-political issues such as race. The corridor as key cinematic space endures to resonate in contemporary Hollywood cinema. Christopher Nolan’s Inception features an audacious fight sequence in a gravity defying revolving corridor, which was built as a full scale set. The postmodernity of Inception advances the corridor as virtual one, a projection of our dreams.