29 June 2013

THE EAST (Dir. Zal Batmanglij, 2013, US) - The Educators

The Edukators, directed by German director Hans Weingartner, appeared in 2004 when the anti-globalization movement was in full flow. The plot sees three radicalised anti-establishment students form a romantic triptych, breaking into the homes of a wealthy German elite and deploying some creative uses of culture jamming. ‘The edukators’ take hostage the head of a corporation but any plans to change the world slowly unravel when romantic entanglements hijack proceedings. Nearly a decade on and recent zeitgeist films such as Spring Breakers, The Bling Ring and The East are attempting a similar ideological protest but this time relocating counter culture proselytise to a contemporary American context in which an economic bankruptcy is the new reality facing the youth. The East sees a former FBI agent, now working for a monstrous private intelligence firm, sent to infiltrate a radical political group titled ‘The East’ using militant, coercive tactics to humiliate corporations guilty of violating human rights. The recent Redford film The Company You Keep works almost as a companion piece to The East, exploring the long-term consequences of counter culture activism. Interestingly, the link between the two films is the presence of upcoming Indie actress Brit Marling who co-scripted The East with director Zal Batmanglij. Aside from some moments of contrived melodrama, this is a well-paced and intelligently detailed study of counter culture ideology that has deservedly transcended an art-house release, appearing in some of the multiplexes. Perhaps this is testament to the topicality of the film, magnifying with a daring gaze the ideological contradictions inherent within a philosophy that seeks accountability in a world of cancerous hypocrisy; this includes the new age subversives trying desperately to negotiate their way through a benign media culture that brands their controversial confronting of power as an extension of terrorist illusions permeating the news every night. Whereas ideological intentions are reasonably valid, the stylistic approach, striving for an all too familiar Indie aesthetic of elliptical editing, a trite and manipulative soundtrack, and ambles of selective focus threatens to disrupt the sincerity of the political questions being asked. Director Batmanglij could have taken a more realist approach given the characters who form the group are from a seemingly privileged background of middle to upper class families. This would have certainly helped to build more sympathy for the group and their beliefs. Thankfully the depiction of corporations as private entities immune from any moral and legal boundaries is in keeping with the contemporary view of corporations as pathological and undeniably evil. The ending, advocating whistleblowing over eco-terrorism may seem like an ideological compromise too far but it finds a striking parallel in our own reality, referencing Bradley Manning, and now Edward Snowden. It is in the film’s brave ending, extrapolating a faith in political activism which is strangely idealistic yet a fundamental necessity in countering abuses of corporate power that cannot go unchecked any longer.

23 June 2013

KISEKI / I WISH (Dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda, 2011, Japan) - Moments in Time

Towards the final third of Kiseki/I Wish, and before the metaphysical moment at which the trains pass each other, Kore-eda makes use of a montage comprised of thirty exacting shots. This shared montage that references the past, fragmenting time and space, sensitively articulates the memories of twelve year old Koichi. We may be familiar with the narrative context of these shots and can situate them largely from the perspective of the children in the film but the most trivial of everyday details are deliberately personified, coming together to form a pattern and structure in life that can go unnoticed by most adults. Most simplistically, the montage is Koichi's longing for his parents to be re-united and for a permanent union with a brother whom he misses. However, by isolating, and in fact pausing on such fragmented, desultory visions of time and space, also underlines another certainty; that childhood happens with a hurried ordinariness. Furthermore, if this is a montage about Koichi remembering the events of the past few days then it could also be potentially interpreted as a visual acknowledgement of a transition into adulthood. Koichi's estrangement is poignantly manifested in many of the shots since a sadness lingers throughout the abstract framing. In many respects, the purity and clarity of Koichi's seraphic world reverberates in the wonder of this thirty shot montage:

21 June 2013

RESOLUTION (Dir. Justin Benson & Aaron Moorhead, 2012, US) - Indie Folk Horror

Resolution is an esoteric genre piece that deploys folk horror idioms in a buddy narrative about two guys in their thirties who seem similarly adrift in their lives. Perhaps it’s a little unconventional to label Resolution as a buddy film but the affectionate interplay between the two male friends smacks of a twisted bromance commonly found in the films of Howard Hawks. The plot, involving drug addiction, rehab and friendship, is saliently linear and directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead draw on a rich plethora of horror films, including The Blair Witch Project, to manifest an atmosphere of clawing dread. The unexplained phenomena that takes place in a derelict house on an old Indian reservation recalls Spielberg’s The Poltergeist and extrapolates a vein of ancient folk mythology rooted in a historical past that is respectively alien to the two men. Clues left in the house intensify and while mainstream big budget horror would call for some kind of rational explanation, the indie institutional context permits the directors to boldly reject such genre/narrative demands and foreground an uncertainty that reaches its eerily audacious climax at the end. What makes Resolution the antithesis of many contemporary horror films is in the way much of the narrative centres on extended dialogue sequences between the two friends, invoking a Taratinoesque charm for the spoken word that still permeates American indie cinema. Much of the film's power comes through a genuinely frightening denouement wholly embracing the most primitive and potent of horror iconography.

15 June 2013

We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks (Dir. Alex Gibney, 2013, US) – Marginalising the radical

Alex Gibney’s latest documentary is not likely to be the singular filmic deconstruction of Julian Assange this year. A Hollywood production starring Benedict Cumberbatch is in the works and two other documentaries are also forthcoming, made with the co-operation of Assange. Gibney’s take on Assange is not solely about the man. He also delves into the formation of Wikileaks, Bradley Manning as a whistleblower, and the relationship between print news organisations and new gatekeepers like Assange who utilise new media as a means of spreading invaluable information in the public interest. How successful Gibney is at addressing such wider socio-political concerns is somewhat problematic given the absence of an interview with Assange (apparently impossible to secure given the demand of one million dollars by Assange). It is a near impossibility for any documentary to remain objective and this should in no way be an expectation unless a specific public remit demands so. Broomfield’s approach seems relevant here since he has declared it is the role of the documentary filmmaker to get as close as they can to the subject they are trying to explore and to do this would mean a clearer grasp of a truth. Of course, all truth is elusive and whilst most of the finest documentaries are resolutely subjective (like the work of Broomfield), Gibney’s documentary is no different but what makes it somewhat propagandist (I use that term loosely of course) is that the intentions are somewhat insincere. 

Though it is not my position/role/job to defend the reputation of Assange, Gibney’s approach cultivates a deliberately antagonistic perspective since the narrative of Wikileaks leads to the conclusion that Assange is a hypocritical political figure and suspected rapist, rendering him both irrelevant and duplicitous. This seems somewhat unfair given Assange does not speak directly to Gibney who relies greatly on the ‘creative treatment’ of stock footage to produce a narrative in which Wikileaks is positioned as a dangerous, maverick new media conduit. However, Gibney falls into the trap of replicating and reinforcing much of the conservative attacks mounted against Assange by a subservient mainstream media, of which Gibney would claim he does not belong to. Gibney directs much of his criticism and focus at Assange as a shrewd manipulator and underground desperado hungry for fame and power but contrastingly Gibney only sheepishly questions the involvement/motives of institutional newsprint organisations like The New York Times and The Guardian in the publication of sensitive, classified documents from the US government. Conflated with such obedient massaging of institutional hegemonic power is Gibney’s inability to interrogate the governmental representatives who are interviewed on camera – instead they are selectively edited to appear unthinkingly rational. Gibney desperately attempts to demythologise Assange, suggesting Manning is the actual hero since he is the one in prison.

Though Gibney wants to rewrite the public perceptions of Wikileaks and Assange by elevating Manning as a new age online liberator/martyr, his liberal intentions are underlined as dangerously counter productive to the cause of a growing resentment towards a savagely self destructive foreign policy and failed capitalist system. In his final thoughts, Gibney doesn’t even want to acknowledge the symbolic importance of Assange, preferring to deploy metaphysical imagery that isolates Wikileaks as somehow irrelevant in the face of a growing culture of anti-establishment philosophy. 

10 June 2013

DO ANKHEN BARAH HAATH / Two Eyes, Twelve Hands (Dir. V Shantaram, 1957, India) - Reformist Metonymy

Do Ankhen Barah Haath is one of director V Shantaram’s best known works. It has been labelled a classic yet in terms of popular Indian film discourse the film is rarely discussed unlike similarly revered Hindi films such as Mother India or Mughal E Azam. Perhaps this has to do with the film’s somewhat darker thematic explorations of social reform, masculinity and capitalism. It is a film that seems at home in the company of neo realist works such as Do Bigha Zamin, manifesting a reformist ideology shaped by Nehruvian politics. The story of reform is refracted through the relationship between a prison/police warden and six convicted murderers. Adinath, the warden, is played by director Shantaram and takes it upon himself to prove the prisoners/murderers can only be reformed by humanising them within a communal context. At first, the six men are compelled to leave the farm which they have been brought to by Adinath. In many ways, reformation is posited as a social experiment, criticised by Adinath’s superior as both futile and detrimental to society. Adinath’s persistency leads to success and the men forge together to transform the once barren farmland into a socialist enterprise that results in them selling crops to a local market as an honest livelihood. One of the clearest ways in which to read Shantaram’s film is as a contemporary parable or fable since the ideological conflict between oppression and reform is a universal one, transcending cultural barriers and offering a cathartic narrative that frames liberation against a vein of martyrdom familiar to us from Italian neo realist cinema. 

Starting in the 1920s and finishing in the 1980s, as a pioneer, Shantaram worked across the spectrum of Indian cinema and his development as a director runs parallel with the film industry’s transition from silent to sound cinema. What his films share with directors from a similar era such as Raj Kapoor and Guru Dutt is a fondness for expressionist imagery that recalls both German expressionism and film noir in equal measures. Ideologically, it is the presence of Champa, the sole female character in the film, a toy seller (played by Sandhya - Shantaram’s wife) who at first is represented as a disruptive force only to become a transformative figure, salvaging the dignity of the men and facilitating a premature gender equilibrium. The final third hints at a rebuke of free market capitalism since the men who take their crops to sell at the local market keep their prices at an affordable rate thus invoking the ire of the greedy merchants. The merchants feel threatened by the men and it is not long before they sabotage the farm and effectively neutralise any attempts to destabilise their economic hegemony. The ending in itself with the two eyes of the martyred Adinath looking down at the six reformed men is sentimentally manipulative but the melodramatic touch of Adinath’s imaginary tears turning into drops of rain becomes an indelibly humanist metonym for what is a noble cinematic enterprise.