24 January 2014

THIEF (Michael Mann, 1981, US) - Proletarian Politics

Genre readings of Michael Mann’s debut feature film Thief are relatively inclined to explore both the crime film and neo noir which seem to intersect as a form of postmodern existential hybridity. Mann could have easily worked in the Hollywood studio era since he works specifically within genres. Separation for Mann from his contemporaries especially when it comes to the crime film is authorial preoccupations are lucid, intellectual and existential enough to transform the most ordinary or formulaic of situations into a kind of poetic rapture. Thief is a virtual template for Mann thematics he would regularly explore in the crime film genre. Yet in the midst of a narrative that could only be described as an urban western, Frank’s refusal to conform and to be assimilated into a much wider capitalist system of working class exploitation requires further elucidation as an early marker of Mann’s politics. 

One of the more interesting exchanges in terms of political dialogic occurs towards the end of the film between Frank, the worker in this case, and Leo, the master and boss. Having completed his final job as a high line safe cracker, Frank comes to see Leo, his new friend, for his cut. However, when Frank looks through the envelope full of cash he realises Leo’s idea of friendship is cynically unveiled as a form of ownership antithetical to Frank’s very existence. Frank’s defense of his ideological position is very revealing as it harbours a semi Marxist tone: ‘I can see my money is still in your pocket, which is from the yield of my labour’. When conflated with his ‘state raised’ background, a picture emerges of the proletariat rallying against the exploitation of labour which he must sell in order to survive and function in a capitalist American society. In many ways, this is Frank at his most political and the resistance he vigorously demonstrates to the humiliating demands of Leo, who wants to own Frank and thereby control him, is an extension of such a working class protest. Notably, Frank also furthers his argument about working class exploitation, saying: ‘You’re making big profits from my work, my risk, my sweat’. Oddly enough the tone of Frank’s criticisms concerning profits and his sweat is overly familiar in the context of corporation exploitation and most significantly the element of greed. Although Leo could be interpreted as the domineering crime boss, his conflict with Frank at this point in the film becomes an ideological one and thus can be a symbolic extension of the capitalist system attempting through initially coercion and finally violence to subjugate the consciousness of the proletariat spirit. Leo’s response to Frank is glib, condescending and politically loaded, ‘Why don’t you join a labour union?’, he says. 

Existence in the world of Mann for the male loner is defined by anonymity. By partnering with Leo, Frank realises he is jeopardising the anonymity he has struggled to protect but he is also putting at risk his belief system. Unsurprisingly, Frank’s proletarian politics become a source of ridicule. Leo feels threatened by Frank’s unwavering professionalism and deadening adherence to a strict moral code and by rubbishing his politics, Leo tries to humiliate Frank in every way possible whereby he is made into a relic in an age of corporate power. However, Frank resists. The resistance exemplified at the end appears like uncontrollable rage. Framed politically as an act of proletariat protest, the violence unleashed by Frank sees him annihilating a fragile past forged on a notion of personal integrity now tainted by Leo’s betrayal. By destroying the house, the bar and the car lot Frank’s self destruction read ideologically becomes a politicised act of symbolic resistance since he does not want Leo, the zealous corporate capitalist, to claim and exploit the ‘yield of his labour’. In fact, an indifference to conformity is what sets Frank apart but by walking away at the end sets him up as an outcast doomed to drift like the cowboy on the margins of a society that disgusts him. In other words, Frank is a worker, a stand up guy and that counts for everything in the films of Michael Mann.

20 January 2014

ANIMA STATE (Hammad Khan, 2013, UK/Pakistan) - Critical Condition

Director Hammad Khan knows his cinema, referencing the works of Godard and Teshigahara.

Revival, resurgence, rebirth, a new era are some of the ways in which Pakistani cinema has been described as of late. Since the academic discourse on Pakistani cinema is so narrow, incomplete and barely existent makes it problematic for anyone trying to offer an adequate historiography and even more impossible when situating contemporary Pakistan cinema.

Progressive initiatives facilitating the reconfiguration of the Pakistani film industry emerging against an unstable political and economic framework are welcoming. This includes the establishment of film/media related courses at Universities, the emergence of television as an alternative source of financing and distribution, Indo-Pak cross border collaborations, the promotion of film as part of a wider cultural agenda and the increase in cinema screens and development of Multiplexes. A question of significance and one that needs to be asked repeatedly is if this new wave or new cinema questions a status quo that has and continues to bludgeon the masses into submission. It is difficult for me to adequately answer the question when I have yet to see many of the recent Pakistani films garnering critical and commercial attention. (Refer to my previous posts on Pakistani Cinema: Khuda Kay Liye and Ramchand Pakistani).

Given the unending moral consternation in a semi-oppressive nation that appears more fragmented and disjointed than ever before, the space for oppositional cinema could despondently be extinct. The populism of mainstream cinema is in fact a validation of the embarrassment of riches often associated with independent cinema. The relative absence of independent filmmaking in Pakistan does not necessarily mean there are no filmmakers engaged in such an ethos. The way Pakistani cinema is disseminated in the media and outside means it is a silent cinematic act potentially unfolding on new media platforms with an immediacy gone unrecognised by a discourse gravitating to mediocrity. Writer Rafay Mahmood had the following to say about the 2012 Pakistani blockbuster Waar (currently playing in the UK): 'It’s disheartening to see Pakistan’s most awaited film turn out to be a bland, peculiar and uninspiring piece of propaganda'.

Anima State, indie filmmaker Hammad Khan’s latest film, refuses to imitate to the medians of new Pakistani cinema, constructing an oppositional voice brimming with discontent and outrage at the state of a nation. Film history suggests it is the margins which offer the more prescient, ideological and innovative cinema. Slackistan, Khan’s promising debut feature, sensitively explored the specific milieu of middle class Islamabadi youth. Although Slackistan was banned from being shown in Pakistani cinemas, the film was warmly embraced by the film festival circuit and received a limited release in the UK. Slackistan as an indie film demonstrated it was possible to work outside the mainstream in Pakistan and be able to say something original.

Whereas Slackistan models itself on American indie cinema, Anima State is an altogether different and at times experimental film that is both a reflexive commentary on his first film and elliptical taboo breaking meditation on politics, the media and identity. The narrative revolves around a cipher, a man with a bandaged face, who begins by randomly massacring a group of Pakistani youth (the cast of Slackistan) as a means of underlining a pervasive cultural numbness to acts of violence. The cipher’s invisibility to the police and media metaphorically reinstates a commentary on the failure of institutional power. It is a metaphor doubly visible in the way Khan makes the gun and camera interchangeable as a source of oppression and liberation.

Anima State moves with a frenzied episodic trajectory through Pakistani society, offering us a timely nightmarish journey in which everyone seems utterly disconnected and resolutely apathetic. If this is Khan taking the pulse of a nation then the diagnosis is critical. A female character, credited as ‘The Archetypes of Women’, appears in several guises, functioning as an allegorical representation of pluralistic femininity critiquing a nation severely at odds with the rights of women. In a controversial sequence, the stranger is shown masturbating to an old video recording of Pakistan’s world cup victory. Although it is a deeply comical moment, the juxtaposition of male sexual gratification and cricket proposes a ritualistic equation in which dreams of a great nation state remain suspended in time. Even more chilling is that the stranger’s random acts of violence go unheeded in a nation accustomed to and numbed by terrorism perpetrated by America and the Taliban. The extent of such normalised violence registers satirically when the stranger is invited on live TV with the grotesque promise of committing suicide.

If the banality of the media seems almost like a universal norm today then the stranger’s Kafkaesque metamorphosis into a filmmaker in the final act and his subsequent persecution suggests art (cinema in this case) is more radical than violence given the ideological intent can in some cases lead to the reawakening of a people. Director Hammad Khan is certainly one of Pakistani cinema’s boldest critics but what sets him apart from his fellow contemporaries is his capacity to fuse European aesthetic/stylistic devices with an affecting socio-political sensibility. Anima State like Slackistan is likely to garner screenings at film festivals but the real breakthrough would come if his films are screened in Pakistan to an audience that urgently needs to see them. I was privileged to see the film as an exclusive by director Hammad Khan and I thank him for such an opportunity. Anima State is unlike any other Pakistani film; bold, idiosyncratic, agitprop, experimental.

Anima State from Anima State on Vimeo.

3 January 2014

SHOLAY / EMBERS / FLAMES OF THE SUN (Ramesh Sippy, 1975, India) - Mastering the 'cut'

Animalistic may seem hyperbolic trying best to describe the raw essence of Sholay but the term animalistic makes sense when you recognise Gabbar Singh (Amjad Khan), the villain of the film, behaves in totality like a beastly allegory of nightmarish anxieties. Sholay is many things: a bandit film, an epic melodrama, an Indian western, the ultimate masala film, and homoerotic spectacular. Since the critical discourse on Sholay is so rich and pluralistic, I want to briefly focus on a singular edit, a cut that is arguably the most significant in the entire film. The narrative structure of Sholay is predicated on a key flashback unfolding midway that gives way to the intermission. Firstly, here’s what happens narratively before we get to the end of the flashback.

Holi celebrations in the village are disrupted by Gabbar and his men. At first Veeru (Dharmendra) and Jai (Amitabh Bachchan) try to ward off Gabbar but Jai is captured and surrounded by Gabbar’s men with the intention to massacre him. Veeru is unarmed but sees a rifle resting at the feet of Thakur (Sanjeev Kumar). When Veeru pleads with Thakur to use the rifle, Thakur ignores Veeru. Veeru is outraged by Thakur’s indifference. Luckily, Jai manages to disarm one of the men. Jai and Veeru band together, killing many of Gabbar’s men. Gabbar is forced to retreat but determined to exact revenge for the humiliating defeat. Having salvaged the dignity of the village, Veeru turns his attention to Thakur, accusing him of cowardice and berating him in front of the villagers. Veeru’s accusatory tone triggers an extended flashback told by Thakur, detailing a hostile rivalry between Thakur (the crusading police officer) and Gabbar (the marauding bandit). The flashback details critically that Gabbar escapes from a prison and wanting revenge he cruelly massacres Thakur’s family. An outraged Thakur foolishly rides into Gabbar’s camp but is captured. The next action by Gabbar is perhaps the most horrific, revealing a monstrosity, which haunts and scars Thakur. Taking two swords Gabbar maliciously quotes Thakur who once referred to his arms as a noose, which would hang Gabbar for his transgressions. Gabbar inverts the arrogance of Thakur’s word and amputates both of Thakur’s arms, fulfilling his thirst for revenge.

Showing the amputation would have been too grotesque so director Ramesh Sippy times the cut perfectly so that as Gabbar brings the swords down and across Thakur’s arms, we cut from Thakur screaming in the past (juxtaposed to Gabbar Singh’s terrifying Yeh haath hum ko de de, thakur!) to Thakur, a figure of trauma, in the present. Not only does the cut amplify what can’t and in a way shouldn’t be shown but the physical filmic edit becomes a metaphorical device. Metaphorically, the cut works to sever Thakur’s sense of history and collective memories while also reminding us the extent of his pain indescribably connects the present to the past.

We are meant to see the edit, a point made even more evident with the collision of shots, so that the cut we see becomes a metaphor for another type of physical cutting perpetrated by Gabbar.

An intertext by Sholay: one of the opening images to Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly; fragmented bodies and the fetishisation of legs/feet finds a dizzying magnification in the opening to Aldrich's film.

Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo. The man haunted by his past is an archetypal figure in film.

Intriguingly, the cut from Gabbar to Thakur in the present is more complicated than it first appears. Traditionally, such a cut would opt to begin the next scene with a shot of the character’s face as a means of orientating the audience and keeping in line with narrative linearity. Instead, the cut to the present begins unconventionally with a shot of Thakur’s legs and feet. At first, the fragmentation of Thakur’s body through this suggestive edit underlines his dismembered masculine state but more importantly, the implication here is that Thakur may have lost his arms but strength now resides in his legs and especially feet which will play a major role in the final sequences. Cinematically, this symmetrical composition is also necessary since we see Thakur’s shawl gently fall to the ground and thus preparing us for the shock reveal of Thakur with no arms. The impact of this shot is heightened with a fast dolly out from the Thakur’s face while his white clothes makes Thakur seem even more ghostly. Additionally, Thakur's anguished facial expression reaches back into the past, a past from which Thakur has never been able to escape. In many ways, Thakur is like zombie, part of the dead and not the living. Ideologically, Thakur's impairment not only points to an obvious collapse of law and order but is symptomatic of 1970s creeping disillusionment with institutional power.

If Thakur symbolises masculine impairment and is positioned as a father figure to Veeru and Jai (effectively his sons) then this is a critical narrative juncture as the 'real' men look on at Thakur and witness the crumbling patriarch, which when linked to the notion of social order and ideological closure, must now be repaired in its entirety. This means the destruction of Gabbar. A similar narrative scenario arises in Deewaar with the patriarch, this time a maligned trade unionist, and more pronounced in terms of the politics of the time. Perhaps this is what links the films together although Sholay probably shares less with the angry young man cycle of films and more with classical Hindi cinema. A director's cut of Sholay in which we see Thakur go through with his promise of exacting revenge by killing Gabbar completely changes the politics of the film and chimes much more with the impending Emergency of Indira Gandhi. It is also an ending that gives greater meaning to Jai's death.

Anand Verma - The maligned trade unionist and broken patriarch in Deewaar.

Sholay is being re-released this January but in 3D. I re-watched Sholay a week ago on the Corlotta French DVD which I downloaded from the Internet as it is apparently the closest to the way Sippy envisioned the film in terms of creating a widescreen experience. Although I am a little sceptical about a 3D release of the film, I am still waiting for a definitive DVD release of the film with extras. Why this has yet to happen seems like an absolute travesty given the film's immortal and beloved status amongst Indian cinephiles, audiences and filmmakers around the world.

2 January 2014

MADRAS CAFE (Shoojit Sircar, 2013, India) - Re-imaginings

John Abraham as Indian army officer Vikram Singh.
If the formerly curious RGV arrogated his restless style from the Tony Scott School of cinema then it seems expressly ironic that directors like Shoojit Sircar redeploy such a hyper aesthetic in a geopolitical context with sadly lacklustre results. Madras Cafe, which claims to be an espionage thriller, is an archetypal vindication from mainstream cinema dealing with an antagonistic political issue or event. In this case, Madras Cafe, is set against the backdrop of the Sri Lankan civil war including the assassination of Indian PM Rajiv Gandhi. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eealam (LLTE) or Tamil Tigers fought a protracted war against the Sri Lankan Army and Indian military, arguing for an independent state for the persecuted Tamil minority in Sri Lanka. To argue that both sides of the conflict are shown to be at the mercy of geopolitical dynamisms such as corporate power reasons for an objectivity sadly lacking in a film that paints the Tamil Tigers and its leader as bloodthirsty terrorists. The trauma and persecution of the Tamil minority is not only airbrushed out but their sense of loss, displacement and pain becomes a distant spectacle in which the Tamil Tigers complex Marxist ideology (not even mentioned in the film) is equated with contemporary terrorism, facilely inferring resistance as fanaticism that simply must be eradicated in the name of India’s national security. More troubling is Sircar’s dubious choice to employ an overly stylised cinematic approach reducing the conflict to clichéd war imagery and simplifying a history that demands microscopic interrogation. By changing the scenery from Pakistan to Sri Lanka may come as a relief but the casual ideological rhetoric in which insurgency, resistance and liberation are treated, as a ‘problem’ is unchanged. Even more abhorrent is the treatment of the Tamil Tigers who are denied a credible, ideological voice and constructed as the villainous Other. Such essentialist ideological oversimplification homogeneously and dangerously re-imagines the past, using cinema as a political conduit for historical engineering.