Associate Professor, Cinema Studies
|BIRUMA NO TATEGOTO
|Syndromes and a Century
|Histoire(s) du Cinéma
|Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles
|Pier Paolo Pasolini
BIRUMA NO TATEGOTO
Considered one of the great Pacifist films in the wake of Second World War, the film is the most beautiful ever, but above all, the grandest meditation on the condition of cinema itself- a synaesthetic illusion of the senses. This foundational logic of cinema is seamlessly also a meditation on the Buddhist philosophy of reality as maya, an illusion. Peace can only come when we understand reality as maya and not worth the genocide of world wars since nothing real can ever be gained in this world. Cinema then becomes a weapon to be used, as a Peace Weapon to preach maya to the world to end all wars. What we are left with as a mysterious synaesthetic residue is the world-as-image as illusion and only the music of the harp of Burma wafting across a Zen Nothing. Throughout the film a thesis is put forward that a conflictual world can only be healed by music. Nations sing the same music in different words, music puts savage soldiers to sleep, animals and humans communicate through music. What remains in a world made bereft of women in homosocial violence is the maternal lullaby that puts a disturbed child to sleep.
The greatest film about our hyperreal worlds much before the fact. Antonioni starts to paint reality up to make it more 'real' from Red Desert onwards to emphasize a world in need of artificial color to feel real in a dull depressive world. Eros is sick, he says, and he launches a prophetic cinematic journey where he predicts things such as shooting in front of green screens, the digital eye fixated on singular spectacular objects since the social no longer exists and so on. With the mummers sequence at the end of the film we are in an oceanic universe, in the feel of touchpad technologies. All of Conceptual Art of the 1960s and the 70s can be found here. But in terms of cinema history, as Thomas gives up his project of a photobook on working class lives to shoot swinging counterculture London, Antonioni too gives up Neo-Realism to shoot a new Reality. More Baudrillard than Bazin. More IBM than MGM. The last sequence where 'Peeping' Thomas evaporates from the greener-than-green grass to Herbie Hancock's jazzy score points towards an electronic world of made-up nature and our nervous systems hidden in the foliage, anxious and sniping at the world.
Syndromes and a Century
Weerasethakul's most mysterious and opaque (and difficult) film is trying to do impossible things- trying to capture the genetic code transmission across generations via a seamless marriage of Buddhist karma theory of rebirths and avant-garde experimental cinema aesthetics. Shot in two parts where part 2 literally is a mirror image of part 1, the film tries to enfold a myriad 'hidden histories' of genocidal war in Thailand. From the genteel modern possible despite war in the 1960s, to a clean postmodern one, possible only when war has been banished to the basement of digital prosthetic correction. Yet, across time, things remain the same, more or less. In between the more and the less of sameness lies one of the most political films made in the history of cinema by probably the greatest political filmmaker ever. At the end of the film, a monk flies a drone with children in a park while people seek to keep themselves fit and maintain the facade of normalcy in the capital city away from genocide. They know everything and they somehow survive as 'good citizens' and the future has the seeds of a Utopia of AI beauty in the midst of Buddhist calm.
Still the greatest single meditation between photography and the moving image, and thus between life and death, between Eros in the portrait photograph and Thanatos in the moving image that has an intrinsic relationship with genocidal wars- against animals above all. It poses, like all Left Bank cinema does, the power of the portrait as the one thing that makes cinema magical as Eros against its dry objective side (Resnais' Mon oncle d'Amérique is another great one), La Jetée also says that it is the memory portrait of the loved one's face that saves the world. It gloriously exemplifies a key romantic obsession of early film theory- the close-up (in Blow-up we go too close and get devoured by the image, as in Vertigo, a Marker obsession). A few years later, Robert Smithson, partially inspired by Marker's film, would make his Land Art masterpiece close-up of the universe, Spiral Jetty, where the universe sans the human close-up as its face is revealed as a vaster narcissistic monster that eats up as an empty act. In 1976, Rosalind Krauss would write her famous essay on the narcissistic nature of video, a different aesthetic of the close-up altogether from Marker's erotics.
Histoire(s) du Cinéma
All our New Media, indeed our current digital lives, are Godard's brain child. He is Brahma, the creator of our universe, something I am sure Godard himself will be ambivalent about. He of course famously claimed montage to be his sweet care, indicating that it was a subtle thing that could go very wrong if used clumsily. Against New Media fragmentation, Histoire(s) du cinema, Godard's magnum opus, made just as digital cinema arrives, is an astonishing 'hyperlink' film that takes in 'everything', a cinema that our digital present can only dream of. From that very Old Place...cinema as we knew it. Cinema is Big History, somehow sublimely correct for the grandest scales of human desire, and yet what we have as Histoire(s) du cinema is only a cinema of genocide. To rise up through cinema to our potentials is the greatest enemy of totalitarianism that will drop an A-Bomb to destroy this magic. To lose this scale of cinema is to lose humanity's potential to be welcoming to an 'all' that the coincidental birth of mass democracies and cinema created as the horizon of a new liberation theology. How small our presents are to Godard's genius!
Ghatak's last film of his Partition Trilogy documenting the tragedy of the partition of Bengal in 1947 is one, that he said in an interview, on which he worked very hard. One can see why- here the monumentality of epic gestures defining his cinema, sometimes comic absurdist, manipulated magically in an extended form of Eisensteinian montage, is tempered by vaster sheets of time flow, signified above all in his recourse to an epic capture of grand landscapes. Quieter, a film of historical Thermidor, when the fires of genocidal upsurge has ebbed away, Subarnarekha is the greatest montage film ever made on the cusp of a modern cinema of emptiness that directors like Antonioni would usher in in the 1960s. Hence, its uncanny magic of perfect titration of two opposing styles of cinema in a heroic monumental face-off- movement image versus time image, human desire versus Time itself. The closest one comes to in film history in such matters is Stroheim's Greed. Presciently, Ghatak sets his film in Jharkhand where soon after 1962, the impasse between movement and time would be unsettled by a war launched by the people from the forest against capitalist holdings, both key sites in the film.
The first film in the long autumn of Ozu's career remains the most beautiful of his 'passage of the seasons' films. Mainly because of the magnificent Setsuko Hara but above all, for the wistful sadness of a life passing by, full of possibilities of epic grief, kept in rein by cruelly imposing the cold banality of just 'a' human life fading away. The epic threatens to erupt all the time, but is checked through that ultimate Japanese philosophical consolation- one has done one's social duties to the best of one's ability with the greatest of goodwill. Routine Ozu? Not really, for here we see Ozu use more clipped shots and more characters, with greater frequency and intensity, giving the film an intense centre as compared to his other masterpieces. It is the relentless subtleness of the passage of the expressions of quiet disappointment defeated by time across so many bodies (so many wonderful women in the film) set against the glowing beauty of Hara's love for her father that breaks our hearts. An entire ethos of lives trained to be ascetically accepting of history's disappointments fades away to give rise to a new Japan glowing with modern health, in color.
Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles
A beguiling meeting of Michael Snow's Wavelength and Hitchcock's Psycho, Akerman's most celebrated film is still the hardest feminist slap in the face of patriarchy's sentimentalizing women as soft nurturing 'creatures'. Nurturing yes, but strangely so, indicated by the enigmatic, uncanny smile that fleetingly wafts across Delphine Seyrig's face in the last scene of the film. These days I tend to read the film in two halves working in reverse. One could read the second half of the film where Jeanne's calmly obsessive routine gets disturbed by her experiencing orgasm during sex work culminating in the murder of her client as flowing underneath the film's first half- a metaphorical murder of sexual pleasure with her husband as she was only interested in having a child that allows her an exclusive life with her son without the distraction of the husband's presence (in a sense the husband too has been 'killed' off ). It's the end of marriage as prostitution and she can tell her son that he need not worry about her sex with his father being pleasurable. Norman Bates will not kill his mum and they live happily ever after. Possibilities of genre make an already great film greater.
The culmination of Visconti's epic cinema, Ludwig, is a shimmering masterpiece with an astonishing performance by Helmut Berger at the heart of the film as the mad king Ludwig II of Bavaria (to whom we owe the madness of Walt Disney). But equally a luminous Romy Schneider playing Sissi, the king's cousin and object of his incestuous love. Visconti attempts to capture the death of European civilization in all the glory of the last gasp symbolized by Ludwig's monumental and maniacal baroque visions of splendour. The miracle is that he manages to do so, so extraordinary is his mastery of scale and detail of spectacle and the grand passage of time. This is Visconti at his grandest best! Berger mesmerizes as a body tortured body aflame letting all of European history decay through his body over four hours, literalizing Wagner's music that scores the film. The film is an epic cinematic summation of spectacular imperial histories, the kind that only Japanese cinema is capable of. In actual history, Sissi marries Emperor Franz Joesph I, is herself assassinated, and, soon after, the assassination of her son triggers off the Great War. Visconti seems to be saying it all began with Ludwig.
So good is this film that despite not being terribly fond of its set-piece- the apotheosis of the maid of the bourgeois family that serves as Teorema's setting, it still finds a place in this list. The film moves like a dream, hallucinatory, Pasolini's most precise film ever for it is supposed to be as concise as a theorem. But also because society dreams in delirious desire into which walks in the Stranger, Christ-like, the sublime Terence Stamp, and sets society free of its delusions. A performance degree zero forms a counterpoint to the 'magnetisation' of other bodies in repression. The maid's eye cannot but draw her, as if by magnetic force, into Stamp's crotch. This is a film marked by the 'holy epileptic' who draws in the delirium of society into himself. What chills us about the film is theorem's brutality- the bourgeoisie WILL reap what it has sown- die, go mad, go crazy, come what may. Pasolini cuts the Gordian Knot of history without compassion through deft cuts across dialectical images of oppositional states of desire. As history moved into the permissive 1970s, Pasolini predicts that fulfilment of bourgeois desire will paradoxically lead the class to self-destruct.
The films chosen belong to the history of a cinema as we knew it. Above all, the films chosen have certain uniform themes running through them, perhaps a sign of the times. They pertain mostly to the idea of cinema as capable of capturing a certain scale of human history that the advent of the modern promised, a redemptive scale for all humanity. Now that seems no longer possible and so in 2022 it might be good to revisit some of those sublime moments in the history of cinema. I deem this cinema impossible because as someone who teaches films to young students I cannot help myself from emphasising to them that there can be no digital cinema. Firstly, the inner working of the digital re-composition of film from analog material has nothing optical about it, no play of light on a photochemical strip of film. Something absolutely non-optical cannot be cinema by any definition that we knew it by earlier. Secondly, the relationship between sight and hand in analog cinema and digital machines are as different as eating and threading a needle. This is something else. Something quite magical, but something other than cinema. Hence, it's time maybe to rethink the whole cinema thing.
Scale was one thing that struck me as being quintessential to this, something that Godard insists on again and again. Cinema is of the human scale. The digital can wow us with great things but such scales are not human- they overwhelm by their hugeness and minuteness. Hence, the presence of films of a certain scale- Ludwig, Histoire(s) du cinema, Subarnarekha. Grand, epic in its taking in of history, and thinking through the relationship between figure and ground as a mode of doing history. But also thoughts that cannot be put into the notes of 200 words. A Mizoguchi nestles at the heart of Ghatak. An Ophüls inside a Visconti. What does this palimpsest of cinematic scales tell us about Indian and Japanese histories? Or about the Viennese in Vienna and the Viennese in Milan through a history of continental wars?
The other thing that interested me in post-cinema thinking is the relationship between cinema and other media forms that preceded and succeeded it. Cases where cinema revived what it had rendered obsolete and others where cinema could predict its own supersession by media to come. Scale again is crucial to this. While, La Jetée brings in the grand of great love into cinema via the portrait photo, a seemingly small thing, Blow-up concedes that the human sensorium has expanded to scales that the ratios of cinema as we knew it can no longer contain. The human scale is being superseded by humanity's own desires, cinematic to boot. Similarly Jeanne Dielman is a sorcery of play on scales, shot as it is as a recent critic put it 'with a somewhat wide-angle lens'. An Ozu fused with a Michael Snow with a Warhol frontal format of filming. No one had tried this jugglery of scales because no one was doing feminist cinema of this kind earlier.
Then one could come to thinking about the other end of the scale- human beings defeated by history. How does cinema think through the impasse of defeat? What are the most precise cinematic thoughts about this? On the one hand, the quiet burning up of suffering in Ozu's cinema, a dignity of silence and forbearance at all costs. On the other hand, cruel dialectical precision of historical contradictions presented sans compassion in Teorema. Or maybe as in Syndromes and a Century, there circulates in the quiet of the normal, behind its facades, a future where the young of today will redeem history through sci-fi toys, a cinema made by these toys. Here, the digital might complete a larger task that cinema was given, a more crucial ontology, that we have not yet started talking about. It is with the genius of a Weerasethakul or a Godard that conversations are best had. There might still be something about the cinematic we have not discovered or felt yet. A new dialogue between the digital and cinema without claiming the former is the latter because it looks similar?
My list is without any strict order of preference except for No 1- The Burmese Harp. I do increasingly feel that it is the most perfect film ever made towards fulfilling at least one ontology that cinema was burdened with- as much as cinema was a machine to inscribe reality into representation, it equally had the task of fulfilling human desires to fly, to defeat gravity and allow the eye to take flight and take us along. I don't think any film has ever really fulfilled the ontology of realism, but The Burmese Harp does fulfil the other ontology of cinema as flight, perfectly, impeccably, magically. It is also the greatest meditation on black and white cinema, between seeing and not-seeing. Amongst many other things that it is truly the supreme film about. Digital immersion might have something to speak back to the film with. Here, I have to say that the Japanese/Asians really know cinema. Others don't. Not even Godard, although he is the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century.
And last of all, those heartbreaking instances of films that cried to be in the list but had to be left out- Greed, The Magnificent Ambersons, Cléo de 5 à 7, Mon oncle d'Amérique, Blade Runner, The Life of Oharu, The Big Lebowski, La Vie Nouvelle, Oxhide II, Platform, Rivette, amongst the truly greats. But idiosyncratic favourite ones- The King of Marvin Gardens, The Portrait of Jennie, Memories of Underdevelopment, Onibaba, Kill Bill I, Yaadon ki Baaraat, Brewster McCloud, North by Northwest, Jogan, Dil se.., Mughal-e-Azam, Adieu Philippine, Antonio das Mortes, Kindred of the Dust, My Darling Clementine, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Being There, Written on the Wind, Mother India, Bringing Up Baby, The Birds, Touch of Evil, Hou Hsiao's coming-of-age films, The Shining. And so much more.