Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Reading Bazin's What is Cinema?: Foreword by Jean Renoir (Part 1)

In what appears to be a classical overturning of the Platonic idea(l) of that which is the state, Renoir starts off with a historicity that is, largely contingent upon the poet’s confirmation, largely poetic. Here, the poet, unlike Plato’s, doesn’t muddle up the representative doxa of the state;  she doesn’t insist on repeating the figure as eidos “merely” to highlight the paradoxical structure that is retained within; here, a commerce is established. As a consequence, in this “Renoir-ian” overturning, the poet [who is a bard, for, he sings: this in itself brings out a crucial (literary) historical configuration vis-à-vis when the institution of poetry entered writing and diversified purely into writing, the Bardic tradition gradually collapsing, perhaps, with print becoming a more and more popular mode of artistic representation and so on], is not exiled away from the kingdom. Quite the opposite, the poet is not just an alibi or a witness, for, frequently, “the singer was greater than the object of his singing”, thus rendering her existence in the object’s (i.e. the king’s) state, in the object-ive state, toward a hyperbolic, pure functionality. The poet is, to condense her “bare life” (notwithstanding the occasionally great king, who indeed elevates the poet out of this “objective” circumcision), her existential facticity, an administrative-discursive trope, a tool-being for the kings “to believe in their greatness”. This, in more than one ways brings to the fore the ontogenetic structure of poiesis (i.e. the essential function of the poet) which, as Heidegger shows, has a remarkable contiguity with techne (the technological, functional itself) in its originary meaning. Sticking to this originary understanding of the two words, poiesis and tekhne, in the Renoir-ian state, thus, where the poet facilitates and truly guarantees the king’s “greatness”, a logical tautology is established: “the poet is a poet”.
            Of course, for Renoir, this deliberate poetic facticity doesn’t occur to the poet via a post-facto mandate of the king (even though he is “the object”). There is no force of law which binds the poet to this function. Further, it is not that the poet is to be included in the commerce of historically validating the king’s greatness, (and through its implied performance) his kingship, solely due to having been the king’s subject. In fact, there is hardly any complex, mutually aporetic condition (i.e. the king is great because the poet—the poet is poet because the king; an analogy which figures in almost every “post-structuralist” critique of the “lawlessness of law-as-such”) toward the being-poetic of the poet. It is in fact the poet who is “there” to legitimize the king as king. “ [T]here were poets to confirm their belief in their greatness”. There is, it seems, an almost theological primordiality to the being-there of the poets. Unlike the platonic state which is rendered impossible by the poet, here, the poet is, as it were, its sine qua non.
            Still, all of this held true when “kings were kings”. Which is to imply two things-
i.                    that the poetic function, the originary tautology which we derived at, “the poet is a poet” is no more existent, even though, it seems that this poetic existence is very much what Renoir would have liked. And, more pressingly-
ii.                  that kings are no more kings. Even though they are kings, they no more are: a crucial-critical split has occurred.
How do we process these double splits vis-à-vis Renoir’s conclusive analogy-
“[F]or that king of our time, the cinema, has likewise its poet (i.e. Bazin). A modest fellow, sickly, slowly and prematurely dying, he it was who gave the patent of royalty to the cinema just as the poets of the past had crowned their kings. That king on whose brow he has placed a crown of glory is all the greater for having been stripped by him of the falsely glittering robes that hampered its progress. It is, thanks to him, a royal personage rendered healthy, cleansed of its parasites, fined down-a king of quality-that our grandchildren will delight to come upon. And in that same moment they will also discover its poet. They will discover Andre Bazin, discover too, as I have discovered, that only too often, the singer has once more risen above the object of his song.”

Firstly, we discover that cinema, the king, is perpetually, and even more so now, having lost its poet, Bazin, in enormous crisis. Its kingship or, rather, kingness, its “patent of royalty” being conferred solely through the poetic gesture of being crowned by him, “rendered healthy, cleansed of its parasites, fined down“ because of him, it is now not just in a moment of quality, but also finality (given the death of Bazin), an absolution, not unlike the totalizing Spirit (geist) of Hegel, which manifested itself in the modern state of Prussia in his lifetime. The poet is dead, and the king is no more king. Written at the time when elsewhere¸ “the death of cinema” was being pronounced, it is as if the deaths of the poet and the king have co-incided in this absolute synthesis. It can only be these “two death” which will get recognized by our grandchildren. However, there will hardly be an elegy or mourning song for the death of the king, i.e. cinema. For, at the same moment, at the exact point of time wherein our grandchildren (contingently) discover cinema, they will also discover its poet, Bazin, who, indeed, is cinema’s pre-condition, its sine qua non to exist as cinema. This is perhaps the effect that is sought when Bazin re-members an ontological question, “what is cinema?”, as a proper name to his text, What is Cinema?   

To reflect, perhaps we must look at the structure of Renoir’s analogy. The analogy is indeed quite complex in (at least) a two-fold manner. Firstly, to charter the precise historical moment which Renoir takes as his objective fantasy, that is the time when the poets crowned the kings. Renoir mentions the poet Francois Villon (1431-Circa. 1463) to be a mark of the poetic-structure he describes. [Villon himself disappeared in 1463, his death thus remaining a speculative (im)possibility, and one can perhaps see how Villon indeed gets effected as the mysterious undead that Renoir would have wanted Bazin to be.] But we can sense that the clue to Renoir’s argument is in the historical middle-Ages, more precisely the mid 15th Century.
 What was the configuration of the aesthetic and the political at this crucial point of time? How was poesis seen vis-à-vis techne at that particular point, and in turn, through then contemporary aesthetic and political registers? What was the status of cinema as an art at that point in time [and here we are moving with an axiomatic understanding, not unlike that of Bazin (something which we are pre-empting and will discuss in length later), that the “birth of cinema” is far more originary than its contingent, technological actualization in the late 19th century], and how does its status as the sovereign (as king) get located via this precise historical site? Secondly, we have to closely and rigorously analyze the ontico-ontological configuration of the four “things” that are taken as constitutive of the analogy, i.e. “king”, “poet”, “Cinema” and “Bazin” as well as that of “analogy” itself.
We have already established a parallel track, it seems, that is too remote and detached from the study of Bazin’s text “in itself”. So we will conclude for now with these preliminary questions left hanging.
In the next part we shall look at the concluding part of the Foreword, wherein, Renoir intensify’s his critical stance regarding the end of cinema through an intriguing sci-fi-esque scenario.    

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Project: Reading Andre Bazin's What is Cinema?

I am resuming this blog after almost four years. Then, I largely wanted to become a professional filmmaker while (forcefully) pursuing academics to sustain myself till establishing the said professionalism. I had cursory ideas about major strains in film theory and criticism (not unlike now) and had opened this very blog as a site for exploring my parallel interest in musing upon cinephilia. Four years up, it appears to me that my situation has almost reversed. Now I am quite certain about pursuing a career in academia (as a consequence I am much more aware of academic prose now) while pursuing a self-sustainable model of film-making parallelly.

However, in these years, I have continually felt a serious lack of scholarly understanding pertaining to film theory. And while I am vaguely literate in major theoretical models from Continental philosophy, with which, I believe, most of film theory shares a contiguity and even models itself after, I am largely illiterate in the latter. Therefrom, I have decided to proceed with this project, where I read and write about classical film theory texts in a sketchy, meandering manner (an ideal image of what I am attempting are perhaps the infamously dense seminars of Jacques Lacan) solely through a frame of reference that is rooted in my readings and understanding of philosophy. I think it would be interesting, in a bizarre, often anachronistic manner, to arrive at critiques and problematiques that have been raised vis-a-vis these texts within film theory, independently. But, also, to arrive at critiques that are unexpected and hopefully very different from what has been hitherto theorized within the ambit of film theory and scholarship.

The first text in this exercise is, naturally, the most classical text of film theory, Andre Bazin's What is Cinema? which is, perhaps, most often cited as an introduction to film theory and criticism to each emerging generation of cinephiles and writers 'of' film. I would largely proceed in a chronological manner, mostly analyzing a short portion (like, really short) from the book, each week, elaborating through the text from beginning to end in a manner which might seem rather absurd, boring, and even stupid to trained film theorists. I surely do not hope this to be an obviously redundant "reader's guide" to Bazin's text, but, hopefully share a "new" reading of this old text.

For the introductory analysis in this project, I would be sharing my notes from the first part of Jean Renoir's Foreword to Bazin's book (i.e. roughly a page from his two page Foreword). I hope this project becomes enriching for some fellow readers! :)

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Criticism: Drive(2011)

 Christopher Sharrett talks about the negotiating space that the masculine identity pre-occupies in the acclaimed 2011 film Drive, which has been largely misunderstood as a simple genre film inspite of the complex postmodern aesthetic that it actually employs.Although partly disagreeable due to his own pre-occupations and discrimination of mainstream films ,this piece by Sharrett illuminates indispensable aspects of the film that have been somewhat marginalized due to the films highly stylized generic nod. An excerpt:
"Refn expands on notions about the collapse of masculinity central to Hollywood narrative, making this investigation not simply derivative of Mann but central to his ongoing project of uncovering the dangers inherent in traditional masculine images that are disintegrating into an especially dangerous formation, along with the patriarchal capitalist society it represents. "
The complete article can be found here

Monday, March 19, 2012

Observations: Christian Marclay's The Clock

For the uninitiated, The Clock is a video installation by Christian Marclay, a 24-hour montage of scenes involving clocks, timepieces or any cinematic allusion to clocks, selected from film and television footage from all over the world. In that it exudes with immense possibilities to resonate across cultures, spaces and "times", it becomes an instant masterpiece.  Rather than being a mere video installation, the film becomes a pure cinematic organism, a clock that goes on without having to be wound up; a feature that has been used at various art galleries where the film was exhibited, where it plays in sync with the local time. It reflects upon the possibility of a hyper real collective imagination where time exists completely free from spatial intervention and connected only by the inevitable changes in time itself. It also allows the audience to exert/assert her own identity onto the film, in that one can anticipate familiar incidents from one's film viewing career which involved any allusion to time: be it about the Hitchcockian "time-bomb" or the famous shot of Buster Keaton hanging from the clock... 

Peter Bradshaw in his article for the Guardian points out how
The Czech writer Petr Král, in the essay entitled "Time Flies" (collected in Gilbert Adair's excellent 1999 anthology Movies) describes watching with a companion the 1916 silent movie serial Judex by Louis Feuillade. He recalls: "Suddenly on the screen there appears a clock set in the centre of the kind of sumptuous salon that epoch, and Feuillade, alone had a taste for; it shows 4:40pm. One of us automatically consults his watch: 4:40 to the second. For an instant our present, across the ruins of several decades, has rejoined that of an afternoon in the 1910s." The pleasure of making this connection, infinitely repeated, is at first a conscious, then a subconscious or unconscious pleasure in The Clock. 
One wonders whether Marclay uses that segment from Judex for his 4:40 segment.

Watching the 24-hour film in its complete running time seems a daunting task and while I completely agree with the critics who have said that one has to seep into the immense temporality of the film in order to experience it's true power, the few minutes that I was able to see had a profound impact on me; and an extrapolation of this very impact exerts the film to be a masterpiece. I saw 4 minutes of the film, from 12:04 PM to 12:08 Pm. We see, in these four minutes, various known and unknown clips from across the world, which include a corporate meeting, Colin Firth talking, Richard Gere getting up at noon in a reflection of the erratic lives some of us may have,a royal family resting in the English countryside, a scene from what seemed like Darkness in Tallinn, and Gary Cooper in High Noon.
The staggering variety of spaces that we travel across in these few minutes, along with the fact that the on-screen time matches with the real time in which we see the film(the clip that i saw can be found here; it comes with a welcome note to watch the film in sync with the screen time) transcends the viewer-image relation and asserts the possibility of a postmodern identity bound only by cinematic time; an assertion that feels wonderful in its own terms.

The only thing that was a little unnerving for me was that most of the clips were taken from English films or television show and this irked my post-colonial identity. This might very well not be the case with the rest of the film,which could be giving an equal weightage to scenes from various countries, but  I wouldn't know about that.Even if that is true, the postmodern aesthetic of the film welcomes multiplicity of opinions and this is something that I felt. I was reminded of the wonderful dialogue from Wenders' Kings of the Road, "the yanks have colonized our sub-conscious"; could it be that the English-nations, with their elaborate representation of time, have colonized our assertive screen identities? Such unsettling stuff, masterpieces are made of...

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Review:Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Tinker Tailor Soldier SpyIn 2010 I made a not-so-serious oath in front of my friends to kill a couple of filmmakers the first chance I get. They were Silvio Soldini and Tomas Alfredson. ( Soldini is a separate issue which I will talk about some other day, if I bother to that is.unlikely.) The reason I wished the death of Mr. Alfredson was not very well formulated; it was just that the extent of thematic, ideological and aesthetic messiness that his last film Let the Right One in was, and the possibilities that the film seemed to hint at yet never quite well utilised (I had recently watched Werckmeister Harmonies back then, if anyone wants a hint as to how good Alfredson’s film could have been) made me feel a certain contempt towards the presumably well established life of Mr. Alfredson.  He returns with the restrained espionage drama Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, adapted from John le Carre’s novel of the same name. On a very basic level, the film functions well with its restrained atmosphere complementing the equally temperate series of interrogations. The fact that the novel redefined the way spy novels functioned certainly comes across in this seemingly faithful adaptation of the novel, especially in its tone and pace. But then the film gets over-ridden with the Alfredson bug. The oddball mix of absurd, seemingly Lynchian shots combine with some flaccid aesthetic choices to make a seemingly powerful film into one giant mess. Notable however, are also a few moments of brilliance within the film, which I attribute to the screenplay and/or pure chance after seeing how lame Alfredson can get. For my own ease, I have divided this review into two parts concerned with what is RIGHT and what is WRONG in the film in order to see in depth into the messiness and mixed reactions that the film otherwise generates.Oh, and there will be spoilers. If that matters.


In its attempt to reconstruct the tone and restrained configuration of the novel, the film sure gives us a "realist" spy film; devoid of physicality and predominantly psychological. The ill-focused, non-participating backgrounds sure induce a restrained sense of paranoia which does well to entice one into the atmosphere.

(Un)luckily for the film, my viewing of it was followed by a viewing of Rivette's masterful Out 1: Noli me tangere which is perhaps the paragon of implicit cinematic paranoia and in comparison, the mood of Tinker Tailor faded into a concealed sense of empathetic gesture from me. "Yeah, well. You tried your best. I get it and respect you for that."Equally plausible would be the converse; that the mood of this film is actually frizzled out and doesn't hold out very well in comparison to other genuinely powerful films. But then I am talking about the pros of the film, so yeah. Get my drift.

The film also succeeds in doing what its primary obsession is; to deconstruct the myth of England as one of the major world forces past its World War glory. What we see instead, is its most competent men, who handle its intelligence in this Cold War paranoia, veering towards a dreary non existence, often suspecting and blaming each other on the way. The whole east-west dichotomy gets absolved in the process and what is left is not an idealized nation but a muddled utopian projection that can only be chuckled at. "And the west has become so very ugly" expresses a character. We have no option but to agree. There is a shot where the usually inert background comes to life with the quote 'Woman is the Future'. A perverse dig at the aging old men who try to come to terms with their nation's inadequacy and a bitter prophecy about the sweeping politics of Thatcherism that will invade England in a few years, this statement rounds up the contrast between the idealized project that these men had aspired their nation to be and what it has actually become; it is clearly not the best of places, nor the best of times.

There's also how the film employs sweeping camera movements and powerful zoom-outs to reconstruct a puzzle out of different people's memories. And since a major motif of the film is to look at the past to identify a hidden element therein, this technique works well, seemingly glorious at times. Like this opening zoom-out of the Hungarian landscape-

 Some stuff about this aspect and some other not-so-agreeable points regarding the film by the brilliant Ignatiy Vishnevetsky can be found here.

As I said earlier, the film's concern is predominantly psychological and nothing illustrates this better than the showpiece monologue of the film where Smiley talks about his meeting with Karla and how that one meeting has scarred him since then and how his wish to undo that meeting is what truly drives him now. As Satish Naidu points out, 
as is the case with many monologues I wonder if the audience is the speaker himself. It is the elaborate expressionistic centerpiece of the film’s motivations and Smiley loses himself in it, miming the past, which is strange (against the pattern) in a film that is essentially drawn towards it. In front of him is a chair, with empty space over it, and Smiley fills it with himself... and here’s Smiley talking in a vacuum about a shadow who was to meet certain death and yet seems to have the power now all to himself. It is one incredible choice from Mr. Alfredson, to cut to an intense close-up of Smiley as he stares into the frame, which quite unmistakably becomes a mirror of sorts. More than anybody in The Circus, it is Smiley who is haunted by Karla, by his seemingly endless almost fictional potency.
This brilliantly realized close-up of Smiley in which the camera irrevocably achieves the status of a mirror effectively reflects the emotions of Smiley, savoring each emotion off his face and layers about his psyche with it. This shot also establishes why Gary Oldman is one of the best actors working today. Bar none.

This mirror shot is complemented in the ending where the slight smirk on Smiley's face as he leans forward indicates that he is now ready to undo that incident he had been hiding from for so long. It's a face-to-face with Karla now, and nothing can stop him.


Now that the obligatory good stuff has been discussed, I would start off with my real issues with the film. A major problem I have with the film might as well hark back to the ideological core of the novel itself; with a possibility that this problem got pacified within the over 400 paged novel but becomes really apparent within the duration of the film-as a text concerned primarily with the psychological apparatus of the characters and revolving around their morally ambiguous choices, it seems strangely black and white. There are constantly formed polarities, dichotomies which are quickly and effectively resolved, never letting a gray zone to exist. Characters' motives and actions are firmly guided by the central alignment of the narrative: nothing goes askew. To put it in a Marxist idiom, the base seems to be predominated within the textual framework by the superstructure, which seems out of place. Smiley loves his wife unconditionally and that is all that drives him: her gift, the lighter now in possession of Karla and therefore Karla himself is his prescient link with her gesture of love towards him and everything he does is an attempt to recover that material token of love. Seems legit, but for the implicit cold war paranoia and desperate post WW2 glorification that the national intelligence seems to  be clouded with, and which very much becomes apparent within the film in a sub-textual manner but its seeming affect is close to zero on Smiley. Or on any other character for that matter. Consider how morally polarized the characters whose narration advances the plot are when Smiley interrogates them. Tarr has no one else to go to. So he would reveal everything to Smiley without holding anything back. Haydon or Prideaux have nothing to lose, so they would speak their hearts out to Smiley in order to make it convenient for the reader/audience. In a state that is seeping with paranoia and everyone suspects everyone else, human relations strive on mis-communications as much as they do on communicability. That just does not happen here. What we have instead are characters, who, once their moral ambiguity has hit the fan, become as uni-dimensional as they can be.

The same is true as far as the characters' sacrifices go: all are based on human relations. Except for, of course Esterhase, who is reduced to a dummy and the mole, who gives his own set of reasons for the betrayal. Everyone has to sacrifice their lovers or as is the case with Smiley, come to terms with the sacrifice. And the bland homo-eroticism that developed between the student "Bill" and Prideaux in order to draw parallels with the relation Prideaux' previously had with the other Bill was simply pathetic. 

Moving on to the aesthetic choices. In the beginning we have Lacon giving the responsibility of finding the mole to Smiley. We have a close-up of Smiley's face followed by a sequence showing all the four suspects i.e. Smiley imagining one of the four to be the mole. In this one aesthetic move, Smiley is established as the innocent man who will from now on, genuinely attempt to flush out the mole. Which would've been fine in case there was no reveal later as to how Control suspected Smiley as well, to be a prospective mole. The statement that this aesthetic choice makes is clearly a disregard for the intelligence of Control which is re-affirmed in the end as proper and not merely some senility-infested paranoia.

There is a clear disregard for the audience's intelligence in the film and the shots are placed simply to give them a narrative arc. Consider this example:-
 Around the 35-minute mark, we are shown in a series of semi-Bressonian shots, a man supplying the secret files to Polyakov.
Before this sequence, we have the central Christmas party segment and after it, we see a medium long shot of Smiley sitting. Now as to why we had this sequence here, there is no clear aesthetic explanation. We could have argued that this was all Smiley imagining about a prospective mole but then these sequences also involve a woman and a dog about whom Smiley is not aware of until later on in the film. Therefore an otherwise beautiful possibility of this actually being Smiley's imagination can be ruled out. Therefore, the narrative is not a meta-extension of Smiley's or anyone else's psychology but the narrative instead comprises of fragments from a collective consciousness a la the Christmas party(and much other random stuff). In simpler words, narrative is the dominant motif here and all the sequences are there just to simplistically narrate the story to the audience. Why then do we have many critics and viewers alike, complaining about their inability to properly follow the plot? Why indeed?

You know, I can go on and on about the poor aesthetic choices but I frankly don't have the patience anymore. I have a feeling that this write-up is developing into a weird droll anyway. Honestly, in the obligatory second viewing that I undertook, the film degraded into a giant aesthetic mess and I didn't watch past the first hour in order to preserve some of the dignity that the film had accrued in my first viewing