Mysteries of Lisbon
Ankan Kazi : Spectral Transmissions in Kerala
Last year, at the Kerala International Film Festival, I was introduced to the films of Raul Ruiz. The programme offered three selections from his early works (although, by ‘early’, it means to cover only his popular films made between 1996 and 2003): That Day(2003), Genealogies of a Crime(1997) and Three Lives and a Death(1996), along with his last release Mysteries of Lisbon. He died last year to Jonathan Romney’s wail, declaring that with his death, "cinema has lost a dimension — an entirely alternative one, foreign to the familiar laws of film language and practice" and I thought this was quite enough to make me curious about his work.
That Day is a great opening to his oeuvre. It introduces themes that are consistently explored and even stretched to breaking point in his other films. Criminality, madness, state repression, narrative games and dark humour–reminiscent of Joe Orton’s black farces– determine the mood of the films. They begin innocuously enough, with what would appear to be minor irruptions in the narrative. Three Lives and a Death begins with a radio announcer reading out the beginning of a story, which is suddenly realised and continued in the film. There is, therefore, already a layer of narrative by the time Marcello Mastroianni’s character arrives and confounds it several times over. Narratives, characters and identities seem to change or merge into each other as the film progresses. Ruiz’ great ability as a storyteller allows him to stay with his narratives all the way, never forgetting a beat or a trick, and never letting the narratives meander incoherently with all his hi jinks.
Protagonists in his three early films are always characters suffering from acute psychological problems but these perceptions are cultivated in the audience by careful cross–referencing to the stifling institutions that seek to curb their dark creative forces. Formally, in spite of his ludic narratives, his films look austere and are impeccably shot. This makes his films much more slippery and hard to categorise than those of his contemporaries. Long takes are employed to mount ridiculous tableaux acted out with great solemnity and this disconcerting effect reproduces in the audience a feeling of uncanniness or vague anxiety, like in the comedy of Lynch. Although his stories are told lightly, they never lose their import in a real world fraught with anxieties, wars and ordinary madness. In these movies, Ruiz reflected on the art of storytelling and its power to frame larger narratives and their potentially hegemonic charm. This mad charm is often seductively embodied by actors like Marcello Mastroiani and Catherine Deneuve, which makes the audience’s job– to look critically upon their follies– much more difficult. These films deal with what Ruiz calls ‘European concerns’ and can be even read allegorically to understand cultural differences which are violently hegemonised within single European visions or projects.
In the Preface to his two–volume Poetics of Cinema, he writes about the process of assimilation (in film theory and, by extension, in practice) and says that it reminds him of a literary genre from sixteenth–century Spain called Miscellanas, theoretical/narrative discourses where the author’s prowess is to turn verbal somersaults, with sudden shifts of focus and unexpected interpolations- in short, a "hodge–podge", a farrago, "everything but the kitchen-sink". Think of somersaulting film narratives and you will have started thinking about Raul Ruiz.
Anamaria Dobinciuc : On Kartina Richardson
In 2011, discovering Kartina Richardson’s film reviews and video essays (http://www.mirrorfilm.org/) was the thing that helped the most to reinforce my enthusiasm for films, and sometimes one needs just that. Her own cinephilia is addictive, her critique is refreshing — she acknowledges that a film is first of all an emotional experience; at the same time, her reviews are filtrated through her ideas about gender and race.
One video essay I keep returning to is the one on Terrence Malick’s 1973 film, Badlands. What draws me to it again and again is this particular bit: "Badlands world exists in those instances when we manage to escape for one moment the routine of our everyday realities. In each one of these seemingly silly thoughts and actions there’s a tiny rebellion against time, an opportunity for the characters as well as us to reclaim our independence against the expected flow of our lives." This can be applied to the experience of watching films in general. Watching a film means creating a time and space bubble, which I now like to think of as a "tiny rebellion".
Anuj Malhotra : Notes on Kenji Misumi and more
Kenji Misumi is one of the finest directors ever. He is also relatively unknown, but that is not his fault –history makes its own choices, no one makes them for it. Unlike a number of faux–Leone parodyists — who perceive Leone as being essentially an ostentatious stylist (an easy mistake to make, since Leone had a rather obvious, therefore conspicuous aesthetic) — Misumi perceived Leone to be a spirit — one that he absorbed, imbued, and wove through the very fiber of his film. He took the Leone influence and elevated it to something more profound — like the act of applying a religious principal to your life is greater than religion itself. It is because he understood that instead of simple-minded, ‘Scope-contained, wide-angle laden compositions, Leone was, not barring Tourneur or Teshigahara, the greatest director of the sensory — that his essential ambition was to elevate a fleeting moment in time to a position of extreme consequence. This single moment would invariably store within itself the provocation of a primal human sense (the visual, as in Once Upon a Time in the West, auditory as in Duck, You Sucker; smell and touch, as in Once Upon a Time in America, one may argue that the entire film is the result of Noodles’ sensory delusion) that would evoke then, a flashback, a hark–back to a time gone by for the owner of the provoked sense – who would then reminisce, in lush visual detail about times of revolution, times of ambition, or times of misery.
In that, Leone’s focus on the force of human memory as being not a narrative function (read: conventional flashback, event B reminds one of event A), but a sensory one (a smell, a composition, a gait — small transient things that remind a character of another point–in–time) was a quality that informed most of Misumi’s work as well. In a beautiful sequence from the first film in the Lone Wolf and Cub series (an entire series of films about two characters travelling as far as they can from a disturbed past), The Sword of Vengeance, the protagonist, Itto Ogami looks at two girls playing with a multi–coloured ball on the streets of a town; a sight that, through a series of quick, subliminal intercuts, evokes a memory of an earlier scene where Ogami insists that Daigoro, his son, make a choice between the way of the warrior or a life of innocence, by crawling to and then choosing one out of two objects that are placed in front of him: a katana and a multicoloured ball. The infant decides to walk on the way of hell with his father.
The idea of suppleness in movement was another stylistic loan that Misumi borrowed from Leone— the sorta–weaponry employed by Leone protagonists in the conduct of their personal duels or troikas meant that his characters could afford to remain stationary in space and yet effect a killing; Misumi’s protagonist, on the other hand, couldn’t afford such a luxury— he would have to move through space to reach his victim and then slice him open. Notwithstanding this technical difference, the manner of both the Leone fight and the Misumi fight was that of a classical dancer– one where the participant–characters must first stop, take full account of the situation they’ve gotten themselves into, survey the areal qualities of the plane of the fight, basically take their time and only then arrive at the moment of the actual fighting. As such, both the Leone and the Misumi duelists were patient men, prepared to perform choreography for effect’s sake before getting down to business. Such a trend is evident in the finale of Once Upon a Time in the West, one in which Harmonica and Frank walk around in circles to a pre–composed musical score like a pack of vultures, narrowing down upon the single second of violence like a whirlpool of ancient memories and vendetta, thereby literally leading upto that moment. It is manifest also in Misumi’s final contribution to the Lone Wolf series, Baby Cart in the Land of Demons - in a scene where Ogami is quickly surrounded by a hundred men (but still dueling, he only takes one at a time) in a traditional Japanese house, Misumi uses the architecture inherent in such an enclosure by suddenly cutting to a shot where the camera looks at the ongoing fight from under the wooden partition between the room of the fight and the one adjoining it, thereby getting only a cramped schism through which to witness the proceedings. As a result of this unusual perspective, we can only see Ogami’s feet and nothing else; frame–amputated from the rest of his being and devoid of the context of the fight, his swift movement across the floor creates a sustained illusion of a dance performance, i.e., until an enemy’s body falls on the floor next to his feet and reminds the viewer of the violence that prevails on the other side of the partition.
Even more crucially, Misumi, much like Leone, installed a version of humanism that is distilled strictly from a book detailing the warrior–ethic. In the penultimate sequence ofThe Good, the Bad and the Ugly; one that directly precedes the grand–shootout finale, Blondie, having inadvertently wounded a Union soldier, looks at him, covers him with his poncho, and in order to help relieve the pain, offers him his cigar. Similarly, throughout Misumi–s Lone Wolf and Cub series, there are moments of great respect for human seemliness — even if characters become blood–sprinklers when sliced by Ogami’s katana, they may still retain the dignity to make a final proclamation of loyalty to their clan before their bodies collapse like ragdolls to the ground below.
2. Gorakhpur International Film Festival
The idea of Cinephilia is tremendously reductive in this country — it essentially comprises of the guys in the big city publishing e–zines or blog posts to be read by guys in another big city, or guys in a big city organizing film screenings for the other guys in the same big city, or the last straw: guys in one big city making short–films (or features, recently) to be watched by guys in another big city. Basically, Cinephilia as a metropolitan idea – a clique of metropolis–dwellers celebrating each other. Film–love, in order to be truly effective, has to percolate down to the rest of the country. With regards to that, it is an encouraging sign in the last two years; the Indian film festival circuit is evolving like an amoeba–network, a seismic wave that seems to have no certain epicenter, but spreads as potently, nonetheless. New film festivals seem to be coming up in smaller cities — other smaller film festivals enter their second or third editions, new entrants to the circuit include Pune, Kolhapur, Allahabad, Darjeeling and Jaipur. While these are still second or third–tier cities or even state capitals, this is an encouraging sign. Encouraging also is the annual BYOFF (Bring Your Own Film Festival) that takes place on the beaches of Puri – it is a festival that functions with the utopian ethic of no rules, no selection criteria and thereby, no juries and no hierarchies. Everything that is sent to the festival is given a screening slot.
Worthy also of admiration are the efforts of a government organ called Directorate of Film Festivals, which has initiated a mini–festival programme across various cities in the country –these mini–festivals mostly include films from the Indian Panorama section as well as a few indigenously produced independent films — these festivals have so far taken place in Port Blair, Shimla, Bhopal, Kolhapur and Sikkim. The organisation is also responsible for the conduct of the National Film Festival in the capital city, wherein all the recently announced National Film Award winners are screened at one location over the duration of one month — it is a rare cross–regional event, the sort of which does not happen too often in the city.
I first discovered about Gorakhpur International Film Festival through hearsay — like all truly important things, it began as speculation (‘it happens, really?’, ‘even if it does, I am sure not many people watch these films’). Later, at one of the screenings I was at for college students in Delhi University, by sheer cosmic co-incidence, I ran into a projectionist who had been responsible for the screenings at the first three editions of the festival. Through him, I learnt more about the efforts of the Convener of the festival, Mr. Sanjay Joshi, and the efforts of his group, Jan Sanskriti Manch. Upon further research, I discovered more about the festival by reading through the following links:
Ofcourse, the festival has its own blog:
Jit Phokaew : The No-Image
In 2011 I had a cinematic rediscovery. I rediscovered the extreme power of the black screen when I saw two Thai short films: Employees Leaving the Lumiére Factory (2010, Chaloemkiat Saeyong, 31 min) and Rajprasong (or Ratchaprasong) (2011, Nok Paksnavin). These two Thai films forced a slight shift in my perception on cinema. I used to think that cinema is about "moving images" and/or "sound", but these two films make me realize that sometimes the most powerful moment in cinema is when you look at "the image of no image" or "the image of black screen" for a while. If the black screen is shown within the right context at the right moment, and is accompanied by appropriate sound, this non-image may be much more memorable, overwhelming, or powerful than any beautiful images.
Employees Leaving the Lumiére Factory and Rajprasong have something in common in their structure. We see some enigmatic scenes in twenty percent of both films, and we see black screen with some sound in eighty percent of both films.
In the case of Employees Leaving the Lumiére Factory, which may concern the problems of film education in a university in Thailand, the black screen is accompanied by a kind of room tone, or some ambient sound, or sound of a few things which inspire my imagination a lot. I'm not sure what I really heard in eighty percent of this film. I guess I might have heard a room tone, the sound of an air conditioner (or is it the sound of an air conditioner of the screening room?), the sound of an elevator moving, and the sound of some paper moving. Anyway, the black screen, which may last about 25 minutes in this 31-minute film, makes me listen to the sound in the film the most attentively in my life, and it also makes me realize how important the room tone is, how powerful the room tone can be, how the room tone can be used creatively, and how the room tone can make my imagination explode.
In the case of Rajprasong, which may concern the real massacre of red shirt protesters in Ratchaprasong area in Bangkok on May 19, 2010, we see a black screen accompanied by the loud sound of gunshots. I'm not sure how long this scene is or how many gunshots I have heard. I guess the scene may last about three minutes and I may have heard about 90-100 gunshots. I find this scene of the black screen one of the most powerful ways to deal with this massacre. Personally, seeing the black screen with the sound of gunshots for a few minutes affects me more severely than seeing the images of the corpses. When I see the images of the corpses from this massacre or the images of the brutality occurring during the crackdown on red shirt protesters, I feel very angry and sad for the death of "others." When I see the black screen with the sound of gunshots in Rajprasong, I not only feel angry and sad, but also feel that I, myself, should die.
I use the word "rediscover" instead of "discover" in this case, because the first film that made me realize the extreme power of the black screen is The Bangkok Bourgeois Party (2007, Prap Boonpan, 29 min), which I saw in 2007. In The Bangkok Bourgeois Party, a group of middle class people murder a man because that man thinks differently from them in terms of politics. After we witness this scene of murder, we see a black screen in total silence for about 3-5 minutes, before the story continues.
In conclusion, somehow I think the black screen in The Bangkok Bourgeois Party and Rajprasong are unintentionally connected to each other. The black screen in The Bangkok Bourgeois Party unintentionally, chillingly, and startlingly anticipates the real massacre in Bangkok which happened three years after the film had been made and shown. The black screen in Rajprasong appropriately mourns for the victims of that massacre.
Srikanth Srinivasan : At 6:10 PM
Ht I’ve never read a book or seen a movie that I could label "life-changing" or something to that effect because whatever has been revelatory or epiphanic to me has tended to spread across books, films and real life — scenes, passages and experiences feeding into and enriching each other. 2011 was no different. Even though I was fortunate to see some unbelievably great films and read some astounding writing on cinema, I’d be dishonest if I am to single out one of those. However, I’d like to make note of one supremely trivial moment in my film–watching last year — a moment so uncanny that it was a while before I could rationalize it.
The definite highlight of the year for me, as a cinephile, was attending the Bangalore International Film Festival — my first ever full fledged film fest. Sitting day in and day out in a near empty movie hall, with barely anything to eat, watching one film after another, hearing one alien language after another, must be the closest I’ve ever gotten to using consciousness’altering drugs.
It was the first day of the fest. I was waiting for the fourth film of the day to start. I was already very weary. The day till then was far from satisfactory and a stupid three hour feature I saw that morning had already started taking its toll on my physical well being. I must admit I opted for this fourth film —Teddy Soeriaatmadj’s Lovely Man (2011) — partly because it was only 75 minutes long and I figured I could have some nap before I headed for the last feature of the day.
The film started promptly at the scheduled time. Some very beautiful images, like the ones you see in credit card commercials. Then the initial premise, which hinted that this was all going to fall into a familiar groove. It was only a few minutes into the movie before I glanced at my wrist watch— a gesture that I think I rarely make when I’m watching films on a big screen. It was exactly 6:10 PM. I looked back at the screen: a shot of a clock at a railway station. The time: 6:10 PM!
A small chill down my spine. It was almost as if the film was rebuking me. "The time is ten past six. Happy?" For a moment, all that trite talk about films being windows into our world felt true. I was moved to believe, however a small time it was for, that what I was watching was actually taking place in some place outside this dark room at that very time. Perhaps the single most unforgettable moment in cinema last year.
Sudarshan Ramani : Certification: The World You Live In
If I had to boil all my gripes with Indian cinema down to just one single issue, I would settle for the absence of India itself on the big screen. By India, I refer to my upbringing, my memories and the people I have known since my childhood. For all the talk about Mumbai city being a film town and being a film industry, it’s hard for me to single out one film that features the city as it is in real life, both in terms of character and with respect to actual geography. Growing up, the total separation of real life from the world of the characters on the big screen is accomplished by merely stepping out of a movie theatre, where one finds the India that is almost never seen in our own cinema.
Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer best encapsulates this specific type of despair. The protagonist Binx Bolling, is a stock broker much given to Dostoevskian solipsism, which is mainly enabled by his regular visits to the local cinema. The relevant observation on cinema comes at the second last paragraph at the end of the first section of the novel. Binx and his cousin–by–marriage Kate Cutrer go to a cinema on Tchoupitoulas Street in New Orleans. The movie billed there is Elia Kazan’s Panic in the Streets (1950), one of the first post–neorealist films noir to shoot extensively on location. The reality of the street is important for the function of this parable. Never having been to New Orleans, I will take the word of the protagonists when they both notice a scene which depicts the neighborhood directly outside the movie theatre. At the end of the screening, they both walk out and Kate remarks on seeing the neighborhood, the very one they had seen in the film, "Yes, it is certified now." By "certification", Binx and Kate refer to the common feelings of despair and loneliness occasionally experienced by people who rarely travel and who live in one place for most of their lives. Cinema can offer a respite: "But if he sees a movie which shows his very neighborhood, it becomes possible for him to live, for a time at least, as a person who is Somewhere and not Anywhere". 
A yearning for certification and its possible achievement is tied to a particular place. In my case, it’s Mumbai. For the protagonists of The Moviegoer, it’s New Orleans. A viewing of Satyajit Ray’s Company Limited (1974) evoked a comparable sensation of certification despite being set in a third city — Calcutta; specifically the Calcutta of the 1970s, raging with student protests and Naxalite fervor. Ray’s film is, daringly, not about these news stories. Rather it’s about the life of an executive at a fan company, given the paper thin name of Hindustan Peters. The film’s opening sequence, which introduces documentary–style, the main characters and their relation to the company (specifically the position they hold in office), breathes with a freedom that’s almost intoxicating. The details of the life of Shyamlal (Barun Chandra), his relationship with his wife and child, the high-rise apartment and other perks that come with his high living job, contains all that can be said about middle–class Indians in the second half of the 20th Century.
The hermetically contained lifestyle, into which no aspect of social consciousness penetrates, is the essential hallmark of the Indian middle–class and it’s something few directors are capable of depicting with honesty, trapped as they are in the same myth. This is firmly expressed in the scene where, in response to his sister-in-law (Sharmila Tagore) mentioning the (then) present unrest in the city, Shyamlal defends himself, and by extension his way of life, by clarifying that the world of student protests, mass unemployment and social strife is not something that touches him and the people of his class. He says it in a way that seemingly guarantees immunity from any social change. This myth of hermetic protection governs his entire way of being and is conveyed with a clarity that is without parallel in film history. Its definitive expression on the rise of the educated urban middle class is far too close to the reality of life in contemporary Mumbai for any language or regional barrier to clamp down on. To say the obvious, Company Limited was perhaps, the most important film discovery in 2011 for me. Not necessarily because it is a masterpiece, which it is, or that it is Ray’s best film (though it would not be far behind), but simply for conveying life as I know it and in that respects, it represents a touchstone for all future explorations of film history.
1) The Moviegoer Walker Percy. Page 64, First Vintage International Edition, April 1998.