Roland Emmerich made a film named 2012, it was released in 2009. It tapped, with much foresight the belabored apocalyptic fantasy of worldwide self-destruction on said year. I wish I had actually seen the film so that I could somehow work it into a complex reflection of films made in 2012, that somehow seemed to reflect the apocalyptic spirit, the fear of the end of the world, a sense that “civilization is crumbling”(to quote Daniel Day-Lewis in Gangs of New York, made alas in 2002).
The truth of the matter is that 2012 is like any year. There were some good films, some bad films, some bad films praised and mistaken as good films and some films that are entertaining but not much in the end. And of course to those of us in India, two months into the new year and 2012 still isn’t over. For you see, if I were to be entirely honest, some of my favorite 2012 films were 2011 films – J. Edgar, Carnage, Hugo. And we still await thanks to the strange manner of distribution of international films in India, some of the big releases from last year – the latest Spielberg, the new Tarantino, the new Terence Davies and James Gray and some other titles that perhaps would have added to the roster we are putting out.
Although Projectorhead is an online magazine, our roots and beliefs are traditional in one major respect and it allows for a major contradiction. We aspire to a model of criticism based on films seen on the big screen and not in the manner in which movies are seen now, on smaller screens, on monitors and in some cases, cellphones and iPads. Which is not to say we see all the movies in theatres and indeed the majority of films seen by writers and contributors to this magazine is on home-video, DVDs, TV screenings and video-on-demand. This is purely a reflection of how films are written about so far in our magazines, perceived singly and of a piece rather than as one node in a macro-system, whether a director’s total oeuvre or an entire genre or a whole national cinema. So as such when discussing films that we found worthy of reflection in 2012, we, in Projectorhead, work on entirely individual responses to these films, regarding them as objects in relation to where they are found. Some are found in supermalls, or expensive department stores, some in rare antique stores and some in old bazaars and some found in one of those small out-of-the-way places that have something that catch your eye.
MAY ADADOL INGAWANIJ
Village and Elsewhere (Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook, 2011)
For this video the conceptual artist and art academic Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook stages a weekly sermon inside the blazing crimson interior of a northern Thai temple decorated with gaudy murals displaying scenes from Buddhist morality tales. An abbot is standing in the background facing the congregation. To his side are huge reproductions of two paintings: Jeff Koons’ Untitled and Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Beheading Holofernes. The gold-framed reproductions are displayed side by side in front of the murals whose colour scheme and compositional shape echo, with faintly perverse reciprocity, that of the reproductions.Members of the congregation - aged women, children, and dogs- are seated on the floor with their backs to the camera, and among them is the artist herself. They are the abbot’s unreliable disciples. While the abbot blithely incorporates the displaced reproductions into his sermon on fidelity,the congregation’s noisy responses and surprising interjections veer between gullibility, unruliness and wild insight. Village and Elsewhere is outrageously funny. Yet its tone, texture and rhythm isn’t one I would usually associate with the phrase ‘outrageously funny.’ This work isn’t at all safe for the viewer. The sense of the rug disappearing from underneath my feet comes when I try to think about how to describe what it is, precisely, that’s going on in Araya’s video. What is this something that emerges from her reconfiguring of scattered elements that exist at vast distances from each other in the world beyond the frame? I also love the wickedness of the last shot.
Arbeit (Duncan Campbell, 2011)
It was the imperious male voice directly addressing Hans(Tietmeyer, former head of the Deutsche Bundesbankand one of the main economists behind the euro) that first kept me pinned to this work in a basement gallery and makeshift bar in Toronto. I comprehended very little as the film looped round the first time, but felt curious about the choice of an absurdly plummy voice. Also, as always when watching Campbell’s work, I was intrigued by how he combines dramatic strategy with found photographic images and footage. So I watched and watched, in the quietness of a space that was waiting for the night’s party to kick off, until I began to grasp a little of the references from the montage of black and white photographs,and then began to get my head round the big theme of what the EU once promised and what it became.
Madrid 1987 (David Trueba, 2011)
This parable of Spain’s modern political history very astutely uses the formal conceits of a confined space (inside a toilet) and the naked bodies of a man and a girl. The heart of the film is a magnificent line uttered by the woman who embodies a younger generation that must shake off the older disillusioned one that still refuses to exit the scene.
A Ripe Volcano (2011) and Time of the Last Persecution (2012) by Taiki Sakpisit
Taiki Sakpisit is a video artist and film lecturer whose work began to appear a few years ago on the Thai independent cinema and video art scene. His videos are electrifying reminders of how cinema conveys the sensation of transformation through rhythm. Last year I watched Time of the Last Persecution and A Ripe Volcano over and over again, trying to work out what it is that draws me to them. I love the way that the musicality of Time of the Last Persecution has nothing to do with ‘musical accompaniment.’ This assemblage of wild scenes from old Thai mythological films is almost entirely silent. Now, when I read news of Thai politics, stories of events symptomising collective anxiety about the withering of the flesh of a symbolic royal body, the film inside my head shows the imploding of a flimsy interior set of a mythological film in a slow motion swirl. Or I get flashes of an image of a boxing ring where the bodies standing upright all around are suspended in eerie stillness before the eruption. Other outstanding Thai films and videos at this moment tend to allude to the present through durations of drift, inertia, ennui, or hesitation. The ecstatic intensity of Taiki’s work seems to me a truer aesthetic presentation of the mute hope, fear and anticipation in this twilight interregnum in which collective life in Thailand is suspended.
Pleasurable rep viewing in 35mm: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (John Ford, 1962) at the place I will always call the NFT London, and La Notte (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1961) at the Harvard Film Archive.
Video projection impressively done: Normal Love (Jack Smith, 1963) occupying a whole room by itself at MoMA PS1, New York. A few very comfortable cinema seats kept people watching the whole way through.
Two films to watch again many times this year: Post Tenebras Lux (Carlos Reygadas, 2012), Between Two Worlds (Vimukthi Jayasundara, 2010).
This is a frame grab from the Taviani brothers’ Padre Padrone (1977), which I encountered for the first time last year. This scene between a father and a son takes place almost at the end of the film. So much occurs in that split second between a fist being raised, then making as if to come down, but time seems to slow a fraction, and then there is a cut. What comes after the cut is heart stopping. When I look at this image I also think of Bill Douglas’s Trilogy, and the wonderful debut by Wichanon Somumjarn, In April the Following Year, There was a Fire (2012).
In the dark
Pleasure in a dark cavernous space during the Expanded Cinema weekend at Tate's The Tank. A child starts to chant 'light occupations/light occupations/light occupations' as Gill Eatherley's work was being show on the big curved screen.
The Filipino filmmaker Lav Diaz’s digital filmmaking process may be intimate in terms of the size of his cast and crew, and his film fables are relatively cheap to make. But they remain films that need to be shown in a proper cinema auditorium setting, ideally in a well-designed cinema with good projection equipment. Quite wondrously I managed to watch Diaz’s films in two cinemas last year that did a great job of showing them. The excellent projectionists at the Images Toronto festival brought out fully the painterly beauty of Diaz’s Florentina Hubaldo CTE (2012). The Star and Shadow in Newcastle showed Diaz’s Century of Birthing (2011) and Melancholia (2008) with Ben Rivers’ Two Years at Sea (2011). I sat on comfortable old sofas in the back row of this cooperative, self-built cinema and thought what a special thing a film festival is when it is thoughtfully programmed and done on a small scale.
George Clark's audacious Hong Kong Bohemia Programme for the 6th Bangkok Experimental Film Festival showed, almost entirely in silence, nearly two hours of black and white images of Hong Kong from half a century ago. The programming,shot through with a powerfully modernist sensibility, conveyed a sense of complete trust in the audience’s attentive capacity to stay with the silent images. I also loved the fluent shifts in mood, tempo and texture of Shanay Jhaveri’s Questions of Travel programme at the LUX/ICA biennial of moving images.
Former Editor, Projectorhead / Founder, Brokenprojector.com
While the practice of "ranking" the best films of a year is popular with critics and film journals, I never personally understood the meaning behind allotting 'scores' or 'ranks' to film. I have indulged in a critical Top 10 list in the year 2010 but I could neither find conviction nor satisfaction in doing it. So for 2012, I decided to just mention what I thought were nine great films that were released and that I had the pleasure of watching. These are listed in no particular order. I could go ahead and rank them according to which of these I find personally better than the others but I am no celebrated critic nor do I intend to enforce my personal tastes onto others.
I will go one step further and rank them all at the number 1 spot. This will ensure that the films that are mentioned further down the list will also be seen by the reader in the same light as the ones mentioned above. Also mentioned are the names of the director(s) and the country in which the film was made.
1. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan / Turkey)
Ceylan's broadest film in terms of its scope. While Distant (2002) remains his masterpiece, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is his first true epic. One gets the feeling that Ceylan has reached a level in his craft where he has grown beyond his usual semi-autobiographical, small-scale stories and is now able to speak about Turkey's position in the global scale.
The part in the film where the 'search party' takes shelter in a village mayor's home and his daughter brings them tea, with her face lit by the oil lamp on her tray is perhaps one of the most beautiful scenes to have been seen this year.
1. Antiviral (Brandon Cronenberg / Canada)
David Cronenberg's son Brandon easily has the best debut of the year. While it may seem like the son followed in the footsteps of his father, the film manages to take on a style of its own. The younger Cronenberg has his own twisted dreams and a more elegant vision for his dark stories. The questions he is able to ask purely through visual data is impressive and a sign of a promising career ahead for Brandon.
One of the most powerful visual devices in the film is the use of 'clinical whites' in some of the scenes. It creates a sense of sterilization and makes all the bloodshed look disturbingly poetic.
1. The Kid with a Bike (Jean-Pierre Dardenne & Luc Dardenne / Belgium)
One of the most touching films I've seen all year. The Dardennes have claimed that their intention was to structure the story on the lines of a fairytale. The performances, the location and the atmosphere of a Belgian summer all come together in one of the truly great films of the year.
The scene in which the kid goes to meet his estranged father in a restaurant kitchen and tries to extend his time with him by offering to help him stir the sauce is so powerful. It can move a hard man to tears.
1. The We and the I (Michel Gondry / USA)
Words cannot describe what Michel Gondry achieves in this film. Known for his vast explorations into the visual langauge, he goes to new corners and comes up with interesting visual techniques to deliver a truly original film. The entire film is set on a bus making its way through New York City and it happens to be the last day of school. Split into three parts, the film makes use of fantastical flashbacks, iPhone footage, trash talking, traffic jams and high school teen spirit.
Gondry tries this fantastic technique in a part of the film where some characters have left the bus during a traffic jam to quickly grab a few slices of pizza. We see the characters in the bus texting them on their phones and the bus windows behind them show us what the other characters are doing the pizzeria.
1. Like Someone in Love (Abbas Kiarostami / Japan)
A Kiarostami film set in Japan is bound to be a work of interest. The film is remarkable in the fact that even though it is set in Japan and you are watching Japanese actors speak their dialogues in Japanese, you can almost always imagine the same action being done in Iran and with Iranian actors speaking Farsi. In saying that, one must not go down the stereotypical route of examining a filmmaker's work by his nationality, let alone the work of a master of Kiarostami's stature. One must recognize the truly global nature of the Kiarostami's stories instead.
Ryo Kase, the great Japanese actor is very interesting to watch. This is indeed, the first of two films that he is featured in that appear on this list. He is one to keep an eye out for in the coming years.
1. Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson / USA)
Wes Anderson's new direction doesn't deviate much from his uniquely bizarre style of humour. After a couple of really large projects, one is relieved to find him return to a smaller scale and a more personal story.
There are many great little moments in the film and the dexterity with which Anderson is able to practise his style of direction gives an impression of a director who is maturing and at the same time growing towards newer directions.
1. Cloud Atlas (Lana Wachowski, Andy Wachowski & Tom Tykwer / USA)
The collaborative effort between the Wachowski siblings and the graet Tom Tykwer turned out to be one of the more difficult films of the year to watch. The film follows several narrative threads, intercutting them over poetic narration and spanning a time frame from the fifteenth century to the far future. The great ensemble cast provides great performances in multiple roles, the most impressive turns coming from Ben Whishaw and Hugh Grant.
1. Outrage Beyond (Takeshi Kitano / Japan)
The follow up to Kitano's torture thriller Outrage is surprisingly less on blood and deep in narrative quality. The story is a political thriller and this time, the violence is in the decisions the characters make rather than the way in which they kill each other. Kitano returns as the aging Yakuza heavyweight Otomo and Ryo Kase reprises his role as the ferocious Ishihara.
The most shocking scene of the film is the part where Ishihara (Ryo Kase's character) is tied to a comfortable chair in the middle of a baseball diamond and a pitching machine launches balls right at his face.
1. Killing Them Softly (Andrew Dominik / USA) Andrew Dominik's third feature film in twelve years shows a surprisingly mature affort from him. The usual trend among young directors is to go higher budget in their third film, especially if your first film is a cult hit and your second film is 'The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford'. Dominik, on the other hand cuts it down to size and delivers a no-nonsense gangster piece.
Brad Pitt's turn as Cogan is an impressive turn. Within a limited scale, he is able to fill up to the corners and is able to keep up an impressive, energetic performance throughout the course of the film. Scoot McNairy, the mumblecore actor moves onto an impressive performance of his own in this film.
Projectorhead, La Vie Est Cine
This year was a tremendously rewarding year in films for me. Not only did I watch a lot of great films, I also started making films in a manner that gave expression to my ideas to a very satisfactory extent. Re-watching some of my favourite filmmakers like David Cronenberg, David Lynch, Claire Denis, Quentin Tarantino, Philippe Garrel, Wim Wenders, Antonioni et al, I found thorough reaffirmation in each of their genius.
This was also the year when I finally shed all of my ambiguity towards short films, and decided to count them as singular entities that are as important as feature length films. Significant in my decision to do so, were the short films of Peter Tscherkassky, Hollis Frampton, and the Brothers Quay, among others.
The summer of 2012 was memorable for me, in many ways. That was the time when I gained a rare stature of having watched the entire available filmography of Alfred Hitchcock. Obviously, the master was by no means a discovery, but watching all of his films and subsequently tracing his aesthetic and narrative developments made me thoroughly convinced that, throughout his life, Hitch remained a true experimental filmmaker. Besides, finding his meticulous craftsmanship in some of his underrated films like I Confess, and Juno and the Paycock were as rewarding experiences as any.
A discovery of sorts was the duo of ‘pure directors’ from Hollywood, who cohesively combine a range of influences to produce their own authorial mark on each of their films, and their authority, is evident, purely in the Cinematic techniques that they employ, and hardly has to do with the theatrical aspects like acting. In so far, both these filmmakers qualify as Bressonian makers of Cinema, instead of the ‘filmed-plays’ that are normative. These filmmakers, Otto Preminger, and Brian DePalma, left an indelible mark on my growth as a film-watcher as well as a filmmaker. The amount of film grammar that the duo exhausts between them is just fantastic.
The second half of the year featured a very important decision on my behalf: I joined MUBI, the online Cinephile website. The extensive amount of underrated and rare films that were available to me makes me lament the fact that I had not joined the site much, much before.
Towards the end of the year, I devoted my time towards Hollywood classics; while most of them were unusually dull and indulgent in hokey liberal politics, I found some genuinely great films, amongst them being the films of Anatole Litvak and Billy Wilder.
Favourite films of 2012
2012, as has been a rather unified critical consensus, was a relatively bad year for films, with very few ‘great’ films releasing. It especially fades down in comparison to 2011, which had a glorious set of films releasing, including many made by the usually reliable auteurs. That being said, it was a remarkable year in terms of film distributions theatrically and/or on DVDs, with a very extensive set of films getting to be well known, amongst critical fraternity, not merely because of selective word-of-mouth, but due to many of the critics having watched most of the films. Consequently, it resulted in my own extensive viewing of 2012 titles, as and when they became available, online.
The following set of films, I found to be amongst the better from 2012, even though I didn’t absolutely love each of them. The order is that in which I watched them in 2012 and beyond, and not necessarily based on merit-
1. Ex Press/ Jet Leyco
2. Cosmopolis / David Cronenberg
3. Cabin in the Woods / Joss Whedon
4. Holy Motors / Leos Carax
5. Tabu / Miguel Gomes
6. Berberian Sound Studio / Peter Strickland
7. The Master / Paul Thomas Anderson
Notable Misses: In the Fog (Serhiy Lozhnitsa), Like Someone in Love (Kiarostami), Night Across the Street (Raul Ruiz), Leviathan (Castaing-Taylor, Paravel), Post Tenebres Lux (Reygadas), Gebo and the Shadow (de Oliveira), Passion (Brian DePalma), Neighbouring Sounds (Kleber Mendonca Filho), Dredd (Pete Travis), Antiviral (Brandon Cronenberg), Final Cut: Ladies and Gentlemen (Gyorgi Palfi).
Favorites from films seen in 2012: First time
I watched 940 films in 2012; about 200 or so out of these being shorts, and several being re-watches. Since it will be incredibly long, and strenuous to account for each of them, I have limited myself to 40 films out of those, that I deem ‘masterpieces’ in some context, which I watched for the first time, in 2012. While each of these films deserves, at least a detailed essay on it, I have only included remarks on selected films, for the sake of brevity:
1. Sleeping Beauty / Julia Leigh / 2011 The pervasive blow of the brutal psychosexual games that the rich indulge at the cost of the film’s Sleeping Beauty is felt midway through the film, when, in her personal space, where she instinctively sleeps naked, she is unable to do so anymore and goes to wear her underwears before going back to sleep. The rather complex political coda, posited in the film’s seemingly ambiguous ellipses, is materialized brilliantly without a single dialogue; filmmaking at its best
2. In the City of Sylvia / Jose Luis Guerin / 2007
3. Nostalgia for the Light / Patricio Guzman / 2010
4. La Jetee / Chris Marker / 1962
It was absurdly unfortunate that I watched Marker’s most well known film for the first time, a few months before he would die. But maybe, Marker, who maintained a spectral presence even when he was alive, defies the very concept of a physical/material death, just as his dense, time-warping narrative in La Jetee
5. L’Apollonide / Bertrand Bonello / 2011
Bonello continues his exploration of pure physicality of the human body with this masterpiece-which is, judging by its Cinematic historic scope, by far the greatest film of this decade -where he inverts the legacy of Cinema’s censure of the female and the feminine, with an elegiac poignancy and aesthetic richness, that ensures his place in the canon, in the future years
6. The State of Things / Wim Wenders / 1982
7. Xich Lo / Tran Anh Hung / 1995
8. I Can’t Sleep / Claire Denis / 1994
In a film about immigrant experiences in France, we are treated with a plethora of perplexing Camera and editing choices that firmly placate us, the audience, very much as ‘outsiders’ within the universe of the film. Nobody-bar none-employs the Camera’s subjective gaze with such expertise and panache as Claire Denis does, effortlessly.
9. Distant Voices, Still Lives / Terence Davies / 1988
10. Videodrome / David Cronenberg / 1983
11. Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors / Sergei Parajanov / 1965
12. Out 1 / Jacques Rivette / 1971
In being the coolest film ever made; in presenting the post May’68 paranoia with an impossibly forceful accuracy; in anticipating and exhausting the philosophical turmoil and inversion that happened during and after; in redefining forever, what it means ‘to film’; Out 1 is a stunning piece of art, that transcends any length of critical discursivity, except, perhaps, of having relished in the genius of the act of watching it, itself.
13. Once Upon a Time in the West / Sergio Leone / 1968
America Is Deconstruction, said Jacques Derrida, circa Leone’s epic; an epic which he constructs entirely from bricolaging fragments of heroic pathos from classic westerns and the Ford-esque optimism about the ‘land of the free, and the home of the brave’. In doing so, Leone gives us an America, that is more personal and magnificent than many that had passed before it.
14. Woman in the Dunes / Hiroshi Teshigahara / 1964
15. Outer Space / Peter Tscherkassky / 2000
The ‘Outer space’ is inside: the frame(s), the celluloid strip, Cinema itself...and Barbara Hershey is in far greater trouble than she was in the ‘original’ film, which Tscherkassky exhausts here.
16. Foreign Correspondent / Alfred Hitchcock / 1940
In the starting of the film, the protagonist makes a comment about Hitler that seems to be characteristic of the Bourgeois class which loathed politics in a self-righteous manner, and maintained a safe ‘distance’ from it. What follows, is a rite of passage, a complex Ulyssian journey where the ‘hero’ finds his personal fate terribly tied to the political, and in a manner that a lack of complicity simply will not do. This fantastic film anticipates the biggest event of the twentieth century, the Second World War, in a manner that only the Genius of Hitch can envision.
17. Magellan: at the Gates of Death, Part 1, the Red Gate I, 0 / Hollis Frampton / 1976
Partly made as a reaction to Brakhage’s subjective gaze in The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes, this very short film deconstructs the death-ness of dying in a playful manner that is both incredibly bold in its bravura, and exceptionally fantastic in its execution. Probably the most philosophically profound four minutes that one can ever spend.
18. Naruto Shippuden: Season 1-10 / Mashashi Kishimoto/(2007-)
The Premise is simple. Uzumaki Naruto uses his Ninjutsu techniques-central to all of them being, his basic shadow clone technique; a technique through whose perfection, one can create multiple illusions of oneself, in a manner that the distinction between the ‘real’ and the shadow are absolved-to accomplish his goal. But therein lies the pathos: his ‘goal’ this time is to uphold the ‘Konoha’ traditions-traditions that are revealed to us, early on, to be problematically steeped in bloodshed and inevitable political manoeuvres unlike the idealist Naruto would like to believe-whilst trying to stop his best friend Sasuke from exacting revenge on Konoha. Never have the boundaries between good and evil, and all accompanying dualities been more complicated, in a show conventionally marketed for children. Featuring one of the most profoundly moving debates about Fascism, between Pain and Naruto, the creators clearly want to engage the young audience with the political problematic head-on, unlike what our ‘good old’ social apparatuses would have us believe.
19. Arrebato / Ivan Zulueta / 1980
20. Schwechater / Peter Kubelka / 1958
21. Klute / Alan Pakula / 1971
22. L’Ange / Patrick Bokanowski / 1983
23. Heimat / Edgar Reitz / 1984
24. The Big Swallow / James Williamson / 1901
A meditation on the (im)possibility of Cinema transcending the material, human presence both as a subject and an object.
25. Transferimento di Modulazione / Piero Bargellini /1969
Bargellini’s experimental film is in effect, a pornographic clip. But the film is developed onto a Reel made out of special chemicals that ‘destroy’ the film image each time it is played. Difficult questions about the materiality of film emerge, especially since, now we see the film in a digital version that defies the entire destructibility of the film. More importantly, the conventional roles of the censoring authority and the ‘voyeuristic’ audience are inverted, as the very act of watching pornography becomes a mode of destroying it.
26. The Terrorizers / Edward Yang /1986
27. Calamari Union / Aki Kaurismaki /1985
28. Stolen Death / Nyrki Tapiovaara / 1938
Easily one of the greatest Noir films ever made, it is remarkable how this one has eluded critical attention, and subsequent regal treatment, for so long.
29. Film ist a Girl and a Gun / Gustav Deutsch / 2009
30. Platform / Jia Zhangke / 2000
31. Sleep Furiously / Gideon Koppel / 2008
32. Femme Fatale / Brian De Palma / 2002
33. L’Amour Fou / Jacques Rivette / 1969
34. Eyes without a Face / Georges Franju / 1960
35. Taris / Jean Vigo / 1931
A clear predecessor to Bressonian tonality and aesthetic rigour of shooting the human body, and its parts as something greater than the whole and, to me, Vigo’s true masterpiece.
36. Dressed to Kill / Brian De Palma / 1980
37. The External World / David O’Reilly / 2010
Pikachu wearing the Mickey Mouse mask; one cultural icon, symptomatic of the new 'global' economy, masquerading as another, symptomatic of the old capitalist utopia of USA, the Disneyland.
38. The Snake Pit / Anotole Litvak / 1948
39. Sunset Boulevard / Billy Wilder / 1950
40. Creation de la Serpentine / Segundo de Chomon / 1908
After a series of dull Hollywood classics on 31st December, I decided to watch one from the crazy Spaniard, who, just as always is the case, did not disappoint. Remarkably, in this film, Chomon takes the Serpentine Dance-which was already used in some way by all the major filmmakers back then-as a grammatical point, which he exhausts, and even deconstructs. At a time when Cinema was only at its infancy, and the possibilities of unique images seemed endless, only the bizarre madness of Chomon could have ‘realized’ something as futuristic and bold, as this.
2012 witnessed an incredible number of deaths within the film community, including many important critics and filmmakers-sometimes, too important, (Tonino Guerra, a long time favourite springs to mind)-whose importance, and influence in the Cinematic legacy were gauged, particularly by me, only after their death. I wish I could’ve become a Chris Marker fan while he was alive...
The low-light of the year, for me, would have to be, a ridiculous incident during the screening of Cosmic Sex-a ridiculous film, in itself-at the OSIAN Cinefan Film Festival in Delhi. Roughly 10 minutes into the film, in a filled theatre(partly due to word of mouth, partly due to the suddenly liberate intellectuals in/of the post Gandu ‘movement’), the film is stopped, and the lights go on. An old lady, presumably a big shot ‘guest’ is escorted into the auditorium; she takes her time, walks slowly, unbothered by the occasional hisses and confusion within the audience, and screams out loud for lights to be lit across her way, so that she can find her seat. After this facade is over, in 10 minutes or so, the film screening resumes begins. A film that was (mistakenly) introduced as a tremendous event in Indian Art Cinema(obviously, Cinema is itself not an artform in India, and we have to prefix ‘art’ in special cases, wherever applicable), and a people comprising of over 1500, eagerly witnessing this film is clearly secondary to a certain person being seated comfortably. Clearly, we have our priorities etched out.
On a positive and somewhat enlightening note, a screening of the Brothers Quay film, Street of Crocodiles, conducted by me as a part of our college’s film society auditions yielded unusually positive response as a group of aspiring filmmakers, mostly in their late teens and having seen only a certain amount of Hollywood films, participated actively in a very comprehensive discussion about Street of Crocodiles’ themes and aesthetic codas. All they needed was a ‘little push’. A detailed report on the same has been published on the previous issue of Projectorhead.
Few weeks after OSIANs, Anuj told me about the abysmal state of film preservation in India that has suddenly become evident with the Films Division realizing the need to preserve films, to celebrate a centenary of Indian Cinema. Approximately 5000 films are permanently lost; the sheer magnitude of this number could hold within itself, the entire film history and/or industries of many smaller nations. Normally, I pretend to not give a damn about Indian films-at least, the popular preconception of it-but the sheer possibility of so many alternate Cinematic realities and legacies and histories, which could have yielded an altogether different India than what we see today, make me suffer tremendously.
A Single Image
This is one image that has haunted me, for several years, and continues to do so. Not only do the red hued wall, the lit lamp, the stubbed cigarettes, and the telephone, initiate the complex interlinked web of causality and Neo-noir iconography of the film, they also provide a possibility of ‘solving’ the dream-like mystery of the (non)narrative, a possibility that merely encompasses substitution of one set of signifiers with another in our quest for closure, and could very well be as disorienting as the previous lack of clues. But then, therein lies the mastery of Mulholland Drive: in its epistemological indecipherability.
NATHANIEL DRAKE CARLSON
Cineaste, Offscreen, Popmatters, Ecstatic, Pinnland Empire
Films of the Year
We Need to Talk About Kevin (Ramsay)--Ramsay's best film to date though not a perfect one and the way in which it is not so is what is especially interesting about it. Rarely have I ever seen a picture so utterly reliant on its calibration of details and elements. Rarely has one pitched so precariously on the perceived success or failure of individual decisions within scenes. It rises and falls continually on a moment by moment basis.
Shame (McQueen)--Ambiguity in extremis which continually risks a debilitating level of opacity that would render all Fassbender's fine work as the mere enactment of an idea of personal tragedy. Big Operatic Moments co-exist with a study in geometric minimalism leading to a unique frustration and alienation that co-exists with emotional catharsis. "Eventually the cynicism is turning into awe."
Elite Squad 2 (Padilha)-- A superb extension of Padilha's brilliant original. This time the focus is less on the actions of the militaristic BOPE task force and more on a broader societal view. As such what was implicit in the first film (I wouldn't exactly call it subtext) is explicitly addressed here--namely the issue of the heroically cast team leader Nascimento's fidelity to fascism. Normally that kind of direct address might be a bad move, but not here as Padilha uses it as an opportunity to expand the reach of his depiction of corruption. He remains profoundly sympathetic to Nascimento but more than ever the perspective of that character is seen as ultimately inadequate, insufficent to ever fully deal with the extent of the problem. In fact, ES2 courts despair by so thoroughly suggesting an entrenched, pervasive corruption, intertwined inexorably into the fabric of society. Having said all that, the eventual reconciliation between Nascimento's unyielding hard line and the film's representative of humanism is as convincing as it is earned. Perhaps that is the film's point: that one type of response is simply not enough. The final moments also act as the inverse tone wise to the final moments of the first film without being any kind of recantation. Still, an appreciated note of hope and love in the midst of such a bleak overview.
The Master (Anderson)--As great, if not even greater an accomplishment than Anderson's '07 masterpiece, There Will Be Blood. Certainly his technical mastery here secures for him a place in the pantheon of all time greats. For me the structural component is of the most interest as it recalls the significant, though under discussed, achievement of Malick's Tree of Life: an extremely careful, precise selection of images and associations designed to offer up the most possibilities at all times. In this film so much is implied exactly so as to indicate that it is we who limit ourselves. That's the nature of the ambiguity here. Anderson's work reminds us what we've been missing with so many exercises in either hollow style or pure mechanics. His cinema reunites the refinements of style and technique to the vast uncharted depths of profound content.
Prometheus (Scott)--The bleakest of initial disappointments has turned gradually into the most marginal of possibilities. I am more and more convinced that the only way this picture is salvageable is if it is understood as a B movie, high-gloss pulp. On that level it may in fact work very well. It does not and cannot work in any other way. But it's the blurred lines of distinction on display here that continue to nag and prove troublesome--the fact that it is difficult to entirely convince oneself that that is what was meant and in this case the intention is important as the question of it constantly intrudes or distracts.
The Dark Knight Rises (Nolan)--Nolan's finale is problematic to be sure but those problems, that tension, is where much of what is most fasciating here is located. Specifically, the ever present, though not overly pronounced efforts to naturalize mythology--a modernist move that renders up a conflicting set of interests that can never be entirely adequately reconciled. Nolan's much vaunted "realism" ends up undermined by the very mythic tropes it seeks to undermine. A lumbering, even utilitarian, beast of a picture but for once those qualities can be received as positive and appropriate.
Sound of My Voice (Batmanglij)--In this film along with Another Earth, Brit Marling has emerged as an actress and creative talent to watch. Her collaboration with Batmanglij here is a triumph of sustained and productively deployed ambiguity. It doesn't traffic in the kind of frustration we get from Shame but rather a liberating speculation. Totally beguiling.
Chronicle (Trank)--Simple and direct, Chronicle is powerfully effective and even genuinely moving. But what's best about it is that fact that it is so clear, clean and precise in its intents and emotional affect. The seeming gimmick of the DV recording throughout is sustained quite well and almost never distracting. There are moments of exceptionally subtle, calibrated detail in which the aesthetic effects of the film as drama sync up beautifully with the implied subconscious psychology that always informs subjective POV material but generally goes unacknowledged. Also, a film informed by a unique moral seriousness and an interest in the development of its characters which is all too rare for this genre.
Lawless (Hillcoat)--Though dismissed by many as an overblown melodrama, Hillcoat's picture is true to its genre sources but, beyond that, a perceptive portrait of how and why men begin to believe in their own myth and by doing so perpetuate it. The ending provides an understated irony to put that point in perspective.
Haywire (Soderbergh)--A terrific entertainment; both bold and brash but at the same time subversive of our familiarity with convention and conventional form (I thought of Ferrara's New Rose Hotel a couple of times). Also remarkable for its handling of gender as an issue by not making it an issue at all.
Savages (Stone)--Stone's powerhouse aesthetics at the service of what may appear initially to be just another trite shock cinema thriller. But a closer examination reveals an astute development of many of his signature themes with a great ending which underlines that. It is ultimately a recognition of the dramatic and imaginative potential that are contained within the most banal seeming of lives.
Samsara (Fricke)--Years in the making, this follow up to Baraka is hugely impressive and powerful as spectacle but often falters from being too heavy handed and obvious in its didactic intent to be as effective as it should be. In this case, a lack of clarity would be better. The polemical use of the images works but Fricke could and probably should transcend that given all his announced near cosmic intentions. That's why the more obtuse connections and singular images go so much further. This technique (initiated more or less by Reggio with the Qatsi films) has finally managed to take hold of the art house's rhetorical discourse with Malick, Denis and now PT Anderson perfecting a language of imagery with almost unlimited resonance. In a way they have perhaps understood the possibilities of the technique better than those who established it.
4:44 (Ferrara)--A film of rare and genuine nobility as well as grace. I certainly prefer it by far to Trier's take on the subject.
W.E. (Madonna)--For me easily the most underrated picture of the last several years. Savvy and sublime, it's also something that seems almost wholly new, a composite creation from a raft of influences both stylistic and thematic. Sure handed and deft in its deployment of rich ironies, Madonna's film will eventually benefit much from a sustained and more considered re-evaluation.
The Deep Blue Sea (Davies)--A truly welcome return to fiction filmmaking by Terence Davies who has been absent for far too long. His comfortable mastery of the medium is assured however and in continuity with all that has come before. His success is reliant upon the fact that he is so careful and so attentive to all the little accumulating details rather than simply the broad and sweeping scope of feelings. His emotional tidal wave hits so squarely and undeniably for that very reason. It can't be backed away from and can't be seen as gratuitous. The great poignancy of this material affects everyone as it exposes everyone at their most flailing, vulnerable and desperate. Its melodrama aspiring to vast emotional heights but also depths, with an equal regard for taking those exposed emotional states seriously as the product of complex personal and social circumstances.
War Horse (Spielberg)--Another terribly underrated film for a host of reasons, though the clearest one would seem to be the lack of sympathy in much of the "sophisticated" cinema audience for the kind of classic melodrama Spielberg is making here and has quite frankly perfected here. It's true that his usual technique can often be self-defeating as it can be suffocating and overly restrictive but this is one of the best examples of it as pure and direct appeal, utterly unapologetic and unqualified by any distanced remove. This is narrative drama as rejection of all contemporary emotional denial or obfuscation but one also marked by subtler, more finely wrought distinctions.
The finds of the year were threefold:
Asiel Norton's 2009 Redland is one of the greatest directorial debuts in recent memory. After years of only festival play it was finally released on DVD by Indiepix. Though ostensibly about a destitiute family in the country wilds of northern California weathering The Great Depression and the daughter's coming-of-age the plot is spare and intentionally oblique. It functions more as expressive surface of subterranean, less clearly observed, mechanics. And as such Redland is one of the very finest evocations of the dreamstate, with the experience of the thing utterly paramount.
Henry Jaglom's 1971 film A Safe Place is another of these great directorial debuts. Resembling the ultra fragmented work of Nic Roeg or Dennis Potter's self directed efforts (especially Blackeyes) it too presents a model of crystalline ambiguity. It's a staggering triumph of the vague and a genuinely fragile, diaphanous thing. If almost anybody else made this we would have gotten a clear "pay off", some kind of concession to a concrete answer. But Jaglom never does that; he gives you all you need to make some speculative narrative sense of it which should be enough. Young filmmakers ought to take a look at this in order to find some direction through the impasse at which we are currently stuck.
The other find of the year was Lee Katzin's picture Le Mans, also from 1971, an extraordinary masterpiece of captured, flowing ambient rhythms. As with Michael Mann's Ali, it privileges the existential purity of its narrative and the potential of sports to be existential experience. But it goes beyond that to emphasize that paradox of the uniquely skilled individual within a team, within a context. And as with much of Mann's later work, the individual, however important and vital, is also inevitably background to the broad sweep of the larger canvas, a detail within the whole. Like Gordon/Parreno's Zidane, Le Mans shifts the paradigm we use as spectators of sports films from active engagement to an ethereal meditation. Racing then as an elegant spectacle and display of refined skill rather than a pure means to a triumphalist end.
2012 was also a year bracketed by the tragic loss of a great artist (Theo Angelopoulos) and the near miraculous perpetuation of another (Manoel de Oliveira). Let it never be said that fate does not give with one hand while taking with another.
A Single Image
Though there are innumerable sublime possibilities for "image of the year", I find myself gravitating back perhaps appropriately to the far from sublime. Specifically I think if any image seemed to dominate and define our time it would be that of the "reality" star's posturing stance. Whether it be HGTV or A & E, Lifetime or TLC, American cable networks were hosts to this most dominant advertising image, generally taking the form of either men with arms folded or women with chests thrust out. In either case the pose is always mock defiant but confrontational and even absurdly assertive. The virtual ubiquity of this image, its utter omnipresence, is enough to make it indelible. But I suspect it goes beyond just the indifferent laziness of an advertising meme and suggests something about who we are and what we want to believe. Because this is the canonization of the fragmented, the marginal and banal made heroic. But more than that, it's a mythic heroicizing which, by virtue of its sheer ubiquity, can only be understood as projected upon rather than arising from within specific and unique circumstances. The fragmentation goes further than that of a divided culture or splintered society; it's revealed as foundational, fundamental, in the generic application of symbolism that used to be understood as the distinctive expression of something organic and fully integrated.
On a more obviously personal note, I want to take the opportunity to emphasize my own sense of rather profound satisfaction with the outcome of the most recent film I collaborated on with the film artist Jay Mcroy, Found : Missing. This was no budget filmmaking at its most tenuous and I was struck, even almost overwhelmed by the degree to which Jay was able to render something fragile and finely textured from the initial materials. I am willing to court the risk of too much self-promotion here because finally what I felt was most remarkable about the film had nothing to do with me at all and that has to be the highest kind of genuine praise a dedicated collaborator could make.
Unsuprisingly, I watched the most films I had ever watched in a single year in 2012. For me, this trend has been continuing on for the past several years. Now that I have access to a Netflix account and am surrounded by film students and film professors with gargantuan DVD collections, and of course the Pennsylvania State University stash of great titles is a site to behold. From this alone I managed to do something I’ve wanted to do for so long: Have a Terrence Malick movie marathon with my friends. We literally set 5 days where each day we watched 1 Malick film, and did so in chronological order, from Badlands to Tree of Life. It was one of the coolest things ever, because watching the entire filmography of a single filmmaker is near impossible to accomplish in a reasonable amount of time, but Malick was perfect because all his films are great and he has few enough of them to actually watch 1 day after another.
I saw a lot of films in theatres I never thought I would see, like P.T. Anderson’s The Master and Mike Birbiglia and Seth Barish’s Sleepwalk with Me. I’m quite proud of myself for having seen these in a theatre because as a college student, you’re always finding ways to save a few bucks and shelling out $8 for movies that aren’t your blockbuster Hollywood 3D IMAX spectacles is something you’d definitely think long and hard about before doing.
I love Oscar season. A lot of people have problems with the Academy and they always seem to alienate people, from the mainstream movie goers who whine about their favorite superhero flick not getting enough praise to the ‘holier-than-thou’ critic/analysts who scoff at the AMPAS selections and blurt out a random, obscure title from Bulgaria which was ‘a misunderstood masterpiece’. I get all that, but the Oscars to me are like the Superbowl. Even when I don’t have my favorite team playing (or in this case my favorite film), I will still watch it for the suspense, the speeches, the tears, the glory and the glitz. You can say in that regard, Hollywood conducts, directs and produces the Oscars the same way they would produce a James Cameron film. No matter what, I know I’m going to have a good time for those 3 ½ hours. This year’s Oscar season, and all the 2012 films that led up to it, is special. This is one of the first years in a long time (probably since 2003) that almost all of the Oscar Best Pic nominees were at least somewhat popular with audiences (of course, barring the two darkhorses Amour and Beasts of the Southern Wild). You had a Tarantino film, a Spielberg film, a Ben Affleck film, a popular rom-com with superstar actors, a musical-spectacle that left everybody and their mother in tears, a CGI-filled adventure based on a famous book, and the surprisingly wildly popular and wildly controversial tale of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. Almost every movie nominated this year did well in theatres and when you mention any of those films, you’re more than likely going to get a response. That hasn’t happened for years at the Oscars and now that it has, I can conclude without hesitation that in 2012, Hollywood really did what it was born to do… make entertaining movies that have superb artistic merit to justify their creation.
Favorite Films of 2012
1. Lincoln (Steven Spielberg)
2. The Master (P.T. Anderson)
3. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Peter Jackson)
4. Frankenweenie (Tim Burton)
5. Bully (Lee Hirsch)
2012, as I stated before, was one of the best years Hollywood has had in a long time in terms of delivering films that combined art and entertainment beautifully (which is, essentially the mantra of Hollywood). I have to say far and away, Lincoln was the best of this year and I hold Spielberg, as an unashamed fanboy, to the highest standard and vow to see every one of his movies in theatres. Lincoln did not disappoint. Frankenweenie might be one of Tim Burton’s best. I always believed Burton’s visions are always more realized and masterfully crafted in animation than they ever are in live action. The Hobbit was simply for the sake of my love for Tolkien. The Master was the most complex of the year, and left me pondering much more than any other film this year. Bully was a superb documentary, and I always make it a point to include docs in on the discussion of ‘best films’ because they are a good view of the ‘other side of filmmaking’.
Discoveries of 2012
Happiness & Life During Wartime / Todd Solondz / 1999 & 2009
A concious 2 part film compilation by Todd Solondz is very unique and very real. Happiness was the clear better of the two, featuring shockingly raw performances and featuring characters who are some of the most dispicable, hopeless, filthy and downright pathetic bunch you will find on a cinema screen… but that essentially is what makes them so connectable and what makes the film such a thought-provoking experience. Life During Wartime on the other hand, didn’t have the same authenticity of Happiness, and the idea of using totally different actors to play the same parts I believe was a terrible miscalculation.
Badlands / Terrence Malick / 1973
While there isn’t much to note on the story or the characters, as most of them are but recreations of cinema’s past screen-stealers, the most important thing to take away from Badlands is that it is about a filmmaker taking the first step to becoming a master, and for a person as mysterious and enigmatic as Terrence Malick, Badlands is the perfect place to discover the origin of the myth.
Higher Learning / John Singleton / 1995
What Singleton does best, is juxtaposition and banner-waving. Much of Singleton’s narratives rely heavily on the use of street signs and campaign posters and notices. In Boyz ‘N Tha Hood, Singleton’s masterpiece, the first shot you see is the camera coming to a crashing halt at a stop sign… the next, a group of black children staring at a Ronald Reagan poster with bullet-holes in it. Images are the most powerful influences in our society because the way something is represented is what we automatically take to be true. There is no place more volatile in its influence over a population than a college campus, which is the center of this Singleton film… so it’s confounding why Singleton abandoned his craft of stark imagery for a film consisting of cliché, motivational blabbering.
The Sound of Insects / Pete Liechti / 2009
The fascinating experimental documentary The Sound of Insects reveals one man’s brave and torturous attempt to examine the death of the human body through first-hand encounter through his day by day agonizing journal entries. The combination of a haunting soundtrack with disturbing imagery made the film a strange mix between a Terrence Malick movie and a Maya Deren experimental picture… a not-so-easy-to-forget viewing experience. It is something which would shake the average viewer who most likely has not experienced death so close or so honest.
Dark Days / Mark Singer / 2002
Mark Singer, a young Brit who relocated to Manhattan found out from word on the street of an urban tale of ‘tunnel people’ who inhabited the darkest corners of the NY underground train system. Dark Days is an unforgettable and searing encounter with human beings living in conditions none of us could even dream of spending a day in. That Dark Days helped bring hundreds of ‘tunnel people’ to the surface in clean, well-kept apartments, and helped them get jobs and an education is something monumental, because essentially, a documentary’s ultimate goal should be to make a change in the world of its subject matter.
Days of Heaven / Terrence Malick / 1979
The reason Days of Heaven is so pinnacle in this is because it’s the first movie which extensively used Malick’s two greatest assets of filmmaking: voice-overs and powerpoint presentation style cinematography. While Badlands was Malick using what he learned and was inspired by on film, Days of Heaven was a Malick ready to make his own mark on the cinema world. Much of the style that we know from Malick today was actually spawned through production budget shortages. Days of Heaven started with a lot of dialogue and a swirling story, but because of the time and money restrictions Malick was forced to chop half the film away. Not being satisfied with a 40 minute film, he added close to an hour of nature shots with the backdrop of a girls voice providing introspective narration. Thus, the Malickian style of cinema was born.
Cul-de-Sac / Roman Polanski / 1966
The odds and ends of Cul-de-Sac are there to say more about the ridiculousness of a psychologically manipulative situation (a hostage crisis is a hell of a mind-warper) than it does about the actual psychological effects behind it. A great filmmaker like Polanski knows that creating the best character study comes from dissecting it’s absurdity and what better way to do it than 3 bumbling idiots quarreling around in a castle?
Enter the Void / Gaspar Noe / 2009
The best thing about interpretive cinematic offerings is that despite a director’s certain vision for what the ‘meaning’ might be, that doesn’t mean that it is a finite conclusion of the implications of it’s narrative; essentially, that’s why they are called interpretive. Noe’s Enter the Void is extraordinary because it is the quintessential interpretive modern narrative that can take on a different life from each person who sees it, just like a soul can take on a different life for each body it may inhabit.
Once Upon a Time in the West / Sergio Leone / 1968
Leone’s transformation of the American hero resonates even today, and it was a case of hard work and true brilliance of a man who really understood what cinema was about, because to Leone, homage and tribute did not mean theft and forgery but revision and decoration… it was not a case of laziness, but one of dedication and selfless ambition.
Moments of Cinema
Watching Lincoln in the theatre was somewhat of a watershed moment for me. Lincoln was special to me because it signified Spielberg’s return to his heyday of late-70’s to 90’s filmmaking, where he was so consistent and embodied a painfully hopeful view on the world in a time where many filmmakers were making much darker and depressing films. Lincoln doesn’t get carried away with any sentimentality or melodrama, it provides a feeling of the genuine human heart the 16th president had for all man, and a steady conviction to keep the country that he loved, in tact. Watching a Spielberg movie on TV or on a DVD is great, but still nothing beats watching it in theatres. So, if you missed Lincoln, you missed a fantastic opportunity to see the greatest post-1960 American director’s work on the silver screen. The Dark Knight-trilogy is only the second trilogy I’ve watched completely in the movie theatre (the first being Lord of the Rings). Needless to say, it was a great ride. As much as I wished TDKR was better, it still provided a fantastic ending to the best superhero series of films I’ve ever seen and a feat which will be very hard to match, although Man of Steel looks fantastic…. which brings me to… Is it just me or is the teaser and feature length trailer for Man of Steel better than any trailer I’ve ever seen for a movie in the 21st century? Saw it in theatres during the screening of The Dark Knight Rises and honestly, my hair stands up and I get this ridiculous shiver everytime I watch them. The music, visuals and full composition of the ads for this movie are just unbelievable and it makes me extremely excited, but also, extremely cautious because for a movie to live up to trailers that are this good is a difficult thing to do. Discovering the Criterion Collection was one of the best things that has ever happened to me. I knew about it for years, but this year is the first time I actually went ahead and made the effort to research, select and buy Criterion DVD’s or see them online on hulu.com. I saw some brilliant titles including but not limited to Cul-de-Sac (Polanski, 1966), Solyaris (Tarkovsky, 1971), In the Mood for Love (Wong, 2002) and Fat Girl (Breillat, 2001). I hope to keep on collection the DVD’s and making a great collection for myself of classics that are remastered by the group.
Pertinent Images: The Glasshouse
Spione (1928) and Sherlock Jr. (1924) were both screened as part of retrospectives of the work of their respective makers organized by Projectorhead’s curatorial sister, Lightcube Film Society, in New Delhi, in June – September 2012 and December 2012 respectively.
In both of Fritz Lang’s Spione (1928) and in Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. (1924), a similar trick is employed to elaborate on the full extent of an in-progress conspiracy. The walls of a container (the vase in the first case, a house in the second) are for a second, made transparent so as to reveal the contents inside. Clearly, in the case of Lang’s film, this is achieved through a simple superimposition of the image of the transmitter over the surface of the vase, while in the Keaton, the set-designer and his assistants dislodged one cardboard wall from the structure.
The narrative context of both the sets of images is different, however. This difference is relevant in a larger discussion of the respective bodies of work of the two cine-masters: in the former, the ruse emerges from the mind of a villain, while in the latter, from the optimism of the hero. In Spione, it is the grandmaster no-gooder Haghi (Mabuse’s final appearance as a human being before he will depart forever for the arena of myth and legend) who has bugged/invaded the house of a rival faction to gather secret details, while in Sherlock Jr., the everyman hero is about to perform a ridiculous escape-stunt. Even more, the success of the first plan depends on the technical effectiveness of a device (transmission, connection, reception); the success of the second, on the acrobatic capabilities of a person (speed of running, the leap, the recovery). However, these divergent moral schemas also collude, owing to the interests shared by the two men who devised them – both the ploys ultimately reveal an interest in geometry, shapes and alignment.
In effect, both the images are mere diagrams. The first resembles a map, the coil of the transmitter must be plotted so it fits perfectly within the vase, while in the second, the camera angle is indispensable to help the audiences anticipate (and then witness) the trajectory of the escaping hero: he will make a dash to the window with a dress-contraption attached to it, leap through it and will then front-roll onto the ground surrounding the house, fully disguised in an old woman’s clothes.
This is an essential set of images. They employ a tremendous economy in filmmaking, a lightness-of-touch that is rarely visible in the cinema; lesser directors would have had to employ more time and space to fully explain the situation. It is also not too exaggerated a claim that the method employed by Lang/Keaton in each respective scene is the only way to fulfill its purpose – that there are, as always, more than one way to do it, but this is the right way. In both image-duos, the first image is that of a solid, impenetrable structure and the second of the same structure, violated. This reveals interesting details about the film-form: that it is a medium of material bodies, that it shows the manner in which they alter/change/mutate/evolve (i.e. to say, cinema is the medium that exists in-between two conditions) and that it uses such change in physical realities to mark a duration in time.
Droplets Deposit on Glass
Late last October, Hurricane Sandy, a power tropical cyclone was heading for New York. Somebody in the building of the New York Times had the foresight to setup a camera on the 51st floor of the building, facing outwards from the window, looking over the skyline of the city at the distant horizon. Then they seem to have gotten the hell outta there as the cyclone hit the metropolis and let the camera run and record for three successive days. It took it all in: the sky changing from a pleasant blue to a sinister grey, then a brown-orange; dense clouds swirling in the sky like daubs of paint in boiling water and streaks of rain-water pelting the glass wall in front of the camera diagonally. Then, somebody dragged the whole recording onto a timeline and sped it up a few hundred percent to condense this three-day document into four minutes: no longer a natural calamity, it became its summary.
This recording (or taking) seems to justify the existence of digital video and devices which record it. These are new images, the sort of data possible only in the 21st century – the logistical demands of a camera that can be setup in a matter of minutes and record, without complaining, for three continuous days as events in front of it unfold (not unfold as much as happen, not a time-lapse as much as a time-continuum – the first casualty of technological shifts is prevalent vocabulary) cannot be met by a standard image-making device. The digital video image fulfills a need that is immediate and urgent. The camera employed in this video (or in any video that employs digital video correctly) is a peculiar device – owing solely to the sheer ridiculousness of the size (and yet, the ease) of its achievement, it is a device whose very functioning reveals the mechanism that propels it – because it runs for so long, for instance, you are made aware of the battery/electricity that charges it, or because it looks forward for so long, there must also be a world behind it. Of course, there is also the cheap-thrill of being present for three days (or four minutes) inside the New York Times office – this is, after all, the expanded limits of accessibility. Cinema could earlier provide access to the intangible, to the abstract, to someone’s dreams or to someone’s mind, but now, it penetrates into the real, the material, into someone’s living room, someone’s bedroom or someone’s office.
It is important to consider also that digital video makes it possible for an accident to evoke conscious creation (shown, for instance, in this video by Tim Sessler, where a routine aeroplane-flight becomes the opportunity for an artsy-experiment). With celluloid, it was so often the reverse.
Films of the Year (in the chronology of their viewing)
The We & The I / Michel Gondry / USA
Gondry’s new, which retains a lot of the visual adventure of the director’s other work, ties in interestingly with artistic cousins such as Bruno Dumont’s Life of Jesus, Wes Craven’s Scream and Laurent Cantet’s The Class - films about a number of young people within an enclosure, with a lot of energy but with no avenue to expound it - in the absence of any real outskirts to express themselves, they turn invariably on each other. Gondry also correctly identifies the contemporary obsession with screens (characters in the film are perpetually looking at something) as a strategy of emotional distantiation from the act being played on them – an affinity for depiction, resemblance and replay, rather than the actual event.
Outrage: Beyond / Takeshi Kitano / Japan
In this ambitious sequel, Kitano does not merely render a genre that he has mastered, but examines it. With young filmmakers around the world obsessing over the organized-crime genre, but making films that play by-rote and employ primitive narrative strategies to simulate their universes, the old master uses his clout to end his film in a way in which only he could have. Instead of rival factions gunning each other down in an apocalyptic shootout, Kitano’s character (the director entering the film) quietly enters the frame and pops one into the scheming policeman, the schemer who is the major cause of the rivalry in the first place – thereby ending not just this film, but also the chances of another one in the series. Tellingly, Kitano’s character goes, ‘I am too old for this shit.’
Walker / Tsai-Ming Liang / France
Like in all Tsai-Ming Liang films, a character collects spaces. The monk in Walker anthologises geographical sections of Hong Kong, purely by the virtue of moving through them, haunting them, devouring them. Tsai ensures that these spaces are paradoxically rendered sanctimonious and meaningless at the same time. The character (as all characters in his films) rebels against reduction/relegation to furniture, or to a relic – this defiance is conducted through constant, relentless lingering. They claim the ownership of a space by traversing it – it is both a pathetic and an empathetic desire. This is also a yearning for individuality – the monk merely floats (or ‘shifts’, or ‘crawls’) in the middle of a fast-paced, consumerist world that travels swiftly around him. At one level, all of Tsai’s films are essentially about the battle between an individual and his environment – at various points in Walker, the onlookers stare at the ‘freak’ monk, bemused and confused – when the film places the environment outside the edges of the frame and cuts to a close-up of the person in the final shot (or in many final shots in many other films), it is to say that the victory is his.
The Imposter / Bart Layton / UK & Searching for Sugarman / Malik Bendjelloul / UK
One suspects that these films are interesting only together; individually, they are only of marginal merit, but together, they seem to reveal a trend. Both films start off being about the mysterious disappearance of a mythical individual, then introduce the search for him before finally settling down as genre-films dressed in documentary-clothes. Eventually, the object of these respective search operations is found and yet, it is only an awkward success – the person is not the one they were looking for, but someone who bears an uncanny resemblance to the original (in Sugarman, this is due to the biological process of ageing, in The Imposter, it is because of the artificial one of hair-dyeing). But the reason these films are important is because, at varying levels, both of them seem to be unaware of their real achievements. The Imposter tries to tell an involving crime story with numerous twists and a manipulating villain at the center (he even smirks at the camera in slow-motion twice or thrice), but it is actually one of the truest accounts of dysfunctional family life in suburban American in recent times.
Similarly, Searching for Sugarman tries to come off as a bittersweet life-story about a genuine artist who passed under the radar and had to work throughout his life as a blue-collar worker (oblivious to how his music influenced a social revolution in a distant country, this irony is based entirely on convenient omission of facts by the filmmaker) but it is actually about the greed, scamming and cheating inherent in large-scale corporate structures, and the natural relegation of a free-market into an attention economy, a place where one has to visible to be successful.
Moonrise Kingdom / Wes Anderson / USA
Wes Anderson’s exploration of how entirely artificial constructs reveal authentic human truths continues (this is an affinity he shares with Resnais/Carax). In essence, when you look at an Anderson frame, you look also at the carpentry, the tailoring, the stitching, the product design, the colour palettes and the painting – to look at what lies in front of the Anderson camera is to remind oneself of what lies behind it. This is a conscious revelation – Anderson’s challenge for himself is to render fiction inside fictional setups. In this, this thoroughly peculiar film shares a trick or two with Night of the Hunter, another great film about children on the run, shot on soundstages, lit with expressionism and also, with a number of images of human silhouettes smudged onto a distant sky.
The Master / Paul Thomas Anderson / USA
The first thing about this film is that it is gooey as hell – it is a large-scale dissertation on the nature/properties of liquids. The central storyline of the film is propelled forward by character-traits that all resemble qualities of the liquid state: they flow, they dissolve, some of them are soluble, one isn’t, he evaporates, he recondenses, but ultimately, all he desires ultimately is to be viscous. Characters in the film bond and scuffle over fluids of all sorts: oil, sweat, hair gel, sperm, water, booze, various potions. The reason it is a significant film is because in it is manifest most resolutely a tug-of-war consistent to pretty much every Anderson film, that between an empty, shallow-headed, casual hedonism and an allegedly higher state of consciousness and living – these sides are usually represented by dueling characters (Dean/Barry in Punch-Drunk Love, Daniel /Eli in There Will be Blood and Freddie/Lancaster in The Master).
Throughout the film, Lancaster Dodd, a self-anointed master of spiritual rehabilitation attempts to domesticate Freddie (‘silly animal’, he pooh-poohs at him), but the latter resists it: in this, like in every great film about the notion of domestication-as-captivity ( see: Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid, Raging Bull), it is conducted through gentle variations in space-sizes. Therefore, it begins with the most open space of them all, the sea, goes to wide-open fields, then to a boat, a small room, a smaller room, an even smaller room (one in which Freddie is actually made to walk from one end to another, as if to approximate its tininess) until, in the third act, they start expanding again – Freddie escapes The Cause in a huge, open ground, moves to a movie-hall (simultaneously a confinement and a space as elastic as any other), meets Lancaster Dodd in his unreasonably large chamber and rests again, in the final shot of the film, on the beach, close to the sea. Considering how the movie ends almost immediately pre-60s: the era that would defined historically by a culture of taking to the road, to the continent-wide landscapes of America – one can imagine that historical point at which The Master ends is where contemporary America begins.
Tabu / Miguel Gomes / Portugal & Holy Motors / Leos Carax / France
The reason both these films are pretty much the greatest this year (Tabu takes the lead narrowly) is because they distill the ‘experience of being alive’ (as Carax puts it) through various eras/genres of film – in the case of Tabu, a silent film, a tropical love story; in Holy Motors’s, many. More than a comment on existent technology, which they obviously are (Motors more than the other), they represent the vision of cinema going on into the next century: as a simulation of life itself; just as life, in the presence of constant surveillance, is a simulation of the cinema. Holy Motors asks: ‘…what is there is no beholder anymore’, and Tabu answers, through its invasion of a personal memory and its transmission to the whole audience: ‘what if everyone is a beholder.’
Other objects of Interest:
Barbara / Christian Petzold / Germany, Berberian Sound Studio / Peter Strickland / UK
Favorites from 2011 (though released in India in 2012)
Carnage / Roman Polanski
War Horse / Steven Spielberg
Haywire / Steven Soderbergh
J. Edgar / Clint Eastwood
Hugo / Martin Scorsese
War Horse I found especially underrated, Spielberg in Empire of the Sun-mode and a film that is highly successful in making an animal something approaching a character. Carnage is my favorite comedy in say about five years. Hugo has been written about earlier in Projectorhead and J. Edgar is an incredibly dark reflection on American history. Haywire is probably the best film of its kind.
Best films of 2012
To Rome With Love / Woody Allen
Moonrise Kingdom / Wes Anderson
Like Someone in Love / Abbas Kiarostami
Amour / Michael Haneke
Bella Addormentata / Marco Bellocchio
The Gardener / Mohsen Makhmalbaf
Amour is unexpectedly the only Best Picture Oscar nominee to make this list so far. Marco Bellochio’s Bella Addormentata deals with a similar subject and is no less powerful for its broader social vision. Woody Allen’s To Rome With Love is another great display of the director’s sublime elegance, the most winning and agreeable sign of his recent films. A similar elegance wedded to a powerful sense of the rhythm of city life is found in Kiarostami’s Like Someone in Love. Moonrise Kingdom is simply one of the rare times when a film-maker creates a work that is a happy discovery in itself. Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s The Gardener can be considered a termite film in the Manny Farber sense, a film with no ambition but to follow its own line of inquiry, to follow its own goal with no sense of great statement sought after and offered in term. Which considering the title and its critique of religious conflict in general is highly fitting.
Great Discoveries of 2012
The Age of the Medici / Roberto Rossellini – Fernand Braudel, one of the great historians of the 20th Century wrote that a history textbook properly understood was a great adventure novel. Roberto Rossellini’s histories breathe this maxim in every corner of its constantly searching frame, telling a story that’s well researched, historically accurate and as exciting and rousing as Alexandre Dumas and Walter Scott. The pancinor zoom under Rossellini’s personal control constantly reveals characters, ideas and thoughts in a constantly shifting pattern, all the while adhering closely to the facts.
The Merry Widow / Erich Von Stroheim
The great dark genius of Hollywood is Erich Von Stroheim and with all due respect to Orson Welles, he remains its greatest martyr. When people think of silent films they think of it as nostalgia pieces which explains the great unpopularity of Stroheim. His films are as powerful and immediate today as they were in the 1920s, they escape the novelty factor of a film narrated in images and intertitles with unrivaled intimacy and directly confront human truths which are as unpleasant to confront today as they were then.
Palermo oder Wolfsburg / Werner Schroeter
I have a bad habit of making discoveries of hitherto recently active film-makers just after their all-too recent deaths. Werner Schroeter died in 2010, and was a film-maker known and read about but very difficult to see. Palermo oder Wolfsburg, a 3hr epic about a Sicilian migrant worker in Germany is one of the most beautiful films ever made with a wild sense of invention and unpredictable sense of humor. It is as of now, my favorite court procedural film.
Road to Nowhere / Monte Hellman
A recent discovery I suppose but still powerful. Monte Hellman’s Road to Nowhere is a film shot on Canon 5D that is about making films with a Canon 5D. It’s also one of the most beautifully composed and elegantly framed films of the last five years or so. More than that, it’s one of the most creative and honest reflections of the film-making process, especially films as they are made today, finding an optimism in its constant visual invention that contrasts against the bleak vision of the world depicted within a film that fully earns its title.
The Last Bolshevik / Chris Marker
Chris Marker was one of the greatest film-makers of the twentieth century or at least one of the great inventors of cinematic forms. He is also a great writer and great film critic. Indeed, a transcript of Marker’s written narrations for all his films would be one of the great compilations of critical and philosophical literature of the 20th Century. The 20th Century, its great ruptures, changes and transformations is the central subject of all of Marker’s films, filtered with his understanding that cinema is the art of the 20th Century. Alain Resnais described his former collaborator as the model for the 21st Century man, fitting that the director of La Jetée would die in the year of a supposed apocalypse.
Greatest Theatrical Experience of 2012
Mani Kaul Tribute – Duvidha and Before My Eyes
Serge Daney wrote eloquently of watching films on the big screen as opposed to television and he often made unexpected discoveries. Cecile B. DeMille’s gargantuan The Ten Commandments or other films like it (say Mughal-E-Azam) was easily accommodated on the small screen he said, whereas Marguerite Duras’ India Song, a quieter chamber piece existed, to paraphrase Daney, on a cinema of empty audiences. The same is true of Mani Kaul’s films, which probably work well on the small screen but come to true life when seen in a decent or agreeable 35mm print. Duvidha is now available in an excellent home video transfer but the impressive screening at the Mani Kaul Tribute on 7th July gives an incredible sense of his original art. Before My Eyes, his short made for the dubious commission of Kashmiri tourism offers great examples of Kaul’s wit. It’s also one of the most beautiful films ever made.
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp / Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
I had written about the amazement at the offering of the repertory titles at this year’s Mumbai film festival. But in a festival with Sunrise, The Leopard, Accattone and other worthy big-screen classic films, the single most beautiful experience was this great film by the Archers. It boasts an impressive cast, some of the greatest acting in film history, and breathes a lifetime of wisdom and endless generosity.
Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur Part II was the best commercial Hindi film last year and Nawazuddin Siddiqui, a busy man is probably the most agreeable new performer in recent films.
Jab Take Hai Jaan was the worst film I saw last year.
Between The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises and Skyfall, I will choose The Avengers.
Jean-Louis Trintignant is one of the greatest actors in film history and Amour is one of his best performances and as great and touching as Emmanuelle Riva is, the lack of nomination for such astounding work is a real outrage. But that’s just me.