Notes from the LFF: Hors Satan/Outside Satan (Bruno Dumont, France, 2011)

Blogpost, British cinema, Film reviews, French Cinema, Uncategorized

Are we living in the end times?

Personally, I don’t think so.

But, then again, while I will be sad to die (this is a lie – I won’t be anything except dead), and while I’ll be sad (and pretty excited) to see some other planet crash into Earth, or whatever fate awaits humanity and the rock we float on, this will not be the end of things.

I view it pretty simply: molecules, matter, light, and all of that ‘primary’ stuff that goes to make up the universe will still be around. They will never not be around. Perhaps they cannot not to be around. So an absolute end to all things? No, I don’t think so.

Hors Satan is one of a small bunch of recent art house movies that features a miracle (more than one in this film, in fact).

Miracles are relatively common place in the mainstream – impossible things happen the whole time, whether or not these are given a religious context and whether or not they are recognised as being miraculous.

Given that the mainstream peddles in impossible/miraculous illusion on a day-to-day basis, miracles there are not as interesting as when they appear in art house cinema.

Why? Because art house cinema is ‘for’ and ‘by’ ‘intellectuals’ – which stereotypically might have overlap with what I shall call agnosticism. Here, I don’t quite mean agnosticism in the sense of ‘I am not sure what or whether I believe in God or not,’ although it’s linked – hence my choice to use this word.

What I mean by agnosticism is a certain suspicion with regard to miracles: people do not get up from the dead and walk in everyday life (not without the help of defibrillators, anyway). Or if they do, there might well be a ‘scientific’ or ‘rational’ explanation, to which we do not necessarily have access.

Now, just to be clear, I think that you can believe in God and still be agnostic if we accept this definition. And note that this agnosticism is not meant to rule out miracles – it’s just to want thoroughly to question the evidence for them.

This in and of itself might place too great an emphasis on ‘science’ – but my point is not that such a ‘scientific’ view is without potential flaws. It is simply that, according to this view, miracles would push the bounds of credibility.

A second – linked – reason why miracles in art house cinema are more remarkable (and push the bounds of credibility) is that art house cinema – a very problematic generalisation, I confess – often (but not exclusively) is made in what we have come to accept as a ‘realistic’ style. That is, few elements are obtrusive, be that the acting, the mise-en-scène, the cinematography, the editing, or the soundtrack.

Instead, everything plays in seemingly real – and not stylised – locations, with the camera retaining some distance from events, not moving in an ostentatious fashion, and with edits taking place when they perhaps ‘need’ to, rather than ‘for the sake of it’. Since these films try to look like everyday life, and since miracles do not take place in everyday life, it is intriguing – and all the more surprising – that art house films would choose to portray miracles in this style.

Art house films might be weird as far as their status as a film is concerned. To give an example, Hors Satan itself has long takes, in which little happens and in which there is little dialogue as the unnamed lead character, played by David Dewaele, walks around the countryside of the north of France, seemingly praying to the countryside, and taking away and giving life as he sees fit.

But, even though we seem increasingly to find our real lives intolerable if they are filled with silence and little movement, such silence and stillness in a film might yet be thought of as realistic – because reality is not the crash bang wallop of the mainstream movies.

That is, as far as films go, Hors Satan is ‘weird’ because it does not conform to the norms of mainstream filmmaking – which bring with them an implicit contract whereby the audience ‘expects’ miracles to happen. But this ‘weirdness’ for a film might still be termed realistic, because life itself is slow and often quiet. And so when a miracle happens in a ‘weird’ and slow and supposedly ‘realistic’ film, it seems as though something even more weird must be going on.

Along with Stellet licht/Silent Light (Carlos Reygadas, Mexico/France/Netherlands/Germany, 2007) and Lourdes (Jessica Hausner, Austria/France/Germany, 2009), then, Hors Satan is one of a handful of high profile and recent art house ‘miracle movies.’

Why is the story of a miracle, as happens in Hors Satan, linked to the ‘end times’ I evoked at the outset of this blog?

My proposed – and admittedly general – answer would be that we live in times when it is hard to find something to believe in. Almost any religious belief is – especially beliefs held so strongly that one would want to share that belief with others and perhaps even try to persuade them of the truth of those beliefs – quickly derided as ‘fundamentalism,’ as is the seemingly irrational and rabid refusal to believe in capitalism.

In other words, ‘realists’ are supposedly atheists, as the religion bashers such as Richard Dawkins aim to make clear. Being realists, there would be little space for miracles in films made for ‘intelligent’ and ‘realistic’ people, and also made by ‘intelligent’ filmmakers who shoot using the technical and formal conventions of ‘realism’ (realism as a style of filmmaking).

In the postmodern era, in which the so-called ‘grand narratives’ that previously could explain the world and our position therewith have been overthrown but not replaced, it would appear that there is nothing to believe in anymore.

And yet with mankind’s fragility ever more thrust in our own faces, it is perhaps natural that humans would turn back to religion – or at least the belief in some power/force/energy/design/divinity – in order to have some rationale behind the human project, and perhaps also to convince us that we do not need to be out there in the streets murdering and stealing simply because we know that no punishment – either Earthly or divine – awaits us.

(I am intrigued by the fact that the day on which the human population on Earth reached seven billion in number, the news seems to mourn our demise – not enough food, not enough warmth, not enough oxygen to keep us going. That is, the human race is numerically at its strongest, and yet the discourse seems overwhelmingly to emphasise that we are at our weakest.)

Now, I personally think that none of Silent Light, Lourdes or Hors Satan actually believes in the miracles that they depict – and also believe that none of them is a ‘Christian’ film attempting to woo its viewers back to the church because if we don’t pray now, then, Pascal-like, we might lose our bet with God.

The reference to Pascal is perhaps apt. For Pascal himself argues – in the same section (233) of his Pensées in which the wager appears – that we cannot have access to the infinite, or to God, because we are finite – and the infinite is not just a ‘big number’; rather, the infinite is without number.

That is to say, Pascal is talking about a faith without proof – precisely, a faith. Ostensibly, then, a miracle – as ‘proof’ of God – eliminates the wager; once you’ve seen a miracle, you just believe because you have seen God and don’t need to, nay cannot, doubt anymore.

Here is where what I perceive to be the failure of these three films to believe in their own miracles perhaps becomes interesting. For the miracles in each film function for me not as proof of God, but as evidence of our need for beliefs as a whole.

There is nothing stopping anyone from reading these films – perhaps Lourdes especially – as being literal accounts of miracles. However, for me these films are about the need to fill a void that has been created by the drive to render the world scientifically comprehensible (even though science itself remains full of mysteries, with the Higgs-Boson itself sometimes even referred to – even if jokingly – as the ‘God particle’).

In other words, Gödel notwithstanding, our comprehension of the universe is incomplete – and this is in part perhaps because of the lack of anything to believe in. Belief, then, might yet (even if not forever) remain a vital need for humans, a meme of such power that we cannot ignore it.

Although I have not discussed Hors Satan or any of the films mentioned in much depth, I just wanted to get across these brief thoughts.

And as a brief add-on, I found it interesting that We Need to Talk about Kevin (Lynne Ramsay, UK/USA, 2011) dared to look precisely at our belief-less, postmodern society from the perspective of a mother whose love for her son is only ambivalent (and vice versa) at absolute best.

Not only does this for me confirm Ramsay’s status as one of the leading lights of British cinema (my top quartet typically would be Winterbottom, Meadows, Arnold and Ramsay), but it also stands in stark contrast to the ‘king’ of postmodern pop, Quentin Tarantino.

In a very informative book about film and ethics, Lisa Downing writes that Tarantino’s Kill Bill, Volumes 1 and 2 (USA, 2003-2004) ultimately offer up the myth of motherhood as, for Tarantino, a final ideological barrier that for him is absolute – and not a social/cultural convention that is contingent (i.e. need not necessarily be true or real under different circumstances).

Kevin is prepared to take a step in that direction and to question even this myth.

Dumont’s film has a set of concerns entirely separate from Ramsay’s – and perhaps from all of the films mentioned here.

But if nothing else it is an interesting – and beautiful – meditation on what the times are such that they might be ending.

Confessions from the LFF: Ha-shoter/Policeman (Nadav Lapid, Israel, 2011)

Blogpost, Film reviews, Israeli Cinema

Without wishing to over-generalise, the French philosopher of cinema, Gilles Deleuze argues that thought begins when action ends. Or, more specifically, when we are no longer capable of action.

He says this because actions typically are defined as being things that we do automatically. We might decide to do something, even in a split second. But the action itself is automatic. What happens between actions is thought; and the more intense one’s thoughts are, perhaps the less action one will carry out.

In Tropa de Elite/Elite Squad (José Padilha, Brazil/Netherlands/USA/Argentina, 2007), Deleuze’s name is specifically crossed out on a blackboard at the beginning of a scene in which one of the young cops who will become a key part of the Elite Squad, Matias (André Ramiro), chooses which contemporary theorist/philosopher he and his classmates will do projects on.

The moment is perhaps coincidental, perhaps a tongue-in-cheek visual gag – probably missed by most viewers – made at the expense of film theorists. Namely, those who sit around thinking about film rather than actually going out there and making films.

Nonetheless, if Padilha and his collaborators want to rub one in the eye of film theorists and others whose ‘sitting around thinking’ is perceived as useless to society, this raises some interesting questions.

For, in not being a theorist but in going out there and making a film instead, Padilha becomes a man of action. And this act of filmmaking is suitable for a film that, seemingly, endorses, or at the very least explores, the call for, precisely, action in response to the critical condition of society.

That is, Trope de Elite – as well as its sequel Trope de Elite 2 – O Enemigo Agora É Outro/Elite Squad 2 (José Padilha, Brazil, 2010) – seems to support the efforts of Capitão Nascimento (Wagner Moura) not to sit back and think but to take action. And by ‘taking action,’ I mean enact a zero tolerance policy on drugs and gang violence in the favelas (and elsewhere) of Rio de Janeiro.

There is also a moment at the end of Mahamet-Saleh Haroun’s Un homme qui crie/A Screaming Man (France/Belgium/Chad, 2010) in which a title card appears saying words to the effect that he who sits around refusing to act is doomed, both physically and spiritually. That is, the film, which features a father, Champion (Youssouf Djaoro), who does nothing while Chad and his family fall apart, suggests that ethically, perhaps even morally, the time to act is nigh – and that, again, sitting around thinking has done nothing to stem the tide of exploitation (Champion looks after a swimming pool in a Western-style hotel) and inequality that continues to sweep our planet.

While Tropa de Elite verges on the reactionary in its condemnation of Rio gangs and its support for the misunderstood nature of the militaristic squad that it depicts (that is, the film seemingly endorses state violence towards its transgressive citizens), Un homme qui crie seems to call for the awakening of a more revolutionary spirit that will not take state-authorised exploitation sitting, or lying, down.

However, while Tropa de Elite (and its sequel) and Un homme qui crie seem to espouse slightly different political outlooks, both seem to present a call to arms.

And, as we have seen from global south to global north, from student movements in Chile and the UK to the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street, both film(maker)s – from Brazil and Chad – seem to have their finger on the global pulse. That is, now people are starting to act – be they oppositional or reactionary forces endeavouring through violence to put down whatever insurrections they encounter.

Although the world is perhaps calling out for a (quite general) definition of what precisely constitutes violence in order to get a better legal handle on what is going on, if nothing else, my point here is slightly different.

My point is that I have not decided how to act yet – and I may never do. I am still thinking about all of this – and, indeed, finding it ever harder to think about the ‘state of the world’ precisely because it is so complex (and brought to me by global media networks). I may know where my allegiances lie in principle, but I am still a coward, scared that I will do ‘the wrong’ thing (because I am still waylaid by notions of right and wrong, even though I think beyond good and evil).

On 24 June 1963, John F Kennedy misattributed his words to Dante when he said in Bonn that ‘the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who retain their neutrality in times of moral crisis’ (Dante said in canto 3 of the Inferno that those who were neither for nor against God were in a special region near the mouth of hell; Kennedy was on a roll at the time, though, since two days later he told West Berliners that he was a donut).

But while I fear that there is some truth in Kennedy’s words, and that – impossibly – we will perhaps endure the return of some absolute standard of good and/or evil against which the decision not to fight will make us more lousy than those who fight for it, I also feel that I want to remain partisan regarding my neutrality. Even when I act, my actions are my own; my neutrality is my action, whatever hatred it might elicit from others (should it last forever; who knows when I shall reach my crisis point and emerge, grenade in hand, to man the barricades).

This scares me; I suffer anxiety that I am not ‘occupying’ – and on the whole can only see reasons not to join either side.

Anyway, the reason why I am ‘confessing’ the above is because in some respects Policeman at the London Film Festival this year helped me to relax some of these issues.

On the surface, the film might fit into the ‘reactionary’ camp of Tropa de Elite in that the film examines with some sympathy (by which I mean, ironically enough, neutrality) the life of Yaron (Yiftach Klein), himself an über-macho member of an Israeli ‘elite squad’ that deals with Palestinian terrorists.

Yaron struts around with his shades on, consistently doing push ups, pull ups and finding any excuse to exert his alpha status, even over his fellow squad members, whom he high fives and hugs in a fashion that, to avoid the ‘on steroids’ cliché of crap film journalism, is like Top Gun (Tony Scott, USA, 1986) injected with the super-juice that they pump into the much-more-interesting-when-scrawny Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) in Captain America: The First Avenger (Joe Johnston, USA, 2011).

Yaron is a seemingly loving husband, but he is also under investigation for killing a Palestinian child and old man during a raid (something that the team decides to blame on a guy in their squad who has a brain tumor and who is likely therefore to die, or arouse sympathy), and he may possibly fool around with, and most certainly flirts with, a 15-year old waitress in a bar.

Yaron eventually comes up against a group of young terrorists – not from Palestine, however, but from Israel. These terrorists, whom director Lapid said at the Film Festival were inspired by his reading about the Baader Meinhof group, believe that the rich are too rich and that the poor are too poor – and that ‘it’s time for the poor to get rich and for the rich to get dying.’

As a result, they take hostage two billionaires, together with the wife and daughter of one of them. In what is perhaps the most naïve and inept piece of terrorism ever seen on film (though surely not in real life), the group of upper middle class Israeli revolutionaries take their hostages to the basement of the hotel where the kidnapping took place. There, they allow men purporting to be ‘press photographers’ into the room, even though they never asked for these men to come (of course, they are police photographers after intel). And – behold/spoilers – the anti-terrorist squad arrives and does its job.

In some senses, the utter naïveté of the ‘terrorists’ is astounding, heartbreaking and disturbing. In other senses, so is their conviction – their conviction that calling to the elite police squad outside that they too are being exploited will lead them to put down their weapons and demand for social justice themselves.

But their folly is not what consoles me in my neutrality. Rather, it is Yaron who – sort of – consoles me. Yaron shows nerves during this mission in a way that presumably is very uncharacteristic of him. Nonetheless, he enters into the room (another idiotic aspect of holding hostages in a basement: the counter-terrorist unit will turn out the lights and use night vision goggles, making you as terrorist utterly defenceless), and carries out his mission.

In doing so, he kills Shira (Yaara Pelzig), a young and in some respects ‘lost’ poor little rich girl, who gives Jane Fonda a run for her money in believing with conviction in her righteous quest to adjust the fact that Israel is dominated by hoarding rich while the poor work for less than minimum wage (Palestine is deliberately not even broached as a topic).

Looking down at her body, we see that Yaron is, perhaps, beginning to ‘crack’ – that his transition from action man to thinker is beginning to take place.

Don’t get me wrong: the price for Yaron’s ‘conversion’ is terrible and I am not saying that the lives of others is a worthy price for one person’s decision – after years of action – to pause for thought. However, while it seems as though the world is demanding an escalating level of action, Policeman in its own way seems to be suggesting a pause for thought.

And not just by Yaron, but perhaps also by the kids who wind up dead for their stupidity. Some more forethought, some more thought, on both sides, might possibly have avoided the bloodshed.

If Tropa de Elite seems to endorse the use of force to take out insurrectional elements of society, and if Un homme qui crie suggests that you are foolish not to take up arms in times of trouble, then Policeman perhaps suggests that trouble might be avoided if we all thought a bit more. If we looked and saw – saw deeply – rather than acted based upon superficial evidence.

Notes from the LFF: Hello! Shu Xian Sheng/Mr Tree (Han Jie, China, 2011)

Blogpost, Chinese cinema, Film education, Film reviews, Uncategorized

It is opportune that I saw Mr Tree in the same week that I taught about Sixth Generation Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke in two separate classes.

For, Jia acts as producer of Mr Tree, and Han Jie’s film, while by no means a Jia Zhangke ‘rip-off,’ definitely contains themes that are also of close concern to Jia, especially the effects of modernisation on rural life.

I shall deal more with Mr Tree below. But I’d like to reflect a little bit on teaching Jia Zhangke, not so that I can write about Jia specifically, but so that I can deal with the reception of Chinese cinema – and art house cinema more generally – in the West, and also to illustrate to those who might be interested what studying cinema at university can involve.

This week I used two different Jia films for two different modules that I am teaching this term. The first film is Shijie/The World (China/Japan/France, 2004) for a module that I am teaching on Digital Cinema. The reason behind this choice was to explore the ways in which digital cameras have reinvigorated the possibility for filmmakers to create ambitious projects on relatively low budgets, and which offer up an alternative view of the world to that which seems increasingly to be replicated not just in mainstream Hollywood cinema, but across all mainstreams worldwide. In other words, The World serves as a means to explore how/whether digital technology enables independent and artistic world cinema.

And the second film is Jia’s first feature, Xiao Wu/Pickpocket (Hong Kong/China, 1998) for a module that I am teaching called Guerrilla Filmmaking. The aim of this module is, in the spirit of De fem benspænd/The Five Obstructions (Jørgen Leth and Lars von Trier, Denmark/Switzerland/Belgium/France, 2003), to set my students regular and short film projects on certain topics and involving certain formal constraints. As well as making the films, the students are invited to reflect critically on their projects – explaining what they have learnt, from the practical to the political to the philosophical. The students are also invited to talk about how they get their films seen once they are in existence.

The reason for showing Xiao Wu was/is not because this is a film made on a micro-budget, as per other films that I show my students as part of the module, including my colleague’s activist film, Chronicle of Protest (Michael Chanan, UK, 2011), as well as my own two features, En Attendant Godard (UK, 2009) and Afterimages (UK, 2010).

The reason for choosing the film is because Xiao Wu was made without a permit. Jia just went into the streets and filmed – and this is noticeable from the variable sound quality, from the inconsistent lighting, and especially from the way in which ‘extras’ – in fact just people in the street – often turn and look directly at the camera, while the actors – all non-professionals – carry on regardless. In other words, Xiao Wu serves as a means to explore the possibility of simply going out into the street and filming, guerrilla-style.

A phrase that seems to get repeated a lot at the moment is ‘go big or go home.’ In some senses, my Guerrilla Filmmaking module is precisely not about going big – but about working out how to use the means at one’s disposal to say what one wants to say. Not to make a film for the purpose solely of trying to please others. But about using film as an expressive (and supremely malleable) medium to convey one’s own thoughts and ideas. The module is intended to encourage students precisely to think and to have ideas, then, and to endeavour to put these into audiovisual form.

Anyway, with regard to my classes, I introduced Jia, the director of both films, as belonging to the so-called sixth generation of Chinese filmmakers – the previous five generations taking Chinese cinema from its early origins to the 1930s (first), through to China’s 1940s cinematic heyday (second), Chinese cinema under Communism (third), the (lack of) cinema of the Cultural Revolution (fourth), and the rise of the fifth generation in the 1980s and 1990s, the fifth generation including filmmakers such as Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige.

Obviously, the latter two are still making films, as anyone who has seen Ying xiong/Hero (Zhang Yimou, Hong Kong/China, 2002), Shi mian mai fu/House of Flying Daggers (Zhang Yimou, China/Hong Kong, 2004) and Wu ji/The Promise (Chen Kaige, China/USA/South Korea, 2005) will know.

Now, while Chen and Zhang have both moved into blockbuster filmmaking, as the above examples demonstrate, they still plough the same thematic fields that they explored in their early, career-making films. That is, they make historical films, often featuring strong heroines, exploring China’s past to reflect – often critically – on the present, in particular the myth of nation-building and unification (even if their films can be read in a reactionary way, as Hero perhaps most clearly exemplifies in its decision to have a rebellious asssassin not kill a tyrannical leader because the latter’s work in unifying China, even if achieved by the sword, is finally understood by the assassin to be a ‘good thing’).

By contrast, the sixth generation, with Jia as one of its figureheads, concentrates more upon the contemporary, taking in issues of forced migration within China – particularly for the purposes of modernisation, urbanisation, and the alienating side-effects of globalisation.

Many sixth generation films were made without permits – such as Xiao Wu (The World, by contrast, was Jia’s first film to be made with a permit; more on the film can be read here). As such, they are often defined as ‘underground’ films, although this title can be misleading in that ‘underground’ can function as much as a brand as it does a qualification for unauthorised – and therefore supposedly ‘authentic’ – portraits of the nation’s contemporaneity.

Now, Jia’s films are ‘slow’ – consisting of ponderous long takes in which minimal action takes place; the emphasis often seems to be less on characters and more on the spaces and places in which the ‘action’ (or lack thereof) takes place.

For this reason it perhaps came as no surprise that my students – all bar one – said of The World that it is ‘boring’ – and, more controversially, that the filmmaker has a ‘duty’ (I can’t recall if this was the exact term used) to make ‘interesting’ and ‘entertaining’ films.

This prompted a diatribe from their lecturer (me) about the attention economy in which we live, and the foundations of which are built upon computers (i.e. digital technology) in their various guises (including iPhones, iPods, iPads, and the like – cheers, Steve Jobs). That is, that boredom is intolerable in the contemporary age, and that everything must happen at the accelerated pace of the entertainment industries, with what David Bordwell has defined as ‘intensified continuity‘ and which Steven Shaviro more recently has called a ‘post-continuity‘ culture at its core.

In contrast to this, there are – on a general level – filmmakers who feel the need to represent the fact that for all of the attention(-deficient) economy that bombards the bourgeoisie, and for all of the ease of movement that the global rich enjoy – both actual and virtual, there are many people who are left behind. Whose lives are slow. Who cannot and/or who do not want, perhaps, to lead their life at the speed of light.

Do these kinds of lives, I put to my students, not merit depiction? Who decides what is ‘cinematic’ and what is not? And would making an ‘exciting’ (i.e. ‘fast’) film about lives that many people might deem ‘unexciting’ (and ‘slow’) not be an inappropriate if one were trying to remain faithful to one’s subject matter and/or one’s own ideas thereupon?

Without wishing to overlook the specifically Chinese provenance of Jia’s films, or indeed the very constructed nature of his fictions (we cannot read them as entirely accurate representations of Chinese reality, even if he uses devices that typically we associate with that ethos), my argument in class also proposed that there is no consensus on what constitutes ‘entertaining’ with regard to film – and that perhaps there should not be such a consensus, otherwise all films would look and feel the same.

Now, I am not sure how convincing my diatribe was. One of my students – the most vocal critic of The World (Xiao Wu was ‘better’ because it had something of a plot – and, perhaps crucially, is 50 minutes shorter) – has blogged in spite of my defence of Jia that he (and I paraphrase) should not make this kind of film, since alienating audiences (there is no specification of what kind of audience is being considered here, the assumption being that all audiences are the same) is one of the worst sins of filmmaking.

I would link to the student’s blog – because I do not want to deprive them of their input in the dialogue I am creating. Alas, the blog is on a site closed to all outside of my university (and even then you need to be registered on the software, Mahara, that hosts it). So, apologies for those who wish to but cannot read the blog – perhaps especially to those who would agree with the student’s outlook on filmmaking in general and this film in particular.

Now, I want to try to avoid coming across as high-minded and condescending to my student(s) – for they are entitled to their thoughts, even if I also find it mildly frustrating to make a case for art cinema that is duly and adamantly cast aside for the sake of imposing a pre-existing set of criteria regarding what constitutes ‘good’ cinema (i.e. I probably am both high-minded and condescending at the last).

I also am wary about ‘picking on’ one or any of my students, not least because this one is certainly engaged and a keen participant in my classes. That is, I greatly appreciate what this person contributes to my classes, even if I do not agree with them, and even if I feel the need to encourage in them a more critical perspective.

(Interestingly, when it was established prior to showing it that Xiao Wu is, in the words of another student, ‘what we would call a “festival film,”‘ this also brought about a greater level of (perceived) engagement – as if one cannot watch films ‘properly’ without being given the correct prompt/lens through which to view them.)

This blogospheric excursion into teaching the cinema of Jia Zhangke may have exposed my limitations as a teacher, in that I failed to convince my students about the validity of The World, and to a lesser extent that of Xiao Wu, the ‘boringness’ of which – apparently – outweighed any interest in what Jia was trying to do; i.e. I could not get my students to consider what The World is, since they preferred instead to talk about what the film is not.

Furthermore, this excursion into teaching Jia Zhangke might also have exposed the limitations of top-down teaching as a whole; others involved in education, at any level, may share my sadness when I see value judgements made repeatedly in spite of insistent attempts to foster not simple judgement but critical engagement.

However, I mention all this as a preface to discussing Mr Tree, which, as mentioned, was produced by Jia and which shares with his films a similar set of concerns, because the issue of pace and boredom lies at the heart of what in different ways I have elsewhere defined as the war of/for our cinema screens and the political, perhaps even ethical, dilemmas facing filmmakers when making films about certain subjects.

Han Jie’s film is, like Jia’s films more generally, contemplative. Shu (whose name means ‘tree’ and who is played by Baoqiang Wang) is a drifter-type, who is a little bit crazy, a little bit weird.

He has a job as a car mechanic that he soon loses after inflicting upon himself an accident: he uses a blowtorch without the face mask and temporarily blinds himself, prompting his boss to let him go. He falls in love with a local deaf mute, Xiaomei (Zhuo Tan), and endeavours to woo her without much success – at least initially.

The local kids kind of ridicule Shu, although he seems well connected, hanging out with the local businessmen (who are trying to oust his mother from their family home for the sake of developing the land for business purposes; there is a coal mine in the area). He drinks, has the odd fight, wanders around his town, goes to the big city in Jilin, the northern province where he lives, and spends a bit of team cleaning up the school that a friend from his hometown runs, and he finally gets married to Xiaomei.

Except that on his wedding day, Shu is miserable. This is mainly because he has begun to see the ghost of his dead brother – a brother who apparently was hanged by his father from the tree in which Shu sometimes hides – and who is thoroughly ‘modern’ in his corduroys, hipster haircut, cool girlfriend and jacket.

Xiaomei makes love to him, but then leaves Shu, because he does not care for her. Shu then predicts accurately that the local mining industry – which has also already claimed the life of one his other local friends – will cause the water in the area to stop flowing.

Something of a prophet, it would seem, Shu then seemingly becomes rich by advising the mining company how correctly to bring to an end the malpractice that thus far has characterised it.

However, Shu’s ostensible success is revealed latterly as a fantasy, as is his reunion with a pregnant Xiaomei. In other words, Shu becomes mad, not least because his life is marked by the death of his brother and his friend. His descent into incoherence, however, seems to reflect the insistent modernisation that the village/town is undergoing through the mining company and other forces: people are moved out of their homes, and the ‘traditional’ ways seem to be disappearing as people are offered TVs and other mod cons to accept the questionable business plans for the area.

Even though Shu seemingly goes mad, he is still a character that seems to be able to see. As mentioned, he is temporarily blinded at the start of the film, but there is a strong emphasis on vision and visuality in the film, more often than not associated with Shu. He may be a living anachronism, incapable or unwilling to go along with the times, while his former friends get increasingly rich, but perhaps that is because he realises more than anyone else the confusion and chaos that is descending upon Jilin and the industrialisation of one of China’s most beautiful provinces (it is one of the ‘four major natural wonders of China’ – along with the Three Gorges Valley, the Rimmed Trees that also are in Jilin, and the Stone Forest of Yunnan).

Indeed, Shu seems to have these changes inscribed physically on his body: he moves in a twisted and awkward fashion (a great performance from Baoqiang), and often bears cuts, bruises and scars.

Furthermore, not only through his name, but also physically do we see Shu in connected with nature: as mentioned, he hides up a tree, but he also walks and runs most places – and he certainly does not have easy access to the good cars that his local friends seem to have. Even Shu’s brother drives a taxi, suggesting that he is moving along with the times, rather than being left behind as Shu is.

As such, Mr Tree is an interesting film that implicitly critiques what can be interpreted as the modernisation of China, which in turn leads to the disappearance of traditional ways of life – embodied here by Shu.

The film’s eventual descent into fantasy makes of Mr Tree a film that is only questionably realistic (although this critique – bizarrely – never seems to be made against, say, Miracolo a Milano/Miracle in Milan (Vittorio de Sica, Italy, 1951), a core film of the influential Italian neorealist movement, from which both this and Jia’s films seem to take inspiration, and which itself has an entire fantasy ending featuring, as implied by the title, a miracle made only more bitter by the fact that it is fantastic and impossible).

Nonetheless, as per much sixth generation filmmaking (if the term still applies – how long can a generation last before becoming a new one?), the film is a politicised glimpse into contemporary Chinese life.

It is only fitting that the film adopts the ‘slow’ pace that it does, filming predominantly in long shot to ground Shu and the other characters in the space/place that they inhabit rather than to have us view the film as simply a character portrait.

Again, this is not to overlook the complex roots of the film in Chinese culture – my reading might seem to ground the film uniquely in a genealogy of films and style of filmmaking – but it is to suggest that aesthetic strategies (how one shapes the look, feel, pace, and intensity of a film) are strongly tied to the political.

Hero this film neither is nor could be, interesting though Zhang’s most accessible work is in and of itself. For my part, then, I can only continue to reiterate, perhaps narcissistically (if I can never convince anyone who thinks otherwise), that judging films according to criteria of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ (with good being fast and exciting, bad being slow and ‘boring’) is pointless. It is better, rather, for us to think about what the film seems to be saying.

Not just to watch the film as entertainment, but to read, or to think about the film – perhaps even to find about the cinematic, industrial, and cultural contexts – among others – in which the film was made.

This is what I try to do as a lecturer in film. Sometimes I feel very strongly about it; the attention economy has us in its grips, and we will overlook many important – nay, vital – things if we do not pay enough respect to that which surrounds us. Some films try to do this by being deliberately slow. This is not bad; it is a strategy for trying to induce thought and thoughtfulness.

While I personally think that there are ‘problems’ with this ‘strategy’ (it is too teleological, it perhaps stratifies film into entertainment vs art house modes that rarely meet, and whose audiences rarely meet, and I am certain that one can think critically about Hollywood or any other mainstream style of cinema), it remains an important one.

If my choice of films and my teaching style run the risk of boring my students, a ‘problem’ that I might be called into account for when I have to proactively to address the feedback that my students eventually will give me for my teaching methods and choices, then this is just an issue that I/they will have to face together.

While I like fast films, too, I want to emphasise here how I am in praise of slow films – and why. I hope that this blog might help to convince someone – anyone – that slow films (all films?!) are important and not to be overlooked…

Notes from the LFF: In film nist/This is Not a Film (Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, Iran, 2011)

Blogpost, Film reviews, Iranian cinema, London Film Festival 2011, Uncategorized

On 20 December 2010, filmmaker Jafar Panahi was arrested in Iran and sentenced to six years’ imprisonment and banned from making films for 20 years.

He is not alone: plenty of other filmmakers and artists have been placed under arrest in the last 12 months and more in Iran – including this film’s co-director, Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, who was arrested since the completion of this project.

Before seeing This is Not a Film at this year’s London Film Festival, organiser Sandra Hebron read aloud a letter signed by various Iranian filmmakers in exile, including the whole of the Makhmalbaf family (Mohsen, Samira, Hana, and Mohsen’s wife, Marzieh Meshkini), calling for people worldwide to put pressure on the Iranian government in whatever way they can in order to release Panahi.

His crime? Being critical of the current Iranian regime, which – as per my previous post on Mourning (Morteza Farshbaf, Iran, 2011) – seemed illegitimately to install itself in power after the 2009 general election.

Being a filmmaker, not least a filmmaker with a global standing, Panahi is a dangerous man: he has the power to influence people, to rouse a sense of injustice in the (already-roused) masses of Iran who are in search of a more democratic society than the one currently on offer. He can also rouse anti-government support beyond Iran’s borders.

Given Panahi’s global standing, and given Iran’s refusal wholly to endorse films that – even if only ambivalently or allegorically – critique Iran’s status quo, it is no surprise that Panahi’s films – like those of many of his fellow filmmakers in Iran – have sought funding from outside of the country, principally Europe (and principally within Europe from France, Germany and the UK).

I am surely not the first to argue this point, but I must say that even if undertaken innocently, there is little to no true innocence with regard to the politics of who funds what films and for what reason. Representation is an awesome and persuasive tool. That is, all films have – or at least one can read into all films – an element of propaganda: incapable as we are of perceiving the whole of reality, consigned as we are only to partial truths, no film will present things as they are. But this does not stop a filmmaker from portraying events/the world as he sees them/it.

For this reason, to stand accused – as Panahi does, according to the letter that Hebron read out – of being an agent for French and British power in Iran seems to overstep the mark as far as his filmmaking is concerned. Panahi is a filmmaker trying to find the means to make the films that mean the most to him; if his funding comes from the UK or France or anywhere, and if that funding comes with few or no conditions with regard to the kind of film that he is supposed to deliver, then Panahi is, or should be free, to work with those funders.

In light of the seemingly stolen election, in light of the evident lack of freedom of speech or filmmaking in Iran, and in light of the documented and murderous brutality of the present Iranian regime towards dissident elements within contemporary Iranian society, it seems that any filmmaker concerned with anything but the most reactionary escapism must give room for elements that are critical of the contemporary regime.

This does not necessarily make Panahi an agent of British or French interests in Iran – even if as a filmmaker his outlook and approach finds favour with foreign (predominantly educated, middle class – i.e. festival) audiences as much if not more than it does with domestic audiences.

Nonetheless, to be denied the right to critique the country in which one lives and which with much probability one loves is a betrayal on the part of that country.

And this is what Panahi has suffered: a betrayal.

If we are to get all up in arms about Jafar Panahi and other filmmakers, we should not limit ourselves simply to their plight. Others have suffered terribly under the current regime, including, for example, Neda Agha Soltan, whose death can be seen on YouTube (but to which I shall not link here). And beyond Neda Agha Soltan, there are many more people who have suffered at the hands of the current Iranian regime. In other words, this is not just about filmmakers. This is about the fate of an entire nation, perhaps even the entire world.

Even if Panahi himself is only one of a multitude of Iranians adversely affected by the current government in Iran, Panahi is still very much to be admired.

For what he has done is to produce a film – playfully, perhaps rightfully, termed a non-film – in spite of the ban that has been imposed upon his creative output. Furthermore, in total defiance he has had that ‘non-film’ distributed globally, including at this year’s London Film Festival.

How did he achieve this? Remarkably, by hiding the film on a Flash drive in a birthday cake – which then found its way out of his apartment block, out of Iran and – first of all – to the Cannes Film Festival, before making its way – among other locations – to London.

Panahi’s non-film is what we might term minimalist in execution: Panahi is under house arrest – pending an appeal on his sentence – in his flat/apartment block in Tehran, and so the majority of the film takes place in the few rooms to which he is (was – is he still?) confined, and it features for its greatest part only Panahi and Mirtahmasb.

The non-film starts with Panahi taking breakfast, talking on his mobile phone, and then missing a family phone call while he is in his bathroom. These moments are comprised of two static shots in which Panahi refuses to recognise the camera.

In other words, the non-film starts almost as though it might be a fiction film as opposed to a documentary – Panahi is acting rather than ‘being himself.’

This fictional feel is broken, however, when Panahi picks up the camera that has been left rolling in his bedroom and carries it through his house: the refusal to recognise the camera’s presence is immediately broken.

Nonetheless, once Mirtahmasb arrives and takes over the filming, Panahi prepares tea and feeds his iguana, Igi, as if the camera were not there.

However, it is when he receives a phone call from his lawyer, Mrs Gheyrat, that Panahi definitively casts off the illusion that this is a film in the conventional sense of the word, thereby taking us into the realm of the non-film.

Gheyrat explains that the ban on filmmaking might well be rescinded by the courts, but that Panahi surely will face some prison time. She then affirms passionately that the ruling against Panahi is not legal, but political. That is, the judiciary is not in charge anymore; Panahi is a plaything of the political powers that be. As such, Iran is no longer a country in which all are equal in the eyes of the law, but a country in which the law is changed according to the whims of politicians.

(Britons: take note. One should not call for ‘special punishments’ for the perpetrators of crimes, for example looting during riots. The crimes committed – damage to property and theft – should be punished according to the law and not, to use Gheyrat’s words, according to ‘current social conditions.’)

This phone call is enough for Panahi to say to Mirtahmasb that he cannot act anymore. Referring to a moment in his own film, Ayneh/The Mirror (Iran, 1997), Panahi does what his child actor, Mina Mohammad Khani, did in that film – and refuses to act. This he calls ‘throwing off the cast’ in reference to how Mina in Mirror refused after a while to wear the cast she had been given and stepped off the bus on which they were filming.

Of course, Mirtahmasb keeps the camera rolling even though Panahi says he is not acting anymore. If this is no longer acting, but if the camera is still recording, what is it that we are seeing now? As per the greatest of Iranian films, and as identified by a host of scholars of Iranian cinema, the line between fiction and reality becomes definitively blurred here – in a fashion that befits the more ‘art house’ branch of Iranian film.

(The argument that Iranian films blur the boundary between fact and fiction has been used persuasively to argue that we should not take Iranian films to be immediate representations of Iranian life. That is, we should not believe everything that we see in Iranian films as being real. In fact, it is an Iranian artistic tradition to blur this boundary. Even though Panahi has made not a film but a non-film, then, its artistic credentials are high, perhaps even beyond question.)

This ambiguity between fiction and reality is only heightened when Panahi tells Mirtahmasb to cut – only for Mirtahmasb to refuse, because Panahi is not entitled to make films and so therefore cannot direct the very film in which he currently is featuring.

(Humour, perhaps surprisingly, but also in a very human fashion, features prominently in This is Not a Film, as hopefully this blog will make clear.)

Not only is the non-film only ambiguously a documentary and/or a fiction, then, but the question concerning whose film/non-film this is also becomes ambiguous. That is, who is the filmmaker here? Panahi or Mirtahmasb? This ambiguity is further heightened during moments in which the camera is simply left rolling with no operator, as happens towards the film’s climax. No one is making this film at such moments; as such, this cannot be a film, since a film needs a maker, no?

Further to complicate matters is Panahi’s ingenious use of mise-en-scène. As Panahi shows to Mirtahmasb on his TV the sequence from The Mirror that Gheyrat’s phone call brought to mind, we have a mise-en-abyme effect whereby there is a film within the non-film that we are watching: if This is Not a Film is not a film, perhaps it is so because films like The Mirror lie within it and not necessarily beyond it. In this way, This is Not a Film is not a film because it has its own reality – such that it contains even other films.

Panahi pauses The Mirror, and Mirtahmasb pans over to him, stood as he is next to a shelf that houses a variety of DVDs. Most of the DVD sleeves are illegible – at least to this viewer – but prominent among those that are legible (to me) is the DVD of Buried (Rodrigo Cortés, Spain/USA/France, 2010).

Buried is about an American truck driver in Iraq, Paul (Ryan Reynolds), who wakes up to find himself buried alive in a coffin. Practically the whole of Buried is set within the confines of the coffin. To have the DVD of Buried so prominent in the frame, then, is to suggest a parallel between that film and this non-film: Panahi’s house arrest is also akin to some sort of artistic death, as if he, too, were buried alive.

What is more, the way in which Buried functions for some viewers as a film that raises awareness of the complexity of contemporary Iraq and, by extension, the Middle East in general (including Iran), makes of it a truly canny choice. It is contemporary, relatively fresh in the minds of those who have seen it, and politically relevant. Without wishing to over-read what could, after all, be a random detail, the prominent placement of the Buried DVD also suggests Panahi’s desire to send out coded messages about his imprisonment specifically to Western viewers, knowing full well that it is most likely only Western – or at the very least non-Iranian – viewers that will be able to see his film.

If the reader thinks that the above is the over-reading of what is arguably a random detail, then I would respond thus: in fact it does not matter whether the DVD of Buried was prominently placed in frame on purpose or by accident. What is important is that this non-film makes us question this very issue. It is when we are not – and perhaps cannot – be sure about the fabricated nature or otherwise of the images that we are seeing that Panahi’s film works best: is this a film or not?

Panahi then speaks to fellow filmmaker Rakhshan Bani-E’temad, who tells him that she is trying to rally support for his cause. Panahi discourages her from doing so, repeating the advice of his lawyer, Mrs Gheyrat, that it is perhaps better for him to court the support of foreign artists and Iranian artists in exile than for domestic artists to risk trouble of their own by speaking out against the government’s persecution of Panahi in particular and Iranian filmmakers more generally.

Bani-E’temad replies by saying that too many artists in Iran are living in fear of the present regime and that they must be more defiant. This truly is a bold act of defiance on her part to go on record as saying this.

(Even if Panahi cannot leave his home, his trusty iPhone keeps him in touch with well-wishing supporters. If anyone thought Iran were a backward country – if anyone took a Kiarostami film to be a ‘transparent’ depiction of life in Iran, then they should remember that the protests against the stolen election in 2009 were not for nothing known for their innovative use of Twitter and other social networking tools for their organisation.)

Panahi then decides that he will not make a film, but instead will read a screenplay of a film that he wanted to make before he was placed under house arrest (although, Panahi tells us, the Ministry for Culture and Islamic Guidance, the government agency responsible for approving films at script and edit stage in Iran, did not approve this script when he sent it to them).

This script tells the story of Maryam, a young woman from Isfahan who wants to study the arts in Tehran. Her parents, however, refuse to let her go to study and so instead lock her in her room – such that she has little to no contact with the outside world – a kind of young adult version of the two girls in Samira Makhmalbaf’s beautifully poetic Sib/The Apple (Iran/France, 1998), who also are confined to their house and who pass messages over their courtyard wall in order to communicate with the world beyond.

In the style of Dogville (Lars von Trier, Denmark/Sweden/UK/France/Germany/Netherlands/Norway/Finland, 2003), Panahi lays tape down on the carpet in his living room (which also houses a beautiful old Lumière-style cinematograph) in order to show us the borders of the set that he had created for his film about Maryam.

He then talks us through the story. It is as if Panahi here has become Scheherazade, who must make up stories in order to stay alive. That is, like storytelling for Scheherazade, filmmaking is for Panahi not a money-making pastime, but something that he feels compelled to do, something that he must do because he has no option (and on a level that is above and beyond all those who in the blush of youth claim to feel the same about filmmaking – “I don’t think I can lead my life without making films” – and yet who never do it – a chiding I give to myself more or less everyday). Without filmmaking Panahi might as well be buried…

Even without the ideal tools (sets, actors, lights, etc) to make a film, Panahi nonetheless films; he will make a non-film if he cannot make a film. The important thing is to make, to create. This is the gift of the filmmaker and other poets and artists: it is not uniquely the gift of skill in art-making that they have, but the compulsion to give that skill to the world, the inability to stop that need to create from bursting forth. A gift to and a gift from the artist.

At one point, Panahi (a gmail user) checks what is perhaps his own website, or at the very least a website featuring news about him. It is pure propaganda, with the website supposedly reporting that Panahi has turned to political filmmaking recently (by which is meant a turn to pro-government films), as well as stating that he ‘directed’ the recent Berlin Film Festival – even though in reality he was not allowed to travel for it – in February 2011 as in 2010.

This manipulation of the truth, then, may in its own way make artists of the Iranian government in their participation in the falsification of websites such that we cannot tell fact from fiction anymore. But whereas Panahi is intelligent and playful, in this case we can tell that the website in question is spreading downright lies.

What sound like gunshots outside begin to become increasingly common on the soundtrack. Panahi receives a phone call from a friend who offers to pick up his wife and daughter – since many people are taking to the streets, since traffic is heavy, and since the police are beginning to turn out in force.

Whether this is a staged phone call or simply a fictional device weaved into the film, the caller hangs up – saying that he is being pulled over by the police. Minutes later he calls again – safe, but saying that the police had spotted a camera on the passenger seat of his car and had pulled him over to ask him what he was doing with it.

In spite of being asked in my own experience to stop filming by the police on various occasions in public spaces and for a variety of reasons – most of which have seemed to me unreasonable – there is something sinister about the police pulling someone over simply for owning a camera and not for using it.

But as the non-film goes on, we begin to realise that those are not violent protests in the streets, but rather fireworks being set off for Chaharshanbe Suri, or Fireworks Wednesday, which typically takes place in Iran on the Tuesday night before ‘Red Wednesday.’ This takes place on the last Wednesday before Nouruz, which is the Persian New Year.

(This means that – if it were filmed in one day, which in fact seems unlikely – This is Not a Film was filmed on 15 March 2011, which partly tallies with the coverage that we see on television of the Tōhoku earthquake, which took place on 11 March 2011. That said, Panahi seems to react to the earthquake news as if it were brand new to him, which surely it could not have been had four days elapsed since the earthquake. This renders ambiguous the true timeline of this non-film’s making – made only worse when the IMDb credits the film to 2010 – while at the same time showing that even in his confinement, Panahi is once again in touch with the outside world – most of which simply cannot be faked – thanks to the media.)

As is explained in the film, Fireworks Wednesday (which, coincidentally, is the name of a film by the excellent Iranian filmmaker, Asghar Farhadi – he also responsible for the recent Darbareye Elly/About Elly (Iran, 2009) and Jodaeiye Nader az Simin/Nader and Simin, A Separation (Iran, 2011)) has been ‘called off’ by the government, and yet people go out and do it anyway – including Panahi’s downstairs neighbour, Shima, who at one point tries to leave with him her yapping dog, Mickey. Amusingly, Panahi ejects Mickey swiftly when it turns out that he and Igi do not get along.

Therefore, the soundtrack to the film sounds something like a war zone, while at the same time being charged with political resistance, as people light fireworks and street fires to celebrate the coming of a new – dare one hope for a better? – year.

This is Not a Film reaches its climax when Panahi starts to film Mirtahmasb on his mobile phone as Mirtahmasb films Panahi with the professional camera. Mirtahmasb quips amusingly – one of various moments of genuine humour in this otherwise anxiety-ridden film – that they are like hairdressers, in that when they run out of people whose hair to cut, they start to cut each other’s.

(Panahi also recounts an amusing story about how he and Bani-E’temad dream of starting up an Idle Filmmakers’ Mobile Kitchen during the periods when they are not making films – simply so that they can meet people.)

Mirtahmasb then says that he needs to leave. He leaves the camera rolling on the kitchen table, explaining to Panahi that ‘it matters that the cameras are ON’ (the upper case ‘ON’ appearing in the subtitles) – perhaps one of the clearest declarations in the film that filming whatever one can will help to make clear the would-be criminal nature of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government.

And as Panahi goes with Mirtahmasb to the door, there appears a good-looking young man who calls himself Hassan, and who claims that he is filling in for Akbar in emptying the bins, and that he is the brother of Nasrin, Akbar’s pregnant wife.

A strange encounter ensues: Hassan recognises Panahi, even though Panahi does not recognise Hassan. Mirtahmasb leaves, while Panahi questions Hassan about his life.

Oddly, though, Hassan becomes nervous, seemingly evading Panahi’s questions about his jobs (he has various) and his studies – only ever answering in the vaguest of terms: he’s studying the arts, but he provides no details that might make this response plausible.

To a westerner/to me (if not to everyone), there is something strange in this exchange. Hassan’s evasiveness in answering Panahi’s questions leads one to suspect that he is a spy of some sort, sent by the Ministry of Intelligence and National Security, which is often referred to as MOIS or VEVAK. And that, seeing Panahi with a camera in his hand, he is about to do Panahi’s appeal case no favours whatsoever.

Furthermore, the sequence is immensely tense in that Panahi, filming Hassan at first with his iPhone and then with the camera that Mirtahmasb has left running in the kitchen, goes with Hassan in the lift. Here the conversation changes to half-charming, half-sinister, in that the now-greater levels of confinement in the lift only add to the claustrophobia of the film.

In addition, Hassan has told Panahi that he was working in the building on the night that the police raided the apartment building to arrest him, his wife, his daughter, and 15 others including filmmakers Mohammad Rasoulof and Mehdi Pourmoussa, who was assistant director of Bahman Ghobadi’s underground film, Kasi az gorbehaye irani khabar nadareh/No One Knows About Persian Cats (Iran, 2009).

Why was Hassan there when the police raided Panahi’s place – in a fashion seemingly reminiscent of the party raid that occurs in Talayae sorkh/Crimson Gold (Iran, 2003)? Why does he specifically bring it up now, nearly a year later? The answer to these and other questions is repeatedly forestalled as Hassan takes the lift down level by level – from the 9th floor (Panahi’s) to the basement – stopping at each to check if there is rubbish to pick up.

Perhaps it is nerves on Hassan’s part – being stuck in a lift with a great director who is also filming him (Hassan does amusingly say that he is not looking good enough to be filmed). But there is something sinister about the way Hassan continually begins to explain his version of events on the night of the raid and arrest (which, incidentally, was 1 March 2010) – only to stop, leave the lift to check for rubbish, and then to start again when he returns.

What is more, it is only when Panahi prompts him to ring the neighbours’ doorbells that Hassan begins to do so to check for rubbish. Otherwise, Hassan explains, everyone seems to have forgotten to leave their rubbish out.

When Hassan does begin to ring doorbells, barely anyone answers. Hassan assumes that this must be because everyone is out at Fireworks Wednesday, but the viewer is nonetheless unsure – and this lack of security, which runs throughout this non-film but which is here redefined through the lens of the spy thriller, which – outrageously (at least for me) – seems to have surfaced from nowhere within Panahi’s film, only adds to the tension.

Further elements increase the anxiety: Hassan often steps out on to pitch dark landings that we cannot see – our inability to see enhancing our sense of uncertainty; one floor – the seventh – has raging party music thumping from its door, meaning that the non-film’s soundscape also creates tension.

Hassan and Panahi then reach the second floor, prior to arriving at which Hassan speculates that there will be lots of empty pizza boxes outside the inhabitants’ door. Once again, Hassan reminds us of Hussein (Hossein Emadeddin) of Crimson Gold, who himself is a pizza delivery man and whose sense of dissatisfaction with the world might be similar to Panahi’s in his current predicament.

However, comedy is unpredictably injected here into this prolonged lift sequence, when the door is answered not by pizza-guzzling neighbours but by Shima, whose voice once again we hear (we never see her) as she tries to fob Mickey off on to Hassan for a few hours so that she also can go out to Fireworks Wednesday.

(Hassan accepts – but he will look after Mickey in the lobby after the film has finished.)

The intrusion of comedy does not allow for a release in pressure, however; it in fact only renders us (or perhaps only me) further incapable of working out quite what is going on. Is Hassan a spy of sorts? Is this film – in spite of its ‘ramshackle’/improvised appearance – so well organised that it is only fooling with our expectations? Is this a comedy?

Bizarrely, Hassan tells Shima to try giving the dog to Panahi up on the ninth floor. She says that she has already tried, but that Mickey only survived two seconds up there. Suddenly what could well be a truly innocent conversation becomes once again sinister because the subject of the conversation, Panahi, is recording it. Panahi has now turned spy instead of Hassan. Perhaps Panahi as non-filmmaker is the intrusive one, documenting the strangeness of other people’s lives.

Nonetheless, down the lift goes – further into the darkness of the basement. All the while remaining immensely polite, Hassan then carries the rubbish he has accumulated through the underground car park (if I remember correctly – it is dark, after all) and towards the exit.

If Panahi has been playing with our emotions – is this real? is this staged? is Panahi in danger of being caught filming by a government that surely would use any excuse further to punish him? – then the unease only (impossibly!) increases as the film comes to its final moments.

Panahi steps outside of his apartment block and towards the gates of his building. Hassan turns and tells him that he must not be seen here – a gesture that seems to confirm, finally, that Hassan is not a ‘bad guy’ – but which only suggests, after so much claustrophobia upstairs on the 9th floor, a sense of liberation. This sense of liberation in stepping outside of the apartment further reinforces one’s sense of Panahi’s frustration and enclosure. That he might get spotted simultaneously reinforces one’s sense of paranoia – ‘they’ are, or at least, might be watching.

And as the film draws to its close, Panahi films a street fire taking place right by the gate to his apartment block and around which shadowy figures gather and dance. What had for a while seemed a generic film now becomes once again political: the fires are an act of defiance, suggesting the passion of the people, their desire for change in an Iran in which Panahi has been imprisoned for, it seems, nothing more than making a film. A beacon in the darkness.

But this final political charge does not resolve the question – defined as it is by uncertainty and anxiety – concerning whether we have just watched an elaborate hoax, or whether Panahi has managed to make a film that portrays a reality the weird and wonderful nature of which is more inscrutable and fascinating than any fictional world could be.

In creating a film that plays with our expectations in this manner, Panahi exposes the way in which cinema has ingrained itself in our thought patterns. An innocent man, Hassan, could be a spy, we/I fear. Paranoia perhaps characterises our times, but this paranoia is also linked to our secret belief that somehow we might be in a filmic reality in which people are spying on us.

Except that we know that Panahi is under house arrest; that ‘they’ probably are spying on him – regardless of whether or not he has managed to make a non-film and to have it distributed (how have the powers that be in Iran responded to this? is this all part of an even bigger hoax in which – crazily – Iran creates myths about its filmmakers in order to enhance their international reputation?).

It is not that we should take the content of these questions seriously (or should we?). It is that the suspicion that we could possibly be in a film, or what I shall call ‘cinematic thinking,’ suggests that cinema is our measure of reality – and not that reality is our measure of cinema.

This is not intended as disrespect to anyone who has suffered recently or ever at the hands of this or any political regime, but it seems as though repressive regimes (which I shall label as fascist, whether the regimes in question identify themselves with this term or not) themselves function cinematically. That is, fascism and cinema are inherently linked, in that the cultivation of fear that allows one to control the people is achieved not strictly in films, but in making people suspect that they might be in a (genre) film.

If we find the roots of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s regime back in the Islamic Revolution of 1979, during which cinemas were burnt down (with people in them), and during which the late Ayatollah Khomeini critiqued the cinema as a dangerous, but potentially useful, tool for controlling the people, then we could conceivably argue that Ahmadinejad has taken Khomeini’s lesson to heart. He has done so not by rejecting cinema, but by allowing cinematic thinking to penetrate the minds of his people, such that they live in fear. Such that they think that their lives could turn into a film, like Panahi’s life here, and that they, too, could be buried alive or worse…

If – paradoxically – the current Iranian regime asserts its power through the propagation of cinematic thinking, then, Panahi’s anti-regime film must by definition be non-cinematic. As he and Mirtahmasb themselves declare through their title, if it is Iran itself that has become a movie of sorts, then this film is not – and cannot be – a film.

What is true of Iran here becomes true of cinema as a whole – meaning that Panahi – whose films up until this point have always left me only lukewarm in comparison to some of the other Iranian filmmakers whose works I love – has made not just his masterpiece, but a true masterpiece of all cinema and – remarkably – under the most strenuous and minimal conditions.

This ‘truth’ is that ‘cinematic thinking’ infiltrates all of us – and the more we feel that we are living in a film, the more (potentially) we are prey to the logic of fascism, whether or not control is the deliberate or merely the unconscious aim of anyone anywhere.

That is, the more we prefer cinema to life, the more we wish our lives were cinematic, the more we will into existence the repressive/fascistic regimes that are required to bring this about. In a fashion akin to (of course) Gilles Deleuze, Hollywood and Hitler go hand in hand – such that cinema and fascism are inextricably bound the one to the other.

If this is the case, then Panahi’s non-film strikes a blow to fascism everywhere. But how is this so?

This is so because the non-film is not cinematic in the recognisable and generic sense defined above, hence its status as a ‘non-film.’ This non-film explores paranoia, but where mainstream cinema might make that paranoia real, not least by centering the film on an individual protagonist or on a small group of individual protagonists, here Panahi’s film leaves us to query whether the paranoia is real, or whether it is just us reading it into the film.

By raising the question that we are reading this paranoia into the film, Panahi exposes to us our susceptibility to cinematic thinking (rather than simply reinforcing it). Panahi, himself a political and not a legal prisoner, as Mrs Gheyrat argues (and if we are to believe her); in other words, Panahi himself precisely the person to say that the paranoia is justified because he has been placed under house arrest for his thoughts and for his creative endeavours, as if either could ever be crimes. If Panahi, then, exposes our susceptibility to cinematic thinking despite being entirely qualified to think it himself, then truly we must take note.

If Panahi – together with Bani-E’temad – refuses to live in fear, then none of us, be we from Iran or anywhere, should live in fear. By creating a film that in some senses destroys cinema, then Panahi’s film is justifiably ‘not a film.’ Panahi is superficially the centre of his film – we see plenty of him in frame throughout its duration. But his encounters with others, hopefully innocent as they seemingly turn out to be, remind us that we are not the centre of things and that we should not in an individualistic/paranoid sense believe that we are. There are always others; we are always with others; we do not – and cannot – exist without others.

And yet cinema has – in its more popular iterations, anyway – perpetuated the myth of the individual, written wider as mancruel against, and not with, nature. In this way, This is Not a Film is not the becoming cinema, or the becoming light, that most humans dream of. Rather it is Panahi’s unbecoming cinema that, paradoxically, lends to the film its great depth and power.

If cinema were not linked inextricably to fascism (again, defined here not as a single historical movement or moment, but as the repressive (and often self-willed) control of the people in all places and at all times – perhaps even in pre-cinematic times), then non-films like Panahi’s would not be necessary. They would have no existence, no meaning.

Perhaps the paradoxically mainstream nature of individualistic/paranoid thought justifies the artist, who tries to remind the world that we are with each other and with the world. That is, perhaps fascism has a mass psychology that is difficult for we humans to accept, even though we disavow our desire for fascism on an almost daily basis.

This is one conundrum I am not in a position to resolve – not during this [non-?]blog at any rate.

Nevertheless, in unbecoming cinema, Panahi exposes the cinema that has filtered repressively through Iran to allow Ahmadinejad to steal an election and to continue to impose his will on a people waking up to the realisation that this is not what they want, and that they need not live in fear.

As Panahi steps outside, he sees others who are also already outside. The example can spread beyond Iran: perhaps it is time for us all to step outside. To live not in fear. But to embrace reality and all that it contains. To think not just individually, but through a sense of withness. To reject fascism, to realise the extent to which we think cinematically – perhaps even to realise the extent to which thinking cinematically means that we think in clichés, and to realise that thinking in clichés means that we probably do not think at all.

If these are not in themselves clichés (and they could be), it is time, perhaps, to think – and perhaps to act by stepping outside, by exposing ourselves to encounters with others, by recognising that we are only ever with others and with the world. Not to have answers, but questions. Not to be certain but – as per Panahi’s film – to be asking about the truth-status of all that we see.

Perhaps there is no reality without cinema, no cinema without reality. Answering this question is not important. Or rather, not answering this question is very important. Buried in Iran, where paranoia/cinema is perhaps most justified as a mode of thought, Panahi refuses to answer this question. Again, for this reason his non-film is not a film in the conventional sense of the word.

But it is for certain a work of art that dances on the edge of cinema and non-cinema, of thought and non-thought, asking questions, inducing thought, living not in fear, even if the film also explores – consciously or otherwise – the politics of fear, making us aware that fear is not imposed from without but something with which we are all complicit.

Strangely, if we are complicit in our belief in the individual and the concomitant rise of fascism-enabling paranoia, then a paradox emerges in that individualism/paranoia/fascism is reliant on complicity/withness, while at the same time occulting that very withness that enables it; the job here is to bring withness back to visibility such that rampant individualism, paranoia and thus fascism might evaporate.

Since we are all together, we must all recognise this and each other. When we recognise each other – even when, like Panahi, we live confined to only a few rooms – then we can begin to live in a democracy, both in Iran and around the world.

Notes from the LFF: Mourning (Morteza Farshbaf, Iran, 2011)

Blogpost, Film reviews, Iranian cinema, Uncategorized

Mourning is one of the three Iranian films playing at this year’s London Film Festival – and I will be blogging about all three once I have had a chance to see them.

Mourning tells the story of Arshia (Amir Hossein Maleki), a young boy whose parents abandon him one night after a row.

The next thing we see is a car traveling through the Iranian countryside, a nice black 4×4 drifting along dirt tracks and surrounded by lush grass dancing in the wind.

Subtitles appear as if in error on the bottom of the screen – we can hear no spoken words. But after some time we realise that this is the conversation taking place in the car in sign language between Kamran (Kiomars Giti) and Sharareh (Sharareh Pasha), two middle-aged deaf and dumb people who have taken Arshia into their care after his parents’ departure.

En route, Kamran and Sharareh come across a car crash in a tunnel. Kamran leaves his vehicle and goes to investigate. It soon transpires that Arshia’s parents have seemingly died in this car crash, meaning that Kamran and Sharareh will have to look after Arshia from now on.

Mourning is not quite a real time movie, but all of its action takes place over a night and a day, as Arshia, Sharareh and Kamran try to come to terms with the death of the former’s parents, and to envisage a future for the young boy that has been left behind.

The car seems to be a staple motif – and setting – for various Iranian films, with Ten (Abbas Kiarostami, France/Iran/USA, 2002), 10 on Ten (Abbas Kiarostami, France/Iran, 2004) and the more recent The Hunter (Rafi Pitts, Iran/Germany, 2010) emerging as prominent examples. Given that director Farshbaf is a Kiarostami protégé, this perhaps comes as no surprise.

The car suggests a simple paradox: it enables mobility while at the same time being an enclosed space. What is more, the use of tunnels along the way in this movie, and in The Hunter also, suggests further layers of enclosure – and darkness.

Given the prominence of these visual motifs – the car and the tunnel – it becomes hard not to read Mourning allegorically.

That is, the film does play as an affecting character piece in which Arshia, who seemingly can both lip read and sign, must learn in a brutal fashion about the death of his parents (which we never see), and in which Kamran and Sharareh run through a range of responses to the death of the child’s parents, from the pragmatic (they are the best placed people to look after Arshia) to the darkly comic (Kamran complaining about how Arshia needs the loo every few minutes).

But the film nonetheless – perhaps in a ‘bad’ way given Fredric Jameson‘s belief that Westerners cannot help but read ‘Third World’ literature, and by extension films, as national allegories – seems to be less about the characters whose lives briefly we share, and more about the place in which the story takes place.

Given the overwhelming silence of the film, the allegory is far from over-stated. And yet the abandonment of a child, his adoption by kind, mobile, but ultimately confined-to-the-car ersatz parents, whose voices literally cannot be heard, and whose language is alien to all but the happiest few, seems strongly to suggest an Iran whose youth has also been abandoned by rowing parents who will drive each other to death, and whose institutional support is minimal.

This reading is without question simplistic – as well as arguably problematic given the perennial issue of for whom this film was made and to whom it will most likely appeal (your average Iranian Joe, or well-to-do Westerners who have time to worry about a land so foreign to them as Iran). That is, in (over-)determining Mourning as a ‘message’ film, I have almost certainly overlooked its power to affect viewers in diverse ways, some abstract (such are allegories) and some physical.

But to stick to the allegorical, the film ends with Arshia in a tunnel. We see a protracted shot of the tunnel – a gaping black hole in the middle of the screen, the impenetrability of which suggests an uncertain future. And then we see a reverse shot: daylight at the end of the tunnel, but with darkness all around us. The light seems ever-so-close, but we do not approach.

Having also had the chance recently to see The Green Wave (Ali Samadi Ahadi, Germany, 2010), a guerrilla film involving tweets, amateur footage, voice recordings, talking heads interviews and animated versions of blogs concerning the Green Movement, Mourning becomes even more resonant.

The Green Wave documents the repressive violence that surrounded the wave of protests against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s seemingly fraudulent re-election to office in the 2009 Iranian presidential elections.

There have since been arrests, murders and brutality aplenty – condoned if not directly authorised by the government.

And what is being protested is not just a stolen election but the deprivation of the right to a democratic society based upon choice.

Iran is a country with a huge youth population – not least in part as a result of the Iran-Iraq war that ran from 1980 to 1988, and which resulted in 500,000 to 1,000,000 deaths. In other words, with the adult generation of the 1980s depleted and scarred by war, it is those who have grown up since who now are the driving force, or the main constituent part, of the Green Movement.

As such, Arshia seems to stand for all Iranian youth – stuck in a tunnel, having lost his parents to internecine disputes, and with new, surrogate parents who do not necessarily speak his language – however benign-willed they are or wish to be.

Given the difficulty with which filmmakers can make films in contemporary Iran (and given the arrest of some 25 filmmakers recently in Iran), it seems that allegory is the only means through which filmmakers can make any political points – even if the use of allegory risks confusing that message (if the message could be anything but confused if it were to pay respect to the complexities of the world and perhaps of Iran in particular).

As such, my take on Mourning as being allegorical is reinforced, since films like The Green Wave cannot be made in Iran, as that film’s German production location makes clear. Farshbaf must be political – like Kiarostami his master – by avoiding the overtly political.

Once again, this is not to overlook the film’s poetic nature: beautiful landscapes filled with human and humane people who live and love like anywhere else on Earth. But politics and poetics do not have to be mutually exclusive; indeed, the film’s patiently long takes – especially of Iran’s luscious green grass – lend to Mourning not the howl that The Green Wave evokes, but a calm, reasoned, certain appeal to a better future…

POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold (Morgan Spurlock, USA, 2011)

American cinema, Blogpost, Documentary, Film education, Film reviews, Neurocinematics

There is not necessarily that much to say about POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, in that the premise of the film is pretty simple.

That is, Morgan Spurlock, he of Supersize Me (USA, 2004) fame, has made a film that exposes to what degree product placement – or what we might call just plain advertising – is a common practice in the film, television and new media industries.

I hope that such people do not exist (because they’d have to be what I might uncharitably term morons), but we can hypothesise that not everyone already knows this. And if not everyone already knows this, then bravo Morgan Spurlock for bringing it to our/their attention.

Beyond that, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold is not necessarily as brilliant as all that. And I’d perhaps even go so far as to say that it is disingenuous.

The Review Bit (in which – enviously? – I reproach Morgan Spurlock for thinking that a wink and a smile mitigates the trick he is playing on me)
The film is smart and ironic, sure – but its disingenuous nature comes through when Spurlock takes (seeming) swipes at bizarre North American corporate practices, such as the weird psychoanalytic branding exercise that he goes through early on in the film.

We see Morgan subjected to countless questions that seem to go on for hours – and after being grilled in this intense manner he is told – entirely anticlimactically – that he/his brand is a combination of intelligent and witty (I can’t remember the exact phrase – but it was cheesey).

My point is that if Morgan expects us (as at least I seem to think that he does) to laugh, somewhat bitterly, at how people can make money selling transparent clothes to the Emperor (psychoanalytic branding that tells anyone with a modicum of self-awareness what they probably know about themselves already), then why does he not expect us already to know precisely the other ‘insights’ that his documentary reveals – namely, that advertising is everywhere?

In this way, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold is not really about advertising, but about Morgan Spurlock – and his access to the beautiful classes (even if he has not in fact ‘made it’ in ‘real life’).

The film claims that he is not selling out but buying in. To be honest, I think that both of these terms pertain to the same logic of capital-as-justification-of-one’s-existence that Spurlock might not necessarily critique, but the critique of which is surely a strong part of his No Logo-reading target audience.

Spurlock might aim for ‘transparency’ – but this in itself is problematic. As pointed out to me in the past by an astute former colleague, if something is transparent, it is invisible. While Spurlock might make apparent something that advertisers themselves have for a long time been wanting to make as apparent as possible – namely their brand – Spurlock also seeks to make transparent – i.e. invisible – his very conformity with the practices that his film might otherwise seek to critique.

Irony and humour are aplenty in the film, as Spurlock seeks to make a doc-buster that is corporate sponsored in its entirety while being about the prevalence of corporate sponsorship. There seems no room in this world for gifts or sacrifices, or any of those things that might otherwise suggest a spirit and sense of community beyond the quest for material profit. And for all of Spurlock’s success (and his failures) in getting money from the brand dynasties, it does seem to lack, how do I put it?, soul.

The Simpsons Movie (David Silverman, USA, 2007) opens with Homer shouting from an onscreen audience that the Simpsons Movie within the Simpsons Movie that he is watching is no better than the TV show, and a rip-off. Similarly, Wayne’s World (Penelope Spheeris, USA, 1992) has a protracted sketch in which Wayne (Mike Myers) explains how he will not sell out to corporate sponsorship while simultaneously advertising a host of products from pizzas from trainers.

In other words, Hollywood has been pretty up-front about the fact that it has been peddling advertisements to us/short-changing us in the form of films for a long time. Hell – although I am here shifting slightly into the realm of the online viral, but some ‘advertainments’ – such as Zack Galafianakis’ wonderful Vodka Movie – are pretty good.

In this way, Spurlock does not take his film to the level of, say, the Yes Men in their critique of contemporary corporate practices. In their far-too-little-seen The Yes Men Fix The World (Andy Bichlbaum, Mike Bonanno and Kurt Engfehr, France/UK/USA, 2009), there is a scene in which the titular Yes Men try to convince a gathering of corporate bigwigs that they could make a shitload of money by, literally, repackaging shit back to consumers (that’s vaguely how I remember it, anyway – perhaps someone can correct me if I’m wrong). Hollywood also does this – but given that shit stinks and causes disease if not carefully disposed of, sometimes it’s good to rub it back in the noses of those who deposit it, as per the Yes Men. In comparison, Spurlock just seems to enjoy wading through shit to get to the silver screen a little too much.

Anyway, now to…

The Real Blog – not about but inspired by the so-branded Greatest Movie Ever Sold
At one point in Spurlock’s film, he talks to Martin Lindstrom of Buyology, which is also the name of a book about marketing and its effects on the brain.

Lindstrom shows to Spurlock images of his brain while watching a Coke commercial.

Lindstrom explains that at a certain moment in the commercial (it is not made particularly clear which moment, since Spurlock – like many neuro-whatever evangelists – tries to blind us with ‘science’ rather than a precise explanation), Spurlock’s brain releases dopamine, which suggests an addiction of sorts – inspired by the commercial. That is, or so the film seems to suggest, Spurlock underwent the same effects of a ‘Coke high’ thinking about Coke – which in turn suggested his avowed desire for a Coke at the time of watching the advert – as involved in actually drinking a Coke.

What is not clear from this is whether Spurlock’s ‘addiction’ is to Coke, or at the very least to its effects, or rather to images that can spur desire through their very presence for that which they depict.

My critique of the lack of clarity offered by Spurlock and which I extended to neuro-evangelists is not because, Raymond Tallis-style, I wish to dismiss ‘neuromania.’ Indeed, I personally think that neuroscience has enormous amounts of insight to offer us.

But I am not sure that the right questions are being asked of neuroscience at present in order for us fully to understand the implication of its results.

I have written a few papers, published and forthcoming, on what neuroscience might mean for film studies, particularly in the realm of images attracting our attentions through fast cutting rates, through the exaggerated use of colour, and through various acting techniques (associated predominantly with Stanislavski’s ‘system‘ and Strasberg’s ‘method‘ – which are of course different things, but I group them together because the former spawned its offshoot, the latter). And it is this area of studying film that I wish to pursue further – and on a level of seriousness far greater than that more playfully adopted for a previous posting on sleeping in the cinema.

This will sound quite outlandish – particularly to academic readers – because it is a crazy, Burroughs-esque proposal. But I think that a neuroscientific approach to cinema will help bring us closer to answering one question, which I formulate thus: can there be such a thing as image addiction?

Why is this an important question to ask/answer – and what does neuroscience have to do with it?

It is an important question – at least in my eyes – for the following reason: there is a long line in film studies history of people who argue for and against (predominantly against) the possibility that humans can or do mistake cinematic images for reality. This question, however, is all wrong – even if slightly more interesting than it seems easy to dismiss.

Far more important is the following: it is not that humans mistake films for reality (or if they do, this is not as significant as what follows), it is that humans commonly mistake reality for cinema.

What do I mean by this? I mean every time we feel disappointed that we are not in a film. I mean humanity’s obsession with watching moving images on screens at every possible opportunity such that life – and even ‘slow’ films – become boring and intolerable to people who must have their fix instead of bright colour and fast action. I mean the widespread aspiration to be on film, or at the very least to become an image (what I like to refer to as ‘becoming light’) on a screen (the final abandonment of the body and the ability to be – as an image – in all places at once [travelling at ‘light speed’]). I mean our inability to look interlocutors in the eye because we are too transfixed by the TV screen glowing in the corner of the pub. I mean – and I know this sensation intensely – the sense of immersion and loss of self that I feel when I watch films.

This is what I call image addiction.

But why neuroscience?

Because neuroscience might be able to help show to what extent – be it through conspiracy or otherwise – moving images and their accompanying sounds literally wire our brains in a certain fashion, such that we do all (come closer to) thinking in exactly the same way, repeating the same bullshit mantras to each other, dreaming only minor variations of the same things, etc.

Don’t get me wrong. If we adopted a psychoanalytic – instead of a neuroscientific – discourse – we might realise that the literal wiring of our brains is heavily influenced – and perhaps even relies/historically has relied upon – ‘fantasy’ of other kinds beyond the cinematic, and which we might even more broadly label the ‘culture’ in which we live.

But a neuroscientific demonstration of how this is so (if, indeed, it is so – this is only my hunch at the moment) might then open up debate on every philosophical level: ontologically, to what extent is reality determined by fiction? Ethically, how many images, of what kind, and using what styles, can or should we see if we want to retain some sense of a mythological self that – impossibly in my eyes – is ‘untouched’ by the world (be that by cinema in the world or the world itself that contains cinema) and belongs ‘purely’ to us? Indeed, this might open up debate not only about which ontology and which ethics, but regarding the entire issue of both ontology and ethics – and how historically they have been framed…

For those interested in what academic researchers do, I am trying at present to create a network of scholars interested in ‘neurocinematics’ (which is not to deny that various scholars are already working on these issues in their own ways). I am sceptical that I will be successful in attracting funding, not because the idea is not ‘sexy’ but because I am not sure, at present, whether I know enough neuroscientists to work with, and I also figure I might be too much of a no-mark academic to land a plum grant from a funding institution that has never heard of me. But I shall try nonetheless.

In conclusion, then, Lindstrom’s comment to Spurlock is unclear, but it raises the issue that I think is at the heart of where I want my academic research to go (even if I want to retain strong interests in other academic areas, predominantly film studies, and even if I might ditch all of this to write and/or direct films if anyone ever gave me the money to do so beyond my breaking my bank account every time I put light to lens – my filmmaking being my own desire to become light): is Spurlock addicted to what is in the image, or to the image itself? Can we separate them? Does looking at Coke can yield the same effect as looking at the stylised Coke can in the image (i.e. it is the properties not strictly of the can, but of the can in the image) that trigger the response of which Lindstrom speaks…

I suspect that both the advertising and movie industries are funding this kind of research as we speak. If the corporate giants can go straight to your brain, they will do. Inception (Christopher Nolan, USA/UK, 2010), then, becomes no lie (not that inception/influence of some sort has not always been in existence – as I argue here). In some sense, then, such research is morally indispensable; what I mean by this is that if corporate giants discover and protect methods of accessing the brain directly, then it is up to academics to let humans know how this happens, to make them aware of ‘inception,’ to bring people back to that most unfashionable of approaches to studying film, ideological critique.

In some senses, then, this is simply the rehashing under new paradigms the same old questions that have been banging around since cinema’s, ahem, inception, and even before. Only the stakes are now higher.

Might I say that a full neurocinematic programme might simply prove according to some scientific paradigm what many of us have known all along?

Wait a second, isn’t this also what I accuse Morgan Spurlock of doing with The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, accusing him of being a self-serving hypocrite for doing something that I myself seem to want to do?

Maybe Spurlock’s film is better than I thought, then. Maybe it is important and ingenious, because of its invisible transparency, not in spite of it.

There probably is no academic study that is devoid of corporate sponsorship somewhere along the line these days. There certainly will be even less if the politicians do not open their ears at some point and listen to what people are beginning literally to scream at them with regard to higher education and other issues. That is, that is must be as free of outside interests as possible, even if the quest for true objectivity is impossible to achieve.

Indeed, if we are talking about the possibility of corporate – or even gubernatorial – brain control (which is not the same as mind control, I hasten to add, though one could lead to the other), then we need to know whether it is possible, how it might happen, and what we can do about it. Before our bodies are all snatched away by the light (note: even now I cannot escape movie references) of the screen and before we are all turned into dependent image junkies who need the images just to feel alive – the over-dependent equivalent of the good, small dose that a movie like Perfect Sense (David Mackenzie, UK/Denmark, 2011) seems to offer – as written about here.

Perfect Sense (David Mackenzie, UK/Denmark, 2011)

Blogpost, British cinema, European cinema, Film reviews, Uncategorized

I have an hour to write this blog. Let’s see what can get done in that time. Given the rush, though, apologies for ensuing typos. I guess they are a hazard of trying to type too fast and of restructuring sentences as one goes along.

That said, this blog is inspired by David Mackenzie’s latest film, Perfect Sense. The premise of the film is relatively simple: humanity is slowly losing its senses, one by one, starting with smell, then taste, then hearing, then sight…

While the film has snatches of this global pandemic – pictured as crowds in Asia and Africa eating, stumbling, touching and the like, the main action takes place in contemporary Glasgow, where epidemiologist, Susan (Eva Green), endeavours to tackle the problem while starting a relationship with chef, Michael (Ewan MacGregor).

This will not be the blog to question the ‘global’ images, which perhaps deserve some critique. No film can get everything right, but the short/sharp treatment that the rest of the world gets in comparison to the main bourgeois couple perhaps deserves greater discussion than I’ll offer here.

Nor will this blog really discuss the interesting illustration that the film provides of how memory is associated with the senses – figured here as ‘disappearing’ images, rendered in photographic (as opposed to cinematographic) form.

Furthermore, the blog will not really try to fit this film in with the ongoing cycle of cataclysmic films that have migrated from the mainstream (provide your own examples) into the more ‘art house’ strand (again, your own examples will suffice, although I also do not want to overlook older examples of artsy treatments of the eschaton, from Tarkovsky to Zulawski, etc).

Rather, this blog will start by mentioning how Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, France, 2001) was considered at one point through the framework of pétisme.

In the above-linked article, the author, Michelle Scatton-Tessier, discusses how Amélie was linked to a discourse of ‘simple,’ often physical, pleasures: dipping a hand in a pile of beans, spotting continuity errors in old films, etc.

The reason that I start with this is to say that if – at least implicitly – Scatton-Tessier suggests a sort of light-weightedness in Jeunet’s film as a result of his foregrounding of such ‘simple’ experiences, then Perfect Sense is in some respects all about such pleasures. In a world without smell, taste, sound or, ultimately, sight (and beyond that, presumably, touch), our everyday experiences are returned to us in all of their glory – an affirmation that fundamentally we are alive and with the world.

Since such pétisme is one of the film’s main focuses, it inspires thoughts about the nature of joy. For your information, this idea of joy is inspired by the Jewish Portuguese-Dutch philosopher, Baruch Spinoza, as well as by the recent neurology-inspired treatment of Spinoza given by neuroscientist Antonio Damasio.

So… what is joy? Well, joy is the feeling evoked when humans feel alive and with the world. Joy is, in this sense, both sensual and physical, but also supremely conscious. That is to say, were we in the world as unthinking zombies, we would still feel. But those moments when we become most intensely aware that we feel – these moments are what I would like to refer to as joyful ones.

Joy has, as Spinoza would argue, its own ethics. That is, joy is a feeling associated with enworldedness, and to be enworlded is to recognise others. In recognising others, we lead an ethical life that seeks to maximise one’s own joy and the joy of others, rather than frustrating or destroying the joy of others for the sake of selfish concerns.

In an hour (now 40 minutes), I do not have the time to explain in greater detail any empirical basis for such an argument, were a coherent one easily to be constructed even after 4,000 minutes of writing. So we must push on…

We live in an age in which joy seems a rare commodity. Perhaps it needs to be rare and the pain and sorrow that surround joy give to it its value in our lives. Nonetheless, I feel no embarrassment in connecting the need for joy to the absence of joy found in our current political, economic and ecological situation – and which has found expression in recent and ongoing movements towards social change. In other words, Perfect Sense emerges, in some respects, as a treatise on finding joy, even as we become increasingly disconnected from the world with which fundamentally we are inseparable.

In this sense, the affliction of senselessness that strikes humanity in the film is not uniquely an allegory of a vengeful nature, but perhaps most particularly an allegory of our own practice of alienating ourselves from the world. That is, the affliction is not nature, but humanity itself.

This is arguably a skewed reading of the film. No disservice is intended to David Mackenzie and his collaborators, in particular screenwriter Kim Fupz Aakeson. But these were my thoughts during and since the film, so I pursue them nonetheless – because as is my usual bent, I want to talk not really about this film, but to use this film as a pathway to talking about film itself (and for the pedants that may come across this blog, I do not strictly mean film in the material sense – polyester – but film as an audiovisual text).

For, humanity’s alienation from the world leads de facto to a reduction in joy. This is dangerous water: what myth of antediluvean joy am I evoking to suggest that at some point in time humans were in harmony with nature? None, I hope. My point would be that humans have always only ever been in, or better with, nature; it’s just that we have created precisely a myth that we are not. What I wish to evoke, then, is not so much a time in which humans are ‘once again’ reconnected with nature – but rather an understanding that we are, always have been, and for the duration of our crawling over the face of this – and perhaps other planets – always will be, with nature. Pétisme is not a silly little pastime; it lies at the root of understanding our place in the world…

If this sounds tree-hugging, then hold on to your underwear, because I am about to get more romantic still as I defend idealism, perhaps even naïveté.

Perfect Sense suggests that we most appreciate things when we are about to lose them. The loss of smell in the film is prefaced by tears, the loss of taste by gluttony, and loss of hearing by anger and the loss of sight by tenderness and love. Although tears, gluttony and anger might all be characterised negatively, they are also all intense feelings.

My point here, though, is that intensity is accompanied almost necessarily by its opposite; something perhaps that we might call neutrality.

In a not-necessarily-uniquely-metaphorical sense, we can say that the same is true of all experiences. Vision can only be appreciated by blinking. Without blinking, our eyes would become dry and/or burnt and we would no longer be able to see. What is more, our eyes move the whole time through a process called saccades. We cannot see, I have read, during the saccade movement itself, but only during the fixation that happens between each saccade.

Aside from the possibility that vision is based upon fixation and stillness – while change, or more precisely time itself, is invisible to us – this suggests, to me at least, that in some senses we can only see by looking away.

How does this relate to idealism and naïveté? Well, perhaps cinema, too, is a process that involves us turning our eyes (and other senses, of course) away from reality as we might normally define it, and placing them before an alternative, supposedly fictional world that is not our own.

While some argue that reality can be fundamentally disappointing after seeing certain films, I felt invigorated after seeing Perfect Sense, keen once again to marvel the minute details that all too often I overlook.

This is no doubt cheesey, but it is for me also true, so in the name of honesty, I cannot deny my own susceptibility to such romanticism. In other words, Perfect Sense itself – as well as the story that it tells – functions as a metaphor of how looking away (figured within the film as deprivation, figured in my experience as cinema-going) can help us to see – if not more clearly, then at least (and perhaps only temporarilty) differently upon looking back once again.

In other words, looking at the world not as it is but as it might be – via the ideal worlds of fiction – can help us better, or at least differently, to see the world as it is. Idealism functions to support our understanding of the world.

I don’t consider this to be a whole-hearted embrace of anything-goes illusionism. But then I also don’t believe that there is (access to) an objective reality against which we can measure how ‘realistic’ or otherwise our vision is (even if we can enhance our understanding of reality by repeating experiments and seeing how consistently our understanding of it is correct). We are not detached observers of reality; we are constituent parts of reality, co-constituting both ourselves and the reality that surrounds in an ongoing process. In this way, the ideals of idealism are not (to be mistaken for) reality; but they are a part of reality.

To switch vocabulary, we might say that in some senses, then, and as Gilles Deleuze might suggest, the actual is a product of the virtual. That is, the virtual is the realm of ideas – that which has no material being, but whose effects on the real world are undeniable in that the virtual is the ‘darkness’ (or the looking away) that allows us to see the light.

And contemplating ideas, or the virtual, is perhaps also to lead a life that is virtuous. Virtue here is not the turning away from and the rejection of the reality that surrounds us for the sake of living in a dream. But it is understanding that dreams, ideals, virtuality, and perhaps also cinema, have an important role to play in how we frame – and thereby co-constitute – both ourselves and reality.

The more we realise our interdependent nature – interdependent with nature/reality and with each other – the more – Spinoza again – our lives are virtuous. The more joy we let into our lives. The more, perhaps, we love. This is perhaps to live ecologically – and to realise that films are an important part of our (mediated) ecology.

I’ve not yet seen it, though I suspect I will, but Contagion (Steven Soderbergh, USA/United Arab Emirates, 2011) will probably overshadow Perfect Sense as the epidemic film of 2011. However, by turning away from the mainstream and towards the more independent-minded British film that is Perfect Sense, perhaps we can re-think our relationship with mainstream movies, rethink what constitutes a mainstream movie, and realise that independence in filmmaking – idealism of a sort – is what refreshes cinema. No disrespect to Soderbergh, but Mackenzie has produced a remarkable film on what is surely a fraction of the budget…

Notes from LFF: Dragonslayer (Tristan Patterson, USA, 2011)

American cinema, Blogpost, Documentary, Film reviews, London Film Festival 2011, Uncategorized

If I Wish (Kore-eda Hirokazu, Japan, 2011) only obliquely situates itself within the context of the current global economic downturn, Dragonslayer does so in a much more overt fashion.

Or rather, hearing director Tristan Patterson discussing the project, the very first thing that he said was that his subject, bum-like, nearing middle-age skater dude Joshua ‘Skreech’ Sandoval, was an amazingly intriguing character given that he just skates through the world as around him everyone’s lives – in the USA at least – are turned upside down thanks to the post-crisis fallout and its effects on the man in the street.

Like the would-be rock star father in I Wish, Sandoval gets by doing what he can: he works as little as possible, he gets – seemingly minimal – sponsorship for his skating, he smokes (a lot) of weed, he drinks, he is friendly to all and sundry, and he travels (in whatever capacity he can).

Sandoval emerges as a figurehead of the not-so-much angry generation as the don’t-give-a-fuck generation. Let me be clear about what this ‘generation’ (if it is one) does not give a fuck. This generation seemingly does give a fuck about the world, as Sandoval’s insistent trips into nature to go camping and fishing suggest.

That about which Sandoval and others do not give a fuck is the current organisation of the human world. That is, questions of economics, perhaps also of politics, interest Sandoval, and presumably many more like him, so little, that he is just happy getting by in his own way as he can.

This position has a romanticism of its own: a middle-class viewer like me truly fears for Sandoval, as perhaps does he himself, when, come the film’s end, it is documented that he is now working (at least part-time) serving beer in a bowling alley. How can he survive, not least since he has a young infant in tow, on the bare minimum that he currently has?

But perhaps how is the wrong question, and a real reason to admire Sandoval. How is not important. The only important thing is that he will survive – no matter how hard the world is made for him as a result of the choices he has made so far (economic imprisonment based upon ‘economic crimes’ that are not illegal at all, but which will keep Sandoval from material wealth for as long as he lives unless either he changes or he breaks – miraculously – into Hollywood or some such).

Beyond Sandoval and some unanswered questions regarding his relationship to the film (his – perhaps unlikely and younger – girlfriend, Leslie Brown, starts going out with him during filming – and whether the presence of the cameras has anything to do with this is not explored; similarly, given his economic situation, one wonders whether the filmmakers had any performance money to give to Sandoval), the film is well shot.

Patterson and his cinemtographer, Eric Koretz, said that they did not want the film to look like a skater movie. Only it is hard not to look like a skater movie given the light qualities of southern California that play such an important part in skater culture (and which has been co-opted by Coke, etc).

It is furthermore hard not to look like a skater movie when the film features so many obligatory emptied swimming pools.

And yet, Koretz and Patterson are not using mobile fish-eyes (although they do use the indy rock soundtrack), and they are capturing blades of grass, fluffy toys hanging from rear view mirrors and the like.

In short, then, Dragonslayer cannot but be a skater film – but it also is, as implied by the discussion of Sandoval’s seeming ethos/philosophy above, an activist – or perhaps better, a comtemporary beat – film.

Beyond the cinematography, this is evoked most formally in the editing. The film has a schizoid feel thanks to its insistence on (Godard-style) cutting short musical segments before they can become the obligatory music video, and the often chaotic juxtaposition of impressionistic images. This all caged by an 11-chapter structure that runs from 10 down to 0 over the course of the film. 0.

L’œuf, the egg, or what tennis umpires call love.

Sandoval’s dream is to be the only person moving on a planet stilled in time. He can empty pools and skate, raid fridges, drive other people’s cars. Just go wherever he wants to (there is a strong emphasis in the film on Sandoval jumping over fences – the wilful making-common of an otherwise increasingly privatised terrain).

While Sandoval does say that in this fantasy world he’d make some people wake up to hang out with him (how would he choose?), his vision does sound more like a desire for solipsism, or to be the One in a planet full of otherwise disposable human beings.

But 1 always needs 0 (hence the digital image’s democratic possibility for 1+0). And it is pleasing that the film takes us to 0. Not because it favours annihilation over anything/everything. Not because this is a negative choice in comparison to the possibility of an additive world in which the numbers just get bigger and bigger.

But perhaps because 0 is the only way to get back to the ground and to extend a sophophily of love. Not the love of wisdom, but the wisdom of loving.

Sandoval is perhaps an anti-hero of our times. But in others he is just a plain hero. Even with his bowling alley job, the Quixotic elements seem to remain as he takes a hit from the bong on the way to work.

We don’t all need to be dope smoking stoner skater dudes. That surely cannot be the message here. But the message clearly is: we must have the courage, the love of ourselves and of others, to go forward into the world in a fearless fashion. To be ourselves.

The self is a performance, no doubt about it. But it is a performance into which one injects one’s heart and soul, hence its courageous nature. Nothing disingenuous here.

Indeed, one of Sandoval’s friends, a total stoner who seems barely coherent, speaks of reading Spinoza’s Ethics. Spinoza here emerges as a great reference point for the film. For Spinoza argues (in my reading of him at least) that if truly we become ourselves, we cannot but love others and the world that surrounds us.

You can Occupy wherever you like. But the success of this movement can only begin with the occupying of oneself with oneself, filling oneself up with one’s own understanding and vision of the world, such that it can only spill over into the commons with love and respect.

Notes from the LFF: I Wish (Kore-eda Hirokazu, Japan, 2011)

Blogpost, Film reviews, Japanese Cinema, Uncategorized

Kore-eda Hirokazu’s latest film looks set not to get distribution in the UK. Or at least does not have any at time of writing. For this reason, I wanted to see it at the 2011 London Film Festival.

Indeed, avoiding premières of films that I shall no doubt see in the fullness of time seems low down on my agenda of trying to see films at this year’s festival. Rather, I have tried to see films I am unlikely to see (on a big screen, at any rate) anywhere but here.

Kiseki/I Wish is a light-hearted tale of separated brothers, Koichi and Ryu, the former of whom lives with his grandparents and mother, the latter of whom lives with his dad, who is lead singer in a band.

Like Hirokazu’s previous Dare mo shiranai/Nobody Knows (Japan, 2004), this film is about family – in particular disrupted families that struggle to stay in touch in spite of the prevalence of mobile telecommunications technologies (which feature prominently in the film).

Furthermore, given I Wish’s interest in inter-generational relationships, the film also shares common ground with Aruitemo aruitemo/Still Walking (Japan, 2008), not least because this films shares Still Walking’s lighter tone, not least in its characters’ forging of friendships in spite of adversity, while Nobody Knows is comparatively gruelling in its vision of abandoned Japanese children.

Koichi is studying in Kagoshima under the shadow of a permanently smoking volcano, about which no one seems to be doing anything (like running away in case of eruption).

It becomes hard not to consider the threat of natural disaster as supremely ironic in the light of the recent Tōhoku earthquake. And yet, in spite of these parallels, the possibility of natural disaster seems to function more metaphorically here.

That is, Koichi takes the volcano himself as a symbol for his frustration at being separated from his brother, and at his parents’ separation in general.

He and Ryu – and friends – decide to meet up to wish for a miracle, a miracle that will come to pass if they are at the spot where two Shinkansen/bullet trains cross paths on the line between Kagoshima and Fukuoka, the town where Ryu lives with his dad.

The Shinkansen functions as a symbol of hope: perhaps humans and their astounding ability for technological progress will sidestep the dangers that living in/with nature seems to entail.

However, more fitting – for me – would be a recognised synthesis of man and nature. That is, the volcano and the bullet train both can share the same world, a world that Koichi eventually, if ambiguously, wishes for instead of the reunion of his parents.

Ryu, who is all of eight years of age (Koichi is perhaps ten or eleven), upbraids his father – as his mother has done – for not being responsible enough towards his children as he pursues his dream of being a rock star. The father is not without success, but childhood neglect does seem to be a prevalent issue, both for Ryu and for Koichi, whose mother goes out with old school friends instead – arguably – of looking after her son.

Grandparents, both Ryu and Koichi’s real ones and an old couple with whom they stay on their Shinkansen pilgrimage, step in to help this young generation.

However, the film does not seem to offer an outright critique of the middle generation. Not only is the film relatively sympathetic towards them (there are no villains in this film), but they also seem to be prey to circumstances that are in part beyond their control.

Koichi and Ryu’s mother takes a job at a supermarket, a job about which she is ashamed given that most of her peers have better jobs and pay (or so she says). Their father, meanwhile, pursues his childhood dream, as mentioned.

One gets a sense of how one must choose between family and a career, be that a supposedly ‘infantile’ desire like becoming a rock star, or having a ‘better’ job than supermarket shift work.

To choose family seems to preclude great financial success. Furthermore, to pursue independence as an artist (the father’s music is described as ‘indy,’ which Koichi explains to Ryu as meaning that one ‘has to work harder at it’ than a mainstream success) seems also to get in the way of family.

Since the film does not judge the parents, the question becomes: what kind of a world is it that we live in such that the following choices become our only options: either you make money, or you pursue your dream, or you have a family?

There is no definite answer to this question, except perhaps that this simply is the world we live in, and perhaps it is better to have this world than no world at all – the ‘lesson’ that Koichi seems to learn as the film progresses.

There is a scent of the global financial crisis underwriting I Wish, which does the arguably clichéd trick of having children pronounce the most profound wisdom. But if it is a question of economics that has shaped the kind of world in which the above are the only available options, then perhaps the wilfully naïve thoughts of children can be recognised as a return to insightful simplicity in an era that preens itself like a misunderstood romantic on account of its own forced complexity.

The real complexity here is not forced; it is the natural emergence of a community regardless of what else the world (and humanity) throws in its (own) path.

The film is shot with Hirokazu’s characteristic handheld camera, allowing his performers to live on the screen, together with relatively common long shots that also ensure that his characters are contextualised in a world characterised by competing technologies and temporalities, dreams and desires.