Cinema that edifies and liberates us

An Abstract End ( HE )

Redolent of their improvised, ostensibly meandering yet finely structured collaboration ‘Closure of Catharsis‘,  actor-director pair James Devereaux and Rouzbeh Rashidi’ s new feature ‘HE’ starts of with a man dressed like an astronaut sauntering through a corridor perhaps looking for something.  This exemplary oneiric  sequence is characteristic of the dreamlike imagery that abounds intermittently across its running time.  With regards to plot and narrative structure the auteur is far more generous this time; we encounter the protagonist who is contemplating suicide, an act  seemingly stemming out of some unexplained  absurdity of his existence.  This is a theme that has frequently been  explored by several auteurs  in albeit traditional  ways,  from Louis Malle’s bleak  investigation into the desperation of  clinical depression in ‘The Fire Within’ to Haneke’s virulent attack on bourgeois complacency in ‘The Seventh Continent’.  While every Bresson film yields itself to readings of death and redemption, he made atleast three explicit films on suicide  namely Mouchette, The Devil Probably and A Gentle Woman, each significantly in  contrast with the next. What Mr. Rashidi however offers us here, is a look at suicidal consciousness at the level of dreams rejecting every banal  device.

This has been the defining characteristic of their earlier venture.  While large parts of  ‘Closure of Catharsis‘  consisted of a tenuous improvised monologue by an actor with a mise-en-scene almost anti-Wellesian in its foreground background dynamics, the most gripping moments came when  vacillating images from a seemingly discordant video diary- of a Jonas Mekas kind suffused through it.  Those images form counterpoint to the sere  monologue which at times seems like an experiment in excess of the Cassavetesian or Rivettian nature. Like the introductory extended theatre improvisation that we encounter in Out1 ( which I positively assert  is extremely crucial to the entire film), the monologue inexorably sets up the crucial theme of the film, that being the subconscious mental-image. This study of the mental image in the case of a suicidal protagonist treads into territories that ordinary film makers can never encounter or create.  The interspersing of the monologue, the duologue and the dream like imagery help form a distrait mise-en-scene where in the character struggles between self revelation and disillusionment.  I am reminded of Kracauer and his essay on photography, especially his  emphasis  on the relationship between the photographic image and the mental-image. Among the images which a human being recollects , the ones that pervade across millions of potential snapshots that present themselves to the memory system, what qualifies  those selected  images to be representatives of the collective truths of certain periods?  Surely it has to do with the truth, the essence that has been liberated through suppressed  layers of consciousness or been forcefully  shunned out of it.  The memory image might fail to stand up to the technical precision of the photographic image which is concerned with the moment of the snapshot and the spatial coordinates presented to it  but it sure is omniscient across the vast temporal continuum that lies in memory.  This peremptory choice of memory cannot be obviated. Several of the images here convey the same omniscience that magically encapsulate the ‘history’of our protagonist (to borrow again from Kracauer). In one remarkable action-reaction sequence during the duologue , the camera captures the protagonist’s friend and the protagonist in his dream state alternately.  This has consolidated  the character with his mental-image, the present with the history. The chains of temporal context have been broken.  These images might certainly seem out of order, just as very often our mental-images have sought emancipation from the social context that inhibited them from innocent clear synthesis. Once this immurement ends, only  clarity remains and verity  shines through.

Providing momentum to the plot so that the viewer is not disinterested unfortunately has since always been high on the film maker’s agenda. To achieve it lesser directors introduce plot twists, peripheral characters and irritating deus ex machinas, while certain conniving self proclaimed intellectuals resort to metaphysical contrivances that lack a trace of veracity. Rashidi achieves the same almost effortlessly through intelligent manipulation of sound and imagery. The titular character’s introductory monologue merely shows a noirish b/w face while we get glimpses of his condition. Later once the surreal imagery is incorporated regularly into the run time, the subsequent part of the monologue shows him in color but out of focus, a putative acceptance of the inherent disparity in seeing less despite seeing more. The background score works wonders when we encounter sharp bursts amid the somber attentuated ambience. Emotions and awareness are both heightened for the viewer,  as they ought to be for the character himself. Every single gesture becomes monumental. Nothing is insignificant. Incoherent stills of a couple and the absence of communication both physical and verbal between them, provide ground to what the monologue conveys.

Another key purpose the inchoate imagery serves  to achieve is to develop an abstract framework of the character involved. Something that full blown specificity quite often falls short of accomplishing. The three aspects of the film ( the monologue , duologue and dream imagery ) give  us  fleeting insights into the life of the protagonist. This is very different from the bordering on legerdemain, post-modern brechtian V effect which godard and others strove to achieve. This abstraction is essential and it functions in a style completely in conflict with the post-modern approach.  The unabashed  distancing  is replaced by an  unabashed refusal to complete acquaintance. An Abstraction towards the mental image. This is the same abstraction that makes Ozu’s films universal  and independent in essence from the stringent political situation of his country  or Rohmer’s films  escape the french sensibility that seem to engulf them. In the great Indian film maker G Aravindan’s masterpiece ‘Esthappan‘ we see the titular character  lead a christ-like life balancing between fact  and fiction. The fiction  is created by the inhabitants of the fisherman town while the fiction in ‘HE‘  is predominantly created by the actor while he is absorbed in his monologue. Both  tales might not seem satisfactory for the spoon-fed hard-boiled  viewer but it is this breezy nature of the plot that helps  the receptive viewer coil right to the essence of both characters.  Esthappan is only seen as a free floating silhouette, yet is a fully developed mystical character and  by eschewing particulars and embracing the mental-image HE  manages to create a rich silhouette of an existential end, something hackneyed mainstream cinema can only achieve by obliterating  itself.

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The famous all watching kettle

Yasujiro Ozu (1903-1963 ) was one of the greatest auteurs in all of cinema. Over a prolific career spanning decades starting from the silents to black and white and finally to colour cinema,  Ozu created a unique body of work which has inspired film makers all over the world  to develop their own personal visions. Ozu’s narrative style remained more or less consistent with the elegant usage of an   elliptical narration while intermittently  reinforcing  the main plot at different crucial points through parallels which combined to create a holistic plot. Ozu’s diaphanous unobtrusive camera allowed us to look directly into the Japanese nuclear family without any distractions.  Ozu was a perfectionist,  he refused to switch from silent to sound until the technology had settled in (he once joked that he would be the last director to still make silents) . His first colour film was Equinox Flower  in 1958 ,  around 6 years after the Japan industry had welcomed it. There have been several brilliant monographs on Ozu , one of them being ‘Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema’ by David Bordwell ,  from which I have unassumingly  borrowed the title of this article.

Ozu made 6 colour films starting with Equinox Flower and ending with An Autumn Afternoon and while the usual aspects of earlier Ozu which makes all of these films great continue to exist , with  colour in his repertoire Ozu managed to create such beautiful geometrically symmetric images  that the aesthetic quality of these movies had just exploded which is remarkable since Ozu was such an austere minimalist . Chishu Ryu said about Ozu in the Wim Wenders documentary tokyo-ga that Ozu treated all objects in a particular shot with the same warmth and importance as the characters.  The positioning of different objects in any particular shot is so precise that even a  minor disturbance in either the choice of colours or the positioning of objects  could seemingly be a giant aberration.

Equinox Flower revolves  around a  well put businessman Mr Hirayama ( Shin Saburi ) and his concerns over the marriage of his daughter Setsuko (Ineko Arima). Although Mr Hirayama wants to be liberal in his attitude towards marriage which he indicates unequivocally while convincing Yukiko the  daughter of his Kyoto inn-keeper,  he refuses to consent Setsuko to marry a guy of her liking Taniguchi  (the  familiar Keiji Sata) .  After being tricked into giving his consent by Yukiko , he reluctantly attends her wedding but withholds his blessings. In the final part of the film,  he is convinced by Yukiko and her mother Mrs Sasaki to make peace with her daughter and Ozu leaves us with a final shot of  Hirayama in the train humming a nostalgic war tune, which some time before is sung by Mikami ( Chishu Ryu) when all the men gather after Yukiko’s marriage. This final pensive scene is a characteristic of Ozu as it alludes to the acceptance or embracing of the new invigorating cultural shift while at the same time keeping a perspective of the traditional history. To bring forth such a deep sentiment without being melodramatic in just a passing manner shows what a minimalist champion Ozu is.  Also like all his other movies,  Ozu creates such pellucid characterizations that it becomes first nature to associate ourselves with them.  The vibrant yukiko , the conflicted and inconsistent Hirayama , the assured and insistent daughter Yukiko   and the supportive mother ( Kinuyo Tanaka) are played with elegance and finesse.

Also exemplary is the usage of parallels and ellipses in the narration which we have come to expect since days of Late Spring. However this is a step further from Late Spring or Autumn Afternoon as we are not even given a glimpse of the bride or the cermony.  Also we are shown neither the prospect that Hirayama had in mind earlier nor Taniguchi’s  second visit to Hirayama’s house. There are only references to funerals or college reunions. Even the starting point which is a marriage ceremony only shows Hirayama’s speech and is used infact as medium to introduce us to his demeanor  and attitude.  Also we see the parallels of Sasaki and Mikami plotlines to elucidate the conflicting attitudes of Hirayama where on one hand his insecurity over his daughter’s relationship with Taniguchi comes forth when he visits Mikami’s daughter while on the other hand his relenting  desire to possibly concede to his daughter’s choice manifests itself in his conversations with the vibrant Yukiko.  Another notable mention is how Ozu uses very similar characters upto the point of giving them the same names in his different ventures. We are all familiar with Noriko as the daughter in the Noriko trilogy , but we also see the two friends of the main protagonist who will replay them in An Autumn Afternoon and Late Autumn. Also one can compare Yukiko to Yukiko of Late Autumn. Both drive the plot towards its conclusion and both exude a vibrancy which makes the protagonists make decisions reluctantly.

Starting with this film, colour forms a very strong aspect of Ozu’s mise-en-scene, with every movie having a preferred set of colours . Ozu had a liking for red as he once said that Red looks very well on a Agfafilm . But besides that we see constant shades of light brown and light green here, compared to dark green shades in Late Autumn and light blue shades in An Autumn Afternoon. These colours enter the landscape through a couple of preferred mediums: The Kimono and the obi ( sash ) of the female protagonists, the colour of the frames and designs  on the walls and importantly through objects .

The very first scene which is a marriage gathering illustrates the exemplary use of colours.  Note the amazing positioning of different glasses on the table and the colour of the drinks in them contrasted with a dining shot. In the second shot notice how the level of the drinks in all  the glasses is completely synchronous with each other, the level of the Sash and that of the fruit plate.

Another beautiful example of  how Ozu’s shot composition. In the scene where Mr Hirayama intercedes for Mr Mikami and decides to visit the latter’s daughter. The shot is of Mr Hirayama waiting; note the carefully placed symmetric nature of the sauce bottles in contrast to colour of the table-cloth and the door.

The entire film is rich with many such examples. Speaking of photo frames on the walls  once again the film is filled with  lots of instances one of which is the  scene where Mrs Sasaki meets Hirayama in his office. As in this example and elsewhere , chairs play a very crucial role in developing the principal tone of the movie.  Objects also hold importance as pivotal points  that  help us visualise the house in its entirety. The chair with the red cushion, the red kettle and a certain bottle containing light green liquid form three crucial objects here. They appear intermittently and while careful analysis  may  provide them other narration-centric implications, their aesthetic beauty alone is a stroke of genius.  It proves to be an exciting exercise  to follow these three objects throughout the movie, whenever focus shifts on Hirayama’s household. The kettle sometimes comes alone or is  accompanied by other objects. It is handled just once in the entire movie. The green bottle is never handled and it usually accompanies the mother who wears full green or striped green kimonos throughout the movie.  The only one time when she doesn’t wear green is perhaps  the outdoor scene where once again the colours are beautifully composed. The outdoor shots have an warm ebullient mood and immediately bring to mind those of Early Summer.

The empty chair with the red cushion is only used at the very end by Mrs Hirayama after talking to Mr Hirayama on the phone. This scene indicates the surrender of the masculinity ( as one of the consistent themes of Late Ozu) ,  thereby justifying the empty chair as a feasible precursor to this thematic consideration.  Just like Ozu’s characters, Ozu’s mise-en-scene is ostensibly phlegmatic but in reality contemplative. It is this mastery over minimalism, the ability to use objects of a seemingly trivial nature and create profound narrative and thematic implications that make Ozu a true champion of  Cinema.