The Navigators by Ken Loach

Ken Loach directs a profoundly moving and grounded segment in the film Tickets. After seeing that I needed to see more. Here’s a director somewhat like Mike Leigh, or perhaps the Dardennes brothers, but his cinema verite is wholly thematic and topical, if not political also. The Navigators is told in doc style and features the travails or railmen in the UK, laying track while privatization rolls right over them. Loach is keen on telling a somewhat Marxist tale, but he allows it all to manifest itself in the dialog, the situations, events, and conflicts that form the fabric of his characters’ relationships. The message, to the degree that it’s there, is unnecessary.

But it’s there. And this is what makes the film compelling. Loach reveals the social conflict, the crushing and impersonal demands of the privatization of a small band of railway maintenance workers, through the confrontations it creates among friends. He shows us how privatization results in work that is now farther from its origins, perhaps more profitable but more dangerous and less effective than it was in its more pure state. It’s like social relationships in the age of their mechanical reproduction (Walter Benjamin).

What Loach films is true. Authentic. It gains in sincerity for what it jettisons in style. The Navigators was utterly engrossing. I highly recommend it. (then see Tickets)

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Three Times

The film is beautiful, of varied beauty, three times beauty. Each of the three time periods, each of the film’s three acts, maintains the kind of tight set design you’d expect from the work Christopher Doyle (thought it’s not Doyle). It has a bit of Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love, as well as a bit of the more recent cyber alienation that seems to structure a lot of contemporary Korean films (hit Redial for murder… Hitchcock in the East…). On one level the film is an allegory of Chinese-Taiwanese relations. From the first act, in which the characters flirt but are unable to consummate their affections; to the second act, brilliantly done as a silent, in which the two characters are separated by codes of ownership, by the dark smear of prostitution as left by the thumb of time passing through the pages of history, painting in its wake a gulf between the two countries; and to the third and ambiguous present act, in which the characters, now teens, blow through city streets on a moped made for mayhem, cellular connections cut by the winds of time.

The film has a genuine cinematic effect. It did not grab my attention when I saw it; but then nor would it let me go once when it was over. I got particularly stuck on the silent film that is the second act. When film makers declare their preference for black and white because it has richer colors, it’s a “Yes, that makes sense.” Well there’s a similar artistry in Hou’s use of silence and subtitles. These subtitles trailed the dialog. Are they always done that way? The characters spoke. And then the subtitles appeared. As if to allow us to hear them in silence, as if their silence was not just the style of silent film, but something more.

Don’t invite your friends to see this one. It would be better alone. It’s a film to keep and hold.

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Posted to the Contemplative Cinema blogathon
It must be recognized that the question has a two-fold answer. Who contemplates? The film contemplates; the viewer contemplates. They are different contemplations, for the film’s contemplation is given to the viewer’s experience for the sake of his or her own contemplation while viewing, as well as for his or her reflection upon the film. Contemplative cinema is a mode of thinking, is the thinking of film, in film, filmed, a direct thought of which we are incapable of, for we can only represent in thought. Contemplative cinema is more, and less, than our contemplation. More, because it assembles and produces time and image — and we cannot do that. We cannot create a time within time, for we are already living in time and our mode of being offers no possibility of stepping outside of the time that we are in, and which unfolds through us is it carries us. No, we cannot create time, or times, for we are subject to time. Film, as a subjectivity of image and time, creates its own time, in a time that it takes from us, or which it draws us into. Cinematic time is a synthetic time, a time realized through the effect of continuity engendered at 24 frames per second; it is also time as an effect of montage, of cuts and sequences arranged to produce a a direct experience of time: a temporal illusion of immediacy.
Cinema’s subjectivity is its own, but in contemplative cinema it is given to us to contemplate. But in our contemplation of cinema, we can only reflect on it, can only think about it, that is, we cannot contemplate it without translating it first into a representational schema by which we then make conceptual associations around it. Cinema’s own contemplation is direct; ours is indirect.
The early cinema was a reconfiguration of drama, of narrative story-telling for the camera, indirectly, instead of for the audience, directly. But its creation, film, is direct image and sound, unburdened by the instabilities of the stage, and the relations that an audience might take up to its actors, sets, and production. The production of film is invisible. It comes to us directly. And so its own contemplation, its own thought of time, of action, of space and movement, its own speed, rhythm, continuity, is already complete for us. Its production is invisible.
Cinema thinks as we cannot, for it can think its own world as it thinks. It is a perceptual thinking, directly in and through image, a thinking that precedes the invention of concepts and ideas, but which can arouse concepts and ideas as it suggests them by means of its perception. Cinematic thought, direct and in the image, is thinking as perception, perception that thinks and after which no amount of reflection is necessary to the film’s essential creative act. Film thinks as in what it sees, but in seeing it has already finished, for it cannot compare, cannot reconsider, cannot think by analogy or reflect on its own ideas. It is the being of thought prior to reflection, direct and in the image. It is a thinking that cannot communicate, and yet we are often moved by its beauty or sublimity, but its gift and talent and for its effort to present us with better, more resonant, more sensible worlds. It will seem to conceal its reasons, on occasion, but in truth it has none, for it cannot but arouse our reasons, and those are something it knows nothing about. Cinema contemplates, directly, hermetically, within and unto itself. But if we are fortunate, and present, and contemplative, we will experience its sensibilities and be moved. And with the right cinema, we will be given a contemplation to contemplate, and from the cinematic contemplation we will be able to think further, to reflect on and through the film. For the film cannot. It cannot contemplate outside of itself, cannot become what it is not, cannot be other than what it already is. Its contemplation is complete, and we would be mistaken to make it contemplate what it has not given itself to contemplate. But if we did not contemplate the film, we would miss an opportunity to think new thoughts, to think the possibilities the film has offered us, and from which, moved, we might renew our being. The cinema is an outside that moves us to contemplation, if we take it in.

Gun barrels and bullets may be a blast to many American film-makers, but “foreign film-makers” find them to be riddled with cliche and only limited opportunities. At least how the story goes, or is often told. But Inarritu’s Golden Globe success with Babel tells a different story, in other tongues, putting gun barrels and bullets to service as a means opening up the field rather than setting it off to run its natural course.

Guns, of course, are an excellent match for film. They execute story lines and create action at the same time. When fired, a bullet may drop a man whose pursuit has held the audience in strangely -posed pauses, popcorn so ever close to the mouth, but not yet in, because the logic of the Western, like the logic of popcorn, requires that the bad man drop before the rest of us can enjoy our (now doubly pleasurable for having acquired a guilty complicity) popcorn; the popcorn itself a strangely historic nod to the genre, what with tall stalks of corn on fields, sunlit and fertile, a field of dreams if not days of heaven, the success story of a civilized and settled western territory but for the ominous threshing promised by an off-screen and future reaper… a grim reminder that the children of the corn may eat now, but pop tomorrow… Popcorn placed into mouths, and it’s never just one but it must be several, enough that there are stakes involved each time, enough that simply attempting to get it into our mouths while anticipating, like the rest of the crowded theater, the pop of the gun, and the bad man’s fall, that will release own own trigger elbow so that we and numerous others might unleash a hail of falling kernels and puffy targets made.

Gun barrels and bullets might double up action, even involve the audience directly in the production of entertainment from something horrible and terrifying (namely the threat of bad men, and death). But there is more, of course, to the genre than just lock n load (though it is true that this statement may not always apply).

Guns and bullets may execute justice, but they don’t make its case. Guns make sense if fired at the right person, for the right reason. A bad man dropped creates a relief in tension only if we know the bad man is a bad man, that he has done bad things, and that the man who shoots him is the right man for the job. In fact, we prefer to let our criminals escape from jail in order that we can see them hunted down and finally killed by the men they pissed off in the first place; we prefer that even to the courtroom drama of preparatory statements, lawyers interrupted mid-sentence and mid-stride by objections launched from on high, judges and juries, a reflection of the intrinsic freedom invested in the political system so uniquely rendered in examples of democracy such as American Idol and captured occasionally on CSpan, again poised and ready to utter that phrase whose terminal authority becomes a release with the simple addition of the prefix “Not”…

Guilt and guns, it is, perhaps, more than it is bullets and guns. Or they might all share a connecting line, and a trajectory if you will: righting a wrong, rendering justice. Without guilt, there is no morality (suggested); without morality, no moral. Guilt creates the possibility of justice, justice, the possibility of the holster (enforcement).

This cinematic field is strong and will always be strong, for its logic is as simple as it gets, and clear at the same time. The crime is defined by the social body against which it is committed, which by Biblical reasoning is entitled to demand justice, if not also mete out a bit of punishment, too. Contemporary action films still have the western embedded within them, borrowing and extending the chilling, thrilling and the harrowing, not unlike the journalistic practice as deployed during wartime military campaigns (notably during the campaign bits, less so during the clear, hold, and gradually lose control bits). These days we still have guys with rifles on rooftops overlooking main street, checking the time, and waiting for the two men mortally and philosophically, if not also morally opposed, to face off against one another. These days men on rooftops tend to offer numerous additional Guns n Ammo product placement opportunities, what with the varieties of caliber, sights, infra-red targeting (did you know those beams show up if you’re using night vision goggles, while the poor target has no idea his torso has become a momentary display of sol et lumiere dancing spots of red light, fireworks of course imminent…), but this is just a cliche’d way of layering the Western with technical progress (an achievement in its own right, for the Western chapter of American history was brought to a close by the arrival of industry and practitioners of the law).

Inarritu, in Babel, was aware of all of this, though he may not have thought about it in this way. His stripped-down, high caliber gun is a Soviet issue commonly used to execute territorial justice in the highlands of Central Asian republics. In this case it is fired, however, for no good reason, and at nobody in particular. The violence has no logic. It is in fact illogical, for it is arbitrary. This is Inarritu’s style, and it’s a style common to relational films—films in which social relations are thematized by or through random acts of senseless violence, beauty, or both. Crash, too, and Hustle and Flow, not to mention Capote, each used this theme. So, too, have Michael Haneke’s films (though not always involving gun barrels and bullets); the Dardenne brothers, Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, and countless other films which, for the past ten or fifteen years, have produced a genre of relational film along many different lines and variations.

Inarritu, in Babel, plays with the notion of causality by pursuing the question of the gun’s owner, and that owner’s personal story, in an attempt to pose the Why question (which must be addressed because the violence has no proximate cause). He suggests in this way that in an interdependent world, local violence may have global causes and consequences. Arms trade is of course the topic here, though presented without the apparatus of gun runners, organized crime, internationalized detective work, and so on (that would be Bond). But as we know, it’s not just guns that kill people. So a social logic appears, organizing relations among those involved through choices and acts that are good or bad, right, and wrong (the bus passengers, the embassy, the families, the press), and the reaction shots to the random (gun)shot now appear against backdrops that each provide their own degree of sense and organization. For what is or would be the correct thing to do, if as is the case in the film, we must have some compassion for those who committed the accidental crime? What do we do, what is the right thing to choose, what is the appropriate response or retaliation, if conditions themselves pulled the trigger, if the shot fired was a social shot, not a bad man’s shot? If the gun belonged neither to the cops regime nor the robbers regime, but to an animal hunter’s regime? If we cannot use the logic of the gun because it was not that kind of gun, not that kind of shot, is the violence it has started a violence we can reverse?

Films about social relations work by destabilizing fields in which simple cliches of justice, punishment, retribution, pursuit, and so on must be reassembled by acts of a different order. In Crash it was personal redemption by act of kindness (thus healing the social). In Capote, an author investigating a terrible and senseless crime repeats the crime by sending his man to the gallows (for the sake of good writing). In Cache, the threat of violence against a French television personality recalls a forgotten crime against Algerians, redoubled in a family’s own complicitness, and explicated by personal forgetting, rage, and resentment. And there are numerous others.

Films are set up around a shot and reaction shot. The question of a response, which is to say the organization of a cinematic narrative, depends on the intentions and motives of the opening shot/shooter. Babel, though it risks losing its connecting threads at times, successfully raises the question and then presents an even more compelling response, by suggesting, I think, that it’s not just in making sense of the shot fired, but in making sense through one’s response, that society, if not humanity, might still have a shot at its own redemption.

(also postsed to the Contemplative Cinema blogathon.)

My related reviews and analyses:
outline for a review of the film Capote
review of the film Crash
movie review of L’Enfant
All film blog posts

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Bela Tarr’s masterpiece Satantango has been released on dvd finally. My copy hasn’t yet arrived, but I’ve seen this 7 and a half hour work of art three times. I’m anticipating a Bela Tarr fest the moment it shows up. Until then, readers have his Damnation and Werckmeister Harmonies to enjoy (his earlier films are excellent, but precede the visual grace he has demonstrated over the past 15 years or so).

Bela Tarr’s techniques as a film maker leave no doubt as to his involvement in creating a new kind of time and temporality. For a film to have only 37 or so cuts, each scene running towards the edge of the kodak 11 minute limit (“Tarr’s go to eleven”), meant that Tarr (and his wife, as editor) were able to edit the film in a single morning (according to statement he made at the PFA, Berkeley, as I remember it; thus proving that Tarr is given to some amount of pride and exaggeration). Tarr’s blind disregard for montage however is the result of his vision of time. Or better, proximity.

Proximity is a relation of time as well as space, involving a relation of near/far in both dimensions. (It is a psychological relation too, but less so in Tarr’s work). We tend to think of close ups as putting us in close proximity, but in fact a close up is normally used in a reaction shot. We’re not so much in close proximity as it is suggested that another actor is. If we’re given a close up of Cary Grant, then Ingrid Bergman, back to Grant, back to Bergman (you get the picture), there’s no confusion of who’s in close proximity to Ingrid. It’s certainly not us, the audience. And for the most obvious but yet counter-intuitive reason there could be: the image. A close up is an image that stands in the way of the audience falling into a close relationship to the film. The image itself becomes a barrier to proximity, and the closer the shot, the more likely our reaction is to pull back.

There’s a much simpler way of achieving proximity, and Bela Tarr’s films provide a rich case study in it: it is through sound. Sound reaches us along a different axis, one that integrates and embraces, one that involves and seduces. The image involves the eye in looking, and in selecting what it looks at, the “at” here being operative. Sound, however, is a field and we do not use our ears to place ourselves within it so much as we are first immersed within it involuntarily. Hearing cannot be closed down. Our hearing is our grounding, is receptive. Sight is directive and focusing. And I am not suggesting that we don’t listen, or pick out sounds. When we do, though, it is because a sound is heard, and stands out from its field. Our hearing cannot focus on a particular sound until it has first become noticeable. Sight operates with greater flexibility.

Our relation to images is made of distance, near and far being its degrees (Orson Welles worked with this spectacularly). Tarr instead works with sound, and indeed it allows him to abandon the cut, for in sound he can create rhythm within the shot. Thus his shots often involve repetitive sounds: sheets of rain, footfalls and footsteps, from the urgent approach to the the shuffling feet of drunks attempting some kind of coordinated dance, the plodding of a long trek, the clack clack of a long and un-ending line of coal buckets running overhead. In fact, in a key sequence in Werckmeister Harmonies in which a hospital is ransacked and its patients dragged from their beds, the shot procedes without sound. Tarr knows that the audience’s role in providing the sounds on their own will make it louder, and more disturbing, than if he were to put them in the film.

Tarr’s time image, to refer now to Gilles Deleuze (Cinema 2: The Time Image) is constructed directly. Tarr’s film makes time through camera movement and the through the repetitive motion of elements captured in the scene, and through repeating sounds: rain, buckets of coal, footsteps, wind, organ playing, machines, bars… The opening scene of Damnation is a long and subtle zoom and tracking shot of a coal tram running endlessly, seen through a window. The movement and sound of the buckets of coal, each adding to the monotony of work and evoking the slog of labor (in a communist regime, but global nonetheless), constructs a tedious rhythm within the scene. The slow motion of the camera tracking the window gives us a subject’s contemplation: time without agency, time without a thought, contemplative subjectivity beholding the repetition of a life.

The use of sound here echoes a tracking shot in Tarkovsky’s Stalker, in which the Poet, the Guide, and the Scientist journey into the Zone on a mechanized rail car, tak-tak, tak-tak, tak-tak. The sound there is like a mantra, fading into the background as the soundtrack comes to the fore: three wise men on their pilgrimage to the Zone, where dreams may come true if they act in accord with the Zone’s law.

But Tarr’s cinematic hearing produces strange effects. Sounds do not recede or fade but remain in focus. As characters walk into the distance, the gravelly crunch of their footfalls remains present, and with their changing distance, sound remains the same, just as loud, just as near. (I asked Bela Tarr if he miked his actors’ ankles, and he acknowledged using wireless mikes but wouldn’t reveal more than the wry smile that is the director’s conceit — to show but not to reveal.) Orson Welles used a visual technique in his Citizen Kane that bears analogy to Tarr’s use of sound. In Citizen Kane, Welles deployed specially-made lenses to keep foreground and background in focus, providing for a cinematic version of theatrical perspectival distortions — imagine set designs built out of proportion to achieve depth). They allowed him to create scenes in which the physical and perspectival relation between the foreground actor and background actor were given depth of field, both actors remaining in the frame and both still in focus, the background actor however being small and appearing to shrink in power and prominence. Welles’ visual depth of field enabled him to convey the psychology of each actor to the other, and also each actor him or herself, in one field of proximity. (Kane and his wife each appear, in different scenes, framed within or below a fireplace or window, weakened personally, and under threat socially.)

Through use of sound whose intensity remains unchanging even when the camera is moving, or its actors are moving (again, because the microphones are often on the actors, not with the camera), Tarr creates a Cinema of Proximity. The audience is brought close to the film through hearing, and hearing is always only our own. There is no displacement, as there is with the cinematic image. Where the image gives us a scene, sound places us within it. This may reveal one of the greatest misunderstandings of film (discounting of course silent film): to be “within” a cinematic scene would involve possibilities of movement; this being of course impossible, film-makers use sound to involve us. And indeed, any good film-maker will defend the importance of his or her soundtracks and mimetic sounds as a means of moving the story along, varying its emotional tone, cuing the audience into what’s happening, what’s about to happen, or what just happened. (Television soap operas are designed to be “watchable” when viewers are off in the kitchen: just hearing their dialogue and unsubtle musical cues is enough to trigger a sprint back into the living room to catch a critical moment just in time).

I was tempted at first to think of Bela Tarr’s film as time cinema, along the lines of Andrei Tarkovsky. But the more I think about it, the more it becomes clear that Tarr has done something entirely different. The two directors have in common a love of the long take, and of almost imperceptible camera movement, whether tracking shot or zoom shots. But where Tarkovsky creates scenes of exquisite aesthetic beauty, visually suggestive of artistic concepts and ideas, thought-imagery that lifts us and in encountering these scenes, demands a thoughtful reaction from us, Tarr is much closer, and proximate, to the ground, is in our heads, is pulling us along with movement, as if we were tracking the shot, as if we were there, aware, perceptive, but also captive. I don’t suspect that Bela Tarr watches too many films; I don’t suspect that he thinks that hard about what he is doing. That simply wouldn’t be his style. And there’s no need, after all, to think about being there if you are already there.

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