Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Merchant of Four Seasons

From the perspective of portraying inter-relationship conflicts, hypocrisy within relations, class consciousness and yes, love, Fassbinder's The merchant of four seasons is a dedicated study, a masterpiece. Even though Fassbinder was clearly influenced by Sirk's melodramas, nowhere does melodrama creep into this movie, and at times even if there is a hint of it, it is deliberate, with reason, and annuls any immediate relationship with the viewer.To all the added complexities, Fassbinder adds more, namely sadomasochistic and "racialized fetish", which must be addressed too.

Hans, the main character, can get easily lost in a crowd. He doesn't look significant, he appears ordinary. He is a street vendor selling fruits and vegetables. Hans has tried his hands at a few things with failure. He remains detested within his family, especially by his mother, who, in the opening scene wishes him dead. Hans, living with his wife and growing daughter, is thus a marooned character, surrounded, right from the beginning of his life with hostility and division. Hans, after drinking too much, descends into rage and assaults his wife Irmgard who runs to her in laws. There, Hans, on confronting her, gets a heart attack. They reconcile and at his wife's suggestion, employ help for their struggling business. The man turns out to be the wife's recent lover. Feeling complicit and trapped, she conspires to have him thrown out. Hans runs into his ex-foreign legion friend Harry, who becomes his new help. However, Hans descends into a drinking depressive and dies of a heart attack. Irmgard seals a new alliance with Harry, and the last titles roll on.

Usually, story outlines like the above, become caricatures of movies for they do not in any way reflect the reality of the real. Fassbinder, it is said, made the same movies always. However, that is true of every artist, for in each work, each separate work, a thread runs through, which can only be discerned by a reading of the complete oeuvre. The naive reader or the viewer, like the writer of this post, must also be equipped with certain tools to read a work of art, a movie or a novel. This involves not only the historical dimension of any work but also a knowledge of how such things sustain and are born, and perhaps an inkling of the native climate from where such things attain sustenance and thus life. It is obviously difficult to know all of this, a thing expected from a student of cinema or a professional literary critic or theorist and yet, the average viewer must seek to redefine the lens with which cinema, the important cinema of this kind can be viewed.

Hans is a tortured man, a reject in society and a pariah within his family. I thought his treatment at his mother's hands was a kind of double-bind, a schizophrenic communication. She wishes him dead, telling him that "the best ones die young" ( Hans has returned from Morocco) and when he succeeds in business, she claims that she could foresee that. He meets the same fate at his brother-in-law's hands and his wife too. Within his family, only his sister Anna ( played by the dazzling Hanna Schygulla, a goddess of German cinema) confronts the hypocrisy within the family, though she too in the moment of reckoning lets him down. Hans' wife is unfaithful and a manipulator, quickly seeking new frameworks, new structures, though in a way she is a sufferer too. She is a survivor, while Hans does not survive. Hans does not survive not because of them but because he cannot, because he is Hans.

The reigning framework of this movie is a disjointed few existences, which are so and do not just appear to be. However, they are representative of the society that breeds this hypocrisy. Hans, known to his wife, has his "own love of his life", who brings a few bright flowers to his graveside. She, in a scene of brilliance, strips for Hans and lies on the bed while Hans feels out of sorts. However, this naked body does not emanate eroticism of any sort. It appears broken and disjointed, as if temporarily pieced together. Hans is thus a perpetrator of and victim of a malaise, a malaise of the middle classes, with him being the underachieving sibling, the loser, the victim, the culprit, the sufferer. There are many times when he breaks down, when he cries and is sad. We are affected by him, but Fassbinder isolates that feeling in us and then redirects that towards the viewer, which makes the viewer uncomfortable.

This movie has many flashbacks, in no chronological order, a task that Fassbinder leaves for us to untangle. Harry and Hans have served together and whilst drinking, Hans calls Harry a pig. Harry answers by saying that "we are all pigs". In another flashback, Hans is in Morocco ( ?), tied to a tree, being lashed by a native man ( played by Salem of Fear eats the soul). I was struck by the anomaly of this lashing, for it is being observed by Harry from a distance, who only later on shoots Salem dead. In a brilliant essay ( discovered more by chance) Barbara Mennel writes about Masochistic fantasy and racialized fetish in Fassbinder's movies. In a scene of homoerotic dimension,
"the native role, or the colonized man's role is reversed, and it is Hans who is at the receiving end". She argues, tracing back to Fannon, that
"the fetish of colonial discourse- epidermal schema- is not, like the sexual fetish....a secret. Skin plays a public part in the racial drama that is enacted every day in colonial societies. Thus, masochistic racialized staging is embodied in Salem, a role reversal is thus a masochistic fantasy". However, as in Fear eats the soul, this area needs to be explored further. It was evident in that movie that Ali was being fetishized, though any sadomasochistic element escaped me when I watched that movie.

Fassbinder wrote of the "exploibility of feelings, to produce in the viewer.....emotions, feelings and thoughts, which must combine to produce action, which is the true purpose of art". This movie, as Wim Wenders points out, reflects alienated subjectivity, disruptions. The whole of the colour schemes and camera work contribute towards this feeling ( I am not an expert by any means of this). However, it is easily understandable that his techniques are a social critique and yet nowhere, does he allow us to identify with the victim or the torturer. Hirschmuller as Hans is brilliant, understated and seething, as he dolefully looks out of his window, aware of many awarenesses, of his and his wife's infidelity, of haggling and buying and selling, possessing a certain knowledge, even of harmful drinking, which leads to his death eventually. Irm Hermann as his wife was a Fassbinder regular who also makes a brief appearance. Schygulla, bright beautiful has an important but short role.

The merchant of four seasons is a shining masterpiece, a jewel in Fassbinder's bright collection of cinematic treasures. I feel quite earnestly that it is my own shortcoming that doesn't allow me to understand more of what I saw. I also know that writing about a movie demands a craft that is different from say, writing about a novel. However, even Fassbinder might excuse this post.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Memory for forgetfulness

"For death is to see death".

I want a five-minute truce for the sake of coffee. I have no personal wish other than to make a cup of coffee. And coffee, for one who knows it as I do, means making it with your own hands and not having it come to you on a tray, because the bringer of the tray is also the bearer of talk, and the first coffee, the virgin of the silent morning, is spoiled by the first words. Dawn, my dawn is antithetical to chatter.
Coffee, the first cup of coffee, is the mirror of the hand. And the hand that makes the coffee reveals the person that stirs it. Coffee is the public reading of the open book of the soul.

Gently place one spoonful of the ground coffee, electrified with the aroma of cardamom, on the ripling surface of the hot water, then stir slowly, first clockwise, then up and down. Add the second spoonful, then stir up and down, then add the third. Between spoonfuls take away the pot from the fire and bring it back. For the final touch, dip the spoon in the melting powder, fill it and raise it a little over the pot, then let it drop back.......turn off the heat, and pay no heed to the rockets. Take the coffee to the narrow corridor and pour it lovingly and with a sure hand into a little white cup: dark coloured cups spoil the freedom of the coffee.
Now light your first cigarette, made for this cup of coffee, the cigarette with the flavour of existence itself, unequaled by the taste of any other except that which follows love, as the woman smokes away the last sweat and the fading voice.

Now I am born. Caffeine and nicotine, and the ritual of their coming together. No coffee is like another, and my defense of coffee is a plea for difference itself. Everyone's coffee is special.........Coffee with the flavour of coriander means that the woman's kitchen is not organized. Coffee with the flavour of carob means the host is stingy. Coffee with the aroma of perfume means the lady is too concerned with appearances. Coffee that feels like moss in the mouth means that its maker is an infantile leftist. Coffee that tastes stale from too much turning over in the hot water means its maker is an extreme rightist.
And the coffee with the overwhelming flavour of cardamom means the lady is newly rich. I can tell coffee from faraway: it moves in a straight line at first, then zigzags, winds, bends and turns on flat rocky surfaces and slopes.........

The aroma of coffee is a return to and a bringing back of first things because it is the offspring of the primordial. It is a journey begun thousands of years ago, that still goes on.
Coffee is a place.
Coffee is not for weaning, coffee is a breast that nourishes men deeply.

Coffee is geography.

Mahmoud Darwish, from Memory for Forgetfulness, 1982

Saturday, February 16, 2008

The Leopard

Garibaldi's men are sweeping across Italy, the new order might overthrow the old, change, which is dangerous to some and deceitful to others, is violently sweeping across Sicily too, where the Prince of Salina, in his palace, surveys the impending new order or shape of things to come. He believes that change would mean that things don't change and essentially stay the same. These are the first glimpses we catch of the Prince of Salina as Luchino Visconti's The Leopard, a movie based on the novel of Il Gattopardo, written by Guiseppe Lampedusa, a Sicilian aristocrat. It appeared posthumously in 1958 and was followed by Luchino Visconti's film of the novel in 1963.

The Prince of Salina, played by a majestic Burt Lancaster is shown right from the beginning as a figure who, even inspite of his aristocratic hauteur, has an air of tragic sensibility about him. Living with his wife, children and his adorable nephew Tancredi, the prince knows that while violent change is inevitable, it will be ineffective. As Tancredi joins Garibaldi's men, the prince blesses him and yet seems assured of a return of the old status quo. The prince and his family leave for a holiday to one of their palatial houses in the countryside, a place swarming with revolutionaries, they stay for a night in a cheapish room, and yet the prince clings to his linen and ways with aristocratic fervour. The rebellion ends, Tancredi returns home, falls in love with the breathtaking Angelica, played by Claudia Cardinale and the prince arranges their engagement, in a way selling his nephew's family name to Angelica's father, a nouveau riche, a merchant parvenu. The rebels are now the king's army, the old aristocracy is invited to the senate, things have not changed.

The Leopard is a majesterial movie, an epic in true form, a sweeping panorama, a train of colours, a thoughtful paean to an age, to an idea. We begin with little sympathies for an aristocrat and we end feeling sorry for the prince of Salina, a kind of solidarity that has nothing to do with class or creed but the timbre of humanity. I might have expected Visconti to bring to his narration a Marxist sensitivity, as in Rocco and his brothers but nowhere did I find anything ideological in this movie, for while the prince does harangue, he does not preach, instead he does listen. The spectacle that is this movie, the drama, the lushness of the sets, the intimate details, the careful attention of everything one sees is the sign of Visconti's genius. It is not a period drama but a drama of a period captured with grace, with love and affection. Each image follows the other naturally, merging with the previous one without violence.

The hour long ball scene is the piece de resistance of this movie. When the ball begins, we are unaware of the drama unfolding. The genius of this sequence is time craftily mastered for an hour does actually seem a lot longer, for we too are a part of this lavish ball, as we follow hundreds of guests, as they partake of delights, young maidens and smartly dressed ex-revolutionaries dancing waltzes and mazurkas, and the new and old order exchange looks. This scene is an extravagance, a cinematic rarity and the colour, I repeat again, the costumes, the characterisation of each part of the ball in detail and effect is the highlight of this movie, something that cannot be even vaguely matched by Visconti's other films.

I was reminded of Edward Said's brilliant essay on both this novel and movie called A lingering old order. Even though Said' essay is on a different theme, that of lateness in style, there are acute observations, especially on the novel( sadly I haven't read it) and also on the movie. Said writes that "social disintegration, the failure of revolution and a sterile and unchanging south are evident on every page of the novel. yet, Lampedusa negates the Gramscian diagnosis and prescription. The prince stands for a pessimism of intelligence and a pessimism of the will. Nothing he does in the course of his work has any effect on the paralysis and decay that envelop him, his family, his class. The leopard is a southern answer to the southern question". Said goes on to say about the movie........

"The crowd scenes in the film, especially the Palermo street battles and the gigantic ball scene, testify to the prodigious powers of cinematic super-spectacles. The film's surface is lavish, large, expensive and overpowering. Visconti has said of this film that it is meant to be a realization of Gramsci's theory of transformismo, and this lesson is seen from the point of view of a prominent left intellectual and aristocrat, Visconti himself. This movie is in effect a wonderful costume drama whose mastery of cinematic technique obliterates not only the privacy of the past but also its very pastness, its irrecoverability, which is at the heart of Lampedusa's novel. What Visconti uses film to do to the Lampedusa novel is to add to it a sort of cinematically Proustian descant, the fin-de-siecle concern with overabundance, the leisure and excessive pleasure of the privileged class who do not give much thought to how much things cost".............

Burt Lancaster's performance is the driving force of this movie, around whom everything revolves and it seems so natural, so logical for him to do and act the way he does in this movie. He is as large as the ball room sequence, if not larger and yet, as he feels nauseous there, the fragility and impending death that he feels is effectively conveyed.
In the end, the prince walks towards the sea, kneels down in front of a church, Garibaldi's rebels are dying, the Risorgimento has failed, his aristocracy might survive for another hundred years, nothing has changed. He had rejected a senator's position earlier, for he declares that he lacks a politician's self deception. Sicily will not change, the prince declares, "our sensuality is a desire for oblivion" and we see him wishing for "perennial certainty". Even though the political concerns at the beginning of this movie are forgotten by the prince's personal concerns, Tancredi's love for Angelica, the ball scene, yet they are not swept away all together, for in the end and even during the ball sequence, we are in the palpable presence of things political.

I would have wanted politics to be this movie's main concern, but it is not. The prince of Salina speaks of jackals and hyenas replacing his order, and as Said argues, that might be us, the reader or the viewer. This keeps us at an arms length from him, for he is essentially an aristocrat and as Said further points out, Lancaster's performance and "authority derives from every other costume film made". Said compares Visconti to Adorno and Strauss and Lampedusa, as a theme of his book on lateness in style and says that their work "lacks embarrassment, with a certain profligacy, a desire to go the whole way toward extravagance, and an arrogant negation of what is acceptable or easy but also of a very risky yet adversarial pact with authoritarian systems".

Whatever is the driving force of Visconti's fervour in this movie, it is a true spectacle, a dream and a kind of movie which creates many myths.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Lolita, The justice poem

Because you took advantage of a sinner
because you took advantage
because you took
because you took advantage of my disadvantage
when I stood Adam-naked
before a federal law and all its stinging stars

Because you took advantage of a sin
when I was helpless moulting moist and tender
hoping for the best
dreaming of marriage in a mountain state
aye of a litter of lolitas

Because you took advantage of my inner
essential innocence
because you cheated me

Because you cheated me of my redemption
because you took her at the age when lads
play with erector sets
a little downy girl still wearing poppies
still eating popcorn in the colored gloam
where tawny Indian took paid croppers
because you stole her
from her wax-browed and dignified protector
spitting into his heavy- lidded eye
ripping his flavid toga and at dawn
leaving the hog to roll upon his new discomfort
the awfulness of love and violets
remorse despair while you
took a dull doll to pieces
and threw its head away
because of all you did
because of all I did not
you have to die

V. Nabokov

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Lines from the Testament

Solitude : you must be very strong
to love solitude; you have to have good legs
and uncommon resistance; you must avoid catching
colds, flu, sore throat, and you must not fear
thieves and murderers, if you have to walk
all afternoon or even all evening
you must do it with ease; there's no sitting down,
especially in winter, with wind striking the wet grass,
and damp mud-caked stone slabs among garbage;
there's no real consolation, none at all,
beyond having a whole day and night ahead of you
with absolutely no duties or limits.
Sex is a pretext. For however many the encounters
- and even in winter, through streets abandoned to the wind,
amid expanses of garbage against distant buildings,
there are many- they're only moments in the solitude;
the livelier amid warmer the sweet body
that anoints with seed and then departs,
the colder and deathlier the beloved desert around you;
like a miraculous wind, it fills you with joy,
it, not the innocent smile or troubled arrogance
of the one who then goes away; he carries with him a youthfulness
awesomely young; and in this he is inhuman
because he leaves no traces, or, better, only one trace
that's always the same in all seasons.
A boy in his first loves
is nothing less than the world's fecundity.
It is the world that thus arrives with him, appearing, disappearing,
like a changing form. All things remain the same-
and you'll search half the city without finding him again;
the deed is done; it's repetition is ritual. And
the solitude's still greater if a whole crowd
waits its turn; in fact the number of disappearances grows-
leaving is fleeing- and what follows weighs upon the present
like a duty, a sacrifice performed to the death wish.
Growing old however, one begins to feel weary
especially at the moment when dinner time is over
and for you nothing is changed; then you're near to screaming or weeping;
and that would be awesome if it wasn't precisely merely weariness
and perhaps a little hunger. Awesome, because that would mean
your desire for solitude could no longer be satisfied,
the one you can't accept, what can you expect?
There's no lunch or dinner or satisfaction in the world
equal to an endless walk through the streets of the poor,
where you must be wretched and strong, brothers to the dogs.

Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1969

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Why Bolano?

Why do I think that of all Latin American writers, Roberto Bolano, in the last twenty five years, wrote the only things that matter? It presupposes that I am familiar with all Latin American writing in that period or that I have understood or have been affected more. That is not true though. Far from it, I have read only a few but in spite of that, and this is so unreasonable, I dismiss their claims, for with Bolano, writing does not attain or attempt to reach a pitch of perfection, the frenzied stillness of sculpted art or the frozen imperfection of colours and canvas, but aims, within the mystical domain of words, the mellowness of fragile emotions.

Bolano the novelist, the poet is the traveler, the restless poet, the uninvited guest worker, the illegal migrant, the unrepentant lover, the destroyer of hopes, the nihilist, illusionist, faker, fool, but poet. The young detectives fleeing and chasing demons across a desert, their poems our poems, some written and some not, some etched on wooden bedsteads besides dirty linen, flushed with alcohol, steeped in nausea, always unasked for, sometimes forgiven, always poetry though. And rising from a world removed from us, these young men and now old and defeated poets, unpublished and unsolicited, unknown and unhung, unadorned and uncalled, write elegies, summons, a call for arms, within the world of fake and real poetry, for poetry happens sometimes, when you are fleeing from assassins or lovers, from parents or friends, or into the myriad pain of sunsets, the torment of meetings and the delayed torture of love.

Bolano who is Sensini or Lacouture, Belano or Lima or the poet who has thrown his pen and picked a brush or has hung his brush and become a night watchman, dropping into endless wells to save frightened young souls; or the writer who has thrown aborted loves away or has aborted and loved again or the writer who wants to jump into passion and has drowned into a misty love of alcohol; or that young or not so young woman, who loves and waits for that poem, which she believes she only find by prostituting herself. Bolano the male slut, the literary prostitute. There are certain elements of his writing though or lack of those, which I am not comfortable with, for if read contrapuntally, as Said would advise us, his treatment of native Americans is short and seemingly absent ( the insufferable gaucho for eg) but then, this ignorance or lapse in his memory should be not be forgotten or pardoned but understood within the demands of his fiction, which is essentially non-imperial.

The undercurrent of all Bolano's writing is despair and solitude, born out of migration and exile. thus, Bolano is the exile's writer, the celebrator of whims, the guardian of passion, the historian of failed poets. It must be said that he will only appeal to a certain reader, to a certain landscape, within a certain season of moons, for all of his characters are quite given to whims and fancies, of a strange nature, without the hint of those sensibilities that are reminders of new anxieties. For the essential Bolano character is a devout poet, a failed revolutionary, an idealist, a rugged hero, a brave but forsaken woman, a conjurer of hopes, a diviner of mysteries, running away, hiding her poems in a desert, giving up, giving way.

Bolano is the poet's poet, the writer's writer, and he only wrote elegies, one after the other, and in that train of elegies, in that foam and rush of regrets and love and exile and heartbreak, we have seen poetry and some life, and in this frank Bolano love, I must admit that I am unabashedly waiting for 2666, a book that is claimed to his best. ( In my several posts on Bolano last year, I have generally repeated what is written above, but the present post is mostly a remembrance).

Monday, February 11, 2008

Genet interview with Madeleine Gobeil

Gobeil: Was it in prison that your work evolved? Do you still steal today?
Genet : And you Miss?
Gobeil: .............
Genet : You don't steal, you have never stolen?
Gobeil : .............
Gobeil: Are you still in contact with your old cellmates?
Genet: Not at all. Look at the situation. I earn royalties from all over the world, you come to interview me, and they are still in prison. For them, I am a man who has betrayed them, that's all.
Gobeil: Is this a betrayal?
Genet: I certainly betrayed something. But I had to do it for something that I felt was more precious. I had to betray stealing because theft is a singular action, which I turned on, for the benefit of a universal operation, which is poetry. I had to do it.
Gobeil: You betrayed criminals and yet you are spurned by honest people. Do you like living in general disgrace?
Genet: It doesn't displease me, but it's a question of temperament. It is out of conceit and that is not the best aspect of my personality. I like being in disgrace......But this pride is foolish. I ought to stop at this. It is a naive and romantic attitude.
Gobeil : You believe in God?
Genet : I think I believe in him. I don't have faith in the mythologies of catechism. But why should I account for my life by affirming the things that seem to me most precious. Nothing is forcing me. Nothing apparently obliges me. Why then do I feel so strongly that I must do it?
Gobeil: And eternal life, do you believe in it?
Genet: This is a question for theologians. Are you a member of Vatican ? This question makes no sense.
Gobeil: So, what sense do you find in the life of a writer who wanders not from prison to prison, but hotel room to hotel room? You are rich and yet you own nothing. I counted : you have seven books, an alarm clock, a leather jacket, three shirts, a suit and a suitcase. Is that all?
Genet: Yes, why should I have more?
Gobeil : Why this satisfaction in poverty?
Genet : It is the virtue of angels. Listen, I don't give a damn. When I go to London, sometimes my agent books a room at the Ritz. What do you want me to do with things and with luxury? I write, that's all.

From Genet's interview with M. Gobeil, 1964

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Clouds have descended

Clouds have descended, fugitive soul has got more tired than usual, hence the lapse in writing or reading. The mind seethes with tiredness, the written word leaps up with fangs, ready to maul a fragile mind. What use words or music when everything is so mute? I know that today, spring like day, has brought out many winter weary souls out into the sun, but night will follow soon followed by frost, by darkness again. And I, reckless and ceaseless will have forgotten how I feel now, and shall give in and abide by the rules, rules of this world, intimate rules between people and I shall wear a morning smile and an afternoon one and return to my misery when day has ended, when night has spread a huge sheet for me to writhe in and cover what is basically sensitivity, nothing else.

There is no desire to read anything nor even to write, so many others have written, and well too and besides what is my writing anyway, dust falling from sandals, snow that will melt, a heart frozen, a discarded love letter, a burnt out cigarette end, the last look in your eyes and that train that just left with you, forever? Why should I write and why should I read when it is of no use, even to myself, when my words sound so foreign, so alien to me, when this is only an affectation, an artifice, a loner's map, an ambitious writer's nostalgia, a reader's lust, lust for books, for words. Let dust accumulate on my books, let my shelves grow heavy with pain, the pain of pages unread, of pages read, of paper fish dreams and wet thumbs, of moonlit poems, strange foreign poets in strange tongues, translated into my lap, thrown.

Why shouldn't I converse with strangers in unpoetic tones, and find my own tongue, my own reasons to stop or speak, and leave art and criticism to academies, to those who write well and have formed a clique, a league, an establishment of bloggery? My books will look better untouched, unread, as they grow old and as I lose the will to read. I want to be patient and wait for spring and then summer and I want a tan on my face for the first time and I want to run along some coast and shout too for the first time, and say here I am, alone but like yourself, having rid myself of books, from you, of you and running to stand still. I declare that I hate some words, like ontology, like semantics, like philosophy and poetry too and the only words that will gladden me are sunshine in some meadow, beside a rook.

Can this mood last, can I win, can I stay firm, can I think straight? The obvious answer is no. But I will try and refuse to read, refuse to touch my books, for there is a heaviness inside me, a surfeit of words, a nauseous feeling, like Montano had, and I want to run away into nothingness and discover that I cannot speak and then how easy life would become? For all these writers, they wrote with certain certainties, while I know that there is nothing certain, so how can words mean anything certain and one touch, one candle drip, one match stick, one false step leads into oblivion and dust. So why think of plausible things and high art and thus why not leave criticism and literature to establishment critics and high academies?

Friday, February 08, 2008


what is this road that separates us
across which I hold out the hand of my thoughts
a flower is written at the end of each finger
and the end of the road is a flower which walks with you

Tristan Tzara (1896 - 1963)

Monday, February 04, 2008

For a long time Now

This continues from before but the person is no longer inside his room.

For a long time, he had been wondering how he could actually describe how he usually feels from the inside or how suddenly a song that he wants to forget pins him down in a grip that could be considered a sign of weakness, for to be emotional is not being practical, and language that is ordinary, that uses words that are not his usual forte, could mean impending doom. He was also sure that his thoughts were not easily describable, for they were a mixture of misgivings and unmade promises, of sudden eclipses and unheard voices or a motley din of things that he lived on but only from the inside. And how could he consider it possible to give an example from a movie watched recently or a poem badly written, for the written and spoken languages are not the same.

He thought that I love you, if scribbled, seems like a confession while a partly meant confession of love is easy on the lips, for eyes and hands come to the rescue, detaching from his body a load, a weight that hangs heavy on his heart sometimes. It was also his opinion that his friends never believed what he truly thought about life, life that he thought was unliveable in opposition to what he actually lived, which from the outside looked easy. But then, how could this whole wordy experience be communicated unless the written word actually climbed out of his own heart, at that moment in time, whenever he felt that suffocating need. For at least he knew that the written or spoken word after the moment loses import in description.

These thoughts had been troubling him for long, even when days fell into his lap one by one rather than all together and nights came easy and gentle, and his window and his moon and his eyes and his fingers were not haunted. For he was haunted even if he did not seem so from the outside, but haunted from the inside, laid siege to by sentences and images, thoughts and ideas, memories and regrets and pain and a life that was rushing past him, a regret that he could not isolate and dissect, and say here is this atrocious hour of my life, where I was undone, undone by my heart, undone by you, you who did not know the difference between an elegy and a tear. Yes, he was feeling elegiac, but in a city of cement and parks and trams and trains, where the ideal bench or the saddest cafe does not exist, where there are no monuments for the person who cannot describe, cannot reach out, whose language and thoughts are locked in a platonic embrace.

And he knew, even this painstaking exercise of carefully objectifying his feelings came to nothing, for he usually forgot what he wanted to think right from the beginning for while doing so, he lost what he knew was important and forget entirely what he needed to think. So when they last met, he wanted to remember how she got up from the bench they had sat on, did she actually leave then or linger on, or did they both, now petrified of each other, say loud goodbyes? This, he thought, was a sign of a haunted man, but haunted from the inside, for all outward appearances he still could voice an opinion, even if half heartedly but all the time, thinking of the unstuck doors of his inside, doors that could crash on him, leaving him at the most with a ten line poem. For a long time now, he has been thinking these thoughts, but do such thoughts matter?

For a long time now, he has wanted to declare that his night and his palms, his eyes and his grip, his poems and his stare, his love and his silence, his heart and his solitude were the saddest, but how could he describe these things, for they only existed inside him, and these things must climb out from the inside, a haunted inside, because outwardly he was calm, but how sad from the inside.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Cobra Verde

Cobra Verde begins with an image, of barrenness, of scorched land, dryness, animals lying down, scattered skeletons, animals and humans perishing together and then we see Kinski, anguished, tortured, kneeling in front of a grave. The landscape seems post apocalyptic, beyond hope and repair. We get to know the Brazilian bandit Francisco Manoel, also called Cobra Verde, who strikes terror wherever he steps, but who is 'alonest among the alone'. The movie traces his employment by a sugar baron, who employs him to keep his slaves in check. However, Cobra Verde impregnates his employer's nubile daughters and as punishment, he is sent to West Africa to reignite the slave trade, in the hope that he will perish there. But Cobra Verde, resourceful and energetic, not only reorganizes the slave business successfully, he becomes involved in a local struggle for power, helping a local King to power by organizing an army of female warriors.

Cobra Verde becomes a king maker but not for long as the tables are turned and he, barefoot again, tries to escape which ends in failure. Thus ends his story but not before he has introduced a convulsion in this fiefdom, exposing intrigue, greed and hypocrisy amongst the power brokers back in Brazil, whose real interest in slave trade has not died and the supposed punishment meted out to Cobra Verde is just a front to profit from an exercise that Brazil had officially banned. The figure of Cobra Verde is distinct from Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo, though there are similarities. All of them set out on voyages, for something, the three are crazed and manic in a way, given to rage and homicidal instincts, with an undying belief in their destiny and a selfish interest in achieving their ends, come what may. All of them seem convinced of their mission, thus to some extent deluded and fixed and also alone, solitary and brooding, quiet with menace, raging with passion, passion that destroys a lot of lives around them.

The movie from its other qualities, like pace and display is also distinctly different from the other two. Cobra Verde is less pacy, more reflective and gives the viewer more time to take in what is shown. The colonial fort on the sea, with its decaying wall on one side and the endlessly crashing waves adds to the melancholy craziness of Cobra Verde, as he jumps like a madman, teaching and shouting at his female warriors, who are as crazed as he. The desperation of the slaves, chained by their necks is conveyed in images as dark and silent as they themselves, against a sea that rushes towards the fort. But Cobra Verde sees this too, and in a rare moment confesses his loneliness, cursing the climate where in face of the external heat, his heart has grown 'colder, colder'. He acknowledges his 'existence as cretinous' and as he struts and roars, one thinks of him as a bandit, a mercenary, a loose cannon and yet somebody who is the symbol of a more depraved life.

Cobra Verde, unlike Fitzcarraldo does not drink to Verdi or Rossi but 'to our ruin.......slavery is an element of the human heart', he reflects from the fort as he loses his hold on the natives. As his other country man laments of slavery as a misfortune, Cobra Verde, his eyes burning, silences him by calling it 'a crime'. We see a distinct movement from Fitzcarraldo to Cobra Verde and enormous similarities. And strangely, I felt more sympathetic towards Cobra Verde, a bandit with no respect towards human life but given in to metaphysical ravings, war like dances, rage and anger and madness. While he surrounds himself in silence and solitude, others around him feel the heat. Perhaps the murders that are unleashed on the innocent by manic ravaging men are actually perfected first in the heart's of men, in their inner mess, in their solitude. The megalomaniacal voyages that Herzog has shown with such perfectionistic detail are perhaps symbolic of the human quest for things beyond endurance.

As a piece of cinema, Cobra Verde, like the other Herzog movies, is eminently great, from every point of view. The background score by Popul Vuh adds a ghostlike serenity to a landscape that has already died. It is lazy to excuse and forget excesses or even a crime to forget crime. One must however try to see the context in which things are perpetrated. I think that Herzog has depicted in these three movies a certain approach towards some puzzling aspects not only of history but human behaviour too. However, in Cobra Verde, his stance is more dedicated, more sympathetic, more melancholic and more philosophical towards themes like exploitation, slavery, war, conquest. The exploitation of native Africans and slave trade here are against the background of the inner life of a man, who remains unknown to us, only that he is a bandit, 'alonest among the alone' and is also called Cobra Verde. He is alone, the essential traveler, though on the wrong side, sometimes wicked, mostly selfish. We leave him writhing against sea waves, he hoping to perish, I unsure.

Cobra Verde
was Herzog's final collaboration with Kinski and perhaps marks the end of a consistent theme, tackled in Fitzcarraldo, and continued in Aguirre. One could think of these three movies as a trilogy, though I watched them randomly but I must point out that it perhaps pays to watch or read an artist's work in succession, one after the other, for the thread that runs through individual works can be discerned more clearly then, rather than read or watch works in isolation, though it may not be practically possible. I must admit being slightly exhausted after watching Kinski and Herzog in succession though I felt, it was the only way.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Aguirre, The wrath of God

This movie is generally regarded as Herzog's best by film critics and it is such a studied approach towards multiple themes and as a stylistic and craftily made movie, it shows the mastery of an artist who was barely 30 when it was completed. Aguirre is a spectacle, a visual spectacle but more importantly a horrifying one, for we behold the scenes with discomfort, with mounting unease, with a tremor that reflects the fever of the characters we see, till they blur into oblivion, and as the last credits roll, we have seen horror and closing our eyes, remind ourselves of the greatness of art.

The movie traces a group of conquistadores, who having destroyed the Incans, go in search of the legendary El Dorado. The mission is led by Pizarro, the conquering general who detaches a section of his men to survey the amazon river further down. This detachment is led by another leader Ursua, who in the light of insurmountable difficulties, decides to retreat. This is prevented by Don Aguirre, who has him shot. Aguirre rebels and his soldiers follow suit. Then follows a journey on a raft down the Andean amazon, in search of gold and land, surrounded by invisible enemies, starvation, disease, death and uncertainty. One by one the men are killed by invisible arrows, they start to hallucinate and lose the strength even to rebel against Aguirre. The last man alive on a hopelessly drifting raft is Aguirre himself, as he surveys the river around, declaring that he is the wrath of God, and is willing to marry his own daughter to scion a breed of true fighters. We see him surrounded by the dead, including his own daughter, as the raft is taken over by monkeys, and Aguirre drifts into oblivion.

To say that this movie is just great is to belittle any important thing that one watches. The narrative here follows from the past but is more linear. The story, if it is that, is of conquest, of taking away from the weak what belongs to the weak. It does not have the pretensions of an adventure, even a benign imperial adventure, for the unforgiving nature of the landscape takes away all pretense. It is about conquering and as the monk who narrates the story tells us, the imperative is also "to bring to the pagans, the word of God". This is not the overbearing concern for Aguirre, who once declares that he is not interested in gold as much as in conquering the land and people around him, in subduing them. The soldiers have their own interests, the hastily coronated emperor on the raft his own. The monk, the man of God seemed hypocritical, but a golden cross was very attractive even for him.

Aguirre's case is separate. Played by Kinski, this performance by the great actor is one where he does not speak much, but seethes, burns, as he walks and struts on his stage, his raft down the river, as he walks with a slant, head tilted, eyes green, with derision at everyone and some sympathy for his daughter, his little one. Only Kinski could have played Aguirre, for he brings to life a homicidal monster, a man who is the ultimate traitor, a rebel against Spain and the Church. Aguirre wants not gold or God but victory, for as fever and delirium claim all his men, as his daughter lies dead, all his men fallen, as invisible arrows rain down on them, and as he defeated but standing surveys the jungle around, he claims "to stage history like other stage plays". For Aguirre the conqueror, the interesting part is conquer alone, to civilize the wretched is another perhaps less attractive goal.

One sees the fascist plunder of South America as hordes of Europeans pleaded to bring the word of God to innocent, weak and uninterested pagans but this core hypocrisy is shown here as it was, led by brave men yes, but hollow, hypocritical, led on by ideologies that are outwardly Christian but inwardly crusading, destructive, derisive, enslaving. As the raft of dying men fades into the river, one must wonder of present day invaders, who aim to democratize, to civilize, to bring to another people what surely they might not want. The horrors of war, of present day conquistadores, of murderers wearing cow boy hats, of heavens opening fire, of thunder and awe, are surely no different from Aguirre's wrath. A case for madness might be made for Aguirre but that would be dishonesty, for there is method in his madness and in his greedy men. Herzog has not just portrayed a fascistic raft going down nowhere but an important question for marauding people to answer. Aguirre is a phenomenal movie and Kinski's performance a sample of sublime art.