Archive for the ‘Art Film’ tag
These are the last ten minutes of the movie ‘Syndromes and a Century’ (Sang Sattawat, 2006) by the Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul. The movie is mainly located in two hospitals: one in rural Thailand and and the other in Bangkok. The geographical distance between these locations is further emphasized by the temporal divide that separates the two parallel yet interconnected narratives: the Bangkok medical centre is representing the present and the rural hospital is set 40 years in the past. Throughout the film, Weerasethakul makes various references to Buddhist visual culture, iconography and theology such as reincarnation and an after life. The viewer is becoming an unwitting participant to the belief that life is lived in cycles as scenes set in the past are, towards the second part of the movie, repeated with uncanny similarity in the present. By this stage, the viewer is entranced by Weerasethakul’s meditation on the ambiguous division between past and present, life and death.
The closing scene of ‘Syndromes and a Century’ is set in the Bangkok hospital: the harsh fluorescent lighting and the formal symmetry of the hallways are emphasizing the reality of living in a modern city. Somehow lost in this maze of corridors and hallways appears an elderly lady sitting at a desk. In the next shot, the movie cuts to a young woman exiting a door. The sound of the door banging in the frame and the woman’s heels clicking on the linoleum floor penetrate the otherwise monotone background music. The same door opens again shortly after and a young man sheepishly enters the hallway. This ambiguous and rather hidden reference to a possible sexual encounter between two doctors in the basement of the hospital also underlines the difficulties of working under strict censorship laws in Thailand. When the movie was released in Thailand, censors demanded that a total of four scenes should be edited out: one showed doctors consuming alcohol, another showed doctors kissing.
As the music intensifies, the camera documents a patient seemingly lost in the hallways and a member of staff daydreaming at her desk. As the camera pulls away from the desk, the viewer is invited to join the director on a meditative and hypnotic exploration in visual culture. Set in a smoke filled room in the basement, the camera turns in a circular motion as it depicts the harsh fluorescent lighting mounted on the ceiling. A drilling machine briefly shown in the corner of the room is emphasizing the point of this hypnotic scene as the director wishes to penetrate the viewer’s mind. The camera then slowly focuses on a vent that is ominously sucking in the smoke filling the room. As the smoke is being sucked through the vent, the spectator as well is closing in on the vent via the tracking shot. Here, the director engages in a visual analogy by substituting the smoke with the gaze of the spectator. The vent isn’t as much sucking smoke, rather, it’s sucking our gaze. By holding that shot for a considerable length, it appears that Weerasethakul insists on displacing, confusing even alienating the viewer. The mise-en-scène creates a position of vulnerability and even hauntedness.
Despite appearing to break from cinematic conventions, some comparisons for this key scene in ‘Syndromes and a Century’ can be made in global cinema. The hypnotic music for instance is strongly reminiscent of a movie by David Lynch – a director Apichatpong Weerasethakul is often compared to. More specifically in reference to the tracking shot, Jean-Luc Godard for instance made inventive use of it, most famously in ‘Contempt’ (1963) or ‘Weekend’ (1967). Other filmmakers such as Alfred Hitchcock in ‘Frenzy’ (1972) or Martin Scorsese in ‘Taxi Driver’ (1976) appear to use Godard’s method of tracking the camera quite unexpectedly away from the cinematic narrative. In these cases, rather than following the plot, the viewer is forced to follow the vision of the filmmaker. In ‘Frenzy’, the camera moves away from a door to an apartment in anticipation of the suspense hidden from the viewer unfolding inside the apartment. In ‘Taxi Driver’, Robert de Niro talks on the phone with his girlfriend as the camera slowly moves away from him, focusing on an empty hallway that de Niro is yet to enter. Here the tracking shot helps to foretell a narrative that is yet to unfold.
It is the hypnotic character of the tracking shot in ‘Syndromes and a Century’ however that appears to have very few cinematographic precedents in global cinema (an exception might be Steve McQueen’s ‘Hunger’ from 2006 where a long shot shows a prison guard scrubbing the floor). Rather than guiding the viewer through the plot of the movie, the point of the hypnotic tracking shot is to create a complete visual and narrative break. It becomes the visual equivalent of an exclamation mark. By the time the smoke sucking vent is shown in ‘Syndromes and a Century’, the viewer has already suspended all preconceived ideas what the experience of cinema should be. While the cinematography could be read with reference to a Buddhist signifying system (the smoke might refer to incense symbolic for the fragrance of pure moral conduct), I believe that Apichatpong Weerasethakul wishes to literally pull the viewer into his world, no matter what their belief system might be. In a sense, the hypnotic tracking shot is more about the art of cinema than it is about the film itself. This playfulness, an aspect Weerasethakul inherited from his practice as exhibiting experimental film artists, allows us to re-consider the parameters of global cinema which is, rather than merely depicting a story, first and foremost a visual experience.
Funeral Scene, I am Cuba (Soy Cuba), directed by Mikhail Kalatozov, 1964
This is a monumental scene from the Russian-Cuban film I am Cuba, or Soy Cuba, telling the tale of four ordinary Cubans caught up in the economic, ideological and political struggle of their country previous to the 1959 revolution. Although the film was released in 1964, shooting began as early as 1962, thus barely two years after the revolution and the emergence of Fidel Castro, but also, during a time of mounting tension between the US following the Cuban Missile Crisis in October that year. The film itself was thus made during a time when Cuba was in a rapid state of transformation.
I am Cuba is widely praised for being one of the most innovatively shot movies of global cinema. The Russian director Mikhail Kalatozov and his cameraman Sergei Urusevsky appear to use every trick of cinematography and mise-en-scène. This innovative approach is particularly apparent in a scene in which the body of a student protester, shot dead by the police moments earlier, is carried through the streets of Havana. The scene begins at the bottom of the stairs leading to Havana University – a symbolically relevant location since this was also a central axis point in the revolution. In commomeroration of the dead, there is absolute silence when the body is covered with the Cuban flag. As a group of fellow students carry the body away from the University Square, the camera rises above them. In the background there are cars burning, the university can be seen on the top of the hill, the water on the ground signifies the sacrificial blood of the revolution.
The next shot is taken from the top of a nearby church, the bells are ringing and Sergei Urusevsky’s camera makes four quick movements, to depict four bells ringing on four sides of the church tower. The emphasis on the number four mirrors the very format of the movie, telling four seperate, but interrelated, stories. The camera pans down, and what was at first only a handful of students, turned into a growing crowd. People throw flowers from the buildings nearby, as the procession of mourners navigates the narrow streets.
Then the magic begins. The camera is back on ground level as it focuses on Gloria and Enrique who the viewer has encountered in the first part of the movie. Enrique starts carrying the body of he dead student as the camera is moving upwards, to the top of a nearby building. As the camera is moving up, the volume of the music rises. The crowd meanwhile has turned into a mass of people. At this stage, the camera appears to defy gravity, as it hovers over the street into a cigar shop. The symbolism here is also important: the cigar being a locally produced Cuban product, not yet overtaken by the might of American cultural and economic imperialism. Fidel Castro and Che Guevara themselves famously made use of the cigar as a (phallic) signifier for national pride and independence.
In a carefully choreographed mise-en-scène, the camera then follows the workers in the cigar manufactory, as they hold the Cuban flag out of the window. As the music soars to a crescendo, the camera flys above the crowds in an awe-inspiring climax of cinematographic ingenuity. Only then, does the cameraman Sergei Urusevsky reveal the tricks of his cinematography: there are four wires hanging above the window that lead across to another building. It is to these wires that the camera gets attached and then pulled with. The use of an extreme wide angle lens helps to reduce the shaking and smoothens out any movements.
Mural depicting the ensuing execution of Eight Medical Students in 1871, Havana.
Here too, as the funeral procession walks down the narrow street, the scene is greatly symbolical of Cuban visual culture and politics. Every year, Cubans commemorate the 27th of November, mourning the lives of eight medical students who were wrongly sentenced to death and executed by Spanish colonizers in 1871. After the revolution in 1959, the 27th of November had a regained symbolical relevance: while it originally recognized the brutality of Spanish colonial rule, the 27th of November became a metaphor for the struggle for equality of Cubans under an American hegemony. The photograph below shows, in comparison with the famous funeral scene in I am Cuba, an uncanny similarity with how the 27th of November was commemorated in 1960. The sign on the top left reading ‘Miami Car Parts’ remains as an almost comical symbol for Anglo-Saxon style capitalism.
Photograph showing the 27th of November commemoration on Calle San Lazaro, Havana, 1960.
Photograph showing the 27th of November commemoration on Calle San Lazaro, Havana, 2009.
Another important aspect in the 27th of November processions is that like, like in the film I am Cuba, it begins at Havana University where the eight executed students used to study medicine. While the actual location for the film might be elsewhere, the procession, as it is still acted out today, then continues along Calle San Lazaro down to the shores of Havana. Lazarus of Bethany, as it says in the New Testament, is the subject of a miracle in which Jesus restores Lazarus to life after four days dead. The procession along Calle San Lazaro on the 27th of November therefore becomes the allegorical restoration of life and memory in light of suffering under colonial rule. I am Cuba masterfully borrows these signifiers of national pride and mourning: from the university to Havana’s narrow streets, from the omnipresent Cuban flag to the masses of people, from the fallen protester to the rise of the revolution, the funeral scene signifies that revolutions come at a human cost, and the only way to recover the dead is by remembering them.
This is the moment when the main protagonist in the East German film The Architects says goodbye to his wife and daughter who received permission to escape to the West. In the background you see a sign that says ‘Ausreise’, or ‘Emigration’, a word so rarely applicable to the citizens of the closed-off German Democratic Republic. As the director Peter Kahane has explained in an interview, filming the scene was fraught with difficulties because as The Architects was produced in 1989, the borders between East and West Germany were in themselves evaporating. The bizarre encounter between fictional and real events in The Architects is best encapsulated in the moment the daughter leaves her father behind, while at the same time, hundreds of thousands East Germans escape to the West in actuality. The painful breakup of the family becomes the reminder of the traumatic breakup of the Germanies more than four decades earlier.
Director Peter Kahane in interview.
The central plot of the film focuses on the planning of a large housing estate on the outskirts of East Berlin by a young team of idealistic architects. The architects’ disillusionment with the construction of the housing estate can be read as a critique against the repressive state apparatus. The state’s constant meddling with the architects’ plans for the estate therefore becomes a metaphor for the lack of civil liberties in the German Democratic Republic. Considering that The Architects was granted full financial support from the East German funding body for propaganda films (DEFA) as early as 1988, the film is not only surprisingly critical towards the communist regime, but the support of the film itself signifies the collapse of an ideology even in institutions considered loyal to the regime.
The filming for The Architects began in earnest in September 1989, just as the border between East and West Germany began to erode. The constant flow of people to West Germany following the collapse of the Berlin Wall on the 9th of November 1989 even threatened the very production of The Architects itself, as the director Peter Kahane feared for losing his production team. Far from merely depicting the dissolution of ideological and geographic borders, The Architects is in itself an active constituent of this collapse in its own right. While it might not be the End of History as postulated by Francis Fukuyama, The Architects does nevertheless cinematically mark the end of a particularly autocratic and stifling version of communism in East Germany. It would become one of the last films ever funded by DEFA, also marking the end of nearly 40 years of propaganda films and visual culture produced for the indoctrination of the citizens of the German Democratic Republic. One of the ironies of The Architects is that as the political events of 1989 unfolded so rapidly, by the time the film came out in spring 1990, the history it depicted was already buried in the past. The Architects, caught up in the collapse of the regime it sought to critique, would eventually flop in the deserted cinemas of a united Germany.
This blog post is an abbreviated version of an extended book chapter titled ‘The Collapse of Ideology in Peter Kahane’s The Architects‘ to be published in the forthcoming collection Frontiers of Screen History: Imagining European Borders in Cinema, 1945-2010 edited by Raita Merivirta, Heta Mulari, Kimmo Ahonen and Rami Mahka.