Monday, December 15, 2008

A face, a gesture, a moment, a desire - Frozen in Time

Memory is often of deep interest to artists and philosophers. It is nevertheless difficult to portray in works of art. The fact that a film exists that meditates on the nature of memory, disguised as science fiction, is enough to increase curiosity. La Jetee, a short film made in 1962, is remarkable for being made completely out of still images. In the words of filmmaker Chris Marker it is a photo-roman (a photographic novel). It tells the story of a man “haunted by an image of his childhood”. As a kid, the protagonist had seen a woman on the pier of Orly airport just before she witnessed a murder. Years later, after surviving nuclear war (which is mentioned by the narrator as World War III) he is held captive underground with others like him; they are used as guinea pigs in the time-travel experiments their captors conduct. With the help of these experiments the captors search for food, medicine, and energy sources in different time zones, “using past and future to aid the present”. Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys is inspired by this film, and it is a good film in its own terms, but personally I found La Jette to be more absorbing and less confusing. Both films have lots of differences in terms of plot and narratives, but thematically they coincide. It is not important whether time travel is possible or not. There are plenty of Hollywood films dealing with this subject, most of them unconvincing. La Jetee and Twelve Monkeys use the time travel notion to probe the mysteries of time, and not to create swashbuckling adventure.

The protagonist is selected for the experiment just because he is glued to an image of his past – the face of a woman that has haunted him for years. The story is of faces too as they are persistent in the memory; we remember the past and we remember faces. Human face is a subject for all great directors – be it Bergman or Tarkovsky. In the words of Woody Allen: they just put the camera on a face and keep it there and keep it there...

After days of experimenting, our protagonist starts gathering his past. He sees the fields, horses, children and places yet not ruined by the war. And he meets the woman. During the first few experiments he tries to familiarize with her. As he is sent to the past for limited time, he is not sure how much time he can spend with her, nor does he know whether his captors will send him back again after the experiment is over. With this uncertainty in his breast, and recurring time travels he forms an unconditional relationship with her. The woman on the other hand starts accepting his appearing and disappearing as a natural phenomenon. She calls him her ghost. They spend joyous moments together. “They have no memories, no plans. Time builds painlessly around them” says the narrator. There is a moment in the film when the woman is sleeping, and after some ten to eleven frames opens her eyes. Though a very ordinary looking scene, after watching still images for so long this faint motion has a power to move the viewer. Chris Marker is a master who can make an obvious motion look magical. Maybe she is looking at the protagonist, and in her eyes one can mark sheer love. The desire to be complete with “the other” dwells in every heart, and here is the woman he longs for, lovingly starring at him. But the viewer is also aware of an inevitable fact that this is just a moment and the protagonist has to leave it to go back to the miserable present he comes from. This knowledge makes a very beautiful scene look heartrending.

It is a dense film but from what I have understood, the protagonist had just seen the woman once in his life, as a kid, when she was witnessing a death. When he enters the past (which I take as entering one’s own memories), the time he spends with her may very well be the vacuum of his desires, and not the memory of something that actually happened. Desires always come into play. The ideal woman he longed for had the attributes designed by him but they lacked a form; the image of that woman provided one. In the end, at the Orly airport, when he runs towards her because nothing in the world is more precious than her, he also sees the kid that he used to be. It is a remarkable scene – something that was, something that is, and something that should be, all in the same time zone. Then the terrible, maybe unavoidable, happens. What is more important: the actualization of all the desires or having triumphantly lived just one in the mind?

The film left me with a feeling; somehting which I cannot really put in words. To put it in the words of Chilean Poet Pablo Naruda:

How much does a man live, after all?
Does he live a thousand days, or one only?
For a week, or several centuries?
How long does a man spend dying?
What does it mean to say “forever”?

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Fall...

There is a train on the bridge. Few men are shouting and running, few are gazing down. They use a rope to drag something out of water under the bridge. Something must have fallen when the train was in motion. After a moment, we come to know that it was a horse. With a visual quality like that of prolonged dream dreamt by Dali and Jung, The Fall drags the viewer into a world where reality and imagination merge so that the film’s characters can take refuge into the world of the mind to escape the gravity of existence. It is a unique film, unique in the real sense of the word, and relies heavily on images than on a fixed plot.

The story takes place at Los Angles, 1915, in a hospital where half of the beds are neatly made but empty. On one of the beds, we see Roy (Lee Pace), a silent movie stuntman, who has injured himself badly and cannot walk. There is a small girl called Alexandria who roams around the hospital the way friendless kids do to pass time. She peaks into the nurse’s room now and then who is apparently the only person she is most comfortable with, she regularly meets an old patient who removes his teethes to amuse her, but she is loitering alone most of the time. She drops around Roy’s bed by chance and they form an odd company. Roy tells her an adventurous story that involves a black bandit (whose is Roy himself), an Italian anarchist, an escaped African slave, an Indian, Charles Darwin and his pet monkey; they are deserted on an island, they have their own reasons to kill Governor Odious, and they escape from the island riding swimming elephants. Though Roy tells the story, the visuals that we encounter are the output of Alexandria’s imagination – of what Alexandria makes of Roy’s story. There are words she does not understand, and she imagines something different from what Roy intends. The Fall gains its momentum slowly and steadily – it shifts from the story Roy is telling to the reality of Roy in the most unusual narrative structure I have encountered.

Roy is paralyzed and is dumped by the woman he loves. He wants to kill himself but since he cannot walk, he wants someone to bring morphine pills from the medicine room. The story he tells to Alexandria is just a bait to make her bring the pills. Alexandria on the other hand has found a good company in Roy, a good friend who tells her stories. Both of them have little to live for in the real world. Alexandria tells in passing that bad people burned her house; Roy asks her “who?”; “bad people” she replies in her innocent diction. Her father is dead and she does not want to leave the hospital to go back to her mother. Roy’s story makes her feel excited, and it helps in forming an odd bond between the two. “We are an odd pair”, Roy tells her once. The film is not without poignant moments. There is life affirmation near the end of the film as well. Bleakness is a phase that has to pass, and if one has company during such period, that to of someone like Alexandria’s, the train leaves the tunnel a little faster.

But what is fantastic about this film is that the story within the story moves, shape-shifts, and changes based on the mood of Roy and Alexandria. The Labyrinth of despair from which the only escape is death, the blue city, Darwin’s monkey chasing the butterfly, the zigzag staircase, man appearing from a burning tree – these are few of the visuals worth mentioning. They are worth watching for the only reason that there is not a single trace of computer-generated animation seen in the film. It took Tarsem Singh (a lesser-known Indian director whose first film was The Cell, and who has directed music videos for Deep Forest) four years to complete this film, and he traveled across twenty-eight countries to shoot it. The result is awe-inspiring, a visual treat of the highest order. It is undoubtedly a movie made with utmost passion for images. I hardly know about any other film that is even close to this one.