Conversations in the cacophony

Published : Jan 11, 2013 00:00 IST

AUSTRALIAN FILM-MAKER PAUL COX in Thiruvananthapuram on December 12 during the film festival.-S. MAHINSHA

AUSTRALIAN FILM-MAKER PAUL COX in Thiruvananthapuram on December 12 during the film festival.-S. MAHINSHA

Contemplative cinema dealing with the quotidian and the humane can surpass, and be more devastatingly enduring than, the spectacular or speculative cinema invoking an apocalyptic present.

IN the course of a conversation between us, and before an audience attending the recent 17th International Film Festival of Kerala in Thiruvananthapuram, the accomplished, veteran Australian film-maker Paul Cox wistfully recalled the distinctive cinematic sensibility of the 1980s, exemplified, in Malayalam, in an Aravindan and a John Abraham. We were discussing the deadweight of Hollywood bearing down on any independent idiom of the medium, and that much more acutely in the globalised realm. Hollywood, as Cox quaintly put it, sees its constituency as so many bums in so many seats, and not as persons with integrated psyches. Violation of gestalt marks the dominant Hollywood fare, typified at its worst for Cox by Quentin Tarantino and his rending asunder, at the drop of a hat, the human body on the screen.

A Tarantino film is more unleashed than released, with critical clamour in hot pursuit, and his latest, just out, Django Unchained, is no exception. Its intent and content are set to frazzle and drain the mind, to atomise the senses and strew them, scattered and spent, before the big screen. Nothing could be further from this than the Coxian oeuvre and approach to film-making, where the screen personas dignity and intactness are the given and the viewer arrives at a sense of artistic repose. In this clash of tropes lies a dilemma of categorisation. Cox is recognisably and assuredly of pure cinematic vintage, even if of the new wave, and even as he embraces digital technology. There is nothing morally squeamish or self-limiting in his approach. His reaction to the controversy surrounding the ethics of filming, in real life, the birth of a child to an actress in a Malayalam film, as footage for use in the same film, was telling: why would we object to the depiction of this beautiful process of creation if we can accept the destruction, blood and gore, and dismemberment and violation of the human body as the standard commercial cinematic fare?

Tarantinos is, at the margins, a post-cinematic aesthetic which wears the Hollywoodian narrative inside out and samples an eclectic variety of sounds and sights with digital verve. He strikes a contrarian note in the languaging of his craft, not least in stretches of dialogues that dip at once into pop allusions and evoke a febrile cultural restlessness. The desultoriness of the words he puts into the mouths of his characters engaged with traumatising visual sequences may be as non-significant or non-meaningful as the coincidence, pointed out in an elucidation of Carl Jung by Dr von Franz, of a man blowing his nose just as a plane crashes in front of him (as against Jungian synchronicity, which would be meaningful coincidence as, say, your ordering a blue dress and being delivered a black one instead, and on the day a relative has died). The problem, though, is the dehumanisation at work in his films, which is of a piece with the disembodiment that characterises Hollywood, as cyborgs, robots and futuristic beings take over from thinking, feeling, emoting homo sapiens.

That contemplative cinema dealing with the quotidian and the humane can surpass, and be more devastatingly enduring than, the spectacular or speculative cinema invoking an apocalyptic present or a phantasmagoric future was driven home by at least three profound works screened at the Thiruvananthapuram festival. All of them deal with the inertial phase of old age when terminality becomes a natural human condition. Paul Coxs Innocence, made in 2000, steps into the life of a woman in her late sixties, not unhappily married and with an adult son who is a doctor, just as she meets her old lover, a widower and retired musician with a grown-up daughter, after 45 years andthere is nothing incredible about it the way it progresses in the filmthey pick up the thread from where they left off to get blithely into a re-relationship. Cox lets the delicate situation, which lends itself to a mix of curiosity and anxiety, move carefully and incrementally forward, as if wary of upsetting the natural course it will take. Even as the director stays aloof, we find ourselves empathically imbricated in the very practical, at times intense, conversations among wife, lover, husband, son and daughter about what course the affair will take or how it will resolve itself.

Djamila Sahraouis Yema (2012) explores the filial and the familial in a sequestered, parched Algerian milieu. The 62-year-old director herself plays the eponymous mother, somewhat in the conscious manner of a Greek tragedienne, as she seeks to reconcile to the death of her soldier son, possibly at the hands of his mujahideen sibling. She finds herself becoming adoptive mother to the young rebel assigned to guard her as she works the earth and makes it yield vegetables and fruits. On the death of her dead sons wife, whom the living one had taken over, her infant child is brought to her care. Sparseness is the figure of speech; indeed there is little the mother says through it all and her silence becomes more powerful and indicting as the stand-off with the son continues. There is no music track well until the end when the credits roll. More than the minimally articulated context, the film rides on the power of the unspoken word.

Austrian director Michael Hanekes French film Amour, which won the Palme dOr at Cannes this year, is a hauntingly intimate study of an old couple, both retired music teachers, whose full and gracefully mellowed lives in each others implicit company and in their common world of music are inexorably whittled down by a stroke she suffers, just like that, in the middle of a conversation with her husband, which leaves her right side paralysed and her mind lapsing into dementia. As conversation between them is replaced by indecipherable guttural sounds from her supine form that seem to alternately suggest pain and protest, the silent frustration, anguish and bewilderment of the caring and tending husband as he begins to slip down the slope of sanity himself is wrenching to watch. Jean-Louis Trintignant as the husband and Emmanuelle Riva as the wife are riveting every inch of the way and alive in our memory long after the film is over.

Haneke, who once set out to teach the violent American film a lesson with even more antidotal violence in his Funny Games (1997) and whose other Palme dOr winner, The White Ribbon (2009), and very first feature, The Seventh Continent (1989), are not very much more pacific, seems to seek asylum from the high-voltage mayhem he is both averse and accustomed to in the quiet Parisian apartment of Amour where his two protagonists wind down their lives.

The cypherpunks

Conversation and asylum are the key words which lead to a different impinging context where the facts appear so much stranger than fiction. With the European Court of Justice ruling that Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) agents had themselves shackled, beaten and sodomised a German citizen, Khaled al-Masri, the continuing forced asylum of Julian Assange (the founder of WikiLeaks, which played a central role in bringing this terrible business of extraordinary renditions to public attention) in the Ecuadorian embassy in London for six months now is beginning to look like a theatre of the absurd. The sex offence case against Assange pales into a blip before the charge of torture of an innocent man proven against the CIA in the European court. But the agency will no doubt go scot-free, for who will bell the cat even when the pretence that it was the cats paw that was independently at it all along has collapsed; and Assange will continue to be holed up in his refuge because he will not be given the minimum assurance he seeks that he will not be delivered unto the United States and the likes of the CIA if he left the protection of the embassy for Sweden to face the charges against him. The moral indignity of the situation stares us in the face and taunts universal values of freedom. Meanwhile, undeterred by his circumstance, Assange, along with three of his colleagues, has published a conversation that runs into a book of over 200 pages, and that would seem direly alarmist if it was not likely that we are living in times when, to quote Nietzsche, the history of truth is the history of the longest lasting lie.

It is titled Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet, and its very introduction is a call to cryptographic arms to stop the world galloping into a new transnational dystopia where the Internet, our greatest tool of emancipation, has been transformed into the most dangerous facilitator of totalitarianism we have ever seen and becomes a threat to human civilization. The conversation that follows features, besides Assange, his fellow travellers: Jacob Applebaum, founder of Noisebridge in San Francisco and a member of the Berlin Chaos Computer Club; Andy Muller-Maguhn, a founder of the European Digital Rights; and Jeremy Zimmermann, founder of the citizen advocacy group La Quadrature du Net.

Myriad troubling bytes of information emerge from their conversation: the Net is under total and totalitarian surveillance; the multinational media corporations which straddle the Net, like Google, Twitter and Facebook, to whom we give up all our personal data, abet this intrusion of our privacy and appropriation of our identities so that they have essentially become privatized secret police; that instead of targeted surveillance, everything about everyone who has left an electronic trace is now recorded and archived for possible future use, and that this is made possible because while the human population doubles every 25 years, surveillance capacity doubles every 18 months; that monitoring takes precedence over communication so that, as Assange puts it, a mobile phone is a tracking device that also makes calls.

This panopticon on the Net is sought to be legitimised by constantly raising the bogey of what Jacob Applebaum calls the Four Horsemen of the Info-pocalypse: child pornography, terrorism, money laundering, war on some drugs. Cryptography would be one sure way of dodging this dragnet on the Net because codes can be made faster than they are cracked; but then international law is stacked against it because encryption technology cannot be exported under the Wassenaar Arrangement, whereas surveillance equipment can be sold internationally. The prospect, then, for freedom and privacy on the Net is dismal and only the high-tech rebel elite, assumably the cypherpunks, can wrest freedom from this state of siege. It is, for a good part, a surreal conversation which envisions a stark and scary scenario laced with disgust for the media, which are seen as falling for the censorship routine through compliant redactions, and anticipatory impatience for those who might still be cynical about their doom theory of the Net. The sense of hyperbole, notwithstanding what it certainly is not, is a quixotic tilting at windmills; it is obvious enough that the core concerns raised are real and urgent.

Although in its very opening Assange asserts that this publication is not a manifesto, it reminds one of the philosophical treatise The Society of the Spectacle by Guy Debord of the Situationist International (SI) movement of the 1960s or, further back, The Futurist Manifesto of Marinetti of the early 20th century. Assange and Companys precautionary narrative is cast, somewhat in the manner of Debord, as a series of aphorisms whose truth has to be empirically tested. It took a quarter century and more before Debords propositions became central to the information society. It may take far less time in the digital age to discover whether the technology and the political and commercial forces that operate on the cyberspace we populate will set us free, let us be, or as Assange predicts, have us electronically profiled and stored, as actionable information, in the databanks of power.

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