F for Fake: Murder on the Orient Express (Kenneth Branagh, Malta/USA, 2017)

One of the key scenes in Murder on the Orient Express involves Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) exposing Gerhard Hardman (Willem Dafoe) as a fake Austrian scientist as a result of his failure correctly to pronounce Turin. Hardman – if that is his real name – pronounces it TURin, whereas a genuine Austrian, as Poirot reminds us, would have pronounced it TurIN.

Given the importance that the film places upon pronunciation as a sign of authenticity, it is notable that on two occasions we hear the Belgian sleuth incorrectly pronounce the plural of the French word for eggs. The singular, œuf, involves the pronunciation of the f: ‘urf.’ However, when said in the plural, French speakers drop the f sound and say ‘uh’: des œufs (‘des uh’). Poirot, however, on both occasions persists incorrectly with the f and says ‘urfs.’

If it is an incorrect pronunciation that exposes Hardman’s act, then by the same token Poirot’s incorrect pronunciation exposes his own act. That is, if it is because he cannot correctly pronounce words that Hardman is revealed as not Hardman, then because he cannot correctly pronounce words, Poirot is similarly revealed as not Poirot. In other words, it is because of an f that the Poirot of Murder on the Orient Express is revealed as a fake.

What are we to make of this?

On a primary level, we can simply say that it is an error that any actor (here, Kenneth Branagh) might make when saying words in a language that is not his own. That is, the slip is meaningless – the sort of slip that should not be the basis of an entire argument about the film.

But, given that the film itself involves sleuthing based upon such slips, then by the film’s own standards, we can mount a case against the film as a result of its linguistic inaccuracies. If Hardman’s slip is deliberate, in the sense that it provides a clue as to the real nature of what it is that we are witnessing, then so must we read Branagh/Poirot‘s slip as deliberate.

[SPOILERS.]

Hercule Poirot finds himself on a train where 12 people have gathered ritually to murder a man (Edward Ratchett/John Cassetti, played by Johnny Depp) who himself abducted and killed a child in the USA some time prior to the titular train journey taking place. Each has a link to the victim and the victim’s family – and each is sufficiently devastated by the original murder that they are willing to take part in the murder from which the novel – and subsequently the film – takes its name.

The film presents to us as if it is by chance that Poirot happens to be on the titular train. Indeed, the murderers would have gotten away with it, too, were it not for the pesky Poirot’s presence – and an avalanche that happens to keep the train stuck for a day or more near Brod, in what at the time of the film’s setting (1934) was the recently formed Kingdom of Yugoslavia, and which today finds itself in the Muslim-majority country of Kosovo.

But what are the odds that all of these people with a connection to Cassetti happen to be on the same train – at precisely the same time that the world’s greatest detective happens to be there, too?

As the odds are extremely slim that so many people with connections to Cassetti can be on the same train as him by chance, so, too, are the odds slim that Poirot would be on the same train as all of these people and as Cassetti by chance.

Indeed, as it is not by chance that all of these same people are on the same train as Cassetti (they are here specifically to murder him), so might it also not be by chance that Poirot is on the same train. For, as Hardman is not Hardman, so is this Poirot not Hercule Poirot.

Instead, as indicated by his fake f, this Poirot is in fact an actor playing the part of Hercule Poirot – the world’s greatest detective – precisely so that he can uncover the crime and then use his credentials as a great moral arbitrator in order to excuse those who commit the murder of Cassetti.

That is, this Poirot is not on the train by chance, but, like all of the 12 perpetrators, he is equally on the train as a result of engineering. This Poirot is there not just to uncover the murder, but to justify the murder. He is part of the plot to allow murder to happen justifiably. For if the world believes that even Hercule Poirot allows these people to get away with murder, then everyone will allow these people to get away with murder. It is necessary to fake Poirot’s presence in order to justify murder.

But why do this?

On one level, this must be done in order to keep the train’s owner, Bouc (Tom Bateman), at bay. Where Bouc might otherwise blow a whistle about the murder, thanks to Poirot’s presence and his condonement of the killing, Bouc will keep quiet and let the killing happen ‘in peace.’ Bouc thus is a kind of bouc émissaire, or scapegoat, for the murder – not because Bouc literally takes the rap for what happens, but because Bouc’s naïve belief in the fake Poirot reconfirms (the fake) Poirot’s (fake) verdict that the killers are justified in their actions.

Except that Bouc specifically invites Poirot to take the train when Poirot is called to London to investigate the Kassner case. That is, Bouc is necessary in order to corroborate that this curious man whom we see is Hercule Poirot, while at the same time providing the necessary setting for the murder to take place. Bouc is in on it, too.

It is not simply that Poirot is part of the plot to murder Cassetti, then. It may even be that Poirot – this fake Poirot – is the mastermind behind the plot, a man playing the role of the Belgian detective in order to allow a murder to happen that he himself will expose and then condone precisely so that it takes place without consequence.

What evidence do we really have that Ratchett is Cassetti? None. That is, we have 12 liars who insist that this man is Cassetti, a child murderer who was never caught and the evidence for whose crime is never revealed to us. And then we have the word of a fake Poirot, whose explanations of the crime may be ingenious – but they explain to us neither who has been killed nor why.

Murder in Yugoslavia, or more specifically Kosovo, is therefore justified by the word of a fake authority. Indeed, because of the authority of a fake Belgian who justifies it, it becomes the perfect murder. Collective murder is perfect.

At the outset of the film, we see Poirot asking for the eggs that are the centre of this argument. Four minutes, he says, which presumably means that Poirot likes his eggs with a bit of unboiled snot in them given that five minutes is in my experience the best time to achieve a soft-boiled egg – give or take 30 seconds depending on the size of the egg.

(Furthermore, the boiling point of water falls with decreasing atmospheric pressure, and so it takes longer to cook an egg when one is at a higher altitude, since the boiling water there is not as hot and thus not as speedy a cooking medium as it would be at sea level.)

Having received two eggs that simply by appearance he does not like, the fake Poirot dismisses them and demands two more, which duly arrive.

Poirot (the fake Poirot) then takes out a ruler and measures the eggs, even though the eggs are visibly not the same size.

What is more, having dismissed the initial pair of eggs, he now accepts the second set of eggs, even though they are visibly disparate – and even though measuring them will not help him to know whether they have been boiled for the four required minutes.

In other words, first the insistence, then the refusal and then the nonsensical measurements are carried out in order to convince those around him (and we viewers) that this man is Hercule Poirot, the sort of man who would do such nitpicking. But of course, this is simply a performance by an impostor.

When Poirot makes it on to the Orient Express, he is served two much more equally-sized eggs for breakfast by the train steward Pierre Michel (Marwan Kenzari). How Michel knows to prepare the eggs this way is not revealed to us – and this is Poirot’s first experience on the titular train. In other words, Michel would seem already somehow to know Poirot. And Michel will eventually be revealed as yet another part of the plot to kill Ratchett, whom the murderers also claim to be Cassetti.

What is more, when Ratchett endeavours to employ Poirot to protect him from what he senses is imminent danger, Poirot (the fake Poirot) refuses – in part because he does not like Ratchett’s face.

In other words, not only would it seem that Poirot (the fake Poirot) is known in advance to at least one – but perhaps more – of the criminals who murder Ratchett. But it would also seem that Poirot himself has something against Ratchett. Perhaps it is for this reason that this detective who jumps up and who leaves his berth upon the slightest sound also somehow manages to sleep through 12 humans piling into a berth, stabbing a man and leaving again… because he also was a part of it.

But then who is this fake Poirot?

When the fake Poirot arrives at Istanbul train station with Bouc, he is told that there is no room left on the train – and that he therefore cannot travel in spite of his friend Bouc’s promise that he can.

At the last minute, however, someone suggests that an Englishman named Harris has not made it on time to catch the train. Passengers must arrive 30 minutes before departure, otherwise they forfeit their right to travel – and Harris has not arrived before departure and therefore cannot travel.

What has happened to Harris? Harris may have forgotten or missed his train. Or, given that Harris was otherwise booked on to a train where all of the passengers and even some of the staff members know each other, as an outsider he has been conveniently forced to miss the train – so as not to disrupt the murder that is about to take place (Harris is the victim of a second, earlier murder?).

Or, more simply, Harris does take the train. For the man who claims to be Hercule Poirot is really an Englishman called Harris, hence his inability correctly to pronounce the plural for eggs in French (des œufs/des ‘uh’).

Perhaps it is for this reason that MacQueen (Josh Gad) initially expresses surprise at seeing Harris/Poirot – for he does not recognise his friend in disguise, prompting Harris/Poirot to express his own dismay at MacQueen’s appearance. That is, Harris is indirectly expressing his own disappointment at having to look like Hercule Poirot.

Everything that follows is persiflage, pure show, or simply noise like the whistle of a train (per-siffle-age), including a somewhat nonsensical ‘action’ sequence in which Poirot chases MacQueen along a wooden bridge.

Indeed, this would explain the highly theatrical opening of the film, too, in which the fake Poirot supposedly solves the case of a missing treasure of which a rabbi (Elliot Levey), a priest (David Annen) and an imam (Joseph Long) are accused of stealing.

The fake Poirot himself points out that this is almost a joke scenario to the assembled crowd, who for some reason accept that a trial can or should take place in the open air and under the authority of a fake detective hired by the British government. That is, the trial is indeed a joke.

For, it becomes immediately obvious that there are not just the three religious men involved in this case, since the fake Poirot quickly explains to us that the last person to see the triumvirate was the British Police Chief Inspector (Michael Rouse).

We are told that Poirot (the fake Poirot) solves this crime as a result of a mark left by a shoe on a painting that lines the wall beneath the treasure. But far more simple a solution is to include among the suspects the very man who has known to accuse these three religious figures in the first place.

In other words, the ‘trial’ at the film’s opening is a pure show, a sham that is also put on in order to convince the assembled crowd and we viewers that this fake Poirot is the real Poirot.

The Chief Inspector supposedly steals the treasure, but it seems more logical to this viewer that the crime itself is a set-up so that the trial can be staged and so that the fake Poirot can be inserted into the story world.

That is, the fake Poirot is really engineered by the British – not to sort out who is responsible for the looting of valuables in Jerusalem (where the film opens), but in order to justify the British looting of valuables from Jerusalem and elsewhere in the Empire.

Supposedly called to London for the Kassner case, the British have in fact set Harris up as Poirot so that he can go on to the Orient Express to mastermind and then to justify the murder of Ratchett.

Why do this? Because Ratchett, too, is involved in the business of buying and selling antiques, including fake ones. That is, Ratchett wants to get involved in the very same racket that the British are operating throughout their Empire: stealing antiquities and replacing them with fakes that are sold at high cost.

As an upstart possible competitor, Ratchett must naturally be neutralised – otherwise the claims to power of the British will be exposed as fake. The Empire will be exposed as fake, its pretences to power merely an illusion staged to fool the assembled crowds that its figures of authority (the so-called Poirot) are in fact more powerful than their religious authorities (the rabbi, the priest and the imam).

Only two people will know the identity of the murderer, says the fake Poirot: God and Hercule Poirot. But if Hercule Poirot does not exist, then God may not exist. Or if Hercule Poirot is fake, then God may also be fake. That is, all who claim to be authorities on this Earth are fake, actors in a spectacle that is put on in order to create the illusion of power and in order to convince the spectators to believe in that illusory power.

(It is by this token important that the fake Poirot exposes corruption among the occupying British forces – the supposedly criminal Chief Inspector. In doing so, the fake Poirot would claim to show that the British bring their own people to justice – in the process covering over how the system of Empire will itself never be brought to justice. That is, the small crime is used as a mask for the massive crime that is taking place in broad daylight: the undermining and replacement of the local figures of authority for the purposes of ransacking the territory that the forces of Empire are infiltrating.)

Given the presence among the perpetrators on the train of three to five further Americans – MacQueen, the fake Hardman, Dr Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom Jr), the fake Countess Elena Andrenyi (Lucy Boynton) and the fake Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer) – it would appear that the British are not alone in ransacking the rest of the world.

Let us not also forget the Russians, including Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench) and Count Rudolph Andrenyi (Sergei Polunin), who seems expressly to take pleasure in the murder (as well as being prone to violence in general).

The group is rounded out by naturalised Americans Biniamino Marquez (Manuel García-Rulfo) and Pilar Estravados (Penélope Cruz), as well as British citizens with strong American ties, including Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley) and Edward Masterman (Derek Jacobi), as well as Jewish émigrée Hildegarde Schmidt (Olivia Colman).

In other words, the major world powers are all united in a front to frame and to justify the murder of a man, Ratchett, whose crime is to seek to get involved in their game. Whose crime is to seek also to be a criminal. And who for his effrontery is branded a child abductor and murderer such that his assassination for theft and the peddling of fakes becomes morally justified.

When the fake Poirot performs his charade of egg inspection before a young boy (Yasine Zeroual), the fake Poirot explains that the disparity in size is not the fault of the eggs, but of the chicken. Or rather, that it is an inexplicable mystery.

To what end this prologue, which does not appear in the novel?

Perhaps Branagh is trying to tell us that as no two eggs are the same, so are a film and a novel not the same. That is, one can never get the original to match the copy. And so Branagh is suggesting from the very beginning that this is a fake version of Agatha Christie’s story that we are watching – and that it would be pointless to try to get the one to match the other.

Similarly, the film’s opening by the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem does not happen in the novel, which rather opens in Aleppo, and which sees Poirot travel by train (on the Taurus Express) to Istanbul, rather than by boat (as happens in this film).

We have already established how the film’s opening takes place simply for show – in the sense that it is a show designed to convince the world that this fake Poirot is the real Poirot and that the British are thus justified in their dominion over Jerusalem (which of course the British celebrate as being theirs whenever they patriotically sing the hymn ‘Jerusalem,’ as written by William Blake, to whom we shall return shortly).

But here the opening with its overhead shots, its supposedly reliable flashbacks to the dispute between the rabbi, the imam and the priest are all designed to convince us not just of the authority of the fake Poirot, but of the authority of the film.

This is especially clear in the fake Poirot’s illusory ability to predict the movements of the Chief Inspector. Firstly, he sends a guard to stand at the south gate in advance of denouncing the supposedly corrupt policeman, while also placing in the wall his walking stick, which eventually the fleeing Police Inspector will run into.

But this miraculous ability to predict the future is not so much magic as simply stage management: it is easy to seem to predict the future when it has been prearranged in advance for the policeman to go to the south gate and then to run into the walking stick.

In other words, the film wants us to believe in the power and authority of the film, when all of this is really staged, a fake that is a far cry from Christie’s novel. This is not Murder on the Orient Express that we are watching, but a fake film created by an impostor.

Put differently, cinema as a whole is an illusion machine that is used to give authority to those who peddle it. Like Ratchett, of whom the fake Poirot and his friends must get rid, cinema passes off fakes as if real, making handsome profits in the process while also stealing real local treasures via Empire, and as rendered here through the use in this film of Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall.

Which of course is not the real Wailing Wall, but a fake filmed in Malta.

More than this. As the fake Poirot is put into motion in order to justify the murder of Ratchett, so is cinema put into motion in order to justify murder more generally. As the disappearance of Ratchett is a conspiracy between the British, the Russians, the Americans and various naturalized Americans, so is the disappearance of Aleppo, for example, a conspiracy that is made to look like a struggle between the major world powers.

The point that I wish to make is not specifically about Aleppo, nor Palestine which was the nation in which Jerusalem resided at the time in which the film is set.

Rather, I am using Aleppo and Palestine here as examples of Empire and the role that cinema plays in the continuation of Empire. In bringing this fake magic trick to the world, the power of those who create cinema is justified.

The film regularly features extended sequences filmed from the exterior of the train, such that the train itself becomes a ‘character’ in the film. We might venture further yet, though, and suggest that it is not simply as if the train itself were a key player in the events that are unfolding, but as if the train demanded these events.

That is, the train is like cinema a tool for the creation of modernity. And what is modernity? Modernity is the creation of a system of power whereby some use the trickery of technology in order to demonstrate their power over others, whom they then ransack in order to consolidate their power – a perfect feedback loop of empowerment.

But this empowerment of some over others also involves the disempowerment of others for the benefit of some. This disempowerment is in effect murder. As a human seeking to become god kills others in order to use their life force and blood in order to prolong, increase and perhaps render permanent their own, so does modernity involve the sacrifice of many to sate the claims to divinity that a few are trying to make.

Naturally, anyone who sees through this fakery and who aims to achieve their own power must be removed – hence the murder of Ratchett. Revolutions, or not to believe the proclaimed divinity of those who would have power, and to seek to establish via the same means one’s own power, similarly requires suppression, or else power will not be consolidated but distributed.

(It would seem all too human for humans to seek to become gods.)

In order for power to take on magic qualities that reinforce its power (power as appearance), power also seeks to hide its origin. As the projector from which images originate is hidden in the cinema, so is the provenance of power generally hidden. Power comes as if from nowhere, via sleight of hand. It is magical. And thus its authority is not to denied since it is beyond the ken of other, uninformed humans.

The status of Murder on the Orient Express as a Maltese-American co-production, then, functions as a means to hide the film’s own source of power (and that of cinema more generally). This is a film that comes from a ‘small’ place (Malta), but which really just reaffirms the big interests of cinema (Hollywood) – with Malta itself a screen enabled by the tax breaks that drew the production to it in the first place, and which tax breaks function as an invitation to under-pay local, Maltese workers, thereby justifying under-payment and exploitation as a whole.

What is more, as Malta functions as the home of an infamous Masonic order, and as small islands generally function as tax havens, or what the recent leak of documents would confirm to be ‘paradises’ on Earth (or what Nicholas Shaxson further defines as islands of [stolen] treasure), so does the presence of Malta in this production function as a means of burying treasure, turning theft into an illusion – something the reality of which cannot be proven, and which therefore is both godly and not real. To believe in it is to be an insane conspiracist. To be part of it is never to be discovered.

This is how Empire functions: power is nominally regulated through the creation of taxation systems, with the powerful then placing themselves outside of the jurisdiction of such regulation. Regular humans who are too stupid to be crooks are punished for their honesty (their money is stolen from them, and they receive next to nothing in return), while the so-called gods are never punished for breaking the rules that they impose upon other people.

(Europe/the West must be defended from Islam by the Knights Templar of the Order of Malta, a specifically Christian group that aims to put down the revolutionary religion of Mohammad, who is not divine but human, and so who threatens to undermine the claims to divinity of other humans. Murder in Kosovo is justified.)

And what of William Blake? The fake Poirot is called to London for the Kassner case. To what might this refer? Perhaps it refers to the work of author Rudolf Kassner, the man who translated Blake into German and who also was influenced by Laurence Sterne, whose Tristram Shandy is a novel in which fabulation becomes impossible to tell apart from truth as we are presented with illusion after illusion.

(Tristram Shandy as a deconstruction of power, and as a deconstruction of cinema avant la lettre/avant la caméra. In famously featuring a black page, Tristram Shandy renders itself antithetical to cinema, which relies upon darkness, but which cannot make darkness visible since this would be to bring to light and to humanise its otherwise invisible and would-be divine workings.)

(And so the ‘Jerusalem’ of Empire is not the real Jerusalem; it is a fake, builded elsewhere in England. But in building that fake Christian as opposed to that multi-faith Jerusalem, so are the dark Satanic mills of Empire put into motion.)

It is a kind of Blakean demonic energy that Ron Rosenbaum attributes to Adolf Hitler in a bid to explain his ascent to power – as if Hitler were the ultimate revolutionary little man born to rob power back from the gods in which he did not believe, and who thus provoked global war as the gods naturally demanded his blood to prove that Hitler was human as Hitler demanded blood to transcend his humanity and to become a god. With their nuclear light, the winners of the war demonstrated that they verily were gods.

The fake Poirot is perhaps, then, called to investigate the rise of Hitler and the role that literature, translation and perhaps even cinema played in that rise. Hitler is one more upstart, like Ratchett, whom the fake Poirot and his British, American and Russian friends must help to put down in order to perpetuate the balance of power as is. America, Britain and Russia may squabble over who has most power between them, but these squabbles merely cover over the bigger question of why they have power at all. They are a cinematic show that plays out so that people believe in their divinity as they rob the world of its treasures, selling back fakes to make yet more money and to consolidate all power in their own hands.

So for the sake of an f, Murder on the Orient Express is revealed as fake.

Or perhaps a simple show of ignorance on the part of Kenneth Branagh (he does not know how to pronounce his œufs) sets in chain a conspiracy theory that nonetheless reveals the very humanity and not the divinity of the world’s systems of power – and the role that cinema plays in creating and maintaining them.

Or perhaps this is just idle conspiracy theoretical fabulation, patterns where there only is chaos, and to be disproved in an ongoing apocalypse of false idols.

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Fifteen thoughts about Flatliners (Niels Arden Oplev, USA, 2017)

1. Resuscitated films end up being haunted and made to feel bad by their past. Kiefer Sutherland is on hand to ensure that this is so.

2. In the contemporary age, suicide becomes the logical extension of the pressure to work oneself to death (and not to be a loser who simply works and goes home at the end of the day).

3. Computers are the urns in which we are always placing our remains.

4. Rich kids are not really haunted by feelings of guilt for their past sins. They in fact love their demons and accept even the most insincere of apologies – because they never really needed one.

5. The future of medicine is the preserve of the already-rich. They will play god with the lives of the poor who come to visit them. Medicine becomes like sport as doctors compete with each other to satisfy their narcissism.

6. “Why do you like me?” asks Nina Dobrev to Diego Luna after they have just boned. “Because you’re really hot,” he answers. Dobrev, her head on Luna’s chest, looks away with a satisfied glint in her eye: yes, I am, she is thinking. And even though Luna then adds that he was joking and that he likes her because she really cares about people, we all know that she does not care about anyone but herself and the only reason that he likes her and the only reason why anyone would like this film is because… she is really hot.

7. If the film is really a celebration of Hot People Boning, this all gets censored out in the UAE (where I saw this film). Meaning that the even less sense that the film makes… actually highlights precisely the senselessness of the film.

8. Death involves seeing oneself as if from outside one’s own body: death is basically the selfie stick/the selfie stick basically offers us a glimpse of death.

9. The fact that death comes back into life after the kids flatline would suggest that really these kids are already dead (inside).

10. People drive cars way too young in the USA. In being a film in which a woman (Ellen Page) is haunted by her sense of guilt after killing someone while answering her phone at the wheel, then it is not just a remake of a 1990s mediocrity, but it is also a remake of Lucrecia Martel’s Mujer sin cabeza/Headless Woman (Argentina/France/Italy/Spain, 2008). As we shall see, as that film is an expression of bourgeois guilt (or a lack thereof) for centuries of exploitation, so, too, is this film (although this does not make it any good).

11. As selfies are a channel through which we can see our own dead bodies, so are mobile phones a channel through which we speak to the dead. That is: mediation takes us away from direct human contact as we prefer instead phantom contact, or contact with phantoms.

12. The Mexican does not need to flatline – because as per Octavio Paz and the character who comes from the place where they celebrate El Día de los Muertos, he is basically already dead, too.

13. Privilege is based upon geopolitical exploitation and murder. But if you have it within you to forgive yourself, then it is okay to be a Nazi.

14. This recalls Slavoj Žižek‘s old observation that it is only when captured that Nazis tended to kill themselves – thereby exemplifying the public nature of shame, which is unbearable, versus the private nature of guilt, with which we can live. The film would seem to suggest a renewed era of shamelessness: I am shamed, but I basically can live with it – because I do not care (and because I am Really Hot). With the ongoing interest in figures like Eva Mozes Kor in mind (hat tip to the wonderful film scholar Leshu Torchin), one wonders that the forgiveness of victims only adds to the sense of shamelessness. Odd though this may sound, perhaps it is not for victims to forgive. Only God forgives. And if we do not think that this is so, then we are opening the door to new fascisms.

(And if there is no God, then we need a Law that can forgive. And if we have no universal Law as the guilty walk free, then who knows what is to happen? As the oppressed forgive their oppressors, then either we live in a world in which the oppressors are correct to oppress the oppressed, since neither God nor Law will judge them, and really there is no human equality, but only entitled superhumans and subjugated subhumans – many species as we cling to the illusion that really we are one species… or we must invent equality, change the Law, invent God, and give those self-proclaimed homines dei something really to be afraid of. The thing that the homo deus fears most in his belief that he is the summum of evolution… is revolution.)

15. Sex is a theme that runs throughout the film: slut-shaming; being a slut for having a one-night stand; paying for an abortion after a liaison with a working-class woman. Having a sexuality appears as more shameful than anything else, and at least on a par with murder – even though sex is designed to create and not to end life. Sex is shameful because it reveals mortality and failure in an era when one is supposed to live forever. In this way, sexuality has become death, an admission of mortality and of a body – as opposed to being an image, a selfie taken from outside one’s own body – about which one ought to be ashamed (it is only after flatlining that the Really Hot People can bone).
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Pretty Vacant: Song to Song (Terrence Malick, USA, 2017)

A Malickian montage of thoughts about Song to Song, the latest film from Terrence Malick.

Kill your gods
There may be a God. There may even be Gods. But there is no god who is a human. And for many years I thought Malick something akin to a god after various films that I enjoyed enormously: BadlandsDays of HeavenThe Thin Red Line. I am even one of a few people whom I know who liked To The Wonder.

Things began seriously for me to fall apart with Knight of Cups. Christian Bale moping around his privileged world, standing over homeless black people and moaning on about how tough his life is. A punch in the face and a few gulps of shut the fuck up were what I thought Bale’s character merited upon seeing the film.

And here, with Song to Song, the same trend continues.

More on this below. But the initial point is that Malick – together with director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki, whom filmgoers also feel can do no wrong… are mortal. Utterly and thoroughly mortal. To this extent: Song to Song made me believe that I am a better filmmaker than Terrence Malick and that my cinematographer, Tom Maine, is as good as Emmanuel Lubezki. And we work wonders from a position of relative poverty. Letters to Ariadne says as much as if not more than Song to Song. And Tom’s images are every bit as beautiful as El Chivo’s.

But this bit of flexing aside, let us look at the film…

Pretty Vacant
Of course latter day sell-out Johnny Rotten turns up to collect his fee by being in Song to Song, thereby evoking the whole history of punk that he has turned his back on as he takes role after role in advert after advert.

And yet this Sex Pistols song, ‘Pretty Vacant,’ effectively sums up Malick’s film: ‘Oh we’re so pretty / Oh so pretty / We’re vacant.’

For we basically get Rooney Mara (actually quite good in this), the Gos, Fassbender and a collection of other, typical Malickameo stars turning up to give us their thoughts and feelings about life, the universe and everything. That is: everyone is beautiful and everyone is ‘Troubled’ because they have, like, you know, relationship and daddy and self-absorption issues.

Real estate and empty parking lots
Song to Song has loads of shots of empty parking lots. America has been constructed around and for the car. What is the car? A machine for travel, of course. But specifically a machine that one uses to travel only in small groups or alone; a private form of transport, increasingly taking on the bulk and the aggression of a tank.

Space is dedicated for the temporary housing of these vehicles. They are often empty. Pretty. And vacant.

Song to Song also features lots and lots of empty apartments. These also are pretty. And vacant. We have real estate for cars and we have real estate for stars. Malick’s film insists upon such spaces so much. The emptiness no doubt reflects the inner emptiness of the characters that we see onscreen. Well done, Terrence, for using ‘Symbolism.’ Repeatedly. But to what end?

Whenever anyone calls anything ‘real,’ they are making a claim about the nature of reality. That is, they are labelling one thing as real at the expense of other things. The real (so say I) effect of the phrase ‘real time,’ for example, is not that we watch things unfold at the pace that they would in the ‘real world.’ On the contrary, the effect of the phrase ‘real time’ is to justify only one particular temporality or rhythm – the rhythm of the media that deliver ‘real time’ footage, which in turn is the rhythm of capitalism – as real. All other temporalities and rhythms are thus demoted to a realm outside of reality. This is a political manoeuvre.

And so it is with real estate: to say that only these estates are real is to consign to unreality those other estates that people occupy: the hovels, the slums. There is no room for these really in Malick’s film; offscreen, they are unreal. Instead, the only reality that he offers is the pretty and vacant world of lavish apartments.

Glass houses and the attention economy
How many windows and glass fronts are there in Song to Song? In the pretty and vacant estates that are passed off to us as real, we see glass house after glass house. ‘Transparency’ is the ‘Symbolic Meaning’ of that: all of our lives are on show, for people to see, constantly under scrutiny from others and our selves.

Oh, how tough it must be to be a star we find ourselves thinking: always being watched, it must So Hard.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not sure that I would care to be Famous particularly (I have not experienced it so I would not know). For, I am sure that being Famous is not such a Good Thing as we are led almost always to believe.

But here we have Famous People being Pretty and Vacant on screen for 129 minutes. They are Pretty, for sure. But to what end is this being shown to us?

Malick’s film is filled with scene after scene of people Acting Out. Look, a Pixie Woman cannot but do a Pixie Dance as she crosses a road because Pixie Women are Free, and Free People do Free Things like Pixie Dances.

But what is the Pixie Dance really about – and why is Song to Song filled with Pixie Dance after Pixie Dance?

Pixie Dances are about Getting Attention. And the reason why people want to Get Attention is so that they can Be Seen, which in turn allows them to Make Money from Being Seen and Getting Attention and doing Pixie Dances. That is, the Pixie Dance is a capitalist performance that feeds into the attention economy.

Is Malick critiquing the attention economy? Or is he really reinforcing it by showing Pixie Dance after Pixie Dance? Why is there basically no dialogue in this film – but instead a relentless collection of solipsistic inner monologues? Look at me! Give me money!

Men handling women
Watching Song to Song, you will notice that the film is also filled with scene after scene of Men handling Women. Gripping, grabbing, tying up, covering over. The film is a relentless demonstration of how men consider women to be property.

Rooney Mara at one points ties up the Gos – but two things: he pulls her along as she holds on to the rope used to tie him up; and then we see her untying him.

Men want to possess women. But does this mean that Malick is critiquing this tendency? Is that why Rooney Mara is only billed third in the end credits, despite having the largest monologue and occupying the most amount of screen time?

And what is the deal with that lesbian relationship with the Unbelievably Pretty (and Vacant) Parisienne who turns up part-way through the film? Oh, that’s not there for the titillation of the male viewer (like the insistence of Lubezki to film Natalie Portman at breast height and for the camera to be on Mara’s waist at every available opportunity)… that is Mara’s character Discovering Herself.

So where is the scene of the Gos sucking off Fassbender? Fassbender connotes Shame. And where McQueen was trying to replicate Malick with the use of thoroughly Hans Zimmer-like music in Shame, it would seem here that at least McQueen has bettered Malick with Shame, while Song to Song remains utterly prurient, even oddly innocent, while trying to give us some sense of Desire as understood by someone who seemingly Does Not Fuck On First Dates.

Indeed, the Gos asks Mara longer than halfway through the film whether she has slept with Fassbender. Are you serious? In my world, I’d have asked her that about three minutes into our relationship… and what does it fucking matter anyway? Of course people can do what they want. But not these ones: they are Troubled and Alone. Ah, the burdens of being Pretty and Vacant.

Montage of the mind and Patti Smith
But you have to understand that Malick is making a New Form of Cinema. Because his movies are not narrative, but rather Montages of the Mind. They are, as they say, Film-Philosophy, because they show that film can ‘think’ and that the Brain is a Screen is a Brain.

Okay. Sure. But then why insist on characters and narrative – even if the montage is choppy, fragmented, and clearly as much concerned by space (and the location of Austin) as it is by story?

Patti Smith turns up a few times to tell us a few pearls. And one cannot but think of Jean-Luc Godard’s Film Socialisme, where Smith rocks up on the Costa Concordia, too. But where JLG pushes for a radical montage that basically says Fuck You to story in a bid to democratise the image, Malick just offers Pretty Vacant Image after Pretty Vacant Image. There is no democracy here, for there is no critique of the rich, even if it is Democratic to explore how they might be Troubled by their Prettiness, too. This is just the Rich and their Troubles. Be Democratic, Terrence and get out of the Privilege – otherwise you are simply blinded by the limitations of your own world and showing us your blindness. No hermophroditic and fortune-telling Tiresias here, though; this is the blindness of the Powerful, who do not see that their own empty Real Estate is about to crumble.

Another Godard touch: an interview with a prostitute, whose pock-marked face perhaps reminds us that not everyone is So Pretty As A Star. She would have been a more interesting film than Song to Song, but Song to Song basically forgets her, just as it stuffs a few dollars into the hand of an old Mexican woman so that we can look at her face for a moment and Remember The Poor People – before going back to being Pretty and Vacant.

No one works
In the world of Austin, Texas, where Song to Song is set, apparently everyone is working on some music. Except that no one ever does any work. Ever.

Maybe the Gos and Mara pluck a few chords – because we all know the Gos can Play Piano after LaLaLand.

But basically No One Works in this world.

Because people basically drive around, park up, and then do some Pixie Dancing in or around Empty Real Estate, before driving on to a different Empty Lot where they do a bit more Pixie Dancing, they have nothing to fill their time or their minds but their worries about Love and Love Things.

But wait… at the end – more shades of a LaLaLand alternative ending montage – we see the Gos working for about two minutes. And we are told by Mara about how he dreamed of the simple life.

Because being an honest, hard-working American is a Simple Life, whereas being Pretty and Vacant is Difficult and Hard and brings with it many Troubles. Oh, to be poor and ugly. Life would be so much easier. And yet, we must carry our burden, and we are so burdened by it that we build glass houses so that everyone can see it. So that we can make ourselves gods, so that people will worship us as we demand their attention and thus earn money so as not to work but to worry about Love and Stuff.

And what work is it that the Gos does?

Of course it is drilling. So he is basically reminding us of how the USA is built upon energy for cars, so that the solipsism can continue. The destruction of the planet as fracking becomes increasingly common and we destroy nature even though we look at Birds and Dogs and Llamas and Deer and Horses and the various other Animals that feature in Malick’s film – along with Water and Air to remind us that there is a world out there and that the Privileged feel So Connected With Nature.

And America is not built upon genocide and slavery. And land grabs. And the claim that the estate created is real.

There is a rumour that Terrence Malick loves Zoolander and quotes it quite regularly. Maybe Song to Song is his Zoolander. But the speed of his Montage of the Mind would suggest more an ADHD editing style that is about Getting Attention as the film itself does Pixie Dance after Pixie Dance to convince us of its Prettiness and Worthiness (because it, too, is Heavy and Troubled). Indeed, for a film that is supposed to go from Song To Song, it seems odd that the film never in fact allows a song to play in completion.

The World Reduced To Symbols. A World Reduced To Cinema. To Be Consumed. And the poor, and women and other estates: they may feature as the playthings of the Rich – so in some senses they are in the film. But why not just commit to rejecting cinema and the values of the capitalist attention economy more thoroughly and make a film that really takes us into a human, even post human democratic or socialist vision of the world?

Even Zoolander, let alone Film Socialisme, manages to do that.

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Philosophical Screens: Chinesisches Roulette/Chinese Roulette (West Germany/France, 1976)

This blog is a written version of some of the things that I shall be discussing tonight (Wednesday 10 May 2017) at the British Film Institute in London, where there is a screening and panel commentary on Chinese Roulette as part of the BFI’s Philosophical Screens series, organised in association with the London Graduate School.

The film tells the story of the Christ family, which consists of Gerhard (Alexander Allerson), Ariane (Margit Carstensen) and their crippled daughter Angela (Andrea Schobel). Both Gerhard and Angela are having affairs and one weekend Gerhard claims to be going to Oslo and Ariane claims to be going to Milan on business, but instead both go with their lovers to the Christ mansion in the countryside.

As a result, when Gerhard comes back from a roll in the woods with his French lover Irene (Anna Karina), he walks in on Ariane in the arms of his colleague, Kolbe (Ulli Lommel). But they are not alone, for Angela then turns up with her mute Polish nanny, Traunitz (Macha Méril), implying that their daughter has engineered this confluence of partners and has come to observe the fallout.

What is more, events are also observed by the mansion’s housekeeper, Kast (Brigitte Mira), who has a mysterious connection with the family, and her son Gabriel (Volker Spengler), who fancies himself as something of a philosopher-poet.

What is set in action, then, is a lean eight-header, in which various tensions are unravelled and revealed in the mansion, which, together with the objects that fill it, plays a key role in the film, which culminates in a  game of the eponymous Chinese Roulette. This is a guessing game in which one group asks questions to another group in order to discover which person from the first group the members of the second group are describing.

***Spoilers***

The game culminates in an act of violence – as Angela, Gerhard, Traunitz and Gabriel describes Ariane in various ways, including as a worm-eaten apple (if this person were a painting, what would feature in it?), a gilded mirror (what object would this person take to a desert island?), a whore (is this person a saint, a mother or a whore?), already dead (what might be an appropriate death for this person?), and the commandant of Bergen-Belsen (what role would this person have played in the Third Reich?).

Although Kast believes that they must be describing her, as do Irene, Kolbe and Ariane, when it is revealed by Angela that they are in fact describing her own mother, she flies into a fit of rage, takes out a gun from beneath a transparent chess set and aims it at her daughter… before shooting Traunitz.

All good melodramatic stuff!

But what makes Fassbinder’s film all the more interesting is not just what happens in it (which ultimately is not that much given the minimal settings and the restricted cast), but how it is put together.

For although Chinese Roulette only merits a few brief mentions in Thomas Elsaesser’s Fassbinder’s Germany: History, Identity, Subject, and while Christian Braad Thomsen seems positively to dislike the film, it is nonetheless a remarkable masterclass in mise-en-scène and cinematography, with the film being shot by Michael Ballhaus, also the director of photophraphy for Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (USA, 1990), which was discussed at Philosophical Screens earlier in the year.

(This is not to mention the strength of the acting in Chinese Roulette, which is superb.)

For, although somewhat spartan, the Christ mansion is filled with relatively elegant objects, including a prominent transparent drinks cabinet, which is matched by a second transparent cabinet that contains a high fidelity music system. These accompany the afore-mentioned transparent chessboard in which sits the gun used to shoot Traunitz.

Time and again, these objects take up space in the frame, the camera placing them prominently before us, together with a birdcage in which budgies tweet and flutter. While we are supposed to and in some senses can see through these objects (they are transparent), in some senses they also get in the way, mirroring, distorting, fragmenting the bodies that we see and the actions they perform.

That is, while transparent, they in fact also change our perspective on things, suggesting that any perspective, therefore, is skewed, inaccurate and not necessarily correct. That this takes place in a film lends to Chinese Roulette a self-consciousness that elevates it out of the realm of a typical fiction film, in which events are presented to us as if in an accurate, objective and reliable fashion, but instead a film in which it becomes hard to read what exactly is going on.

There are several things for us to pick apart, since these dimensions of the film relate to larger ideas concerning family, class, history, fascism and cinema itself.

For, if in Fassbinder’s mise-en-scène we get a sense of how all views are potentially distorted, then we also get a sense of how quite possibly we can never therefore access the truth. And yet, in a country that is going through the kind of self-analysis that Germany was doing in the aftermath of the Second World War, the need to get to the truth, the need for transparency is it were, is tantamount – such that is becomes a guiding myth for an entire nation.

The myth might be that in confronting its fascist past, Germany can perhaps move beyond it, becoming so open in its dealings that fascism will never be allowed to rear its ugly head. In some senses, this explains the Christs’ compulsion to ask about the role of the chosen person in the Third Reich: they must acknowledge that they, too, are capable of fascism.

And yet, when confronted by this fascism, Ariane (in this instance) cannot tolerate it, and  she is compelled to let out her violent tendencies somewhere – in this instance on Traunitz.

For all of the desire to remove fascism via transparency, it creeps into everyday life in invisible ways. ‘Fascist,’ says Kast as another road user cuts her up as she drives home to the mansion near the start of the film.

Even in our cars, then, we have a sense of the human who separates themselves from the rest of the world, and thus begins to treat others not as fellow humans with whom one makes contact, but rather as people to use and abuse. That is, the seeds are sewn of seeing other humans as disposable, of the sort that we might thrown into a gas chamber.

If fascism is thus invisible, we might say that fascism is beyond the purview of cinema, that cinema cannot gain access to the inner recesses and the darkness that lurks within all human hearts. And yet, I am not sure that this is quite right – and we can explore this by returning to the transparent cabinets.

For, if the transparent cabinets in some senses get in the way and obscure the reality or truth of what it is that we see in Chinese Roulette, in order senses, those cabinets do not get in the way, but they are the way, with the distortions and reflections that they create not taking us away from a true vision of things, but being the true vision of things.

That is, distortion is the truth (that there is no truth). But more than this, a cinema that claims to offer us an undistorted or transparent image of the world such that we can begin to understand something like the Holocaust does not so much get beyond or allow us to recognise fascism, but it is fascism. In its supposedly objective presentation of the world, cinema is fascist as it reinforces the necessary separation of humans from the world and from each other that objectivity would by necessity require (to be objective, we have to be detached from the world).

If a would-be objective cinema is thus fascistic, then how do we get around this? Fassbinder does this precisely through his distortions, which thus become not so much distortions as a kind of Brechtian verfremdungseffekt that makes us aware that we are seeing not an objective truth, but precisely a constructed fiction.

I shall return to Fassbinder’s cinematography imminently. But here I want to discuss how it is not just cinema that typically separates humans from each other, but perhaps even the concept of family itself – even if family is of course supposed to unite people. For, while families are units, that they are units who seclude themselves off in larger or smaller domestic spaces – i.e. houses – shows how they separate themselves off from the world and then from each other.

On numerous occasions in Fassbinder’s film do we see chandeliers and various other objects (including the feet of a doll whom Angela seems at one point to have hung) jut down into the bottom of the frame. Not only do these render strange the images that we see, in that rather than being rectangular, the frame can take on different, indescribable shapes as these objects are visible only as darkness, but they also suggest the oppression that hems the Christs and their guests in.

This we can compare to Gerhard’s brief moment of happiness in the woods with Irene: he has escaped from the family hearth, but it will be back in the home and with is family that the fascism will recommence.

In other words, the characters of Chinese Roulette clearly want connection – otherwise they would not have lovers and so on. But they find such connection almost impossible to achieve, and the house bears in on them, constricting them to the point where they lash out in violence. Family, then, provides connection of a kind, but it is not enough, so constrained, for the characters to feel free.

Take the opening shots: we see Ariane in one window before we see Angela in another. The two seem to be in the same room as Gustav Mahler’s Uns Bleibt Ein Eidenrest plays on Angela’s record player. And yet it is revealed that in fact they are in separate rooms. Both clearly seek the freedom of the outside – hence being at the window; but they in fact are separate both from the outside and from each other – perhaps even wilfully.

But there is more than just a family in Chinese Roulette; there is also Kast and her son and Irene and Kolbe, after all. And yet there seems little connection even between these extended cast members. Separated by objects, seeing each other in reflections, rarely looking each other in the eye: the characters are together, but they cannot connect either, as is made clear when Kolbe, fully clothed, begins to strangle a topless Ariane in bed (although she curiously wears a hairnet), and by the class division that seems to separate Kast and son from the Christs and daughter. Various forms of separation, then, are all at play, suggesting an impossibility of freedom.

With its depictions of bodies, especially heads, in space, gazing off in different directions, Fassbinder’s film is very painterly, with the stasis of the characters here also suggesting in some senses their failure to connect (since they cannot move in order subsequently to connect).

Here Ballhaus’ roaming camera comes into its own. For, if the characters do not move so much, then Ballhaus’ camera roams freely. And if an objective cinema is fascistic, then the remarkable camera movements that Ballhaus has the camera perform may depict a world where people do not connect, but which endeavours and perhaps succeeds in creating a film with which we do connect.

It is important here, then, that these camera movements seem unmotivated – in order to remind us that we are seeing a film, rather than watching but not noticing these camera movements because they are integrated into a clear and objectively presented narrative.

In this way, we understand that if cinema is fascist, then this is because capital is also fascist. For the cinema of supposed objectivity, in which we should not be reminded that we are watching a film, but in which we should instead simply forget about the real world for a couple of hours, is also the cinema of making money, a cinema for profit rather than a cinema of art. If profit and thus capital are achieved through supposed objectivity and separation from the world, and if fascism is also predicated upon a perceived separation of self from world and others (such that one can treat those others as objects rather than as people), then capital is also fascistic, and the capitalist cinema a key tool in promoting this fascistic ideology.

Elsaesser describes how Chinese Roulette can best be understood by the title of an essay that Fassbinder wrote on Claude Chabrol. In ‘Insects in a Glass Case,’ the director criticises Chabrol for simply looking at but not really getting involved with his characters, with the result being that his work is superficial (much as Fassbinder otherwise likes the work). Compared to an objective view, then, Fassbinder shows how the case (the transparent cabinets, the house, the cars) shape the behaviour of the insects/his characters, while also not being afraid to have his camera move freely inside the case rather than simply observe from beyond.

And yet, if the characters pose as if in paintings, static and separate, perhaps it is because they want this. They want separation and they perhaps even want the humiliation of knowing that they want separation and can do little to overcome the tendency towards it. This is why the Christs laugh upon discovering each other’s affairs, as well perhaps as in how they supposedly started those affairs when it was revealed that Angela was a cripple: faced with an imperfection, they simply adopt an illusion in order to turn away from that imperfection.

And yet this imperfection only marks the imperfections, the fascisms, that lie within and which are embedded via a history of war and exploitation that extends far further back in time that World War Two.

The Christs are clearly wealthy and international jet setters: they travel for work, have a house in Munich, the mansion in the countryside and a place in the mountains (that Gerhard mentions at one point). As much is also made clear by the names of their business acquaintances, whom we also hear about as the film progresses. Gressmann, Farucci, Petrovich, Ali Ben Basset: this is an international lifestyle that they have.

But how did the Christs get here? For it is never quite clear how they make their money, although at one point Gerhard speaks with Kast about the murder of Ben Basset – seemingly a reference to Mehdi Ben Barka, the Moroccan freedom fighter who disappeared in Paris in 1965. ‘We are the only two left,’ he says to Kast, as if they were now the only dissidents remaining.

But what kind of dissident owns at least three houses, one of them a mansion? What would the Christs’ interest be in something like Moroccan independence?

Conceivably the answer might come in the form of Traunitz. Towards the end of the film, when Ariane has shot her daughter, Kast calls for an ambulance, telling it to come not to the Christ mansion but to the Traunitz mansion.

At the start of the film, Angela turns to Traunitz and says ‘your great-grandfather should have won the Battle of Katowice.’ It is unclear to which battle Angela is referring, while it is also unclear where exactly the mansion is – but one gets a sense that the Christs have acquired the mansion from the Traunitzes, much as Katowice historically was occupied by the Germans and then liberated by the Polish.

What is more, Macha Méril, who plays Traunitz, was born and died in Morocco, meaning that her mute subservience as Traunitz to the Christs obliquely speaks also of a history of North African colonialism and exploitation, which in turn suggests a world of capital in which the rich are empowered through exploitation, an act of separation from the exploited that the capitalist does consciously and for which they must therefore atone through occasional bouts of self-humiliation and abjection – the search for connection when they know that this will be fruitless because they cannot let go of their sense of superiority towards others as a result of their capitalist separation from them that is the necessary precondition for hierarchies.

It is fittingly cruel, then, that it is Traunitz who should pay for Angela’s insult to Ariane – since it reaffirms Traunitz’s role as a voiceless victim to this history of exploitation – even if the film’s closing gunshot over a frozen image of the exterior of the mansion suggests another act of violence, perhaps Ariane now shooting Angela or shooting herself.

Fassbinder opens the essay on Chabrol with a quotation from Theodor Fontane, whose novel Effi Briest Fassbinder later famously adapted (West Germany, 1974).

‘Every debt must be paid on this earth, even that of showing shadows or half-shadows as human beings,’ the quotation reads (although I do not know its source).

Fassbinder would seem to suggest, then, that the debt owed by exploiters to the exploited may one day have to be repaid – perhaps here with the blood of Ariane, who cannot in the end tolerate the prison that she has made for herself in separating herself from the world.

More than this, in discussing the presentation of shadows as human beings, Fontane also predicts cinema as a debt – the fascistic tendencies of cinema that must also at some point be paid back. In his self-conscious cinema, Fassbinder would seem to foretell a cinema that does pay back this debt, or which at the very least shows us not shadows as human beings, but shadows as shadows. More: it is not that the shadow is separate from the human being such that one can be presented as and taken for the other. Rather, the shadow is perhaps always with the human, entangled and touching each other, much as the human is not separate from the world and from other humans, but inevitably also entangled and touching, even if we deny it and even if we deny denying it in such a way that our separation becomes unbearable, leading from repression to abject release and self-humiliation.

 

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Hymyilevä mies/The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki (Juho Kuosmanen, Finland/Sweden/Germany, 2016)

Spoilers – although since this film is based on a true story, revealing its outcome should not be too traumatic for readers (if there are any).

The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki is about a boxer, Olli (Jarkko Lahti), who in 1962 has a world title fight against Davey Moore (John Bosco Jr) in Helsinki. He loses. Easily.

I shall return to the final fight itself.

But really I only want to talk about a couple of things that feature prominently in this film, the main one of which is moments of play.

Olli is in love with Raija (Oona Airola) – and while he is keen on fighting, he is perhaps more interested in being with her, even ditching his training at one point in order to travel home to Kokkola, his hometown, in order to be with her.

This, together with Olli’s lackadaisicalness in general, exasperates his coach, Elis (Eero Milonoff), who has a lot of money riding on bringing a world title fight to Finland, having himself also been a competitive boxer and who travelled to the USA (where he claims he became friends with Frank Sinatra).

This is not, though, a tale of how preferring to be with women destroys the boxer’s competitive edge. Or if it is, then Juho Kuosmanen’s film certainly does not condemn Olli for this. Rather, The Happiest Day… is about not just about how love for a woman is perhaps more pleasing than fame and fortune obtained via pugilism. It is also in some senses about a more general kind of love that is characterised by play.

There are two key moments that signify Olli’s love of play. The first is when he skims stones across a lake with Raija and the second is when he discovers a kite stuck up a tree while on a run. We see Olli climb over a fence and begin to try to shake down the kite – before the film cuts to a long shot of a smiling Olli running through a field, the kite flying not far behind him.

These moments signal play because there is ‘no point’ to them. Olli is not trying to skim his stones further than Raija, and the flying of the kite is not for any reason than some sort of childish enjoyment of simply flying the kite.

In other words, play here is defined as a moment when one steps outside of the demands of capital, and instead enjoys things not for the purposes of making money, but the sheer joy of it.

Play is in this sense very different from sport, which is play subsumed for the demands of capital: play is not now playing for no good reason, but it is playing to win, with winning itself equalling economic and other benefits.

Play is a form of love because it expects nothing back from what it encounters – much as love itself should be disinterested and not so much about possession (capital) as about sharing, enjoyment and fun. Nothing is demanded in return in order to close off a deal; it is open and open-ended.

Sport, meanwhile, is about returns and about control. Indeed, Olli is no longer allowed to be who he is now that he is a professional boxer. Instead, he must modify his appearance, be that by purging his body of excess weight in order to achieve the appropriate size for a featherweight (57 kilograms), or standing on a stool in order to advertise a suit (Olli is shorter than the female model, played by Pia Andersson, who accompanies him in the photo, thereby clearly demonstrating the constructed nature of patriarchy as superior in the system of profit-seeking capital).

In an early scene, we see how Olli literally would not hurt a fly, while he also storms away from his training after Elis gets him to beat up a sparring partner against his will. It is not that he is without boxing skill; but he lacks the killer instinct.

What is more, during a sequence in which Elis has to find more money ahead of the bout in order to keep his life – and Olli’s title campaign – solvent, he goes to a sort of Masonic institution, where the sponsors of the campaign question that Olli might be a communist.

It is not that Olli need be a card carrying party member; rather, his is a world defined not by work, but by play, but a sense of equality in life, and also by associations with nature. Indeed, Olli seems happiest when training without the attention of the media and just for himself.

Widely reported for being shot on 16mm, the film would also seem in its form to suggest that it is playful: using equipment that is now obsolete, The Happiest Day… would want to tell us that filmmaking itself should be ‘useless.’

That said, the film nonetheless constructs a somewhat romantic or mythological version of Olli’s life and of Finland more generally. While Elis and others are clearly in life for the money, Olli and Raija are smiling, peace-loving characters who never seem to get too angry, while Olli’s most successful training seems to take place not just in nature, but also in a specifically Finnish sauna. That is, the film suggests that play, nature, communism and a lack of competitive, capitalist edge, is somehow a core and rural Finnish value.

While it is admirable that the film suggests that no one is a failure (since success and failure mean nothing) in the realm of play, it nonetheless provides us with a canny performance of failure, which in turn conceivably undermines the reliability of the film in terms of its moral message: the film wants to perform failure as actually success, but really this is a deliberate strategy, along with the nostalgic use of 16mm black and white photography, in order to give to the film a paradoxical use- and exchange-value, i.e. so that it can make money and thus serve the purposes of capital.

Nonetheless, perhaps at this point we can return to the final bout itself. It is so heavily anticlimactic that Olli’s naïveté is thoroughly exposed. But more than this: Moore’s ‘killer instinct’ does not seem to come from his arch-desire to make money (even if this was in real life the case), but more born from an understated sense of the suffering and anger experienced by a black American in 1962.

That is, Olli gets his arse handed to him in the fight as his comfortably Finnish life is confronted by the reality of trying to escape life under historical slavery – where the ‘escape route’ is not a retreat back into the country, but by explicitly hardening and disciplining one’s body in order to become a fighting machine that destroys Olli with ease. For, fighting is not for this boxer fun or play (and the film’s Moore seems to have none of the performed enmity for Mäki that we might expect from contemporary belligerents). As a result, Moore’s body becomes precisely a weapon in order to escape a reality in which there is no room left for either fun or play.

This in some senses also involves an occultation of history. For, Moore went on to be killed within a year of his fight with Mäki in a contest against Cuban-Mexican boxer, Sugar Ramos. Meanwhile, Mäki went on to have a relatively successful and certainly a long career as a boxer.

The Moore’s death at the hands of Ramos suggests that Moore is to Ramos as Mäki is to Moore. Where Mäki is too privileged a westerner really to be any good at fighting, so might Moore be not violent enough in his bid to break American history when faced with the fighter who expresses the extended violence of the continent that lies to the south of the USA. Read this way, Moore might fight to free himself from a history of slavery, but Ramos fights in order to try to break the monotony of capital world wide. That said, Moore’s death (and the violence of Ramos, who killed more than one boxer in the ring during his career) suggests the sad logic of boxing as a spectacle of pugilism, a latter day gladiatorial combat in which most participants fight for ‘freedom’ (riches) because they are not otherwise free to play, coming instead from deprivation and thus attuned to an everyday violence the suddenness of which takes Mäki completely by surprise. The film’s Olli has never experienced anything like it – and is not cut out for this violent world, even  as the classed violence of the fighters is brought under the control of spectacle as opposed to contributing to a genuine revolution.

In other words, at its edges and in its framing of history, The Happiest Day… cannot help but betray its own privilege: the world of play is beautiful and in some senses outside of capital, and in a world full of love and play. But it is also a world of love and play that is precisely inside capital since only certain people can afford it.

In this way, the film’s performance of failure – the Olli Mäki of the film is not cut out for boxing – is really an expression of power – as perhaps the film’s circulation in art house cinemas rather than in multiplexes (where we get to see the boxing fantasies of the Rocky franchise and/or films like Bleed for This, Ben Younger, USA, 2016, regardless of whether they like The Happiest Day… are based on true stories or not). This does not make the film any less charming, nor any less valid in its critique of sport and its praise of play.

Nonetheless, we might bear in mind some of these contradictions that are – pun perhaps intended – at play as we watch this otherwise beautiful film.

Posted in European cinema, Film reviews, Finnish cinema, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Neruda (Pablo Larraín, Chile/Argentina/France/Spain/USA, 2016)

There are numerous pleasures to be had watching Neruda, including some fantastic performances, an excellent script and some stunning cinematography. Up until now, I have basically enjoyed all of Pablo Larraín’s films (of those that I have seen)… but Neruda seems to function on a whole different level.

For this post, though, I am going to limit myself only to a few comments, which will focus primarily on a key moment that takes place towards the end of the film (although I would not consider anything that I am going to say as really constituting a spoiler).

The film is about the impeachment and then the flight into exile from Chile of the poet and politician Pablo Neruda (Luis Gnecco). In this process, Neruda comes to be pursued by Óscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal), a policeman who may or may not be a figure of Neruda’s imagination.

After various attempts to leave Chile, the film ends with Neruda leaving for the south of the country with Peluchonneau in pursuit. There follows a continuation and a culmination of the cat-and-mouse game that has begun between the two – even though Delia del Carril (Mercedes Morán), the then-wife of Neruda, has told Peluchonneau before he leaves for the south that he is simply a fictional construct of Neruda’s mind.

I mention this because the journey south constitutes an important trope in Latin American fiction, especially in the writing of Jorge Luis Borges, a writer who himself was obsessed with detective fiction, as well as with a sort of postmodern blurring between fantasy and reality (about which more later). Indeed, the spirit of Borges seems to haunt Neruda on many levels, even though the film is about the Chilean poet and not the Argentine poet and short story writer.

Now, you will have to forgive my poor memory and the fact that I seem not to be able to find a ready answer to the identity of the author on the usual search engines, but I remember many years ago reading an essay about Borges, in which the journey south was understood to signify the journey away from reality and into fiction.

For many years, I have wondered what this really means: why does a journey south constitute a journey into fiction? It is only while watching Larraín’s film that I feel that I can make some sense of this idea – as Peluchonneau heads south in pursuit of Neruda.

For, hoping not to say anything too idiotic, in Larraín’s film we get a sense of how Latin America is defined by ‘southernness’ as a counter to its relationship to the American (or what we refer to nowadays as the global) north. That is, Chile under Gabriel González Videla (Alfredo Castro) was a country that ended up cementing ties with and economic dependency on the north. If to be Latin American was to be anything, then, it was to be not-northern, i.e. to be southern. And so the journey to the south was to be the journey into the ‘real’ Latin America, here Chile.

But what does this journey south mean?

Neruda declares that the chase that we are to see, as Peluchonneau follows him south, will be salvaje, or wild. And, indeed, in contradistinction to the the ordered space of the city (Santiago) that we see in much of the film, the south is ‘wild’ – defined by snow, coldness, trees and other natural phenomena.

(Perhaps this appeal to the salvaje thus also helps us to understand the relevance of this term as ‘southern’ – or as non-northern – in films like Relatos salvajes/Wild Tales, Damián Szifrón, Argentina/Spain, 2014, and La región salvaje/The Untamed, Amat Escalante, Mexico/Denmark/France/Germany/Norway/Switzerland, 2016 – even if a wilful promotion of ‘wildness’ runs the risk of being deliberately ‘exotic’ for the purposes of pleasing western audiences.)

If the journey south is also a journey into ‘fiction,’ then what does this journey south mean when it is also a journey into the wilderness?

I shall propose that the link between ‘fiction’ and ‘wilderness’ can be understood as follows. The global north is defined by a history of dryness, reason, order and control. In short, then, it is a history of quantification and science, one that is determined not by things like fiction, but by facts, which are hard, permanent and immutable.

If the history of Empire in the twentieth century is a history of the imposition of the hard, and the imposition of the idea that this hardness is permanent and unchanging, then in order to resist this, one must embrace the soft, the ephemeral and the mutable. One must reject ‘science’ and ‘facts’ and instead embrace fiction.

By this rationale, no wonder it is that the Latin American ‘boom’ authors like Gabriel García Márquez and Carlos Fuentes (with Borges coming earlier still) basically invented postmodernism some 20 years before Robert Venturi and his colleagues started writing about the term in relation to architecture in Learning from Las Vegas (1972), and some 25 years before Jean-François Lyotard spoke of The Postmodern Condition (1979) in France.

That is, if the postmodern is a sort of aesthetic blend between fact and fiction – such that the two become hard to tell apart – when it is written about as an oppositional movement in the global north, it is conversely a kind of political reality in Latin America, where to create an identity that rejects the north, and an identity that therefore ‘heads south’ is precisely to create self-conscious works that blur fiction and history, fantasy and reality, as per the deeply political rejection of the north and its values, which increasingly come to be imposed upon a country like Chile as it heads towards the ‘rational’ extermination of dissidents under Augusto Pinochet.

As Neruda and Peluchonneau head south, then, fiction and history begin to blur, as the ‘chaos’ and ‘insanity’ of the wilderness come to take over from the order and ‘sanity’ of the city. Life becomes art here, as opposed to life as business – just as reality when not controlled takes on a poetic dimension, in that things grow in unexpected directions, rather than in readily established, preordained directions (poiesis, meaning ‘making’ or ‘formation’).

(Perhaps it is no coincidence that a writer like Paul Auster, also a postmodernist of sorts, is himself named after the south, auster being the term for south from which the austral, as in Australia, takes its name.)

There is probably more to say about the ‘south’ and its links also to ideas like communism (a common thread in Neruda), animal logics, and the ethos of connection and change as opposed to that of separation and control.

Nonetheless, this foray into how the Chilean south plays a political role in Neruda serves not just to help us to understand an aspect of Larraín’s film – namely that in its blurring of fiction and history and in its journey south in a rejection of the ‘north’ – but also perhaps to understand Latin America more generally, an understanding that we can reach through one of Neruda‘s clear cinematic intertexts.

For as Neruda heads south, Peluchonneau (who stands for the rigid law) is as mentioned told that he is a fictional character by del Carril. However, this scene is not the first time that Gael García Bernal and Mercedes Morán have interacted in cinema.

Indeed, Morán played García Bernal’s mother in the earlier Diarios de motocicleta/Motorcycle Diaries (Walter Salles, Argentina/USA/Chile/Peru/Brazil/UK/Germany/France, 2004), a film that involves a young Ernesto Guevara heading north from Argentina on his way to realising the pernicious effects of the north on Latin America, and thus taking part in various independence struggles as he transitions from Ernesto to ‘Che’ Guevara.

In particular, that film involves a sequence as Ernesto and best friend Alberto Granado (Rodrigo de la Serna) cross Lake Temuco from Argentina and into Chile. “Chile!” Alberto shouts as they make the journey. “¡Que viva, Chile, bo!”

Cut to sequences of Alberto and Ernesto in the Andes as they ride on their titular motorcycle, which eventually breaks down, meaning that they have to push it across the border (with Ernesto and Alberto getting into an argument as the latter accuses the former of being a Yankee stoolie as he will travel to Miami to buy American nickers for his girlfriend – a journey that, needless to say, Ernesto never completes).

The iconography of these moments is repeated with some exactitude in Larraín’s film, as Neruda crosses a lake (not identified as Temuco) in his journey towards exile (an exile that will then be ‘documented’ in Michael Radford’s film, Il Postino, Italy/France/Belgium, 1994) – and as Peluchonneau pursues them on a motorbike that eventually breaks down, and which he pushes, before finally ending up travelling through the snowy Andes on foot. Larraín’s film also involves a kind of joyful shouting out at the vast expanses that surround Neruda and Peluchonneau, much as Alberto shouts out in Salles’ film.

It is not simply that Neruda offers a reversal of The Motorcycle Diaries, in that Neruda and Peluchonneau are heading south while Ernesto and Alberto are heading north. Indeed, such a comparison would only reaffirm the australity/southernness of Latin/South America: Neruda heads south to escape the north, while it is only by going north that Ernesto becomes aware of what it means to be from the south.

More than this, though, is the idea that if the journey south is a journey into fiction, and if García Bernal is indelibly associated with Guevara (whom he has played on several occasions), then it is not simply that Peluchonneau discovers that he is a fictional character, but that Guevara might well be one, too.

This is not a denial of the reality of Che Guevara. But hopefully what we can gain from this analysis is that the creation of an independent Latin America involves the creation of an identity that in some senses does not exist yet, and which being non-existent is therefore in some senses fictional. This is also reflected in the transition of Ernesto Guevara (a real person) into Che Guevara (an icon). It is not that one is more real than the other, but that part and parcel of Latin American independence involves the rejection of a strict insistence on a single and unified identity, like that demanded of the north as people who do not ‘fit’ with the dominant vision of what Chile is supposed to be are forced into exile.

The ability to invent one’s own identity – to create a Latin American identity rather than to have Latin American identity imposed by the north – and perhaps even to challenge the very notion of identity, is therefore part of the political struggle involved in independence. No wonder that Neruda, too, switches identities several times, especially between Neruda and Ricardo Eliécer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto, his birth name.

This switching between fiction and reality is also reflected in Larraín’s editing and mise-en-scène: the film repeatedly shows scenes that cut between different takes, creating not jump cuts exactly, but rather a sense that many different versions of each scene exist and that they are all, therefore, somehow real (rather than there being one final and ‘true’ cut of a scene or of the film more generally).

This is also reflected in how the film involves various scenes that cut between different locations, even as the characters continue to talk as if no time had elapsed and no jump in location had taken place. Finally, it is also reflected in Larraín’s insistent use of rear projection, especially during travel sequences involving cars and motorbikes: space is not single and unified, but multiple and full of ambiguity.

This rejection of a unified space and time is also a rejection of the conception of the world imposed by the north. ‘We shall eat in the bedroom and fornicate in the kitchen,’ says Neruda (or words to that effect) to a female fan in a restaurant in Santiago. That is, he will not do what he is supposed to do in spaces the meaning of which and the things to do in which are determined from without. We can do whatever we want in whatever space we want and even to be dirty (‘improper’) is to reject the northern notion of cleanliness (in French propre), which in turn is tied not to the connection of spaces and wilderness but to the separating off of spaces in the form of property.

In this way, Larraín’s film counters the official history of Neruda by blurring history with fiction – not least because to write official history, or to believe that there can be an official history, is not a southern but a north American concept. Perhaps this also helps us to understand the disruption of history that Larraín has undertaken in both Jackie (Chile/France/USA/Hong Kong, 2016) and No (Chile/France/Mexico/USA, 2012), as well as the way in which fiction influences reality in a film like Tony Manero (Chile/Brazil, 2008).

By showing us a kind of reversal of The Motorcycle Diaries, Larraín’s film nonetheless shows us how being southern, heading south, and rejecting the fixed world of fact, preferring instead to embrace the malleable world of fiction mixed with fact, is a political gesture that aims to establish something like a Latin American identity, or non-identity, and to elude control/to achieve independence in an era when a country like Chile was under the ongoing control of the north and split between those factors within the country that sought control through violence (à la Pinochet) and those that sought freedom from control.

It is not that Larraín’s film does not chart some of the contradictions of the educated and well-travelled poet who nonetheless somehow connects with ‘the people.’ Nonetheless, as Larraín blurs fiction and history in his playful and beautiful (re?)telling of Latin America’s past, he does this not so much to know the future of Latin America in general and perhaps Chile in particular, but in order to create a future that remains a future precisely because it is not known and perhaps not knowable (for to know the future is to destroy the future, since to render the future as in effect having already happened is to make the future like the past, thereby depriving it of its very futurity).

If anyone knows the name of the writer on Borges who discusses the role of the south and fiction in his stories, then do please let me know. Otherwise, I hope that this blog has given something to think about in relation to Larraín’s film. It is really thought-provoking and well worth watching.

Posted in Film education, Film reviews, Latin American cinema, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Wakaliwood: where supercinema meets non-cinema

This is a slightly extended version of a paper that I gave last week (on Wednesday 8 March) at the University of Reading. It was part of a symposium called Reconsidering Movie Special Effects: Aesthetics, Reception, and Remediation, organised by Lisa Purse (University of Reading) and Lisa Bode (University of Queenland). My thanks to them for inviting me to give the paper…

While there have been various high profile and big budget special effects movies coming out of Africa in the recent past – with Neill Blomkamp being a chief player in this move with films like District 9 (South Africa/USA/New Zealand/Canada, 2009) and CHAPPiE (USA/South Africa, 2015) – digital special effects have also been on the rise in other, lower budget African productions.

Indeed, in this paper I shall discuss the role that digital special effects play in Who Killed Captain Alex? (Nabwana I.G.G., Uganda, 2010), a film made for the princely sum of US$200, and which comes from Wakaliwood, the piecemeal film industry run by Nabwana in Wakaliga, a suburb of Kampala, Uganda.

I shall argue that the film’s raw aesthetic – but perhaps especially its lo-fi digital special effects – follow what Achille Mbembe, after Mikhail Bakhtin, might classify as an attempt to embrace ‘obscenity and the grotesque’ in a bid to ‘undermine officialdom by showing how arbitrary and vulnerable is officialese and by turning it all into an object of ridicule’ (Mbembe 2001: 103-104). Except that here, rather than officialdom and officialese being the language of the ruling classes in Cameroon, the object of Mbembe’s study, here officialdom and officialese are mainstream cinema and mainstream film aesthetics.

As we shall see, the adoption of lo-fi digital special effects in Who Killed Captain Alex? can be understood politically, then, as an attempt to give expression to a Ugandan sense of disempowerment in postcolonial Africa – not because the film aspires to be ‘cinematic’ by adopting digital special effects in the first place, but because the film is deliberately ‘imperfect’ or ‘non-cinematic.’

In this way, Who Killed Captain Alex? allows us to bridge the gap between the ‘perfection’ of contemporary mainstream digital special effect blockbusters and the impoverished if still digital lives of contemporary Ugandans.

Who Killed Captain Alex? tells the story of a crack commando, the titular Captain Alex (William Kakule), who is seeking to shut down the criminal Tiger Mafia organisation, which controls Kampala and which has at its head a man called Richard (Ernest Sserunya, who also did the props for the film).

During an early skirmish between Alex’s commandos and a group of Richard’s mercenaries, Richard’s brother, Martin (Farooq Kakouza), is captured and taken into custody. Bent on revenge, Richard dispatches his right-hand man, Puffs (Puffs G.), to kill Alex – except that Alex has already been killed by the time Puffs and his men get there, meaning that Puffs can only take hostage two of Alex’s soldiers.

Alex’s unnamed brother (Charlse Bukenya), a kung fu master, turns up to try to find his brother’s killer, while the soldiers themselves bring in a famous commando, Rock (Dauda Bisaso), to help them defeat Richard and the Tiger Mafia.

All hell breaks loose as Richard sends one of his henchmen to steal a police helicopter and to bomb Kampala, as Alex’s brother arrives at the Tiger Mafia camp and starts fighting with some of Puffs’ newly-acquired mercenaries. The commandos also attack – both on foot and by assault helicopter – and a bloody battle ensues until Richard is shot and taken into custody.

A news report featuring archive footage repurposed for Nabwana’s film tells us that order is restored in Kampala thanks to the imposition of martial law, but… we still never discover who killed Captain Alex.

If the plot of the film sounds a bit silly – a kind of African mash-up of 1980s hard bodied American action films and kung fu movies from Hong Kong in the 1970s – then the style of the film is what we might term ‘raw’ at best. The sound is all recorded on location, meaning that many lines of dialogue are inaudible, while the film has blotchy digital images that generally are captured handheld and seemingly often on the fly – with a spot just right of centre near the top of the frame clearly staining the camera lens, and thus the images captured, for much of the film.

Slide3

In an early scene where Alex’s men relax in a local bar after setting up camp in Wakaliga, it seems clear that those performing the soldiers are improvising, not least through the awkwardness of their movements. Indeed, the acting is on the whole ‘atrocious,’ and the physical performances of Alex’s brother – who is not bad at martial arts at all – are clearly of far more importance to director Nabwana that any emotional connection that we might develop with the film’s characters.

That said, Who Killed Captain Alex? does have an array of interesting stylistic features, including some canny editing in order to make stunts seem more impressive than perhaps they were (a mercenary leaps into the air; cut to Alex’s brother with some feet striking his head; cut back to the mercenary landing on the ground), some innovative cross-cutting between the different strands of the action (Alex’s brother, the commandos, the helicopter attack on Kampala), and slow motion, freeze frames and other techniques that demonstrate some engagement with film form above and beyond ‘straight’ storytelling.

However, perhaps most noteworthy and celebrated about Who Killed Captain Alex? is the film’s use of super low-budget digital special effects, especially enormous spurts of blood as soldiers and criminals are shot, wafts of smoke, bursts of flame from the muzzles of various of the (wooden prop) guns that the characters fire, and the helicopters that destroy Kampala, the Tiger Mafia camp and the surrounding jungle.

I shall return to these effects shortly, but there is one other technique that I ought in some detail to discuss, namely the inclusion in the film of its own commentary.

Who Killed Captain Alex? is violent and certainly open to critique from the perspective of gender. There are women soldiers in the film, but on the whole the female characters are untrustworthy, including Vicky (Ssekweyama Babirye), who is a soldier in Richard’s pay, and one of Richard’s multiple unnamed wives, who betrays Richard by helping Alex’s brother to break into his camp. While these are serious charges to level against Captain Alex, it nonetheless aspires to be something of a knockabout film, as is perhaps made most clear by the mainly English-language commentary that we hear throughout the film from VJ Emmie Bbatte.

Where normally we might think of a VJ as a video jockey (an audiovisual equivalent of a disc jockey), in the context of Ugandan cinema, a VJ is a ‘video joker.’ Since cinema theatres are rare in Uganda, most people go to watch movies in video halls. Indeed, where Lizabeth Paulat says that there were only three dedicated cinemas in Kampala in 2013 (see Paulat 2013), The Economist reports that there were 374 video halls in Kampala alone in 2012 (M.H. 2012) – a ratio of 1:124 (which is not to mention video libraries, of which there are supposedly over 650 in Kampala). It is very common practice in video halls for a VJ not only to explain and to interpret what is happening in the film, but also to comment upon the action – often ironically and amusingly.

As two interviewees explain in the report in The Economist: ‘most people don’t want to concentrate and follow the movie, so the translator interprets the movie, making it easier for them to follow… [and] I watch translated movies because of the dramatic expressions the guys add in their descriptions, making them fun to watch’ (M.H. 2012).

In other words, the practice suggests that viewers do not necessarily pay that much attention to the films. As a result, film-viewing in Kampala shares similarities with the ‘cinema of interruptions’ of Bollywood, in that people come and go during the course of a movie (see Gopalan 2002). What is more, it also resembles early silent cinema, which equally made use of narrators (commonly referred to in Japan as benshi) in order to make sense of events on screen for the audience.

This echo of early silent cinema that is found in contemporary Kampala perhaps also opens up space for us to think about special effects cinema – and perhaps cinema as a whole – as a form of spectacle as much if not more than it is a form of narrative.

But more importantly for present purposes, the version of the film that exists on the ‘official’ Wakaliwood YouTube channel includes commentary provided by VJ Emmie, meaning that his words are not so much an unofficial layer added post hoc to the film during a screening, but they have become an important part of the film itself.

There are several issues to pick apart here.

Firstly, for Who Killed Captain Alex? to include its own voice over commentary in the film is a self-reflexive step that suggests that, far from being ‘primitive’ (a term that occasionally is applied to early silent cinema), Captain Alex is as ‘post-modern’ in its self-reflexivity as anything that Hollywood (as per DeadpoolTim Miller, USA, 2016) or someone like Michael Winterbottom (think A Cock and Bull Story, UK, 2005) would dare to produce.

Secondly, that the voice over from VJ Emmie is so parodic means that the text of the film itself is destabilised. For example, when Alex conducts a press conference early on in the film, Emmie suggests that all of the female reporters love him, only for Emmie to slip into being the voice of Alex’s consciousness, declaring ‘I like men.’ Equally, when Alex’s brother later encounters Richard’s wife, VJ Emmie says, as if he were also a voice inside the brother’s head, ‘I’ve never seen a woman.’ Although possibly problematic in its reference to homosexuality, the commentary – now an official part of the film – undermines the otherwise masculinist narrative that is being put forward. That is, the film undermines its own authority as it goes along.

To be clear, Emmie’s explanations are sometimes very helpful. When Alex’s brother turns up at a warehouse, fights three men, and then has a conversation with another man about how he wants revenge, it is only really thanks to Emmie that we know that we are at the dojo of Alex’s brother’s kung fu master (Ivan Ssebanja) – even though Emmie cannot help but also undermine the master’s authority by calling him ‘fat.’

On the whole, though, Emmie’s comments are intended as amusing and self-conscious. For example, when the wife of Richard who is now helping Alex’s brother remembers how she came to marry Richard, the film flashes back via black and white images to a sequence in which another woman, presumably another of Richard’s wives, throws water over her, having offered her the ultimatum of marrying Richard or dying. ‘She was caught watching Nigerian movies,’ Emmie comments as we see the wife being ‘tortured.’ ‘This is Uganda,’ Emmie continues. ‘We watch Wakaliwood.’ At other moments, Emmie also plugs subsequent Nabwana productions, such as Bad Black (Nabwana I.G.G., Uganda, 2016), while enthusiastically preparing the audience for action as we near combat sequences: ‘Movie movie movie… One hell of a movie!’

While creating some ironic distance from the action that we are seeing (as well as guiding us through narrative lacunae), Emmie’s commentary also possesses a political dimension. When we meet Alex’s brother, Emmie describes him as the ‘Ugandan Bruce Lee,’ and even names this otherwise unnamed character ‘Bruce U.’ This appeal to Bruce Lee would suggest that Who Killed Captain Alex? is endeavouring to embody the same principles of anti-imperialism that have been read into that actor’s star image (see, for example, Prashad 2003).

In other words, the violence of the film is related to a postcolonial desire to be taken seriously on the world stage, to throw off colonial/imperial oppression and not just to be recognised but in some respects also to enact some sort of revenge – even if the master of Alex’s brother says that revenge is not the aim of martial arts. That is, the reference to Bruce Lee would suggest a desire to be or to become cinematic.

As far as Charlse Bukenya’s martial arts prowess is concerned, Who Killed Captain Alex? is utterly cinematic: he is skilled and graceful. However, on another level, the film fails entirely to be cinema.

This is not simply a case of Captain Alex not screening in cinemas, but rather in video halls, where the ‘video joker’ makes clear how from a ‘western’ perspective a film like Captain Alex might be considered a ‘joke’ (which is not to mention how audience members will not be concentrating on the film very much, thereby consistently ‘interrupting’ the film, as suggested earlier).

Nor is it strictly related to the fact that director Isaac Nabwana has ‘never set foot inside a movie theatre’ – instead watching films himself on television and/or ‘seeing’ films based upon oral accounts of what happens in them (see Park 2016).

Rather, we can see Captain Alex as failing to be cinema as a result of its sheer cheapness, as made clear by the film’s clunky and blocky digital special effects, which are more reminiscent not of movies but of video games.

The issue of Captain Alex not being cinema, or, put more positively, being non-cinema, relates to the status of Uganda on the world stage. For, if there are only three cinemas in Kampala, then Uganda itself is a nation that rarely if ever achieves recognition in cinema, a lack of recognition that mirrors the lack of recognition for Uganda in a geopolitical sense.

Uganda is not a nation where cinema thrives. But what does thrive in Uganda is non-cinema, with Nabwana’s non-cinema nonetheless being explicitly tied to the nation when Emmie declares the brilliance of Wakaliwood and when he shouts ‘Uganda!’ during the action scenes.

‘Tell everyone that Uganda is crazy,’ Emmie implores at the end of the film, with sanity thus being linked to cinematic prowess, and Captain Alex and Uganda more generally thus being vaunted precisely for not being sane, or cinematic, but for being crazy or non-cinematic.

In other words, Uganda on the whole lies beyond the purview of cinema; as a nation created by colonial powers, we might understand that cinema is the preserve of the nations of the First and Second Worlds, but not the Third World. Being a Third World film, Who Killed Captain Alex? can thus be read via the tradition of ‘imperfect cinema’ established by the late Julio García Espinosa, who proclaimed that

[i]mperfect cinema is no longer interested in quality or technique. It can be created equally well with a Mitchell or with an 8mm camera, in a studio or in a guerrilla camp in the middle of the jungle. Imperfect cinema is no longer interested in predetermined taste, and much less in ‘good taste.’ It is not quality which it seeks in an artist’s work. The only thing it is interested in is how an artist responds to the following question: What are you doing in order to overcome the barrier of the ‘cultured’ elite audience which up to now has conditioned the form of your work? (García Espinosa 1979)

Nabwana’s film may seem to be an old-fashioned action movie, but it is also a film that gives expression to the way in which not just a Ugandan but also a global ‘“cultured” elite’ has erected a barrier whereby Ugandan cinema (and by extension Uganda itself) does not really exist, not least because it does not exist (or only rarely exists) on cinema screens both in Uganda and in the rest of the world.

When García Espinosa writes that imperfect cinema should ‘above all show the process which generates the problems,’ he may not necessarily be talking about a film that exposes corruption or which explores the history of Idi Amin, Milton Obotwe or Yoweri Museveni, who since 1986 has been leading Uganda.

Rather, Nabwana and Emmie show how cinema is what Jonathan Beller (2006) might describe as the embodiment of capital, and that cinema itself is thus a process that generates problems, by generating the distinction between the included visible, who are thus cinematic, and the excluded invisible, who are thus non-cinematic.

That is, Who Killed Captain Alex? demonstrates little to no interest in exposing specifically Ugandan problems or Ugandan history, not least because ‘[m]ost Ugandans (including every RFP actor except one) grew up long after the violence of Idi Amin and the civil war’ (McPheeters 2015).

Nonetheless, it does expose how cinema and colonialism both functioned as tools for a capitalism that has created Uganda as such and yet which has also rendered Uganda incapable of being the equal of the First and Second World, incapable of being cinematic – even if Nabwana’s film clearly conveys a defiant appetite for cinema.

Who Killed Captain Alex? may thus fit García Espinosa’s paradigm of imperfect cinema, but it is not exactly an example of Third Cinema in the classic sense defined by Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino.

For, the film does not eschew the entertainment of First (North American) Cinema and the artistry of Second (European) Cinema in a bid to create a new, political ‘Third’ cinema that gives expression to postcolonial political realities and which seeks to overthrow imperial oppression (see Solanas and Getino 1976).

Rather, Captain Alex embraces action cinema and attempts to provide a film that is spectacular. It is in the knowing disparity between the imperfect special effects of this film and the special effects extravaganzas provided by Hollywood, however, that the film’s power lies: Uganda aspires to a spectacular, cinematic existence, but it simply cannot afford one.

In this way, it is not that Captain Alex is worse than a Hollywood film; in some senses it is every bit the equal of a Hollywood film, if not significantly more impressive given the resources and budget with which Nabwana and colleagues are working (this is not intended as a case of presenting a condescending appreciation for the film, thereby repeating a neo-colonial claim to power over the Third World text).

Instead, with Captain Alex being the equal of a Hollywood blockbuster, we can understand that all films are equal. If all films are equal, then what distinguishes films is not quality (a measure that has been destabilised thanks to thinking ‘philosophically’ about Nabwana’s film) so much as the amount of money that they have, with the amount of money that they have determining in some respects the amount of money that they can make. In cinema as in life under globalised neoliberal capital, the rich live in a different world from the poor.

To refer back to Mbembe, Captain Alex suggests an obscene and grotesque assault upon the ‘official’ language of cinema, where the cost of an image is conflated with how ‘official’ it is perceived to be. That is, the ‘official’ language of cinema is the language of capital: cinema is legitimated by money, not by cinema itself. By undermining this process through its proud display of cheap special effects, Who Killed Captain Alex? points to wider economic imbalances, as also conveyed by the existence of Captain Alex (and Uganda more generally) outside of cinemas, even if Captain Alex is cinematic (albeit cheap).

The lack of resolution in the film here comes to the fore. Never finding out who killed Captain Alex might function as a mirror of the Hollywood franchise film that equally must never be fully resolved for the purposes of creating sequels and spin-offs. But in some senses it also presents a mystery regarding the injustices of global economic disparities: what is the reason for Uganda not to be recognised as a legitimate nation with a legitimate cinema?

Captain Alex, as the hope for establishing order and justice in Wakaliga, is killed – but we do not know by whom. Not only might this constitute an unresolved mystery suggesting the chaotic nature of the universe as per the films of Michelangelo Antonioni, for example, but it also points to the impossibility of Uganda to achieve economic equality and to receive justice for its colonial exploitation – as instead the film demonstrates a chaotic world of male-dominated violence (undercut by Emmie’s commentary), and in which martial law is the only way of restoring domestic order.

If Who Killed Captain Alex? does not, in its bid to entertain, fit the classical paradigm of Third Cinema, it also does not fit the definition of a powerful and entertaining First Cinema that Solanas and Getino suggested conveyed bourgeois values to a passive audience.

Emmie’s commentary would suggest an active audience that is encouraged to engage with the political dimension of the film’s digital aesthetics, rather than for the film’s digital aesthetics seducing its audiences into forgetting about politics.

If the film is not an example of First Cinema, it is also not quite an example of ‘supercinema,’ which I have defined elsewhere as being a digitally-enabled cinema that seeks philosophically to democratise space, time and identity (see Brown 2013).

For, Captain Alex is defined as much by its self-conscious failure to achieve big budget special effects as it is by any success in rivalling a Hollywood film production. And yet, if Captain Alex is as much a manifestation of digital special effects cinema as a Hollywood spectacle, then perhaps Who Killed Captain Alex? functions as a film, and Wakaliwood as a space, where supercinema meets non-cinema.

That is, the potential of digital cinema to open us up to new ways of thinking as a result of how it can depict space, time and identity, comes up against the realities of a world – also digital – in which disparities of wealth, mobility and visibility, as well as political injustice, continue to be part of the fabric of everyday life.

Supercinema may elevate us beyond the cinematic divisions and boundaries that are typical of the society of the spectacle; non-cinema, meanwhile, validates the obscene and the grotesque, it validates difference, in a bid for us democratically to understand that, even if Isaac Nabwana cannot afford high end special effects, all films and thus all humans (and perhaps even non-humans) are not necessarily the same (they are different), but they are also equal.

Bibliography

Beller, Jonathan (2006) The Cinematic Mode of Production: Attention Economy and the Society of the Spectacle, Lebanon, N.H.: University Press of New England.

Brown, William (2013) Supercinema: Film-Philosophy for the Digital Age, Oxford: Berghahn.

Brown, William (Forthcoming) Non-Cinema: Global Digital Filmmaking and the Multitude, London: Bloomsbury.

García Espinosa, Julio (1979) ‘For an imperfect cinema’ (trans. Julianne Burton), Jump Cut, 20, pp. 24-26.

Gopalan, Lalitha (2002) Cinema of Interruptions: Action Genres in Contemporary Indian Cinema, London: British Film Institute.

Mbembe, Achille (2001) On the Postcolony (trans. A.M Berrett, Janet Roitman, Murray Last and Steven Rendall), Berkeley: University of California Press.

M.H. (2012) ‘Coming to you live,’ The Economist, 2 November.

McPheeters, Sam (2015) ‘A Ugandan Filmmaker’s Quest to Conquer the Planet with Low-Budget Action Movies,’ Vice, 3 March.

Park, Gene (2016) ‘How a Ugandan director is making great action movies on $200 budgets,’ The Washington Post, 28 September.

Paulat, Lizabeth (2013) ‘Going to the Movies in Kampala,’ Living in Kampala, 3 September.

Prashad, Vijay (2003) ‘Bruce Lee and the Anti-imperialism of Kung Fu: A Polycultural Adventure,’ positions: east asia cultures critique, 11:1, pp. 51-90.

Solanas, Fernando, and Octavio Getino (1976) ‘Towards a Third Cinema’ (trans. Julianne Burton), in Movies and Methods: An Anthology (ed. Bill Nichols), Berkeley: University of California Press, pp. 44-64.

 

 

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