Je vous salue, Marie / Hail Mary (1985)

24 08 2014

Perhaps it is the controversy that came with its release or perhaps it was Godard’s own troubled production, but for whatever reason, Hail Mary is more infamous than it is famous. Sure, little of his post-1968 work is as iconic and ingrained in popular culture, but Hail Mary in particular seems like nothing more than a curiosity. Even those who do praise it, do so with some restraint. It seems that the context of the film’s inception has become a bigger story than the film itself. Yet, here we find Godard at his most compassionate, although his constant refusal to distance himself from his own work has never been more palpable. The result is something truly frustrating and off-putting, but for the engaged viewer who gives him a chance, they may find one of cinema’s most celebrated figures at his most daring and confrontational.

1

A despondent Joseph sits across from Mary Magdalen in a cafe. She’s pleading with him to marry his girlfriend, Mary. He refuses, but his mind appears to be somewhere far away from the conversation at hand. Meanwhile, the angel Gabriel arrives at the airport. He gives Joseph, who is a taxi driver, five hundred dollars and commands him to drive to the service station run by Mary’s father. There, Gabriel confronts Mary and tells her that she is pregnant, but the father is not Joseph. The implication is that it is not any other human in a corporeal. Joseph is overcome with jealously. For the two years he’s dated Mary, he has not touched or even kissed her. Refusing to believe in the immaculate conception, he accuses her of cheating.

2

While anyone vaguely familiar with the birth of Christ can follow the general idea of Godard’s story, the narrative’s first sharp deviation from its source text is Joseph’s response to the news of Mary’s pregnancy. Godard’s track record with women is well, let’s just say the fact that I have to construct a sentence with the phrase “track record with women” is a problem. Many might call this a simplistic assessment, but a recent revisit of a one-time favorite, Masculin feminin depressed me greatly. What I once saw as a natural observation on young people and their romantic relationships seemed a lot more hollow. Women are sexualized for the benfit of capitalism and consumerism, in particular, sure. However, throughout the 1960s, Godard’s critique fails to see the forest for the trees, women are shamed for being not just complicit in this manipulation, but responsible for it. In other words, he creates a more rarefied way of repeating the rather banal stereotype that women are superficial and dull, but ties it to a critique of capitalism.

3

Godard himself later remarked his displeasure with how he treated his characters, particularly the women of Masculin feminin. The film seeks to make them not just apolitical, but perhaps too vapid to even comprehend politics in the first place. Unlike the work that followed Masculin femininHail Mary is less straightforward about its ideological intentions. There is no quoting of Marx, no pictures of Mao, no static shots of individuals throwing their fists in the air for revolt. Yet, this might be one of his deeply political films, and the fact that its politics are interconnected with something personal may have led to a critical evaluation that seemed disinterested in probing deeper into the cinematic fabric. I hesitate to call this film feminist, but its undoubtedly concerned with a woman’s agency and control of her body.

4

It might be of interest to point that Godard frequently considered pulling the plug on Hail Mary, but continued to power on because of his collaborator, Anne-Marie Mieville. Mieville’s short, The Book of Mary, was and still is shown before Hail Mary. Godard felt he may have owed her something, in this case maybe the film’s existence is only because of and for a woman. The film is about Mary and her bodily autonomy, sure, but in addition, it is about Joseph and his unflinching desire to own her, perhaps dominate her with his own affection and love. The latter rhetoric sounds complicated and unfair on Joseph’s part, yet his manipulation of Mary’s feelings makes up the bulk of the film. The reverse tends to be the norm in fiction, that women are needlessly cruel and coldhearted to men who want to do nothing but love them. The reality is that such a line of thought is possessive and abusive.

5

Joseph is played by Thierry Rode, a first time actor, who was even more inexperienced than the film’s lead, Myriem Roussel. While Roussel (who had worked with Godard before in First Name Carmen) plays thing in an almost aloof and distant manner, Rode is awkwardly imposing. His movements feel strict, almost forced. Many have watched this film and never even had the slightest idea that he would be “abusive boyfriend” material and yet, the evidence is there on the film. He is not so different from Godard, he sports a similar pair of sunglasses if that means anything, nor is he that different from the typical male viewer that would watch the film. Some might feel that jealousy and anger is completely justified. He’s dated Mary for two years, he deserves something, right?

6

Well, no, that’s wrong. The film, with the most extreme of circumstances, gives a male audience a pill still difficult to swallow: that romantic relationships don’t equal possession. Joseph feels like he deserves Mary’s love, which in some cases might just mean love in that indescribable way but here it most likely means sex. His desire to see Mary naked sends him to his knees, akin to some untamed animal. The most striking thing here is that all of this, which is familiar and still authentic in many heterosexual relationships, is the context of the birth of Christ. So much of Christ’s life was imposed forces that depicted all the ugly potential of man. How revolutionary, then, for Godard to suggest that the birth of Christ came in the context of something still found and often unrecognized in male ego: the desire to  possess women. Throughout the  film, Mary does not waver. She calls the shots and controls her body. If Joseph feels like Mary owes him something, he is more than welcome to leave her.

7





For Ever Mozart (1996)

17 08 2014

Before one begins to unpack For Ever Mozart, it is perhaps crucial to explain the film’s origins, specifically that the film itself contains three ideas that Godard had for separate, individual productions. One about French artists and actors in Sarajevo, another about the study of filmmaking, and finally, one about music and its emotional significance. To a viewer unfamiliar with Godard’s work after 1968, the results might be alienating and frustrating, an sculpted mess of ideas. But there’s a beauty to Godard’s organized chaos, he has gracefully woven three narratives into one, and made one of his most political and yet, one of his most affecting works.

1

Camille is an unemployed professor of philosophy who receives a spark of inspiration. She seeks to travel to Sarajevo to put on a production of Marivaux’s The Game of Love and Chance. She is able to convince her cousin, Jerome and her maid, Djamila to join her. Vicky Vitalis, her filmmaker father and an obvious stand in for Godard himself, also accepts an invitation. He eventually retreats back home while Camille, Jerome, and Djamila soldier on. They are then captured by Serb paramilitaries, and presumably left for dead. We return to Vitalis who, informed of this tragedy, tries to complete his movie.

2

 

On the surface, the slaughter of Camille, Jerome, and Djamila seems to be a warning towards those going to spaces marked as “unsafe” – one which Camille’s mother seems to foreshadow. She declares it is crazy and a death-wish to go to Sarajevo to perform a play when there’s plenty of places where one can do it in France. Of course, Camille’s desire to put on a play in Sarajevo comes with a pointed political purpose, she is after all not a student of theater but rather a professor of philosophy. The problem begins to emerge here. She basically uses Sarajevo for her own personal political plaything. There, her intentions seem oblivious to the struggle and needs of the city, she’s just going there because she knows it’s a suffering place. This doesn’t justify the violence acted upon the bodies of Camille, Jerome, and Djamila. Their deaths and unfair and tragic, but they are done in by their own desires (specifically Camille) to help without thinking that they might be invading.

3

To provide a real life example, sometime in the past five years there was a group of primarily white students from Austin, Texas who made it their personal mission to  not just visit and bring joy to Detroit, Michigan but to save it. The audacity of their intentions might be lost on someone who comes from a similar upbringing, after all they were trying to provide a positive change to a city that is so often framed in the mainstream as suffering and in need of help. However, their efforts not only resemble colonialism, they are actually a form of it. The white savior complex that is repeated throughout media and fiction influenced their ideas, made it seem possible. They wanted to help, but they were invading. Intentions are not the sole thing to measure one’s actions, especially when in this case, the “positive intentions” are something patronizing and racist.

4

I see Camille’s intentions as the same as these Texan students. She speaks a similarly positive message, but with no regard for the existence of those who live in the space they are going to be occupying. Perhaps calling this “Godard’s film on gentrification” is a step too far, but the film seems to suggest some acknowledgement of the rhetoric around “nice” colonialism. Camille’s mother is the conservative foil to the white leftists, urging them not to bother themselves with “unsafe” spaces. We can recognize this as close-minded, but the white progressive voice is just as close-minded, oblivious to the existence of natives. Godard himself, as a white leftist, has to decenter his own voice, a thing he struggles with but he acknowledges it here and in the segment Camera-Eye from Far From Vietnam.  The privilege of white leftists is so often left in the margins of their discourse, ignored because it would require to confront something uncomfortable, that you are one of the oppressors.

5

While Godard works through privilege and (perhaps) gentrification in his scenes focusing on Sarajevo, he looks for something else once Camille, Jerome, and Djamila are murdered. It becomes a film about dealing with grief, though in the process it doesn’t excuse Camille’s own imperialist ideas of “peace” it does accept that her death would be an impossible fight for Vitalis. He struggles to process the reality of losing his daughter. Although his grief is never depicted through his own words (he seldom speaks) it does manifest in his shooting of the film within a film. There, he relentlessly tasks an actress to repeat one line of dialogue “yes” but each time is insufficent. The cold weather eventually breaks her down. The repetition seems to underscore Vitalis’ mind dealing with his daughter’s death. It tells him “yes” this happened, but his heart and brain can do nothing but reject it every time. Fiction often suggests we have an “aha!” moment in dealing with a death, where we’re able to put it behind us and triumphantly move on. Godard suggests something that is closer to reality: that we must confront it everyday. We may come to accept it, but  it will take many takes and even then, we don’t stop thinking about the person in question.

6





Yi dai zong shi / The Grandmaster (2013)

12 08 2014

Wong Kar-Wai is one of only a handful of directors I feel completely inadequate talking about. After all, what is there that can be said or written about one of the most visual, tactile, and sensual filmmakers of all time? To even use words to describe his work seems to be a disservice. Maybe this all seems like a little unnecessary hyperbole, just the author gushing over a beloved filmmaker, but sometimes a work doesn’t seem to benefit from words. All great films should be able to communicate something that’s far more complicated then any possible combination of words, but it seems particularly erroneous in Wong’s case. With all that said, there’s much to say about The Grandmaster and how it fits into the filmmaker’s other meditations on fleeting romance.

1

Ip Man, a martial arts master of the South, is threatened by the emergence of another master, Gong Yutian from the Northern part of China. It is suggested that the two areas both have their separate “masters” but eventually, the conversation turns to who is the better of the two. Gong Yutian’s daughter, Gong Er pleads with her father to not fight. He does so anyway, and the fight ends in a surprisingly peaceful fashion. Gong proclaims Ip Man the winner, and retreats home. Gong Er is less than pleased with the results, and she makes it her mission to restore the honor of her family’s name. In the process, though, her and Ip Man begin to make a connection.

2

There’s something infuriating to me about the last paragraph. Perhaps I’ve done a paltry job at summarizing the narrative of the film, but even if I was better at such a thing, I would still feel that it wouldn’t quite do justice to The Grandmaster. I hesitate to call this film “more than an action film” because that suggests there is something about action films that is low-brow or to take that further, that low-brow is something we should inherently look down upon. The Grandmaster is different. Its action is crucial, but its not one of catharsis. It’s one that is just impeccably choreographed and framed, providing the sort of visual stimulation for a story of a lost love. Of course, that sounds just as corny and unwelcoming as a story about rival fighters.

3

I could say here then that part of Wong’s genius is his ability to make stories that would seem like cheesy Hollywood meet cutes into something endued with his trademark longing and reverie. This is a talent, but it’s not bad writing coupled with a crafty filmmaker to make up for it, but instead just a filmmaker who can handle such potentially shaky content. The proceedings here and throughout the rest of Wong’s career can be described as melodramatic, and I accept such a claim but reject its negative connotation. Here is a beautiful work of melodramatic filmmaking, one whose melodrama is augmented by Wong’s own poetics of cinema. His films wouldn’t work without his aesthetics, yet somehow his films wouldn’t just work if they were “all style” (a frequent criticism, actually) – all the elements of Wong’s cinema need each other.

4

My thoughts are pretty congested here, but I’ll try to explain how Wong’s frequent meditation on “missed opportunities” or would-be romances work. As a young cinephile, I saw and immediately fell in love with Ermanno Olmi’s Il Posto. One of the things that hit me hardest was the fact that the protagonist meets a beautiful girl, one that would be his love interest in any other film. In Olmi’s film though, their spark leads to nothing and she seems to disappear. As a teenager, this struck a chord because in my mind, this was a reality. I might have been deluded, but it seemed real. Wong’s cinema does something similar, but it goes a level deeper. There was a time where I loved his work because I related to these poetic interpretations of missed connections. I still do it, but it registers in a different way now.

5

Watching The Grandmaster I felt something almost reassuring and calming about the sensual tension of Ip Man and Gong Er and the way it never materializes into a loving relationship. Wong’s way is always far sexier than it is real life, but I use to feel the heartache of such moments because I felt some kind of connection to this type of social phenomenon. Now, it is something perhaps more productive, the idea that these missed relationships aren’t the tragic attack on your aching heart, but instead something that normalizes these lost potential romantic partners. It captures the pain, but doesn’t dwell in it, resulting in a more life-affirming experience. Wong in one moment can sense our anguish, and in a non-condescending way say that our grieving of such a thing is grandiloquent. The rhythms of the world can’t be interrupted just for one’s own desires, the beat goes on even as we lament it doing so in a way that doesn’t favor us. We may never “get over it” but we have to keep moving.

6





Kurosen chitai / Black Line (1960)

6 08 2014

Teruo Ishii started his career as an assistant to the great Mikio Naruse. While Ishii would go on to become Japan’s most beloved cult filmmaker, there is still traces of his mentor in this early effort. The jazzy, noir qualities of When a Woman Ascends the Stairs show up in Black Line, while Ishii also seems to devote some attention to the plight of women and yet, the sensitive qualities of Naruse’s work are absent. Not because Ishii’s film seems to “miss something” but instead, because he operates on a completely different level. The aforementioned noir quality is taken to its logical conclusion and the result is a film that feels like a serviceable genre flick, with only a few isolated moments that hint at something more.

1

Koji Machida wakes up and finds himself in bed with a woman, but the woman is dead and he’s the obvious lead suspect. Machida suspects he’s been carefully framed for the murder so he begins an unofficial investigation. It leads him to another women, this one gets deliberately run over by a car while the two are arguing. Machida looks even more suspicious, but as he climbs deeper into the underworld, the women become more welcoming (if only for the fact that they read his questioning as flirting) but the men become more hostile.

2

That last sentence suggests something that is one of the few major points of interest in Ishii’s film, and that’s how he handles gender. Machida himself seems to have a gendered protocol for social interaction, one that is confrontational and demanding around men, while cool and distant around women. For the latter, he seems to have been raised on American noir, perhaps using Humphrey Bogart as a character to emulate, not unlike Belmondo does in Breathless. This isn’t the most revolutionary idea, and I’m not even sure Ishii himself is making a conscious decision to meditate on Machida’s social malleability, but instead it is something that rings true that probably just flows subconsciously from the film’s script. It’s not always a gendered thing, but it can be: being around different people can shape our interactions and even how we talk depending on context. Much is said about the performance of gender, but that’s not the sensation here. Instead, it’s one where social interactions are read and experienced through a certain filter. I find the experience a difficult one to describe, especially because the language here is so tricky. Machida isn’t vapid or empty because his personality adapts to situations, this is something that happens, in some degree, to most of us.

3

Machida’s aforementioned social protocol encounters a problem, at least through Machida’s eyes of interpretation, when he meets Kayako, a trans woman. Their small conversation, which eventually ends in Machida shouting is a small portion of the film. I have no doubt that Ishii himself thought nothing special of the sequence, it is one that might superficially convince the audience of how “deep” Machida is in the underworld, but that’s already problematic. The scene is fascinating because of Machida’s inability to recognize Kayako as a woman (the film, alas, doesn’t do this either, crediting Kayako as “gay man”) and thus, his coolness around women isn’t present nor is his hostile attitude that is reserved for men. Kayako is a woman, but Machida struggles to accept this, eventually shouting at her before storming out.

4

Before the sequence concludes, Kayako leaves us with a rather succinct observation: “I am only here to please men.” Perhaps the most recent transphobic travesty found in the New Yorker is weighing on my mind, but how often is this idea about someone’s existence taken seriously? Although, Kayako is presumably a sex worker, this doesn’t imply that her or any other sex worker exists only as a tool for a man’s sexuality. This is 100-level feminism, yet it somehow seems to be forgotten about and not applied to trans women. Instead, an argument exists that their existence is itself a sexual perversion. I don’t want to dwell in the argument because it is so offensive, but Kayako’s line seems to acknowledge this line of thinking and expose it for the error that it is. Call it, if nothing else, an unintentional moment of clarity in a film that is far more comfortable exploring more familiar noir territory.

5





What Price Hollywood? (1932)

4 08 2014

George Cukor’s 1932 portrait of the rise, but not the fall of a young aspiring actress is best remembered as providing the working template for A Star is Born. Opening with its protagonist, Mary Evans, wistfully flipping through a celebrity gossip magazine, Cukor throws us into his world – Hollywood. But instead of another tired Hollywood exposé of the system that casually pokes fun at its own infrastructure, What Price Hollywood? presents something rare even in modern film. It’s a movie whose central relationship is that between a man and a woman, but one without any romantic connotation. Mary Evans’ relationship with Max Carey is friendship, but the film wisely doesn’t see that as a limitation, but instead an entirely new type of connection, one seldom represented in film.

1

Mary Evans is a waitress at a Hollywood restaurant. Seeing stars is not unusual for her or any of her coworkers, but she spots a golden opportunity when filmmaker Max Carey waltzes in one night. Max wakes up the next night with a tremendous hangover, which we soon discover is something of a trademark. He has no idea what happened the night before but Mary is laying on his couch. She tells him it was all rather wholesome, but that he promised her a spot in his next production. Not a problem, at first, but then it soon becomes apparent that Mary can’t exactly act. With her one seemingly washed away, she returns to her apartment exhausted but gets inspired. The next day she nails her scene, and her ascent begins just as Max’s alcoholism triggers his descent.

2

Cukor’s friendship-driven narrative naturally leads itself a queer reading. In one sequence, Max tries to show a distracted Mary how to properly seduce a man. I don’t think such a reading is forced, but I do think it is a little unhelpful here. While I find it’s a necessary viewpoint to consider throughout Cukor’s work, I think the personal thing here is the idea of platonic men-women relationships, which sounds so simplistic and unremarkable on paper but it plays out so beautifully, albeit tragically in Cukor’s hands. Mary does have a love interest, Lonny (who I’ll get to later) and while Lonny is a deplorable individual, his presence seems necessary to make us realize the value of Mary and Max’s friendship. With Lonny introduced, the film sets up an easy love triangle, one that would have been expected in 1932. Cukor wisely steers the movie away from this territory.

3

If there’s one particularly loud hiccup in Cukor’s visions, it is Lonny himself. He quite literally forces Mary on a date, by dragging her out of her bedroom. He later has to feed her. Such a setpiece is meant to be “charming” in the man’s persistence in his love interest. Again, it wouldn’t have been that unusual to see in a screwball comedy at the time. So how can I excuse Cukor for such a character? Well, I think the fact that he does come off so negatively is a conscious move. Mary and Lonny eventually end up together “happily” or at least we would read this from the final scene’s cinematic grammar. Lonny is such a reprehensible character, though, that it feels like an error to read this so easily.

4

Instead, I find Lonny’s presence and representation of romantic love for Mary to be emphasized as negative to contrast to the more positive friendship she has with Max. How often does cinema, like other forms of storytelling, emphasize the importance of finding “the one” or experiencing true love. Weirdly, this kind of grandiose sensation is one we’re suppose to both feel and try act out, which oddly enough leads to troubling and even abusive behaviors. Fittingly enough, it would not be a stretch at all to classify most of Lonny’s behavior in this film as abusive. A similar diagnosis could be made of most romantic relationships in Hollywood films at the time. The question becomes then if What Price Hollywood? romanticizes such a problematic dynamic or it attempts to deconstruct it? I think Cukor’s usual critical eye for Hollywood’s compulsory heterosexuality is present. Within this though, is a tribute to friendship. Again, it sounds corny, but how often have you seen a film about friendship that wasn’t just heterosexual men bonding? It is a vital image when other such relationships are represented, even more so when they’re cloaked in what appears to be a typical romantic situation.

5





La prima Angélica / Cousin Angelica (1974)

2 08 2014

Spanish playwright Ramón del Valle-Inclán once said, “Things are not as we see them, but as we remember them.” The phrase seemed to stick with filmmaker Carlos Saura and writer Rafael Azcona, as it became the inspiration for the two’s 1974 collaboration, Cousin Angelica. Memory, perhaps because so many of us experience it through certain visual cues, is an immediately cinematic sensation. Saura doesn’t construct his images with the flash and poetry of someone like Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, whose Memories of Underdevelopment seems to be touching on a similar impulse. Instead, Saura smashes the past and the present into the same image, constantly manipulating the continuity of a single shot. The result is unique, to say the least, and if nothing else, it proves that describing a film as “dream-like” can mean just about anything.

1

Traveling from Barcelona to Segovia to bury his mother remains, Luis recounts his visit in 1936. It was there, right in the middle of the Spanish Civil War, that he met and fell in his love with his cousin Angelica. Meanwhile, in the present, Angelica is now married with a daughter of her own, also named Angelica. Her daughter is the same age she was during Luis’ last visit, they appear to be the same person. Similarly, Luis can’t shake the memory of Angelica’s fascist father being the same physically as her husband, although actual photographs suggest that there is no resemblance at all.

2

While Saura does present an entirely new way of linking the present with the past, it might be of use to mark some familiar territory. If there’s one film that seems to operate on a similar ground as Saura’s, it’s the final film of fellow countrymen Luis Bunuel, That Obscure Object of Desire. There, one woman is represented by two different actresses. While Bunuel is meditating on something else entirely, he and Saura share for the mise-en-scene to be jarring as opposed to Alea’s more familiar (think Malick) route where the editing juxtaposes two different realities or periods of time. Saura manages to capture two different period of times within one frame, and does so with a calculated and precise eye.

3

This plays out in a fascinating, almost mysterious nature while watching the film. In one sequence, Luis and Angelica seem to recapture their love from the summer of 1936. They climb on top of a roof and embrace. Cut to a static shot inside the window they climbed out of, and we hear, off-screen, Angelica’s father of the past or her modern day husband. Because the two are played by the same actor, a connection made from our point of view, Luis’  brain, there is a tension not in where the film is, but when the film is. Because Luis’ memories are interacting with the present, the answer might be both the past and the present. That sounds needlessly complicated, but it is reflective of the film’s greatest strength: the dedication to filming the experience as Luis himself would both comprehend, reflect, and respond to it.

4





Meghe Dhaka Tara / The Cloud-Capped Star (1960)

27 07 2014

It takes all but two minutes of Ritwik Ghatak’s The Cloud-Capped Star for money to be discussed. Saying that money is a primary theme of the film might evoke some groans, how often do we expect works of arts to communicate something deeper, whatever that means. We often expect the grandest of artistic statements to not dabble in something so common and superficial? The binary between the grand and the everyday is, of course, a completely false one. Ghatak’s characters are motivated by money, their unhappiness and despair is fueled by their inability to pay the rent. The Cloud-Capped Star‘s biggest accomplishment is that it is as poetic as it is pragmatic. A drama that creates a rhythm of daily existence, but captures and frames the routine is such a mesmerizing way.

1

Neeta breaks her sandal on her way home, but instead of purchasing another pair, she finishes her commute barefooted. Awaiting her at home is her brother, Shankar, a talented singer with no means of income. He knows Neeta is bringing home her monthly salary, and hopes she might be willing to share her earnings. Younger siblings Gita and Mantu also ask for some of Neeta’s earnings, as they seek to acquire new clothes. Putting the rest of the family before herself is just a part of Neeta’s life, even though her mother scolds her for doing so. With both of her parents unemployed, Neeta is the family’s main source of income. To continue her role, she puts her romance with Sanat on hold. She delays her own happiness, with the expectation that one day, she will be repaid for her sacrifice.

2

We’ve known Neeta for a very short time when she reads a love letter sent from Sanat. She holds the letter with so much devotion that it might as well be an actual person. She gazes into the sky, presumably to dream of a lovely future. Then, she is immediately interrupted by her brother, Shankar, who begins to tease her for the letter. This early moment builds a structure that is followed throughout. Neeta’s moments of happiness and rest are fleeting, and they are likely to be interrupted. Her family expects everything of her, and when she takes time to pause from her unreasonable duties, someone comes along to correct her or criticize her for forgetting about the moon when she only gives her family all of the stars.

3

It sounds a little too dreary to say that Neeta is doomed, but her situation is one that can never quite be appreciated. Her family can acknowledge her personal sacrifice, but they never seem to be fully aware of its weight. The only time her devotion is mentioned is in arguments. For example, her mother praises her in passing, but she mentions her as an example when criticizing Shankar and his lack of work. Acknowledgement comes but only with the expectation that everyone else should be working as hard as she is, never is the idea that she is working far too hard floated through someone’s consciousness. Neeta’s love interest, Sanat, suggests that she’s “not cut out to endure this” but even here, something seems to be missing. Neeta’s reply, “It doesn’t matter” is quite telling. Sure, she’s not cut out to endure this, but nobody is cut out to endure suffering.

4

Sanat himself suffers, though he tells us that he suffers for an ideal. To be more direct, he is basically turning down job offers to pursue his academic interest, with the hope of a more worthy career. Throughout the film, the people around Neeta look down on “physical labor” in spite of the fact that they can’t even pay the rent. Neeta gets such a job to earn some extra money for the family, but another personal sacrifice is seen as shame. Her father asks, “Is this what the middle class has sunk to?” The family can’t pay rent, sure, but physical labor is something beneath them. Once again, everything is expected of Neeta, yet everything she does is unfairly scrutinized. As a woman trying to take care of her family, her suffering is seen as trivial next to the “artistic” or “political” suffering of her father and Sanat, the latter who willfully chooses such a life. Little do they know, her suffering is far more political.

5

There are some who would hesitate to call Ghatak’s film political, if only because the idea of the “political film” evokes an idea of a film far removed from his world. I don’t like the phrase, simply because it implies a genre, one that is often used to describe experimental and consciously political works of Europeans like Godard or even Pasolini. Ghatak, like Naruse before him, is extremely political even if the vocabulary of Marxist theory is absent. I love Godard and Pasolini, for the record, but this image of the “political film” ignores The Cloud-Capped Star or When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, to give one Naruse example. Like Sanat’s consciously political suffering in this film, the musings of men is given more weight. Sure, Ghatak was a man, but it is easy to see his film gendered feminine. Those critical of the film accuse it of being melodramatic, a term that evokes femininity and something less authentic. It is something meant to undercut the political implications of such a film, after all shouldn’t Marxist theory be left to solemn white males? The answer is, of course, no it absolutely shouldn’t.

6

The irony in all of this is that Ghatak himself was vocally political and a member of Indian Communist Party, but such a detail contradicts the way western film scholars construct narratives around Asian filmmakers. This is the narrative that focuses on Yasujiro Ozu’s spirituality, the one that ignores his queerness and his radical politics. It’s the same narrative that focuses the attention on Satyajit Ray and applauds his humanity, but in the same breath dehumanizes the dense and vital history of the rest of Indian cinema and its contributors. This all seems like an off-topic tangent, one that suggests a simplistic reading of western film criticism. It’s related to my larger point, though. The Cloud-Capped Star is a deeply political movie, even as it is not a “political film” in the European tradition. It’s a movie about existing in a world that does everything to get rid of you, to achieve happiness despite the obstacles being endless. At one point, Neeta remarks, “All my suffering will vanish.” She’s wrong, of course, but that’s the tragedy.

7








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