ARGO (Dir. Ben Affleck, 2012, US) – Cowboys and Indians

Ben Affleck as CIA agent Tony Mendez.


Argo opens with a glib lesson in shoddy Hollywood political objectivity, attempting to tell us that the geopolitical situation of Iran during the American Embassy hostage siege had its demonic seeds in the history of American interventionism. It is one of the few moments in the entire film that we witness a fleeting, if not grudging, attempt at political introspection. Ben Affleck’s latest directorial venture removes him from the geographical comforts of Boston but does political necessarily indicate a growing up in Hollywood cinema? It certainly has been the case with previous liberally inclined film stars turned directors such as Robert Redford and George Clooney. This growing up from traditional Hollywood film genres to more obscure, difficult and problematic material seems to mark some kind of a painfully superficial transition from an isolationist view of American life to broader transnational politics. Yet the sanitised liberal intentions including the serious subject matter, political context, 1970s period, extended conversation sequences and mixing of visual styles merely propagates a view that the ideological construction of such materials is what makes Argo a historically accurate representation of what is a true story. The problem that many of these so-called Hollywood political thrillers face is that by suppressing accurate and fair political content and context, those doing the re-presenting, namely Americans, engineer a historically biased discourse framed against current anti-Iranian sentiments that are regularly propagated by much of the benign mainstream media. No filmmaker has an obligation to be objective but surely every filmmaker has an obligation to be responsible in the way they represent a nation that is already undergoing a steady process of demonization by the western media. 

Argo fails on a number of political accounts, misrepresenting Iran and the Islamic revolution through a distant gaze that refuses to give the Iranian people an authentic or credible voice and instead disembodies them so their rage merges with familiar news imagery of state repression, executions, fanaticism and religious ideology. The Islamic revolution was a populist one and had widespread support amongst ordinary Iranians yet in the film, Khomeini and the new establishment are viewed with suspicion, derision and contempt by the American liberal gaze. Additionally, the refusal to fully explain the context of the Iran hostage crisis and what the Americans were actually doing in the Embassy smacks of selective amnesia. The mere suggestion of the Americans acting as spies in the Embassy is ridiculed and quickly rendered obsolete. However, by having the Iranians adopt this point of view makes them appear doubly paranoid and simply chasing a blood lust. In Rambo: First Blood Part II, John Rambo’s rescuing of POWs from a communist prison camp not only resurrected the spectre of the Vietnam War but his total annihilation of the landscape and its people saw a fictional re-enactment of having won a war America had lost. Such fantasy wish fulfilment resurfaces in Argo. The covert rescue operation mounted with the approval of Jimmy Carter in 1980 resulted in failure, resulting in the deaths of eight Americans and one Iranian. A film like Argo helps to conceal such political failures of the past, reconstituting American history and its humanist people working for the most morally deplorable of institutions (The CIA) as triumphalist, heroic and somewhat more liberal than those pesky gun totting incomprehensible Iranians. 

Even more worrying are the final titles, juxtaposing real photos of the event against stills taken from the film so that any questions to do with the truth, reality and authenticity are rendered almost invisible to the ordinary spectator. One leaves the cinema with the message that this is an accurate representation of a true story and categorically stating that Americans and the West are the good guys. But are we really?

KILLING THEM SOFTLY (Dir. Andrew Dominik, 2012, US) – ‘America’s not a country, it’s a business…’

Brad Pitt as enforcer/hit-man ‘Jackie Cogan’

‘And to all those who have wondered if America’s beacon still burns as bright – tonight we proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from our the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity, and unyielding hope…’         

– President Obama’s acceptance speech, 2008

Killing Them Softly revels in the cynicism of its central character of Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt), a hit man who stalks the noir lit streets of an urban American society suffering from a monstrous moral and economic decadence. It’s not a fantastical decadence but one rooted in a stark contemporary reality in which the terms recession and capitalism have led to a social crisis of confidence. The absence of morality is nothing new to the crime genre but here it seems to be absolute in the way Jackie views his role of the hit man nothing more than a professional service. With Jackie, all that exists is the job. He has no external life to speak of and trades in death. He also occupies a universe of unsavoury characters that collectively represent a dispiriting American underbelly often found in some of the more nightmarish visions of America from 1970s cinema. The fact that we find no difference between the amorality of Jackie from his victims is what makes the film’s representation of American society so powerfully dark. We have no one to root for in the film and in many ways we become observers rather than traditional participators. Such an observational and at times detached spectatorial position underlines the way director Andrew Dominik chooses to foreground ideological concepts over more visceral conventions associated with the genre. 

Most of the film hinges on extended conversation sequences while in the background we hear America’s transition from Republicanism to Liberalism (punctuated with speeches delivered by Bush and Obama) as a nothing more than historical spectacle, stressing the continuing empty promises made by politicians. In many ways, Jackie is a twisted metaphor for the contemporary entrepreneur and although he deals in death his violent preoccupations are a pale reflection of successive American leaders. However, what separates Jackie from someone like President Obama is the refusal to use hypocrisy as a form of persuasion. For Jackie, his profession as both an enforcer and hit man is devoid of such traditional forms of political hypocrisy; instead he deals in a reality based on choices and ultimatums, thus avoiding any potential personal guilt. In fact, Jackie is unique in the pantheon of cinematic enforcers/hit-men since existentialism is traded in for an ideological bent. Such ideological musings transforms Jackie into a vicious political metonym and repressed voice for disillusionment with the establishment that stretches back to the 1970s. 

Just as The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford offers a revisionist dissemination of the western genre, Killing Them Softly also undermines audience expectations associated with the crime film genre. The plot is perfunctory and offers little variation in what we have seen before in the American crime film. Two desperate criminals hold up a card game run by the mob, resulting in the entrance of enforcer Jackie Cogan who takes on the job of resolving the crime. The film is adapted from a 1974 novel ‘Cogan’s Trade’ by George V. Higgins who also wrote The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Dominik updates the story to 2008 but such prescient political and economic parallels exist between the two eras that I doubt if the film really loses any of the 1970’s context. The Friends of Eddie Coyle, directed by Peter Yates, features one of Mitchum’s greatest performances as an ageing small time criminal who becomes an unlikely police informant. The patina of romanticism often found in some of the more celebrated American crime films is largely absent from the writing of Higgins. Dominik appears to remain faithful to Higgin’s unglamourous depiction of the criminal underworld by opting for a neo noir aesthetic echoing the dirty, bleached out look that defined films such as Taxi Driver, The Outfit and Thief. Absent also is the traditional face of the crime boss who oversees the hierarchical power structure. Such a choice means that the action stays firmly rooted in the urban milieu of peripheral low life characters typically marginalised in crime or gangster films. 

The film isn’t wholly devoid of action, with a stand out assassination sequence involving hypnotic slow motion, shattered glass, shell casings travelling through rain and the sounds of Kelly Lester’s ‘Love Letters’. Perhaps the defining moments of the entire film is the final scene between Jackie and the ‘middleman’ (Richard Jenkins). Staged in a bar and brilliantly juxtaposed to a television set broadcasting the acceptance speech of the newly elected President Obama, Jackie’s cynical diatribe on the state of America as defunct, individualistic and pathologically obsessed with money may seem somewhat polemical and unexpected for a crime film but its power comes from watching A list film star Brad Pitt deliver such words, and all with an eloquence and clarity. With Assassination of Jesse James and last year’s Tree of Life, Brad Pitt certainly doesn’t need to convince the sceptics of his growing capacity as a fantastic actor and Killing Them Softly offers yet another brilliantly charismatic performance, if not, his best to date. As Jackie Cogan, Pitt is scary, charming and deeply pessimistic, modelling his washed out grungy appearance on a decrepit Elvis. 

This is an angry and prescient piece of cinema that could in time be considered a masterful addition to the American crime oeuvre. One of the films of the year for sure.

SHAITAN (Dir. Bejoy Nambiar, 2011, India)

Shaitan is a mischievous film with a mischievous title. The anarchic content certainly lives up to such claims of youthful mischief but it is a mischief that turns into a tale of contemporary middle class guilt, corruption and murder. The film starts confidently enough with sequences of real visual energy and creativity. By initially taking a deconstructive approach to narrative and genre, the film appears resoundingly iconoclastic and very contemporary in its design. However, Shaitan is a film that self-destructs as the narrative of a fake kidnapping unfolds, gradually descending into a pantomime of relatively familiar cinematic tropes. I completely lost interest in the final third and could not care less of the outcome for the characters. However, unlike Peepli Live which is marred by a dependency on the spoken word, what really makes Shaitan stand out amongst the recent crowd of Indian multiplex films is director Bejoy Nambiar’s attempts to innovate conventional visual language through a prism of distinctive flourishes with the camera. Shaitan is arguably yet another multiplex multi protagonist film and although the film’s stylised visuals may point to something new, a closer look reveals some recognisable features including the jaded cop archetype. The film’s wayward narrative trajectory is more than compensated by the hedonistic camera and hyper kinetic editing style that jumps schizophrenically through the urban spaces. If one were to compare Shaitan to the current crop of Hindi films then based on one sequence alone it would surely be at the top of the list, and this is why:

O ho ho ho, Khoya Khoya Chaand, Khula Aasmaan
Aankhon Mein Saari Raat Jaayegi
Tumko Bhi Kaise Neend Aayegi

 
Khoya Khoya Chaand – Lyrics by Shailendra, Music by S D Burman
Originally used in the film Kala Bazar (1960)

PITFALL / OTOSHIANA (Dir. Hiroshi Teshigahara, 1962, Japan)

how to make gifs

Only the 1960s could have produced a film as radical, avant-garde and iconoclastic as Pitfall. Hiroshi Teshigahara made Pitfall against a backdrop of political upheaval in Japan during the 1960s. Many of the directors who formed part of the Japanese new wave were politically active during this time, showing their collective opposition against the signing of the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan (1960). The treaty effectively sanctioned the expansion of US troops in Japan whilst extending America’s hegemonic economic reach. Both Teshigahara and writer Kobo Abe were part of the student protests that took place in Tokyo at the time. Such political dissent was inevitably reflected in the cinema of the Japanese new wave and whilst Pitfall was not as ideologically rigorous or transparent as the films of say Nagisa Oshima, the four picture collaboration between Teshigahara and Kobo Abe produced some of the most uniquely idiosyncratic imagery of the 60s. Pitfall also saw the first of numerous collaborations with music composer Toru Takemitsu. Described by Teshigahara as a ‘documentary fantasy’, Pitfall follows a coal miner and his son who is searching for work. When he is pointed into the direction of an old mining town, the miner (Hisashi Igawa) arrives with the promise of work but they discover the town is deserted except for a shopkeeper. Unexpectedly, the miner is killed by a mysterious stranger in a white suit who has been waiting for him. The miner’s son (Kazuo Miyahara) watches on helplessly as his father is stabbed to death. Before leaving, the killer pays the shopkeeper for her silence. What Teshigahara does next is both audacious and gusty – he revives his central character, yes the dead miner lying face down in a muddy river bed, as a ghost. The ghost of the miner who is in denial about having been brutally murdered wanders the mining town only to discover the people around him are also ghosts. In one hilarious moment, he is told by another ghost that if he died on an empty stomach then he will remain hungry for the rest of his life. The miner’s transformation into a ghost is a magnificently atmospheric idea executed with a wonderful feel for the desolate coal mining locations.

A murder investigation is opened by the police and a chain of events leads to a strange discovery – that the dead miner has a double Otsuka working in a nearby coal mine and who more importantly is involved in the coal mining trade union. In an attempt to cover up his tracks, the killer murders the shopkeeper. It becomes apparent that the original intention was to kill Otsuka and that an ideological conflict between the old and new coal pits offers an invaluable insight into Japanese labour relations. However, Teshigahara seems much more fascinated by his characters behaviour than scrutinising any kind of ideological theories in depth. In terms of political symbolism, the killer in his white suit, gloves and shoes could be interpreted as meditation on corporate power or is he somewhat more metaphysical – a figure of death? It’s exciting when you come across a work as original and challenging as Pitfall. Like a lot of the films made by the Japanese new wave from the 60s, Pitfall is a film way ahead of its time in terms of both form and content. It’s a film bursting full of ideas and energy – it’s also darkly funny. On a final note, some of the reviews I have come across have referred to Pitfall as a flawed film but I am getting kind of despondent about this way of labelling films – is it not simply the case that most of the great films are flawed in some way or another – that’s what makes them so fascinating to watch!

SINGHAM (Dir. Rohit Shetty, India, 2011) – Return of The ‘Hard Body’

Picking up from where Dabangg left off, Singham is a police action thriller directed in tribute form by an unashamed fan (Rohit Shetty) of the angry young man films of the 70s. With a plot involving a dishonoured police inspector and the village boy as mythological hero, Singham is very much a throwback film bathed in nostalgic yearnings for traditional genre cinema. I’m not so sure if this plea for re initiating a lot of the action films made in the 70s and especially in the 80s is such a worthy one given their diabolical narratives and questionable technical proficiency. Like Dabangg, Singham reasserts the rural Indian village as a microcosm of Utopian ideals in which community, honour and justice are organised around the police and local criminals. The crusading cop with a vendetta is now one of the most tired conventions in all of cinema. However, such a melodramatic convention carries with it a narrative momentum and set of conflicting ideologies (the cop who must transcend the law to reinstate order) that still appeals to film makers and audiences alike. Like Dabangg, Singham is clearly a star vehicle for Ajay Devgan who first appears on screen emerging from the holy waters of the river Ganges with a Goliath like physique – his larger than life entrance marks him out as a mythological figure; an immortal amongst mortals and whilst Singham may be a police inspector, he is also a superhero. Ghajini, Dabangg and Singham prove that the hard body is an iconographic element and established convention intrinsic to the DNA make up of the contemporary Indian action film. I’m not sure but I think it might have been academic Yvonne Tasker who coined the term ‘hard body’ in reference to the action heroes played by Stallone and Schwarzenegger in a testosterone fuelled 1980s Reaganite America. Compared to Hollywood, the hard body concept seems quite new to Indian films.

Traditionally male leads like Amitabh and Dharmendra were expected to perform demanding stunts and also maintain some kind of physique but the Indian film star and leading male hero tended to remain a little out of shape so to speak. One could argue that much of this has changed considerably now. The emphasis on maintaining a clean, crisp and buffed physical appearance has now become an audience expectation. All of the major male leads working in the Mumbai film industry today have taken up the ethos that the inner must be in equilibrium with the outer – for many male leads such an ethos has become the norm. So now it might be appropriate to say that we are clearly in the era of the hard body cinema but with one major difference when compared to Hollywood – the absence of blood. The violence in Singham and Dabangg is a comic book pastiche, using a slow mo aesthetic that magnifies the violence as a post modern spectacle. Dabangg may have had Salman Khan as the star attraction but Singham wins out largely because of the scene stealing presence of Prakash Raj in a fantastic turn as the villainous Jaikant Shikre. Actor Prakash Raj who is closely associated with the Tamil film industry has acres of fun with his role. Of course, I am forgetting to mention a major point in my appraisal of the film; Singham is a remake of a successful Tamil action film of the same name. So, perhaps it’s not so surprising why it works so well as a mainstream summer film.

SHOR IN THE CITY / NOISE IN THE CITY – (Dir. Raj Nidimoru & Krishna D K, 2010, India)

The multi protagonist narrative film has emerged as a favourite amongst the multiplex crowd in India and with Shor in the City we find a continuation of the familiar cocktail of crime, gangsters and expletives witnessed before in contemporary films such as Sankat City, Johnny Gaddaar and Kaminey. (See The Guardian Newspapers article on the Multiplex Indian film published last week) Collectively these films constitute a new genre of Indian cinema that one could argue extends from the Mumbai Noir lexicon. However, Mumbai Noir has mutated somewhat aesthetically (not thematically though) into the stylised multi protagonist urban crime film that adopts a portmanteau narrative structure involving chapters, colourful characters, kinetic editing, visceral camera style and a self reflexive edginess. With the rise of the Multiplex film and niche cinema the Bombay film industry has seen a flowering of new production companies who are supposedly willing to take a risk on more edgier, daring and controversial subject matter. In this instance Balaji Motion Pictures (run by Ekta Kapoor and Shobha Kapoor) backed Shor in the City and has already proven itself commercially as a multiplex player with recent films such as Once Upon a Time in Mumbai and Love, Sex Aur Dhokha. I’m not sure to what extent this claim holds any validity when one looks closely at films such as Shor in the City. Essentially the appeal of these films is constructed around a level of dark humour that is filtered through a discourse of intertexuality. Such a postmodern approach not only underlines the technical sophistication of directors who have been trained abroad (mainly in American film schools) but confirms a similar and growing cine literate appreciation in the middle class urban youth audience. Of course we have been here before in the 1970s and early 80s when Shyam Benegal referred to his films as part of a new middle cinema and it is easy to position Shor in the City and respective films in such a category that negotiates between the commercial and art cinemas of India in such a way that offers an attractive artistic compromise for film makers, producers and audiences.

Shor in the City revolves around five stories in the city of Mumbai. They are urban stories that attempt to meditate on familiar aspects of the city including power, poverty, class and conflict. Structurally directors Raj Nidimoru and Krishna D K are largely successful at weaving together the different narrative strands into a satisfying, if not far fetched, conclusion. The title card at the end claims every one of the events in the film was based on newspaper stories and this certainly holds true when one considers that micro details are emphasised as a way of validating an authentic reality. Admittedly songs do creep into the film but they are not signposted in anyway whilst melodramatic histrionics are equally restrained by the sympathetic characterisation. A fundamental point of thematic unity for many urban based multi protagonist films is the visibility of the city of Mumbai. Shor in the City gives us characters rarely seen indoors but instead shows us people constantly on the move and carried along by the flow of daily life. It is a perpetual flow of bodies, vehicles and buildings that overwhelm our powerless and fragmented protagonists in search of an anchor on to which they can fix their dreams, fears and hopes. Whilst the Ganpati celebrations seem to bring Mumbai together as a secular and collective community, the disparate lives of our struggling protagonists caught up in the euphoric religious celebrations points to the way in which most urban cities are home to an invisible underclass trying desperately to prove their worth. Like Abhay in the film who has returned from America to set up a small business in Mumbai, the city swallows him up until he gradually becomes another part of the unidentifiable mass of humanity. Shor in the City was critically lauded on its release and certainly serves to illustrate the creative vitality of the middle cinema multiplex film. What is somewhat dispiriting is the unwillingness of UK distributors to back these films as many recent independent multiplex films have simply been rejected. It doesn’t make commercial sense as they would find an audience in the UK especially amongst the youthful Diaspora.