{Of all lies, art is the least untrue - Flaubert}

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Code Unknown: Incomplete Tales of Several Journeys

In a perfect introduction to the film, children play a mime game where a girl acts out gestures but her classmates are not able to decipher it properly. There is an unknown code to communication, as there is an unknown code to identity, past, history, races and societies, the code to interdependence and code to fear and conflict. All these codes are not only unknown but also elusive, the more we try to figure them out, the more we know about their complexity. Haneke captures this idea in this brilliant and essential film.

Code Unknown is a series of fragments from the lives of its main characters. But unlike movies where these characters meet at the end, different stories join themselves in one crucial plot point; Code Unknown establishes that connection in the very first fragment. It might be because the film is not telling us about coincidences and the lives of different people crossing each other but other more important points. The first shot where we meet four different characters is quite brilliant in that way, it's very unsensational, it's very everyday and that's where Haneke makes the point that these interactions are so common to be ignored and the societies have become so complex in terms of identities and connections that any full communication will not only be insufficient but misleading to understand it and like any half truth, it will do more harm than good. That is why Haneke shows just fragment of interactions and communication, like the way we deal them in our lives, without knowing what happening to the person in between the interactions and what is the history behind any gesture and any act.

Anne (Juliette Binoche), who is an actress, lives in Paris with her war-photographer boyfriend Georges (Thierry Neuvic), who is in Kosovo. Georges teenage brother, Jean (Alexandre Hamidi) who lives with her father in countryside works in a barn but Jean wants to get out of it. In the first establishing shot, Jean, who has run away from his father's house meets Anne on a Paris street asks for the new entry code to her apartment, while walking he throws a crumpled bag in the lap of Maria(Luminita Gheorghiu), a Romanian illegal immigrant who is begging on the street. Amadou (Ona Lu Yenke), a teacher of deaf children, pulls an argument with Jean for his behavior and in a turn of unfair events police arrests Amadou and Maria. This first shot builds the connection of the incomplete fragments (as the name suggests, Code Unknown: Incomplete Tales of Several Journeys) that we are about to see.

To talk about those disconnected yet surprisingly narrative sequences are beyond my scope, but we can talk about some of them and more importantly why such fragments are necessary to build a big canvass of interdependent realities and their simultaneous outcomes. All the fragment end with no sense of closure, its like actors still acting and camera still rolling, there is a few second black out between the sequences, which might be thought as the elapse of some time or a detachment technique, to show that its all staged (in fact one of the fragment gives us just a fourth wall view of a stage performance, a woman laughing hysterically), or a thematic tool to show that all these communications are incomplete, unless we look them all in one picture. It too puts onus on its viewer to weave the fragments as they like, and we know that when it comes to trusting the viewers, Haneke is very bighearted. His movies are direct opposite to Hollywood spoon-feeds and audience-pleasers. In some of the episodes/fragments, we see Anne on her acting assignments, which are Haneke's tool to show how thrill can be easily faked, and how popular culture defines our emotional conscience.

There are several sequences which are particularly intense and economic in the way they say things to the viewers, one is where Anne hears the cry of a child and worries about the child but not able to do anything and that particularly sad scene where Maria feels ashamed of herself. There is an extraordinary long shot in train where an Arab kid insults Anne, where Juliette Binoche gives a powerful performance.

Amidst of the chaos and gloom, Haneke puts the fragments of children from all races playing some African beat on drums, a surprisingly hopeful montage of cultures coming together, co-existence and compassion. In the penultimate sequence we see Amadou and his white girlfriend playing drums with the children and that sound spills over to the last dialogue-less sequence. The last scene of the film again shows a child making gestures (more difficult to guess than those shown in the beginning of the film) probably to say to the viewer, see, now that you have seen these fragments, incomplete as they are, can there be any easy answers, can identities be labeled that easily, can a society be graded, classified and categorized that plainly, how a single experience can not justify an act of the society, how much we are interconnected, and how much we deny that fact. In all its chilly long shots, meandering through several incomplete interconnected stories, Code Unknown, at times seems to touch that evasive slice of truth, a code to existence and co-existence.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Grizzly Man

It is the third film by director Werner Herzog, that I saw. The earlier two (Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo) and this one, make me believe that the favorite theme of this director remains an enigmatic mix of wilderness, civilization, passion, obsession, life and death. To tell it more clearly - on the risk of being too definitive - his films remains a document of clash of wild and civilization (here both are equally brutal and murderous), the descent of passion into obsession, and the game of life and death (game of survival). And when we look more closely and read more about the director, these are his ways to understand people - and again to put it more definitively - to explore the darkness of human nature.

This film is a documentary about Timothy Treadwell, who lived with Grizzly Bears for 13 summers in Alaskan peninsula and on this last expedition (along with his girl friend Amie Huguenard), he was devoured by one of the bears. Its an irony of sorts at the first look. The man who came to save them was killed by them. But as the film progresses we came to know that its not that simpleton.

Most of the film is actually shot by Treadwell himself, who shot above 100 hrs of footage when he stayed with the wild bears. What Herzog did is to edit them, mix them with some interviews with Alaskan natives, geologists, officials and Treadwell's friends and provided an evocative narration. Herzog's voice is non-condescending either to the bears or to Treadwell, I found the narration superlative. Even when Herzog draws some conclusion and personal insights, we know that he is not giving a conclusion or general simplistic view. His commentary shows that he knows and respects the people and situation, he is dealing with.

Treadwell's courage and his obsessive desire to bond with the wild bears tells us as much about him as about the concepts of courage, bonding, communication and obsession. On Treadwell-ian scale, I am an extremely timid person. Also there is one more point that I am not sure of. Can courage accrue ? What are it limits ? One of my friends, who drives his bike at neck-break speeds says that he does not feel a bit scared doing that stunt. He says that this courage builds up. When asked whether he will try to test his limits, he replies, I don't drive alone, there are people on the road that can not cope up with my exploits. This is the whole point of being in a civilization, there are limits that you think you can cross but are not justifiable (the other way to look at it may be that he lacks courage). He goes to remote areas to drive like crazy, without knowing that it doesn't take two to kill, when you race a bike. Probably that why Treadwell resented civilization and spent so much time with the bears, and wanted to be like them. The point he probably missed is that wild is no better than civilization, in the end they are both same, and in the wild, although there are not written rules, nature rules. The delusional hope that he will bond to bears better than the human proved fatal for him. Treadwell knew bears were wild, film shows two male bears ferociously fight to court a female, and a baby bear is killed by his own father to stop the female to lactate so that the male can fornicate her. Treadwell accrued the courage to move nearer and nearer to the wild, but there was no such communication back from the wild, except in the mind of Treadwell. One point, from Treadwell perspective, is why he did that. The justification he gave for this is to protect the bears but reasons and justifications are seldom same. This documentary tries to explore some reason for the passion that turned to obsession, and gradually delves into his mind and psyche, which is both horrifying and compassionate.

At one point, Treadwell says "Everything about them is perfect". That sentence reminds me of people, who are quite amused by the nature and its beauty. This is not to deny the natural beauty but they loose the sight that beauty has its horrors, and we should respect both. Although not related to this post, I also don't understand what amusement people get when a natural place is turned into a luxury resorts. First they take a natural beauty, make it artificial and advertise and claim how near to nature it is. Do we all really have any desire to go near nature, but can not go near if its too natural, or its just another gimmick to make money and satisfy some residual unsatisfied desires. Its always fun to see how people call the others who come to such places as crowds. We belong to a funny species with some hollow sense of self-importance.

Coming back to the documentary, Herzog also brings two more very important characteristics of Treadwell and where as a filmmaker (and especially the one who has worked in wilderness and with the wild [I am referring to Kinski, no pun intended]), he could relate to him as a person shooting in the face of death and danger. Herzog discovers a filmmaker and an actor in Treadwell. There is a footage of Treadwell acting for himself with his camera on a tripod, where he acts in a film in which he plays some sort of forest ranger to protect bears from poachers. I think the absolute fantasy of an actor is to find someone who can write complex stories and he can act them. His fantasy is to charm everyone with his acting, and its sort of an obsession too. Treadwell made these tapes of himself with the wild bears and showed them to the world. For him, he was the person who wrote heroic parts for himself, the roles of a savior hero. All alone, away from civilization, he thought he was the hero. Also there is an intimacy in those films (especially where Treadwell goes to confessional mode). As a filmmaker, Treadwell compulsively shot in the wild and took some amazing footage of the wild nature, at times taking as much as 20 retakes for perfection. One of my favorite shots in films is where there is a background (think it as a lane where it is raining and no one is there, its evening), the actor comes, acts his/her part and goes away, leaving the empty background, camera stays there for a while. There are several such shots in films by Ozu. In one of the tapes, Treadwell do exactly the same. The background was thick forest with wild winds blowing, he comes to the frame, speaks his lines and leaves, and camera stays there looking at the trees and the wind that sways them, that Treadwell had left behind. I thought there is a certain beauty and a solid metaphor in that.

Although its a documentary and if there is a plot we know it beforehand (Treadwill will be killed by the bear), but like a narrative film, Herzog builds the character of Treadwill with small stokes and we go on adding bits to our cliched understanding of him as the film progresses. At one point of time where some persons reject Treadwell as a freak, Herzog speaks in the narration that he don't think so. But the whole effort was not to justify what Treadwell and all the people like him do and are doing, but its to understand them. To draw a distant analogy, we may think the Emma Bovary as selfish and petty woman but Flaubert tries to understand her in all her flaws and let his readers do that. Its not about whether the person is good or bad but its about to translate them to the audience and readers.

Read the Sensesofcinema profile of Werner Herzog here. Its added in the 41st issue.