MAMI Day 3

I did not awake at 6:30am on Day 3 of MAMI expecting to be back home halfway through the day, mulling over my PhD thesis to see if there’s anything left to save in it.

But here we are.

*

Perhaps the most straightforward manner in which to convey exactly how delightful theatre director-turned-filmmaker Anamika Haksar’s Ghode Ko Jalebi Khilane Le Ja Riya Hoon (Taking the Horse to Eat Jalebis, a very literal translation and one that isn’t half as biting as the Hindi title) is to reveal that the title is an actual line from the last few minutes of the film that does in fact refer to a man walking his horse down Dariba Kalan, Old Delhi, for jalebis. You may laugh, but I have never taken a horse walking toward its dreams more seriously in my life.

Ghode is a film about walking in Old Delhi. By which I mean, the film is explicitly interested in walking as a social practice. I wish with all my heart the film had existed during my PhD years. Haksar spent 7 years documenting the streets of Old Delhi, so I like to think that we perhaps walked past each other at some point, video cameras in hand. I don’t know if I would’ve been equipped to write about the film then—I don’t know that I am now—but it would have made the landscape of the thesis a lot less lonely. Ghode is a film with a lot of heart about people who walk for their living in a city that wears its dreams more openly than any other I’ve known. Breathtaking, bold: both the city and the film inhabiting it.

Four men—a pickpocket, a snacks vendor, a labourer/communist activist and a conductor of heritage walks—comprise the end points of the character fabric of the film. The real locii, however, are the 350+ residents of Old Delhi’s streets, whom Haksar films with humour and camaraderie: actors from “night shelters, peeli kothi slums, sadar bazar workers, Jamghat” and other institutions, according to a film programme that we were helpfully handed before the screening. Patru, the pickpocket, realises after watching the middle-class obsession with nostalgia for an imaginary Chandni Chowk—one that is, for instance, built entirely out of the ‘river of moonlight’ anecdote, a lust for local architectural and culinary hearsay that lies on a continuum straight from Early Modern India, and weekend bite-sized dips into Urdu—that the business of heritage walks in the Old City is a ridiculous but easy way to make money. He and his friends start walks that involve what could be seen as the ‘underbelly’ of the city when juxtaposed with the sunlit heritage walks invoking Mughal ghosts, but are in fact the stories of their community and their daily lives: where they eat, laugh, work, sleep. And—by the end of the film—where they dream, because when the men find themselves in trouble for sharing too much of their world, they decide to conduct a “dream walk”, entering the collective dreamscape of the people whose stories are otherwise kept to themselves. “If I conduct walks in their dreams,” says Patru, “No one can come after me.”

In Ghode, the city glitters through the vortex of a collective consciousness; here, at last, people can dream openly again. Dreams that are frightful, ugly; dreams that bring people to their knees for good; dreams about warm feet and tailored cloth and the will to hide the smack; dreams of an arm around your waist at night and a way to lead your beloved back from death; dreams that medicate. People dream on their feet, as they walk from gali to gali, working, while the middle-class heritage walking crowd barely ever touches earth, always struck dumb on rooftops or on animated carpets zooming around the Old City, aerial views in sight.

Haksar whisks painting, animation and special effects together to convey what the most imaginative cameras can’t do on their own: line-drawings of snakes and oranges populate a child’s narration of its dream. Squiggly forests attack a woman, who cuts her way through them. Men doze on their hand-drawn carts, which float in an illustrated blue river. The sodium gold of the nightlamps on Chandni Chowk squeeze music from the shadows. Men talk in their sleep. Others sing. Fireworks fall like rain as musicians in an abandoned haveli assemble their instruments in soft focus. On the rooftops of Khari Baoli, colourful animated kites wink as the sun sinks. Hearts quicken when feet are at rest.

The truth about great cities is that it’s very hard to get their stories straight. The architecture of Old Delhi lies for the camera, which complies with close-ups that look like no earthly landscape. The lie of authenticity is more interesting than any fact that could ever match anecdote to architecture. Haksar recognises this, and so, keeps the camera on the move. It is never still long enough to document, but it testifies throughout. The old ghosts of the city are wily; they do not share their secrets easily, and what you see or hear once you will almost certainly never access again. Not places and names and types of trees, but the shade of the sky over the Jama Masjid shortly after dusk, or the shortcut that once connected three havelis, led by a grey cat whom you never see again. You can call it magic, or history. Calvino’s Invisible Cities is, if you must know, really about Delhi. This is also the worst kept secret in the world.

In Haksar’s Dilli, not everything is possible, or knowable—barely anything is. Streets remain unnamed and fates lie undetermined. People thread grains through needles to save food and summarise their tragedies as ‘subaltern histories’ briskly for tourists. But the potency of the desire for a better life that’s just around the corner from another day overrides the failure of all that is past. If a horse can have its jalebi in Dilli-6, so can you. The city survived 9 times over, it must wait a lifetime longer, even if Haksar’s oracle of the city is more uncompromising in its prophecy. “Can you rinse away this city that lasts/ like blood on the bitten tongue?” asks Shahid (‘Chandni Chowk, Delhi’). I am dreaming, again, of Delhi. I am dreaming of a walk.

A still from the trailer for  Ghode Ko Jalebi Khilane Le Ja Riya Hoon

A still from the trailer for Ghode Ko Jalebi Khilane Le Ja Riya Hoon

*

I went straight from Haksar’s gorgeous urban ode to a film I was happy to think of as a palette-cleanser that I remain grateful for, halfway into the film festival. Jean-Luc Godard is not a director I will write about at length here; for one thing, there’s enough academics employed to devote their whole lives to him, and for another, I’m not sure I have very much to say that hasn’t already been said, certainly about his earlier work. I approach Godard affectively because that is all I can bring with me to his work; the rest being the academic score that plucks my reading into context, I suppose. Godard was a touchstone in my undergraduate introduction to academic research and now it’s hard for me to think of him as someone whose films I watch purely for the love of them. This binary, you must know, is the real failure of auterism.

But I enjoyed The Image Book as one would enjoy an image book; my eyes flickered as the images—disjointed, spliced, chaotic, volatile, copies, original footage, archival selections, negatives—sprinted past me, layered with sounds—dialogue, music, silence. I felt myself zoning out of the cinema hall and into the space of a video clip on repeat in an exhibition at a gallery, except the clip is 85 minutes long and you don’t quite know if you will recognise an ending when it arrives. So you give into the images, to the ‘calm inside a representation’, as I’m certain a line from the film goes at some point.

Maybe I dreamed it.

A lot of what I recall about The Image Book is its sensuality. Aspect ratios changed continuously, the images glitched, and the voiceovers sounded like they were being played on the surface of the images. And yet, the experience of watching the film felt so smooth, like downing a cold, hard drink and feeling your throat burn only pleasantly. People walked out as the film wore on; this was distracting but also made me smile, as the disgust of incomprehension can betray a real anxiety in us about what we desire from a film when we say we want to ‘understand’ it. I was surprised to find that I wasn’t anxious about this. This realisation did not make me feel like a better person, which did not surprise me. Neither staying nor leaving is a moral decision—or it shouldn’t be; life is short—but I did find it interesting to think about why this film did not merit patience so publicly. I remember giving up on Gaspar Noé’s Love after 5 minutes. I have no regrets.

Blake Williams—whose honest and thoughtful review I enjoyed so much—writes very astutely:

“These are films that ignite every interpretative impulse in our brains without satisfying our desires to be passive, unproductive viewers; they do not give clarity or any obvious avenues through the deluge of information, even if they make us feel as though, were we smarter, more knowledgable, bilingual cinephiles, we would be able to do just that.”

As for why I stayed—since that increasingly and annoyingly seemed to be the question, given the way the film transformed into a silent endurance test of sorts for the room—I think I was tired, and easily pleased. But I was also interested. I remain curious about the film, and as I write this, the images flood over me. Hands, a variety of hands. There’s something—so much!—about hands. I was glad. An image breakdown would make for an excellent list of poetry prompts. Did I also see a reference to Chandra Mohanty?

Occasionally, I made a list of the sections, or sub-sections, or whatever I read as sections in the film:

  1. Remakes/RIM(AK)ES (note: I enjoyed the pun. I enjoyed enjoying the pun.)

  2. Petersberg Evenings (?)

  3. Those Flowers Between Rails, A Confused Wind of Travels

    [Under Western Eyes]

  4. Spirit of Laws

    [Les Signes Entre Nous]

    [Thirst for words, then the image]

  5. La Région Centrale

    [Archaeology and Pirates]

A woman sits across a baby antelope and caresses its nose. And then its face.

When the film ends, I walk into the blinding white afternoon. This is the last image I remember.

MAMI Day 2

An odd aspect of film festivals is that no matter how many films you watch in a day, and how entirely memorable they might each be, it’s always the last film that determines the note on which you end the day. Perhaps not unlike courses in a meal, where feeble desserts reverberate endlessly long after the plates have been cleared.

There is nothing feeble about Claire Denis’s latest, High Life, which, as you’re probably tired of hearing by now, is also set in space like so many other recent film offerings, but is unlike any of them in every other respect. This is to be expected because it’s Claire Denis, and we don’t have anyone else with her capacity to execute an image until its capacities have been exhausted, and it is turned inside-out with its face out in the world to see until you can’t see anything else. Take the closing scenes of Vendredi Soir and Beau Travail, or the dance sequence in 35 Shots of Rum, or Lola Créton walking in those heels in Bastards, or even the continual shots of Juliette Binoche’s face in Let the Sunshine In. Denis has always worked closely with the frays of loneliness in daily life, loneliness as a form of violence, and in that vein, High Life is about as far as she has gone, quite literally. It doesn’t get lonelier than outer space.

The film angered me when I first watched it this evening. I was simultaneously horrified and incredibly moved. Ostensibly, High Life is about Monte, a former prison-inmate-turned-space-experiment-guinea-pig, and his baby—eventually, teenage daughter—who are the only two survivors on a radioactive space ship in a distant solar system. Really, though, it’s about the perversities of the human body: bodies lactate, bleed, miscarry, tear, shit, spurt and give way, even in space. On a space ship where everyone is slowly losing their minds, both men and women are raped, inseminated and handled in equal parts with delicacy and hysteria. “Even here, black ones are the first to go,” says a black inmate on the ship. A mother lactates all over her naked body, crying, saying, “They got me, they got me”, over and over again.* (*-paraphrased)

I think I’m still angry. There’s an unexplained machismo to the sexual atrocities that feels like teeth being pulled off a bared jaw. Humans on this ship flatline from the moment they try to be anything other than human: they attack and rape each other, and then they all fall to their death, one after another like a stack of dominos. A scene involving Juliette Binoche and a “fuck box” is expertly filmed—never has a woman’s back been infused with more power—but Binoche’s Dr. Dibs is mostly a creepy doctor-turned-high-priestess who likes to harvest men’s semen for reasons that are inadequately explained by her quest for the “perfect being”.

After a while, it was wearying to watch them all go for each other the second they thought the others weren’t watching. I pulled myself back out of the film more often than not, because I couldn’t care about any of them. Giving up on the characters because you wish they’d all die sooner rather than later because isn’t it inevitable in another fucking solar system—that’s what nihilism feels like.

And yet, Denis does not make nihilist films. There’s much to appreciate in High Life about the clarity with which Denis addresses the complete loneliness of existing in a human body that knows its time is near. It was remarkable to watch, for instance, the violence of birth revealed so blankly. I was mesmerised by the dark emerald of the garden, where life seemed to return momentarily as the inmates worked their hands hard. The way the empty rooms glowed in red light, giving off the impression of a secret inner life that exists only when you aren’t looking, like a club lit up in UV light and shadows.

Most exquisite of all were Monte’s scenes with his child, and I cared about them to the point that I didn’t need or want the intense flashbacks that explained the history of the ship; these tender scenes with his daughter were almost (almost) an antidote to the spectacle of hyperviolent masculinity that characterises the rest of the film. He sews a broken arm off her red soft toy, he makes her laugh, he comforts her and he teaches her to walk, and he fears for her safety. When she gets her period for the first time, she is interested in the blood, but refreshingly not repulsed, as she has been socialised entirely around a single other human being—a man who is not repulsed either. A haunting scene involves father and daughter discovering their movement over another spaceship, hardly believing their luck at possibly finding human contact, only to discover howling dogs at the other end. “It would be cruel to abandon the dog,” says his daughter. “What do you know of cruelty?” asks Monte wearily.

These moments string up the film like fairy lights, because what Denis does best is help us remember that on the other side of an abandoned life is a parallel life that views human intimacy as desperately sacred. Denis gives us this, unfortunately with more restraint than ever before. I don’t know if I can bring myself to watch High Life again—the thought of it makes me sick, if I’m honest—but I know I will be thinking about it for a long while.

*

Rafiki, in heavy contrast to the Denis, is light, feather-shawl-falling-off-your-shoulders light, and so imaginatively edited as to let this lightness hover till the last frame. The film observes two young women falling in love in Nairobi as their fathers battle for the same seat in the local elections. Wanuri Kahiu’s world is made of teasing neon colours, a compelling all-female Kenyan soundtrack, lively feet and livelier glances. Women watch each other: at roadside shops, in courtyards, and in abandoned cars. I felt an instant, intense affection barreling towards Kena and Ziki, the two young women, from their very first encounters on screen. Their love is fierce, black, adoring; a dark rose perfume fading in a hot nightclub, bright fuschia flashes around a football game, kisses on upturned wrists, hair braiding in public. Their love is gracefully worn, in a land where it is granted no grace.

I can’t remember the last time I watched a romantic couple on screen enjoy their love so much. Ziki and Kena couldn’t be more different from each other; extrovert Ziki is doe-eyed, sharply dressed, distracted and moves like a dancer even when there’s nobody to dance for, while Kena skulks, shyly watching Ziki from afar, riding motorbikes with the boys when she isn’t playing a very good midfield. Ziki is openly demonstrative of her affection, whereas Kena wants only to touch her away from all prying eyes.

But Kahiu asks us to watch the two women through each other’s eyes. When wide-eyed Kena watches Ziki dance for her, we watch with her. And when Ziki tells Kena that she’s going to be a doctor, not a nurse, because that’s how good her grades are, nothing feels easier or more possible in the world. Their love feels effortless, until it doesn’t, but the film remains so throughout.

Amongst the many, many memorable scenes in the film, one in particular has washed over me all day. Ziki and Kena are on a date-ish excursion, which quickly turns into an all-night affair. They enter a club, laughing, cheeks flushed, and are suddenly cast in UV light. In the neon darkness, their world blooms instantly, and their love is suddenly visible. Kena and Ziki look at each other for a long while.

This time, I could not pull myself away. Later on the train home, I thought of Fred Moten in his poem “elizabeth cotten/nahum chandler”:

‘this is the music of my own head and you can hear it in the way I sound when I come away from that for you, twisted away in being folded up when I move away from that to turn my lines out for the other line inside. but let me stop beginning to let you come to this openness I hope for. hopefully it’s forming itself from behind against just about every other folding you could think of just for you.’

An ultraviolet love. The least lonely of them all.

A Likeness of Wings

This year, I did not publish very much. In fact, I’m pretty sure I only wrote the one essay. The essay on the epistemology of hands, which has found a very good home at Adult, has been stewing in me ever since I did a university project on Alfred Steiglitz’s photography some five years ago. I did not realise quite how much I needed to get it written. I am surprised it got written. I still feel a faint jolt of shock–the ever reliable jolt–when I see it floating about on the web, perhaps being read, perhaps not. My disconnect with the published word, pushed out into the world, hardening into fact, is always deep.

There is still more to be said on hands. There is, one hopes, more time.

 ~

My reading and writing habits changed heavily over the past year. I’m not sure when and how, of course; as is the case with these things, you only notice at the moment of reckoning. I am not complaining. All I know is that outside of work purposes, I appear to have read more of what I want to read, which may overlap occasionally with but is still different from what I think I need to, or should read in the moment. I stopped trying to keep up with new books, although I read them unapologetically when I thought I needed to (and could afford to, we could do with acknowledging this more). I read a lot of British women: Penelope Fitzgerald, Barbara Pym, Nicola Barker, Kamila Shamsie, Sarah Kane, Agatha Christie. I enjoyed: Jenny Zhang, Zora Neale Hurston, Edith Wharton, Anne Carson, Alice Munro and Toni Morrison. Some of these are staples; it would be fair to say I did more re-reading than fresh reading.

I did not read many men. It is worth mentioning that I returned to James Baldwin and, to my utter chagrin, James Salter. They both write beautifully, but they are also very, very different writers, and sometimes I am disconcerted at how I could possibly like them both–or rather, how I could possibly justify liking the latter in the face of the former; although they are not directly opposed, Salter is so white. You couldn’t mistake it. I read a lot of Walter Benjamin for work, or rather, I ensured I could read him into work, and I am so glad I made that happen–I have grown into Benjamin, particularly his essays in One-Way Street and Illuminations, and the pleasure has skidded across days, even months. I binge-watched Jessica Jones like everyone else, and am still not over it, and do not want to be–but that is a separate essay, I think.

Writing from this year that I enjoyed to the fullest and even re-read, in parts: Jenny Offill, Durga-Chew Bose, Claudia Rankine, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Alexandra Kleeman and Elena Ferrante.  I mention them because of all the reading I did, their work springs to mind, which is a sort of sly test in itself, I suppose; those whose words, against all odds, press on the walls of your mind. I leave here extracts of works from two of these writers. From Elena Ferrante’s The Story of a New Name, the second of the Neapolitan Quartet:

My friend tugged her husband’s arm with both hands. She used all her strength, and I who knew her thoroughly felt that if she could she would have wrenched it from his body, crossed the room holding it high above her head, blood dripping in her train, and she would have used it as a club or a donkey’s jawbone to crush Marcello’s face with a solid blow. Ah yes, she would have done it, and at the idea my heart pounded furiously, my throat became dry. Then she would have dug out the eyes of both men, she would have torn the flesh from the bones of their faces, she would have bitten them. Yes, yes, I felt that I wanted that, I wanted it to happen. An end of love and of that intolerable celebration, no embraces in a bed in Amalfi. Immediately shatter everything and every person in the neighbourhood, tear them to pieces, Lila and I, go and live far away, lightheartedly descending together all the steps of humiliation, alone, in unknown cities. It seemed to me the just conclusion to that day. If nothing could save us, not money, not a male body, and not even studying, we might as well destroy everything immediately.

I have written about the quartet before, and will not say much more, only that I barely read fiction to affirm what I already know, or suspect, or at least I try not to, but the Neapolitan novels–because of world views crystallised to a sharp edge like this, both in style and thought–have affirmed in abundance a way of being with myself and feminist politics that I did not think I would be so grateful for. Life has been easier after reading Ferrante, even as circumstances themselves have become trickier, but the aftermath of the quartet is not so much a warm glow of undiminished selfhood as much as a dented armour of willingness to recognise and hold fort in one’s own way against the rabid unthinkingness of kyriarchy. There is also a tangible need to do more. This is a bonus of fiction, I tell you: one does not read to seek this, but now I think, why not?

Not coincidentally, then, I hugely admired Chew-Bose’s essay on Gus van Sant’s 1995 film To Die For. Two extracts I can’t stop thinking about:

At To Die For’s Cannes photocall, where the film was screening out of competition and ahead of its fall release, one picture in particular of Van Sant and Kidman comes to mind. I’ve always loved how directors appear unlikely-paired when standing next to their leads. How mutual respect between two people can, on occasion, look terribly awkward. Pasted together like a collage. While it’s usually a matter of height, clothes, gloss, grooming, there is, too, that quality movie stars possess: their very own aspect ratio. Luster sourced from some place secret. An exclusive deal with the elements.

and:

In Joyce Maynard’s novel, Suzanne’s childhood dance teacher makes a point of noting that Suzanne had no rhythm growing up, characterizing her as a technician more so than a dancer: “Every step executed just right.” Harmless enough. However, when it comes to women who outrival, “execution” and “equipment” are terms that frequently crop up in an attempt to undermine. Precision is, in turn, code for not being a natural, yet that hard work is celebrated so long as it’s served seamlessly. More so, calling a young woman a perfectionist is sometimes backhanded praise, and accomplishments are provisional and contingent on one recurring phrase, popular in childhood and used, for example, by Suzanne’s mother: If she sets her mind to it.The idea being that if she focuses really hard and becomes, essentially, a human funnel of energy, wit, and emphasis, nothing is impossible.

The first extract I cite here because the glamour of her writing rivals in its attention and glitter, for me, the photograph she’s talking about. The second: again, that glimpse of women serving up a palatable form of labour, revealingly feminised in its utter defeminisation. It’s a quiet nod to the pitfalls of Lean-In feminism, which sits well with WASP-ish patriarchy’s code of ethics.

I want to round this year up with a passage from Marilynne Robinson’s Lila, which I am re-reading to undo knots that have emerged in my reading of her work. I am not sure why. This is a passage I can’t stop thinking about:

There were graves in Gilead with his name written out on them, and there was no one anywhere alive or dead with her name, since the first one belonged to the sister she never saw of a woman she barely remembered and the second one was just a mistake. Her name had the likeness of a name. She had the likeness of a woman, with hands but no face at all, since she never let herself see it. She had the likeness of a life, because she was all alone in it. She lived in the likeness of a house, with walls and a roof and a door that kept nothing in and nothing out. And when Doll took her up and swept her away, she had felt a likeness of wings.

A likeness of wings: I felt it in flashes, all year, sometimes because of reading or writing, sometimes because of people and places, in place, sometimes because the sea stretched out for miles and I could scarcely believe, in anything, and sometimes because the light in the room would be just right and the lifting was proof of life, of joy, in a way little else could be. Happy 2016.