Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Making Sense of Chris Marker’s La Jetée and Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival

To speak of the experience of La Jetée would be futile. For around fifty odd years, the flamboyant circles of cinephiles and critics have done just that. What leads me to speak of the infamous La Jetée is in part due to its semblance that I think I’ve witnessed to Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival.
Chris Marker’s La Jetée and Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival are the products of different eras of time, yet they highlight a transgression of the physical and temporal divide. The ideas both texts try to articulate using the language of cinema are entwined. What is remarkable about the former is that it has created an arena of expression that paves way for filmmakers like Villeneuve. In other words, Chris Marker’s La Jetée and Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival are products of different variables that bring to the foreground of cinema a common debate i.e. the filmmaker’s understanding and portrayal of time.

In the early decades of the 20th century, Soviet filmmaker Lev Kuleshov, experimented with a rather simplistic method of editing. He alternated a shot of a rather sombre faced man with that of a bowl of soup, a girl in a coffin etc. Each time the audience saw these alternating shots, they had come to varying conclusions. The face of the man followed by the bowl of soup led viewers to believe that the scene and particularly the face of the man signified hunger. The same face followed by the girl in the coffin led people to believe that the face of the man signified sadness. This little experiment cemented Kuleshov’s belief that editing did play a vital part in the creation of meaning which was further influenced by the viewer’s own emotional inclinations. This phenomenon can never be considered a technique or an invention by the Russian filmmaker, just like how Newton gave gravity a vocabulary, so did Kuleshov.

La Jetée and Arrival both exhibit the Kuleshov Effect right in the beginning of the narrative. Both films exhibit a compulsive tendency to create their own universes in the pursuit to further critique the reality of our daily lives and lived experiences and not just mirror our collective experience of reality. If most films under the science fiction genre look outward beyond star clusters and galaxies for meaning, La Jetée and Arrival have an eerie sense of looking inwards, into their own absurd selves to make sense of it all. The Kuleshov Effect for Marker and Villeneuve is not a way of justifying the narrative but a way of making sense of it. Hence the resultant effect is that in both films our understanding of time is subverted and for a brief while in our existence, we as an audience remain in awe of an experience of time that is non-linear and encompassing.

The moment any work of art is put beneath the violent gaze of the critic it bares itself in defiant submission and we see the skeleton and soul of that work, the structure and its theme. For me, the thematic or the content should be a gentle reflection of the nuances of the structure or form (for if the reflection did not complement why would Nárkissos stay so long by the pool of water in which he met himself?)

In La Jetée and Arrival the presence of the Kuleshov Effect becomes the cementing force that merges the thematic with the structural. For instance if we were to look at the early scene in La Jetée in which the narrator states that; ‘This is the story of a man marked by an image from his childhood. The violent scene that upset him and whose meaning he was to grasp only years later…’ followed by the image of the man crumpling to the ground we are led to believe everything that happens after this scene is the linear progression of time.

The same can be told of the opening sequence of Villeneuve’s Arrival as well. The montage that shows us Louise Banks and the resulting tragedy of her daughter in film followed by Banks at her school on the day of the alien’s arrival and our deductive understanding of Bank’s emotions creates the Kuleshov Effect in Villeneuve’s  Arrival.  Evan Puschak at the Nerdwriter explains this scene and goes on to say that the resulting effect forces us, the audience, to infer meaning from the two scenes and posit the character’s indifference as despondency.

For me the presence of death and the non-linear timeline that disrupts our conditioned understanding of cause and effect becomes a willing performance of the narrative in which narrative elements of the film amalgamate into the structural elements or the structural cohesion of the film.

There is no escape neither from La Jetée nor Arrival once you hit play. Both Marker and Villeneuve are in conversation with each other. It is beside the point for one to argue whether or not this homage Villeneuve ultimately pays Marker is a conscious one or not. As a movie goer, for me it is important for cinema to converse and cut across the boundaries of space and time. The ability for a film to talk back to another separated by almost half a century and a millennia of technological difference mirrors how our own thoughts exist and find voice. Ideas are never independent, and when ideas are conveyed through images why should they remain isolated?

Thomas Sterne Eliot in Tradition and the Individual Talent says ‘No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must see him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead.” In an age of where there is an ‘Epidemic of Passable Movies’ it is reassuring to see Marker and Villeneuve walk past each other amongst a crowd of filmmakers, an avalanche of images, a sea of sound and gently nod at each other with an air of subtle reassurance.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015


First Published in Efiction India Vol. 02 Issue 08

The air is still. The room is empty. The dim glow of the light bulb still continues to illuminate that lonely corner. The falcon still cannot hear the falconer. 

In that empty room filled with stagnant air sheltered by the darkness the light bulb so conveniently nurtures with its embers, sits an eerie figure, glasses in hand. A hand that is infected with a deadly rash dangles in front of you, in front of me.

There are worms fat, round, thin, shy, hungry, greedy feeding on her. The serpent consumes itself in the labyrinths of his mind, in the caverns of silky soil. The ground beneath his feet is infected. They tell of a tale only Samsa can hear, and Grendel and the whore of Babylon and the fallen angel…

A silhouette shifts, rises and falls to the ground. The scene acts itself out in silence, over and over again. Some stories need retelling to live. Some need to be told to be forgotten. 

‘There must be some kind of a way out of here’ the joker chants into the fallen ears of the thief. The chanting grows violently strong, my ears bleed, and the silhouette squirms like a worm. His body begins to coil.

Coils of memory unfold. The sea of stories surely gave birth to this monster. The serpent struggles to consume itself.

In opposition to the shimmering slither of scales all around, a tender, plump arm is seen. It’s fair, untouched and sways in front of you, infected with a rash of guilt, it seeks to haunt all of us. The silhouette grows feverishly scared. His scales tell of a tale. A tale grotesquely different from that of the severed nymph. Arms collide. The worm squirms. Guilt explodes. A scene unfolds.

“It’s not mine.”
“It can’t be.” 
“Grotesque, disfigured, lump.” 
“It is your fucking fault. Whore. Demon. Sorceress.” 

The phallus rises, grows, towers above the entities in the room, consumes them and annihilates them, extinguishing them in a sea of rushing blood, flesh and filth. A babe is thrown into the world, guiltless, thrown out of it, guiltless. The child hovers, the falcon hears the falconer. The second coming is almost here. The child is carried off to the bird’s den, to live among beings that harvest the quill, the land of ideas, the land of the real, it beckons her. 

Some tales are told to be forgotten. Blood rushes to its head as it falls. The ground beneath her feet is cold. 

The room is poorly lit, the silhouette rises, and moves around in frenzy. The arm itches, the body burns, the eyes rot from within. Memory haunts. 

Look who’s the grotesque, disfigured lump now. Tell me decipherer of words has anyone forgotten laughter. No, no, no! The joker induces laughter without laughing. The silhouette is caught up in the coils of memory. “Ahh! It hurts,” he screams.

The serpent devours itself. The whore sells herself. The fallen angel explodes, there is light all around. The silhouette is obliterated. The guilt remains, the shame remains. Its sole purpose is to haunt. 

Darkness sets in once again. The stage is set for another protagonist. The stage is set for another crime. The earth continues to dance around a ball of fire. Guilt prepares to rise on the third day. Redemption is a myth, salvation a bitter lie. The order of things are set. The worms are ready, fat, round, thin, shy, hungry, greedy, they all gather. The curtain rises. The lights search and find its prey. The show goes on.

Friday, June 19, 2015

The City of Lights

When night came, the city of Light shrouded by a canopy of darkness hid itself from the prying eyes of the world. Even I knew that when night came and the sun rested, each and every object in the city would have to succumb to the wishes of that familiar canopy of darkness. Tired from their uneventful routines of day, their lives that had turned into a mere habit demanded from them rest and rest in the warmth of darkness was what they got. As the dwellers of Light slept, twisting and turning in their beds caressed by darkness and stroked by slumber I sat plotting.

It was not easy choosing between the two. I must say that I had put myself in a rather awkward position in which any decision made turned out to be a paradoxical and contradictory one.

 Rebecca lay there motionless as I whispered into her ear “Are you awake?”

Silence answered. But I already knew the answer.

“Are you cold?”

The palms that had stroked my hair a million times were cold as ice.

“I know you are tired, get some rest.”

Indeed she did get some rest. Not a muscle moved and even her nostrils (thanks to my persuasion) welcomed inactivity.

When I met the Other a few days back a few sparks flew. Sparks that sought to expose the barbarian within, even Anna who was just six could see the change that took place in Daddy’s eyes.

Darkness entered the room bringing with it a kiss planted on my lips along with a wave of different scents that accompanied her. Anna was asleep and in stealth I decided to disappear, to get lost in the labyrinths of my guilt, accompanied by the Other and clothed by my sin. I stretched out my hand and found the arms of Darkness, she moved forward and I could feel her warm breath on my neck, it was ironic that not even the perfumes of Persia could hide the stench of its breath.

When I left with Darkness by my side, I had ceased to notice the little details of that all too familiar room. Anna stood there concealed from my sight as a witness to the actions that had now caused quite a few sparks to fly around the room. The sparks with time grew as my Anna watched, turning more bolder and finally breaking free like a butterfly from a cocoon. The wood work were the first to accommodate the flames that were seldom seen in the city, the upholstery next, and slowly those white hot bastards called flames started to devour the entire room, as my love watched helplessly my un-awakened half.

Apart from the homes that were consumed by flames, there were no broken homes in the city of Light. 

A Verse for Uncertainty

Our lives are mere tropes on paper panes
Scattered and dog eared yellow
Scribbled and licked by tips
that spill age old tarnished ink without a name

My grandfather signed very many papers
His name below wriggly lines of indigo, smothered
now he lies, grave unsigned, his skin soft
Rotting below candles and wreaths
The curse of the hungry wriggly lines deep inside

Monday, February 16, 2015

And in the End

This fan fiction piece of writing is based on John "Soap" MacTavish from Activision's Call of Duty Series (video game)

Time had almost come to an end. In a moment of haste it had closed its eyes, clenched its fist and in one silent blow wiped out almost all of humanity. The average king and queen of hypocrisy had no real idea of how they were all made to walk tightropes by a select few as they parked their cars, did their hair and crossed the streets. Some things were meant never to be seen, heard or thought of but it was now all too late.

The scars of battle were still fresh. The flesh on his thighs had turned grotesque purple with each cell constantly in a battle to sustain itself and heal the wound that remained open. His memory however was affected in a way he didn’t fully understand. If the past consisted of images of gory deaths his present worked hard to remind him of how decadently close and similar a ‘non-warzone’ like the one he inhabited looked like. In the end it was all death, the grey Irish sky reiterated that hymn of sadness. The towering cathedral spire, that stood right outside the apartment he was offered after he survived his duty to his nation along with a few discordant badges for bravery, for planning a crucial charge down the flank and for persisting in a suicidal mission, saving the world and restoring ‘order’, only reminded him of how high and haughty we had become as a civilization and the plummet southwards looked rather nasty and inevitable.

The room was rather modest. A bed to his right, a study table near the window that faced St. Andrews Cathedral, a kitchen with a sink to the left of the entrance door and a bathroom to the left, and mounted on the wall in such a way that its screen was visible when one lay on the bed was a quite curious looking television unit that was rarely switched on these days. There was nothing ‘new’ that it could show him nor was there anything that could possibly be on it that he would want to consume. The cycle felt complete. The only thing on the four walls that had something to offer him every time his eyes scaled the walls was the lone photograph taken a year or two ago. Captain Price looked peculiarly young, the wars had still not gotten the better of him but something felt different during those last years of stagnation. Everything moved too quickly to comprehend now. It had to be slowed down-- there was no other way.

At eight in the morning as the bells tolled from the adjacent building and as a crowd dispersed, old Dolores would appear at his door. Her minimal existence within the building for half a century as the manager was something MacTavish looked forward to. Her wrinkles seemed to be at ease no matter what erupted beyond the confines of her decaying castle of concrete.

“I’ve brought you some coffee” she said handing over a yellowed mug with a saucer placed over it that hardly matched the former’s ceramic style. Her transactions with her tenants were overpowered with a cold impersonality that she had developed but Soap, as they called him, was someone she knew right from the time he roamed around as a child with his family in her husband’s estate hunting rabbits and roasting beef beside a warm fire place; and so when the government requested that she open up her apartment to a war veteran she was more than happy to have him. But things had changed now; the past was no longer within reach for MacTavish. The image of his father was lost among a catalogue of carcasses that resulted as a result of his tryst with his call, his duty for obscure causes prompted and dictated by obscure men at obscure costs.

When the doorbell rang the second time he was surprised at how loud a tiny electric bell could be shattering his canopy of stillness he donned every day. It was Dolores again.

“Thought you would need something to kill time.”

Death was all around. The barrel looked him right in his mind’s eye. She handed a newspaper, a few magazines that lay around the reception and a paperback.
“Thanks” he said. His usual silence to anything and everything surprised himself. “It would be nice if you could arrange for some cloth, for the curtains, the windows are too loud.”
Looking straight back at him, Dolores with the dignity of her age asked him “Loud?”             
“I meant too many people, too many things happening all at once without really knowing what exactly is happening to them or anything… I meant too bright” he said saving himself the shame of flawed logic.
“Fine” she said as she went down the dimly lit stairs.

The paperback became his companion for a few days. He sat still on his bed looking at the floor shifting his bloodshot eyes from the cover of the paperback to the floor and back to his hands and the wounds that ate his robust flesh. The grenades, the flashes that blinded his task force, the sprays of red and its salty taste from the tender arteries of the men that trained with him and shared bunkers, the bursts of gun fire from distant corners, the soot that spread across the war torn skies they all came back with vivid detail. He was an old man now though his body had not aged much; He wanted the silence that Santiago and his still seas had to offer. He wanted the freedom to glide through unexplored tracts of blue only the marlin could afford. But the boundaries of his room were well defined. The boundaries of his imagination were too well defined and that made all the difference.
The coffee today tastes different he thought. It felt overpowering and visuals of the black liquid filling his body flashed before his eyes. The liquid came to a halt somewhere at the centre of his diaphragm. Then black mixed with red and spilled out of his mouth turning his vision into a haze of colours mixing and merging. As he fell from his bed to the cold floor the gun fire grew loud, the grenades and shrapnel pounded his flesh from all sides, the flanks gave in and raised white flags, masked men charged from ambushes, flash bangs exploded turning the greys of reality into the absoluteness of white. He was a traveller of both time and space.

Words haunted him “It is good that we do not have to try to kill the sun or the moon or the stars. It is enough to live on the sea and kill our true brothers.” Death failed to escape the fangs of guilt.

Thursday, July 4, 2013