Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Radical Honesty

If it's so hard to make up one's mind once and for all about Hara Kazuo, it might be because the radical honesty of his films always seems to run along two apparently mutually exclusive lines: on the one hand, his honesty is complete, including honesty about the unpleasantness entailed by his being present to shoot the material; on the other, one is never quite rid of the suspicion that this honesty is used as a cop-out to avoid questioning said unpleasant issues ("How can you blame me for it, since I'm showing everything upfront!?"). In other words, one is never quite sure whether it truly is a radical honesty, or a truly dishonest radicality: for all the discomfort his films provoke, how much of it stems from the audience's unease with being confronted with the uncanny, unfamiliar, and often shocking images of whatever repressed social phenomenon Hara is observing? And how much stems from principled rejection of the any-means-necessary approach Hara has to his material, which often seems to entail brutality to those being filmed at the same time as it does brutality to the viewer?
The triangular relationship of filmer-filmed-viewer rarely holds a place as important as it does in his works, but it has also rarely been more difficult to establish and define. In Goodbye CP (a wishful title, as the film ends with main character Hiroshi's desolate acknowledgment that Cerebral Palsy is not to be wished away), the film is as much a product of the patients as it is of the cameraman. At times Hara is clearly used to orchestrate, enable, and record Hiroshi's projects, such as a poetry reading which becomes interrupted off camera. The film is partly financed by Green Lawn, the organisation formed by the patients shown, and we are privy to a board meeting halfway through the film in which the question is raised of whether to continue filming or not. As in the case of the other film of Hara's that I have seen (The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On), then, the film at some point becomes about its own making, about how a filmed person takes control of a film and uses it for their own end. It also is, insistently, about the unwillingness to stop filming, the desire to record everything, even against the wishes of those being filmed.
In the later film, however, showing Okuzaki Kenzo requesting that Hara stop filming (when he was being detained by the police) was a breath of fresh air, a comic interlude which suddenly showed up Okuzaki's playing to the camera, and opened up a critical space for the viewer between the man, his cause, and the means he uses for it. In Goodbye CP, Hara films victims of cerebral palsy; and arguably, it is precisely this reaction of discomfort that he is questioning: should it be any different because they are ill? To which the answer might be: would it be acceptable to film someone who refused to be filmed even if they were healthy? But then again, the answer might equally be: but is not the fact of showing them resisting filming, renegotiating the film as it is still being filmed, the very least Hara can do to let these people keep their dignity? It is in this uncomfortable space, between the affront to the film-maker as a request that he ignores (for the sake of the film, thereby establishing a rather distasteful power-play with his own subjects) and its inclusion as a very strong indictment of his own role (he behaved in an objectionable manner at least once during the shoot. Is this unwillingness to lie about it enough to excuse it?), that debate about the sadism of Hara's method probably mostly happens.
But in the particular case of this film, the issue is made far more complex by the last scene. The film, at this point, has been full of absolutely unforgettable sequences: Hara asking passers-by who give the Green Lawn money why they did it, as if asking the viewers why they are watching the film (“Does it really help?” is the implied question: are admirable motives enough?); Hiroshi and his wife yelling at Hara to stop filming, while the others berate Hiroshi for endangering a collective project... In the last scene, Hiroshi sits naked on an empty road, making us look at his body, and then starts crawling uncomfortably across the road. The belles ├ómes would have us believe that it is the souls of those affected by CP that count, but those who are ill know that the reason we notice them (but would rather not) is their bodies. Hiroshi and Hara force us to look at the body as a body, as an impediment to action rather than a means to it. But on the voice-over, Hiroshi details his feelings about the film at the end of shooting.
It is often taken as a badge of sincerity on a film-maker's part to question what his film has brought to those he filmed, to ask who is using who, to acknowledge that probably, in the end, his actions as a film-maker had little positive impact on the actions of those he filmed (after all, Ici et Ailleurs, one of Godard's greatest films is based on precisely these kinds of questions). But in Goodbye CP, Hara lets Hiroshi do something else: he tells us himself what his hopes had been for the film, how these have been dashed, and how the film has failed to make any positive impact on his life. This text, running over harsh images of impotent movements, bring us back to Hara's initial question: what are we contributing? What did watching this film achieve? Faced with these images and their voice-over, we are denied one of the last resorts of traditional radical documentary watching: identification with the director. For once, we do not commiserate with a director's impotence. We are confronted with a subject's own admission of defeat. It is this refusal to make Hara's defeat into an aesthetic object, but his insistence to make Hiroshi's loss of hope the real failure, that may very well be Hara's most radical and welcome move.

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Late thoughts on the ten-step podium.

(I arrive somewhat late to the discussion because I was having a wonderful time travelling around the east of the USA. Consider this a tardy late answer to Sight and Sound's poll. Or a tardy answer to Girish)

2012, when film culture reached a turning point and failed to turn. There is no doubt that there was, for many people, a hint of triumphalism in the fact that Citizen Kane had been toppled off its seat, yet any cry of victory was overwhelmingly, and correctly, overshadowed by the almost complete lack of any other change in the rest of the canon. Dziga Vertov's entry into the top 10 is the one event of note in a list that is otherwise dispiritingly similar to the previous one. And though it is bracing to see such a free, adventurous film make it into the top 10, it is somewhat damning that the only avant-garde that can «make it in» is an avant-garde that is eighty years old.
Now, why is what happens in the Sight and Sound poll noteworthy? If its status as the canon certainly matters, what made it interesting this time round was the notable changes in film culture in the past ten years. Had DVDs, internet, film blogging, greater consciousness on a wide scale of non-western/mainstream etc really made a difference? It would seem instead that so far the transformations in film culture have been, paradoxically, too effective in opening up the field to transform it quite yet. The lists, as they can be perused on the internet, are a treasure-trove, joyously opening up paths for multiple discoveries and re-evaluations, leading from one bafflement to the next, through an endless chain of cross-links and inter-connections that draw such a rich canvas of cinema that it would seem churlish to complain. Yet this is something else already: a look at the individual choices, whose multiplicity draws a far more compelling and complex picture of cinema than what the whole exercise nevertheless is: the controversial, but ultimately inescapable problem of the canon.
The opposition of the two seems to lead straight into a dead end: on one hand, the consensus of the established ten, their place more or less guaranteed by the security of numbers. On the other, the proliferation of films nominated one, two, maybe ten times, each of them a discovery and a marker of individual taste, but because of the singularity and the anti-canonical impulse underlying their choice incapable of unseating the established masterworks (for none of the films in the top ten is even remotely undeserving of the status). That this might be a perverse effect of our film culture as it stands is not false per se (what is acclaimed is visible), but somewhat beside the point: the individual list takes a stand, but the stand depends on its individuality, and becomes thus incapable of offering an alternative canon.
All of which is fine, as far as it goes. It even leads to much merriment: take Ignatiy Vishnevetsky's list and the method used to make it. Yet it also leads to the thorny problem of the established canon: if each list is its individual entity, then from where does the new canon emerge? If the aim of the new participants (bloggers, younger critics...) is to redraw the map of cinema, to expand it, to shift the way we perceive film history, then it is necessary to offer this new map. In classical Gramscian terms: discrediting a prevailing view is not enough, if one does not have a contending view to oppose to it. Practically: what is the image of cinema that we are fighting for?
This, of course, brings us back to the aim of the whole exercise: for those participants who wish to offer a new view of cinema, what meaning does one's individual list have? Is one trying to unseat the old consensus, or merely offering a new square in a mosaic where, paradoxically, each little bit is beautiful but the total matters very little? But then, if one does not care about the general picture; if what matters is cinema in its totality, not the image of cinema that emerges from one's choice; if the idea of restricting oneself to ten films is anathema; then why take part at all? Either one does seek to create a new consensus, to promote what one hopes is a richer view of cinema, with all the sacrifices it entails: using totemic films (cf. Nicole Brenez's comments, which shows an awareness of the problems this kind of list creates, but an acceptance of their necessity) that represent others; selecting, as Zach Campbell suggested a while back, sustainability rather than originality as a criterion (less sexy, sadly)... Or one goes for originality, hoping that the individual list will somehow matter, that people will make the effort because they share the same outlook, but accepting that the established canon will stand by sheer force of inertia. Either the list is made with an eye to a new canon, or the established canon stands. Have we, then, reached a critical juncture: the canon might as well stand, because it has stopped mattering?