India is all about infinity - an infinity of gods and myths, beliefs and languages, races and cultures; in everything, and everywhere one looks, there is this dizzying endlessness.
In 'Travels with Herodotus' Ryszard Kapuściński described his first assignment as a journalist who didn't speak English in India, in the 1950s. A book he used to acquaint himself with Indian thought was Paul Deussen's 'Outlines of Indian Philosophy', published in 1907.
"Deussen reproaches Europeans," Kapuściński notes:
"European idleness," [Deussen] complains, "tries to escape the study of Indian philosophy" - though perhaps "despair" is the more accurate motive since, in the course of four thousand years of uninterrupted development, this philosophy has evolved into a system so immense and immeasurable as to intimidate and paralyze all but the most hardened daredevil and enthusiast. Furthermore, in Hinduism the sphere of the unfathomable is boundless, and the rich variety of what lies within it is characterized by the most bewildering, mutually contradictory, and stark contrasts, the boundaries between material things and mystical phenomena are fluid and fleeting, one becomes the other or, simply, eternally is the other; being is transformed into nothingness, disintegrates and metamorphoses into the cosmos, into a celestial omnipresence, into a divine way that disappears into the depths of bottomless nonbeing.
When the city of Bombay was renamed into Mumbai in 1995, it was a different kind of name change than, say, Peking to Beijing. Rather than correcting pronunciation, the city chose a different etymology.
The official reason for the change was to undo colonial anglicization of the city's original name, so called after its patron deity Mumbadevi. Her name, in turn, derived from the Sanskrit Mahā-Ambā Devi, Great Mother Goddess.
The name Bombay, however, can be traced back to the Portuguese conquerors of the 16th century, who called the place Bom Bahia, or good bay. This name was indeed later anglicized to Bombay. But linguistically there is no relation, let alone corruption, between Bombay and Mumbai - and it seems a curious coincidence that the two names sound so alike.
Over a decade before the name change, Salman Rushdie told the tale of the city's origins in his novel 'Midnight's Children' (1981):
...at the dawn of time, when Bombay was a dumbbell-shaped island tapering, at the centre, to a narrow shining strand beyond which could be seen the finest and largest natural harbour in Asia, when Mazagaon and Worli, Matunga and Mahim, Salsette and Colaba were islands, too - in short, before reclamation, before tetrapods and sunken piles turned the Seven Isles into a long peninsula like an outstretched, grasping hand, reaching westward into the Arabian Sea; in this primeval world before clocktowers, the fishermen - who were called Kolis - sailed in Arab dhows, spreading red sails against the setting sun. They caught pomfret and crabs, and made fishlovers of us all. (...)
There were also coconut and rice. And, above it all, the benign presiding influence of the goddess Mumbadevi, whose name - Mumbadevi, Mumbabai, Mumbai - may well have become the city's. But then, the Portuguese named the place Bom Bahia for its harbour, and not for the goddess of the pomfret folk ... the Portuguese were the first invaders, using the harbour to shelter their merchant ships and their men-of-war; but then, one day in 1633, an East Indian Company Officer named Methwold saw a vision. This vision - a dream of a British Bombay, fortified, defending India's West against all comers - was a notion of such force that it set time in motion. History churned ahead; Methwold died; and in 1660, Charles II of England was betrothed to Catharine of the Portuguese House of Braganza - that same Catharine who would, all her life, play second fiddle to orange-selling Nell. But she has this consolation - that it was her marriage dowry which brought Methwold's vision a step closer to reality. After that, it wasn't long until September 21st, 1668, when the Company at last got its hands on the island ... and then off they went, with their Fort and land-reclamation, and before you could blink there was a city here, Bombay, of which the old tune sang:
Prima in Indis,
Gateway to India,
Star of the East
With her face to the West.
In his short film 'Staging Silence II' (2013), Belgian artist Hans Op de Beeck creates and destroys model worlds with godlike obsession. The sheer artificiality of these landscapes, constructed and manipulated by the artist's ghostly hands, makes us wonder whether the world around us might not be a backdrop as well. But then there are moments when his creations become magically, cinematically real... and we suspend our disbelief.
'Staging Silence II' starts where its predecessor, 'Staging Silence' (2009), left off, with a barren landscape of trees. Both films share the same basic concept, though the second part feels more fully articulated. They show the painstaking creation of a succession of miniature natural, urban and interior landscapes on a studio table, filmed in black and white.
In many cases the landscapes are made using ordinary materials - a potato rock garden, a chocolate bar alley, a sugar cube city - adding to the magic when they are transformed into 'real' scenes. Another key component is the film's soundtrack, composed by Scanner, blending ambient music with a sound design that subtly enhances the landscapes' illusion.
But realism is not what Op de Beeck is after. Rather, he shows us the unstable, temporary quality of the spaces that surround us.
As carefully as it is constructed, each landscape is also deconstructed again, revealing the controlled environment of the studio where the artist patiently builds up a new illusion. With its static frontal perspective and the artist's hands constantly seen working on the mise en scène, the film thus becomes a performance, greatly condensed of course, as each scene must be the result of hours, days, weeks of tinkering. It's like we're watching an existential puppet show - minus the puppets, all we get are the backdrops - of continuous creation and destruction.
This also explains the film's title, as the scenes are all conspicuously empty and devoid of people. Op de Beeck stages the silence of empty spaces - the meditative quiet of a Vermeer interior, the stillness of a Japanese garden, or even the after-hours desolation of a Tati cityscape.
At the same time he keeps reminding us of the stage.
'Staging Silence II' is currently shown as part of Out There, a Viewmaster exhibition in Rotterdam of video and photography focusing on landscapes. It features classic works like the serenely metamorphosing landscapes of Driessens & Verstappen's 'Kennemerduinen 2007 scene B' and Michael Najjar's 'the invisible city', or the caleidoscopic manipulation of Las Vegas cityscapes in Nicolas Provost's 'Storyteller'.
Most works are exhibited outdoors, which in subzero weather makes attentive viewing a challenge. Then again, landscapes usually require some effort from their beholders.
Update: More on Out There at Trendbeheer (in Dutch).
Adam Curtis' new documentary got a world cinema premiere at IFFR as part of the Signals: Everyday Propaganda program. In his trademark style, narrated as a history of ideas and illustrated with seldom-seen footage from the BBC archives, 'Bitter Lake' again digs at the roots of our current political discontent. But this time, in what amounts to an upping the ante response to his critics and parodians, Curtis subverts his own format, forcing viewers to rethink their regular spoonfed media diet.
Ironically, this experimental form has meant 'Bitter Lake' was launched on the web, on BBC's iplayer, rather than on TV.
The doc focuses on the recent invasion of Afghanistan, and traces the pattern of how world powers from the British to the Soviets to the Americans have all bitten the dust in this remote, inhospitable country where nothing is what it seems. With this historical reality already too nuanced for most news coverage (and/or propaganda spin), it's not surprising that Curtis treats Afghanistan as symbolic for how Western powers increasingly project their own simplified narratives onto complex realities.
As he writes in an introduction on his weblog:
The film shows in detail how all the foreigners who went to Afghanistan created an almost totally fictional version of the country in their minds. They couldn't see the complex reality that was in front of them - because the stories they had been told about the world had become so simplified that they lacked the perceptual apparatus to see reality any longer.
One scene shows an American soldier taking a saliva swab and retina scan from an Afghan man, creating cringingly colonial echoes of Europeans measuring Africans' skulls a century or two ago. The discomfort is compounded by the soldier's smug reliance on the tiny screen through which he views this local, in the same way that we (where is Afghanistan again?) view the entire country through the pastel-colored simplification of a map on our screen.
Indeed it's striking, and rather scary, to see the extent to which modern warfare is conducted on screens, from remote-controlled drones to night-vision equipped troops... to the televised war for us jaded Westerners at home.
This motif of mediated and thus sanitized war leads to the most interesting aspect of 'Bitter Lake', the meta-narrative Curtis tells by breaking open the conventional documentary format. With access to the thousands of hours of raw BBC news footage shot in Afghanistan in recent years, he is able to show unedited, 'unusable' news images - reality as it went on after the "Back to the studio, here is the weather" cut.
In a harrowing instance of frontline filming, the camera lens gets splattered with a thick drop of blood, which the camera operator tries to wipe off while running for cover. The chaos of this moment - not the carefully orchestrated thick of things in Hollywood war movies but real, red-blurry mess - jolts us out of TV complacency to show the absurdity of 'covering' a war in thirty second items.
These complicated, fragmentary and emotional images evoke the chaos of real experience. And out of them i have tried to build a different and more emotional way of depicting what really happened in Afghanistan. A counterpoint to the thin, narrow and increasingly destructive stories told by those in power today.
It means 'Bitter Lake' contains long stretches of raw, uncontextualized imagery - without a neatly explaining voice-over - that sabotage our story bias and make us watch these moments in a more tentative, questioning mode. Which template can we apply to these images - good vs. evil, generous vs. needy, technological vs. primitive - or do we need to accept that they don't fit, that things might be more complicated than that?
It has the strange, unfamiliar effect of watching the news for grown-ups.
And it provides yet another argument for avoiding news, at least in the form of journalists and politicians telling us simple stories in cozy collusion.
A hopeful companion to Abderrahmane Sissako's 'Timbuktu' (2014), currently showing at the International Film Festival Rotterdam, is a small exhibition at Brussels' Bozar called Timbuktu Renaissance, featuring historic documents from the city's fabled libraries. Both testify to the barbarism of islamic fundamentalists, but the very survival of these manuscripts also proves the futility of their violence.
On the southern edge of the Sahara, Timbuktu has long been a crossroads of cultures, trade and learning, and in the medieval Songhai Empire it was a meeting place of Sub-Saharan African, Touareg, Moorish, Arabic and European ideas. In the West the name Timbuktu became proverbial for a far-away place at the end of the world, which goes to show how far its fame traveled.
In 2012, when the city was invaded by jihadist groups, the contents of its many private libraries were saved from the vandals by hiding and moving them to Bamako, in a rescue operation of over 300,000 manuscripts that would itself deserve to be the subject of a film. Sixteen of these manuscripts are now on display at Bozar, giving a glimpse of the cultural wealth of Timbuktu in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. In delicate calligraphy, in various languages and scripts, and covering subjects of religion, astronomy, law and poetry, the intellectual curiosity and tolerant attitude speaking from these works are striking. According to one translated excerpt:
Tragedies are caused by differences and by a lack of tolerance. Glory be to Him who creates greatness out of difference and lets peace and reconciliation reign.
'Timbuktu', meanwhile, portrays daily life in the city under the islamists' rule. Slow-paced like the desert and beautifully shot in panoramic widescreen, the film starts out as mild satire - showing the jihadis to be as hypocritical as they are incompetent. But it turns more grim when sickening sharia punishments are meted out to the local population. Lashing and stoning for offenses like singing and playing football stifle a city that was devoutly religious to begin with.
The film's main storyline concerns an unfortunate conflict over a wayward cow called GPS - aptly symbolizing the disorientation resulting from the clash between local tradition and global modernity. Malian filmmaker Sissako refrains from delving into the complex context of the fundamentalists' rise in his country and their alliance with disenfranchized Touaregs, beyond suggesting they are foreigners with little regard for the local language and culture.
It calls to mind another recent African film about islamic fundamentalism, 'Les chevaux de Dieu' (2012), which took a more sociological approach to show how the poison of jihad was injected into the slums of Casablanca, as well as generously funded, from the Arabic peninsula. In 'Timbuktu', too, the jihadis appear to be puppets (or "hapless clowns" as one review put it) in globalized power struggles.
But as Sissako shows, human impulses like playing and singing cannot be eradicated, however many armed patrols search the city for clandestine music. In a memorable scene local kids play football without a ball - a small display of resistance in a film that ends on a particularly tragic note.
Timbuktu Renaissance offers more hope in the face of rabid intolerance, exhibiting the resilience of a centuries-old culture.
(Illustration of an 11th century Quran written on fish skin, from Haidara library, Timbuktu. In the center a gold teardrop.)
What is your wilderness? I have my own.
It has no boundaries, but shifts its grey
And crumbling landscapes through my skull,
Shuffles them, while I stand, and stirs the dark
Air that I breathe.
Oh, you innocents! You nonentities,
Caught up in the illusion that to move
Your bodies to and fro is to be alive.
How have you added to the sum of things?
The brooding images
That haunt my fatuous hours have sharper focus
Than anything you see with daylight lenses.
If you could see what I see, you would find
The world too vivid, too extraordinary,
To be endured. It is not easy
To blind the brain, and pull the curtains down
Across the vision. No. It is not easy
To ignore the stories that are being told
Moment by moment by a torn sleeve,
By a tilt of the hat, or the humped shoulder,
Of the delicate suffering at one's elbow.
Oh God! The endless, generous profligacy
Of every sliding second. There's no end
The invention is so rapid, various, profluent.
Another and another, each one in the weird wake
Of something vaster.
- Mervyn Peake, 'Mr Loftus' (1950s)
Another of Peake's previously unpublished plays, 'Mr Loftus' is now available in its entirety from the invaluable Peake Studies, Vol. 14, no 1 (pdf).
Like an Oblomov in a London attic apartment, Mr Loftus, also referred to as the Earl of Mattress, spends his days in disdainful idleness. Visitors are welcomed with a warning to "Keep further off; you smell of activity." And when Loftus scolds his faithful servant for not having woken him, the servant explains: "I tried. One has to dig for you, sir. Awaking you is like some dreadful deed in a bone yard."
If this sounds like vintage Peake, 'Mr Loftus' indeed contains some delightfully weird dialogue and occasional flashes of "the ice-green light of zoneless poems". After the introduction of its eponymous hero, however, the plot is rather disappointing, especially besides his much more savage play 'The Cave'.
Both plays share the theme of the artist who places himself outside of conventional society, but where 'The Cave' put this tension to dramatic use, and in service of a philosophical search for ultimate truth, in 'Mr Loftus' the intentions of its slothful hero never really become clear. Except when it is said of him that:
He's vaster than any of us.
We do our best within a little field;
He does nothing in a great wilderness.
Made after his masterpiece 'Playtime', 'Trafic' (1971) is usually regarded as a lesser Tati. This still means classic and inimitable comedy, but besides the film is a fascinating document of the troubled (and ultimately failed) collaboration between two masters of visual comedy, Jacques Tati and Bert Haanstra.
After 'Playtime' had financially ruined Tati, his next project needed foreign partners. Tati and Haanstra already knew each other - Haanstra's 'Zoo' had been screened alongside Tati's 'Jour de Fête' - and they decided to co-produce and co-direct 'Trafic'. Not surprisingly, this case of two captains on one ship - and large-egoed ones at that - was doomed to fail, and after initial shooting Haanstra left the project.
The final film, however, still clearly shows Haanstra's contribution, creating a unique blend of Tati's dramatic and Haanstra's documentary visual humor.
'Trafic' picks up exactly where 'Playtime' left off: with automobiles. This time Monsieur Hulot is involved in transporting a camping car from Paris to an auto show at the RAI in Amsterdam. The camping car is at least as cleverly designed as the futuristic house in 'Mon Oncle', but transported on an old lorry and accompanied by M. Hulot, it will take most of the film and endless breakdowns and chaos along the way for it to reach Amsterdam.
After the increasingly abstracted world inhabited by M. Hulot, culminating in the unrecognizable glass and steel Paris of 'Playtime', 'Trafic' takes place in a much more realistic and less stylized world - probably due partly to Haanstra's influence and partly to budget restraints. Much of the story takes place on the road between Paris and Amsterdam, in garages en route and around the RAI, while in Amsterdam there are even glimpses of hippie culture.
The film is at its best satirizing the epidemic car culture which in the early '70s was already causing choked roads and chagrined drivers. Here Haanstra's contribution shows in a documentary sequence of car driver behavior - a kind of 'Zoo' in a traffic jam. Another highlight contributed by Haanstra is an early scene in the RAI, with the show's organizers walking around in the empty exhibition hall stepping over invisible wires.
For Tati, of course, making fun of cars was part of a broader critique of modern civilization, which replaced organic life with clinical, mechanical organization, or in Ellul's term, with technique. Here 'Trafic' falls somewhat short - especially compared to 'Playtime' - despite its title, which in French refers primarily not to traffic but to the exchange of goods.
Perhaps the film articulates this overarching theme best in its parody of the emerging self-importance of public relations, with a hasty, over-efficient American PR lady causing much of the havoc on the road, before letting her hair down and accepting the organic chaos of M. Hulot's world.
In Tati's ultimately melancholic conclusion of human relations becoming increasingly mechanized, this is his optimistic note: at least one PR soul has been saved.
For Dutch speakers, the Tati-Haanstra collaboration is recounted in detail in this chapter from a Haanstra biography.
And here's a great collection of 'Trafic' posters.
Only a few years after Aldous Huxley wrote about his travels in Holland, Czech writer Karel Čapek devoted a whole book to the country: 'Letters from Holland' ('Obrázky z Holandska', 1932), part of a series of European travel books he wrote in the 1920's and '30's.
Čapek's keen-eyed and charming observations of the Dutch landscape, people and bicycles are welcomely laidback after Huxley's Euclidean allegory, though both travelers remark on many similar Dutch features and customs. Here, for instance, is Čapek's description of this "nation on bicycles" and the effect it has on the national character - an early example of psychogeography.
And then those bicycles. I have seen various things in my time, but never have I seen so many bicycles as for instance, in Amsterdam; they are no mere bicycles, but a sort of collective entity; shoals, droves, colonies of bicycles, which rather suggest the teeming of bacteria or the swarming of infusoria or the eddying of flies. The best part of it is when a policeman holds up the stream of bicycles to let pedestrians get across the street, and then magnanimously leaves the road open for more; a regular swarm of cyclists dashes forward, headed by a number of speed champions, and away they pedal, with the queer unanimity of dancing gnats.
I saw nuns on bicycles and farmers on bicycles leading cows. People eat snacks on bicycles and take their children and their dogs for rides on bicycles, and courting couples go pedalling along, arm in arm, on bicycles, towards a blissful future; a nation on bicycles, in fact. When the bicycle has become a national habit to such an extent as that, we may well consider what effect it is likely to have on the national character. Personally I should say that:
- A man on a bicycle gets used to looking after himself and not getting mixed up with somebody else's bicycle.
- He waits for his opportunity and starts pedalling away the instant he gets the tiniest ration of elbow-room.
- He goes dashing along without having to exert himself overmuch, and without making the least fuss about it.
- Even when he sometimes rides in pairs or in a crowd, a man on a bicycle is more isolated and self-centred than a pedestrian.
- A bicycle brings about a kind of equality and uniformity among people.
- It teaches them to rely on the force of inertia.
- And it fosters in them a sense of peace and quietness, such as is associated with cotton-wool.
(Not sure about the cotton-wool, but #5 especially would seem to be deeply engrained in the Dutch character.)
However, the real highlight of the book are Čapek's illustrations - simple, almost doodle-like sketches that manage to capture the essence of his subjects in a mildly satirical way. Note, for instance, how almost all his Dutch landscapes are symmetrical, either vertically or horizontally, or both.
Vertically, because it struck him how "the Dutch built their towns of houses and water chiefly because in that way they could produce two towns at a single blow, so to speak: one on top and the other mirrored in the water." And horizontally - with even the omnipresent bicyclists choreographed symmetrically along the straight roads - to emphasize the tidy and ordered strips of land and water.
For one thing, these renowned polders are unusually rectilinear; when the Dutchman set about producing his land, he did so in a properly human manner, that is, with the aid of a foot rule, just as when planks are sawn up. Crooked is the history of man but rectilinear are his works.
The only thing Čapek doesn't sketch is the Dutch light - he apologizes for it explicitly - as "it is so pure and transparent that you can see every outline and detail to the very edge of the world". Paradoxically, his line drawings, eliminating all detail to keep only essence, work very well to convey the glass-like clarity of the Dutch landscape.
Travel advice ('Reisadvies') at the train station...
I see an adder and, a yard away,
a butterfly being gorgeous. I switch the radio
from tortures in foreign prisons
to a sonata of Schubert (that foreigner).
I crawl from the swamp of nightmare into
a glittering rainfall, a swathing of sunlight.
Noticing you can do nothing about.
It's the balancing that shakes my mind.
What my friends don't notice
is the weight of joy in my right hand
and the weight of sadness in my left.
All they see is MacCaig being upright,
easy-oasy and jocose.
I had a difficulty in being friendly
to the Lord, who gave us these burdens,
so I returned him to other people
and totter without help
among his careless inventions.
- Norman MacCaig
John Fowles used the two pivotal lines from this poem as a motto for his essay 'The Nature of Nature'. MacCaig's poetry, with its beautiful and deceptively simple evocations of the Scottish landscape and wildlife, indeed makes for a natural ally in Fowles' argument for appreciation of nature.
But MacCaig's natural observations are never simply that - he is no naive nature poet but decidedly modern - and a central theme in his work is the act of observation itself. Many of his poems explore the problematic relationship of the conscious 'I' with the natural world surrounding it, where the 'I' might attempt to merely "notice" - impassionately, Zen-like - but inevitably consciousness intrudes - "balancing", analyzing, judging.
Another way of putting this would be that his poetry wrestles with the pathetic fallacy, which he both mocked and self-consciously employed ("being gorgeous"), but ultimately couldn't escape altogether because 'pure', objective observation doesn't exist. It always comes back to the observer, even if, as in one of his best-known poems ('A Man in My Position'), this is explicitly flagged as a problematic notion.
Hear my words carefully.
Some are spoken
not by me, but
by a man in my position.
In 'Equilibrist' (1980) observation is only the starting point for a more complex ethical balancing act, which the poet performs, crucially, without the traditional pole (to stay with the metaphor) of religion. MacCaig used to call himself a Zen Calvinist, half in jest and half, perhaps, as shorthand for the kind of crypto-atheist balancing he describes here. On the one hand rejecting a personal, emotional God in favor of meditation on an impersonal universe, while on the other still existing "among his careless inventions".
They only take up the first four lines, but already these inventions are of a bewildering variety - from adder to butterfly, from torture to sonata - and thus grouped together it's no wonder they should shake the narrator's mind.
One contrast is between the natural phenomena which exist immediately, here and now, and the human doings which arrive as sounds from far away in place and time. Should these be weighed equally, or should their distance and mediated presence somehow be taken into account? (A familiar question in our age of globalization, which forces us to constantly balance distressing facts from around the world against our immediate environment, safely behind our screens.)
Next, the radio offers the full spectrum from beastly to heavenly human activities, and again the question arises how, or if at all, such things can be weighed against each other. And then MacCaig describes their effect (or only the music's?) on him in natural terms - swamp, rainfall, sunlight - in a kind of reverse pathetic fallacy: imbuing human artifacts with natural objectivity.
And finally there is the contrast between the outer and inner equilibrist, balanced and tottering.
For more on MacCaig, the documentary 'Norman MacCaig: A Man in My Position' (1977) offers a great portrait of the poet, interviewing him both in Edinburgh and out rambling in Assynt, where you suspect he's had a wee dram.