Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Brigands, Chapter VII

With the phrase ‘The Georgian Jacques Tati’ fresh in my mind when I began watching my first Otar Iosseliani film I felt a great deal of trepidation. When all was said and done I understood the parallels, but I can see a clear difference between the two. When a ladder falls and nearly hits M. Hulot the character makes a funny face. This is what I have learned to expect of Tati’s early work. When a king walks into a newly conquered harem he slits the throat of the occupying eunuch without the slightest facial movement to be seen. That, really, explains the difference between this film and Tati’s approach: Tati turns small situations into comical ones by exaggerating their degree and creates a film by propagating them in a variety of loosely related situations. Iosseliani, on the other hand, makes grave situations seem commonplace by de-emphasizing their degree, and in this film he strings together a number of closely related but distant events. Even the stylistic de-emphasis is not an affectation – for these eponymous brigands of Brigands, Chapter VII there is little difference between clearing a table and clearing an apartment of its living residents, and thus the emphasis is borne out of the characters. I would not be surprised if the brigands considered both to be nothing more than a matter of hygiene. Thus, to the Tati comparisons I say: wordless comedy does not mean that we can’t hear the voice of its writer, and where Tati is a goofy jester I think Iosseliani, at least in this film, possesses a straight-faced acerbic wit. Unfortunately his films are less available to the public and his scripts are being made into fewer beautifully animated films, but this is probably the price one pays for making people uncomfortable.

It is difficult to write on a film which so clearly displays its ideas. Perhaps one could comment on how clearly its ideas are displayed with so little dialogue, how the staging and the images convey all of the information required and the soundtrack exists as one with the film and never bears more information than the image burdens it with. This is true! It is wonderful and expertly done. I don’t think anyone will disagree. This mastery breaks down into what I see as a set of distinct elements: the juxtaposition of time periods against each other, the detailing of various power dynamics within each setting and time period, and the breadth of scope that each scene utilizes. What is missing from these elements is not readily apparent through this description alone, perhaps, but when named their absence seems more notable. There is little characterization, pathos is an afterthought, a central storyline is totally irrelevant – the film thus lacks all the staples of much of narrative cinema. Their absence is notable, but not unwelcome. In fact, given the way the film’s structure invites the interchangeability of brigands between time periods I would expect that any extra development of particular character traits brought on by the characters’ own particularities and the influence of their time would only muddle the importance of their interchangeability. A central storyline doesn’t seem in any way congruous with the nature of disparate but interchangeable storylines. As for pathos, an understanding of power dynamics requires none of it. I think the film’s style matches the implications it carries with it and rightfully shakes free of the shackles of conventional cinema into the realm where voices speak in the vernacular that their subject demands. This is no small feat, either, as the history of film is littered with an endless line of variations on a few elements. Thus, when a style is employed in a manner fully congruent with its purpose and largely divergent from the norm it is a welcome change, but more importantly it is an exemplification of the possibilities of style as an augmentation of and key component of content.

But what does it all mean? Again, to approach such a subject seems difficult as the film makes its points clearly. The ideas are not necessarily novel, and they do not inspire radical action (the film depicts radical actions, and the perpetrators of these actions tend to be the brigands), but they are ideas which have widespread implications. Ideas pertaining to human nature, to responsibility, to universality, to power and conflict, and to compassion are touched on throughout the film, even if it takes their counterpoint to call them to mind. In this way the black comedy of the film works splendidly through illustration of the opposite. Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it, but what of those who don’t learn from people doomed to repeating history? Maybe this film is the stick in the spokes which prevent the wheel of fate from rolling down its hill. But I doubt it. What is more likely is that it is a presentation of the absurdity of those who have doomed themselves to repeating history in order for those who have to suffer their blunders to be able to enjoy the absurdity of it all. In this way people can remain completely engrossed in the world and totally attached to its doings and yet avoid the crushing depression of its inevitabilities and failings. Black comedy and cosmic irony are the two greatest gifts that a mind can bestow on itself, I think. With this perspective, this ability to look beyond the immediate implications of events shown and appreciate secondary or antithetical implications, perhaps this is the way in which a film like this inspires improvement. If nothing else, at least it is a balm for those who appreciate the merit of the depiction of despicable acts, even if they’re sadists.

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