Blindspot: “Bamako”

June 24, 2015 § 1 Comment

One can only imagine how Bamako plays to viewers who have never lived anywhere in Africa, or rather, those who do not feel that it is their place to level candid criticisms at the continent and its people for fear of being accused of western paternalism or much worse. But for someone born and raised in the ‘Motherland’ – generally speaking, of course – Mauritanian-born filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako’s breakthrough 2006 picture, which is to say the one which positioned him squarely on the world (festival) stage and in the sights of discerning cinephiles hungry for new voices, is one whose greatness almost trips over itself before becoming evident. Weirdly reminiscent of a Robert Altman picture with its wandering approach to largish ensembles in which subsets of characters don’t necessarily interact while being nonetheless engaged in a kind of meta-textual conversation with one another by virtue of their being in the same narrative universe, Bamako takes place in the titular Malian town which also happens to be Sissako’s home turf and is basically centred around an imaginary court case: plaintiff,  debt-ridden Africa; defendant, The World Bank, the IMF, ‘The West’ and all other purported contributors to Africa’s fiscal woes. Staged in – of all places – the actual courtyard of Sissako’s father’s house, the proceedings establish an interesting, Kiorastami-like interface between fiction and non-fiction as characters wax and spar polemically about the political and economic state of the African continent at the time of filming, which is no less relevant now than it was nine odd years ago.  As these impassioned – sometimes detrimentally so – rants fly out from the screen, life goes on both within the courtyard (yes, there’s a bit of a pun here that needs to be acknowledged) and within the homes that form its walls, though always in the shadow of something greater and elusively oppressive. It must be said that the form that this film adopts is a most uncanny distillatory representation of Africa’s contradictory nature, which is to say that it is a scatterplot mix of pre and post-colonial, western and non-western, impassioned and apathetic, hopeful and demoralised, humorous and not at all amusing, sexy and just plain daggy, all swirled into one heady, dysfunctional yet lively soup. But the compositional richness of Bamako is not simply a visual pleasure. It registers – in these eyes – as a subliminal explanation of why it is that Africa may find it so hard to hold its own in a global society which may admittedly not be quite as charitable as it makes out to be. The image of women and men of the law in full robed garb, seated in a dusty outdoor makeshift court through which people blithely waltz without much thought for the possible disrespectfulness of their actions is one such example of Sissako’s concurrent skewering and celebration of the absurdity that can be and often is startlingly true of modern African society.  But despite the very obvious playfulness of the movie – playful to the point of featuring a seemingly pointless film-within-a-film called Death in Timbuktu, a “Sahara Western”  so to speak (as opposed to Spaghetti Western) featuring Danny Glover of all people – and the bubbling undertones of intellectual indignation and rage, Bamako is at heart a gently sombre work.  However peripheral they may appear in the face of the rhetorical bluster of the court/deposition scenes, the quiet moments of ordinary townsfolk mourning lost love, lost lives and an unknown/unknowable tomorrow, and the fantastic musical sequences featuring emotionally hypnotic local songstress Melé (Aïssa Maïga) as she takes to the stage of a Bamako bar…it is these which seem to speak with more clarity, elegance and fire than the many oratories designed to equally heat up the soul. It’s as if Sissako, in attempting to fashion an erudite exploration of post-millennial (West) Africa and its myriad economic issues, settles on the milder, more humanist (though no less radical) notion that the viability of the African continent depends less on its dealings with a potentially dishonest wider world and more on a commitment to dealing honestly with itself.

Brief impression: “A Face in the Crowd”

July 23, 2014 § Leave a comment

All of a sudden Sidney Lumet’s 1975 masterwork seems that much less original. Of course, there is a rich history of great films being informed by other great films, but Elia Kazan’s 1957 gem pre-empts ‘Network’ so thoroughly that it is simply hard to ignore the latter’s indebtedness to the former. Strangely, while both films dissect, by way of dogged satire, the phenomenon of cult of personality and its place in popular media, ‘A Face in the Crowd’ may be a much more apt commentary on the current culture of ‘following’ and being followed than a film of its age has any right to, particularly nowadays during which it seems to take less and less for one to acquire a posse or legion of fans and adorers, whether in the flesh or otherwise.

In ‘Network’, news anchor Howard Beale’s dwindling audience share only skyrockets once his impending axing flips his switch and turns him into a crazed or perhaps pseudo-crazed mad prophet of the airwaves, one who seems to echo and articulate the frustrations of the average television viewer in post-Vietnam, post-Watergate United States of America. In contrast, ‘A Face in the Crowd’ gives us Andy Griffith in a loose-limbed, powerhouse performance as song-singing drifter Larry ‘Lonesome’ Rhodes, a self-professed “just a country boy” whose small-town charm, charisma and latent narcissism is snapped up by sharp-eyed Arkansas radio promoter Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal in perhaps the performance of the picture) only for him to snowball into a national television sensation. It turns out that there’s just something about this fella Lonesome that millions of Americans seem to love, so much so that he wields an immense influence in fields that your usual TV personality perhaps ought not to. Sure, Rhodes may very well have been a composite of the Elvis Presleys and Buddy Hollys of the day (as well as media personalities like Will Rogers and Arthur Godfrey), but beyond the effect Lonesome has on his legion of screaming adolescent females, this film takes a peek into the socio-political implications of a personality this big and this self-assured. Rhodes’ mentorship of a presidential hopeful is a sad reminder of how personality can and often does supersedes policy and principle in The People’s choice of a leader.

Preventing this film from floating off into the stratosphere where overly brash satires that sadly disappear into a vortex of their own cynicism go to die is Kazan’s dedication to a sort of grassroots realism that tends to wheedle its way into his generally baroque approach, acting almost as a sobering reminder that the mythical heights to which Lonesome Rhodes rises in the film do not exist exclusively in a world of cinema and fantasy but in the same world that is home to the everyday, the average. This is perhaps no more evident in Lonesome’s grand homecoming when he is treated to a routine by the local high-school cheerleading team (a slight call-back to the forbidden sexuality in Kazan’s previous film ‘Baby Doll’). The choice of interweaving of candid-looking, almost verité shots of the small-town American crowds that have come to see their local hero with more staged and stylised depictions of Lonesome’s antics and reactions seems to suggest that there is an element of mutualism at play here; that Lonesome satisfies his fans’ need to adore, to worship, to elevate as much as they feed his need to be adored and worshiped and elevated. The truth of course is that this not quite mutualism or commensalism but a kind of mutual parasitism whereby both parties feed off each other to satisfy needs that do not in any way benefit either of them in the long term.

But for all the socio-political commentary, as is true of a great deal of Elia Kazan’s work, ‘A Face in the Crowd’ is great entertainment in the broadest Hollywood sense: it’s classical rise-and-fall storytelling that moves at a cracking pace, populated by the faces that have a certain star quality. This picture is one strong piece of evidence in favour of the idea that a film can package intelligence and insight in a snappy, flashy package of song, sass and swinging style.

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