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Tuesday, 5 December 2017

10 years of the Blog: Best Movie

Ten years of the Blog and the Best Movie Award goes to Om Shanti Om. It's not the best movie I have seen in the last 10 years, but it was one of the most enjoyable, and with its themes of screaming injustice, reincarnation and the Bollywood film industry, it was a gateway drug for my wife. After seeing this she went on a three year Hindi Cinema binge, and I went along for the ride.

It was a trawl through the language of cinema, and the ways in which it mirrors the political imperatives of its time, from the social realist influences of 1950s cinema to the optimism of the 60s, the anger of the 70s and the mass consumption of the 80s.

It was a trawl through a world where you start off with a 1950s world of evil landlords and oppressed peasants and end up with a contemporary world turned upside down with evil peasants and oppressed landlords - which is when we kind of lost interest. It was also a lesson in how to fuse two completely opposing messages in one perfectly meshed form. Yes we're reactionary misogynists which is a bad thing, but we're modern reactionary misogynists and we give a big speech before doing what  the father demands so everything's OK then because being modern is good but being traditional is even better.

Most of all, however, it was a lesson in the discourse of entertainment, and how important pleasure is in cinema, and how pleasure can be used as a vehicle to convey social and political messages so much more effectively, and enjoyably, than the discourse of sobriety - the default mode for some corners of photography. But not all corners it needs to be said. It's also a lesson in how narrative works, how music and dance can act as a fulcrum for the plot to turn on, how emotion can be teased and shaped in the pursuit of viewing pleasure and the language of love.

That being said, watching 150 Bollywood films you learn some things (namely that once you get past that top 150, the pickings get slimmer and slimmer) , but most of all you learn what you do not know. I don't even know the language the films are made in, I have no idea of some of the deeper references to Indian culture, politics and religious thought, and I don't have that deep emotional connection to the people and places that you see in the films (though I did meet Amitabh Bachchan at Bangalore Racecourse).

In effect watching 150 Bollywood movies made me more ignorant than I was before. Here is a visual language that was alien to me before. But even after watching those movies I remain ignorant. I'm learning Italian on Duolingo (which is no way to learn). Duolingo tells me I'm 44% fluent. Well, har har, I'm not even 10% fluent. If there was a Duolingo for the history of Hindi Cinema I would probably have been about 50% fluent in Duolingo terms, maybe 12% in real life. But the real significance of those figures is the negative space. If I was 12% fluent in Bollywood, I was also 88% ignorant. And ignorant not just of those unreachable social and cultural significances, but also ignorant in the basic ways in which words, song, dance, cinematography and all the rest work together. But to be fair to me, I'm not alone in that, because very few people know exactly how all those things tie together. If they did, you wouldn't have such a thing as bad movies. And there's nothing quite like a bad Bollywood movie, not least because they are so fecking long. Two hours of bad movie is bad enough, 3 hours is awful especially with bad songs and bad dance to drill down the pain into your inner core.

In fact I sometimes wonder if we shouldn't all be defined by our ignorance, if people like me who pontificate and proclaim things should qualify all our statements with an, 'Actually, I am a huge chancer who may sound like he knows what he's talking about but actually doesn't. I'm profoundly ignorant. Bear that in mind when you read these thoughts.'

I think that would be good not just for having a bit of humbleness and admitting that our arrogance might be founded on some kind of psychological quicksand, but also as a way of encouraging others to be more forthcoming with their own opinions and thoughts. Basically I'm saying Don't worry about talking nonsense. We all talk nonsense. We all make it up as we go along.

Earlier in the year I saw Thresholds, the VR exhibition of the first photography exhibition. It got me thinking about new photographic and visual languages. Now I know something about skeuomorphism, about the limitations of MKS based interfaces, about frameless spaces, and reduced cognitive loads.

It's a fascinating world and one we will be living in in 20 or 30 years time. So I was wondering about this language and how we integrate it into our understanding of photography because there is this huge overlap that will only get bigger as time goes by. I was wondering why we don't have more of this language in our writing, in our teaching, in our making of work.

But then I thought about my understanding of not just Bollywood but any cinema. I thought of my understanding of photography. Photography is nearly 200 years old and we have no understanding whatsoever. This August Sander was on show at Paris Photo and it just held the wall it was featured on; a supremely powerful portrait of one man, Heinrich Hoerle, a painter who died in 1936.

And I wondered what is it about this picture that so held the wall. I can look to visual theoreticians, I can ask people involved at the top of facial recognition, but nobody has an answer. The facial recognition people I ask just laugh in my face and say we don't know that. They admit their ignorance. They can talk about fuzzy logic, and recognition learning, and memorability and algorithms. That is their world, but nothing that ties it in to the emotional heartbeat of images. That's a different territory. The answer isn't tied down to any single logical process. It's something far more complex than that. It's something very human, very emotional, that is lodged somewhere in the hearts of our beings. That's why Heinrich Hoerle sticks in our mind, that's why it is a wonderful portrait that has a soul and a heart and a being of its own. It's an emotional picture.

So learning that new VR language is fine, but it needs to be balanced with the fact that we actually don't know the languages that preceded it. It's like me deciding to learn Spanish  because I have already learnt a few words of Italian. Great, it's another language but it doesn't mean I have a clue about Italian. It just means there are now two languages I don't know. So now I'm more ignorant than ever. That's what photography is like. There is not one language to learn, there are multiple languages. And if we focus just on one aspect or one language, we end up more ignorant than ever. We should always remember that. We should recognise it.

So there are emotional languages and there are technical languages. And they meet in the most surprising places The point was brought home to me earlier in the week when I saw a fantastic documentary on the Voyager spaceship called The Farthest: Voyager's Interstellar Journey. This tells the story of what is essentially a photographic assignment; sending the Voyager spaceship out to take pictures of the Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. And it was beautiful. And the most beautiful thing was the passion of the people involved in the project, and the ways in which photography, science and the sheer novelty of seeing something so distant for the first time, in images made with such relatively primitive and simple equipment, was wonderful. It was poetic too. The image above shows a picture Carl Sagan had made, when Voyager was turned around and the lens turned on Planet Earth, that tiny little white dot in the upper band, photographed as Voyager made its way beyond Neptune to the outer reaches of the solar system. Science, emotion, poetry and pleasure. They do go together.

And that brought me back to Bollywood. The thing about Bollywood is it's the cinema of love, it's the cinema of emotion, it's the cinema of pleasure. In Om Shanti Om there is a sheer pleasure in seeing the absurd dance sequence in the Pain of Disco song Item Number being used as a fulcrum to lever the movie into full reincarnation mode. Watch Amar, Akbar, Anthony  and the pleasure of seeing Rishi Kapoor camping it up in a green pixie suit while telling his girlfriend he wants to see the ace beneath the veil a delight to behold.

And maybe that's the ultimate language of classic Bollywood. It's the language of emotion, of love, and of pleasure. That is a language that is universal and runs deep.

More pleasure, and less pain! More love and less hate. That's the lesson, there you have it.  And it might be a lesson for the more joyless borders of photography. Because pain and hate, boredome and sorrow gets you nowhere.

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