Monday, December 3, 2012

God and Country are an unbeatable team...

... they break all records for oppression and bloodshed.Luis Buñuel

You'll have to bear with me while I lay the flashbacks on thick in this one. But context is important.

It's well known that all male cinephiles first start out watching sleazy B movies on late-night TV. Some of us outgrow this phase and spend most of our adult lives shooting Swedish films that induce the viewers to groan the moment the camera approaches a church. A second group retain the child in them through the decades and go on to redefine sex and violence on celluloid, while developing into absolute virtuosos of the craft of the Moving Image. Take a bow, Brian De Palma.

It was he who introduced a vague notion in my head that the true artists of cinema may just possibly not be the ones in front of the camera. The man has slipped a bit of late but his films of the 70s and 80s are astonishingly graceful depictions of sleaze. Anyone can make graceful pictures while letting the camera glide over verdant country and snow-capped peaks, or tackling Profound, Insightful Meditations On The Human Condition. But it takes a genius to capture the poetry of what is often labelled as "gratuitous sex and violence."

From Brian De Palma, it is only a short hop on to David Lynch and a comment somewhere on Amazon that thought him a successor to Buñuel. He's no such thing, of course. Lynch is a brilliant filmmaker but where Buñuel's surrealism is witty, savage and cynical, Lynch's is often childish, dreamlike and melodramatic... innocent even. As a way of ending that comparison and introducing the man, here's a story about Buñuel's student days in Madrid, from his autobiography,

...the hordes of American professors descended on the Residencia, accompanied by their often beautiful wives, to brush up their Spanish. The college arranged all sorts of lectures and excursions for them; notices like "Tomorrow - Trip to Toledo with Americo Castro" were forever appearing on the bulletin board in the hall. One day, a notice announcing "Tomorrow - Trip to the Prado with Luis Buñuel" appeared. Much to my surprise, a large contingent had signed up, which provided me with my first direct experience of American Innocence. I kept up a steady stream of perfectly serious commentary as I led them through the rooms of the Prado - Goya, I told them, was a toreador who'd been involved in a secret and finally fatal liaison with the Duchess of Alba; Berruguete's Auto-da-fé was a superb painting because it had a hundred and fifty characters in it, and, as everyone knows (I added ingenuously), the value of a painting depends to a certain extent on the number of people in it. The Americans listened attentively. A few protests were lodged with the director, but those I remember best were the ones who actually took notes.

It was Buñuel who gave me an outlet for my then extreme dislike of religion and it was he who gave me the vocabulary to laugh at our rigid morality and our subservience to authority.

Take patriotism. I'm proud of my country. You're proud of your country. And he's proud of his. Let's all nod approvingly at one another and raise a toast. Forgive me, but does it not remind you of that joke that goes "We're all unique - just like everyone else"?

I'm not trying to be facile here. Yes, it is a big world and it is worth preserving the different cultures and regions that goes into its topography. But that is one thing, the violence of emotion we put into our patriotism is another. Where religion has heretics and blasphemers, patriotism has traitors and anti-nationals. And just like religion, patriotism has its symbols too. As children, if there is one thing that is drilled into us through the school years, it is to be patriotic. But even so, if you stopped me in the street and asked me to define India, I'd probably hem and haw and grope for words. Mostly, my head would fill up with symbols - the same ones in the head of the questioner. A flag, an anthem and maybe boundaries on a map.

If the whole business of countries were only to be an efficient way of governing ourselves, then, well, we should be able to do away with labels like "anti-national." All we would have are differences of opinion: there are a host of topics on which we can differ without resorting to name-calling and violence, and this would be no different. But if, on the other hand, the argument is that there is something more meaningful, more important, in our nationalities, then reducing it to symbols and emotion rather gives the impression that it is all a case of the emperor's new clothes.

It's what Orwell warned us of in 1984. Reduce everything to black and white, to as few words as possible. If you didn't have the vocabulary to think different, how much more malleable are you? And if all you have in your head are a few symbols and an incandescent hate of those who seek to destabilize them, how much more of a useful citizen are you? You would have freedom of thought and expression but would also have an emotional response to what "Indian values" are and condone the thugs that violently enforce it. You would justify a freedom of speech with so many asterisks next to it that your exercising it is subject to the whims of those who define "public order, decency or morality."

So, back to Don Luis. The older I get and the more I see of the world around me, the more important do people like him seem to me. Where he once was nothing more than a very diverting hour or two of poking fun at our foibles, I now think the world of men and women like him. Not for the films he made, but for the attitude he exudes. For rejecting the road that most of us are set upon as children. The road to unchallengeable and emotional allegiances.


Anonymous said...

About Patriotism and its other cousin - Naionalism - this is one of my most favourite:

“Patriotism is when love of your own people comes first; nationalism, when hate for people other than your own comes first.”

― Charles de Gaulle


Rohan said...

That's a great quote.

It's just that the former is often so unthinking and has such an air of the sacred about it, that it's all too easy to change into its cousin.