Film Aesthetics of Control Society: On Amen (2013) and Traffic (2011)

Early in 2011, when the Malayalam film Traffic (Dir.Rajesh Pillai) came out, a clear sense of accomplishment reflected in the way the film was advertised – a claim that was reciprocated positively in its reception and reviews as well. Contemporary accounts on Malayalam cinema often credit it as one of the first films that announced the beginning of an era of what has since been endearingly called “New Generation Cinema”, along with films like Chaappa Kurishu (Head or Tail, Dir. Samir Tahir) Salt N Pepper (Dir. Ashiq Abu) and City of God (Lijo Jose Pellissery) – all released later in the same year.

I remember getting excited after watching the film and initiating a discussion about it among friends working on cinema, but soon finding it difficult and failing to pinpoint what exactly it was in the film that I felt to be path-breaking or an achievement.1 After all, the film has a plot that, taken independently, is fairly unexciting. It weaves together personal dramas of a handful of characters around the central event in the narrative: An exceptional traffic management mission for a heart transplantation surgery. Moreover, the persistence of some of the clichéd narrative conventions in the film makes it susceptible to criticisms of deep-seated conservatism lurking behind its progressive posturing. For example, it had the archetypal (Hindu high caste) Nair male as its central character; a Muslim colony comes up in the narrative as an obstacle to be overcome in the way of its elevated goal; its narrative world is overwhelmingly male-oriented, and so on.

Interestingly, this inconsistency persists in the discourse on New Generation Cinema in general: The fact that no consensus has emerged on what makes a film “New Generation” however has not prevented the widespread invocation of the terminology to endorse this or that   film as an aesthetic or stylistic achievement and as a progressive leap forward in tune with the times. It can mean different things:

1.It can mean that despite the apparent difficulty to name it, there is something in these new age films that resonates well with the changes taking place around us today. To say so is to acknowledge that today we are witnessing crucial transformations, marking perhaps the end of an older familiar regime and taking us into new socio-historical realities – a process that inevitably necessitates fresh aesthetic regimes to represent life in the newer times. If so, we have two immediate tasks in front of us: We need to generate adequate descriptions of the contemporary times – of what has changed and what remains. Parallelly, we need to be far more attentive to the new aesthetic regime that contemporary media cultures produce, in order to first enumerate and grasp its formal elements if we want to pose questions to them for understanding what they have to tell us about the time and material conditions that they try to represent. We, then, need to take the category of “New Generation Cinema” seriously, as well as the puzzles that this category throws up, as symptomatic of the quest for an aesthetic of the contemporary times, at the cusp of historical transformations from an older political-cultural regime to a new one. The fact that there is a widespread acknowledgement of fundamental changes taking place (For example, what is reflected in the common refrain that “We have New Generation Cinema now”) even when we find it difficult to mak-e much sense of it (there is hardly any literature on New Generation Cinema that is worth reading) indicates that we are yet to begin to make political sense of a set of radical changes that we nevertheless experience as having transformed the conditions of existence all around us.

2. It can also mean that what distinguishes a New Generation film from “Conventional cinema” can possibly make all New Generation films look alike – in stylistics. In other words, any film staking claim to the title, or a film on which the category is thrust upon, runs the risk of losing its identity, its ambitions of uniqueness. It is precisely for this reason that filmmakers like Ashiq Abu – someone who is consistently championed as one of the leading figures of the new wave in Malayalam – vigorously resist their films being marketed or described in terms of the category.  It is as if the circuits of production, circulation and reception have identified a set of tentative stylistic/aesthetic elements as the hallmarks of a cinema of the new millennium, and any film’s deployment of a set of these elements would qualify it to be included in the category. Sometimes it is invoked as a new filmic genre in circulation, but often the way this category is used generically to mean “Cinema of the contemporary times” can make us wonder whether this is the one genre with any currency today – thus also indicating the waning of older genres.

In short, on the one hand, there is a palpable enthusiasm around the enterprise, reflecting most vividly in the production sector that has witnessed a phenomenal increase in the number of films produced every year over the last decade. It is as if the film industry in the region has struck a formula – a new filmic aesthetic – to effectively represent the contemporary. On the other hand, this zeal is immediately trumped by an equally pervasive sense that the quantitative eruption does not result in the desired proliferation of “Images” (Genres and sub-genres, different competing practices of cinema, etc.) but rather that it only results in the reiteration of a singular image – or one genre – so to speak.

Luckily, there are exciting works emerging in the field especially of media studies that we can mobilize to begin to make sense of the socio-historic conditions that we inhabit today and (or through) the aesthetic forms they throw up. My intention here is only to introduce two refreshingly useful theorizations on cinema, digital media aesthetics and the contemporary cultural transformations that Alexander Galloway – one of the most exciting cultural theorists we have today – offers us in his book, The Interface Effect (2012/2017: Polity Press, Cambridge)(2) Galloway’s attempt in the book is to understand digital media and its aesthetics as symptomatic of the mode of production in today’s “control society” and information economy, the divergent details of which he enumerates as involving  “the diffusion of power into distributed networks, the increase in local autonomous decision making, the ongoing destruction of the social order at the hands of industry, the segmentation and rationalizing of minute gestures within daily life, the innovations around unpaid micro labour, the monetization of affect and the “social graph”, the entrainment of universalizing behaviours within protocol bound organization” (p. 92). Today’s mode of production, according to Galloway, is not representable, leading to a crisis in the previous aesthetic regime – one to which the institution of cinema is central – because “The point of power today is not in the image. The point of power today resides in networks, computers, algorithms, information and data” (Ibid).

For the sake of brevity, Galloway is discussing the transformations we witness today from the “disciplinary society” that Foucault described in his seminal works (characterised by large institutions like the state concentrating power and regulating productive relations and subjectivation through spatial-temporal enclosures) to what Gilles Deleuze called “control society” in which power is not any longer concentrated in large institutions or even decentralized, but is distributed  among networks that govern themselves, a new regime in which control works more effectively (like on a highway that facilitates faster movement – as opposed to the enclosures of the previous regime – but with technologies that make possible more effective and equally flexible protocols of control). The advancements in transportation and communication technologies are central to the latter regime. The implications that this has for media aesthetics and systems of representation are crucial for Galloway, who proposes the following formulation:

One of the key consequences of the control society is that we have moved from a condition in which singular machines produce proliferations of images, into a condition in which multitudes of machines produce singular images. As evidence for the first half of this thesis, consider the case of the cinematic or photographic camera, a singular device with the ability to output thousands and thousands of images in constant mutation. (…) As evidence for the second half [of the thesis], consider the case of Wikipedia, a singular (data) image produced by thousands and thousands of end users on their laptops (p. 91; original emphasis).

We can derive useful analytical tools from this formulation to understand some of the salient features of contemporary cinema today, like the singularity of New Generation Cinema that we noted earlier: the new film aesthetic, while inducing a jump in production (a democratization of the apparatus in terms of access, if you want to say), tend to also make all those films look alike. Moreover, If Galloway’s formulation is indeed handy, we should be talking of an emerging film aesthetic shaped by the fact that the cinema apparatus works no longer as emblematic of the large institutions concentrating power in disciplinary society, but as an apparatus that is distributed at large. One way in which this shift becomes apparent is the prevalence of agile camera in today’s cinema, to the extent that in the trendsetter film 4 The People (2004, dir. Jayaraj), cinematographer R D Rajasekhar’s camera simply refuses to be mounted on a tripod. Similarly, how else do we understand the fact that in a film like Amen (2013, dir. Lijo Jose Pellissery), we see the characters literally wrestling the camera towards them (Image 1, 2)? In fact, the dazing proliferation of camera angles in Amen – it even stands upside down at times (Image 3) – can often make it look as if the drone fitted with the camera goes berserk, shooting randomly after losing control, but only to the director’s joy. A simple gesture by a random character in the film gets an exclusive camera angle (Image 4)! Or consider this: in a scene in the film that lasts no longer than two minutes, one literally loses count of the number of angles where the camera is mounted (Image 5-18).

 

We will also benefit by looking at another interesting formulation that Galloway offers around what New Media scholar Lev Manovich identified as “the waning of montage” in today’s cinema – which will also allow me to come back to the film Traffic we started our discussion with.  Commenting on the waning importance of montage in cinematic aesthetics over the last few decades, Galloway says:  

It is hard to understate the importance of montage as a twentieth century cinematic technique. It extends from Lev Kuleshov and Dziga Vertov to the very center of the classic Hollywood continuity method. Montage is as central to the moving image as sound or light. In fact, the neglect of montage in the period after the Second World War is often a touchstone for a rejection of hegemonic form in screen media, as in the long takes of Roberto Rossellini, Frederick Wiseman, Jim Jarmusch, Jean-Luc Godard, or a number of other directors explicitly working outside of the classical Hollywood model, whereas in earlier times, as with Sergei Eisenstein, heightened montage was one of the key ingredients for progressive film form. With the advent of the new media of the late twentieth century it is possible to identify a waning in the importance and use of montage as a formal technique, except that today it is not an indicator of any experimental tendency (Ibid, p. 113-4; original emphasis).

Galloway, then identifies the logic of “windowing” – whereby more than one image appears framed with the entire screen – as replacing that of montage in today’s cinema. Arguing that undoing chronological montage is one way in which the computer goes beyond cinema, he says:

This is one of the great aesthetic leaps of the graphical user interface beyond the example set by the cinema: no longer will the viewer experience montage via cuts over time, proceeding from shot to shot. One must now “cut” (but in its opposite, as “suturing”) within any given frame, holding two or more source images side by side which themselves will persist montage-free over much longer “takes” than their cinematic predecessors. This phenomenon is evident in the windowed personal computer interface, but also in the gaming interface which “windows” using inset, distinct image sources such as the heads-up-display. Fusing cuts within the frame replaces fusing cuts in time (Ibid, p. 115; emphasis added).

Traffic, one could argue, is one of the first films that brought this post-montage, polyptych stylistics in its formal design (see Images 19-20) and narrative construction into Malayalam cinema. Borrowing again liberally from Galloway, one could argue that Traffic, with its parallel tracks of interconnected stories and characters united in an exceptional event, is “the distributed network as an aesthetic construction” (p. 117).

Image 19

Image 20

The most exciting moments in Traffic unfold when the crucial movement in the narrative encounters and overcomes a crisis – a spatial obstacle in the form of a Muslim-dominated slum (named precisely so in the film). The extraordinary event in the film that connects the swarm of characters in a web of interaction is the transporting of a live heart for a transplantation surgery from a hospital in one town to another hospital 150 kilo-meters away in just two hours. The ambulance, in order to regain some lost time due to the personal dramas of the characters involved, has to take a short-cut through the narrow alleys in the slum without losing any momentum. The silver linings are these: The movie superstar, whose daughter is to be saved through the heart transplantation surgery, has a major fan-base in the colony; the friend of the dead young man whose heart is being transported knows every nook and corner of the slum because he used to go there to buy pirated DVDs of foreign films. These are crucial sources of information to be used in preparing the slum’s alleys for a smooth passage (see Images 21-22).

The thrill in the sequence of the ambulance whisking through the slum in maximum speed against an up-tempo song on the soundtrack announcing the arrival of a new age is enhanced further by the elevation of an “Informatics logic” and the “Hacker praxis” through which the slum and its dwellers (or the star’s fans) – the domains that the modern bureaucracy is still wary of penetrating – are mobilized in the service of the narrative progression, and in doing so incorporated into the logics of the informatics systems of the control society. Importantly, the rule-abiding city police commissioner apprehensive about the task of navigating the slum – the last cultural mile – represents the waning modern bureaucracy, which however is excited in the end, seeing what the informatics systems of control society can do by circumventing protocols. Why wouldn’t it, when it knows it can add the same hacker praxis into its armoury?

Image 21

Endnotes

1 Those early thoughts were published as a short article, “On the Middle Class in Kerala and ‘New Generation Cinema’”. In Diotima’s: A Journal of New Readings, December 2013, Vol. 4, pp. 108-120: Department of English, Providence Women’s College, Kozhikode.

2  I am indebted to Anand Karthikeyan, PhD scholar at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, for introducing the work of Alexander Galloway to me.

 


About the Writer


Jenson Joseph teaches at Symbiosis Centre for Media and Communication,  Symbiosis International University, Pune. He completed his PhD from University of Hyderabad in 2013, and has recently spent a year as Post Doctoral Fellow in the Department of Humanities & Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology Bombay. Cinema studies and history of media are his main areas of interest. He has  written on cinema and regional history in journals like BioScope: South Asian Screen Studiespositions asia critique and Thapasam. He now works on theories of contemporary media transformations.