Tuesday 17 June 2014

Ancient Temples, Vertigo and Film-making

Two films in the Edinburgh International Film Festival today.

Manakamana is a documentary film that all takes place in cable cars going to and from the Manakamana Temple in Nepal. It is at once claustrophobic (given the fixed frame that is used throughout) and vertiginous (given the deep valleys and steep mountains the cable cars travel over). Both these elements though force the viewer to pay full attention to what is going on in the cable car.

The film is divided into eleven sections, each following one group of passengers as they go up to or return from the temple. Some passengers barely interact, while others play music, take photos, eat ice cream or discuss how the area has changed. One scene follows one of the cargo cars, full of goats being hoisted up to be sacrificed at the temple.

I couldn't help wondering how the passengers would have behaved if there hadn't been a camera in the car with them - would the married couple for example have chatted away merrily or would they have argued rather than engaging in a stilted conversation?

The scenes with the minimal dialogue were intriguing, I imagined them as ideal writing prompts: what is the relationship between these people? what is their background? why are they going up to the temple?

As the cable car goes up and down the hills, I was struck by how much of a feat of engineering this transport system is and wondered how it had affected the way people looked at their pilgrimage to the temple. How did the old musician who talked about long ago walking for days from his home to this and another temple feel about now being able to get to the temple just by sitting in a cable car? Would the American tourist even have considered visiting the temple if she'd had to trek for days to get there (perhaps she would as she said to her friend that she enjoyed hiking).

I would have liked the passengers to talk more about what the temple meant to them, but other than that, it's a beautiful, engaging and insightful film. And I didn't even feel too vertiginous!

La ultima pelicula also centres on ancient temples, Mayan in this case. An egomaniacal (and very annoying) American film-maker travels to Mexico to make the last ever film to co-incide with the end of the world as predicted by the Mayan calendar. This film is by turn irritating and beautiful, some have described it as hilarious, but I don't recall laughing at all.

It's very disjointed, at one point an interesting scene discussing creating a meal fit for the end of the world by looking at how Mayan culture used to cook is randomly interrupted to cut to a dancing horse and we never get to learn more about Mayan cooking or the meal itself, which is a shame.

All the takes of some scenes are shown, often the same scene shot using a different type of camera, while other scenes aren't shown at all but the words 'Scene Missing' appear on the screen. Odd little experimental visual techniques are used throughout - sometimes these work and sometimes they don't.

There are some beautiful sequences, for example at one point a person stands at the sea shore while superimposed onto the sky are images of meteor showers and astronomic catastrophe.

The film makes some insightful comments on culture in general and the tourism that has grown up around the Mayan temples. Are we a society that doesn't care about either the past or the present and is just using everything to its own ends? A society in terminal decay?

It's very definitely a film-makers' film, the numerous alternative takes and the experimenting with visual effects and different cameras I'm sure could be endlessly analysed to good result by film students and film-makers. While watching it, I didn't think that these elements were adding to the overarching theme of the end of cinema / end of the world, but thinking about it now, maybe it's all about how we look at the world and that there's no definitive interpretation of anything, and maybe cinema starts to end as the processes and secrets of its making are laid open to the viewer in this way.

So this film wasn't the easiest to watch but certainly gave me a lot to think about which has to be a good thing.

Manakamana is showing 17.50, Thursday 19 June at Filmhouse 2 and 2020, Friday 20 June at Cineworld 13.

La ultima pelicula is showing 2030, Thursday 19 June and 1800, Friday 20 June both in Filmhouse 2.

Disclaimer: I have a press pass for this year's Edinburgh International Film Festival.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

made me dizzy just reading about those films ;)