The Avant-Garde, Zeenat Aman

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The cinema of the 70s is often termed as an era that marveled the art of pop culture reorientation. A decade that immersed itself in the chaos of coming of age screenplay and ever inspired music ensemble, the flights of imagination was anything but predictable. It was during this period that Hindi cinema saw the rise of its one of the most ground-breaking actress, a gifted performer and a formidable fashion icon – Zeenat Aman. The characters that she adorned were unafraid of juxtapositions and oozed liberation that was rarely seen in the public eye. From being an adultress in Dhund (Obsession) to a cheerful prostitute in Manoranjan (Entertainment), Zeenat Aman redefined narratives of gender roles in not only Hindi cinema but also in the entire urban Indian society. A former Miss Asia Pacific (1970), she was the first South Asian woman to win this coveted title. Even though her acting skills were second to none, Zeenat Aman had sealed her name in the history of Indian cinema for her unparalleled contribution in revolutionizing the use of fashion in Hindi movies.

The looks adorned by the lady swing across the spectrum of avant-garde fashion. She had never ceased to reinvent herself and often pushed the boundaries of artistic expression by her V-neck hem slit evening gowns or her infamous Boho looks. This post is a tribute to some of the most foresighted, coming of age and classical fashion statements of the woman that charmed the 70s and cemented her position in the pop culture.

  1. The Boho Chick

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Dubbed as her first block-burster hit, Hare Rama Hare Krishna (1971) paved the way for Zeenat’s towering success. What began as a role received by fluke, later unraveled into a timeless performance that got her the Filmfare Award for Best Supporting Actress, and most importantly, her perennial place in the pop culture.

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Playing the role of a girl separated from her family who subsequently slips into drug addiction, the character of Janice was unconventional for her period but beheld potential for a memorable performance. And for the visionary as she was, she delivered, and delivered with utmost excellence.

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2. The Girl with a Guitar 

When Zeenat Aman held a guitar to belt out a soothing lullaby for her lover in Yaadon Ki Baraat (The caravan of memories), she gave us a melody of a generation. The climatic progression of the music with the innocent smile decorating her face, Chura Liya Hai (Now that you’ve stolen my heart) is the musical beauty of the highest order. Apart form its melodious supremacy, it was this long white gown that etched Zeenat Aman in every man’s heart for years to come. Complementing that look with a choker necklace, she added one more feather to her overtly decorated hat of fashion laurels.

3. The Femme Fatale 

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Although, every song of Zeenat Aman has been a masterpiece in its own right, there is one song that not only concreted her as a superstar but also reflected her ideas of empowerment through sexual liberation. In Laila Main Laila (Laila, I’m Laila), a song that has been subsequently covered by a dozen singers and actresses, Zeenat Aman unleashes her femme fatale and explodes into the space where she adheres to no boundaries, rising above the artificial constructions of gender roles.

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In Aap Jaisa Koi (Someone Like You) and Don, she takes her seduction to next level and amalgamates it with her impeccable acting skills to deliver the critically acclaimed performances as a cabaret dancer and a villain respectively.

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Zeenat Aman had metamorphosed into a multi faceted performer who freed herself from the fear of being judged for her decisions. She pushed the limits of visual representation in Hindi cinema and became an icon for all the actresses that followed. Apart from her mounting commercial successes, she was critically well received for her depiction of a rape victim in Insaaf Ka Taraazu (The Scales of Justice). She was translated as a visionary, an artistic maverick, and a farsighted actress for her coming of age role of a cheerful hooker in Manoranjan (Entertainment). With more than half a ton movies on her name, Zeenat Aman was and will always be the first and the most beloved diva  of Hindi cinema.

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Symbiopsychotaxiplasm Take 1 (1968)

Many fairly awful foreign films have nonetheless gained a large cultural cache in foreign countries simply for their being foreign; and as the process of orientalizing another culture obscures the particulars of the culture orientalized, so does the naming of the process “orientalizing” obscure the particularities of how different cultures orientalize. In an incident that has since become notorious, the Italian director Antonioni hired the US guitarist John Fahey to score his film Zabriskie Point. At dinner one night, the two both got very drunk and one or the other initiated a fistfight over Antonioni’s cartoonish hatred of the United States. Fahey was fired from the production, and the finished film is possibly the weakest of Antonioni’s mature period, an angry empty caricature, the dull zombified rock and roll club scene in Blow-Up extended to feature length.

The US was similarly orientalized by the French New Wave, but with a distorted view of American tropes that were in fact far more exciting than anything going on in the US itself at the time. These were subsequently internalized and regurgitated in distorted form to make the bulk of the puzzlingly vaunted “New Hollywood Cinema” of the 1970s. The distorted vision of the cultural from one place fascinated by the position of the other as the place elsewhere to be dreamed about projected back so that the place that the dream was overlaid upon begins to dream someone else’s dream as the dream of itself. In China, McDonald’s is a sit down restaurant where you might take a date for reasons of US cultural garbage being taken as cosmopolitan there for their representing a place that isn’t China. And in the US, competitors to McDonald’s have attempted to make a thing that looks like a high end McDonald’s where you can sit down and order a beer; weird commercial mongrels like the Burger King BK Burger Bar in NYC attempt to bring the vision of the US that exists in China to the US itself. I have no clue whether it’s been successful in doing.

The uncomfortable lesson here being that cultural diffusion works largely on the creative power of misreadings and projection; the rest of the world in some manner exists as a more loosely regulated fantasy playground for the mind to imagine further places elsewhere.

(At this point I stopped typing and walked off to make some more coffee. On returning I found myself befuddled trying to figure out exactly where I was going with the pile of text I’d just typed and you presumably just read. Whatever. I’ll run with it. I’ll even leave in the part in italics where I’m talking to myself.

Yeah.

Yeah, that’ll show ’em.)

So what the hell does any of that have to do with William Greaves’ 1968 film Symbiopsychotaxiplasm? Symbiopsychotaxiplasm, like its name suggests, is a lot of things that aren’t necessarily supposed to be together collapsed into close quarters that still, somehow, manage to roll off the tongue musically.

The concept of the film: Greaves is ostensibly directing a film with two actors, but while he’s doing this, a second film crew has been hired to film the making of the film, and a third crew has been hired to film the entire process of the making of the film itself and the making of the making of documentary. The gag being that Greaves doesn’t actually have a film at the center, but just a single scene of a white couple arguing with each other in Central Park about whether or not the man has been having homosexual affairs. Greaves keeps shooting this one scene repeatedly for 10 days, eventually having to replace his first two actors who sense something is awry. His crew isn’t sure whether to mutiny. They start secretly shooting meetings where they themselves try to figure out what the film is and how to deal with the distant Greaves, shooting footage that Greaves in turn ends up using to compose the bulk of the finished product. Unsure whether Greaves is secretly misogynistic, homophobic, incompetent, or eventually whether the entire process is in fact a conspiracy engineered by Greaves to get them to want to mutiny and make the actual film themselves in these secret meetings, the term “troll” as we know it not yet plugged into the cultural consciousness. Despite it all they keep following each other with cameras.

The result is one of the funniest films I’ve ever seen, one that seems to have directed itself out of Greaves’ own steadfast refusal to direct it and somehow still ends up having brilliant thematically coherent sound design and mise en scene which seems to arise from the combination of Greaves’ extremely keen eye as an editor and luck bordering on the mystical. The scenario creates its own sight gags. They’re glorious.

And the scene itself, like Symbiopsychotaxiplasm the larger film, and like my review of Symbiopsychotaxiplasm the larger film that I’m currently writing but will have already written by the time you’re reading this, is an exercise in evading acknowledging a lack of a larger point. Like a Rube Goldberg device, it doesn’t actually do anything, but also like a Rube Goldberg device it doesn’t actually have to do anything. The endless series of distractions from the possible lack of a something, in this case Greaves’ fictional film, is the something. Several shots of individuals are held speaking about what the film is, attempts to bring it to the stasis of coherence, find their monologues drifting as the soundtrack picks up other people talking and the sounds of Central Park; their speeches aren’t entirely audible and this is the point. Life intrudes.

Even shots of the scene, when shown from the level of their straightforward being the “film” itself are shown from two slightly varied perspectives simultaneously with the same soundtrack and a gulf of black screen between them. The scene itself is split and there’s nothing at the center; if the film had been shot straight as a dramatic piece this all still would’ve been lurking in the background.

Greaves makes the most of his own purposely taken stance in the process as a non-entity and locus around which the chaos can happen in a number of shots showing him wandering around at a distance looking like a mock up of a man in serious thought. Greaves the comic cipher grows in cinematic presence/absence as the viewer figures out more and more the prank being played; by the end the slightest reaction shot was enough to make me burst out laughing.

Why this film took 35 years to be discovered is beyond me; I guess like a lot of other great works by black filmmakers from the time period it was suppressed by whatever forces institutional racism or philistinism decides to manifest themselves in that day. It’s better than the vast majority of what’s considered “avant-garde” or “experimental” canon by the Jonas Mekas crowd. Watch it.

Consumer Impotence, Consumer Rage: A Shot By Shot Analysis of “Dilbert 3”

A QUICK DISCUSSION OF RAGE COMICS

The “rage comic” has gained its incredible self-propelling internet momentum from its ability to funnel the repetitive rudiments of alienated consumerism into the universal relation of the cliche. The “rage comic” is always about either basic moments of anxiety or exaggerated disappointments in the consumer experience. Insofar as the identity of the consumer is specifically manipulated by peddlers of product into the binary relation of “consumes” or “doesn’t consume”, the consumer then internalizes this identity; the chaotic contradictions in the mechanism of desire must bleed around the corners of this constraint and seek the blood, metaphorical and actual, of others when the blood overrunning these corners runs dry.

Man-as-consumer, so wonderfully magnified and typified in the “gamer”, finds the origins of their constituted self in similar mazes of meaninglessness that promise no endpoint of actual gratification. The crisis of faith in the benevolence of consumption is reinforced in the repeated folktale of the consumer miracle. The vision of the Virgin Mary in a slice of toast, the statue that cries, becomes the vision of an Xbox at a garage sale.

Similarly the minutia of “fan” (re: consumer) identity are drawn out in seemingly hyperbolic terms of having lost or found meaning or truth. Their frequency would seem to suggest this as a collective homeopathic aversion therapy; if repeated enough times the intensity of the underlying real anxiety might be diffused; it no longer threatens because it becomes meaningless. In one way, this is a classic function of the joke; the outsizing of a dilemma to grotesque proportions so it can be written off as irrelevant while still being engaged. That these jokes tend to repeat themselves over and over suggest the illusion of their confident sarcasm.

The users of internet messageboards like Reddit, where a large portion of rage comic production goes on, can frequently be found in the throws of bipolar shifts between blind gift giving (“Random Acts of Pizza” etc.) and angry lashing out in all directions at each other and anything outside themselves that threatens the tenuous illusion of community on which the message board users draw their impetus to continually recreate the message board. The hive mind, because of its constituent complexity, tends to push its individual components toward more and more simplified forms of expression and the repeated use of cliches as a lingua franca to bond them into a sense of unity. The ultimate thing the user desires is a sense of community; for a universality of experience that can bond them beyond the glass barrier of the screen. This bonding of course can only take place through the medium of the screen and as such can’t actually be reached or resolved; it can only escalate in tone.

Rage comics work on endlessly recombined images of exaggerated emotional states and sarcastic commentary so that they can resemble a lot of people. In the chase to resemble each other they chase their own tails; the celebrity of the internet is not the exceptional person but the sum total of the internet’s desires; the internet’s 2.5 children; its hyperreal. The hyperreal is that which is more real than the real and no more is the more real than real the reality than on the internet.


A DIALECTIC OF YOUTUBE VERNACULAR AND YOUTUBE AVANT-GARDE

Realism in the Youtube video gives little romance to the present. Endless videos detailing recent purchases of DVDs and video games and Oreos by people alone in sparse rooms and empty kitchens are too directly of their own present to be anything besides an evasion of something else. The thing evaded must be presumed to be the frightening simple legibility or chaotic illegibility of their interior life; it’s only in the automatic visual writing of things like memes that this turbulent arena of the interior briefly presents itself.

The narrative tension of the video below: will a woman eating Doritos on her couch like them or not? For over 9 minutes, she pulls chip after chip from the bag like petals off a flower. “Do I like them? Do I like them not?” And by this oft-repeated exercise the product blogger strives toward some greater weightless grace in which to dance the courtship ballet between layman and Dorito.

As the crisis of the self in the present is very much the degraded quest for meaning (“meaning” in the abstract is pretty much always the constitution of the contours of self), the most effective proponents of the avant-garde come to their effectiveness not in terms of insight but in the space where the cycling dialectic between blunt recognition of the real and the hallucinatory approaching the same object/lack collide into train wrecks that survey their own wreckage in the reflected glow of their own combustive friction. Nowhere is this disturbing glow more brilliantly reflected than in the short animation “Dilbert 3”.

I’d give a specific trigger warning here but I’m not sure any single one would suffice. Do with that what you will. Definitely NSFW.

This video explores an undercurrent that was already present in the actual Dilbert comic strips. As a blurb for one of the collected books states: “Millions of office dwellers tack Scott Adams’ comic strip to their walls when murdering the boss is not an acceptable option.” In Dilbert 3, the enigmatic filmmaker only known as Cboyardee explores the conflict of sublimation in the Dilbert figure; the socially impotent employee/consumer. The best way to explain what’s going in this video seems to be in a shot by shot analysis, so follow along with the captions…

The internet message board’s mythology; the expression of the psychology of the product internalized. The product cannot be sated; it answers positive attentions with tone deaf and increasingly diminished repetitions of itself until their through-line is revealed; their essence: a voice that says “buy me” in slight distortion of the range of tones a person says “love me.”

In Marx’s formulation “first as tragedy, then as farce” lies an incomplete dialectic; a thesis and antithesis with the synthesis conspicuously absent. Dilbert 3 is a product of this synthesis, the thing that is simultaneously tragic and farcical and neither.