Eclipse Series 2: The Documentaries of Louis Malle

Discuss DVDs released in the Eclipse and Essential Art House lines and the films on them.
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karmajuice
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Re: Eclipse Series 2: The Documentaries of Louis Malle

#51 Post by karmajuice » Sat Mar 05, 2011 11:18 pm

I could care less whether those views are admirable. Clearly we possess the critical faculties to acknowledge that his perspective is limited and colored by his unfamiliarity with the culture. Those flaws are part of what I like about the narration. The narration is itself a document, like the footage: a document of a particular cultural perspective at a particular time. You must be expecting the film to present a flawless portrait of India, untainted by wonder and mystery, offering only the banality of facts. Malle is clearly not trying to make that sort of film. His narration reflects his process of improvisation: filming whatever comes to him, making of it what he will. The film, when you get down to it, is a travel journal which doesn't strive for objectivity. You can criticize Malle's perspective, but I think it's necessary to distinguish that from criticizing the film. You can object to the film on a moral level, but you can't accuse it of misrepresenting facts because I don't think it's trying to represent facts. It's conveying impressions.

Of course, you're certainly allowed to find the narration tedious for that reason, and I agree that he could have let the footage speak for itself more often. I just happen to find that aspect of the narration engaging.

(I also think you unfairly dismiss (or have forgotten) large segments of the film, like the episode which is almost wholly dedicated to the political climate in India and the struggles of the Communist factions.)

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movielocke
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Re: Eclipse Series 2: The Documentaries of Louis Malle

#52 Post by movielocke » Sun Mar 06, 2011 5:24 am

I'm not expecting the film to present a flawless portrait of India. I'm not even sure why that would be desired. I'm saying that the positioning of the film's perspective, the lenses it views through and the gazes it invokes are deeply problematic because the attempt to view India without racism is Still embedded with a host of problematic assumptions, the portrayal isn't free of racism, but it does portray an India as we like to imagine it, full of the exotic and the other. When Malle dismisses English speaking Indians as lesser and less authentic, it speaks of a desire to find a more pure India he imagines to exist and it brushes aside the realities of an India that includes English speakers who are often heavily influenced by British culture and mores. The sense of pureness is a facet of orientalism, where the westerner typically wants to see the 'authentic' meaning they want to see something different, or as they say in the language of critique, they want to see the Other.

Malle succeeds in delivering a compassionate portrayal of India that s free from the biases and portrayals that came before (the 30s Gunga Din, for example) which Malle and his generation naturally find to be disturbing and racist. The problem arises that even though they're trying to stay outside the obvious stereotypes, they are in fact still mired in a different set of assumptions that have their own orientalist and colonialist problems. It's very similar to the issues of representation that Native Americans face in United States.

I also think it is unfair to reduce Malle's work to a 'travel journal' in order to defend it. The film is a clear work of painstaking documentary. It was filmed on the fly in various trips, but it was assembled with clarity and purpose; it's not a journal-esque mishmosh of "my holiday in India". I also don't like the assumption that if we couch the film in a new different code word, "travel-journal" it makes the problems with the films' representations somehow more okay.

Personally, I'm not making a moral judgment when I describe something as having a problematic viewpoint. These things can be described without reducing it to a "who is more moral" argument. I do not in any way consider myself to have won a magical belief lottery that makes me more knowledgable or more moral than Malle or anyone else. I think it's extremely important to examine these sorts of things when I notice them rather than gloss them over or ignore them.

There is an extensive history of the West's representation of the Other as found in places such as India. Even when these portrayals are made in a way that is intended to be positive and unexploitative there can still arise significant issues of representation, perspective etc. Shedding ourselves of our ingrained cognitive biases and sidestepping our neural tripwire assumptions is extremely difficult. I'm not looking for the banality of facts, this is an unfair reduction to absurdity. To restate, just because I liked the picture tremendously does not mean I am willing to overlook the significance of the problematic assumptions and decisions that accompany a work such as Phantom India.

I find it extremely frustrating that I used the term the Other so often in this discussion. The concept of otherness is one of perception and digestion, how the west looks at, understand and does or does not accept something outside their typical vocabulary of experiences. But the term itself is extraordinarily charged and downright offensive. It's a common enough term but one that I'm particularly uncomfortable with, even when I find it useful to articulate a point I wish there a better way to signify the same meaning without using obfuscatory prose to dance around the issue of otherness without addressing it directly. Language is a powerful tool, and my discussion here is just as problematic, in it's own way, as Phantom India is.

karmajuice
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Re: Eclipse Series 2: The Documentaries of Louis Malle

#53 Post by karmajuice » Sun Mar 06, 2011 5:03 pm

I don't mean to reduce the work by calling it a travel journal, and maybe the term travelogue may have been better. I don't see how that's in any way inferior to a straight documentary form -- Chris Marker's Sans Soleil is among my favorite films and is often described as such. Nor did I mean to imply, by calling it a journal, that it lacks foresight and construction. I merely meant that the film was shaped by the unplanned incidents inherent to travel, and that Malle had no preconceived goal, beyond a documentation of his experience in India. It's rare to have openly subjective narration in a "regular" documentary; any narration is either "objective" or states opinion as fact (whereas Malle's narration is clearly relates his personal opinion). I don't think the film presumes to be a documentary "about India"; it is a film about his experiences in India. That's an important distinction, I feel.

Again, that doesn't justify the problems in his narration. But I'm not sure you're grasping my argument. I'm not arguing that these problems don't exist. I like the fact that they do exist. I like that the even more severe problems in Gunga Din exist. I like that they exist because they document, albeit inadvertently, the evolution of the West's outlook on India. I don't like Phantom India solely on this level, of course. It's a remarkable film and I think many of Malle's observations are strong -- but when we approach it in this light, we have to be conscious of his cultural bias (and our own, for that matter).

At this point, though, I almost feel like arguing in favor of Malle. His viewpoint is flawed and I don't always agree with it, but I don't think his perspective is indefensible. For example, if he's critical of the Western influence, it's an outgrowth of his critical feelings toward English colonialism, and should we not be critical of those influences, even if we understand how they can benefit the country? Is it wrong to find wonder in something which is new and unfamiliar? What about Malle's critical and uncomprehending attitude toward the caste system and their religious fervor? What of the moments when he favors Western influence? And how does one depict that which undeniably differs from our culture without making it exotic?

But that might be a subject too daunting to deal with casually on a message board, and one I'm not really qualified to discuss in any depth. I think it would be a worthwhile exercise, though, to dig into the film and discuss its strengths and problems in-depth.

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movielocke
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Re: Eclipse Series 2: The Documentaries of Louis Malle

#54 Post by movielocke » Mon Mar 07, 2011 3:02 am

karmajuice wrote:Again, that doesn't justify the problems in his narration. But I'm not sure you're grasping my argument. I'm not arguing that these problems don't exist. I like the fact that they do exist. I like that the even more severe problems in Gunga Din exist. I like that they exist because they document, albeit inadvertently, the evolution of the West's outlook on India. I don't like Phantom India solely on this level, of course. It's a remarkable film and I think many of Malle's observations are strong -- but when we approach it in this light, we have to be conscious of his cultural bias (and our own, for that matter).
hah, then we are in agreement.

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knives
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Re: Eclipse Series 2: The Documentaries of Louis Malle

#55 Post by knives » Sat Apr 16, 2011 3:50 pm

I really adored Place de la République. It's not as good as his fiction works, but it's a great excuse to explore unique personalities and that's one of my favorite things in the movies. The climax where everyone huddles around the cross eyed woman giving a monologue is just perfect.

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