Tuesday, July 30, 2013

REKORDER (Mikhail Red, 2013)

Argentinian writer Julio Cortazar authored the originary short story entitled "Las babas del diablo" which in 1966 was first adapted to film by Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni with the title Blow Up. In 1981 it was given a fresh spin by Brian de Palma and he entitled it Blow Out. Both movies recommend themselves, even as they take liberties with the raw material provided by Cortazar's story, supplementing and transplanting it accordingly (in Blow Up, the hedonistic Britsh Sixties; in De Palma, the politcal conspiracies of Eighties Philadelphia). Today, Mikhail Red locates his own version in present-day Manila and updates his predecessors by choosing the character of a former cinematographer from the 1980s over Antonioni’s effete fashion photographer and De Palma’s sound effects technician. The results, it must be said, are not unworthy of Cortazar, Antonioni or de Palma. This effort will do the illustrious cinematic name of the Reds proud.

In raw and graphic detail, a montage of surveillance footage that depicts actual crimes caught red-handed prefaces the film. Homicides and robberies are documented unawares through CCTV cameras. These, we realize later, are not throwaway imagery but germane to the story. Rekorder starts in earnest in a police patrol car, where a man named Maven is being transported to a lineup of suspects while the police officer intimidates him with a story about a rabid dog he run over. Stark-eyed, Maven remains po-faced throughout.

The truth is, Maven remains either stoical or unaffectedly dazed in a kind of deadening dream for most of the film. For someone who was once a thriving camera man in the golden age of cinema in the 1980s, he exhibits the look of someone shell-shocked. He speaks with a hollow, spectral voice that feels out of step with the times. He has seen better days and he no longer, presumably, looks at the world with a tinsel gleam in his eye, but perpetually through the lens of an old, obsolete video camera. His last remaining means of living is to illegally record films in theatres, and his last remaining employer is a film pirate who pays him more out of friendship and charity than anything else.

Maven's camera is not as obsolete nor without value as it first seems: it provides him a kind of illusory lifeline, it is like a holographic device that projects a time warp, and serves as his effective lullaby. What does he see? What does he hear? The sight and sound of an absent daughter. There is a genuine sense of consonance between her absence and the captured desolation of the metropolis. Seemingly made up of fragmentary images that would cohere in time, a great deal of the beauty of Rekorder lies in Red’s own version of a city symphony – more moody, more sorrowful, less thorough, rather rough and ready, but no less evocative than Dziga Vertov’s or Walter Ruttman’s.

Maven's estrangement from a sense of committed or principled witness seems total: the camera serves as a partition and mediation through which he explores a dark and lugubrious city. That is the kind of city he has chosen to document day after day – a city that seems to have let him down, a city that is darker than it is bright, a city that seems perpetually dark. So we see captured images of blind minstrels, the stagnant traffic of Edsa by night, the bright lights of high rises that must illuminate happy gatherings, except that they all seem too remote to Maven. He lives alone in a cramped apartment, cocooned by walls full of movie posters, and shelves of his personal archives. Something has estranged him, and perhaps traumatized him, in the past.

But one fateful evening, with his camera perpetually running, he comes across a mortal crime in the streets. Even when he is confronted by this certainty, howewer, he refuses to volunteer the truth and surrender his camera. Perhaps because the rest of the contents of his video cartridge – the results of his movie piracy -- will also incriminate him. There are also other reasons in his refusal to help -- perhaps an anomie born out of wounded witness -- no, not in the service of society’s amelioration.

The question that Red poses with Rekorder seems to be the same question posed by Antonioni and de Palma in their respective films: the burdensome nature of guilt, of suspicion, of truth. But Red forwards his own dimension of decisive conscience, personal as well as social, as an option. Red maybe less metaphysical than Antonioni, but he is no less eidetic and poetic: his protagonist knows what he has witnessed, it is no illusion or a trick of light, or a trick of photography. Videocameras are by nature less prone to falsehood, after all. De Palma’s sound technician, on the other hand, is not certain and must grapple with technology to ascertain the truth. Red identifies his protagonist as a refugee from a more proactive, activistic era, when the first Edsa Revolution took place. If he is meant to redeem himself, Maven must confront the ghosts of the past, a sense of guilt and hurt, deep moral and ontological questions: the personal, or could it be perhaps the historical that feels too personal?

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