Thursday, January 29, 2009

Decalogue and Mahabharata-4

Before I start any film by film discussion of Decalogue, it's important to talk a bit more about Kieslowski, his times and his philosophy of filmmaking. Kieslowski was born in Poland, the country devastated by world Wars, first and then by the Communist rule. It was a case of life in a regimented society, full of compromises, humiliations and semi-slavery. Poland was so broken in terms of its creativity and vigour that even a small hope was a big thing for them. After the end of the Second World War and particularly after the death of Stalin, this country got a bit of functional autonomy to run its affairs. There were only a couple of cultural constants which saved the emotional make-up of Polish people, the first was their Slavic heritage and the second was their Catholic Christianity.

 Kieslowski himself suffered not just because of Polish situation but also because of his destiny. His father was constantly suffering and was moving from one sanatorium to another. It's a rough estimate that he moved 40 times before the age of fourteen. There was a constant yearning for a social anchor in terms of home and connectedness. Whether you call him a traveller or a refugee, it hardly makes any difference because this got transformed into such an experience that to him, the absolute-ness of the surroundings lost any meaning. To him, they were a kind of disposable entities which may be necessary in one context but maybe totally unnecessary in the other. Of course, his beginning was in social realism. He made a lot of documentaries and after that, a series of realistic films. But he was changing in between that. After the No End and Blind Chance, he started showing signs of frustration with the social picturization of reality. His films wanted to go beyond the obvious truth. This was a time when he ventured upon the project of the Decalogue funded by the Polish Television. But this is also the point where he no more, remains a Polish person. Decalogue transformed him or perhaps, the other way round.

Decalogue is a serious and a rare film project for which there is almost no equal parallel in the film history of the world. Kieslowski has been a director who turned out to be the favourite topic of the film scholars across the world. Dozens of books, monographs and articles have been written upon him particularly by those writers and thinkers who were much interested in his approach to filmmaking and life itself. The author of the current monograph has benefited from the works of lot many scholars like Joseph G. Kickasola (JGK), Marek Haltof (MA), Agnieszka Holland (AI), Danusia Stok(DS) and Annette Insdorf (AI). I don't claim to discover any new aspect of filmmaking of Kieslowski. This is a subject quite adequately covered by the existing scholars. What I am interested in is in the philosophy behind the film project of Decalogue and its relationship with Mahabharata in an inter-textual sense. I also need to make it very clear right in the outset that I don't want to force Mahabharata upon Kieslowski’s Decalogue. The most important motivation behind this is that a text and it's essence is not almost confined to a language, to a space and to a time. There is no denial of temporality rather what this work is interested in is to highlight the existence of non-temporality within the forms of temporality. Boundaries do exist; they are needed in order to make forms but all forms are painted on a canvas which is formless. There is always a link between the form and the formless which provides the threshold, a kind of limen thus by giving an element of liminality to the human action and the representation of it in the creative pursuit. What makes Kieslowski remarkable is this particular tendency which is quite similar to the situations of Mahabharata.

            The choice of Decalogue i.e. the Ten Commandments is not very clear because Kieslowski has not said anything categorical in this regard though we can trust his screenplay writer, Krzysztof Piesiewicz, “We wanted to go beyond Polish iconography to get rid of that unbearable polonocentrism: the constant weeping, the paraded pain and the conviction that we are the centre of the universe.” It is also said that he was also the prime motivator for Kieslowski behind this project but these issues went into the realm of the least relevance once the series unfolded.


Commandment(Roman Catholic Enumeration)


Kieslowskian theme


I am the Lord thy God... thou shall not have other gods before me.

The sanctity of God and worship

Idolisation of science


Thou shall not take the name of Lord thy God in vain

The sanctity of speech

Names as fundamental to identity and moral choice; the importance of one's word in human life


Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.

The sanctity of time

Time designations (holidays, day/night. Etc.) as repositories of meaning


Honour thy father and thy mother

The sanctity of authority

Familial and social relationships as regulators of identity


Thou shalt not kill

The sanctity of life

Murder and punishment


Thou shalt not commit adultery.

The sanctity of love

The nature and relation of love and passion


Thou shalt not steal

The sanctity of Dominion

Possession as human need and temptation


Thou shall not be false witness against thy neighbour.

The sanctity of truth

The difficulties of truth amid desperate evil


Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife.

The sanctity of contentment

Sex, jealousy, and faithfulness


No shalt not covet the enables goods

The sanctity of contentment

Greed and relationships

  The main argument pursued in this project is the posed in the form of ‘theory of traces’ which may be understood simply by assuming that there is a bit of everything in everything. It's like doing away with the dichotomy of big and small. It's like interchanging the characters of the finite and the infinite in such a manner that the question of dichotomy itself becomes a non-issue. This is not much different from what Soren Kierkegaard says, “Existence is the child that is born of the infinite and the finite, the eternal and the temporal, and is therefore a constant striving.” This kind of principle has been operational right in the Mahabharata since ages. Whenever this text is analysed, it's not just seen on the one level of narrative. There are lots of interventions within the flow of writing that it seems that the text is being reinvented and being rewritten right in between the story. The entry and exit points of Vyasa particularly have this feature working around them. The structure of narration is like a story within a story and again story within the story. It is not a series of concentric circles but the link is not missing. All stories do have their context, relevance and a kind of vibrancy. Still, they fit into a chainlike phenomenon without creating any definite structure. That's why it is being said that there is a bit of everything in everything which is what Decalogue also symbolises. The plot is there but it does not dominate; it builds a climax but there can be a series of climaxes before the final climax. So, there seems a break in the continuity but the break itself carries within it the element of continuity. So it's a simultaneous existence of plot and counterplot or it can be said that at one-time, there is a plot and simultaneously, it is being intercepted by another plot. They may be parallel or not but in the final sense, they create a very complex principle of narration which defies a structure. This particular element is so much visible in Decalogue that its resemblance with Mahabharata becomes quite natural to me.

Any plot is constructed around the intersecting stories of self and the other but there is something common to these stories, the space that contains these stories. This space might be called life itself but what is more important is that all stories are plucked out of this space. They might get autonomy of their own but they are not non-contextual. The autonomy can be a complex phenomenon to describe but the simplicity of rooted-ness is more difficult to explain because of the strong reasons of amnesia which an autonomous system generates within itself in order to entrench itself. The physical incarnation grows on a diet of self-sustained ideals and behaviourism. This particular feature needs to be explained a bit more in detail. A story carries an illusion of completeness around it which creates a sense of feeling that the world outside it does not exist. This kind of forgetfulness is essential to the existence of story as story. But forgetfulness can also be deceiving factor. The realm of autonomy is vulnerable to losing the distinctive understanding between independence and alienation. There is always something immediate to any spatio-temporal situation which might be confronting or intersecting in nature though not a participant in that situation. Scholars are not wrong when they don’t bother to over-emphasize the political and representational issues in the films of Kieslowski as stated by Joseph G. Kickasola, “Of course, representational and political issues should have a strong presence in film studies, but I argue that too many film scholars have abandoned formal issues, to the detriment of the field……. I will pursue a tendency in Kieslowskian style, with a focus on two key formal issues: immediacy and abstraction. I believe that writing about style deserves more theoretical rigour and in Kieslowski's case, the style has direct bearing on how his films communicate.”[1] He’s quite right when he says that for Kieslowski, the question of ultimate reality is not so much a scientific matter, but is humanistic one and an intentional question spanning human needs and the objective world. Kieslowski's work goes beyond telling a story and even beyond showing.

[1] Kickasola, Joseph G. (2006). Page –xi in the preface of The films of Krzsyztof Kieslowski: the liminal image.  The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc., New York.


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