Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez’s documentary/avant-garde/film feature Manakamana is an unusual movie. Obscure, demanding and requiring a large degree of patience, the film will undoubtedly alienate some audiences. However, it is also a highly rewarding audiovisual experience: one which allows us to explore the nature of cinema as a medium and to discuss what various people mean when they use the word ‘cinematic’.
Definitions of the term ‘cinematic’ can be represented simply (and reductively) as two opposing poles, the content of a film versus its form or aesthetics. The first definition is commonly associated with the content of mainstream and Hollywood cinema: explosions, chase sequences, ‘high-octane drama’, unrealistic romances, etc. The second definition revolves around questions of medium specificity: how exactly the cinema is different from the other arts. From the first film theorists of the 1920s and 1930s (Rudolf Arnheim, Siegfried Kracauer, Sergei Eisenstein etc.) through to André Bazin of Cahiers du cinéma fame and beyond, critics have constantly attempted to formulate a definition of the medium which accounts for all its peculiar components while additionally attempting to posit what the greatest works of cinema can and should achieve. While there is no real reason to believe that car chases and explosions are less specific to the medium than say the long take or the montage sequences found in the films of Sergei Eisenstein, this conception of the ‘cinematic’ generally, although not exclusively, places the art cinema at odds with the bulk of mainstream entertainment, valuing those artistic in nature over those industrial in nature.
Through a simple description of the ‘plot’ (if it can be called such) of Manakamana, it becomes easy to decide which definition of the cinematic we can ascribe to the film. Manakamana is set entirely onboard a cable car, shooting its numerous passengers through a static camera set up – perpetually in medium shot (or the waist up) – that appears to the last the whole duration of the film. However, it soon becomes clear that the film is constructed from a number of long takes, each lasting the whole duration of a cable car ride, with the camera periodically altering its perspective (yet this is never made too obvious as cuts are hidden by the darkness of the cable car station) and at one point exchanging its safe cable car interior with a open-air trade carriage filled with squealing goats. There is little dialogue, no narrative (unless one considers the departure and arrival of the car as such) and an emphasis on the photographic image and the sounds of the surrounding forest, its sporadic villages and the working parts of the cable car. Throughout the film we are left to our own devices: encouraged to scan every cm of the frame just as the passengers sitting inside the cable do of their views, to explore the surrounding landscape of the cable car and to create our own personal narrative of the lives of the car’s numerous passengers. If there is a film which better demonstrates the cinematic theories of André Bazin (which can be crudely reduced to the formula cinematic realism = long takes + deep focus + ambiguity), I have not seen it.
Manakamana abstains from all those elements inherited from literary and dramatic forms – narrative, character development, dialogue and acting (it is apparently a documentary but I feel the lines between fiction film, documentary and video art are blurred here) – and replaces these mainly with just sound and image, a combination of elements frequently described as cinema at its purist. If ‘pure cinema’ is a term of any use – the phrase has floated around throughout film history, describing everything from the greatest works of silent cinema, to those of Alfred Hitchcock and the avant-garde experiments of Stan Brakhage and Michael Snow – it can surely be applied to Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez’s film. So, if this is an example of cinema at its purist should we therefore view it immediately as one of the greatest works of film art, as more important than films which are less pure?
Obviously such a line of argument is ridiculous and would fail to take into account various aspects of the film ignored by such a theory. While thinking about the film solely as pure cinema may not account for its value, I would argue that it is important to approach Manakamana in such a way at some point in order to explore its use of photography and sound design.
Manakamana is the name of a temple nestled in the heights of the Nepalese Himalayas. It is noted to be one of the most important temples in Nepal and the spiritual home of the Hindu Goddess Bhagwati. The film documents the pilgrimage of various Hindu passengers and tourists up into the mountains towards the temple. As described earlier, Spray and Velez focus their attention exclusively on the middle of each individual’s experience: the journey. We are never offered details of their origins or even a glimpse of their destination – the Manakamana temple is left hidden in the distance – yet the film makes up for such an absence of information by concentrating on smaller details, some of which are surprisingly funny, others poignant.Throughout the film, two questions continually returned to my thoughts: is it solely the act of capturing minutiae on film that gives these details significance? And how does the camera have the ability to make interesting what would in real life be excruciatingly boring?
Throughout the film’s 118 minute duration, its collection of 10 shots lasting nearly 11 minutes each, we meet an old man and a young boy, three metal-heads, a trio of chattering elderly women, two American tourists, one elderly woman who struggles to eat an ice cream and four goats among others. Some of the passengers carry animals which one assumes could be put forward in sacrificial gesture to the Goddess Bhaghwati: roosters, kittens and the aforementioned goats. While the metal heads merely joke about sacrificing the kitten and the goats’ future is left unknown, the image of the upturned feet of a former excitable rooster during the film final moments reveals his unfortunate fate.
Although to follow Verena Paravel and Lucien Castaing Taylor’s Leviathan (2012) – a film truly from another planet – out of Harvard University’s Sensory Ethnography Lab is certainly a daunting task, Manakamana is mostly a very successful film. While it is certainly challenging and repetitive at points, this never detracts from the beauty of its cinematography and its acute examination of the sounds of the cable car and its surrounding environment. Like the majority of works of pure cinema, it is difficult to convey the experience of the film through language. Manakamana’s story must be told through images and therefore seen to be believed.
As this post was originally written for Tyneside Cinema, regular readers may find that I have repeated some arguments/lines available in earlier blog posts.