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ELEVATOR TO THE GALLOWS
- Great works of art bring new recognitions

A man enters a lift, and the music begins. The trumpet is played with a mute, hypnotic, seductive, a lethal envelope of aural honey. The man is on a mission. The man is suffused with desire, he is turgid with lust, from his toes all the way up to his malfunctioning brain. Actually, his brain is bifurcated. One part is racing as fast as a sports car engine, making the calculations necessary to carry out the task he’s set himself. The other part has seized up, unable to see right from wrong, wise from cretinously foolish, up from down. The trumpet rises, reverberating in the lift-well, pushing the man up into white light, sucking him down into the maw of black disaster.

The man is dapper, a dandy. The man is vain, he looks into the mirror a lot, and he likes a lot of what he sees. There may be the beginning of a paunch, or one solidly established already, but the man concentrates only on pushing out his proud chest. In his mind he is still the paratrooper he was in his younger days, the elite stormtrooper, the hero, the path-breaker, the lamp-lighter, the one who was bold enough to go on missions for which no one else would volunteer, the one who always came back alive, unlikely victory achieved, a swathe of bodies left behind.

The man likes to dress well. He is vain and proud and smug. He sees himself as a one-man army. He doesn’t mind stepping over a few screaming, damaged people to get where he wants, as long as there isn’t a single fleck of blood or muck sticking to the fine textiles he wears. The man loves the limelight, he loves the spotlight, he loves the flickering strobe of awed, adoring attention. He loves the cameras — all of them — the still ones, the video ones, the surveillance ones, the publicly flashing ones and the secret ones. He loves the cameras that focus on him almost as much as he loves the ones he focuses on other people to satiate his prying gaze.

The man loves the sound of his own voice. He uses his voice a lot, often to great effect. In fact, you could say the chief attribute of his public persona is his voice and his ability to manipulate language. The language that issues out of the man is not very elegant or beautiful, nor is it particularly truthful, but it is effective in achieving its aim, which is the propulsion of the man to greater and greater power. The man actually mauls the language, brutalizes it, but the language in turn helps the man damage others. The language the man uses occasionally lacerates. At other times it creates a smoke screen, helping the man recuse himself from all responsibility.

The man deploys language like a seasoned thug uses a favourite cosh. He loves to say things like “Will you answer me or not? The nation wants to know!” or, smiling, marinaded in deep self-satisfaction after a bad mimicry of a regional dialect, something like “Mai janta hun aap kya sunn-na chaahtey hain (I know what you want to hear)!” Yes, the man often slots himself into the place of the nation and he often says things he knows people will lap up. The man has no sense of self-deprecation, he can say things like “as someone who works deep in the gutter” or describe something he has done as “the Watergate of Indian journalism”.

The man espouses great beliefs, or great faith in god, or great patriotism, or all of the above. But look hard and you will see this man has no fear of god, no love for his people, no tug of conscience pulling him back. Look hard and you will see a spinning man, a man whirling very, very fast, a gyre, empty at the centre, as gyres usually are, a whirlwind of malevolent energy sending everything and everyone he touches into toppling rotation. People trip and fall, break bones and spirit, some even come under the wheels of the man’s chariot, stray dogs cut in half by brakeless ambition and power-lust.

Fast forward the film to where the trumpet lacerates the soundtrack as the man gets deeper and deeper into a trap of his own making, into a self-created chakravyuh from which there may be no easy way out. Even as glory and triumph and the rewards of unpunished crime sparkle almost within reach, the man is pulled back and down by fate or historic circumstance replying to the accumulation of his past actions. Suddenly the man is outside the elevator, hanging on the cable as the cage descends on him. From being at the top of the pyramid he becomes a man condemned by the history and geography of which he’s ignorant, of the history and geography he has tried to deny.

Great works of art have strange effects. They make you see things in new ways, sometimes they come out from the back of your mind and nudge you into strange recognitions and connections. Louis Malle’s first film, Ascenseur pour l’Échafaud (Elevator to the Gallows), is one such work and it’s been on my mind a lot these last two weeks. Initially, when people discussed the French New Wave in India, the film crept under the critical radar. Now it’s clear this was at once a great film noir in the best kind of homage to that Hollywood genre as well as one of the first truly innovative strides in what became the New Wave. Without giving the game away for those who haven’t yet seen it (the whole film is available on the net) there is a couple in love, there is the woman’s husband who is in the way, there is a murder and there is an elevator that plays a large role. Being a great piece of cinema it does what exceptional films do: it holds together tightly, creating something greater than the sum of its parts, and yet different elements from it — Jeanne Moreau’s performance, the elevator, the brilliant soundtrack by one Miles Davis — just to name three, develop graphs of their own. These elements invite you to make connections that are not literal but which carry their own truth.

Francis Bacon’s diptych and triptych paintings also have a similar effect. In the triptych that recently sold for a record sum you can ostensibly see the same man, Bacon’s friend (and equally wonderful painter) Lucian Freud. But, as you look, you also perceive three different men, each with his own grotesqueries, each trapped in a similar net of straight black lines, the distortions echoing each other, the black lines reminding one of those old lift-cages you used to find in early 20th century buildings. As you look, there is a pulsation: the one man becomes sliced into three, and then the three coalesce into one. The painting (or paintings) speak of many things, not least the impossibility of always being able to recognize someone you think you know, but also the impossibility of looking at just one person without recognizing the others that reside within that cluster of personalities. Over the last few days, these two European works from the 1950s have thrown for me the best light on the end of 2013 in our country.