Yorkshire Times
Weekend Edition
Steve Whitaker
Literary Editor
3:24 PM 5th November 2018

The Poetics Of Fragility: A Video Contemplation - At Settle Stories

Lata Mani
Lata Mani
The subtitle of Lata Mani’s unusually affecting new film gives a precise encapsulation of the intended mood. The inherent brittleness of the human condition, the fragility of those who, often for reasons beyond personal control, find themselves cut adrift in an ocean of disillusion or alienation, is the film’s contemplative focus.

Conceived mostly against the backdrop of the turning of the Pacific’s tides, the film unfolds narcotically, as though to encourage a sense of acquiescent abandonment. That the ocean is a symbol of endless renewal encourages the visionary imagination towards an ironic quietus, which is not death, but a yielding up to the idea of amorphous subsumation. Except that the ocean is more than oceanic in the liminal sense: it is also a symbol of enduring power, and thereby a vast and serviceable metaphor for the obverse of human fragility – strength. Lata Mani expands:

‘The Poetics of Fragility was shot in the San Francisco Bay Area. The Pacific Ocean is a key witness to the human dramas unfolding in this space. But the film is also about fragility in nature. The steadiness, rhythms and tides of the Pacific are potent reminders of time and timelessness, the cycles of nature, seasons of retreat and return, quixotic human dreams and changeable moods. The magnitude of the ocean proposes its own scale and frame. It puts things in perspective. We breathe out, literally and metaphorically.’

Acknowledging the inherence of seemingly contradictory impulses, the film is amelioratively encouraging rather than prescriptive, and it is characteristic of a unique species of insight that visual realisation should feed and inform the idea of acceptance as a precondition of making wholes, where minds are otherwise dissolved in a solipsism of the negative. For Mani, this proclivity amounts to our greater exposure to the deconstructive elements of transformation and renewal:

‘The opening sequence dramatises not human affiliation with the destructive, so much as our tendency to be more aware of the ‘taking apart’ aspects of transformation than the ‘remaking’ that it simultaneously involves. We live in interdependent impermanence. Everything is continually transforming, our bodies, nature, all that is alive. Fragility is a natural consequence. Without fragility there can be no change. Yet we tend to be surprised and disappointed by this truth. We fear fragility as break down or break up. The poem that opens the film honours this common response and asks how we might open to both aspects of transformation. It should be clarified that we are speaking here of fragility that is integral to nature as against forms of individual and collective vulnerability that are the result of unjust social arrangements.’

This last is a crucial distinction, and no doubt why stories of self-laceration, of terrible loss, of abuse, are counter-intuitive in a place of unrivalled opulence and golden sun. The disjuncture reminds an audience seduced by the beautifully-realised widescreen vistas, of Quentin Crisp’s corrective that whilst the US is nirvana for some, it can be hell on earth for those many without a dime.

... or the requisite emotional investment. Whilst prudent to distinguish between endogenous factors and the disparities of unjust social arrangements, Mani’s examination sheds subtextual light on an unavoidable parallel: that Capitalism in extremis is as inherently contradictory as the human mind is riven by its own indivisible predispositions. The film’s eloquent epithet - ‘fragility and strength exist in a pas-de-deux’ – might be turned to quite other uses.

But where the film anoints psychological dissonance with the emollient of lambently epigrammatic poems - which act, like Haiku, as spiritual guides – it is to therapeutic effect. Mani and Nicolás Grandi have created an aesthetic which is intended to act as a conduit for ‘the sensuous possibilities of the moving image for philosophically informed social inquiry’. The languidly beautiful and measured pace of filming invests the symbolic ocean with the suggestion of possibility.

The film’s ‘witnesses’ are emotionally itinerant, footloose, deracinated, as though sea-drifting. Polychromatic shadows of a multi-cultural Californian landscape – the narrative is focused mostly on the San Francisco Bay area - they are ‘blessed’ by the camera’s oblation. And where the profoundly affecting testimonies illuminate loss, grief and terminal illness, poetic insertions signify the advent of truth as catharsis. And each distils the balancing of the natural order in metaphors of renewed energy and hope: A gracefully abandoned bamboo leaf floats downward, whirling in its flight, as though learning to accommodate the vigour of life in the midst of its own death; the delicacy of a spider’s web bears unlikely strength, and endures; humans find the strength of reinvention in terminal decline – ‘The body narrating / a different vitality / in ageing’s cursive script’.

Acceptance, in this wonderfully evocative film, yields, in moments of calm, the lyrical tenderness of a quite other storm-tossed life: ‘Time held me green and dying / Though I sang in my chains like the sea’.

Poetics of Fragility will be showing at Settle Stories, the Joinery, Settle.
3pm Sunday 11th November
Followed by a livestreamed Q & A with Lata Mani
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