{Of all lies, art is the least untrue - Flaubert}

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

The Time has Come...

As the cliché goes, the time has come. I will be on a trip, starting today, to Bangalore, Hassan, Belur, Halebedu, Kalasa, Kudremukh, Hornadu, Mangalore, Udupi and back to Bangalore. I don't know much about the places, just read about them on internet. I am taking my camera along for company. I will be back to Hyderabad next year. So, its the last post for this year.

About personal life, it went fine, but I am sure it will take some drastic turn next year. Professional life was good too, may be because I don't care much about it anymore. This year was not a good year for me film-wise, I was able to see about 80 odd films out of which 20 were Bollywood/Hollywood types. There are few films that I saw this year, that changed the way I look at them and were immensely satiating. Here are few of them:

Fat Girl: I was surprized by the audacity of this film and the way Anaïs say, "Don't believe me if you don't want to". Highly recommended.

Ten: It is the most experimental film I saw this year. Out of the ten episodes, there are few that are alarmingly heart breaking and true. Dancer in the Dark closely follows as runner up in the experimental category.

3 Women: The performance of Shelley Duvall is extraordinary. Either she acted too well, or she is like Millie in real life.

Week End: An example of art of the extreme type and film making of the highest order. Its disturbing as heavens and funny as hell.

Kinsey: I always felt that biopics are not film-material in any way but this film proved me wrong.

Late Spring : Another film by Ozu that proves that you can make same film with same cast year after year without losing an iota of novelty. The last scene where the old man peels an orange is even more painful than the farewell of Noriko.

Code Unknown : Its a crumbled masterpiece that shows us how fragmented and interconnected our lives have become.
I have a feeling that I am missing some films in this list, but one can always write next year !

Few directors I discovered later this year

Robert Altman : A truly American director. He visualized our society as a troupe sitting under shade and sunlight of a big banayan tree stage, with life of hopes and dreams crossing each other, ruptured and reared by the sentiments of family, sex, politics, race, cast and condition.

Mike Leigh : A truly British director. I saw three of his films this year, Naked, Secret and Lies and Vera Draka. Although we know he has mellowed down in all these years, but what strikes in his films is the human chord, the perfectly believable characters, the sentiments without going sentimental.

Brian de Palma : A true successor of Hitchcock. The Prom party scene in Carrie is like a greek tragedy (In Indian tradition, one can vaguely equate it to the story of Kannagi), everything good and bad is destroyed, and the climax says that this tragedy lives on. And above all, orgasmatic crucification of Carrie's mother by flying knives.The Museum scene in Dressed to Kill, is a great example of how camera can do all the menacing and peeking. Its also an example how a simple hooking scene between strangers can be turned to art. Reviews of his films here.

In Bollywood films, I liked Jaan-e-man, Khosla ka Ghosla, Lage Raho Munnabhai, Gangster and Taxi no. 9211, in that order. I found Rang de Basanti, Omkara and Dor quite overrated, in that order.

Reading wise it was a bad year but I think it was better than the previous one. Thats all I read.
1) The Sorrows of Young Werther
2) The Old man and the Sea
4) The Importance of Being Earnest (text here)
5) The Overcoat, The Nose and Dead Soul
6) The Stranger
7) The God of Small Things
8) Short Stories (Parinde and Kavve aur Kala Paani ) by Nirmal Verma (Anubhuti profile here)
9) Poems by Nagarjun (Anubhuti profile here)
10) The Quilt and other stories by Ismat Chughtai (more links here)

and Alok, I still include short stories along with novels :)

Happy New Year to all !

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Gong Li

Now it is the time to write something about her. I was almost enticed by her small role in 2046. Doomed gambler of love, thats what she plays. I find something sensual of higher order in smeared lipsticks (I even liked Urmila Matondkar's lipstick smearing act in Pyaar Tune Kya Kiya). 2046's final passionate kiss is very erotic, potently dangerous and doomed like love. But nothing come close to the way Gong Li leaves the frame in 2046, with out of bound lip color. I don't remember it fully but I found camera almost fixed on her hand wearing a black glove, carrying a purse and her hips as she climbs down the stairs or may be she walks out on a paved road. At that time, I gave all the credit to Wong Kar-wai. But the next film (The Hand segment of Eros), although also by Wong Kar-wai, proved how she can elevate and blur the line between desire, love and pain of its impossibility. The Hand is more explicit and shorter than 2046 and In Mood for Love, and so it might not work on their level (also, we have the same by Kar-wai many a times), but Gong Li makes every thing delectable, delicate and delicious. Gong Li has power to utter words in a way they mean both rejection and approval, with a firm face, and it all points to a dangerous territory ahead. She is just opposite to other excellent actress, Isabelle Huppert. While Huppert is so bland, covert and distant that what ever little precise emotion she displays gives sublime pleasure, Li displays an oriental mix of emotions, spicy and suppurated, its both pain and pleasure to watch her simmer and sigh.

I saw Raise the Red Lantern last week and the younger Gong Li as as good as her consummated version. The film starts with her close up where she accepts her fate and then she moves on a journey of power, family politics, sex, betrayals, deaths and finally madness. The film, shot in beautiful reds, is a mix of traditions, entrapment, soap opera and alienation, works like a Kafka-like parable. Gong Li's Songlian tries to play the game of the house like the other sisters, trying to be as sinister as them, but eventually loses everything, but in all this she becomes our window to the dark secrets of the house of red lanterns. She elevates this visual treat to something universal and bigger than its parts. Gong Li's Songlian longs for VIP foot massages and the red lanterns, not for the company of the master but for the power it brings along, and as the game becomes more complex, she single-handedly injects ghostly hysteria into the film. Li manages to became a living ghost in the house, a token of all the misdeeds and family secrets, consumed by both. She has gift to fill atmosphere either with unbearable longing, or amorous danger, or both. I must see, To Live and Farewell My Concubine soon. And I think she must work with Almodóvar and Lynch at least once. In Lynch's film, she can even speak Mandarin, it wont obscure the film further.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Robert Altman and American Cinema

When an artist dies, instantaneous interest is generated in his works among general public and his works are revisited by critics. I had not seen any of the film by Robert Altman, till he was alive, although several times I was just about to rent his films (last to last week, I shortlisted two films by Robert Altman and two by Mike Leigh, and decided to rent the later two), but I was intrigued by his films as they appear from reviews (great opera of a wide and varied ensemble cast with a central event having small scale character studies in particular, and American culture in general). I must admit that I have a general prejudice against American films for no solid reason, given a choice I will always choose the other.

Earlier this year, I compiled a list of directors to watch, country-wise, and intentionally left American directors. If this a confession box, let me confess, I have not seen even a single film by John Ford, Terrence Malick, Francis Ford Coppola (saw one of the Godfather, many years back on TV, I don't remember anything from it, not even the score by Nino Rota), John Huston, Howard Hawks, Robert Aldrich, Michael Curtiz, Vincent Minelli, Sam Peckinpah, John Cassavetes, Brain De Palma, Buster Keaton, Nicholas Ray, Sergio Leone, Andy Warhol. I have seen on film each by Orson Welles (its The Trial, not Citizen Kane) and Douglas Sirk. So, the only American directors which I have seen are Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, Stanley Kubrick and Billy Wilders. In the contemporary directors I score bit better. I am more or less alien to the genres of Film Noir, Musicals and Westerns.

So demise of Altman, not only generated interest in his films, but American Cinema in general. To cleanse some of my guilt, I have planned to watch films by Altman for 2 weeks and following is the list I came up with, and in that order.

The Player
Gosford Park
McCabe and Mrs. Miller
Brewster McCloud
3 Women
Short Cuts

Planning to write short notes on these films once I complete them. This list is based on reviews, trying to get a mix of his old, new and cult films, and more importantly the availability of films here. If you want to recommend any more Altman films (or any American director and films), please do so. You can help a poor soul in guilt-reduction.

A heartfelt obituary to Altman here. A more comprehensive one here. Altman's sketch by a fan here.

Vera Drake

The tagline of the film says - Wife. Mother. Criminal. , but for sure Mike Leigh is not interested in trifurcating Vera Drake into these boundaries or joining these three into one character. Its the humanity of Vera and the film that touches us. Here is a simple story of a old woman who helps young woman out, alongside being a mother, wife and a daughter.

The film is clearly divided into two parts - the one where Vera do what she thinks right, and the other where law do what it deems lawful. The debate whether she is right, or law lawful are skipped, there is no statements of sorts. The moral fulcrum of the film lies in the eyes of Vera, played with amazing beauty by Imelda Staunton. In one of most absorbing performances, Imelda Staunton plays Vera with so much common-ness that her quagmire mirror the times she live in, and also to some extent touches the ideas of social acceptance of personal morality. When asked by a detective whether she performs abortions, she says that she don't understand what he is saying, she says she just helps out wretched girls in trouble. No doubt, she is part of some bigger game, which caters the upper class and she is being used, but Vera assistance to girls and women who need some help, is purely personal. Like other such films (Talk to Her, Dancer in the Dark), Vera looses the battle with law.

Towards the second half, the film veers into full fledged melodrama, like the complete turn in Vera's life. Although Vera understands her fate, but she is more worried about her family, and Leigh paints this film about humanity with master strokes, with the help of an excellent cast. The leading among them is Imelda Staunton, whose one look, when the detective come to arrest her during the Christmas party, is more than devastating in a split-second, to say the least. That one look provides such complex feeling of care for the family and acknowledgement of the danger on the doorsteps, danger that will not only engulf her and her respect but her family also. Others in cast are also excellent, especially the odd couple Ethel (Vera's mousy daughter who works in a Bulb testing factory, played by Alex Kelly) and Reg (a lonely neighbor, whom Vera invites at home, played by Eddie Marsan). Reg provides the emotional high point of the film when he thanks Vera for the Christmas party and declares it "Smashing", its seems to be the sincerest form of gratitude to Vera (and at the time Vera needed it most). He, later in the film, even defends Vera for her stand in his simple statement, 'It's all right for the rich if you've got six kids, but if you can't feed them, you can't love them.' Mike Leigh is master in making such credulous characters without even a hint of caricature or stereotyping.

At one point, I thought that Leigh has set up stage for first gaining sympathy for all-good Vera, innocent mother helping all others and then using this sympathy to bring forth emotions as Vera is convicted. But I think there is something wrong in this logic. Her decision to do abortions may be because of several reasons (at one point when the detective asks her whether she was raped when young, she starts weeping) and Vera's goodness is not to cover that up, never in the film, her goodness tries to cry out of a scene. I am not too sure about this, one line of thought may be that she could be made not so good (having some rough edges) and then the response to her actions may be more equivocal than for the all-good Vera, but having said this, Vera's character comes out so real and believable, every detail of her character smells of stoic compassion, that I would not like to doubt director's intentions.

This film is not without a moral center, it is not neutral or just observational, but the film is more interested in the nature of family, humanity and morality. Vera Drake is a film about an issue, without either being condescending, preachy or falsely pretentious but more importantly, its a story about a good person and her world (society), and what it takes to be so. Vera Drake lets us believe that such people exists.