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

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Notes on Hiatus...

I am not able to blog for sometime now, as I am trying to settle in a new place. I am trying to see films, but not much. In last few days I have only seen two good films Rope and Late Marriage, and apart from that I saw Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums for a second time, which I think is a great film. I blurbed about some films in my last post, but I didn't write about few other films that I saw then, mainly because I was not able to get anything in them. The front runner in those films was Daisies. I still don't understand it after reading a bunch of reviews. Visually, it is very innovative with novel use of colors and cutting. Thematically with its pure negation to narrative and structure, I initially gathered that the film is against order and convention of any type, till I read an interview where the director, Vera Chytilová, herself refuted that. I think, I should see the film again. The other film which I tried to see, but did not complete was Sergei Parajanov 's Color of Pomegranate. Whatever I saw of it, I liked it. Its a series of set pieces, more controlled and less populated than a Fellini film, and with great folk music. This is the film I need to complete, when I have some time for myself. Due to this general uneasiness of settling down, I am not able to see the remaining De Palma ( Blow Out and Carlito's Way are still pending) and remaining Altman (no McCabe & Mrs Miller, no The Long Goodbye for me) which I promised myself last year. Still not opened account for Visconti, De Sica, Naruse, Mizoguchi and Lang. Apart from that, I have four pending series, Scenes From a Marriage, Berlin Alexanderplatz, Sátántangó and The Best of Youth. I have watched only one or two episodes of each of them. I feel like a stupid kid who likes a secondary subject, which is of no importance to grades and is generally considered waste of time. In the real world we live in, there are always more important things to do. I know, I should not crib like this, we should get two basic-bitter codes of society as soon as possible - Films are just for fun and you should grow up - but, at the same time, in our own capacity we should try to fight both of them everyday !

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Notes on Few Films.

Waking Life, Richard Linklater, Clip

Waking Life is filled with philosophy nuggets and musings but what makes us float through this dream is the ever-changing, ever innovative animation (It uses a technique called Rotoscoping). As the protagonist moves from one dream to other, one alternate reality to other, we see the tone and texture of the animation change, which creates a hallucinatory effect with the transformation of the static filmic space to some free floating dynamics of planes. And on top of that, all the talk makes sense too, as overlapping philosophies of heterogeneous world views which are buried in our minds. The film moves from Post modernism to existentialism to quantam mechanics to freewill to film theory to posthumanity to reincarnation (Here it is seen as "a poetic expression of collective memory") to realms of sub-conscious. In one of most entrilling episodes, one of the character discusses a story by Philip K. Dick. With a film providing so much of theories, but it rightly hints that "active thought is nothing without active action".

Spirited Away, Hayao Miyazaki, Trailer

A little girl, Chihiro, whose parents get transformed to gluttonous pigs, is lost in the world of the dead, where in order to survive and get her parents back, she has to remember her past, the tiniest of the memory will help because if you forget what you are, you can never return. As much the brilliance of the film lies in creation of Alice's wonderland - the world from a child's perspective, so as in its fable of goodness of a child, an uncorrupted human soul. Visually the film is filled with set pieces, but it doesn’t overwhelm, and condense to a series of experiences with little messages hidden inside. The bath scene of the dirty river has so many things to notice, foremost is the mastery of the visuals, also "washing" of a river and the way it "throws out" the waste point to the ecological pollution, and third and the finest is Chihiro's uneasiness with the river, may be some reminiscence of her past. Of all the subtle teachings, the most important is to remember the tiniest of the past particle. Also, in all these Japanese films, in their happy ending and smiling people, they manage an inherent sadness of moving on. When Chihiro leaves the amusement park, the close up of her hands with Haku’s, is a little reminder that this farewell will haunt her all her life, like all good and bad experiences that serve us to perceive and feel what we live through today. Chihiro may have come out wiser from the ordeal but she is still bound to her past.

Millennium Actress, Satoshi Kon, Trailer

An actress tells her story from childhood to fame, along with her unending journey to find her love. The film is a blend of reality of her story and the fantasy world she created in her films, and vice versa, we never know for sure, it is a film in a film or her life story. This blend is delightfully warmed up with Satoshi Kon's deep affection and love for her diva and the film medium. Although I haven't seen many Japanese films, but one of the character she plays closely resembles the type of character played by Setsuko Hara in Ozu's films, particularly the hair style. From such observations, it seems that the film also tries to pay tribute to all the leading Japanese actresses, and in itself through the life of a actress traces Japanese cinema history. The story starts with a very vivid montage, as our young heroine walks and the background show the history vignettes. The film has few references of the politics and rebels of the post war Japan. Also we can see some really fantastic animated sequences, especially a chase sequence which comes later in the film, where the actress is shown chasing her lover over time, in different costumes and it different places. As I said earlier, this scene can be viewed as a montage of her films, or as a glowing snippet of her life.

Little Otik , Jan Svankmajer, Trailer

[Spoilers Ahead]This was my first encounter with Czech animator, Jan Svankmajer, but it doesn’t contain much animation, arguably the best is the penile hand animation animizing the pedophilic gazes of an old man. But there is enough surrealism in straight images here. Karel and Bozena, a couple incapable of conceiving, see the images of children every where, in the food market, inside water melon, in flooded prams. Once, in an attempt to comfort (or rather amuse) his wife, Karel carves and polishes a tree root to make a baby figure, and gives it to Bozena but to his own amusement, our Virgin Mary takes it for her real child and starts breast feeding him. The real trouble starts when the tree truck comes to life and becomes an ever-hungry monster-baby, Otik, who in time to come will not even spare his creator. The most interesting character of the film is young Alzbetka, daughter of Karel and Bozena's next door neighbors, who observes the young parents and in them see striking similarities of Otesanek fable (which probably is known only to her). Alzbetza is the all-knowing heroine, at least she thinks her to be so. The wicked matchstick game she invents, the way she uses her charms as bait to get Mr Zlábek in the net, the way motherhood springs in her are all fantastic episodes of the film, and of Alzbetka hyper-conscious psyche. One of my friends used to say - even on risk of hate-gazes from both sexes - nature has played a cruel trick on woman to give her maternal instincts, otherwise with all the trouble she takes, she would have killed the baby. Once he got married and became father, he showed severe maternal instincts. I don’t know, was it societal conformity that mellowed him down or maternal juices did actually flow. Little Otik surveys not the desire to multiply but this desire to be called parents, which is more of a societal acceptance need, than the true animal instinct. The way the whole apartment building becomes interested in Otik-family and the way Bozena creates a perfect pregnancy, did result in havoc afterwards. Jan Svankmajer's take on parenthood is not only how-to-react-if-you-bear-a-monster, but the very romanticism of becoming parents, and as we can see no one, not even little Alzbetka, can escape that.

Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait , Douglas Gordon & Philippe Parreno, Trailer

I am not of fan of football, but you need not be so to appreciate this documentary. Great music, on and off the field. As Zidane mutters and yells something in a language I don’t understand, as he toes his feet on field scuffing grass with his boots, running, constantly looking for the football, his faces charts the aggression and tension of the moment, and the spirit of the sport. Highly recommended.

The Science of Sleep, Michel Gondry , Trailer

The Science of Sleep charts the same waters as Waking Life does. If Waking Life, in its punk philosophy and drunk images, creates a dreamlike world, The Science of Sleep tries to do the opposite. It creates a real world from the figment of dreams, and using an unique visual design and animation, an animation that you could make by cutting papers and sewing stuffed birds, directly out of arts and craft workshop, it brings about a tangible world. Its a film born completely out of imagination of the director, but more so from the child-like imagination of the Stéphane, who befriends Stéphanie, his next door neighbor. Soon he falls in love with her, but is unable to communicate that to her, except in her dreams. So he has devise ways to get in her dreams and say what he wants to. The problem with Stéphane is mix of shyness and the ever hovering fear which rejected lovers can promptly understand - the fear of rejection, which lovers try to reduce by looking for the right way, the right time and the right person. Stéphane, for sure, knew that he has got the right person. So Stéphane keeps on giving wrong hints, on and off the dream. In a perfectly unnatural and dreamy sequence, Stéphanie, who shares Stéphane's ideas of creation and world such that she shares his dream world, understands him. The ending is so sad, because it’s so dream-like.

What Time Is It There?, Tsai Ming-liang, Trailer

Along with his mother, Hsiao-kang, a roadside watch seller, living in Taipei, is mourning his father's demise. He meets a tourist from Paris, Shiang-Chyi, who wants the dual-time watch that Kang is wearing. Kang refuses first, but later, on insistence, sells it off. The girl goes to Paris but takes along with her the feeling of dislocation and displacement. Kang's mother becomes obsessed with the return of her husband's spirit, and starts making food at the time which is more comfortable to him, starts blocking any light to enter the apartment because she thinks his spirit will be more comfortable in darkness, which irritates Kang, because after his father's death, he has become afraid of dark. After the return of girl to Paris, he himself starts living in Paris time and watching French films. He tries to set the time of every watch; he can lay his hands on, to Paris time. In Paris, the girl with her fair share of ennui and loneliness stares at fellow people on the subway and sits in her apartment in her solitude. Tsai Ming-liang's frames are so devoid of any geographical trait that it seems that alienation and loneliness are not place specific, they are universal. Preceding climax, the film bursts into three duals; Kang gets hooked with a prostitute in his car, Shiang-Chyi with another Asian girl in her apartment, and the mother with her husband's spirit. After the sexual burst, every thing comes back to where it was before, but we see that the characters are little relieved but still painfully aware of the their loss and loneliness. In the very symmetrical frame of the last scene, an old man walks towards a big circular ride, which looks like a big clock, as if getting engulfed.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Sadaat Hasan Manto

The writings of Sadaat Hasan Manto, Urdu short story writer, are characterized by sharp wit and cynicism, compounded by his personal vagaries (some of them he invited himself) and the turmoil of his times. Some of his writings are available online in English translation. We know that much of the Urdu melody and irony is lost in translation, but even then Manto's caustic ideas and world view comes forth beautifully. In his famous short story, Toba Tek Singh, he describes the transfer of "lunatics" between India and Pakistan, as they exchange war prisoners. Some of the lunatic behave like political leaders, some don't want to go anywhere and others have lost the idea of which part of the world they are in. In an adsurdist plot, Manto points to the trauma of the displaced and how it will live for ever. The story can be read here. If you can read Urdu, you can find the Urdu pdf on the same page.

Manto wrote nine letters to Uncle Sam between 1951 and 1954, out of which four are available online in English translation. These letters are witty and a sign of what is about to come as US imports to the developing countries, the ill-fitted modernizations, the arms and ammunition, and the wars and battles, that will reduce these nations as "small" players in the big game. These witty letters are filled with references to persons and events, which can be read as his sense of future for the new-born nations - political hopelessness and cultural-devastation of his folks through the hands of the Uncle, which no one can see then. The Urdu pdf of one of the letters can be found here.

A short biography of Manto here. More translated writings here and here.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will and Some Stray Thoughts

Triumph of the Will, Leni Riefenstahl's film about the Nuremberg Rally of Nazi party is widely known for two reasons - the sheer artistic mastery and the propagandist intentions behind it. It was made in 1935 and with most modern technical skills, it tries to capture the "greatness" and "majesty" of the event and force behind it. The film starts with the aerial shots of clouds and then hovers over the city of Nuremberg, follows the Führer and the cheering crowd and the gallant speeches, all with a soaring musical score. For a viewer, its foremost importance is as a film document to show that how the effective use of film making techniques can makes one soar, even if there is nothing up there. The series of virile speeches look like the audition for the part of Hitler in some future film. The various shots of Hitler, larger-than-life messiah, are lofty as the zeal and number of the crowd cheering him and the men at his service. Its all about the promise of a nice near future, provided you be good. Its all about the smug hypothesis that we are better than others, and we have some mission in life. All is big and beautiful. All is about power and being powerful. In a way, its all what we usually like. But before turning into one of the following - Riefenstahl's apologists or Riefenstahl's detractors - we must think that in Führer-times, is anyone left with any choices other than his, can there be political innocents in such time, can there be any independent film making possible to make a purely historical film in such times and if it can, what cost and courage it required. And in addition to it, we must always have deep faith in the human soul which is by nature, essentially corruptible especially with the charm of power and the powerful.

While watching this film I began to think on some line which are not exactly related to the film but closely brush by (beware, incoherent rant follows!). And that is partly related to what Tarkovsky said about cinema, he said "Cinema is a sad art because it requires lot of money." In present times, where we say and hear all the time that we are free and we are not living under any dictatorship, how should we see studio films? Is it a freedom that we get as a resultant vector of artistic urge, commercialization, cultural conservatism, and current political ambiance or just a more wholesome form of dictatorship? How far a director has gained any freedom from the system, and more importantly, as an artist of his times, with the urge to create, is an artist justified in fulfilling his epic dreams. Imagine Michael Cimino making his epic Heaven's Gate with Nazi backing, as preposterous this thought may seem, but it looks that the artistic urge to create grandeur might let one suck money from any source and accept patronage from anybody. Is it justified to work like a court-artist (rather a corporate artist), even if one is able to save ones art (Leni’s work is almost flawless too, especially for her times), or in present times, is it the way to save art and give back some ideas to the society, as Altman confesses in the commentary track of The Player, “we all are just 'players' in this big game” and something at the end of documentary, The Corporation, also points to that. How far can an artist go? Does this artistic urge, can overpower ones morality, or obscure ones sense of judgment, as long as it fills the art-shaped-hole. Are these film makers not Little-Eichmanns? Is artist answerable to his/her art and nothing else? Is ambition of such pricey perfection, in films and its execution, equivalent to artistic Nazism, and does it come natural to an artist to achieve and communicate a particular thought or idea. Do we have to accept it as a demand of the medium? As you can see, such stray thoughts go no where, toggling between extremes, fading to acceptance. But these “art-sans-morality” and “big-ticket-art” thoughts do make us, as a viewer, realize that all artistic triumphs are not true and all art is not divine.

Friday, June 01, 2007

United 93

There is something purely uneasy about the connection between viewers and the films of certain type. We know that even if the film is not inherently manipulative, but due to its particular type, its effect on viewers, who in his natural instincts take everything emotionally, become little dangerous. For such films, it is not good enough to be non-manipulative, but to consciously resist and check any easy response by the viewer. The mastery in film making is not in exactness of camera angles and editing, but in the ability to make a decision, a moral artistic decision, of the effect they can have on the viewers and is it what a director wants. This is one of the main areas where United 93 disappoints.

When I was talking about the effect of the film on a viewer, I was not talking about other viewers, I was saying that based on my own experience, i.e. one particular experience. But, the point I was trying to make is quite general though, the point that whether this film grips you to an extent that you stop thinking, which is not a response we expect from a film based on such a issue.

I am purely against that a film should have any moral teaching, but I totally want a film to have a moral center (mystically we can call it 'soul'), I don't expect an alien with hi-tech know-how making it. It is no denying fact that United 93 is impeccably designed and executed, but it lacks that moral center because the fragment of recent history which the film so immaculately re-creates loses any meaning, what so ever, in its monumental aloofness to the space it is derived from, with no umbilical chord joining it to the rest of humanity, and that's why what we experience in this film are our basic animal emotions - fear, anger, pity, horror, hatred and repeatedly getting excited - which without any moral fulcrum falls flat as an excited angry fist pounding the chairs in the cinema hall.

As a film that sets out as a tribute to the lost, unintentionally(?) ends up being a two hour high octane thriller, providing all the cinematic thrills for general consumption, United 93 and the films of its neighborhood, need to do some serious thinking. United 93 makes history more painful for those who were connected to it directly, and make it more thrilling for the others. If at all, it just says one thing in all its gritty realism - see it all happened to us.