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

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Random Notes and Updates

I am seeing fewer films now. Last film that I saw was WALL-E and there too I missed the beginning and ending so it does not even count. Last week I saw Mithya which I think is very good. I need to see it again to write about it in detail but I am already impressed by its handling of familiar Bollywood themes and narrative devices in a new way, and beyond that managing to be a moving (and sad) love story. Few months back I saw Hitchcock's The Birds and since then I am thinking on and off about it and mostly how Hitchcock manages to have two parallel films in one film - one narrative and one psychological - and what is amazing is that he never sacrifices one for others benefit, that is to say he respects all his audience and thats where I feel some of films lose confidence in cinematic medium by either mellowing it down heavily for audience or making assumptions that audience would never get that so why even try.

It is not the question of finding a middle ground. What Hitchcock shows is that both can be achieved. I understand that it is not applicable to all type of films but at least noirs and thrillers are tried and tested ground. I might not be making much sense, but I am just blown by The Birds, and I also saw Marnie few months before it and it was great too, but I am still not very sure about its end. It was too much explaining which I thought belittled Marnie's emotions and her past, and also the complex sexual relationships that the film builds. It almost came out as a Freudian medical document for a while. But visually it was flawless and then there are those great Hitctcockian scenes like the one where Marnie rides a horse and when it breaks its leg after falling, she shoots it. That is again an excellent example of what I stupidly referred to as 'parallel films'.

I was also reading Andre Bazin's book on Orson Welles with foreword by François Truffaut and an introduction by Jean Cocteau. It is very precise study of Welles' film, philosophy and legacy. I thought Bazin would be very scholarly and dry but he always keeps it interesting. Also, one more thing that I liked a lot is that Bazin never try to be an authority on Welles like these new age film writers who after writing a book on any famous director, and giving few DVD commentaries try to own the director. While explaining Welles cinema he freely quotes from other critics and directors. Along with it, I was reading Godard on Godard. It has collection of articles by Godard from his Cahiers de Cinema critic period and also essay on his films and on film medium in general. A very knowledgeable and critical book, time and time again, even without saying, it emphasizes to know history of cinema to really get it. Its involve pasts - of persons, of nations, or culture and of art itself.

Being one of the youngest art forms it gives us a unique privilege to see cinema grow in front of us and it is indeed a prism through which we can try to understand the growth of any cultural medium and how it encompasses both - the cutting edge crap and the ultimate beauty. I have not completed the book but reading the reviews by Godard excites one about possibilities of cinema and it definitely paints a portrait of a young man in love with cinema. His reviews are enthusiastic, sometimes even using hyperbole, especially when he passionately writes about films of Nicholas Ray (Those famous quotes “And the cinema is Nicholas Ray” and “If the cinema no longer existed, Nicholas ray alone gives the impression of being capable of reinventing it, and what is more, of wanting to”). I, myself, am quite vary of over-enthusiastic reviews – reviews where critical facilities are either blinded by, or defensively used to justify personal liking (beware of the fanboys). Those reviews often seem to be exercises to prove reviewers opinion of the film – as if merely stating the opinion and supporting it logically is not good enough (Read reviews of last year’s No Country for Old Men and this year The Dark Knight might be the film). More often than not, Godard’s enthusiasm is for cinema and so quite healthy.

When we are at that, let me go little overboard and write something about the type of critics and criticism I like. My idea of a critic is foremost a moral being – it is a mandatory requirement – everything else follows next. If he is not moral, he will end up praising a Nazi Propaganda film because it is cinematically spectacular. Related to being a moral being, that person should have a strong and open heart. By strong and open heart I mean, he does not get carried away by emotional trickery but he does not miss the right note, when it strikes – no matter how low it is. It is that proverbial heart that cuts the crap and get the gem out. He should know the medium well – its history, its technique and its power – and to know it, he should be very diligent – read, eat and see films all the time. Also he should be able to foresee a film’s brilliance. It is an outcome if the critic has all the prior qualities and it is also to do with a critic’s ability to be brave and say what he feels like and his refusal to be part of “critical consensus” and admire the film for the right reason. And of course, he should love the medium.

As you must have noticed by now where I am going. In my stupid opinion, a film critic must be all moral, all knowing, all seeing entity, and if I may call him so without scaring folks, a god-like figure. And that’s where I fail, what where I forget that we are in a world which is run by people not gods. And that where I set a high bar and look up someone to give me opinions on how I feel or I should I have. Its little more tricky than this, you may like a bunch of critics or artists, which may collectively become god to you, the one who knows all, the one who sees all, the one who feels all, but it is certain that your god will fail you sooner or later, and it is same for you too. As one sees/reads more and more, he might think he raised his standards artistically, but most of the times we are just intelligent enough to distinguish between cinema verite and candid camera. Because of this itch to "get" the film sooner, most of the times, judging comes first, and feeling next, at least for me. I hope I can reverse it.

Along with it, I am seeing lots of South Park, and I really like it. I did not like the South Park film much which I then thought was quite uninteresting in second half, but few of the episodes are "super awesome", to use Cartman's phrase. I think two of the best episodes are about sports - Stanley's Cup and The Losing Edge - both of which satires the team spirit, sportsmanship and associated public hysteria for sports. My other two favorites are about our obsession with video games and its characters - Good Times with Weapons and Make Love, Not Warcraft.

Coming back to film, few weeks back I saw Jonathan Demme's The Truth About Charlie. May be I saw it wholly in a Hitchcock frame of mind and therefore thought of the whole plot as McGuffin. The director uses the whole plot as an excuse to show Paris and to show his idea of romance and romantic city. A beautiful woman, Regina (played with old Hollywood grace by Thandie Newton) is in Paris and gets involved in the criminal past of her recently deceased husband and the money he left, where she is helped by a mysterious man whom she falls in love without knowing his identity. Again this film falls in 'two parallel films' theory but here one of the film overpowers the other. The suspense and the thrill doesn’t hold up to the romance in the air, or may be its just for me. Looked to me as if Demme’s whole heart is in romance and he was just cheerleading the thrills.

And at last I saw Paul Verhoeven’s cult classic Showgirls and it is indeed an excellent film. I was so impressed that I saw two more of Verhoeven’s films – Starship Troopers and RoboCop – both of them are good, Robocop slightly better than Starship Troopers, but none of them is as good as Showgirls. All of them are parodies not so much of current culture of show business, media hype, nationalism and militarism, but of story ideas bred out of these concepts, so these films can even be considered as parodies of our ideas of narrative, where things fall in places at odd moments to augment our emotional responses and to give us a feel of a story. Like Showgirls is a parody of the story idea “a star is born” or “that sexy go-getter bitch”, RoboCop is of “a hero savior” and Starship Troopers is of “the world is ours” or “shoot that alien”. What Verhoeven does it to add lots of humor into it and its that kind of humor which is considered sick and enjoying it more so. During the audition scene in Showgirls, one of the male manager asks a topless girl “I am erect, why are not you?.” The sex and nudity of Verhoeven’s film is not without purpose, they are obviously for titillation and he does not mask his intentions. I think, he is one of most shameless and fearless directors we have, but if you watch carefully his parodies are not without moral center. Last year I saw some of his more open Dutch films. The Fourth Man is very good and some sort of a homoerotic version of Basic Instinct. Soldier of Orange is quite good too. I also saw first 20 mins of Black Book but I don’t feel too keen to complete it.

Other than that, I saw three short films by Mike Kuchar. Mike Kuchar is considered the master of camp by many and his films are act of Vandalism, a form of good natured sabotage, as he explains his idea of camp in an interview. It will take long to discuss his films and whatever little I saw of his work, he has some resemblance to Guy Maddin's work. It may not be at a thematic level but somewhere they both cross their paths and even walk together for a while. A good write-up on him and his brother George Kushar here. After seeing his films I tried to read Susan Sontag's celebrated Essay on camp, which did not make much sense to me, mainly because my basic idea of camp is a way to fight intellectual dissection of ideas and when Camp as an idea is intellectually dissected, its looks like homage to Bresson by adapting his film for theatre. Also, I recently watched Terry Zwigoff's thought provoking film on R. Crumb. I am now trying to get some Crumb comics in my library (I doubt it though) or internet. More on that later.

Pic: Illustration by R. Crumb. Image source.