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

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Ousmane Sembene's Moolaade

Ousmane Sembene's Moolaade is story of struggle between sexes in rural Senegal. A bunch of brave women, lead by fearless and upright, Collé, fight against female circumcision. Like Sembene's other masterpieces, this one is rooted in its soil but has something universal to say about the condition of women everywhere. In some ways it is close sibling to all those films that honestly observe condition of women in different societies (Kiarostami's Ten, Ray's Devi, Ghatak's Meghe Dhaka Tara, Mike Leigh's Vera Drake) and also those grass-root efforts that try to propel change in society (like the one Vidya points out here). I wanted to write about Sembene’s Moolaade for long because like other Sembene’s cinema, it is didactic and made with an ambition that it will elicit ground-level action from his country-men-and-women., which is such an antithesis to my understanding of films. I have seen many big ships artistically sink preaching in their last reels. It will not be an overstatement that I am scared of cinematic preaching, because by nature, its simplistic and shuts the doors of complex understanding, which equips us to slowly develop our own skills of both subjective and objective understanding.

Watching Moolaade made me excited about the possibilities of honest didactic cinema (actually Girish wrote about didactic cinema in his blog sometime back and took films of Sembene as an example of that), a film art so devoid of irony and so in your face that it engages you like an activist for a cause (like the women-folk in Moolaade). It remains a mystery to me that how it is done (I must say at this point that Sembene does not sacrifice cinema of image because throughout the film we notice the simple compositions of segregation and boundaries, and images with metaphors [a pile of radios snatched from the women and set to fire, with a worshipping place in the background]) but at the end of Moolaade, I not only felt for the cause and its victims, but also about tremendous power of such efforts and the change that they can bring to our societies. I am not sure, but the key is not to speak for them, but speak through them. Women folks, lead by Colle, speak for themselves – as women and more importantly as active members of society – caught between lines of tradition, religion and family.

It’s obviously not a story told as reported in a women’s magazine, but Sembene takes special care about whose voice is it? It is not the voice of a Senegalese woman who witnesses her fellow countrywomen in distress, it is not voice of a liberal man who acknowledges the barbarianism of his society, and it’s the voice of a woman who has gone though it and witnesses kids around her go through it. I think, it makes a lot of difference when the final confrontation takes place between men and women. It is a highly charged sequence which is staged like a street play where every woman comes out of “her” space, to the forefront and performs with passion. It’s a magnificent display of solidarity that things can be better for the next generation if they act now.

In an earlier sequence – one of those sequences which justify the existence of cinema as an art form - a quietly weeping woman who has recently lost her daughter during circumcision, starts to sing as she remembers her child and is slowly joined by other consoling women folks. One can only imagine the reaction (and be happy with lumps in his throat), when the film would have been shown to the people of a Senegalese village. All the standing ovations should have stood to respect that moment of connection between life and image under the open sky, as mothers – on and off screen - would have grabbed their sleeping babies closer to their breasts.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Ousmane Sembene's Xala

Ousmane Sembene's Xala (pronounced as "Ha-la") is the perfect example that a film can be preachy and profound at the same time. A funny and ultimately bitter satire on the socio-political state of his country marries the best of symbolism and directness, but all time remains connected to the land it comes from. Xala starts as a bunch of businessmen, shouting socialistic and nationalistic slogans, take over the power in Senegal. The next shot sets the contrast (previously they were wearing ethnic dresses, now they are in suits) when briefcases of money are handed over to all of them by a foreigner and they all nod in approval. The switch of power, a social change is satired with amazing narrative brevity. In the meeting, one of those businessmen, El Hadji (working in Food Industry), extends the invitation to all for his third marriage. This is no coincidence that Sembene aligns a social/political change in Senegal to El Hadji's third marriage. Both the symbolic and the comical power of the film lie in charting the similarity of their destinies.

After the meeting, El Hadji return to his first wife where his free-thinking daughter have an argument with him and says nasty things about the polygamists, which El Hadji, the vanguard of African tradition, finds detestable and slaps her tightly. Obviously it is his day today; he is getting a new virgin wife. El Hadji's wedding is an opulent affair (later we come to know where the funds are coming from) with who's who is Senegalese bourgeois attending it along with his two wives, who obviously feel out of place. Till now things go fine but on the wedding night, El Hadji was unable to have an erection and thus realizes that he is suffering from Xala - a curse that turns its victim impotent. Rebuked by his third mother-in-law, ashamed and humiliated, poor Hadji runs from one witch doctor to other but to no avail. One of the witch doctor advises him to "attack" the girl on four legs with a magic claw-like object between his teeth (may be like a tiger or something), and so does El Hadji which horrifies the young girl so much that she cries out of horror which is mistaken for the cry of ecstasy by her caring mother. Later, to the caring mother's disappointment, doubts are cleared that Xala is not gone.

El Hadji is Sembene's prototype of a man with no qualities. He is appropriating his country's wealth in the hands of foreigners and getting superficially westernized, and in the places he should really progress, he is using African culture and tradition as an alibi to keep the status quo. He is a man who selfishly tries to have best of both worlds - French imported water and a young African virgin third wife. The strongest character in the film is definitely El Hadji's daughter, Rama, with her first wife. A university educated, free thinking girl she is only one who confronts her father (she is also Sembene's didactic vehicle to the women), replies (to El Hadji's irritation) in native Wolof to her father's French questions, refuses to drink imported water, asks her mother to divorce her father and causes all sorts of free thinking trouble to a patriarch. As a testimony to the fakeness of El Hadji, Ousmane Sembene does something quite brilliant. When he was charged with corruption and was rebuked by the council, El Hadji, in a defensive mode, says that he will speak in Wolof. It is a classic case of prostitution of language for personal protection in the name of country and culture. This scene becomes so powerful because we know he is the same El Hadji who disliked when his daughter spoke in Wolof (it is to say he has no love or respect for any of the languages or culture but for what serves his ends). A character can not be stripped off in a better way than this. The downfall of El Hadji is not a symbol of his country becoming free from corruption and post-colonial malaise and quagmire, El Hadji is just one corrupt person in the whole game, and we are given the hint that the people following him are equally corrupt.

Allegorical to the core - as one of the fakir says "what one hand removes, another can put back" - Xala's power lies in its understanding of a post-occupation colony in which the power is transferred but the status remains the same. The last scene of Xala, which is partly a sign of role reversal (a sort of people's revolution against the corrupt bourgeois) and partly an allegorical punishment for his morally rotten countrymen, is so powerful, angry and humiliating that Bunuel would have been proud of it.

Monday, October 26, 2015

David Lean's Brief Encounter

With this year's promise to see more of Hollywood classics, I started the year with David Lean's Brief Encounter. This film is based on Noel Coward's play Still Life (he wrote the screen play too) about a provincial housewife (Laura Jesson, played by Celia Johnson) who falls in love with a married doctor (Dr. Alec Harvey, played by Trevor Howard) whom she meets briefly on train station. I don’t know about the history of evolution of film language, but this film seems to have broken grounds on at least two levels - the use of flashback in narrative, and the use of music and sound. Usually in films, the use of flashback cuts narrative back and forth from past to present. There is "now" and "then" segregation, the rift between the immediate and the gone-by. Here, the use of flashback is not to "tell" the story, but to re-remember it, which makes it a dream and so the boundaries are blurred, the occasional transitions between now and then looks like blinks of eyes, a slight fog of present over past, or the other way round - the way you want to see it. The use of flashback normally suffers from the narrative bane that we know the ending in the beginning itself. Lean does show us the ending in the beginning, but hides from us what that ending meant to the hero and heroine, rather beautifully, and when we see the ending in the ending, we rediscover what we saw in the beginning. We think how our heroine must have felt at that odd hour. Lean achieves this without any trick. The ending in beginning is told from an observer (may be director) point of view, but the ending towards the end is the part of the flashback and told from the intimate point of view of Laura.

Similarly the use of music and sound is very conceptual. The sounds of train - whistle, train announcements, shrill sound as they run to the platform - are used as emotional signals which decides when the lovers meet and part. As a social critique, the time table of trains and the ethics of platform decide when and how they can show their love to each other. Other effects like the cutting of light on the face of the person standing on the platform as a train fly past him, the fog of smoke that blurs the vision, the wind from a running train are also used to create the right atmosphere (remember, we are in a dream of flashback).Before Laura dreams her past, she turns on the radio which was playing Second Piano Concerto by Sergei Rachmaninoff. In the flashback, at the most romantic and sublime moments, the music comes back (in one of scenes the flashback, our heroine imagines a dance with her lover, a trip to Paris and Venice, as Rachmaninoff Concerto plays in background, it is again something awesome - dream within a dream with out-of-dream music). The film uses a lot of voice over, which in the beginning looks odd, but smoothens as the film progresses. And after seeing this I know what they mean when they talk about onscreen chemistry. Both of the leads are no great lookers, but when they are together they spark the screen. An intimate and passionate film that is as much visually satisfying as it is emotionally.

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Grave of the Fireflies

It may be sheer chance that I heard about this film, when I was more or less disillusioned by the depiction of war in films. Though I haven’t seen many war films, the disillusion was to an extent that I felt that any film that shows war or its direct effect on people is, to a certain degree, false and useless. It is a same trick that is applied by mediocre filmmakers to put their innocent characters in adverse conditions to extract the last ounce of emotion from the viewer, and since we know it is war and real people were involved, we understand any re-creation of it for any emotional gratification is grossly disrespectful. Slowly, I started suspecting all those war-as-background films too. A love story, a poor soul, survives in the brutal war. They look fearful of war, but quite ready to "use" it as a prop. Any film solely trying to answer the question, whether war is good or bad, is of no use, because we know the answer. So how to capture, except in documentary and war footage, those war images by facing them directly and at the same shunning any easy torture of the dead and past, how an artist deeply wounded by its effects (personally or on a human level) create it to express himself. And more importantly what to create, show suffering and pain or the personal triumphs, or in most cases a formulaic mixture of all such emotions. I don’t know any answers, and I also don’t want to enumerate what little I know so that it looks like some sort of a recipe. It looks that in such cases its better to go by instincts. You have to rather personally (and emotionally) judge the morality of the image projected. I know, it is true for any experience, but in these cases, a viewer need to be extra careful, lest the dead might die again.

Grave of the Fireflies is the story of brother Seita and his little sister Setsuko, who lose their mother in an air raid, have to live by their own, because their father was serving Japanese naval force and the other relatives, especially a paternal aunt, have gone indifferent as a direct result of war (the live action version of the film tells the story from the aunt’s perspective). The story, on an emotional level, is about the loss of the dear ones, but since it unfolds in wartime, in its most sublime moments, it contemplates on war.

Graves of the Fireflies, according to me, works extraordinarily as an anti-war film. Stylistically, the film has some important things that make it work. The most significant is that it is an animation film. Animation, as we know, can create powerful magic of mixing beauty and grotesque, graspable and distant, fairytale and surreal, and Japanese seem to have mastered it. Secondly, the film is essentially a recollection of past, told by a dead boy, who brings in two main themes of the film, one is that of the haunting memories of loss, and second is some sort of voice of the dead, and that too not from an adult's perspective. Its not a story told by the survivor, but by someone who is consumed, emotionally and physically, by war. The mix of these two, the animation and reminiscence of past by a victim, makes the film, at once - both direct (thats why very emotional too) and dreamy, a type of, if I can say so, amine-realism, where your emotions are as much for what you see on screen, as for the idea of such act.

When we see the malnourished body of Setsuko lying with a piece of melon on her chest, it is a powerful image of the human offering to the war god. Many such powerful images appear in the film, and with all the dread of doom, there are moments of childhood fun and pure aesthetic brilliance on the canvass. At times, the film rests on water color scenery with an evocative music in the background. One wonders at the very accurate facial expression on face of Setsuko and that childhood gesture of moving shoulders, standing at a place and looking down, when Setsuko wants to meet her mother, an expression a child uses to convey denial and demand, and a successive attempt (Seita starts doing gymnastics) by the big brother to cheer her up, with an extraordinary background score.

Akiyuki Nosaka, whose novel the film is based on, wrote it to come in terms to his sister’s death during wartime, which he blamed himself for. Nosaka, as a survivor, suffers with its guilt, which he doesn't try to absolve, but we must know that the death of Seita in the beginning of the story is some sort of spiritual and emotional death, not the physical one, and the recollection of images of past is an amalgam of what he wanted to do, and what he actually did for his sister in the inhuman time of war, and what he tries to tell us is something about the endless suffering of a survivor.

In an interview, Akiyuki Nosaka talks more about the novel. A review here.

Sunday, October 04, 2015

The End of Summer

Last night I saw, Ozu’s second last film, The End of Summer - a masterpiece of the order of Tokyo Story. I am not so taken away by a film in recent times, as this. It has all of Ozu's signature style (narrative eclipses [I am yet to see a death scene in an Ozu film], cyclic sequences [a farewell party sequence go like this - a shot outside the party inn with voice of people singing farewell song, inside the inn - people toasting, exchanging wishes, and finally a shot of outside inn with voice of people singing the same farewell song. There are innumerous examples like this], frame within frame within frame low-angle shots] and themes [marriage, inevitable change, death and family] and yet it is so fresh a work that one feels like seeing Ozu reborn. It looks awkward to say but this film is a surreal experience, not conventional surrealism but surrealism of conventions. What I mean to say - this film looks as a surreal experience in the way people behave, there is a veneer - the joy of seeing old man behaving like a child (the hide and seek between grandfather and grandson looks as if the old man is fooling his age and the death, The dialogue - "I m ready...Are you ready" - also echo this play of nearing death), a young girl preparing for a date when a person lie dead nearby and just before going out standing there in a one-minute mourning, the way a female relative first tries to joke about the old man and when remembers his joy for life, abruptly starts to cry at the funeral (a truly moving scene albeit the awkwardness), the shot of people in black at the funeral put next to black crows who come near the dead, the joyous moments of old man look more of the remembered past than present, the last words of the old man - "Is it this, Is it Really this !", everything makes some strange mixture of surrealism and social conventions, aided by a haunting musical score. Old man’s daughter in law , one of the most honest members of the family, later in film says something very insightful about the films and life both - she says " Father was so irresponsible, but some how he kept it all together". It is the old man who keeps the film together by his childlike charm and tantrums, and when he is gone what is left is a plain life. I also feel more comfortable with Ozu's pessimism now. It’s not a try-hard-feel-bad pessimism, and is therefore deeper down and stays with you. To put it pictorially, it is a canvass on which life, relations, human connections and interactions is drawn in an Ozu's film. Once they are gone, the bright fog (or light, like Ozu's films which are filled with sunlight) of pessimism and nothingness is left. It is nothing to be feared or run away from, it will be there always. Hence it resolves the paradox to see a film filled with life eventually pointing to its temporality and nothingness. Also, this film validates why Ozu made similar type of family stories over the years. To me, it looks as an exercise to understand how people behave in similar situations in different times. Women and men in Ozu's film might have gone wiser or more modern but are still trapped. They are trapped in "the cycle of life", as a paddy farmer says to his wife, seeing the smoke rise from the cremation chimney.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

David Lynch's Favorite Films

Here David Lynch talks about the films that he will show to viewers as an example of perfect film making. Obviously, his main focus remains on magic, mood, atmosphere, dreams and creation of new world. Excerpt taken from this book.

If I have to choose films that represent, for me, examples of perfect
film making, I think I could narrow it down to four.

The first would be 8 1/2, for the way Fedrico Fellini manages to accomplish with
film what mostly abstract painters do - namely, to communicate an emotion
without ever saying or showing anything in a direct manner, without ever
explaining anything, just by a sort of sheer magic. For similar reasons, I would
also show Sunset Boulevard. Even though Billy Wilder's style is very different
from Fellini's, he manages to accomplish pretty much the same abstract
atmosphere, less by magic than through all sorts of stylistic and technical
tricks. The Hollywood he describes in the film probably never existed, but he
makes us believe it did, and he immerses us in it, like a dream. After that, I
would show Monsieur Hulot's Holiday for the amazing point of view that Jacques
casts at society through it. When you watch his films, you realise how much
he know about - and loved - human nature, and it can only be an inspiration to
do the same. And finally, I would show Rear Window, for the brilliant way in
which Alfred Hitchcock manages to create - or rather, re-create - a whole world
with in confined parameters. James Steward never leaves his wheelchair during the
film, and yet, through his point of view, we follow a very complex murder
scheme. In the film , Hitchcock manages to take something huge and condense it
into something really small. And he achieves that through a complete control of
film making technique.

Out of these four, I haven't watched Monsieur Hulot's Holiday. I like Sunset Boulevard and Rear Window a lot. I liked 8 1/2 also when I saw it, but after seeing two ghastly self important and ostentatious films by Theo Angelopoulos, who claims himself in the same league as Fellini and Tarkovsky and arrogates to be influenced by them, I am feeling bit doubtful of Fellini again. Recently I saw Fellini's Casanova, which was really good, I need to see 8 1/2 again. Also, sometime back, I was reading this (an online discussion on David Lynch's recent book), where he claims that it is not required for an artist to suffer, in order to show suffering. I really doubt that.

Monday, September 07, 2015

The Cats of Mirikitani

The Cats of Mirikitani is a documentary about a homeless artist of Japanese origin, Jimmy Tsutomu Mirikitani, living and working on the streets of New York near the twin towers. After 9/11, Linda Hattendorf, who was making a documentary on him at the same time and has become his friend, took him to her flat in the hope that she can help him get some benefits like Social Security, SSI, and housing. Slowly Hattendorf learns about the his past and his art, and why he draws same things over and over again - Childhood in Hiroshima, concentration camps, a mountain and a lake with prison cells in front of them, red flames, peeking whimsical cats. The Cats of Mirikitani is a documentary about past, the expressive power of art as a voice and the healing power of human connection and mutual sharing of experiences.

Jimmy Mirikitani was born in Sacramento, California but was raised in Hiroshima, Japan. As a young man, he refused to serve the army (he says "he was not afraid but he was born to be a great artist") and came to US to study art and to become a visual artist, who will as he puts, "combine the oriental and western art forms". But during WWII, after Pearl Harbor, people (including US Citizens) of Japanese Ancestry are taken to camps (there is a controversy in the terminology here too, some call then "relocation camps", some call them "internment camps" and others "concentration camps". Whatever be the case wiki says "A number of persons died or were permanently injured for lack of medical care, and several were killed by sentries". There is a documentary on the other such camp called Topaz). Mirikitani was interned to Tule lake camp in California (which was a segregation center where those deemed "disloyal") and was cut from his family (his sister was moved to a different camp, Minidoka camp in Idaho). After the camp, the interns were moved to a frozen food manufacturing plant near Bridgeton New Jersey for the forced labor. Later, they were released and returned their citizenships, but Mirikitani never received his letter for citizenship because he has moved so often. In his last job as a live-in cook, when his last employer died, he was suddenly left without job and home.

All this trauma and pain from camp to homelessness has, by now settled in the old man to bitterness for this world. His contempt for US can be trivial when heard (after hearing the Bush's speech after 9/11 and what is being done Arab Americans he says "that’s what they do"), but given his past, looks justifiable. But all these years, Mirikitani continued to make art, and we can say that it became a therapy for him to deal with his past. His childhood in Hiroshima, memories of the camp (especially of the kid who died in the camp. He used to like cats and used to follow Mirikitani), Hiroshima bombing that wiped his mother's family, separation from his sister, became subjects of his art. With Hattendorf's help, Mirikitani was able to find some of his lost things - his US citizenship, his sister but most importantly a visit to the Tule Lake Camp where he met other people who came there to commemorate the past, and where Mirikitani shared some of his memories of the camp with others. The last shot of the documentary shows stoically satisfied Mirikitani sitting on the return bus from the Tule Lake Camp pilgrimage. It’s a truly satisfying moment for us, as was for Mirikitani.

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Today's Top 20

In no particular order...
  1. Tokyo Story
  2. Nights of Cabiria
  3. Ran
  4. Dairy of a Country Priest
  5. 3 Women
  6. In a Lonely Place
  7. The Cloud-Capped Star
  8. In the Mood for Love
  9. Ten
  10. Winter Light
  11. Bad Education
  12. Mamma Roma
  13. Days and Nights in the Forest
  14. Beau Travail
  15. Hi Mom!
  16. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul
  17. Distant Voices, Still Lives
  18. Beloved
  19. A Short Film about Killing
  20. Ordet

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

25 Favourite Non-English Language Films

The title of the post is stolen from here.

The list is intentionally uneven, and some films may not look like the best for that director, more like a second best or an effort to have a different list for the sake of it. There is definitely some truth in all these allegations.

1. Hour of the Wolf (Ingmar Bergman)
2. Late Spring (Yasujiro Ozu)
3. Jules and Jim (Francois Truffaut)
4. Beau Travail (Claire Denis)
5. Little Otik (Jan Svankmajer)
6. The Tenant (Roman Polanski)
7. That Obscure Object of Desire (Luis Bunuel)
8. Ran (Akira Kurosawa)
9. Ordet (Carl Th. Dreyer)
10. Fellini's Casanova (Fedrico Fellini)
11. Mother Kusters Goes to Heaven (R W Fassbinder)
12. Woyzeck (Werner Herzog)
13. Fat Girl (Catherine Breillat)
14. Monsieur Hulot's Holiday (Jacques Tati)
15. Amores Perros (Alejandro González Inarritu)
16. Meghe Dhaka Tara (Ritwik Ghatak)
17. Bad Education (Pedro Almodovar)
18. Yi yi (Edward Yang)
19. Weekend (Jean Luc Godard)
20. Fallen Angels (Wong Kar Wai)
21. Where's the Friends Home (Abbas Kiarostami)
21. Ten (Abbas Kiarostami)
22. Dairy of the Country Priest (Robert Bresson)
23. Medea (Lars von Trier)
24. The Conformist (Bernardo Bertolucci)
25. A Short Film About Killing (Krzysztof Kieslowski)

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

Treeless Mountain

A lesser film would have used its time and space to build a feel-sorry deposit box for our precocious young heroines (Jin and Bin) who are abandoned (left with their drunkard aunt) by their mother, but Treeless Mountain (like brilliant Nobody Knows)is more concerned to evoke a world that Jin and Bin inhibits from their POV, often giving this realistic film a dreamlike quality with simple observant close-ups in natural light, laced with brief shots of panoramic scenery showing passage of time, as they come in terms with loss and abandonment. The best thing about Treeless Mountain is two young precocious performers (a case can be made if they are actually performing), and something special always comes out when the camera stays on them observing their face as they observe the surroundings around them, these are the scenes where cinema comes close to a clear-slighted reading of a young, enduring mind and soul.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Coraline, Fantastic Mr. Fox and Where the Wild Things are.

These three films collectively caught up with the child within us. Their handmade craft and quirky imagination shows us a world which is not Pixer perfect. Films like Walle and Up are great, but un-child-like, they are films by adults (and I dont mean it as a compliment). One of the biggest eureka moment of my movie watching career was a realization after watching Kiarostami's Where is my Friend's Home. I realized that none of the adult in that film understood our little hero's state of mind, and that was the whole point. He was like a zombie cruising through an adult non-caring (When I say care, I certainly dont mean food, clothes and general nagging by moms and dads) world. Kiarostami treats him as a full grown human being with his own world around. His world is not incomplete, its just unlike ours. Max of Where the Wild Things are is one such creature too, with a different world and imagination, and his journey into the wild is his own exploration into his own imagination. Director Spike Jones gets that. Second thing about this trio is the hand crafted quality which is infinitely innovative (Mr Fox is so story-book-flat and its so amazing that way) and endlessly spooky (could Caroline be so spooky if it were pixered? Could Mr. Fox be so playful and rollicking otherwise, Could Wild Things be so child-like wild in an adult animated world), and to a kid, this craft looks somehow achievable - sew a button for an eye, make a puppet to dig a burrow, make a monster deadly but not without the possibility of friendship. How can an able child match the perfection of an able adult, that is cruel. Up has perfect balloons and chubby baby, quantum of nostalgia (or are they just fucking cute) for me and you, but plain quotidian for a different world. This trio is all about prolific puerility, a blue pill for the kids.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Bright Star

Bright Star is about Keats (Ben Whishaw) love affair with Fanny Browne (an excellent Abbie Cornish) during his last 3 years (Keats died at 25 of tuberculosis). Bright Star is an oddity, old-fashioned, apologetically romantic - about dreamers and their heartfelt love. Any sniff of wits is of no use here. The brightest moments in the film are where the lovers are together and feel the bliss, sometimes reading poetry and sometimes doing nothing, these quite moments of romantic ecstasy are deeply felt and treasured by lovers. Jane Campion creates elaborate period details without fanfare and her use of nature (all four seasons, bees, butterflies, flowers, fruits, lush trees, lakes, snow, rain, countryside, sounds of the nature) and poetry as a backdrop gives it a distinctive contemplative mood, a whiff of immortality (Fanny walks and disappears in woods as Whishaw read Keats' poetry in the last reels) to this unusually passionate and brutally short love affair.

Monday, July 06, 2015

24 City

24 City chronicles 9 first-person recollections (out of which 4 done with professional actors) of their lives and times in a state-run military factory complex in Chengdu, China that is being demolished to erect luxury futuristic apartments (eponymous 24 City). Jia Zhangke, a master of composition, records passage of time by juxtaposing the old and the new - a lady retelling an old story as the new constructions overlooks in the background, a modern young girl in designer clothes chokes while telling about her parents, getting a breath and strength by saying "I am the daughter of workers". Also Jia Zhangke takes notice of how fast landscape of China is changing. One thing which cinema is good at doing is preserving past. It should be noted that where as in Still Life Jia Zhangke was trying to preserve a collapsing landscape though camera, here in 24 City, it is mostly memories (untold and soon to be forgotten) attached to the factory complex. And when you deal with memories there is always a re-creation of past, and which involves imagination. So it is no wonder that 4 of the 9 interview are fictional accounts. It is not a post-modern approach to make it a pseudo-documentary but its like connecting unfinished story segments (Jia Zhangke took numerous interviews) and use fiction and imagination to fully comprehend and convey the feelings of the people involved. It also connects with the Jia Zhangke's use of pop culture to evoke collective memory of their times. Also, Jia Zhangke does something which I coined as "moving portraits". Moving portrait is a shot created when a subject stands for a still portrait but the portrait is captured as a moving image. The worst thing about photography is its lack of depth in terms of time, usually I am more interested in the space and time before and after the pose. Jia Zhangke does exactly that in his "Moving Portraits". It captures the sublime - the uneasiness, the pre and post-pose person, and by definition if camera lingers, it invariably captures some truth. The pose in the moving portrait is a hint of unreal but it helps reveal something real. Jia Zhangke’s 24 City too reveals more than it shows.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

You, the Living

You, the Living is the big mama of A Serious Man. While A Serious Man opens with a zoom in, it ends with a massive zoom out. Like Roy Andersson's last masterpiece Songs from the Second Floor, You, the Living is a collection fifty absurdist, loosely connected long shots of Swedish life. What emerges is, to use a cliche, bigger than sum of its parts - a sincerely-sad, bleakly-funny and enlightening human concoction. Something here to be said about how bleakness of vision not translated into screen dullness like last year's Synecdoche, New York which totally failed to do so. This year both You, the Living and A Serious Man showed us how vital emotions like sorrow and humor are connected with a dotted line.

Monday, June 08, 2015

The Silence of Lorna

Lorna (Arta Dobroshi), a young Albanian woman living in Belgium, is a part of a immigration scam - a sham marriage with a Belgian junkie Claudy (Jérémie Renier) with a plot to get rid of him to marry a Russian mafia-boss to get him Belgium citizenship and her lots of money so that she can marry her boyfriend and start her own business (a snack bar). The plan goes almost alright but our heroine gets all weak and human. Here the director duo follows the cracks of humanity in an otherwise perfect scheme, which as the title suggests, opens as Lorna's moral and human silence breaks away slowly. More suited for my taste, Lorna's silence is more static than handheld (unlike Dardenne Brother other films), helping us to understand our heroine's psyche and her slow inner change, and her final (almost dreamlike) act of revolt and redemption. There is something painfully true yet consoling in the Lorna's journey of humanity and liberation showing a slight hint of madness.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

35 Shots of Rum

Claire Denis' tone poem observes a father-daughter duo, with the knowledge that she has grown up and will leave. Denis films the routine of their lives so precisely that this upcoming transition is almost a new world order for both. Characters talk about trifle but images talk otherwise. In the films finest scene, in a rainy night four main characters end up in an Afro-bar and start to swirl to the tune of music. Dance, like alcohol is a cinematic equivalent of x-ray in the hands of able artist. So not only we get little under skin of each of them, but also the insight of ethnic-urban tensions of the scene. An excellent visualist, Denis works her way though daily life short sketches up to a roadtrip (before her going out, they both should go together) and earns the emotional power of the their bond. The final shot of two rice cookers might be the most economical image of the whole year (Ozu did the same with the ending image of old man peeling a fruit by himself in Late Spring, inspiration for 35 Shots).

Monday, May 18, 2015

Bergman's Hour of the Wolf

Hour of the Wolf is a film, which falls in the category where you can't decide anything from reviews whether they call it a minor effort or masterpiece if you don't see it yourself, its just too personal to let anyone decide for you (Fellini calls it Bergman's 8 1/2). Hour of the Wolf has the same mix of intense personal and critical thoughts (which are invariably brutally-honest in a Bergman film) about art, artist and his space, like those about God, faith and followers in Winter Light, only that it doesn't have that dour and austere look, its more visibly horrifying. But we don't know for sure, is it a horror film, or a surrealistic document about the existential dread, or about the inescapable trauma of an artist in trouble (about past-demons, creativity, sexuality, genius, madness ?) or about the swamp of an artist's relationships with his/her surroundings and the loved ones. The film changes shades as we view it from the eyes of Johan (Max von Sydow) or Alma (Liv Ullmann). Here is what Bergman has to say about about his film and why it is so, and as usual, he is little hard on himself.

[..] the whole picture is half-spoken sentences (the last unfinished dialog
here). It is ... an unsuccessful attempt. [..] She (Alma) is infected by him.
She is really an earth mother, but she becomes infected and will never return to
her former self. [...] The difficulty with the picture is that I couldn't make
up my mind who it was about. Had I made it from her point of view it would have
been very interesting. But, no, I made it the wrong way. After it was finished,
I tried to turn it over to her; we even reshot some scenes, but it was too late.
To see a man who is already mad become crazier is boring. What would have been
interesting would have been to see an absolutely sane woman go crazy because she
enters his world of unreality, and that infects her. Suddenly, she finds out
that she is lost. I understood this only when the picture was finished.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015


Although a good sci-fi is about a sci-fi concept, but it usually tells about the human experience in the wake of it. Its like changing a parameter in the equation of human existence and then dipping a human fish into those waters. It sinks, it swims, it flaps or it survives because it evolves. But as we know them, human needs and emotions are much more complex and the human equation is unimaginably elaborate. And wait, what about dreams and memories - the signposts of being. A good sci-fi movie can tell us the privilege of a deceptively simple human experience by altering these variables. Moon takes place in future when earth power sources have run out and a company (appropriately named Lunar Industries) sets up a base on Moon to extract Helium-3 there and bring it back to the earth. Sam (Sam Rockwell in an great solo(?) performance) is on 3 year contract to look after the base leaving behind his wife and daughter on earth. The good news is that his contract is ending in few days and he will be back to earth, but there is more he should know before it should get happy about it. Sam experiences a new reality, and acts in its wake. Moon is not a bleeding style sci-fi. With all the moon stations and gadgets, it does not look much different present reality, Is it saying that future is same, but just little more out of our control.

A Serious Man

A Serious Man starts with a quote - "Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you", but our luckless hero (Larry Gopnik - Michael Stuhlbarg in an absolutely brilliant performance) dares to ask what if he does and still be miserable, and yes, our poor hero is text book miserable kind - with his student black mailing him, his son is smoking weed, his daughter stealing his money for a nose job, his jobless brother living with him and getting in trouble and to give an extra kick, his wife having an affair with his best friend and asking for a divorce because its the "reasonable" thing to do. Given this unusually downbeat plot, its a wonder how Coen brothers keep it up so strongly that there is not a dull moment. A Serious Man can be easily mistaken for a smart guy making fun of somebody in utter despair, but for the Coens undeniable empathy for Larry and their sincere quest to find an answer to his misery gives this film both its soul and its humor. Although there are no answers to our hero's plight, but Coen's lends a hand of understanding and reflection to their bleakest comedy (their beautiful vision of God expectorating on us). After Larry's search, is he wiser now or is he more hopeless (because he is wiser) is Larry's new dilemma. He should, as a rabbi advised him, "Accept the Mystery".

Sunday, May 03, 2015

Defending Dancer in the Dark

Selma, a Czech emigrant works in a factory and is raising her son alone in America. She knows that she is going blind from a hereditary disease, but tries to hide it to work and save as much money that is required for her son's eye operation, who is also effected by the hereditary illness, but he does not know about it. Selma loves musicals because nothing bad ever happens in them, and slips into the musical-mode while working or while walking down to her little trailer.

As the film begins, the real and the imagined are mixed but not like a film of Buñuel, where you can not figure them out. They have their marked territory here as the color saturate with the song but as the film moves on, the things get blurred, Selma's world becomes more of a musical, her only respite from the downward spiral she is into. It may be called delusional but its all in the character. The movie remains sane.

The films looks artificial, but it is so by design not by laziness or lack of skill. The language that the people speak is English which is not the mother tongue of many of them, they are trying to make a living in an alien land. They live in America but they don't feel American. The film is melodramatic, and I can't understand why we are so afraid of melodrama, it like a handicapped child whom no one wants to own or hide under sheets when their high-brow guests come to dinner. Why such a contempt. This film can boast of some of the most honest melodramatic scenes, I have ever witnessed, give it to the Dogma rules, or to the director or to the lead actress Björk. And then follows our dear logic (in most cases 'logic of plot' or as they call it 'loopholes') to support the contempt, and we ask why only on 13th birthday of the boy, he should get operated, as if it is the point which Lars von Trier is trying to make. So what the point. One point may be to see the world from somebody else' point of view, which may be stupid or shallow but that is the world of her fantasy and escape from real. But we are so consumed by judging the character that we have no time to understand her (sounds cliché but its true at times).

And on a closer look, none of the character in the film is evil, they are all good, whether it is the shop floor supervisor or the jail attendant, may be except lawyers, which are shown as the part of the legal system they are working in. Even America is not ridiculed. They are all good because eventually they are part of a musical, Selma's own world, who kills Bill as an act of sympathy, even after his betrayal. The characters are shallow because they are seen from the musically blind eyes of Selma.

The choreographer, Vincent Paterson, wanted one of the final songs (107 steps) to be filmed more darkly, as he describes in one of the DVD specials, with more dramatic effects, nude prisoners caged pitilessly in small cells, but the final film doesn't has that, because it would have betrayed the whole point of musical, where nothing bad happens, at least in the eye of Selma. In that song, Selma moves ahead singing and meeting other prison inmates lovingly, because that what Selma is.

One of the chief motif of the film, which is criminally ignored by each critic, the point of keeping a secret. When Selma's neighbor Bill says Selma 'Mum is the word', it meant the pact of human morality, and none of them betrays it, none tells anybody else each others secret. They are both good in their own right. Bill did the evil act but it was not against the pact, but forced by his circumstances. He didn't betray Selma in that respect, but rather her good friends did it. Selma, who once says that she likes to play her little games when she has problems, was helped mercilessly by her friends (Cathy and Jeff) who didn't understand that 'Mum is the word'.

The best of all the allegations is about the banality of whole effort, to some it seems parody of American musicals, to others its pretentious and manipulative. Probably they confusing experimental simplicity with silliness, or rather their cinematic rules are too stringent to allow any experiment with cinema. I really fail to understand what is so banal in this film that is sufficient to curdle milk in 10 km radius. It may be confusing, or rather its difficult to mark its territory. Is it a melodrama or a musical or a fairy tale ? What ever it is, but it mixes and redefines all three with its experimental originality. All throughout the film there is a beautiful tussle between the a musical trying to survive in the hands of a sadistic director.

The last sequence is the testimonial of all this, where amidst all the people who are going to execute her, Selma smiles as she enters are imaginary world of music. Here is a piece where handheld realism is mixed with flights of fantasy. May be its Selma's naivety that results in her suffering, may be if she were more calculating and made her 'little games' bit brainy and without loopholes, she would have led a happier and longer life, but one can not blame Selma for musically messing her life. Eventually, Selma dies but in a way she was happy towards the end, as in a musical, and in this tale of goodness, naivety, their horrors and their need, a bigger picture emerges where beauty is crushed eventually on the podium of logic, which is neither as moving, rational, directly against capital punishment, exacting to certain cinematic standards, as certain critics wanted it to be.

Saturday, May 02, 2015


Well, its easy to say that Julia excels because of Tilda Swinton titular performance, but if we feel that our flawed heroine eventual loss after several failed attempt to gain a fortune in a kid-snatching scheme is not a compromise but a genuine transformation, it is as much for Swinton's brave performance as it is a nod to film's engaging narrative structure and its emotional power. Erick Zonca's Julia is both a mediation on Greed in this post-moral world and a search for something admirable in heart of a incorrigible person.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Two Lovers

James Gray is called old-fashioned for a good reason. His films are endlessly compassionate and understanding of people's foibles. In a world loaded with ironies and tropes, it not just the otherness of his films to the rest that draws us to them, but its their closeness to the lives we live. Gray's Two Lovers absorbs its hero's trauma, rage, love and life into its big heart. It understands that human weaknesses, and human compromises cannot be shrugged with one shoulder and empathized with other. Gray's complexity is not in the method or technique, but in the characters he draws. There is no specific vision (can there be an intentional vision for an artist?), no terrific shot or a bleeding style, but an undeniable sense of human handling of characters and their quotidian yet valued lives and loves.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Inglourious Basterds

Of all his films yet, with Inglourious Basterds Tarantino shows signs of that bloody lump that romantics call heart, for it has at least one real woman. Mélanie Laurent's Shosanna is that full-blooded creation - with Women-with-past, Revenge-Doll and Lady-in-Red rolled into one. Working in his usual chapter format, Tarantino creates some of the most taut and dramatic scenes, building the tension through witty dialogues and camera movement (sometimes by lack of it). The first chapter, although a full blown homage to Sergio Leone Westerns, is something that works as a mini film in itself (a warming up exercise, if I may say so) and it lets the viewers (who are misled by Tarantino imitators that he is all about action) realize that slow build up pays off big. In the first few minutes, if any such viewer thought that nothin' happenin', is duly shut up by its dénouement. Also, this film lets Tarantino to face his Film-Fetish head on. Fuming a theatre full of Nazis with ghostly image projected on film-stock smoke is anyday better than film references when one would talk about power of cinema.

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

The Hurt Locker

I loved The Hurt Locker a lot when I watched it for the first time, second time around I was not too sure about two things - The opening quote "War is a drug" and was slightly disappointed by little too explanatory ending. Only one of them was sufficient for a movie which invests itself so brillianly against easy categorization into ideas. That said, the most brilliant thing that The Hurt Locker does to fuse two genres - war film and action movie, without any misplaced guilt or fanboyish indulgence into violence, and the result is something which makes us think about all the bravery and gore and fury that goes into a war. With multiple tense conflict scenes, The Hurt Locker respects the bravery of the men in uniform and their actions but does not disrespect life at any point, on either side.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Frank Borzage's History Is Made At Night

Finally, I saw a Frank Borzage film. The title of the film might make the top ten list of best romantic titles ( That list will, of course, be topped by Sirk's A Time to Love and a Time to Die). Known as a supreme romantic, Borzage here makes a film that definitely requires one to have at least a romantic faith, if not diehard romanticism. If you have that tiny bit, its quite certain that film will seriously engage you. At one point of the other, you will let fall your defenses, for sure, and want our romantic couple to have that spiritual paradise of love, which Borzage is working on for them for the whole film.

History Is Made At Night is a patchwork of many genres - juxtaposing melodrama with romance, humor and fun of a love affair with pain of its longing and fear of transiency, soft-focus evocative camerawork of close ups with a set piece of shipwreck, but it is at all the times, story of romance between Jean Arthur's Irene (married to a psychotically jealous millionaire, played to perfection by Colin Clive) and Charles Boyer's Paul (Headwaiter at a restaurant in Paris). The narrative here is not so important, but a series of tussle between romantic coincidences and evil plans to keep the lovers apart, but what is important are the scenes with the lead pair together, which with their chemistry and Borzage's conviction and keen sensitivity, play as believe as possible albeit fantastical situations. When puzzled by Irene's laughter on their second meeting, Paul doubts that she is making fun of him (the only dash of doubt in their whole affair), her matter of fact reply ("When people are happy, they laugh, you make me happy"), clears up all the tension between lovers and along with the them, viewers too move little more close to Borzagian spiritual paradise of love. Film's romance starts with that all-elusive concept of "love at first sight" and takes it to "lets never be apart" climax. Definitely over-used and very common romantic thumb rule, and that’s what I was talking about a viewer having "romantic faith". All said, film's first half gave freshness to that stale cinematic process of "falling in love". As Irene and Paul chat and dance and eat, we can "see" them falling in love.

If we look at it, Borzage's romantic paradise looks quite different from Nicholas Ray's. For Borzage its a destination, for Ray its a short-lived escape. Most of us (including me) believe in Ray's worldview but we must understand that before reaching to Ray's, we must have passed through Borzage's, and the fortunate ones must have stayed there and have accepted the innate childishness of adult romance.

One thing that spoilt my experience is the film's uncanny similarity to James Cameron's Titanic especially towards end, but it also provides us a comparison of treatment of the similar situations. In end sequence, while Cameron was interested in love with backdrop of misery and people flying off the deck, Borzage is at once more modest and more exquisite, as he lets the lovers talk in solitude where they get to know each other by asking questions like "how you looked when you were young". Borzage understands romantic love as not just passion but also a peaceful bliss of union where lovers sit and chat and never get bored.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

The Hurt Locker

One of the best action films and one of the best films on Iraq, The Hurt locker is highly recommended. Jeremy Renner and Kathryn Bigelow, both are now on my high alert list.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Claire Denis' The Intruder

It is lazy on an interpreter's part to refer a series of images that does not fit the conventions of narrative as dreams or figments of imagination, as it is uncinematic on a film director's part to convey the internal thoughts of a person using voice overs. It is important to see that both of them work sometimes, but it doesn’t make them less lazy or less uncinematic. Many of the good films mix dreams, reality, imagination, memory, subconscious, past and present in various ways, in ways that intentionally separate them and the ways that tend to mix them inseparably, as per the requirement by the story they tell. Claire Denis' The Intruder tells the story of a heart transplant based on French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy's memoir of his own heart transplant. The basic thing to understand about the film is how Denis is trying to tell the story - firstly using film as a medium, and secondly as a fictional account (although she claims that all the details come from Jean-Luc Nancy's 30 page book, she also says somewhere its 'adoption', not adaptation of the book). Since the medium is film, there cannot be any easy ways (like a Dostoevsky-ian monologues) to know the subconscious of the protagonist, and since its fiction, it can not show the "actual" operation in progress (and that will be boring too). Denis does invent a cinematic way to deal with these two problems. Every thing takes a physical shape here - the past, the old body, the old heart, the old world, the fear of death, regrets and relationships, the will to live, the new heart. They become simple replacements (I am using the word replacement because I don’t want to use "metaphor"), they no longer "represent", they "are".

To give a simple example - a man without a heart (or a ailing heart) is shown a heartless (unkind) man. There is something physical in the meaning of the common words we use. The emotion and the poetry that Denis drains from those words by giving them physical shape, she duly feeds them back by enigmatic/poetic images she attaches them too. It’s a cinematic bargain in favor of the medium she works in. Denis manages a sense of wonder and awe that can be equated to the feeling of looking in someone’s head (or rather heart). And, as somebody who has seen Beau Travail will know, how good Claire Denis and her cinematographer Agnes Godard are in filming human skin and bodies (other French director who knows how to film skin is Patrice Chereau), although here Denis is not interested in eroticizing toned bodies of crew cut French soldiers but here skin takes a special meaning as it is something that protects and encloses the home of heart (the ribcage), and it gets scared in operations. So, in a way, healing scars (a replacement, a metaphor for wound/recovery – emotional and physical) on the chest of our protagonist guide us to where we (and the story) are going.

One thing that I am most impressed by is the director's effort not to mess or consciously confuse. The film, in its impenetrable and fractured exposition, is in my view fairly chronological and if we try to see it in physical terms (and I think that’s what Denis intended) and get hold of one thread, it unfolds beautifully (actually it is a nice fantasy film too where dogs are the hostile environment for the new heart that has several physical motifs, one being a ticking watch [that will die one day], and doctor as a masseur cum magician fighting a beautiful and enigmatic angel of death) with spellbinding eclipses. Once we have something real and physical to hold on, other important thing like emotions and sentiments come easy and right. Of the two films I have seen by Claire Denis, the endings have surprising unleash of energy. Beau Travail ends with an exhilarating dance by Denis Lavant. Here too, the Queen of Northern Hemisphere rides high on a sledge run by dogs, with a wide winning smile on her face. Is it a victory of the bodily resistance to new or is it the intruding new heart on a plunge?

Friday, February 06, 2015


Revanche alters the noir-trappings of a failed heist plot into a meditation on love, guilt, revenge and family, elevating itself to a Greek tragedy but ultimately distills various tensions of existential struggle and relaxes them. Our hero's attempt to save his girl from a brothel owner and to gain himself a fortune goes bad. He gets the money but loses something more dear, or so he realizes later. He sets out for revenge. Director uses this simple context to beautifully examine human motivation, fate and purpose, but also to find understanding between his few acutely detailed characters, and what I may call, a tranquil redemption, not a zero-sum game. At the end, we know nothing is solved but we also know, without fanfare, that there are some nobler human traits which make this world possible.

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Be Kind Rewind

If there exists some concept of two types of growths, vertical and horizontal, where in, lets assume, vertical refers to age and horizontal refers to creativity, then Michel Gondry has long back ceased to grow vertically but grows astoundingly on the horizontal bars. His vision is a vision of a hyper-creative 14 year old boy (or girl), so his dream world is handicraft factory which manufactures joy that is natural and young, sadness which is pure, personal but the one that never breaks the young virile spirit. Things can be done in his world and all people with creative passion are like kids with crayons and cardboards.

In Be Kind Rewind, Gondry uses his world view to wrap nostalgia into a community building exercise with child-like vigor and creativity. Although working in the same domain, but unlike his previous film (The Science of Sleep, which boasts of one of the most heartbreakingly romantic endings, which for me, even echoed Nicholas Ray's beloved theme, "We don’t belong here, lets find a peaceful home for us", but this time lovers run away from the world on a stuffed horse over an imaginary river during the sleep) which is, to put rudely, about the romantic escapades of a 14 year old hyper-creative boy, the dreamworld here is very firmly connected to the realworld. That connection is the movies. And thats where Gondry is making a brilliant statement about our connection to films in particular, and all creative arts in general - as an urge and freedom to go to that dreamworld (here characters re-enact that dreamworld like small community Ramleelas).

The plot is also like a story which one child will tell to another where eye balls roll, eyes brows rock with a tear or two towards the climax. A VHS store is outdated and is about to close (It does not meet the safety criteria, 'they' are planning to built a pretty building in its place, the owner has a month notice), the owner asks one of his employees to look after the store while he is away. During that time, one of employees friends (which the owner did not even want near his store) accidentally gets magnetized and erases all the tapes in the store. To mask their mistake, they try to remake those films (they call them "Sweded", as if they are from Sweden) and rent to their customers. To their surprise, the neighborhood likes them even better than the originals and they become stars in their neighborhood till the big companies come to book them under piracy and destroy all their work. The community comes together to make a biopic of the legendary Jazz Musician, Fats Waller, who was supposedly born in the same VHS store, and to raise money from the community to save the store.

The journey of making this film lets the director to explore several things. First and foremost is the very nature of collective creativity driven by like minded passion. While saying or seeing it, it does look like a mushy or sentimental idea (picture long ago when you were young and stupid, along with you friends sat together and said "let us do something", but it never happened), a place where passion for art overcomes mutual differences, but we need to understand that its Gondry's child-dream-world we are in, which may not be possible but it is not dishonest or forced. Secondly its about the change, from VHS to DVDs, from old store to new building, from old mindset to new blood, and how things change for good and for bad. I might be partial to the film because it touches one of my favorite themes, an old man looking old, down with nostalgia and without uttering a word, he is saying that people become old and body gets weak, things will change, new will come, don’t be too happy or too sad, its a rule. This is essentially an Ozu idea. Time Regained has an excellent scene too about old age where Le Baron de Charlus, now old and weak, walks in front of young Proust and his pain filters through Proust's sensitive eyes, which is very different from Ozu's stylistically, but nonetheless very elegant and says the same things. In Be Kind Rewind, there is a shot of Mr. Fletcher (the owner, played by Danny Glover) boarding a train. Lots of things go on in the same shot but excellent Danny Glover maintains a sadness of something lost (is it the VHS store, or the jazz era of his neighborhood, or a lost youth?) in his eyes all the times. Thirdly, it about the cultural unification of a community through a new found art (homegrown film) and the return to the roots of an old community legacy (music of Jazz maestro, Fats Waller). Yes, it is again little sentimental. In real adult world , as we know, you don’t get best of old and new, one crushes the other, but here too Gondry makes a honest and heartfelt case, which makes us a child for a while and let us think that it can be.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

When a Woman Ascends the Stairs

The thing that I have always appreciated about Japanese films is what I call 'the acting of smiling faces', whatever emotional upheaval characters (especially women) go through, they smile and smile, although we are always aware that under this veneer of smile, there is a hidden sadness, hinted by subtle facial expressions (even at times hinted by actors turning away from camera, trying to get a moment of respite for the characters they play). Its a great metaphor of facade required for everyday life and obviously its stylistic cinematic interpretation may not be taken for general Japanese behavior but it does definitely hint to their culture in particular and human nature in general.

If I try to brief the plot of Mikio Naruse's When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, it will look like a run-of-the-mill melodrama - a tragic story of an epic, unfortunate heroine, misunderstood and unable to get true love, but Naruse's treatment has sensitivity and fluidity that makes a usual story become sublime and evocative document of hopelessness of a woman trapped like our heroine is.

In all its differences, I can't help but say that When a Woman Ascends the Stairs is a sister piece to Fellini's Nights of Cabiria. Obviously, Naruse's film is more interested in the scrutiny the post-war Japanese society and the place of women in it, unlike Fellini's heart-felt fascination for primarily one character - Cabiria - and her search for love, it plays more like the story of bar girls . Cabiria is looking for love, and fails, Naruse's heroine, Mama ( played by Naruse's regular Hideko Takamine), who works in a bar in Tokyo's Ginza district, is surrounded by potential suitors, has no dearth of love on the surface, but she too is a woman looking for love, and like Cabiria, unable to find it. Mama, unlike Cabiria, is not gullible and also unlike Cabiria, she is quite a standard character - a graceful polite experienced bar girl, aging and fearful, looking for a career along with love. Naruse's mastery - in part - lies in the fact that he makes such predictable character interesting. Naruse's movie also has the shadows of past, the war-torn economy booming, the economic divide, the so-called modern man caught in traditions and stereotypes, how surface boom and money didn’t translate to happiness in lives - all this serves as the harbinger of modern-urban ennui and alienation which has obsessed the minds and hearts of most modern film makers.

Also, the film is unmistakably a feminist work where heroine goes through all highs and lows, trying to survive by her own, the men around her provide occasional respite or drama but they are more or less extras to her story, and its feminist also in the way it shows that all the wars and progress made and staged by man (or our notion of masculinity) eventually has the toll on women, forcing them to gather a new life from debris every time. Along with Mama, we see several bar girls struck in maze of bars, trying to deal with it in their own ways. Unlike Nights of Cabiria, where the last scene celebrates the human spirit, the last scene of this film is undeniably the celebration (and at the same time crushing also) of the female spirit. Unlike Cabiria, Mama, doesn’t smile though tears, she just smiles the Japanese way, but we know they both mean the same.


In Redacted, Brian De Palma dramatizes a real event - the rape and murder of a 14 year old girl in Iraq by five US soldiers. He constructs a base camp in Samarra with stereotypical soldiers, one of them read John O'Hara's 1934 novel "Appointment in Samarra" and the other reads Hustler, the wall behind them is covered with pin-up girls, they all look bored, one of them is photographing everybody else and as he adjusts his camera to shoot, he pompously proclaims "Truth is the first casualty of war".

The primary concern of De Palma has remained the point of view (I think the whole Snake Eyes is made to prove that a certain point of view has only a piece of truth, although there always exists a whole truth which eludes us just because we have the disadvantage of being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Here the hunger for truth is given. If it doesn’t exist, nothing, irrespective of our place or position, will register to us. That hunger may be called humanity in one sense, morality in other). Redacted starts with one point of view that is from the video camera of Angel Salazar (definitely a stand in for the director's own guilt of filming a crime as an act of intrusion and exploitation), who is making a video diary of his experiences. He even tells the viewer his directorial preferences - "I will tell what I see", "There will be no logical narrative to help make sense of it". He is essentially a voyeur and even opportunistic. Even when his fellowmen decided to rape the girl, he didn't stop them but accompanies them to shot the crime. As the film progresses this single point of view gets lost in several such POVs, there are many opinions, images and fragments of truth and lies. Brian de Palma, the master of irony, stores pure seriousness for special moments. There is a moment later in the film where an Iraq returned army man, weeps when he is supposed to smile and pose for a photograph with his wife. But this image too, doesn’t capture the whole truth, just some of it, and of course it’s posed.

As always, in our complex minds and lives, a lazy logic works that looks for the arbitration of our roles, shedding of responsibilities and cleaning off our souls. A little gush of impolite wind gives us all the reason in the world for our missions to save our souls. The young boys in Iraq are soldiers are with no reason to be there other than get orders, get a valid passport to become the part of mission whole heartedly when one of their buddies gets blown up. Now an unjustified war against a nation is translated to a personal war between us and them, a revenge of sorts. But the point to note is that both of them are victims, or to use title of De Palma's Vietnam film, "Casualties of War". The wrong-doers of Redacted don't show remorse, rather they try to cover up and justify what they have done, the remorse is shown by other colleagues due to their inability and disappointment to stop them doing the wrong (here crime and remorse are not hard coupled, they travel across consciences, so its not a zero sum game as in films like Munich where the guy weeps off his crimes towards the end to come out cleaner) and here De Palma daringly suggests that whole of America share this guilt and frustration.

De Palma's technique and filmmaking choices here are kind of double-edge swords. De Palma's use of mixed sources (websites, chats, you tube, French doc, surveillance cameras) and techniques (hand held cameras, HV video, improvised acting, imperfect shots) looks both amateurish like a school play and urgent like an activist's campaign on one side, and also an act of desperation to find truth and sort it into some coherent thread (which, we know, is a lost cause in De Palma’s world) on the other side. One should note that these choices are not ad hoc, but precise assortment of the crap and the credible, which, in today’s world, are becoming increasingly difficult to sort out.

There are many surface flaws (Bad acting is definitely not one of them, there are few very good performances especially from Patrick Carroll, who plays the hollow-eyed sinister, Reno Flake) in Redacted like the incoherent plot device (one of the soldier is shooting the war so that he can apply for film school), naive dialogues, over the top reportage, in your face long rants etc but these are De Palma's usual trademarks, especially of his earlier political films. In Hi, Mom! , De Niro's Jon Rubin, a Vietnam vet (there are references of Vietnam in Redacted too, when an angry girl on youtube rants "You don't see the My Lai Massacre in the movies, because the truths of that fascist orgy, are just too hellish for even liberal Hollywood to cop to. Oh, but that doesn't stop them from making another movie about 9/11, because an American life is worth so much more than a Vietnamese life, a Palestinian, a Lebanese or an Iraqi life because we are the uber race"), rents an dirty apartment in front of a big building to photograph women, and even sets up a date (the funniest date in films I have ever seen) so that he can make a film of them making love which he can sell to a producer of pornographic films. Things go little weird when Rubin gets involved with a group of activists doing some guerrilla theatre (the famous "Be Black, Baby" campaign, which is a must-see). Here too, stupid plot device, rants and naive dialogues are used but they are not used in a similar way as in Redacted. In Hi, Mom! (made about a decade and half after the war), things were in post-mortem state and therefore director has the luxury of irony, surrealism and even comedy. Hi, Mom! has the post-war insight and irony but Redacted has the present-war frustration, anger and polarization (Redacted is not balanced and that’s why the cry from all over that it will harm the troops). Here these surface flaws are the flaws of the sources that De Palma borrows from and it create a fractured fuzzy picture - gritty, crude, true but ultimately posed.

It should be noted that Redacted is nothing near De Palma's masterpieces like Hi, Mom!, Body Double, Blow Out and Femme Fatale, but it also not a low point in director's career. A director, who has always dealt with dreams and fantasy and in the illusion when they are mixed with reality and truth, is definitely not in his safe territory, but it is also important to note how he uses his primary visual and moral concerns in filmmaking to explore how the war is presented to us and how we are made to consume it.

The film ends with real pictures of killings in Iraq war (a segment named "Collateral Damage"), with a final fictional image of the dead girl, brutally raped, mouth open and lying in the pool of blood. This image placed along with real footage is again De Palma questioning about the truth of images. It’s most ironic and disturbing that a fabricated photo is more terrifying to us than the real ones. The beauty of De Palma's art is its ability to generate true empathy from a faked image.

Few words about the music. De Palma never misses a note. The end credits are totally silent, and Handel Sarabande is used evocatively, and only wherever it is totally necessary.

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

A Thin Blue Line

Errol Morris' A Thin Blue Line examines a case of shooting of a police officer in Dallas and the procedure followed to find the culprit. 28 years old Randall Adams, who was with a 16 year old kid, David Harris (who becomes the chief prosecution witness against Adams) in his blue comet, was convicted of murder of a Texas Police officer, while all the evidence pointed elsewhere. Made in a style of re-enactment of the crime scenes, although it seems outdated due to the flush of TV crime reports on similar lines, this documentary is a very honest effort, both in terms how justice suffers from self-interest and wishful thinking, and also how the procedures of justice are not about truth finding, but just finding something/someone and closing the case. The conviction of Randall Adams was overturned when after the release of the documentary.

Here is a very interesting interview with Errol Morris. He says few things about truth, and how physical truth is absolute. And how style doesn't guarantee any truth. And to me this observation seemed quite true

I looked at Rashomon about a month ago. I re-watched it, and much to my
surprise, Rashomon isn't Rashomon. Rashomon is not a movie about the
subjectivity of truth. That there's no objective truth, just subjective truth. A
truth for you, a truth for me. On the contrary, it's a movie about how everybody
sees the world differently. But the claim that everybody sees the world
differently, is not a claim that there's no reality. It's a different kind of
claim. What really surprised me on re-watching Rashomon is that you know what
really happened at the end. It's pretty damn clear. Kurosawa gives you the
pieces of evidence that allow you to figure out what really happened. So, it's
not what many people imagine it to be, but it is a very powerful story about
self-interest, about wishful thinking, about self-deception, about people
imagining scenarios at variance with the truth. And so I found Rashomon to be
far more interesting than I had remembered it. With an underlying theme very
much like The Thin Blue Line. Truth exists, but people have a vested interest in
not knowing it.

Here is definitely a bifurcation, between the types of truth - the physical and the more complex metaphysical(I don’t know, is it the correct term but I am talking about something more abstract like truth about love and truth about life). What I feel at this moment that most of the times the efforts to find a wrong doer on physiological terms results in some gross generalization of evil (with phrases like "all man are dormant portals of evil") and that in tern results in lot of everyday injustice. Like in this case, Randall was thought to be a evil doer because, according to the police, he showed no remorse (like one of the police officer says "He overacted his innocence"). At this point, I should also see that when David Harris accepted his crime, he too showed no remorse. Actually, he was even more rational and cool headed as he said that Randall would have been saved if he had a place to stay, a perfect logic, but without a trace of remorse. I mean, if its so vague then how can “lack of guilt and remorse” can be generalized as a symptom of a criminal mind. Harris David also says some more direct and ironical in this last interview. He says "Criminals always lie", and its ironical because he is one, and it is also ironical because whenever any interrogation of a potential convict happens, it is invariably assumed that the he is a criminal, so does it matter whatever he says. I think, evidence gathering is a balance between doubt and rationality. And then comes the people like forensic psychiatrist, Dr. James Grigson (who was called Mr. Death after having testified in more than 100 trials that resulted in death sentences, actually Morris went to Dallas to take his interview but stumbled on Randall Adams case, who was one of Dr, Death's victim), and his vague psychoanalysis of Randall and his proclamation that if left free, he will be grave danger to society. It looks jarring that these types of analysis take precedence to any physical evidence. Even Errol Morris goes on to show a blurred picture of Harris' troubled childhood. I know these things matter, but my question always remains, what should be given more priority in an investigation. And the most interesting of all is Emily Miller, whose testimony finally results in the conviction of Randall. Its the most frightening interview, you can see, where the face of Emily glows when she says that she always wanted to be a detective, or else wife of a detective, and she is so watchful that sees murders everywhere.

And this part of the Errol Morris' interview of also very insightful. Here he talks about the fine line between reality and fiction.

When Capote wrote In Cold Blood, he called it a non-fiction novel. I remember
when I was a little boy and In Cold Blood came out, I got very depressed,
because I would read these long, long conversations that he supposedly
remembered in their entirety. I thought: how can he do it? I need a tape
recorder. I can't remember when I'm talking to someone for 10 hours what they've
said verbatim. I just can't do it. I can't do it. I'd like to be able to do it,
but I can't. And here was Capote writing pages of this stuff. And I thought, I'm
never going to be able to do that, and I was right, I'm never going to be able
to do that. And of course the question is whether Capote was able to do it.
Whether he was just able to write extremely well about the conversations after
the fact. Whether he was making stuff up.