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

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.