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

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.