Monday, October 26, 2009

Synecdoche, NY(2008): dance of the wounded

 Director: Charlie Kaufman(1958--)

When I first saw this film last year my reaction was, "what a morose guy"( the Kaufman character). Ebert described it as a great film which needed to be seen twice. And I have become humble enough to realise that some films are not mere movies but serious artistic creations deserving the same degree of respect as a work of litrature. The long pending second visit was materialised today.

If cinema is to be more than mere entertainment to kill time, one may on occassion need patience to ferret out the treasure. Why should it be necessary for a film to have a plot, any more than Ullyses did ? All that is required is that it should have something to express, express it, and express it well. It's better for a creation to be  hard to understand than to be not worth understanding. Life is too brief to fritter on triviality.

To quote from Ebert's review:

"The subject of "Synecdoche, New York" is nothing less than human life and how it works. Using a neurotic theater director from upstate New York, it encompasses every life and how it copes and fails. Think about it a little and, my god, it's about you. Whoever you are."

I cannot make any claim to have understood the film, or to have even followed whatever plot is there, or to have been able to distinguish dream and reality--or to have shared the perception that it was as extraordinary a film as the great critic found it.

What is sure is that it was never a drag as many action films are ( which at this time of year usually give me  dejavus ). There is something interesting in every scrap (green poo) and the scraps are loosely strung together as is our ordinary consciousness, hopping from one thing to another. Elation, gloom, hunger, boredom, etc follow one on top of the other shifting kaleidoscopically from moment to moment. The film never fails to be interesting in it's observation of the. mundane occurences of everyday life. Our seemingly banal existence is always underlined by deep anxieties-about worthiness, sickness and mortality.

Caden Codard( Philip Seymour Hoffman), a scholar, is abondened by his wife Adele and daughter who proceed to Europe where she finds success and acclaim as an artist. Caden in the middle of his various abortive romantic entanglements and numerous ailments recieves a McArthur grant ($500,000 payable over five years in quarterly installments) to pursue creative work. He sets himself the task of creating an ambitious drama to capture life in it's entirety. The present film is that drama. This  enterprise, lasting for two decades is the fulchrum of the story, in the course of which he loses his parents, his daughter as a young woman from "tattoo poisoning", remarries, has affairs, while the drama in the making progresses tortuously, year afte year. The dreary tale is punctuated by several dreary funerals, an attempted suicide and a successful one. And....curtains.

Along the way there is pathos, humour, surprises,  always a what-next feeling, tragedy, boredom--it's a variety show. It's a play within a movie within the drama of life. It is an exploration of the inner universe. The drama which the film is about, the film itself and the drama that is life--they are all one. As Ebert puts it, the title says it all.

Hoffman's portrayal of "the seven ages of man" is electrifying. He is always supressing a sob, always on the brink of tears, in  perpetual mourning.

Ordinary life is in fact anything but ordinary. It is in fact the greatest of wonders.

To quote from the drama within  the film:

.....even though the world goes on for aeons and aeons, we are here for a fraction of  fraction of a second. Most of your time is spent being dead or not yet born. But while alive, you wait in vain, wasting years waiting for a letter or a phone call or a look...

Perhaps it is with compassion that the film-maker has glimpsed the comedy-human-- people, all of us, in our desperate gasping to find meaning in the finitude of our existence. To become human beings from human animals. It's funny, it's pathetic, it's downright tragic, and above it's very mysterious.
Another quote from the script:
....what was once before you, an exciting and mysterious future, is now behind you--lived, understood, disappointing. You realise you are not special. You have struggled into existence and are now slipping silently out of it.This is everyone's experience, every single one.The specifics hardly matter. Everyone is everyone. So you are Adele Hazel, Claire.And the people who adore you stop adoring you. As they die,as they move on, as you shed them, as you shed your beauty, your youth, as the world forgets you, as you realise your transience, as you begin to lose your charactristics one by one, as you learn there is no one watching you....
Perhaps the message is that men are born to sorrow. But how true? The defiant and optimistic fire of Beethoven is missing in this Synecdoche.

Twice was not enough. I have to come again. There is nothing of the trivial here. And as Ebert says, the third time will be sheer enjoyment.

Synecdoche: the word implies a part which represents a whole like "a pair of hands" represents the whole person. As a drop has the qualities of the sea, so one life represents all lives.

Roger Ebert's review 

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Nostalghia(1983):dreams, visions, longing

Director:Andrei Tarkovsky(1932-86);Language;Russian/Italian; Duration: 124 minutes 

My third Tarkovsky film. The most magical. If you are looking for an entertainer to go with your pop-corn and coke, this may not be the best option. But if you are willing to invest two hours of patience and suspend all judgement (lack of plot, translucency of theme and intention) you may  carry home imprints of the sublime and ethereal.

To start, the title Nostalghia is not a mispelling. To quote Tarkovsky(, ):
"The title of the film, for which the word "nostalgia" is only a very insufficient translation, indicates a pining for what is far from us, for worlds that cannot be united. But it is also indicative of a longing for an inner home, some inner sense of belonging....."

In other words nostalghia here stands for an overpowering, painfully beautiful, nameless yearning rising from the depths of life, a disabling sense of emptiness and loss. In the film this feeling is symbolised by an expatriot Russian's pining for his Russian family and home, oblivious to the beauty that surrounds him in Italy.

Gortchakoff is a Russian scholar staying in Italy with the aim of studying the life of a seventeenth century Russian composer who chose to return to serfdom in Russia rather than enjoy acclaim in Italy. After his return he took to alcohol and commited suicide. Tarkovsky too was an exile from the USSR when he was making this film and had to leave his son behind. Hence the film is in essence intensely autobiographical. In Italy, Gortchakoff is overtaken by the eponymous emotion and is oblivious to the ravishing beauties of the Italian countryside, historical buildings, ramshackle dwellings and the Petrarchan beauty and advances of his translator companion, the beautiful Eugenia. The other important character is Domenico, a madman-seer in whose single minded convictions and faith Gortchakoff finds a mirror of his own state of life.

In the final famous scene of the film we find him engaged in the  carrying a lighted candle across an ancient Roman bath, a somewhat difficult task( taking eight minutes and which has exhausted the patience of many a Tarkovskite though in the spiritual context, it ought to be as exciting, say, as the chariot race in Ben Hur).

The imagery is of a breath taking beauty like a brew of ancient vintage. Ghostly Russian countrysides glimpsed through a half open door, women at prayer amidst a myriad dancing candle flames, worn Roman corridors flanked by pillars, and the last transcendental image of the Russian homeland which is similar to that earthly island floating on the planet Solaris--it is paint, it is  poem, it is  lens, it is soul.

Tarkovsky is a philosopher. He is a man with a vision. He sense not only the incompleteness of modern man, but also his capacity for completeness.

Tarkovsky is a voice from the future. It's a voice of the spirit, a voice for faith. The candle carrying scene is an act of spiritual assertion.

Man can become a human being.

To quote from again:
"The only meaning of life lies in the effort that is demanded in growing spiritually, to change and develop into something different than what we were at birth. If we during the span of time between birth and death can achieve this, in spite of the fact that it is difficult and that progress may seem slow at times, then we have indeed served humanity."

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Citizen Kane (1942): at the shrine

Director: Orson Welles (1915-85); duration:114 minutes

It requires a measure of audacity to write about this most famous and admired of all films but then what are films for but to see and enjoy, and what harm can a bit of additional appreciation do, even though one may start with a favourable preconceptions the size of a mountain? After all I could list a number of celebrated films which have turned out to be more educative than enjoyable. I saw Kane yesterday (for the second time) and I found it as rivetting and racy as a Tarantino thriller with a comparable amount of loquacity thrown in. The minutes flew.

I still remember my first viewing maybe five years back and remember being transfixed by the opening shot. Let me pay my homage to this greatest of opening shots. Time is night.  An iron grill of a gate, sombre in the darkness.  A "No Trespassing" sign (there will never again be such a no-trespassing sign!) and the camera travels upward revealing the letter K (for Kane). In the background Xanadu, a palace on top of a  mountain, looming  gothic.  Xanadu is "world's foremost pleasure ground and the costliest monument since the pyramids which a man built for himself"(quote from the film). The camera moves up and up as though on a flight of stairs till it reaches a lighted room: the chamber where Kane is dying. The funereal music that opens the film also seems to signify that death the visitor is knocking at the door. It's already over.The music is reminiscent of Schubert's sombre lied "Death and the Maiden .The closing shot of the film is equally memorable, as the thick sooty smoke rises obliquely backward as if in the monumental triumph of indiscriminating death to the chords of the same dirge as at the open. The ascending column of soot is reminiscent of the gurgling  chimneys of Auschwitz in Schindler's List ,

But all is not sombre between the covers though it we do see all the merriment and brave posturing in the light of the already revealed ending. The film is based on the life of Hearst, a (then) contemporary press magnate . The film opens with Kane's lonely death, surrounded by nothing but his acquisitions. We are then shown a 10 minute newsreel narrating the events of the celebrity's life: his enormous wealth, his great influence by virtue of the power of his yellow journalism, the abortion of his political ambitions, the failed marriages, the decline of his businesses during the Great Depression, and the lonely end years.

The movie plot hinges on the mystery of the last words he spoke: "Rosebud". Thompson, a reporter is assigned the job of fiding out  the significance of these mysterious words as a key to discovering the man's personality.

This is but the skeleton. There is magic and mystery in this film.

First and foremost it is in the architecture of the plot, supported by sublime cinematography. It is the portrait of a man, the drama of a life, and a parable of Life. The story is non sequential and the past, present and future collate with each other not as it happened but as it must have flowed in the mind of the young and precocious director. It is a whole made of pieces and the pieces join together in a perfect fusion, like the pieces of a jig-saw, giving us a wrenching and pathetic portrayal of human destiny. As the story proceeds, the man unpeels, layer by layer.

The story proceeds with unrelenting energy and speed without stopping for a single breath or wasting a single shot. Each moment  seamlessly unfolds the next as though derived from an unfaltering inner spring of  inspiration. This quality of compressedness, a density which is able to express a lifetime in two hours without leaving out anything is an achievement in human portraiture reminiscent of sixteenth entury drama.

Much has been written about the inspired black and white cinematography. It is a poetry of camera so one must content oneslf with a few examples. Snow falling on a cottage turns into a glass paperweight. The camera descending on the drunken Susan. The cathedral like library which houses Thatcher's archives. The encounter of  Kane as a child with his future guardian. Kane in the hall of mirrors.

It is indeed the hypnotic vision of a prodigy of  five and twenty-Welles' age when he made the film. Worthy of the author of  "Kublai Khan" , who built the wondrous Xanadu.

Kubla Khan by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Roger Ebert's review

Friday, October 23, 2009

Simon of the Desert(1965): the triumph of flesh

Director: Luis Bunuel; language: Spanish; duration:45 minutes

This is based on the life Simon who lived in the sixth century CE and is said to have spent a number of years on top of a tower as a penance. The director of this film was against institutionalised religion and the present anti-climactic short film may be taken as a vicious attack on religious hypocrisy. It also underlines the vanity, masochism and selfishness which underlies ascetism.

The movie starts with Simon performing a miracle wherein an amputee's hands are restored. The first use he makes of his hands is to slap his son.

At various other times we see him chastising  people for their lack of piety. He even refuse to respond to his mothers love who lodges herself near the tower.

His own self immolation seems severe as he goes for days without food and water, living on next to nothing. His singleminded sincerety is beyond doubt.

On various occasions he is visited by the devil assuming the shape of a young and beautiful woman trying to distract him from his austerities. In her final visit we find the she-Satan climbs atop the mendicant's tower trying to lure him into sensuality.

In a sudden turn we see a flying aeroplane and then we are transported to a modern disco club where we find Simon and the she Satan dancing vigorously. And then he is sitting smoking a cigar as the film comes to an end.

It is a powerful attack on the clergy indicating that below the cloak things are very much the same if not worse. Bunuel ridicules religious posturing, the insincerity and falseness of religious professionals, the lack of genuine humanity which is buried deep in it, even the best kind.

And the beast cannot be exterminated, not even by standing on towers for decades. You can only shove it beneath the surface, thence sharpening his teeth all the more.

Humanity lies not in the extermination of the animal aspect but in it's civilisation.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Woman in the Dunes(1964):the sand is coming

Director:Hiroshi Teshigahara(1927-2001);  Language: Japanese;( Suna no onna); the film is highly commended by the director Andrei Tarkovsky and by Roger Ebert.

Two comparisons immediately spring to mind. One is with Albert Camus'  famous essay "Myth of Sisyphus" (depicting a human being doomed to a life of endless, purposeless activity, as many of us may experience our own lives to be). The second is with David Lean's 1962 film, "Lawrence of Arabia" for the grandeur of it's desert photography. Perhaps it's more appropriately described as the story of the redemption of an entymologist.

The young amateur scientist, otherwise a teacher, is out on the sea shore spending his leave looking for a variety of beetle which will bring him recognition from the community. By a chain of circumstances he finds himself housed with a young and beautiful woman living in a dilapidated cottage. The cottage is at the bottom of a sandpit abou 10 metres deep. Having accepted hospitality for an overnight stay, he finds himself a prisoner. Provisions and water are periodically lowered by the neighbouring villagers. It dawns on him soon that here he is to remain indefinitely.

The husband and daughter of the woman have recently been buried in a sand storm. It is a strange kind of sand. It is moist and whatever it comes into contact with will decay in days. At night they work together to shovel it as well as sift it for sale by the villagers. The cottage has to be protected at any cost since if one falls, so will the others.

He makes some attempts to scale the modest height of the sandpit ( since he is desperate to return to the city) but the material is as crumbly and amorphous as an anthill and there is no possibility of scaling the wall. At one point he does manage to escape by means of an ingenious contraption but  is caught by his detainers and back where he started. He tries to trap a crow to act a carrier pigeon but this also doesn't work out.

But it is the sand which is most interesting. Throughout the film the howling and blowing sand storm forms the musical score with a minimal of additional notes. It is a sand which flows like a liquid, advancing like a river in spate, at times heaving and swelling like the surface of a sea. It rains sand through the cracks in the roof of the cottage. The nights are devoted to bailing out the encroaching onslaught of sand.

The couple roughs out the physical realities of this survival struggle, bound only by the common elemental enemy and powerful eroticism. The woman is reconciled to remaining there for the rest of her life.  He remains steadfastly desperate, at one point even willing to perform sex in full view of the villagers as a price to be allowed to see the ocean for a short while. Let us go no furthur with spoilers.

Interpretations? The terms avant-garde, neo-relistic, existential have been used for the film, whatever that might be. Interpretations must be tentative and provisional, because anything which can be interpreted must to that extent be limited.

It has the form of a parable, in the starkness and simplicity of the narrative and disregard for logic of details. Man against the power of chaos, the relentless advance of time, the chasm beyond? The storms are the storms of human passion and the quicksand which gives way below our very feet is our own absence of moorings.

The entomologist wanted his name in a book, fame and recognition--a return to the glittering city. He is willing to trade whatever sense of honor he posesses (though he starts off as a decent enough individual) in return for fulfilling his desire for life, glimpses of the outside world. The woman is on firmer soil, reconciled to her destiny of eternal, repetitive, thankless labour. The villagers in their masks are the inner demons.

Like Watanabe in Ikiru, he finds a foothold in the ever shifting sand.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Stalker(1979): the wish granting Zone

Director:Andrei Tarkovsky(1932-1986); language:Russian

The film opens as we, the camera, look at the semi-darkness of a room with a double bed on which some one is sleeping. A glass filled with water begins to vibrate and slowly drifts across the table, as though with a life of it's own. A train clatters by. The only music is that of the train in it's passage.

An abandoned industrial landscape. The streets are swampy, the buildings old and crumbling. There is nobody around except odd militiamen who occassionly appear (and the omniscient camera )  because this is a forbidden zone which has been cordoned off . The threesome is on the run. There mode of conveyance is at times a railway handcar, at others a Landrover as they evade their pursuers in this  moist, still, eerie, urban maze. There is little music but that made by the  handcar, the jeep, splashing water, the patter of running feet and human voices. They seem to be scampering around in circles. Gunfire rattles behind them as they drive out of this forsaken town.

They finally emerge in what looks like moors with cranky electric poles with wires hanging loose, metallic cylinders and other industrial objects overgrown with grass and moss.( The film was shot on an abandoned hydro power station.) It has been a good twenty years since "things" happened and the Zone had to be vacated and cordoned. We are surrounded by a misty, undulating landscape with bodies of still or flowing water and an occasional eery cry from the distant heath.

Thus the three pilgrims progress through an enchanted misty watery world, the destination receding even as the distance reduces.

Ofcourse this is the USSR. The spirits of the totalitarian state  and Cancer Ward are palpable. The sepia tints are reminiscent of  the Dekalog.

The voyagers are named Writer, Professor and Stalker as they continue a philosophical debate. The Stalker represents the film directors viewpoint.

The issue is faith versus knowledge, hope versus cynicism. The Zone stands for the fulfillment of man's deepest desires. It is like that swirling surface of Solaris with its paranormal power.

It is the  inner cosmos  which the film is exploring and   expressing in the language of film  as Solaris or the Zone.

A melancholy journey ends in the triumphant notes of the Ode to Joy.

Tarkovsky is affirming his faith which in 1979 in the Soviet Union must have called for considerable courage. This is the last film he made in the USSR.

He is giving cinematic shape to a distant  music. Some holocaust victims  drew butterflies on the walls as the end approached. It is the hope which appears when  hope has disappeared.

The Zone is here, everywhere.

To quote Tarkovsky:

."....And in Stalker? Perhaps, I don't know. But I wanted to say something else — that what is important is not what one accomplished after all but that one entered the path to accomplish it in the first place. Why doesn't it matter where he arrived? Because the path is infinite. And the journey has no end. Because of that it is of absolutely no consequence whether you are standing near the beginning or near the end already — before you there is a journey that will never end. And if you didn't enter the path — the most important thing is to enter it. Here lies the problem. That's why for me what's important is not so much the path but the moment at which a man enters it, enters any path.",,,,,

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Kaminey 2009: twin paradoxes

Language:Hindi; Director: Vishal Bhardwaj; Cast: Priyanka Chopra, Shahid Kapur, Amole Gupte

I have nothing against Bollywood cinema except that I have rarely found it a brew to my taste, which goes for much of cinema, even the so canonised greats since life is fleeting and there are things to do and a movie consumes major  chunks of time. The first fault of a film is that it is a film. Sometimes it seems as if films have become a substitute for life, and life can only be lived second hand, and possibly the archangel Gabriel, or Yama the Lord of Hell, as the case may be, will ask only how many of Ebert's two volumes of great movies one has engorged in the earthly sojourn.

The earliest Hindi films I saw were around 1960 and they seemed each and every one of them of a searing intensity. Seeing a film was a landmark (once a year) event and one wondered and shed tears ,at least figurative ones. Ek hi Raasta (Ashok Kumar, Meena Kumari, Sunil Dutt) was one such in which Sunil Dutt, the head of a family, is murdered by being run over by a truck, and it gave me wakeful nights. Insaaniyat (starring Dilip Kumar, Devanand and the chimpanzee Zippy) was an adventure movie involving many edge-of seat events. Zippy had momentarily grabbed the glory from the ruling superstars of the day.  Never forgettable is Jagriti , a movie about youngsters,  including a crippled one called Shakti. It focusses on friendship, idealism and the love between a mother and her crippled son.

Around this period I saw Judgement at Nuremberg and Lawrence of Arabia (a film which Spielberg says inspired him to become a maker of films). The perspective changed completely specially LOA which was a kind of bolt of lightening and the initial imprint of the heaving desert sands has never been erased though of course nothing ever gets repeated. Then in my bachelor days in Hyderabad, days of biryani, beer and movies marked among others by Bridge on the River Kwai, Benegals unforgettable Ankur with its lilting musical score set against the Andhra countryside and Garam Hawa specially the quawalli Maula Salim Chishti. One cannot leave without a salute to Sholay. And Anand. And Namak Haraam (or was it Halaal). And,and, and....!

And since the last five years a continuing deluge of film embracing most of the "canonised" stuff now heading for satiation, because there are other equally interesing things to be done. Bollywood films have been seen  sparsely, usually as a matter of social compulsion, or curiosity and hope followed by a dissipated feeling. Recent ones: Taare Zamin Par, Black. One sequence I remember pleasantly is Gulshan Grover as Soprano the Gang Lord dancing with a globe an obvious imitation of Chaplin in Great Dictator in Tom Dick and Harry. One of the ways to enjoy a Hindi movie is to relish it for dumbness' sake as one might a Marx Brother's spoof like Ducksoup.

Having seen Maqbool and Omkara, and driven by a feeling of nostalgia for  Bollywood--for this is home, after all-- I allowed myself Kaminey, since people were saying good things about it. It was said to have a Tarantino touch.

Of the two twins(Shahid Kapur, who distinctly resembles Shahrukh Khan) one Lisps and the other Stammers . After the father's self inflicted demise on economic grounds the Lisper becomes a crooked horse race fixer and the Stammerer walks the straight and narrow path, on which he is fated to collide with Priyanka Chopra, the sister of Maharashtrian politician Bhope(  fleshed out by Aloke Gupte a match in uproarious loquacity to Samuel Jackson in Pulp Fiction or Brad Pitt and Waltz in Inglourious Basterds); the said Chopra pretends to stammer to lure Stammerer to the marriage bed( in the last scene, she delivers twins to round things off). In between there is a small matter of a guitar containing ten khokha worth of cocaine. A khokha in case you dont know is an Indian monetary unit signifying ten million rupees. A peti is a lesser unit meaning a paltry hundred thousand. This gives ample options to deliver gore of the required grade and dosage.

It was said that America loves her gangsters. India is fast to catch up. Maybe only a step behind. And Vishal B. does it with finesse and we forgive him many things using the Quarantino shield.

Chuck de Bollywood!

What is disturbing and what is authentic in the film is that this really is the way people think and feel in CE 2009. The values depicted in the negative characters hold more sway in our societies( be it any country) than the feeble goody meows which are anyhow allowed to prevail for forms sake. Society does work like that because that is the way we think it works.

The characters are caricatures and stereotypes. So perhaps are we, if cinema is a mirror. Or that's what we want to become and therefore are in the process of becoming. But art should be more than a passive mirror. It needs to shape and inspire. Else money and fame are the end-all. As the fox in Antichrist (2009) growls: "Chaos, increase."

My allergy for most Bollywood films has nothing to do with affinity for stuff from western shores--it is unwillingness to devote time, a chunk of my limited alloted span to the formulaic and second rate, whatever it's origin..

Friday, October 16, 2009

Antichrist 2009 Revisited: chaos, increase!

We have two human beings isolated from any other human contact, surrounded by a vastness of nature. The conifers and ferns stretch endlessly. Animals cry. The trees angrily hurl acorns on the cottage roof  like stones. It rains as though it were a billion years ago.

It is a drama of confrontation and interaction distilled to the barest of essentials that the film tries to expose. There are three forces in apposition: He, She and It. The dead child is the burden of the past.

The civilised element dissolves rapidly in the distance from society and merges into the primeval cries of the forest. The jungle and its wild inhabitants are not passive elements but seem to be in a dynamic interaction with the human protagonists.

 It is appropriately named Eden-perhaps Antieden would be right- for it's human population is just the two of them and the whole garden is theirs in which to love and hate. They are the highly educated products of a modern society and in that sense already traded their original innocence for a forbidden fruit.The widerness, as if it were in response, sends back ferocious echoes in the form of hellish animal symbols: the aborting doe, the disembowelled fox,  the entombed crow.

The vestments of socialisation are quickly shorn. It is primitive man surrounded by a menacing jungle inhabited by fickle and blood thirsty dieties in animal form.

He has only intelligence to govern over his inner wilderness: the volcanoes, canyons and stormy seas of his soul. There is no law to follow, no faith to anchor on. There is no Christ. Hence it is the realm of pure nature, Antichrist.

Von Trier has probably made a very personal, autobiographical and very religious film. A mixture of genius, abnormal upbringing and the absense of anchors, religious or otherwise, himself a victim of depression, he has produced a difficult, powerful and layered statement about the depth of human need.  It is a very troubled cry, this great film.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Inglourious Basterds

One leaves the theatre  with an overwhelming feeling of satisfaction of money and time's worth , breath-bated and a sense of wonderment. We have partaken of a cinematic feast.The film belongs to no genre unless it is the genre of Tarantino and while admiring it's perfection one is left wondering wherein that perfection springs from.
Hitler (at least the moustache seems to be Hitler's) chuckles happily like a fancy dress prankish schoolboy as he and Goebells watch a movie. He knows that American Jewish soldiers are on a Nazi scalping spree. Even the scalping has a good natured ribaldry about it.  The final blow-up-Hitler, Goebells along with  kith and kin- is an inspired spoof on history.

The idea of branding the swastika nice and big on the foreheads of ze villains with that ugly machette is a tour-de-force. So even your estate at Nantuchek and the government pension in return for losing the war won't wash off these stigmata, unless you go in for plastic surgery, but it's only'45, or is it? And guess what else? No sex at all.

Christoph Waltz as Land the Nazi officer, nicknamed Jew Hunter, with his perfect breeding and endearing smile, a picture of control as he entraps his prey with artful relish is a match for the great Joker in Spiderman or even for the original Mephistocles. Melanie Laurent as the female lead who plots vengeance on the Germans, is a beauty of  determination, intelligence and restraint in her quest for vindication. Both are creatures of flesh and blood. Brad Pitt, comical and terrifying with his southern US accent and taste for inflicting pain, is more nazi than the Nazi's.
The effectiveness of the film lies perhaps in the continuity of visceral satisfaction and the chiselled symmetry of each episode as it unfolds in its chain of inevitable improbabilities.
The language of film pervades the narrative-the skills of projection, the explosive potential of nitrate film, the drama in a theatre. Isn't it ordained that the outcome of the war should be decided in a cinema hall since haven't we all come to see a movie and what is a little war after all and some gallons of blood?

As an audience we too are in a way part of the film industry even if only as consumers and hence can claim a little credit for giving old Hitler what he had coming to him. Thank god, we are in this theatre and not that bunker.
The film is true to it's own internal logic and vein of inspiration.The war and all those atrocities happened a long while ago so one might be permitted some levity even in a topic as unspeakable as the genocide.

It is a roller coaster ride of entertainment and pleasure and even the gore seems a matter of secondary importance. It retains the essence and spirit and largeness of history while forsaking the detail. While it parodies grim events of the not unrecent past, it in no way demeans them or loses perspective on  those tragedies. It rather refreshes us to what happened by re-focussing it through the lenses of satire and parody. The distorting mirrors in the house of laughter at a circus make us laugh  at ourselves with an embarassed self recognition.

Brad Pitt's somewhat comical brutality depicts through a kind of flip of contrast the Holocaust which is the silent back stage of the movie. In that sense Tarantino renders a service by bringing to life again those dreaded memories which tend to slip into stereotypes and pious platitudes. Evils continue to exist till their causes, their very talons which are in the minds of ""ordinary" men, are not extracted from the roots.

After all the contradictions of the film are no more than the contradictions of life and derivatively of history.

An important film. A deeply felt allegory. And box-office too.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

2001, A Space Odyssey (1968)

Director: Stanley Kubrick ; Script: Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick. Placed among top ten movies ever made in Sight and Sound's list in 2002.
"Only a few films are transcendent...."...Roger Ebert

Once upon a time there was an ape in Africa and he glimpsed himself in a black rectanguar monolith left for him as a gift and a milestone by an unknown benefactor. He discovers the scale of his power and the bone-weapon he hurls into the sky turns into a lunar mission module, a cinematic flash forward of a few million years. The monolith appears again on the moon and next we find our space heroes headed towards Jupiter. There the computer HAL 9000 turns hostile, resulting in the death of all but one of the astronauts, named Dave. Dave again encounters the mysterious black tablet and is propelled through unexplained tunnels of colour, over weird unearthly hills and dales finally ending up in a well furnished room with human amenities where he lives out his life. As he dies, he encounters the tablet again and is transformed into a foetus enclosed in a transparent bubble moving in space...

More than  science fiction  it is a poetical history of the evolution of life on this planet, with an extending vision of man as an inhabitant of the solar system and pushing beyond.

 It is in no way a fantasy or a scientific fairy tale: it always has the feet planted in historical realities. It remains true to the spirit as well as the poetry of science, though it does not set out as a treatise or textbook of science.

 More even than the piling up of knowledge and the ever expanding sphere of intelligence it is about that powerful force of self transcendence which is the core of the human nature and indeed the totality of life. We sense it in the jubilant victory cry of the ancestral ape as in the dying Dave. As Tagore says the life pulsating in blades of grass is the same as life that runs in the veins of human beings. The film, which is half way a documentary, is pervaded by religious awe, an awareness of the infinities of space and time which we inhabit. The monolith is a mirror in which man observes himself as a piece of the benign propulsive force of the cosmos. For are we not all star children, each and every one of us?

 It is also perhaps a parable about the nature of life and death and the eternity of life. The life which is behind the re-appearing monolith is the same as the that of the ones who time and again observe it. Inspired artist that he was, Kubrick may have sensed this in the depths of his own life.

For is not the journey through the many coloured tunnels reminiscent of what the researches on near death experiences has learnt us about? ( where Alph, the sacred river, ran/through caverns measureless to man/down to a sunless sea) Is not the monolith the primordial Rosebud, representing the receding past and undying hope for the future? Surely the tranformation of the dying Dave into the womb enclosed embryo is not an arbitrary artistic interpolation or unnecessary literary embellishment? Ebert's use of the word transcendant in reference to the film is no less  prescient.
Of course one may justifiably be accused of reading too much between the lines what isn't there.

It has been called a slow film, but it is so only in the sense that a piece of slow music is slow. So far as the descriptions of space flight, both where their rhythms and authenticity and faithfulness to detail is concerned, one experiences things as an astronaut would.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Lotna 1959, the ill fated stallion

Director: Andrzej Wajda

Lotna is the name of  a white stallion with a few dark patches. In circles where horses were esteemed he is of the finest quality, lean of limb and of a  magnificence of grace and speed . We see it flying like an arrow, it's limbs devouring the meadows in an awesome perfection of rhythmical whorls.

This is a film about the events in September 1939 as the German artillery pushes into Poland. The events are about some years before those chronicled in Schindler's List and The Pianist.

 Wajda (1926-)  is a leading director and he narrates the melancholy events in which he lost his own father. This would have been a courageous film to make in Soviet dominated 1959 Poland about events related to the recent traumas of the war which touched on national pride and the question of responsibilities.

 Was the invasion a walkover for the Germans? If not what happened and what was the nature and extent of the response to the invading forces? One wholly fictional incident of a disastrous cavalry charge on the advancing tanks was particularly controversial. Surely it was not meant as literally as horses against tanks.
It speaks rather of the inequality of the balance of forces , of the courage and the ravishment.

Wajda is a poet-historian-proud Pole-film director who here more than giving  political or historical answer draws a metaphorical picture as a supressed sob and a salute to a proud and ravished past. The rust brown chromes of the film are wholly appropriate to the fading culture it evokes.

It is through the travails of Lotna the horse and a foredoomed love story of a cadet and school teacher that Wajda pin points his perceptions of that fateful winter in evocative poetry and powerful metaphors . The stallion is the strand around which Wajda weaves a masterful narrative.

The metaphors of the glorious steed, the dismembered sculptures emerge from the depths of the Polish psyche, the  ravages of history and time.