Thursday, December 31, 2009

Munyurangabo--a simple African tale

*Rwanda*2007*Lee Isaac Chung*97m*Rwanda*

After Hotel Rwanda, another movie about the tiny African nation and her tragic history .This one is completely different, and in all ways a far more uplifting and powerful an experience. In it's simplicity , unaffectedness and power it reminds me of Bahrani and  Ray.

Long after the massacres two teenagers, Sangwa and Munyarangabo, best friends and belonging to the two opposed communities , travel through the countryside to visit the family of the first after an absence of three years. The other boy--Ngabo for short-- is carrying an ugly looking machete, with the purpose of avenging the death of his father during the genocide.

Primarily, it is a film about a pastoral and agrarian community,  capturing the rhythms of life and nature of a part of the world . Human beings are much the same, and to give a recognisable face to this unknown part of the planet is itself an achievement. We see the people at work tilling the fields, sharing meals and robust poverty, cracking jokes, fetching water. We see the infinite tenderness of the mother. The father is temperamental, sometimes angry, sometimes disappointed  in his son , sometimes proud and sometimes violent. The  speech rhythms are very different. The instrument-less songs and the colorful dance are a perfect accompaniment. Finally, there is a section in which  history and hopes are recited as a long and impassioned  ballad. Packs anthropology, history and heart.

The human drama of the two friends and their families in the background of harsh communal memories comes across poignantly.  The characters are human beings for whom we learn to care in the course of the movie.

This is the kind of art which can help in bridging gulfs and inspiring hope instead of nourishing despair.

Roger Ebert's review 

The Sacrifice--the artist who wanted to be a saint

*Andrei Tarkovsky*1986*144m*Swedish*Offret*

"In this respect, the Soviet Union is already beyond redemption; and even in Western Europe people seem to take a delight in surrendering their own personalities in the belief that something will be gained by creating a so-called `new society.' In the Soviet Union I had already gone my own way, but you can imagine my astonishment when I realised that the same thing was happening here, all the more so that it was happening in an atmosphere of material well-being. That's why the film rather goes against the grain of all the latest intellectual tendencies in the West."...from the Tarkovsky link below

This world is like a burning house....Buddha

The director's last movie, in the course of which he was diagnosed for cancer. He passed away soon after. Although it is not clear to what extent the actual movie is influenced by issues of health ( the cancer was diagnosed at the editing stage of the film ), it has the tone of a testament. Issues like commercial performance, audience reaction, or even intelligibility, were not his concern in this film. He expresses himself with abandonment, if not self-indulgence. He puts everything here( even a homily about the hazards of smoking ) .

Tarkovsky is quite verbally expressive of his work in his writings and interviews and these give a necessary point of take-off  for making sense of his work. Sacrifice is an unusually voluble film and for a major part a philosophical soliloquy.

His concerns consistently in his series of seven feature films seem to have been existential, spiritual and religious. At the time of making of the present movie, he was at a crest of professional success and adulation ( even veneration ) as a film-maker of world stature. These are well known to provide less than total satisfaction. His complaint seems to have been not only with the way society is organised, or the way human thinking has evolved, as with the nature of life itself. His films are filled with yearning, as for a music distantly heard, and anxieties about death and human destiny seem to be at the core. Perhaps we need to remember that he has most of the right questions but, like the rest of us, no answers. Let us not get too worked up seeking interpretations. He is an artist and poet and we should enjoy the films for the magic of cinema which they undoubtedly possess.

The film is made in Sweden, in Swedish, under the aegis of Bergman. Alexander, a wealthy and retired actor, lives with his family on an island. The film starts with a birthday party and an exchange of gifts ( providing ample occasion for discourse ). World War Three breaks out and destruction is imminent. The hero ( an atheist to start with ) breaks into prayer, pledging to sacrifice himself ( in an unspecified manner ) if the calamity is averted. The village postman, who happens to be a mystic, advises him in a comical sequence that there is a way out of the impending holocaust ( which is depicted in two short interspersed sequences ), namely that he should immediately lie with the maid servant, who he says is a witch. Seeing no alternative to this strange prescription, Alexander proceeds to follow it with alacrity, in the course of which we see the couple levitating, perhaps to vindicate the procedure. Sure enough, no more war. Now for his side of the bargain, the promised sacrifice. Simple. Alex decides to go insane--he sets their house on fire and we see him being carried away in an ambulance. Curtain.

The film is certainly hard work ( and long ) and has to be seen a second time, which I did. Even second time around, when the drift was more or less clear, what seemed most lacking was coherence and momentum. It falls short of being a spellbinder, unless you have all the time and concentration to immerse yourself in the sheer cinematographic excellence. Tarkovsky is a film-maker for less hurried and more leisured times. On the plus side is the characteristic eeriness of a Tarkovsky flick , with glassware and crockery beginning to rattle out of nowhere. The impending calamity is suggested by winds sweeping over the grass, feet walking through slush and withered shrubs, and the wail of Japanese flute. The landscape is vast, treeless and deserted with the sea at the back. The interiors are voluminous, providing ample room for the frolic of light and shade. The craftsmanship is all there.

The film is a visual treat, and one can meditate on the cinematography itself, other things besides. The music of Bach which opens and concludes the film is very like van Triers Antichrist. Antichrist, incidentaly, is dedicated to Tarkovsky.

Tarkovsky on the Sacrifice
Roger Ebert's review

Sunday, December 27, 2009

25th Hour

*2002*Spike Lee*134m*

Monty has been convicted of a drug related offence and his term starts tomorrow, in another twenty five hours. A sentence of seven years is a one way street since there is no return to respectability and the experience itself a hell from which one returns with indelible scars. It is in a way a death sentence since it spells the death of one's life as it was. One is breaking with one's past and one's acquaintances, and embarking on a hard new life. In a way it may be worse than death since death is a fading away into something unknown. We experience these hours in his interactions with two childhood friends, an English teacher and a stockbroker, his girlfriend and his father. Requires a second view for better comprehension which I fear it may not be deserving of.
Roger Ebert's Great Movie Review

Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Willow Tree

*2002*Majid Majidi*Iran*92*Bid-e-majnoon*

Forty five year university professor of literature Yusuf has been blind for thirty eight years, having lost his sight in a crackers explosion. In each of the three Majidi films I have seen, we are treated to a picture postcard paradise of the natural beauty of this land, with snow clad mountains and roaring torrents. His philosophically satisfied existence in these idyllic environs with his devoted wife and charming daughter of ten or so, is interrupted when a bold corneal transplant surgery proves successful and he can see again. If you want to know what it feels like to be able to see after 38 years, here is your answer. He suppresses his giggles, leaps with joy and rushes through the corridor--just short of breaking into song. But then, barely a third of the move is over and you wonder, what next?

But it's more than he can digest. Why did I have to lose out on the best years of my life and why did I have to be married to this plain Jane? His ogling at younger women doesn't get him anywhere. One specific face stands out in this cornucopia of beauty. The poor wife, who is nice enough in all respects is forced to leave him along with the daughter . The guy goes on a rampage, destroying his written works and other valuables, in a tantrum which reminded me of Kane's after Susan Alexander leaves him.

The gods that be are close enough in this director's movies to give a helping hand with the plot, as and when required. Our friend loses his sight a second time because the retinal transplant is getting rejected, and his mother, who a moment back was robust enough, is seen connected to a ventilator through the glass wall of what must be an ICU. When his friend or relative suggests another go at the retinal job he angrily exits the car mid-traffic. and gropes his way to civilization through slush and gutter. Finally we find him praying for another chance.

I started the movie because of it's availability, thinking it might be a nice change from the heavier stuff I seemed to be in. It was. I have a weakness for any movie that does it's job in ninety minutes.

The question arises, how do we categorize this director, genre-wise? The picture he gives of Iran is two dimensional. The characters are stereotypes, caricatures of  regional social ideals. They lack the naturalness and complexity of ordinary folk. I was deeply moved by the first of his that I saw, Baran, which was for me an exhilarating introduction to the territory of the Afghanistan-Iran border, and the people who live there.Majidi's films lack the technical maturity and naturalism, whatever it's worth may be, of contemporary Hollywood. It lacks the inanities and amoral excesses of Bollywood, where, as in Hollywood, the dollar calls the tune. Satyajit Ray is a trillion miles away, with his totally unaffected and equipoised himselfness. With a touch light as a feather, maybe like the Tramp himself, Ray embraces, encompasses and expresses, a people and it's land. He is the Dickens of Indian cinema.

In Majidi, we see a soul restrained by the environment in which he operates. He seems circumscribed. He embodies a value system that is not liberating, in which God rules and man is a subject. It is a world of small pieties. Not a world in which a man has the power to carve out his  destiny. In all that scenic splendor, oxygen seems to be in short supply.

Perhaps one can place him in that age of innocence of Indian cinema, aroud 1950, the era of Awaara, Barsaat and Baiju Bawra. That too is not fair, since the quoted movies, in all their naiveté are bursting with joy and song .They are Bollywood's answer to Singin' in the Rain and Casablanca.

At best, Majidi's films have a soothing predicability, simplicity and corn. You could call it Teheranwood.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Waltz with Bashir

*Animation*Hebrew*2008*85m*Ari Folman*

Centers around a genocide of  Palestinians which took place in 1982 in the course of the Lebanon War. The director participated in this war. Later on, when he encountered a fellow soldier, he finds that he has no memory of these events, even though he was a participant. He sets out on an investigation, searching out others who witnessed the invasion, and joins together fragments of the story into a complete picture.

The point is the ability of our mind to erase that which we would rather forget, and the question of the responsibility. Like murder these things are done behind draperies and the details rarely emerge into public knowledge. A chain of  decision making is involved, from orders, or acquiescence, explicit or otherwise, to execution of plan or intention. Responsibility is divided and diluted, and memory does it's part in forgetting and distorting.

The movie is an essay on war. It succeeds in depicting the background of such barbarous acts. It is certainly strongly anti-war. It shows how human passivity may ultimately be the cause which allows the unthinkable to become a reality.

The final footage of the wailing women is a powerful image which portrays the human dimension of war, which  women are perhaps biologically better qualified to understand.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Some documentaries

Collapse 2009: An 82 minute monologue by Michael Ruppert, a former police officer and controversial writer, with an obsessive apocalyptic vision of the decay of industrial civilization in the very near future brought about by the exhaustion of oil resources.  The message is conveyed with great urgency, and the personal distress of Ruppert, as well as his array of data certainly makes an impression and makes you sit up, even though you may lack the know-how to evaluate the conclusion. This is going to happen by 2050, he says. He also claims to have foreseen the present worldwide recession. Even without becoming a prophet of doom, the problems, including militarisation and nuclear arsenals, are grave enough. As much as practical steps to stall these disasters, new ways of thinking, and a brand new set of values are the things that seem most urgently needed. As he says, " the love of money is the root of all evil."

Food Inc 2009.: Another startling film, about the food industry in the US which seems to have become increasingly a monopoly in the hands of a few giants. With the logic of mass production and profit maximization, the interests of the consumer or the condition of animals is relegated out of sight. The processes of food manufacture, specially meat, are particularly disgusting. Lakhs of animals are bred under hellish surroundings, destined to be slaughtered on highly mechanized assembly lines . Surely there is a difference between a pig and a cabbage. I am reminded of the Old Man and the Sea, where the old man apologizes to his brother, the fish, who he has just caught from the sea.

Conditions in a typical chicken farm are depicted. The birds are crowded to the extent that there is no room for movement and they never learn to walk . They are fed and bred to achieve the maximum weight, which on the average is twice what it used to be. And there is no light. The birds, lame and scared, cackle in fright, and you can imagine what this is like, since there are tens of thousands in a single barn. Just replace the birds with people in your mind, and you have a picture of concentration camps or worse. Do animals have rights?

And the kind of food people get from this system,  genetically engineered and processed in a mega industrial plant  that is more on the scale and sophistication of an automobile assembly unit, is hardly conducive to physical or spiritual well being. For example, the contents of a burger may contain a mixture of the flesh from literally thousands of animals, so if one is infected, the whole lot gets affected. It is development and progress going deeply askew.

The food industry certainly is unlikely to be the only one afflicted with this kind of business philosophy, where people, consumers and employees alike, are treated like things to be manipulated by the powerful. In India the health care system, for one, seems to be becoming increasingly a business like any other, with the cost of medical treatment soaring far beyond the means of average wage-earners.


*Akira Kurosawa*1990*90m*

One of the last movies of the director. The film has the format of a series of eight dreams. It seems to be autobiographical, examining memories, concerns and fantasies from an early age onwards. It seems the work of a person whose mind is focussed on the end. He also expresses his social concerns.

The best thing about the film is it's visual splendour. It starts of with a marriage procession of foxes, in which ancient musical instruments and the slow rhythms of kabuki dance combine into a vision of ominous, melancholy and nostalgic beauty, seen through the eyes of a boy. As the same boy laments the felling of a peach orchard, a vast array of dolls in gorgeously colorful draperies, dressed up like the fallen trees, enact another eery classical dance performance, to console and encourage the boy. Another dream depicts a snowstorm in which the lives of a group of adventurers is threatened.

As a man enters a dark tunnel, he is threatened by a ferocious wolf. Then his subordinates in the army, who "died like dogs" in the war even though they are glorified now, return from their graves, grieving over their own deaths like the ghost in Hamlet.

Mount Fuji is shown with a background of devastation as six "safe" nuclear plants erupt in succession in a radioactive inferno. Finally we see an idyllic village where people live harmonious lives, as the film culminates in a joyous funeral procession.

A mixed bag. Some of the social messages appear stereotyped and  didactic . The beauty of images compensates for everything.

Having seen several movies of his, this was worth it for providing an insight into the film-maker in his final years, since we know him mainly by the films of his youth.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Goodbye Solo

Rahim Bahrani*2009*91m*

There is a cliff whose high and bending head
Looks fearfully in the confined deep.
Bring me but to the very brim of it....
From that place shall I no leading need...King Lear

William, 72 years old, plans to commit suicide on 20th October, two weeks from now, by jumping off Blowing Rock, a scenic spot known for the ferocity of the winds that blow there, so strong that the snow falls upwards. For that purpose he engages a Senegalese Taxi Driver named Solo for a large sum for the one way trip. The two become friends as the young taxi driver tries to veer him from his enterprise. In the process we catch glimpses of the peaceful multiracial society which seems to be the simple truth of present day America, and the family life of  an Africa born African American married to a Mexican-American, and the child born to them in the film will be an American of Senegalese-Mexican parentage. The teenage daughter Alex from a previous marriage has a substantial role.

I had to see it twice to get my bearings, and the second time was a riveting experience as everything fell` into place from the perspective of the whole.

Here is an old man with an unspecified past, obviously fed up and tired out, who is yet good natured and human enough to enjoy his omelet ( with mushrooms), likes to reminisce the songs of folk singer Hank Williams, cooks breakfast for Solo and Alex, even coaches Solo for an exam, sees movies. More standing out than his depression is the resolution to go through with his scheme. And how meticulously and lovingly he builds his suicide, caving himself and all exit routes. He seems keen to do a neat job, leaving no loose string hanging. Why should a healthy man of sound mind and adequate means do that, at an age when one is supposed to have attained to a degree of equanimity?

The film is capped with an ending of such exquisite beauty as one has never seen, and which it would be a sin to reveal even in the tiniest. I put this film in the category of Ikiru and , yes, King Lear.
Roger Ebert's review

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Cloud Capped Star 1960--"abandon hope, ye..."

*Ritwik Ghatak (1925-76)*Bengali*121m*Meghe Dhaka Tara*

Ghatak belongs to the threesome of Bengali directors who stand outside the commercial mainstream, Mrinal Sen and Ray being the other two. Ghatak, who never achieved anything near Ray's standing, was praised and encouraged by Ray. Everybody doesn't need to be Ray, and putting aside the artificial yardsticks of Ray and Bollywood (like two poles), one may try to see this most famous of his seven features, which in one opinion poll of film personalities and professionals, throw up Meghe Dhaka Tara as the most celebrated of Indian films, above Ray, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, and others. Cannot swallow this anyhow.

 Nita, the heroine, along with a sister and two brothers, teacher father, and vampish mother, are a family of refugees from East Pakistan (that is, East Bengal and now Bangla Desh). They occupy a small cottage in a refugee camp, and eke out a meagre existence. The film describes the shabbiness of a lower middle class life, people educated enough to dream but circumscribed and ultimately extinguished by economic factors. The film relates the exploitation of Nita, a nice looking girl in her twenties, who is too good for her own or anybody's good, who silently suffers various indignities, foregoing career, marriage and finally health, for her family's sake. The meaness of her mother or sister is a caricature difficult to swallow, and the Wordsworth reciting school-master is not a patch on some of the teachers of the same period in Aparajito. The realism which is attributed to him does not seem much in evidence, though he is quite distant from the formulaic inanities of Bollywood cinema.

It is a joyless, lifeless, stifling universe, where small people live out small lives, and no spark of revolt leaps up as the night engulfs this odyssey of spineless endurance. What reality is Ghatak projecting? It is indeed the death of a salesman. These are not qualities we admire in ourselves or others. Cinema, even when depicting the morbid or unwholesome aspects of life, should be ennobling, uplifting or enlightening. This is a film almost as dull and sickly as the life it describes. Not a shaft of hope penetrates this gloom. Hell itself is perhaps defined by it's apparent eternity. One owes being alive above being good. Even good Bollywood is rarely missing the sparkle of life.

So much for opinion polls.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Ikiru--"to live"

Akira Kurusawa made this film at the age of forty. Since it is one those rare movies which examines the experience of a person facing imminence of death ( Wit, Cries and Whispers, Dead Man Walking, I Want to Live,Decalogue 5  are  others). Leo Tolstoi's novella Death of Ivan Illyich is a wonderful account of a similar situation where a perfectly ordinary person is plunged into this extra-ordinary situation, and in fact is the direct inspiration of the present movie . It occurred to me to question what experiences in Kurosawa's own life led him to make a film about this topic. One of eight siblings, he had lost all three of his brothers by the time he was in his twenties and one of his four sisters, had experienced a devastating earthquake first hand,  and  made some films during the war under the watchful eyes of the militaristic government.He thus brings to his work an adequate equipage of the realities of life.

Death is the most mysterious of all phenomenon because it is "the bourne from which no traveler returns". It's something which always to the other guy and we are incapable of conceiving of our own demise. The brain just refuses to accept this reality. It is the ultimate challenge for a human being to come to grips with this most devastating of realities. In a way all religions and philosophies exist for this purpose.

Watanabe is a superintendent in a government office. He has been working in the same office for thirty years. He lost his wife when his now grown up and married son was in infancy. His job involves virtually nothing more than applying a rubber stamp to a succession of documents. He and his half a dozen junior colleagues, including the charming young girl, spend listless days, passing their time in bored, empty talk. This routine might have continued indefinitely. But Watanabe is diagnosed with stomach cancer and given only months to live. As is natural, this bolt of lightening finds him rudderless and unprepared. He recalls a drowning experience as a child. He found himself alone as he sank, with no parents there to listen to his cries for help. Similarly, now as he faces the abyss, he finds no solace forthcoming from his son, for whose sake he has allowed his life to petrify into the "mummy" ( his nickname in the office behind his back) through the routine of  bureaucracy. He realizes that all his life, he has been alive, but never lived. He can't bear to die without ever having experienced life.

There is something I seem to lack the means to understand. I cannot empathize with Watanabe's state of shock as he emerges from the clinic, having heard the pronouncement. Nor can I truly understand the valley of the shadow of death into which his life descends afterwards. I find myself a blank when I try to identify with this situation. Does Kurosawa? Kurosawa later attempted suicide. His last movies ( which I have yet to see), are pervaded by these concerns.

Apart from the philosophical tone and message, it is immaculate cinema. He is a sensitive observer of human behaviour in it's kaleidoscopic shifts from moment to moment. The encounter with the young girl who is his ex-office assistant shows this small drama in which the ebbing life draws solace from the company of the vivacious youngster. And then, the get together after the funeral, turning into a drunken symposium where his life is thread bared. The lead actor gives a restrained but powerful performance.                                
Roger Ebert's Great Movie Essay
Criterion Essays, Hanske and Ritchie

Friday, December 18, 2009

Avatar--rupees a thousand crore

The first thing that struck me, right from the space ship’s take-off , is the vast volumes. There is an immediate feeling of transportation. Even though the provision of 3D goggles was not there, everything feels so gargantuan. That extra dimension is so essential in the effect this film produces. It is  you flying over the psychedelic landscapes. You are actually there, in this lovely paradise.  The movie constructs a world that is alluring, startling, beautiful, bewitching.

 Special effects deserve to be called an art form, since a person dreams something undreamt of and translates it onto a screen. Really seems the cinema of the future, and the future seems to have come  closer through this film.
The money is well spent, since I personally feel the message aspect is significant. It's a film with a universal appeal.

(There was a distracting bunch of titterers in the rear last night but soon the full house sank into respectful concentration, which is unusual for an English film here. I myself lost track of time.)

It's the humans who come closer to the Uncanny Valley, and the aliens seem to dwarf the humans in terms of evolution of the heart (to invent an expression.) The humans are more or less what humans actually are, and the aliens maybe more like what they ought to be like, and will probably have to become, if they survive long enough.

The idea of the great tree whose roots inter-connect the forest is not very far fetched, coming close to a concept of oriental philosophy known as Indra's net, wherein humanity is seen as a vast mosaic consisting of myriad mirrors, each reflecting all others. Nobody is an island, in other words. It's significant that the hero accords his loyalty, not to nation or planet, but to the universe itself, or what seems right to him.

 The simple story with simple dialogues and urgent message, so charmingly delivered, will surely touch millions of hearts around the world.

This film is a good thing to have happened in the world of cinema.

Roger Ebert's review

Japan's War in Color

A documentary about the invasions and occupations in Asia as well as the Pacific war. It conveys many ( to me ) new insights into the history of that period. The footage at most places seems the worse for wear and the japanised-english in which reports of interviews, letters and statements is read out is rather jarring.

The film gives an authentic feel of the scale and audacity of the Japanese military enterprise in which a small, but tightly disciplined and united nation is able to crush, over-run and occupy vast territories in less war-like regions of Asia, while engaging the mighty "sleeping lion" of the USA in a naval confrontation of unprecedented magnitude. Looking at this film, it is alarming to see the extent to which the adventure was successful, as Asia is prostrated to the advancing juggernaut from the East. What was the source of this energy and power? What makes a country powerful? The aborted military dream is followed by the economic and technological miracle in the second half century.

It is obvious that the secret is the principal of human organisation, whereby a body of men, united by common interest, force, or a common ideal by the sheer exponentiation resulting from their aggregation, become a kind of atom-bomb of shared purpose, for good or bad.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Mirror : fragments of the past

*Andrei Tarkovsky*1975*102m*
Tarkovsky speaks about "The Mirror"

An enigmatic but alluring film which is unlikely to get the second view it deserves. The above link from the director's own mouth gives a string to start from and makes the director's intention more than crystal clear. As he explains, it is intended as a literal and completely authentic cinematic autobiography, extremely sentimental, emotional and nostalgic. Tarkovsky's mother along with her two children was abandoned by the father at an early age and the mother, who is the central figure in the film, brought them up in conditions of extreme deprivation, giving them a kind of education almost unconceivable under the circumstances. The father was a poet of depth whose poems are often quoted in his films, including this one. The father is projected in a positive light, and was always esteemed by the mother, such must have been the complexities of the situation. In any case the above linked explanation should be read by any one intending to see the movie as a minimal road map.

Again borrowing from the director's elucidation, the film is a collage of memory elements fused into a whole, a broken mirror assembled lovingly to capture and preserve what has ceased to exist .

About half way through, while enjoying the wistful imagery and the sound track ( he often uses classical music and some choral pieces of Bach are used to great effect, capturing the director's fundamentally religious orientation ), I was left virtually clueless about what was going on, except Wiki's assurance that it was about his own life and not intended to make sense as usually found, and not to seek a narrative chain. Anyway, I went through to the end, more for record's sake, as it were, and found myself more and more immersed in the mood of his memories. Tarkovsky's camera is ever wistfully evocative, and the mists of memory, as they are lifted, one after another, are charged with a kind of suppressed passion, bordering on a kind of religious fervor towards life itself.

If there is another occasion, it will certainly have more shape...

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Do the Right Thing ( 1989 ) : portrait of a riot

*Spike Lee*1989*115m*

The film culminates in a riot in which a black American is killed by the police and an Italian owned shop is burnt down in the aftermath.

It is not necessarily about interracial tensions in one corner of the globe but a sociological study of  hatred which gets  organised across groups of individuals separated by colour, caste, status or language. Almost anything can serve as an occassion or excuse for such behaviour which is a kind of virulent eruption which is as recurrent a phenomenon in this country as in America.

The black neighbourhood depicted does not seem to be exceptionally disturbed and the interracial tensions ( there is a Korean shop also across the street ) seem to be quite contained till a spark escalates events that lead to a full fledged riot with water cannons in operation in the fury of mob and police violence.

A beautifully enacted and thoroughly gripping film which doesn't let your attention flag even for a moment. The film does not particularly represent black anger against racial discrimination since the Italian pizzeria owner is shown in a more sympathetic light. The mood of the film is sad rather than angry. However it does give us a brilliantly etched, detailed and utterly realistic close-up of the  life and minds of the black community in a particular stratum, and the way they come to grips with their past and present. It seems all  too real, natural, understandable and yet very sad as the destiny and karma of human beings everywhere. The film ends with counterpoised quotes and portraits Martin Luther King, advocating the Christian ethic, and another from Malcolm X, stating the inevitability of violence in the interest of securing justice.

Roger Ebert's Essay for the Criterion Collection

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Yojimbo 1962 : out-westerning the western

An unemployed samurai sometime around 1850 arrives in a dusty  town to find the town torn by a bitter factional fight between the silk merchant and the wine brewer. He cleverly manipulates the situation, offering his military expertise to the higher bidder.The townsfolk are hapless victims in this war of hoodlums. The samurai walks away at the end, the feud concluded and peace restored to the town.

Whether he draws inspiration from the American western or vice versa is arguable, but certainly we have a fast action entertainer of the Sholay genre. The renowned film-maker once again puts his full cinematographic plumage on display. It also presumably displays a period of Japanese history, and the one lone fire-arm--a revolver which exerts considerable influence in the balance of power in the gang war--as symbolic of that country's emergence from it's feudalistic era to the period of rapid westernization, which started in the period in which the action occurs..

There is not much I find to write about. It's a film beautiful on the eye in it's dusty, grimy, wind-lashed setting. It resembles the grey, ramshackle, disintegrating world like Gold Rush. It is engrossing to observe the unfamiliar mannerisms, cadences of speech and body language. Bloodshed, violence, meanness, treachery--the full dose of villainy is there.

Sadly, the most popular of his films, both on it's home-ground as elsewhere. A good one, I guess, but just not my genre.
Criterion Essay, Alexander Hanske
Roger Ebert's Great Movies Essay

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Aranyer Din Ratri ("Days and Nights in the Forest") 1970


Somewhere in the fifties or sixties, four Bengali young men in their twenties, seek respite from the daily grind, as they journey in an Ambassador car to spend a week in the tribal belt of Bihar or Jharkhand. They manage to lodge themselves in a government rest-house by bribing and brow-beating the care-taker, whose wife is ailing. And then they encounter an elderly gentleman , his daughter and widowed daughter-in-law, and romance, sadness, along with rumbling of bygone tragedies, blossom in this wilderness.

These are middle class people, government officials or employees in the jute industry, with anglo-bengali thinking, speech and ways--in fact an authentic portrait of Indians not very different than in the present racier times. Ray's characters are a cross section of ordinary people of a time and place, and through meticulously chiseled cinema he creates a world and an era, which evokes gratitude ( because you see yourself there all the time ) and admiration for the apparent ease and effortlessness. There is the sound and rhythm of the village fair, with it's roulettes, a very ricketty dwarf of a giant wheel, and pakoras served on pieces of newspaper, and the dark and flirtatious santhal beauties. It's the period when one and two rupee notes were still respectworthy.

Not much happens in this movie. It's made of ordinary, everyday things, like people bathing, conversing inconsequentially, mutual fun poking, male camaraderie, getting drunk and dancing on the road at night, always remaining within while nudging at the limits of accepted social norms. Yet for all it's apparent lack of mind or earth shaking events, it grips one's attention and interest till the curtain credits at the end disappear. Because this is a world and these are people one can immediately identify with.

Each of the director's movies is fresh as though his wellsprings of creation are inexhaustible. Each is a  discovery.

This gentle and melodious film is as unputdownable as any. Another from the master's vineyard

*Sharmila Tagore, Soumitra Chatterjee, Simi Garewal*.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Apur Sansar ( 1959 ) The World of Apu

Satyajit Ray* 110 minutes*

An impoverished Apu ( Soumitra Chatterjee ) is now somewhere in his twenties, rent dodging, job seeking, dreaming of  making a living out of his literary talent, hoping to avoid a soul destroying occupation. The camera roves over the smoky, misty, noisy, crowded Calcutta-scape to the accompaniment of Ravi Shankar's perfect musical accompaniment and I could not avoid the pangs of nostalgia for a less complicated and more friendly world that seems to have passed by. How lovingly the landlord demands arrears of rent!  No room for stereotypes ! Ray's world is overwhelmingly good natured ( a kind of Bangla Malgudi, to draw a far fetched comparison ). Ray was confessedly a man of the city, and his rural knowledge is acquired. He breathes poetry into whatever he touches and this final installment is a worthy conclusion, as he leaves an open future to his creations as the film concludes.

We see the family in the processes of an Indian marriage turning sour mid-way. The joyous wail of the shehnai is abruptly interrupted. The dignified and shy bride ( Sharmila Tagore)  is  cast into the midstream of life's cross-currents, her fortunes as uncertain as a cast of die. People who say Ray's cinema is slow don't know what they are talking about. There may not be motion of objects at velocity but the development of events which shape people's lives is always swift and the tension never slackens, hardly for a moment. In these unhurried and  contemplative rhythms, he is able to encompass the extremeties of birth and death. The moments of trauma are captured imaginatively like the son hurling a big stone at his father or Apu when he hits his brother in law. This is as violent as it ever gets in the trilogy.

The concluding part of the film --the first  encounter of the absconding father with his five year child-- is cinema of rare emotional sensitivity which never descends to the expected or stereotyped. Ray is able to enter the mind of children, the wonder as well as the terror and heartache, like few others. The demon-mask with which the child is introduced is an apt metaphor of the tumult within a rejected child. It is Apu the Second! One could write a great deal about this last segment, whose meticulous crafting, deserves to be put under an appreciative microscope.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Rat Trap ( Elipathayam ) 1981

*Adoor Gopalakrishnan*Kerala*115 minutes*

Another great film from this director, whose designation as Ray's successor is not without logic. This is the second of his films I have seen. Just as Ray breathes the poetry of the camera into the landscape ( urban and rural ) of Bengal so does Adoor  gather the sounds and sights of rural Kerala for an unforgettable experience of cinema. One of those few movies about India which capture it's heart and essence. There seems nothing in Hindi ( apart from Ray's one foray ) reaching this level-- Benegal would be the closest. Nothing trivially arty here--this is unmistakeably the real thing.

Landlord Unni lives with his two sisters ( the college going Sridevi and the thirtyish Rajamma ). Another eldest married sister comes visiting . Amidst scenes of agricultural activity set in rural Kerala of the 1920s, the family live out a slow repetitive rhythm of life. The rat-trap is the way of life and the family members are the rats. Unni is masterfully etched by K J Nair. He is a man hopelessly dependant for the smallest thing on his sisters. All he does is to have oil  massages and hot water baths. He is brought up in a way of life where he has to do nothing but to be fed and clothed and served from morning to evening--dependant for his tiniest needs on the people around him, like a grand vegetable.Once he ventures out to attend a marriage but returns half way rather than cross the puddles of water. Naturally, when circumstances remove these serving men and women from his environment, he is like a trapped mouse, rushing helplessly within the confines of his trap.

There is virtually no music but the scenes of domestic and village life are punctuated by natural sounds like creaking doors, the swish of a scythe removing coconuts from branches, water being drawn from the well, and the music of the Malayalam tongue, which echoes the verdure and the sounds of swiftly moving water.

Surely one for the annals of cinema.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Rashomon ( 1950 ) : in the glade


A woman is raped in a wood  by a bandit as her samurai husband, tied to a tree, looks on.  His dead body is subsequently found and in turn the bandit, the woman, a priest and the murdered samurai ( summoned from the grave through a medium) give conflicting testimonies to the court. A woodcutter who discovered the body, adds up yet another version of the story.

Who killed the man and who is telling the truth is irrelevant. This is a dark and bizarre tale about human nature in the raw . The glade, far from judgemental eyes, is a fitting locale. Passion, fear and the ever-nearness of death contribute to the elevated dramatic pitch.

The film, consisting of fragments pasted together in a non-linear way,  yet has a seamless unity: it has energy, swiftness, and life. Perhaps it's about the good and evil and selfishness of us human beings specially when nobody is watching. Whether in medieval Japan, the period in which the film is set, or now, people are one thing that do not seem to have changed particularly. Come to think of it, this is not too far from the fare of daily news, or from the way people behave in a war. Or the stuff of movies, whether from Mumbai or Hollywood. This is a film made in 1950 and the unflattering view of human nature which the film projects must have sprung from deep within the film-maker in the wake of the war. Perhaps the glade where the sordid events occur is a metaphor of our own mind and soul. In any case, it is too powerful and authentic a creation to be an arbitrary fable--like any true artistic creation, it holds a mirror to ourselves.

Rashomon is the name of a dilapidated gate outside the ancient city of Kyoto. The woodcutter, priest and a commoner get together here and talk about the court proceedings relating to the samurai's murder. The torrential downpour which opens the film is a kind of screen behind which unfolds the tale of treachery and shame. It is a passionate piece of cinematography, as is the woodcutter racing through the revolving woods (read camera) , with the vertical sun casting patterns of light and shade through the thin foliage. And then the spell is broken as he discovers the dead body.

Acting performances of extraordinary power ( specially the female lead ), a camera which combines poetry with electrifying drama, make it one of those films that stay with you for keeps.
Roger Ebert's Great Movies Essay
Criterion Collection Essays

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Color of Paradise

*Majid Majidi*Iran*95 minutes*

Mohammed is a blind boy and we have a well researched account of the world of the blind. The film starts in a school for the blind with blind teachers and we see the world in which touch and sound are the "windows" to the world.

The boy's father does not want to be burdened with a life long responsibility of looking after the blind boy. The movie is about the boy's overwhelming need for love and his feelings of rejection.

Iran is one of the most mountainous countries in the world and we are treated to an overdose of natural splendor--the bird song, the unspoilt mountain vistas, mists uprising, torrents of clear water,  mountain folk and there endearing pastoral ways. Seems far too good to be true, this two dimensional picture postcard Garden of Eden. The colours are  dazzling and brilliant. There is an episode of a drowning mule being swept downstream. In any case one can be grateful for the geography lesson since I too have held the rather silly idea that the Middle East is all desert, burquas and camels. This is more like the Indian Himalayas, Kashmir or Himachal.

The characters are quite lacking in dimension and we get a sugary tale of a god fearing society overflowing with love, compassion and piety. This rang-biranga nazaara of jannat is a rather non-categorisable cinema which is neither bolly nor holly. Perhaps one could put it in the general direction of  It's a Wonderful Life without the power and finesse.

A rather flat fairy tale. I was rather taken by the same director's Baran even to the extent of comparing him to Ray. Since then having refreshed my memory of Ray by seeing the first two films of the Apu trilogy, and digested this one ( three and a half stars from Ebert ) I have to revise myself to say that Majidi is no-where near the sophistication and universality of the great Bengali master.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Ivan's childhood ( 1962 )

This is the first of Andrei Tarkovsky's seven feature films, when at the age of 30 he was trying to establish himself as a director. It won the Golden Lion at Venice. It is a film made and financed in the totalitarian Soviet state, but manages to distance itself at least partially from the official views. Of course the Soviet soldiers are shown to be consistently good hearted and reasonable.

It is the story of 12 year old Ivan, whose family has been wiped out by the invading Germans. He has a ferocious hatred. He behaves and talks and thinks like a grown up man as he seeks vengeance against the "fritzes". The film mixes dream and reality to examine the workings of the mind of this grotesque product of the scourge of war. While his family members have been killed he too is a wasteland who cannot see beyond the hatred born out of his experience. 

He is a pitifully deformed offspring of the un-naturalness of war. The dreams and memories of his earlier life before the loss of his family break like lightening flashes through his present inferno. There is something awesome in his consuming hatred, portraying an inner energy which in more nurturesome circumstances could have blossomed into something different.

Or is it an incarnation of Apu ?