Monday, November 30, 2009

Aparajito ( Unconquered ) 1956 : synechdoche, India

Satyajit Ray*Bengali*110 minutes*

 Ray is magical and this is a masterpiece. Only those who belong to the culture that he describes can  appreciate it fully. Tarkovsky is right when he says that cultural divides can never be bridged. So is Roger Ebert when he says, the most specific is the most universal. Ray's language is so completely of his own time and place that it speaks to anyone anywhere. 

He speaks of ordinary everyday things, but with sensitivity, understanding and sympathy; and an art so profound that again and again one experiences that lump in the throat, the sheer joy, nostalgia and delight to encountering something so perfect and natural and yet so familiar. Ray belongs to the world where touching the feet of elders as a mark of respect comes naturally. His inspiration never falters and the strokes pile one on another in its sheer flow of refined, gentle creativity, steering wide clear from excess or stereotypes.
The family has shifted to Varanasi  after the village, Apu has grown an inch or so; they occupy a small portion in an old house, the father makes a living out of performing religious ceremonies, and the Ganges river laps the bathing ghats. The choice of Varanasi as a background is surely not arbitrary because this is a city vast in its historical and geographical embrace, and Apu is only a pretext for this cinematic epic in three parts. It is an ancient city, older than Rome or the pyramids, a place towards which the Buddha often turned in his wanderings. In the narrow alleys the cows mingle with the boys and the urchins, the dogs are thin and the monkeys gambol among the parapets. 

Life is hard and the children play while the parents struggle and death claims her third as Hari succumbs even as Apu runs to fetch Ganges water for his dying father. 

The people in the world of Ray's movies are more often good than bad, and sometimes they are really nice, as happens in real life too. Villainy, particularly of the distilled variety, is absent. 

The steam engine with the widow and her inch-gaining son are tearing through the dusky plains towards yet another home in the countryside. Ray is too refined to directly inflict the bereavement process on us, for his narrative is swift as an arrow, even in the impression of languor that it conveys. The Varanasi segment of Aparajito is the one sequence that lingered and permeated in the crevices of my mind since I first saw it with it's heavy aromas of incense and cow dung. It is synecdochic. There must be a reason Varanasi-on-the-Ganges is known as the city of life and death and of eternity. The history of India is an inconspicuous actor in each film of Ray.

The portrayal of the mother Sarbajaya reminds me in its no-nonsense endurance, of all people, of the woman police officer in Fargo. We have a magnificent glimpse of a school in an Indian village, how a caring teacher encourages the impoverished boy, who is already earning something through his inherited knowledge of the priestly profession. The headmaster, the teacher and the inspector of schools are a beautiful vignette. 

All of Ray's characters are people. We care for them. Ray pulls at our heartstrings. Ray is very much of the polyglottic hindi-bengali-english universe. Soon Apu, now a mid-adolescent is studying in a Calcutta college, while he works in a printing press, smokes and dreams of England and thinks ( maybe less than he should ) of his poor mother back home. We have a another wonderful glimpse of the educational system at the college level ( Calcutta was one of the intellectual capitals of India ) specially the cute and learned dhoti clad English professor who, to my surprise and delight, explains the meaning of the unfamiliar word synecdoche, fifty years before it became the title of another strange American film.

Then there is that unforgettable night amongst the glow-worms...

Ray is more often joyous than sad, but always heart-rending, for such is life.

It is a portrait of womanhood, in the role of mother. Ray, like Ingmar Bergman is a master of facial expression. Karuna Banerjee as Sarbajaya, Apu's mother with her dusky womanliness is the pivot of the first two parts of the trilogy. It is acting of extraordinary power equaling Maria Falconetti  in The Passion of Joan of Arc.

Not quite half the marks must go to the music of Ravi Shankar, and his melodies which keep perfect step with the director--they are made for each other. Ravi Shankar is salt to Ray's rice.

Ray's cinema is a pure language of the heart.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Hoop Dreams (1994): life is no cake walk

*Directed by Steve James; duration: 171 minutes*

This is a marathon documentary rated by Roger Ebert as the greatest film of the nineties and the greatest documentary. It is held out as a film which may inspire the young generation. More than that, I found it a highly telling and informative of life in the highly competitive and economically merciless set-up of American society, and, by extension, of other countries, and increasingly our own.

We too are not unfamiliar with the mind crippling competition into which Indian children are being plunged into at an early stage. Education has turned into a commodity and the depth of pocket a primary determinant.

The film is about two teenage black American boys living in the inner-city ( the poorer section of the community, afflicted with violence and drug abuse ). Like Indian kids aspiring to cricket stardom, they aspire to play basket-ball at the national level.

A unique feature of this documentary is that it was shot over a period of five years as the camera follows them and their families and schools. There are many interviews with the teenagers, their parents, teachers and we can be assured that what we are seeing is a slice of reality, not a mere film.

We see the struggles of the two families to make ends meet. The boys were recruited on scholarships based on their sports potential but one of them is dropped due to underperformance while the other is handicapped by a knee injury. The heroic struggle of the mothers against daunting financial odds to realise the dream of a college degree, which spells respectability and dignity in a vicious environment.

The new blogpost by Ebert tells us that in later years they were able to achieve their dream of a college degree although they decided to abandon the game. Both are well settled now, one as a pastor and the other in his business.

This is a difficult film to write about since it does not have the neat packaging and structure which even the most abstruse feature film has. It is the raw material of life in which even the questions are hard to formulate, leave alone answers.

Ebert says cinema is a window in the box of space and time in which we live. Hitchcock is said to have called it voyeurism. The present film can be regarded as voyeurism in an extreme and extended sense in which we share and participate in a journey through many other's lives. The film-makers have wisely chosen to remain as unobtrusive as possible, trying not to extract any conclusions.

For that reason it deserves to be observed minutely.

Andrei Rublev ( 1966 ) : a slavic vision

Just having finished this film about a fifteenth century artist, comprising seven "chapters", each about unrelated segments of his life. It is almost three hours long and the feeling half way through was one of slight disappointment at what appeared like medieval morbidity, quite different from his other films which I enjoyed and admired. But going through to the end, I was drawn into the mood and meaning and the visual splendor of the last two chapters ( the casting of a massive bell involving hundreds of men and the only colored part depicting the paintings of this Russian artist ). It is clear that this movie has to be seen again. It has already started working.

It is a film about the evolution of an artist.

*Director: Andrei Tarkovsky* Russian * 175 minutes* 

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Pather Panchali ( 1955 ): melodies from a past life-time

It seems like a diary of one's own life or a surface of water in which one can catch reflections of one's own soul.  It is a film that brings smiles, laughter and tears. It is a beautiful, beautiful film.

It is the most authentically  Indian of all films.

Not because of the poverty or backwardness it depicts but because it captures something common to the people of this subcontinent, the way their spirit has evolved through the ravages of time and environment. That is why I have that uncanny sense of identity--in terms of landscape, body language, music, speech and the way the minds of the characters work. I felt quite a tinge of regret not to know the language of the film, which seems half known even though it scarcely is. Because it is so authentic and truthful, pouring from the original wellspring of life, it is universal. In the sense that a true portrait of one individual is a portrait of humanity as a whole, a film that truthfully captures the life of one family in a village of Bengal in the first quarter of the last century must speak of people everywhere.

It is the story of Hari and his wife Sarbajaya, an impoverished couple, and their two children, Durga and Apu, and the granny of the house. The joys of childhood cannot be eclipsed by  hunger and malnutrition. The small ancestral house badly needs repair, specially to ward of the storms and downpours of the monsoon. The flat paddy fields stretch on all sides, and beyond the steam locomotive's distant wail beats time. The pathways on which the village children run and play are surrounded by banyan trees twisted with age and sometimes the sweet-seller jaunts along with his mouth watering wares which some children can afford and other's can't. And there are travelling play actors and a bioscope man to display the wonders of far-off  Delhi, Mumbai and Calcutta.

And death knocks at the door.

 Just before they decide to leave the village in search of a better livelihood, Apu throws the stolen string of beads into the murky pond- an act of anger, defiance and self-formation. The secret which belongs to him alone is now buried along with the memories of shared childhood in the receding village. It is a scene of  inspired, electrifying  simplicity.

The portrait of the long suffering Sarbajaya is a moving portrait of womanhood in all it's complexity, fortitude, weaknesses and maddona like beauty. And Durga, the innocence of dawning adolescence. Apu is to unravel in the sequels.

*Satyajit Ray (Wiki)* 125 minutes*
Roger Ebert's review

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Hurt Locker ( 2008 ) : "adrenalin fix"

"The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug".

This quote opens the film.

Has your heart ever pounded with fear?

This is a film about war in general and about the Iraq invasion in particular. The movie takes no stand on the rights and wrongs but examines the daily realities of the urban battlefield up close from the POV of combatants on either side of the fence, and the  populace-women, children, elderly- sucked into  hell. Faces are different but the anguish has a similar stamp. War itself is the real adversary.

A film directed by a woman, one must admire this merciless, unblinking, unsentimental, clinical portrayal.

If you want to know what's going on over there, this is the right film.

More than anything else this is a portrayal of one individual, Sergeant William James. He is a newly joined expert in defusing bombs ( IEDs ). This involves a daily and encounter with death as he locates these bombs cleverly concealed on roads, in vehicles, at times on human bodies, dead or alive. He has a record of having survived more than eight hundred such defusion sorties. He is a specialist, an ace at his work. He even retains souvenirs from many of these excursions. He loves his job and he loves his own narrow  specialisation. He doesn't follow rules and safety regulations and does things his own way, for which he is both admired and disliked.

It's about those hundred yards between you and that bomb buried in the ground with those wires poking out  leading to the detonating device, which could be an improvised electrical or electronic gadget or even a mobile phone. There may be eyes watching from any of those layers of windows on either side of the street, waiting to press that button which causes the earth to open it's belly in a murderous volcano  mid-street. The specialist in his space-suit like protective garb takes those hundred steps in a kind of moon-walk, heart throbbing and sweat pouring. Men in war learn to master fear and in any case there is no way backwards so forward we must, heart pounding, pounding because death, that primordial terror, alike for man and beast , is but at a quarter of an inch. This movie is about those hundred yards and the minutes after.

This is his daily routine and he has been done it eight hundred and odd times. The next could be the last, as happened to his predecessor at the opening of the film. This is the one thing he lives for, his drug. Indeed, war has been a potent drug and history will bear us out. Remember the film about Patton, the General who waged campaigns in Africa and Europe ( incidentally the topmost ever rated by the critic James  Berardinelli )? Says Patton, " God, I love war. I swear I goddam love it." But Hurt Locker is at the micro-level, at the point  when,  I  repeat, the heart pounds like a drum, and the adrenalin gushes.

"You got my f*g legs blown off for the sake of your f*g adrenalin fix" says his comrade.

Adrenalin is not the only fix. It is a juice which flows when the environment pushes us. What was it that propelled the likes of Gandhi and MLK or even Tolstoi ?  There's were juices that flowed from within, without any prompting from without, which likewise sought out risk and danger. Adrenalin is one of the many chemicals common to man and beast. What is peculiar to man must be something different, perhaps somethings less discovered or explored.

Roger Ebert's review   
Iraq Occupation ( Wiki )
Wiki article on this film
*direction:Kathryn Bigelow; 125 minutes*

Monday, November 23, 2009

Baran ( 2001 ) : a breath taking film

Director: Majid Majidi; country: Iran; 95 minutes

I must thank blogger Ronak for introducing me to this great director. I agree with his asessment. He is  a class apart-be it Kurosawa or our own great Ray. Majidi is a voice deeply Asiatic--perhaps accounting for his lukewarm reception in the West.

It is a great humanistic film. It has made the Middle East come alive for me--indeed a window to this less understood region of the world. It is a tragedy of simple folk trapped at the conflux of man-created disasters, of adolescene and love  in the background of  Islamic culture. It has  eternity packed in it's 95 minutes, so dense and powerful is the experience. It projects the Islamic ethos-brotherhood, caring, egalitarianism- at it's distilled best.

The film is set on a construction site in Teheran  illegally employing Afghan refugees on the run from the disturbances in their country. The Afghan workers must immediately hide whenever government inspectors are working. Lateef, the hero, is a growing Irani boy employed there and the film revolves around his attraction to Baran, the daughter of an Afghan worker who is rendered jobless due to a construction accident. Baran is actually a young girl posing as a boy to be able to to work and support her family which is in desperate straits. Lateef grows from a greedy, awkward and quarrelsome youngster and we see feelings of compassion, love and sacrifice flowering in him. This may seem slightly foreign to westernised eyes who may find  a flagrant display of nobility  undigestible to their cynical appetites but nobody will deny the existence of such sentiments, even though, at least in the west, they like their nobility gruff and disguised. The love is depicted with utter delicacy and sensitivity in the cloistered and semi-purdahed environment. Possibly it was necessary to adopt the device of a girl dressed as a boy to display the beauty of a female face. Other female figures are seen only remotely and in outline. The refined eroticism of this film I have rarely seen matched. The tension in the film builds up  almost unbearably. Towards the end, the truck carrying Baran and her family to their Afghan homeland disappears towards the mountains, as she peers through the holes in her burqua. The only reward Lateef gets for his noble sacrifice ( of his most precious asset, his identification card, which is his passport for a job ) is the hint of a smile, and this is his treasure. As a scripture states: more precious than the the treasures of the storehouse are the treasures of the body, but most precious are the treasures of the heart.

It is outstanding cinema. Half the film is on the contruction site and we see the community at work among the scaffoldings of an upcoming apartment omplex with the skyscrapers of Teheran and  still more towering snow clad mounains further behind. Music is of  natural sounds-the sounds of a building under construction, the slow cadences of the Persian language, the gurgle of rapidly flowing mountain torrents, a traditional song and dance by the construction workers around a bonfire ( I never realised Iran is so cold, much like Kashmir )--and the barest hint of an ethnic background score.  The latter half of the film is among the flowing waters and springs where the refugees endure their unwelcomed exile--nature is at her breath taking best and it is no picture post-cards as we are used to in Bollywood films, but a camera that ravishes with intimacy and passion.

What really struck me was the brotherhood that exists among these poor people. Poverty and desperation bring people together ( as we see in many black American communities ). These people do not worship money even in the most difficult circumstances--money is treated as a commodity as it should be. Nor is humanity something to be ashamed or embarassed about. Being Dr. Lecter is (or should be)  more embarassing.

A film oriental to the core which an Indian can easily identify with. Far, far, beyond Bollywood or Hollywood. Satyajit Ray is a sensitive and observant humanist, but cinematically closer to the west. Passion is not his fault. The delights of  Ray are aesthetic and self recognition as an Indian. Comparison is meaningless among the peaks, yet Majidi  touches our life at it's core in a vast sweep of human feeling.

A cry from the depths of the orient. It makes me glad that I never left. Ebert rightly points out that such films can demolish the walls of mutual ignorance and misunderstanding  which  are the greatest threat to our world. He calls it a fable but is idealism a mythical beast or an extinct species?

Friday, November 20, 2009

Che Part 1(2008): visiting a legend

The film takes up the life of Che Guevara ( 1928-67 ) in the middle, as he sails on a small ship with Fidel Castro to initiate a guerrila war agaist the Sandinista dictatorship in Cuba. Part 1 concludes with the defeat of the dictator and assumption of power by Castro. Che leaves for other revolutionary pastures in Latin America. The second half ( which I haven't seen yet ) deals with his unsuccessful efforts in Bolivia and his death.

Apart from questions of cinema ( my motive in investing time on this movie each of whose two parts is over two hours ) was to get to know something of the life and events surrounding this famous figure.

The line dividing true idealism and tyranny is nebulous. He proclaims in the film that the hallmark of a revolutionary is love, and a love for justice. At the same time he is committed, as a communist, to violence and guerrila war as a means for fighting oppression. It is a view in which love and murder are reconciliable.

What is clear is that we have a person here who has travelled across doubt and who pursues whatever he pursues with single mindedness. More than love he is driven by a kind of faith and that is the source of his energy and charisma-no wonder he was even compared to Jesus.

Of the two as depicted here I find Castro the more interesting of the two, as a practical realist whose mind is less clouded by theory and a  ideology. I am tempted to quote a modern philosopher:

In his most well-known work, Doctor Zhivago, the Russian poet Boris Pasternak denounces the apostles of this kind of radical ideology saying that they "have never understood a thing about life . . . have never felt its breath, its heartbeat."Saumyendranath Tagore, nephew of the poet, was apparently a tragic example of this malady. Although originally an adherent of Gandhism, he later became a communist and came to criticize virulently, and work against, Gandhi. In his diaries, Romain Rolland describes the young man who had visited him thus: "He is without doubt a generous idealist, very sincere and ready to sacrifice everything for his faith. Which makes it all the more sad to see these fine forces, intelligent and pure, hurling themselves against the greatest and purest of Indians. The fatal madness afflicting the souls of individuals swept up in the whirlwind of revolutions! " There are those who, observing the process of the Soviet Union's dissolution, remarked that the Russian people had brought the process that started with the French Revolution to its conclusion.

It is excellent as a historical biopic. The lush tropical background is well shot. The minimalist  musical score ( mostly drums ) is beautiful. The narrative devise of framing the story retrospectively from the perspective of a UN assembly in which Che represents Cuba and is interviewed by an American journalist, provides relief and balance to break the monotony of  prolonged gunfire and military manouvers.

An absorbing history lesson..

* director: Sonderberg* duration: 125 minutes for this half*

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Stree (1962): a dance drama

The most wondrous thing in this classic is Rajshree's Bharat Natyam dance. Her body gyrates across the marble floor like a devouring flame as her limbs  spread in expanding circles with  orgiastic energy. The drums beat out a frenzied rhythm as the jangle of the anklets keep the accelerating pace. Arms, neck, waist, legs respond to each other in a perfect  inspiration of divinely coordinated movement. It's a union of youth, beauty of the human female figure, talent which flows in he blood, and life force fuelled by success. We are in an ancient time..

All of Shantaram's films bear the stamp of his  generation and personality,  this more than any other. Both his second wife Sandhya and daughter Rajshree were outstanding dancers and dance occupies a central place in many of his films. His films have elements of folk theatre ( like the Ramlila ), perhaps a touch of Kathakali or the Japanese Noh. The elaborate and stylised mannerisms of his films should not be compared disadvantageously with the naturalism which we find in the later films.

This one is a transcreation of the ancient Kalidas play Shakuntala. King Dushyant is out hunting and falls in love with Shakuntala, daughter of a sage. They get married, with the sun as witness. Called back to the capital, he leaves her a ring as a sign of recognition. Due to the operation of a certain curse, Dushyant forgets he had married and simultaneously Shakuntala loses the precious ring. Thence ensues a drama in which the king fails to recognise his wife.

V Shantaram (1901-90 )

Histoires des Cinema: part 1a

*Godard 1988* this is the first of eight parts*50 minutes

A history of cinema is a history of the last century. But its history only in a euphemistic sense since it is neither sequential nor factual nor does it make sense in the sense of something one could express. It seems more like an abstract painting which you can enjoy or not.

The film-maker sits at his electronic typewriter and as the keys click, now slow, now gathering momentum, cinematic images drawn from the century mingle in quick succession. What quickly becomes evident is his passion for cinema and his own immersion in it's art and crafts.

The images themselves--not too many which I could recognise--take us on a rollercoster ride reminding us of our own private cinematic histories, since cinema for better or worse has come to form a sizeable chunk of our lives, and many might reckon themselves substantially by the films they have seen. Who knows, one of the questions that the guards of the next world may ask would be about the kind of movies we have seen.

It is a mere 50 minutes in length, certainly a redeeming feature for any film. If you stop trying to "understand" films and just soak in the orgiastic flow of gorgeous, nostalgic, gore soaked, musical, stupid, yet always cinematic images one on top of the next; as the typewriter, echoing the pulse of the creative process in the mind of the director, now rattles furiously, now trots in a relaxed can enjoy this feast of the eyes and ear and mind like the reel of your own life.

Tarantino's latest movie ends WW2 in a movie hall using loads of nitrate film as a bomb. Citizen Kane opens as the ends of the reel of Kanes life sputter to a stop. Life is a cinema.

Cinema is small-only a hundred years. Godard draws it all together to a point like a seed of a big bang and then unfold it in a breathless three quarters of an hour. The texture and smell of celluloid is all over. Like "napalm in the morning".

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Madhumati ( 1958): ghosts, lovers ......... and Pran

Johnny Walker is back to spangle this romantic story with a reincarnational twist. He is truly a man of all situations, whether to dangle upside down from a branch bat-wise or his hilarious authentic terror when he encounters the ghost. He is a dancer too. I think he is at his best in the playback numbers. This time it is in the delectable ebriated song-dance-act Jungle Mein Mor Nacha. He uses his last neuron and muscle fibre without a trace of effortfulness and he has me rivetted with grateful admiration every time. And he can act too. In a wink, you have him all serious, earnestly rising to the occasion on the good side. Black and white movies were black and white in the sense that there were no shades of grey in the characterisation--only good guys and bad.

And.....always he was and, but his name spelt success for the film....Pran. You see him walk in and you brace yourself for some alarming bits of villainy and you really fear for the life and welfare of your duo. Of course you can rest assured that soon enough you will see him having what was coming to him. Meanwhile what havoc is he going to wreak? With that thin moustache and rather cute smile, his brow wrinkles up---he like Johnny is a master of control of facial muscles. His was, again like JW a superstar in his own right, and the peak in his line of specialisation.

Dilip Kumar!! The Thespian! His charisma has never been matched, not by Amitabh, not by anyone. He is a man who contains oceans within his breast, he expresses something specifically fine in the subcontinental weltgeist. It is no wonder that many of us who grew up in the times when he was at his peak resonate to him.He has a Keats like romanticism, and a voice which like a great bell, resounds with tragedy, emotion and nobility. He is Indian to the depths. He is quite apiece with the misty, brooding and malevolent--Antichrist 2009?--landscape.

Bimal Roy is often referred as one of the great forebears of the industry. He certainly has those touches of refinement that lift him above the common pale. He also is tuned to the depths of the Indian psyche and is able to grasp it's sorrows and concerns.

Goes to prove that the golden period were not all that golden and even the gems were somewhat flawed. This one from the legendary Bimal Roy is a drag many a time. It is difficult to summon forth the necessary nostalgia from one's greener tears . It could possibly be the toast of the diaspora who might find it admirable for the time and place of it's origin rather than it's own merit. Gold, one must conclude, does not belong to any period. The real gold dust, I suspect is scattered in the regional films, rather than where the dough is.

*Hindi*Bimal Roy*Dilip, Vijyantimala, JW....and, Pran*136 minutes*almost a dozen Filmfare awards*

Monday, November 16, 2009

Notre Musique 2004

* Jean Luc Godard, 76 minutes, French*

A meditation on life, centred around the reality of violence. Hell is war. Purgatory is where we are, with all our questions of the meaning of it all. The Egyptian poet as himself recites his poetry ( below ) and  Godard as himself talks about reality and illusion. And guess what, there is a heaven!

A hard to figure but easy to enjoy visual-tonal-verbal-intellectual essay on the plight of humanity. The elegant fusion of words, images and music makes for a delectable repast. Let's once and for all get over the stone age myth that a movie is a story. Stories are  tedious. A film is an instrument of transformation.

From the film
Mahmoud Darwich, the poet

.... those who write
their own story
inherit the earth of those words.
There is no more room left for Homer.
You try to be the Trojan's poet.
Euripides was Greek.
Troy never told its story.
Does a people or a country
that has great poets
have the right to defeat
a people that doesn´t have poets?
Can a people be strong
without writing poetry?
If they defeat us in poetry we are done for....

Godard as Godard
Heisenberg and Bohr were waIking through Denmark´s countryside.They pass by the castIe of EIsinore.The German savant says, ´That castle has nothing extraordinary about it". The Danish physicist repIies,"Yes, but if you say, ´Hamlet ´s castIe´, then it becomes extraordinary."
EIsinore: the real. Hamlet: the imaginary.
Imaginary: certainty. Real: uncertainty.
The principIe of moviemaking: to take the light...and shine it upon our night

Olga, the Russian Jewish emigre woman:
Two things give me very small, another very big.
But the small one is aIso big.
What ´s the small one?
Could it be so important? Is it be possible to kill without suffering?
And the second reason, the big one?
The other world.
Punishment, you mean?
That doesn´t matter.
The other world,simply the other world.
You think there is anyone who doesn´t think about the other world?
Everyone can onIy judge for themselves.
Freedom will only be total when living or dying is indifferent

Everything boils down to the individual human being. Everyone shares culpability.

Olga blows herself up and sure enough, this other world, paradiso, where she finds herself  sharing an apple, is all greenery and streams, guarded by US marines. Honestly, even without the marines, Godard at his advanced age, has a rather bleak vision of the world to be. He could at least have equipped heaven with internet, movies, and books. How long can you look at greenery or subsist on apples?

Paths of Glory 1957: the rites of murder

Stanley Kubrick ( 1928-99 ); Kirk Douglas, 85 minutes.

* Kirk Douglas as a Colonel in the French army is asked to lead an impossible attack on an enemy position which will certainly cost the lives of 90% of his men. The attack is a failure and leads to a court martial in which three men are indicted for cowardice....*

"With this film Stanley Kubrick joins the ranks of great directors, never to depart"......Ebert.

A must see anti-war war movie. ..."anti-authoritarian ignorance." ( Stanley Kubrick ) A black and white epic of war, among the best, if not the best.

Brilliant, grim, funny. A pace quickening, spell binding battle-field and court-martial drama. A reconstruction of trench warfare during WW1 in dazzling B/W. Monochrome seems particularly appropriate for WW1. In fact monochrome is correct for any war.

Kubrick seems to be playing on many themes which will reappear in Strangelove, Lolita and Space Odyssey. He surveys the war of the trenches in  visual splendour. The trenches have evolved into well organised human habitations since the war has been long, and daily dying a way of life. In this twilit world of sandbags and dust, gunfire is as routine and continuous as chirruping of birds. He examines the workings of the military hierarchy with un-subtle satire. Human life has little meaning, even that of your own side.  A general orders machine gun fire to be opened on his own soldiers.

 The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike th’inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave....Thomas Gray

The blood of the mighty is precious. The scales of justice are tilted. Stealing a loaf of bread is equally reprehensible whether done by a beggar or a lord.

The military rituals. The ceremonies of the court martial,  the execution-ground and of the officer's mess. How evolved, how full of codes and niceties is war, how un-wholesome from within. Imagine the ritual of the execution, with all it's pomp and ceremony, like a mass at a cathedral, through the eyes of the condemned men.

The finale. A captured German girl tearfully sings to the French troops. As the song progresses, their obscene gesture turn to tears and we have the extraordinary spectacle of a whole audience of battle hardened soldiers in tears. Friend and foe are comrades as they mourn the scourge of war. The machinery of the state is the common enemy, or is it? To be officer or men is a quirk of chance. Kirk Douglas says he is ashamed to be a human being. What Kubrick is indicting in this melancholy film is the fact of being human. Mankind is a sickly beast.

Roger Ebert's review

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Breathless ( 1961 ): "a boy who thinks about death"

Director: Jean- Luc Godard; French, 84 minutes.

"After all, I'm a louse. After all, I must. I MUST."

Is it the same man we saw as a teenager facing the great sea at the end of 400 blows? He has learnt to survive. He has not given in to defeat--he has accepted life on her own terms and he steers the boat from day to day, with no guarantee for the morrow. But he is alive for he has not committed the sin of accepting defeat. He is both hunter and hunted and the law is of the jungle. Feeling has died and he does not leave the cigarette even as he lurches to his downfall. That last obstinate puff. He is unconquered or is it just a young director's expression of pity? But he says he is tired and will not run. It was headed for this. He was always lurching inside. Even asking for this.

The girl is only calculating losses and gains. She weighs him on a scale. If we need to ask whether we love or not then we don't. In any case she is not the one who committed the murder nor has she been the hunted one ever before, so why should she now? But she has counting on his running away, not staying back to be killed.

"You're a louse."
"What's a louse?"....and moves on.

Come to think, there was tragedy in the contortion of his face from the start, that wide compressed arc of the lips.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Pyaasa ( thirsty one ) 1959

Director: Guru Dutt;  Hindi, 141 minutes

Yeh ujle darichon mein payal ki chan chan
Thaki haari sanson pe table ki dhan dhan
Yeh berooh kamron mein khansi ki than than...

These lines by Sahir Ludhianvi, one of the authentic poetic voices of renascent India, best expresses the mood. This film owes as much to lyricist Sahir as to the director hero.

It is a landmark in Hindi film. Rated among the top 100 films in a survey by Time, afficianados of Bollywood swear by it and one exposes oneself to indignation and contempt, if one were to raise doubts. It is a film that has become an institution.

One must select the right yardstick. Guru Dutt is not Ray. Lacking the aesthetic sensiblities of Ray he is the common man's  elitism. For that matter Ray is little known outside his home state. But Guru Dutt made a film that has touched a chord in many generations, as it did mine again today. Like Sahir Ludhianvi and many others of that generation, Guru Dutt must have seen the answer to the sufferings of people, which were primarily economic in origin, in the example of the perceived Soviet miracle.

The plot. Vijay ( Guru Dutt ) is a lovesick young poet who is entangled with two women, his ex college mate Meena (Mala Sinha ) and a good hearted call girl Gulabo ( Waheeda Rehman ) . Meena eventually marries a publisher. We see him struggle for recognition, get cheated by relatives, lose his mother...

If you want to pick potholes in the plot, there is no dearth. The movie is primitive in it's construction. It is full of  melodrama and self glorification. But it has the power of a vision struggling to find expression. It is authentic. Everything else should be forgiven.

It is perhaps the director playing himself in Vijay--an alienated young poet, unwilling to adjust in imperfect society, compassionately observing the sufferings and injustices he finds around him. It is a spillover from the fervour and zeal of the independance struggle, now seeking new enemies in the social distortions. It is the revolutionary temperament in-embryo.

One of the powers of the film is  the lean and lanky Johnny Walker, the yet unbeaten arch-comedian of Hindi cinema, enacting the tel maalish wala or oil-massage man. His body seems to be made of plastic and his limbs revolve around the rest of him like a catherine wheel. He puts every nerve and fibre into his acting . He is not one of your dead-pan comedians. His face has a million muscles and they are all moving. He is an expressive whorl of motion gathering power from an inner spring.  When he speaks he pulls all his vocal chords to convey the love and good nature and desire to make people happy which is his centre as it was Chaplin's. And there is a profound sadness which echoes Guru Dutt's own, accounting for the rapport they had in real life too. ( He was Dutt's discovery.)

In fact all the characters--Tun Tun the comedienne, Rehman as the villainous publisher, and a host of others--enact within the safety zone of their much loved stereotypes, repeating themselves while remaining fresh, again like the Tramp. Mehmood, who was later to forge his own brand of comedy, is seen here as a villainous brother-in-law.

The film pantheon in those days was very much a small closed circle and actors tended to play variations on familiar themes. They were usually playing themselves. The audience would start tittering as soon as Johnny Walker appeared and gave any reason to provoke that reaction. That is what they wanted and had payed for and what the imperative of economics of the industry, the money and risks involved, dictated. Guru Dutt himself falls in this category. Along with Dilip Kumar he is the eternal love sick boy just as Dev Anand is the happy go lucky modern type. They all had their oft imitated or parodied trademark mannerisms.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Hiroshima Mon Amour 1959

Director: Alan Resnais; language:French; duration: 91 minutes

Ultimately, a film review is about whether you liked something or not, and, if you did, what it was that you liked. If  I don't like a film I would probably not end up seeing the whole of it, and even if I did, it is best forgotten rather than writing about it. This one is definitely worth seeing.

It makes an indirect, muted yet clear and heart felt statement on a matter which remains of the highest concern. No less alarming than nuclear weapons is the fact that somewhere down the lane, the human heart has been submerged.The style is subjective, reaching it's fullness in the yet to come Last Year in Marienbad.

This is about an affair between a Japanese architect and a French nurse and another between the same woman and a German officer in he past.The current affair takes place in Hiroshima. The structure is non chronological and the narration jumps from past to present--the two day ongoing romance,  memories of the atom bomb, and the trauma laden older affair in the beautiful French countryside .

The original intention of the film maker was to make a film about the aftermath of the bomb, but finding it too big a topic to deal head-on, he has approached it obliquely through the lens of a foreigner's eye, tinged with her individual unusual war experience. She has a fixation about Hiroshima which is responsible for her taking an assignment in Japan and her affair with the Japanese man. Who is the enemy and who is a friend?

What the director succeeds in doing is to give an authentic glimps of a nuclear holocaust--a cameo, as it were--framed by a  relatively humdrum romance in the setting of the reconstructed city, with it's atom bomb museum and the prominent Atom-bomb dome.

The same director has done a parallel short ( 30 minutes or so ) film-essay on the Holocaust titled Nuit et Brouillard or Night and Fog. His movies treat time as the mind sees it. The mind seems to perceive the three entities of past, present and future as one and cinema gives an opportunity to portray the invisible workings of the mind on a flat screen, visibly.  The present film is in that a pre-cursor of Marienbad. To quote from the linked essay by Kent Jones:

Anatole Dauman, one of the film’s producers, told Resnais, “I’ve seen all this before, in Citizen Kane, a film which breaks chronology and reverses the flow of time.” To which Resnais replied, “Yes, but in my film time is shattered.” 

The critic Pauline Kael is said to have remarked that the film collapses into soap opera. However, by entwining these three threads each telling a story of it's own kind situated at the vertices of  triangular time, Alan Resnais succeeds in his intention of touching our heart about the unspeakability of war.

We glimpse the nuclear inferno fleetingly as though through a crack in a wall, or like a dark landscape momentarily illuminated by a flash of lightening, but that glimpse is etched on the mind, as on a camera film. His mildness of tone and understated approach in no way trivialises the past.

And that is what I liked.

Essay by Kent Jones

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Awaara ( Vagabond) 1951: the sweet old days

Director: Raj Kapoor ( 1924-88 )Script: Khwaja Ahmad Abbas

There was a peak of bloom in Bollywood cinema, sometimes called the golden age, which, like the springtime of youth, will never return. Blurring from the very late forties to the quite late fifties, it is a period in which cinema, in  simplicity and directness, speaks straight to the heart.

It is less about cinematography and craft than about music which often touches the sublime, great acting, and even more, an idealistic rather than a cynical view of life. It could be the spillover and exhilaration of the recently enacted victorious historical drama of Indian independance from the chains of colonial rule. It was the time when heros were heros and villains were villains.

In this period (which is almost a genre) we place Awaara, Pyaasa, Baiju Bawra, Barsaat, Mother India, Devdas, Do Beegha Zameen, Chalti ka Naam Gaadi, Sahib Beebi aur Ghulam, Mahal and of course Mughal-e- Azam.

If a connecting thread between these films is to be named, it is the singing voices which surfaced as though magically in unison with this fleeting mood. And pre-eminent among these voices is possibly that of Lata. Lata of-course has ruled over Hindi cinema for decades but the Lata of Awaara, Barsaat and Baiju Bawra was never again heard.

Lata! Where does one find the metaphors to do justice to that voice, that Lata of 1950-55? It is the voice of nature, the voice of youth, unrestrained and unrestricted by limitations, soaring like a lark, pained like a nightingale, filled with feminine power, touching the peaks of human emotion.

Awaara  is quintessence of this period. Four Kapoors belonging to three generations are featured ( Raj, Shashi, Prithviraj and the latter's father) and Nargis, with the matchless K.N.Singh as the mandatory villain.

The plot: Raj is the son of a judge (Prithviraj Kapoor) . As a child his mother along with him are thrown out of the house on suspicions of infidelity. He is unable to continue school (where he first encounters his beloved to be). Mentored to criminality by the Bill Sykes like Jagga ( K.N.Singh) he undergoes a jail sentence. Then he encounters Rita (Nargis) the adopted ward of the judge. The complexities are satisfactorily sorted out in a courtroom drama which opens and folds up the film.

The lynch pin of the film is the electrifying chemistry of Nargis and Raj Kapoor, brought to a point of explosion by the play back singing of Lata (and ofcourse Mukesh). The smirking K N Singh adds a dimension of his own. Prithviraj, as the plodding judge speaks his lines with perfect modulation and pauses as one might expect a judge to do.

There is an unforgettable dance-song dream sequence in which the drama is symbolically expressed: Raj, as the lowly ex-criminal surrounded by powerful forces of evil, aspiring to the impossible of attaining to the hand of a judge's daughter.

To visit Awaara is to visit the secret place of one's own childhood. It is a film overflowing with energy and the joys of youth like a swift mountain stream. It is the stuff romance is made off. If one is to search for a Hollywood parallell the 1942 Casablanca comes immediately to mind.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Kodiyettam(1977): the flag hoisting

Director: Adoor Gopalakrishnan ( b. 1941 ); language: Malayalam; duration:124 minutes

One of the best films I have seen, apply any yardstick--certainly one of the very best among Indian films. Adoor is a discovery for me. And I have to thank fellow blogger Vivek for this.

It seems this film to be like Ray a pinnacle among movies. With  leashed power he conveys an inner vision of nature and humanity.

The ears as much as the eyes are the gateways to our soul. Sound is as important as the lens. Here is no musical score but of the  chirruping of  birds, dogs barking,  roosters crowing in derision, a squirrel running along a branch, the breeze-whispers, rustling of grass beneath bare feet walking( bare-footedness is customary in that environment!);  the music of drums, conch shells and cymbals emanating from the festivities at the temple, and the final muffled fireworks marking an inner transformation in a human being. Not least  the  music of the malayalam tongue( which I don't know) that is utterly apiece with the greenery and riverine splendour of this part of the planet.

The film moves in a slow rhythm of rural life lingering and dwelling on little things: a man absorbed in eating, a woman washing clothes, a man chopping wood ( splinters stick to his body as he wipes the perspiration) or a bullock cart driver singing a philosophical song about the vanities of the world. Adoor is never in a hurry. There is understanding and compassion for the suffering of women in the Indian set up. And the festival in the temple moves with  the languorous dignity of an elephant (there is a great sequence of an elephant being bathed as Sankaran watches in goggle eyed wonderment) in paralell with the festival of life in the hamlet .

Sankarankutty, the hero, is a man in his thirties, an overgrown good natured child, whiling away the hours in an aimless existence. Life is all play for him and he is able to find absorption and thrill in the events of this uneventful rural setting, the festivals and elephants and the games of village urchins. He is supported by a doting sister who works as a maid-servant. Also benign to him is the widow Kamalamma who gives him food , odd jobs and motherly affection. 

And then life catches up with him, finding him unprepared. He marries Lalitha but cannot give up his wayward life or assume his responsibilities.  The sister starts living with a man in their parental house. A turning point occurs with Kamalamma's suicide, and we see Sankaran sobbing uncontrollably. And we see his  goodness surfacing in a very natural way, as a modicum happiness blossoms before us at the end, celebrated in a fireworks display marking the conclusion of the ongoing festival. 

Adoor never dramatises. He is said to have conveyed his "interpretation": the main point of the film is that nothing happens----a woman dies, a man grows up, the river flows, the cock crows, the conches blow in the temple, the fireworks explode but with muffled sounds in an indifferent salute to an invisible change within a man. Such are the wonders of life.

Adoor is a gentle poet in the tradition of Tagore and Satyajit Ray and his vision is of  oriental, Indian and  Keralite  vintage. In the movements of the environment most intimately known to him he hears and captures the pulsation of universal life. He is sensitive, compassionate, humane, artistic. Adoor's film  holds a mirror to nature. And his homeland.

About the temple festival

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Cries and Whispers(1972): colours of pain

Ingmar Bergman(1918-2007); Language:Swedish; Duration: 91 minutes
All my films can be thought in terms of black and white, except for Cries and Whispers. In the screenplay, I say that I have thought of the color red as the interior of the soul. When I was a child, I saw the soul as a shadowy dragon, blue as smoke, hovering like an enormous winged creature, half bird, half fish. But inside the dragon, everything was red...Ingmar Bergman

The sick chamber is surrounded by clocks. This film is about the last two days in the life of a young woman, Agnes, dying of womb cancer. The clocks beat out an indifferent rhythm as the last scene of life's drama is being played out. Two sisters, Karen and Maria and a maid, Anna keep vigil over the patient.Sickness and death are climactic experiences. All the more so if they occur at a young age.

Tolstoi wrote that happy families are all similar but all unhappy families are unhappy in their own special ways. This movie is a story of physical and psychological pain in a group of four women brought into sharp relief by their comfortable economic position as well as the nearness of death-- of which we have no experience and for which we do not prepare. The palatial manor surrounded by sprawling manicured gardens and ancient trees with the sunshine pouring in shafts through the branches seem to  mock the monstrous beings who live here and their depths of sordid emptiness. What an anamoly!

It is a grotesque drama of sterile, impoverished and distorted human relationships. Or is it a horrifying image of life, illuminted by rare flashes of lightening when life is capable of sublime or glorious things? It is as grim as a fairy tale. Bergman the artist rips off facade and sees life in it's many dimensions.

The dying woman's mind wanders over the past searching for a moment of redemption. In the present she finds few straws to cling to. She is unprepared for dying and finally when it descends upon her like a catastrophe of nature, she is totally unprepared and in fact must resurrect like a Lazarus, so deep is her discontent. Even the heroic Anna finds the totality of her resources to be less than adequate. The final image of the film when Anna offers her body and breast to the soul whose need calls out from beyond the grave is  of the pathetic helplessness of human beings in facing what they perforce must.

Roger Ebert has rightly singled out this one image as an epitome of cinema and of human life in it's helpness even at it's noblest. It is an image of  motherhood, the closest we come to being divine.

Roger Ebert's review
Roger Ebert: In Search of Redemption