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 ?

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*