Monday, October 26, 2009
Sunday, October 25, 2009
My third Tarkovsky film. The most magical. If you are looking for an entertainer to go with your pop-corn and coke, this may not be the best option. But if you are willing to invest two hours of patience and suspend all judgement (lack of plot, translucency of theme and intention) you may carry home imprints of the sublime and ethereal.
To start, the title Nostalghia is not a mispelling. To quote Tarkovsky( nostalgia.com, ):
"The title of the film, for which the word "nostalgia" is only a very insufficient translation, indicates a pining for what is far from us, for worlds that cannot be united. But it is also indicative of a longing for an inner home, some inner sense of belonging....."
In other words nostalghia here stands for an overpowering, painfully beautiful, nameless yearning rising from the depths of life, a disabling sense of emptiness and loss. In the film this feeling is symbolised by an expatriot Russian's pining for his Russian family and home, oblivious to the beauty that surrounds him in Italy.
Gortchakoff is a Russian scholar staying in Italy with the aim of studying the life of a seventeenth century Russian composer who chose to return to serfdom in Russia rather than enjoy acclaim in Italy. After his return he took to alcohol and commited suicide. Tarkovsky too was an exile from the USSR when he was making this film and had to leave his son behind. Hence the film is in essence intensely autobiographical. In Italy, Gortchakoff is overtaken by the eponymous emotion and is oblivious to the ravishing beauties of the Italian countryside, historical buildings, ramshackle dwellings and the Petrarchan beauty and advances of his translator companion, the beautiful Eugenia. The other important character is Domenico, a madman-seer in whose single minded convictions and faith Gortchakoff finds a mirror of his own state of life.
In the final famous scene of the film we find him engaged in the carrying a lighted candle across an ancient Roman bath, a somewhat difficult task( taking eight minutes and which has exhausted the patience of many a Tarkovskite though in the spiritual context, it ought to be as exciting, say, as the chariot race in Ben Hur).
The imagery is of a breath taking beauty like a brew of ancient vintage. Ghostly Russian countrysides glimpsed through a half open door, women at prayer amidst a myriad dancing candle flames, worn Roman corridors flanked by pillars, and the last transcendental image of the Russian homeland which is similar to that earthly island floating on the planet Solaris--it is paint, it is poem, it is lens, it is soul.
Saturday, October 24, 2009
It requires a measure of audacity to write about this most famous and admired of all films but then what are films for but to see and enjoy, and what harm can a bit of additional appreciation do, even though one may start with a favourable preconceptions the size of a mountain? After all I could list a number of celebrated films which have turned out to be more educative than enjoyable. I saw Kane yesterday (for the second time) and I found it as rivetting and racy as a Tarantino thriller with a comparable amount of loquacity thrown in. The minutes flew.
I still remember my first viewing maybe five years back and remember being transfixed by the opening shot. Let me pay my homage to this greatest of opening shots. Time is night. An iron grill of a gate, sombre in the darkness. A "No Trespassing" sign (there will never again be such a no-trespassing sign!) and the camera travels upward revealing the letter K (for Kane). In the background Xanadu, a palace on top of a mountain, looming gothic. Xanadu is "world's foremost pleasure ground and the costliest monument since the pyramids which a man built for himself"(quote from the film). The camera moves up and up as though on a flight of stairs till it reaches a lighted room: the chamber where Kane is dying. The funereal music that opens the film also seems to signify that death the visitor is knocking at the door. It's already over.The music is reminiscent of Schubert's sombre lied "Death and the Maiden .The closing shot of the film is equally memorable, as the thick sooty smoke rises obliquely backward as if in the monumental triumph of indiscriminating death to the chords of the same dirge as at the open. The ascending column of soot is reminiscent of the gurgling chimneys of Auschwitz in Schindler's List ,
But all is not sombre between the covers though it we do see all the merriment and brave posturing in the light of the already revealed ending. The film is based on the life of Hearst, a (then) contemporary press magnate . The film opens with Kane's lonely death, surrounded by nothing but his acquisitions. We are then shown a 10 minute newsreel narrating the events of the celebrity's life: his enormous wealth, his great influence by virtue of the power of his yellow journalism, the abortion of his political ambitions, the failed marriages, the decline of his businesses during the Great Depression, and the lonely end years.
The movie plot hinges on the mystery of the last words he spoke: "Rosebud". Thompson, a reporter is assigned the job of fiding out the significance of these mysterious words as a key to discovering the man's personality.
This is but the skeleton. There is magic and mystery in this film.
First and foremost it is in the architecture of the plot, supported by sublime cinematography. It is the portrait of a man, the drama of a life, and a parable of Life. The story is non sequential and the past, present and future collate with each other not as it happened but as it must have flowed in the mind of the young and precocious director. It is a whole made of pieces and the pieces join together in a perfect fusion, like the pieces of a jig-saw, giving us a wrenching and pathetic portrayal of human destiny. As the story proceeds, the man unpeels, layer by layer.
The story proceeds with unrelenting energy and speed without stopping for a single breath or wasting a single shot. Each moment seamlessly unfolds the next as though derived from an unfaltering inner spring of inspiration. This quality of compressedness, a density which is able to express a lifetime in two hours without leaving out anything is an achievement in human portraiture reminiscent of sixteenth entury drama.
Much has been written about the inspired black and white cinematography. It is a poetry of camera so one must content oneslf with a few examples. Snow falling on a cottage turns into a glass paperweight. The camera descending on the drunken Susan. The cathedral like library which houses Thatcher's archives. The encounter of Kane as a child with his future guardian. Kane in the hall of mirrors.
It is indeed the hypnotic vision of a prodigy of five and twenty-Welles' age when he made the film. Worthy of the author of "Kublai Khan" , who built the wondrous Xanadu.
Kubla Khan by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Roger Ebert's review
Friday, October 23, 2009
The movie starts with Simon performing a miracle wherein an amputee's hands are restored. The first use he makes of his hands is to slap his son.
At various other times we see him chastising people for their lack of piety. He even refuse to respond to his mothers love who lodges herself near the tower.
His own self immolation seems severe as he goes for days without food and water, living on next to nothing. His singleminded sincerety is beyond doubt.
On various occasions he is visited by the devil assuming the shape of a young and beautiful woman trying to distract him from his austerities. In her final visit we find the she-Satan climbs atop the mendicant's tower trying to lure him into sensuality.
In a sudden turn we see a flying aeroplane and then we are transported to a modern disco club where we find Simon and the she Satan dancing vigorously. And then he is sitting smoking a cigar as the film comes to an end.
It is a powerful attack on the clergy indicating that below the cloak things are very much the same if not worse. Bunuel ridicules religious posturing, the insincerity and falseness of religious professionals, the lack of genuine humanity which is buried deep in it, even the best kind.
And the beast cannot be exterminated, not even by standing on towers for decades. You can only shove it beneath the surface, thence sharpening his teeth all the more.
Humanity lies not in the extermination of the animal aspect but in it's civilisation.
Wednesday, October 21, 2009
Two comparisons immediately spring to mind. One is with Albert Camus' famous essay "Myth of Sisyphus" (depicting a human being doomed to a life of endless, purposeless activity, as many of us may experience our own lives to be). The second is with David Lean's 1962 film, "Lawrence of Arabia" for the grandeur of it's desert photography. Perhaps it's more appropriately described as the story of the redemption of an entymologist.
The young amateur scientist, otherwise a teacher, is out on the sea shore spending his leave looking for a variety of beetle which will bring him recognition from the community. By a chain of circumstances he finds himself housed with a young and beautiful woman living in a dilapidated cottage. The cottage is at the bottom of a sandpit abou 10 metres deep. Having accepted hospitality for an overnight stay, he finds himself a prisoner. Provisions and water are periodically lowered by the neighbouring villagers. It dawns on him soon that here he is to remain indefinitely.
The husband and daughter of the woman have recently been buried in a sand storm. It is a strange kind of sand. It is moist and whatever it comes into contact with will decay in days. At night they work together to shovel it as well as sift it for sale by the villagers. The cottage has to be protected at any cost since if one falls, so will the others.
He makes some attempts to scale the modest height of the sandpit ( since he is desperate to return to the city) but the material is as crumbly and amorphous as an anthill and there is no possibility of scaling the wall. At one point he does manage to escape by means of an ingenious contraption but is caught by his detainers and back where he started. He tries to trap a crow to act a carrier pigeon but this also doesn't work out.
But it is the sand which is most interesting. Throughout the film the howling and blowing sand storm forms the musical score with a minimal of additional notes. It is a sand which flows like a liquid, advancing like a river in spate, at times heaving and swelling like the surface of a sea. It rains sand through the cracks in the roof of the cottage. The nights are devoted to bailing out the encroaching onslaught of sand.
The couple roughs out the physical realities of this survival struggle, bound only by the common elemental enemy and powerful eroticism. The woman is reconciled to remaining there for the rest of her life. He remains steadfastly desperate, at one point even willing to perform sex in full view of the villagers as a price to be allowed to see the ocean for a short while. Let us go no furthur with spoilers.
Interpretations? The terms avant-garde, neo-relistic, existential have been used for the film, whatever that might be. Interpretations must be tentative and provisional, because anything which can be interpreted must to that extent be limited.
It has the form of a parable, in the starkness and simplicity of the narrative and disregard for logic of details. Man against the power of chaos, the relentless advance of time, the chasm beyond? The storms are the storms of human passion and the quicksand which gives way below our very feet is our own absence of moorings.
The entomologist wanted his name in a book, fame and recognition--a return to the glittering city. He is willing to trade whatever sense of honor he posesses (though he starts off as a decent enough individual) in return for fulfilling his desire for life, glimpses of the outside world. The woman is on firmer soil, reconciled to her destiny of eternal, repetitive, thankless labour. The villagers in their masks are the inner demons.
Like Watanabe in Ikiru, he finds a foothold in the ever shifting sand.
Tuesday, October 20, 2009
Saturday, October 17, 2009
Friday, October 16, 2009
It is a drama of confrontation and interaction distilled to the barest of essentials that the film tries to expose. There are three forces in apposition: He, She and It. The dead child is the burden of the past.
The civilised element dissolves rapidly in the distance from society and merges into the primeval cries of the forest. The jungle and its wild inhabitants are not passive elements but seem to be in a dynamic interaction with the human protagonists.
It is appropriately named Eden-perhaps Antieden would be right- for it's human population is just the two of them and the whole garden is theirs in which to love and hate. They are the highly educated products of a modern society and in that sense already traded their original innocence for a forbidden fruit.The widerness, as if it were in response, sends back ferocious echoes in the form of hellish animal symbols: the aborting doe, the disembowelled fox, the entombed crow.
The vestments of socialisation are quickly shorn. It is primitive man surrounded by a menacing jungle inhabited by fickle and blood thirsty dieties in animal form.
He has only intelligence to govern over his inner wilderness: the volcanoes, canyons and stormy seas of his soul. There is no law to follow, no faith to anchor on. There is no Christ. Hence it is the realm of pure nature, Antichrist.
Von Trier has probably made a very personal, autobiographical and very religious film. A mixture of genius, abnormal upbringing and the absense of anchors, religious or otherwise, himself a victim of depression, he has produced a difficult, powerful and layered statement about the depth of human need. It is a very troubled cry, this great film.
Wednesday, October 14, 2009
The effectiveness of the film lies perhaps in the continuity of visceral satisfaction and the chiselled symmetry of each episode as it unfolds in its chain of inevitable improbabilities.
It is a roller coaster ride of entertainment and pleasure and even the gore seems a matter of secondary importance. It retains the essence and spirit and largeness of history while forsaking the detail. While it parodies grim events of the not unrecent past, it in no way demeans them or loses perspective on those tragedies. It rather refreshes us to what happened by re-focussing it through the lenses of satire and parody. The distorting mirrors in the house of laughter at a circus make us laugh at ourselves with an embarassed self recognition.
Brad Pitt's somewhat comical brutality depicts through a kind of flip of contrast the Holocaust which is the silent back stage of the movie. In that sense Tarantino renders a service by bringing to life again those dreaded memories which tend to slip into stereotypes and pious platitudes. Evils continue to exist till their causes, their very talons which are in the minds of ""ordinary" men, are not extracted from the roots.
After all the contradictions of the film are no more than the contradictions of life and derivatively of history.
An important film. A deeply felt allegory. And box-office too.
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
Wednesday, October 7, 2009
Wajda (1926-) is a leading director and he narrates the melancholy events in which he lost his own father. This would have been a courageous film to make in Soviet dominated 1959 Poland about events related to the recent traumas of the war which touched on national pride and the question of responsibilities.
Was the invasion a walkover for the Germans? If not what happened and what was the nature and extent of the response to the invading forces? One wholly fictional incident of a disastrous cavalry charge on the advancing tanks was particularly controversial. Surely it was not meant as literally as horses against tanks.
It speaks rather of the inequality of the balance of forces , of the courage and the ravishment.
Wajda is a poet-historian-proud Pole-film director who here more than giving political or historical answer draws a metaphorical picture as a supressed sob and a salute to a proud and ravished past. The rust brown chromes of the film are wholly appropriate to the fading culture it evokes.
It is through the travails of Lotna the horse and a foredoomed love story of a cadet and school teacher that Wajda pin points his perceptions of that fateful winter in evocative poetry and powerful metaphors . The stallion is the strand around which Wajda weaves a masterful narrative.
The metaphors of the glorious steed, the dismembered sculptures emerge from the depths of the Polish psyche, the ravages of history and time.