Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Exterminating Angel..revisited

This strange and fascinating movie has been fermenting in my mind for a month since I first saw it. My second view was certainly enjoyable (specially to have a better look at the cinematography at the expense of the subtitles), for all the extra illumination it may or may not have provided. The first essay is here. But this is a movie of substance and charisma which has to be savored many a time.

This is a film by an exiled spaniard, a film about Spain filmed in Mexico, Bunuel's adopted country. Spain (I'm not referring to the land of football which it is now) is the land of Dali (a friend of Bunuel, as was Lorca), Picasso, El Greco (whose "View from Toledo" is third from bottom among the pictures down the side-bar). It's the land of Cervantes, of the Inquisition, of the clash and confluence of Christianity and Islam. The opening and closing sequences depict ancient domed churches which resemble mosques, used by the director as symbolic of our manifold prisons.

More important than the meaning or interpretation (interpretation beggars), since Bunuel is an artist first, with traces of a saint, and a philosopher hardly, is to have an ear for the resonances. It is certainly not a comedy, as some critics have called it, with sheep willingly butchered, a crowd being sprayed with gunfire like insecticide, and people dying without dignity in the course of a prolonged party turning into nightmare. Of course, Bunuel is too good to lapse into pompous solemnity, and the compassionate, unsentimental and objective observation of human behaviour, or a slice of it, is with an effortless lightness of brush, an abandonment which only an artist completely confident of his powers can afford. How much can be done with so little!

To describe the bird-like antics of the camera, as it explores and scans the intimacies of the claustrophobic space in which the main drama is enacted, now from afar, now from close, now overhead, or gazing upward at the ceiling and chandeliers, would require more cinematographic vocabulary than I can summon. At different times, the gathering takes on aspects of a witches conclave, a hump of refugees, a steamy bordello, a primeval jungle. The stink starts to rise as civilization sinks and entropy surfaces. There is death, desolation, grief, carnality, hunger, fear, hate.

But that which redeems is also there. The men folk wait their turn for the water. There are voices of sanity to be heard even as the mob is about to take over. The host contemptuously offers his life when demanded. As the bard says, our lives are "of a mingled yarn, good and ill together".

As the sheep troop towards the slaughter, the organ soars, the cathedral is again closed. The sheep are different, as is the party and guests, but the"sorry scheme of things entire" changes not, not so easily, not for bloody revolution.

Monday, March 29, 2010

The Matrix


How does one write about a movie one has neither liked nor admired? This is what all professional critics must be facing all the time. They see the movies they have to, and write about them. Their opinions must necessarily reflect what the films potential audience is likely to think about it, more than their own. That is economics. A blog writer is spared such constraints. He writes ultimately for himself.  At best one can extend an apology to friends for whom it was not such a hard watch, at least when they saw it. But then to each his own meat. After all the reviews seem to be more favorable than otherwise. And I could be the wrong generation, which never advanced beyond car chases and fist-fights (with chairs hurled and tables tilted). What is the use of a fight which does not generate the"ouch!" reaction? Simpler weapons seemed more vicarious. After all, one can't more than die, be it a bullet or a laser thingy.

This is not a movie for those whom a film is an investment of precious hours of their lives. A bad film can be a well made one. This one isn't. It has nothing to say either to your head or heart. The acting is of the poorest and the plot pointlessly complex. The special effects in Terminator 2 and Minority Report or even Spielberg's War of the Worlds--the few yardsticks in my sparse SF arsenal--were, in contrast, astounding and novel. And yet some one has worked hard to earn the money that it did earn.

The plot in effect, grossly and probably not so accurately, simplified. In the film the life we are living is not really happening. You don't actually enjoy the food you enjoy, neither do you go for work, or have a family life. It's all a dream. Truth is, you are lying stupefied in some deep cavern with a myriad tubes poking out and ugly insect-like monster machines (see figure1) stabbing needles into you, and jellyish fluids sputtering all around. Your so called normal life is but a program running in your brain. Your function is as a mere source of electricity for the gang of computers named Matrix that has taken over the planet. And now is not now, but a hundred years or two ahead. Wars have obliterated the sun, and since electricity is the food of computers, what could be more handy than "growing" teeming humans in underground farms as a source of bio-electricity. Hence our afore-mentioned predicament. Throw in some leather jacketed good/bad guys/gals, heavy doze of Hong Kong style kung-fu, a sprinkle of plausible determinism vs freedom philosophy, lots of computerese, and the dish is ready for consumption.

The most striking scene was the vertigo inducing shot of the camera looking down a scaffolding a couple of dozen floors through the hero's eyes. For the rest it is a Tom and Jerry state of the art bashing exercise amidst deafening sound and fury. It is neither science, philosophy nor drama. Entertainment? Yawn is more apt. Of course, everything is grist to write about, so nothing is really wasted.

And could this mysterious pull be the Matrix himself who is sucking me into the second number in the trilogy (orgy?)?


PS: The NY Times review below can be strongly recommended as a brilliant piece.
Review: NY Times

Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Rules of the Game

*Jean Renoir *1939 *106m *France*

Comedy or satire? In any case, it is a film that any buff has to see because it is there, it's pre-eminent position in the canon, having long shared the top slot close with Kane. Tough going as it was, only in the second view did the contours reveal themselves. Subtitles inevitably take the toll on one's cinematographic appreciation, and on the second foray one is able to better trade script for visual splendour.

1939. Austria and Czechoslovakia have been annexed by Germany and the Nazi juggernaut is set to unroll. France trembles, wishfully denying what is to come. Renoir (son of the renowned impressionistic painter) has tried to capture the life of the upper classes "exactly as I found it"  in this beautiful black and white tragi-comedy, apparently unconnected with the grim history of the moment. The film evoked violently negative reactions at it's first release, even to the extent of an attempt to burn down the cinema where it was playing. Obviously there is more to it than mere farce, because the French must have seen themselves mirrored.

A large group of upper class French society gathers in a mansion in the countryside for a weekend along with their retinue of servants. Andre Jurieux the aviator is a current national hero who has just completed a trans-atlantic flight in a record time of 23 (!) hours. He is infatuated with the Austrian Christine, wife of Jewish aristocrat Robert Cheyniest (who knows this), and who in turn is having an affair with Genevieve, which he wants to end. Parallel affairs are taking place in the serving class--gamekeeper Schumacher struggles vainly to keep a leash on his beautiful and exuberant wife Lisette, maid of Christine, who is the object of affection of nearly everybody, master or servant. Renoir himself plays the voluble and good natured Octave, the middle aged bachelor, who is a thread that binds the labyrinth of plots and sub-plots. And then things take a turn for the melancholy. Renoir compares the events to "people dancing on top of a volcano".

The hunting sequence is famous. Rabbits and fowl scamper in fear as the party of "beaters" drives them forward through the woodland into the open where they are skittled in merciless merriment. One is free to read any symbolism into the sequence, in the light of ongoing and impending military events, but this certainly one of the most memorable of film sequences, in the background of the French countryside in iridescent black and white.

The party which forms the final third of the film is another dazzling feat of cinema/drama/opera/pantomime.  The men and women chase each other around the halls and corridors, often exploding to fist fights, with some gun-shots thrown in. The deep focus photography captures this intricate and rapid climaxing of the story with the precision of an intricate clockwork.

The title of the film is the clear expression of the intent. Manners are all. Everything is permissible, anything can be condoned, provided you "fit". It is the aviator and the game-keeper who are the misfits in their slobberish sentimentality, and both pay a heavy price. Sincerity is not in, savviness is. Society is savage, with it's wars and animal hunts, below a thin layer of culture and learning. Appearances are all important. Be anything except a fool. The game is man's existence as a social animal, and the rules are the implacable forms and veneers which must be maintained, even as we rampage. It is not about France in 1939, it's about us, sadly.

To quote Renoir: It is a war film, and yet there is no reference to the war. Beneath its seemingly innocuous appearance the story attacks the very structure of our society. Yet all I thought about at the beginning was nothing avant-garde but a good little orthodox film. People go to the cinema in the hope of forgetting their everyday problems, and it was precisely their own worries that I plunged them into. The imminence of war made them even more thin-skinned. I depicted pleasant, sympathetic characters, but showed them in a society in process of disintegration, so that they were defeated at the outset, like Stahremberg and his peasants. The audience
recognized this. The truth is they recognized themselves. People who commit suicide do not care to do it in front of witnesses.
Review Roger Ebert     Andrew O'Hehir   Jean Renoir.

Monday, March 22, 2010



A film unwinds and sputters amidst whines and screeches of a machine. The carbon arc of the equipment bursts into incandescence and then dies into darkness. A spider crawling over the screen. Blood streaks out as a spike is driven into a palm. A monk in flames. A white screen. A rabbit is disemboweled. Bodies in a mortuary. A thin boy of ten or so tries to touch and feel the image of a woman separated from him by a transparent barrier. This montage of a few minutes leads us to the titles.

Elizabeth (Liv Ullman) is a successful actress of around thirty five who in the midst of a performance of Elektra suddenly stops speaking and thereafter becomes completely silent to the point she is hospitalized and put under the care of twenty five year nurse Alma (Bibi Anderson). The rest of the film is about the relationship of these two classically beautiful women, the one in her chosen muteness, the other loquacious.

This is pure cinema, where the form supersedes the substance. Every black and white frame of the film is a model of austere yet lustrous composition. The movie glows with with a battle of light and shadow. The marble forms and intense yet controlled performances of the two actresses encase the inner tumult, which ts petty more than sublime. It's a film about loneliness and the failure of inter-humaneness-- failure to connect-- like the little boy vainly trying to touch the woman behind the transparent barrier. An essay on solitude and existence. On the poverty behind the plenitude.

Nurse and patient retreat to a wave lapped sea side dwelling to work out an uneventful yet gripping drama of love, need and hate.. The vast expanses of land, water and sky are an apt metaphor for the infinite mystery of the inner universe. The self chosen and self enforced silence of the older woman, her apathy, indifference and occasional tenderness are set against the vulnerability and outbursts of anger of the nurse. Both the women have failed in different ways in the most fundamental other-centric human role of motherhood.

Somewhere in the background are the larger landscapes of wars and holocausts. A monk reduces to cinders. The Jewish boy in the beret is led away by the militia.. Bergman stated his failure to respond to mega tragedies. Elizabeth paces her room at night as sounds of the screaming bombers emerge from the TV.

Alma is furious and humiliated when she pries into a letter describing her as an object of study. She knowingly allows the actress to injure her foot on a shard, and the actress knows that she knows. Alma threatens Elizabeth with a saucepan of boiling water, forcing her to scream out, "Don't!" The fear of death and the instinct for survival go far deeper than our vanities. As was said "The most terrible things in the world are the pain of fire, the flashing of swords and the shadow of death. Even horses and cattle fear death, how much more those in their prime."

This is a film sparse and economical to the bone, a work of serene architecture. To interpret is demeaning to the film as to oneself. It is complete and round, maybe cuboid, a thing of symmetry, a film within a film within a film.

Complete to the point that it reveals no secret, which is as it should be, since neither does life.

At last Elizabeth breaks her silence as Alma asks her to repeat, "Nothing." It is the zero which is the beginning of everything.

What I can say for sure is that it's a movie, which like the carbon arc in the prelude, etches and engraves itself. I regretted having to depend on subtitles, to miss looking at the grains of the skin, to miss the nuances and cadence of script. The second time around, I allowed myself to ignore the subtitles, to focus on the marvelous  stream of facial expressions. Bergman has famously remarked to the effect that cinema is all about the human face and it's changing expressions.
Persona on Bergman Foundation Site,  Susan Sontag on Persona,  Bergman and philosophy

Friday, March 19, 2010

Close Up

*Kiarostami *1990 *90m *Iran *

In his televised interview Kiarostami says to the effect, " I don't know how to make films to cater to Western audiences or to please critics at film festivals. If my films are slow that is what they are meant to be. If they are boring and put you to sleep at least they are kind enough to leave you alone, and not leave you exhausted and knocked out. Films should have a lasting effect, and the effect of a good film starts working immediately after it ends. Some films that have made me doze off in the theater have often kept me awake for nights and thinking about them for weeks afterwards. I don't like films that arouse you emotionally, give advice, belittle you or make you feel guilty. Films that nail you to the seat and overwhelm you leave you feeling cheated. Such films make you a hostage."

This one uplifts you gently like a feather, hovering awhile around a hazy focus, to land you safely back where it picked you up, with infusions to spread lastingly into your mind. Slow and boring are the last thing they are--riveting and unputdownable is a more apt description. Not the least of their merits is the brevity--they never hit a hundred minutes. Kiarostami's films have the delicacy and intricate perfection, of a Persian tapestry, for all the modernity of their setting. They are the easiest to watch, in their almost lazy contemplative style. There is a sequence of a tin-can rolling down a slope and you see it as you might in real life when standing somewhere with nothing to do, except fool around with whatever object is at hand.

Like so many of his other movies, this one is about the movie making process. What can come more naturally to a film-maker who wants to portray the melodies of real life instead of telling stories. Each of his films is different and seems the best of the lot. This certainly is a great film (I hesitate to use words like masterpiece).

It is based on a real life incident involving a person a person having a resemblance to the director Makhmalbaf. After being mistaken for him several times, he is involved in a situation in which he deliberately impersonates him, is discovered, arrested and tried for the fraud. Much of the movie relates to the trial, in which his complex motives for committing a pointless and seemingly ludicrous felony are explored. He comes out not as a criminal but as a sensitive, confused and helpless human being, a floundering vessal in the waves of society. An artist by temperament (quotes Tolstoi in the course of his very competent defense) and unable to sustain his family, he finally breaks into sobs, when embraced by the real (which means the real) Makhmalbaf, saying, "I am tired of being myself." Kiarostami was given permission to film the actual trial and most of the cast, including the impersonator and the family he tried to decieve, are the actual persons involved and many parts of the film are actual footage. Finally the court lets him off, partially because the complainants have decided to "forgive" him (quite unwestern). Finally he is encouraged by Makhmalbaf to continue a normal life.

In the process we get many glimpses of Iranian society, tending to the rosy side because Kiarostami, unlike Makhmalbaf, has chosen to remain in his country, and adjust with the political system, including censorship ( mostly stemming from religious elements like women wearing the head dress), which he says is not a problem for him. Men mostly wear western dress, but no ties. The accused person carries out his own defense. The judiciary seems mild, reasonable and compassionate. Books on cinematography seem available in the native tongue. Women wear the burqua but can sit besides men in buses. Persian, a classical language, seems considerably evolved for the needs of a modern, technological society. Different from western society, perhaps a step or two behind in some respects, but ahead in some others.

My taste for Kiarostami grows as for a wine, and meanwhile this puts me on the trail of Makhmalbaf, another apparently equally acknowledged film maker of Iran.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010


*Clint Eastwood (direction) *2009 *133m *Morgan Freeman as Mandela *

This film is an authentic glimpse into the mind of Nelson Mandela. "This country is hungry for greatness," he says. He has a vision of society and depth of character forged in long years of incarceration. He wants to put behind the memory of apartheid and any thoughts of vengeance, and to build a harmonious multi-racial society, the rainbow nation. A person who has endured so long owes himself more than revenge. His years in prison put him in a unique position to set an example of the Christian virtue of forgiveness. After winning the country's first fully representative election and becoming President, he decides, to start with, by having a multiracial personal body guard.

The film is based on the book by Carlin, The Game That Made a Nation. The movie focuses on the 1995 rugby world cup in which South Africa is represented by the all-white hitherto much hated Springboks team. Mandela makes this tournament his inspired weapon to meld the hearts of races of South Africa. He puts his entire being and charisma and presidential power behind the match, making victory in this tournament a national objective. The alchemy works as it does on those rare occasions when a million hearts beat together, at least for a while. One is reminded of the clarion call which was Gandhi's great salt march. The battlefield is not the only place where history is made.

Morgan Freeman gives a more than adequate portrayal, capturing the body language, speech and spirit of his character. The phenomenon of a nation gripped by sports fever and the excitement of the game itself, the modern version of the gladiatorial struggle, kept me easily glued for the running time,

It's also worth preserving the poem which inspired Mandela in prison and whose title lends it's name to the film:

Out of the night that covers me, 
Black as the pit from pole to pole, 
I thank whatever gods may be 
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance 
I have not winced nor cried aloud. 
Under the bludgeonings of chance 
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears 
Looms but the Horror of the shade, 
And yet the menace of the years 
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate, 
How charged with punishments the scroll, 
I am the master of my fate: 
I am the captain of my soul.

The Big Sleep (1946)

*Howard Hawks *114m *Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall *

Movies generally had stories and a rounded ending those days and keeping you glued was the litmus test. This is a tasteful thriller with a liberal punctuation of murders and infusion of sizzling romance. The plot has too many twists and turns and I basically followed it as a roller coaster of pungent dialogues, every line a punch line with a double entendre. American crooks, gangsters and cops never smile and the humor is dead-pan repartee. Guns seem as much needed an accessory as cell phones today, and gunning down a guy an unpleasant but unavoidable routine. With those quaint cars and blackmail demands in grands of dollars, the well dressed goons with hats worn at rakish angles are lovable and nostalgic. The shadowy, misty, trasluscent camera work is black and white to which noire is aptly suited.

Bogart, who I know only from Casablanca, is able to fill the movie with his trademark persona and mannerism. His walk is ponderous and deliberate like a rhinocerous, as he loosely dangles his arms from side to side, the hat aslant. Unhandsome, short, he is the quintessential ordinary guy, everyman's idol, rough carved and hiding a heart that is chivalrous, as decent as is practicable for a sensible man of this world, a boozer on and off the screen. He must have been the guarantor of a movie's box office success.

Among the mysteries you are left dangling with is the meaning of the movie's title.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Through the Olive Trees

*Kiarostami*1994*103m*Iran*Zire darakhtan zeyton

Another gossamer web of a film from the Persian director. It is the third and last of the Koker trilogy, films about the hamlet of Koker in the mountains of  Iran, situated in the region struck by a great earthquake in 1992. The first, Where is the Friend's Home? (an unforgettable and simple story of the friendship of two school-children of Koker) and the second, Life and Nothing More (a film director visits Koker immediately after the calamity to contact the two buys whose friendship was the subject of the first film), have also been reviewed here. The earthquake (zalzala in Persian) is now at the time of the present third film two years in the past but we can see it's footprint in the ruined dwellings and the  simple, god fearing hill folk who with philosophical diligence re-assemble the shards of their lives.

A film crew is here in the village to make a movie and the movie is about the rather slow snail-pace process of  movie making . There is the efficient and somewhat authoritarian burqa clad assistant director Mrs. Shiva. The society doesn't come out looking puritanical or restrictive. The genders interact in a very natural and uninhibited way within the culture and ways of a country with a common unquestioningly accepted system of faith. Far from distorting it serves as  an invisible binding thread of culture and humanitarian values.

In the film in the making, Hossein and the beautiful Tahereh got married the day after the quake, spending their honeymoon in a dwelling improvised from a large piece of plastic, and now, a week later, have managed to collect some pots and pans and occupied what is left of a devastated dwelling. In real life Hossein is a relentless suitor of the lovely damsel. But he is illiterate, a lowly mason, and doesn't have a house. Neither the girl's grand-mother nor the girl will have him. The girl will not even look at him, or utter a word, or even give a sign as to her intentions, for all his importunity. Neither is he the one to give up and he keeps on like a true romeo, as he literally follows her over hill and dale. Truly an unusual courtship and love story.

And the film within the film goes on amidst the re-construction activity and the life processes of these survivors of a great natural calamity which in a stroke decimated the families and wiped out their means for survival. Kiarostami belongs to a minuscule breed of humanistic film-makers at one with their soil  who speak an easily understood language of the heart. He has been faulted for being slow and for lack of depth and complexity. As a contrast, Charlie Kaufman's movies have complexity with out depth, making them needlessly cerebral. I certainly don't find Kiarostami boring. His direction lends tension and drama  to the most ordinary objects and incidents of life and one is left inwardly smiling. This is a movie about a recent tragedy of monumental scale yet the tone is overwhelmingly joyful and affirmative. A great Oriental film.

To quote a Greek reviewer meleftheirou-1: "My heart responded, the hairs on the back of my neck responded, my being responded. No matter if my brain wasn't fully au fait with what came before. Superb doesn't begin to cover it. How he captured these (non)performances from his actors is beyond me: perhaps, unfamiliar with the conventions of film-making, they were uniquely equipped to sidestep them."

It's a simple and beautiful film about a less known, misunderstood and beautiful country. Some suggest that Kiarostami operates under constraints of censorship, and must project a rosy picture. In any case, the authenticity and creativity which characterize his films can be as little curbed as manufactured.

Above all, it is a film about that life which goes on, on and on.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Postscript: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Seeing the formidable reputation and the overwhelming positive critical reaction (not to mention friends' opinion), I was induced to re-view the movie, particularly since I had admittedly failed to make much less than 100% sense of it the first time. At least I had definitely got the feeling that it was not quite my cup of tea.

It's reputation is either as a light comic romance or as a look at the workings of the mind using the pseudo-scientific ploy of induced selective amnesia. The sadness of losing one's memories is poignantly portrayed because loss of memories is a kind of death, whether one's own or other people's. The slow fading of good and bad incidents as synapses snap and neurons implode as good Dr. Murray presses the erase buttons, is a series of sad miniature deaths and it is mournfully captured. (Sorrow is perhaps Kaufmann's favourite emotion, going by the yet to come Synecdoche.) Ebert has aptly compared memory erasure to the tragedy that is Alzheimer's disease. (It is an interesting question whether complete erasure of the past is possible even in Alzheimer's or even in death. Theologies emphatically maintain otherwise.) The ending is indeed a ray, if not eternity, of sunshine. The couple have learnt from their suffering, accepting each other for what they are. They transcend superficialities of compatibility, travelling beyond crutches of  plastic surgery, cerbral or otherwise. They have discovered  human bonding at a deeper stratum. Perhaps love is after all an inner resolve to love. In that sense I would prefer, given a choice, to interpret the film, as a satire on over dependance on technology, rather than as a neurological masterpiece. The film concludes by people back on the saddle, where they need to be, and rightfully belong. And this conclusion is delicately wrought. (Maybe reading too much between the lines.)

It looks as though I have talked myself into liking the film, but there isn't a third time, because it's not my brand of caffeine (or is it now), though it places Synecdoche, a deeper film, which I have seen twice and written about once, squarely on the focus of my periscope sights.

And come to think of it, it's quite touching to see kids, even grown-up ones, moving away from the sad emptiness of their lives. Literary Dreamer Greg Salvatore is right about the triumphant note on which it concludes.

A vignette of worldly wisdom from Ebert: "The secret of communicating with another person, I suspect, may be in communicating with who he thinks he is. Do that, and you can kid a great man and treat an insignificant one with deep respect. They'll credit you with insight."
James Christopher's review

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

*Michel Gondry (director) *Charlie Kaufmann (writer) *108m *2004 *

This is a film built around the idea of "targeted memory erasure", the eradication of some specific things in our life we would like to completely forget about. Joel (Jim Carrey), the hero, is undergoing this procedure to forget all about his affair with Clementine (Kate Winslet), who has earlier got the same thing done to herself vis-a-vis Joel. Joel is a dazed inwardly drifter and Clementine an insecure self pushing and over expressive woman, and their interaction provides comic fare of the tired and sickly kind. They are mentally fractured to start with, in little need of further injury which they seek to self-inflict through the aforesaid procedure. The staff of Lacuna Corporation, which has discovered the erasure technique, in their inept and callous handling of the "subject", provide material for a couple of sniggers, as well as the only solid ground in a film which never finds it's own feet in the precarious crumbling quicksands of the subconscious. For the better part of the film, Joel is lying on the couch, capped with a helmet with electrodes leading to a computer. The film itself probes his mind ricocheting back and forth in time, and we see a salad of his. memories, dreams and fantasies. The main characters themselves are adult size babies, self centered pleasure seekers who are conspicuously unsuccessful in finding the satisfactions they seek. They seem to be like floating weeds adrift in a murky pond. The pettiness to which life is reduced is one of the big problems of our times.

The film would probably need a second view for a more informed analysis but one wonders whether there are any meanings to be discovered. It will cater to those who love complexity for it's own sake. It is befuddling without being profound. It appeals as little to the mind as to the heart.

The caverns of the mind are dark and frightening but the film certainly does not see any lamp to illuminate this darkness. It is yet another litany of despair, lacking even in melancholy relief.

The nicest thing in the movie is the title, taken from Alexander Pope. And it's the only thing with a bit of sunshine in it.
Roger Ebert's review
NY Times review by Elvis Mitchell
Review: Todd McCarthy

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Precious 2009

A message of hope for troubled times. Love, in this case by the teenage overweight Afro-American teenager from the unprivileged sections, for her two children, is a force which can generate the will to overcome adversities, in this case a childhood of physical and emotional abuse.

Hitchcock once said he had done his best to put murder where it rightfully belongs: the home. The kind of psychotic domestic inferno described in the film, where life itself may be constantly at risk, objects flying and blows suddenly raining for no reason (a home is an arsenal of lethal weapons), is a reality and the author of the novel may have based herself on such a real life experience. To have emerged from this in one piece physically and spiritually would be an extraordinary and rare victory of a human being in a stormy voyage of life.

For the rest, it is pretty much staple twice told melodrama, for all it's edifying qualities. The dilineation of characters resorts to garish primary colors, and the stereotyping of the good, bad and ugly is tiresomely familiar. The film virtually orders you to have the expected responses (or else) placing few demands on your intelligence and  imagination. It has little to add to the discourse on the human condition. One can but dutifully exclaim, "How sad! How brave!".

Gabourey Sidibe in the main role does her assignment with  restraint and dignity. Mo'Nique as the mother also gives a powerfull histrionic performance, leaving one somewhat dumbfounded by a fluency of invective or self-justification. The final encounter of mother and daughter where the mother is stripped of irrational defenses and the daughter has traveled far beyond, is a memorable one.

A sentimental run of the mill film destined for a short heyday of commercial success. It will serve a purpose by hopefully inspiring people in comparable dillemas. After all it is not fair to fault a product for that which it never claimed to be or have. And you can't fault it for being obscure or over-subtle.

It makes me salivate for the novel.

Where is the friends home?

*Kiarostami *79m *1987 *Iran *Khane-ye doust kodjast? *

Perhaps the most poignant of Kiarostami's films, it immediately reminds you of Ray's great Pather Panchali. This is a magical film about childhood and how large life looms when we are small, and the often well meaning insensitivity of grown-ups in failing to see the child's viewpoint.It is a spell binding and lyrical description of the life of hill folk in a secluded corner of Iran. It's the first film of the so called Koker trilogy. This very region was devastated by an earthquake in 1991 which became the subject of another magnificent movie, Life and Nothing More.

The film opens in a primary class-room and Mohammad is rather severely scolded for doing his homework on scraps of paper instead of a note-book--this is the third time he has been reprimanded for this mistake. The teacher warns him of expulsion the next time. Later it so comes about that Mohammad's notebook gets left behind with his equally timid friend Ahmad and we see him fretting and worrying for his friend, vainly trying to explain to his mother the gravity of the situation and the need to return the book to his friend who lives in a not so near neighbouring village. The harried mother, as she goes around the domestic chores of washing and cooking, is deaf to the complicated scenario which the child is trying to convey. In the process, we are treated to exquisite vignettes of domesticity--there is beauty and poetry and serenity in the slow rhythmical unfolding camerawork as it lingers over the details of the idyllic existence of these poor and good mountain folk in the lap of nature. (They have electricity.)

The six/seven year old Ahmad decides to take matters into his own hand and hiding his friends notebook beneath his cardigan, bolts out of the house and across hill and dale toward's the friends village some kilometers away. But he does not have the address and inquiries reveal that there are many others having the same name. There are storms and wild animals (dogs) and many a stranger, some helpful, more indifferent to the boy's quest.  It is a blend of humor and pathos. Memorable is an old timer's extended harangue on the benefits of corporeal punishment, and how his own father's unfailing regularity in thrashing him once every fortnight was responsible for making him the man that he is. "He gave me a penny once a week and a beating once a fortnight. Even if he forgot the penny, he never forgot to thrash me."  Old age is indeed a reversion. The film has one of the loveliest and most satisfying endings.

The story is told with flawless and meticulous realism from the child's viewpoint and we share the anguish and heartbreak of this artlessly profound tale of childhood which I can think only of Satyajit Ray's above mentioned film to place besides. It's a film with the lightness and delicacy of a feather. It is also a loving and intimate ode to the country of it's origin.

(P.S.: You don't need to see it twice to understand it.)

Friday, March 5, 2010

The Trial of Joan of Arc

*Bresson *1961 *62m *Florence Delay as Joan *

Perhaps it is a mistake to watch Bresson's characteristically muted version of the tale immediately after Dreyer's. Florence Delay's Joan seems like an attractive and intelligent university student (which in fact she was). The film is a record of the rapid fire cross examination. It is pointless to compare it with the other film since they are different objects which should be seen for what they are. In some sense, the two films are complementary. (Bresson, incidentaly, is said to have "detested" the Dreyer film for it's "grotesque buffooneries".) Bresson's film has the power of less of everything--sound, score, expression. It's far from the write-off some people try to make of it.

The film is closely based on the transcripts. As the movie states, history has left an authentic portrait of the maid in the form of the trial records and witness statements of the burning.. It is for us to decipher. The film opens with a powerful portrayal of Joan's rehabilitation twenty five years after her execution, as her mother, draped in black, is led in to proclaim her daughter's innocence. We see only the black folds of a dress move diagonally towards the top left corner of the screen to the peeling of bells. Perhaps it is this triumphant and joyful note which distinguishes this film from Dreyer's essentially tragic viewpoint. What the two director's do share is a feeling for the sacred.

Bresson's  Joan is a clear-headed, intelligent and articulate young woman for whom the voices of divine instruction and counsel are a matter of fact. She is a match for her interrogators and her repartee is without pause for reflection, never varying from the monotone which is Bresson's trademark.

The film has the austere beauty by which he is recognized (comparable to the serene objectivity of pure mathematics) and gives a starkly realistic picture of the historic events, under-embellished (we the audience must fill in the blanks) and truthful. It whets my appetite to know more about this  personage who's life-experience plumbs unknown and unexplored depths of human experience.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Passion of Joan of Arc

*Carl Th Dreyer* 1928 *Silent* Denmark* 82m*

I was slightly wary of taking on a silent film, howsoever acclaimed. A musical score by Einhorn (later appended) is available in the DVD as an option. The score is deservedly praised for being a great piece of music, but I find it distracting, since the movie was conceived as silent cinema and has more than enough power to sustain itself on it's silent feet. It is a movie on which the word mesmeric is not too much of an exaggeration. It reveals what is possible within the limits of silent cinema. In fact, silence becomes an asset in a theme so elevated, since no amount of acting can easily scale this stratum of life, a whisker away from the primeval mystery of life and death. ( Einhorn's choral composition is a worthy companion piece but redundant and intrusive as a score.)  Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ , on a similar theme, is also after all virtually silent. Dreyer's film peers far deeper into the soul than Gibson, for the focus of the camera is unsparingly on the face and expressions of Joan and the inquisitors. Dreyer, unlike Gibson, is much more interested in what is going on within Joan's heart than outside. Dreyer's Joan is an ordinary person in an extraordinary situation. Pauline Kael called Renee Maria Falconetti's portrayal of Joan the greatest cinematic performance. Indeed, we see the courageous young girl locked in a battle of faith, a monumental inner struggle between her "voices" and the grimacing faces of her tormentors, as she hurtles to her doom at least in the usual sense of the word. The struggle is all too human a one and between the director and the actress, an extraordinary dramatic portrayal has been achieved.

The film focuses on the trial of the nineteen year old girl just before she was burnt at the stake on charges of heresy. Joan of Arc was a fifteenth century peasant girl who reportedly after the age of twelve had a series of divine visitations exhorting her to lead the French to victory against the English occupation forces. Subsequently she did lead the French forces in a series of inspired victories. Finally she fell into the hands of elements favorable towards the English and found guilty in an orchestrated ecclestiastical trial. The transcripts of the trial are preserved in a remarkable document and the film bases itself on these. Joan was later declared a saint and her life acquired a legendary status, becoming an icon of French culture and nationalism. It is an achievement of this great film,  to have captured this great drama, resembling those of Socrates and Jesus, in human terms.

The film spans a short period and the action takes place mostly in a makeshift court room. The film is in close up and we see the tears forming or rolling, beads of perspiration erupting, a fly settling on her eye, which she removes. The judges are now leering, now glaring or gesticulating threatningly with a finger. We are taken through a roller coaster of inner turmoil, as Joan reacts: in turn courageous, humiliated,  scared. The acute angles of the walls thrust alarmingly inward and the dwarfish figures of the armed guards totter around in an inebriated medieval pantomime. The key element is the mysterious inner resource on which she draws and which has propelled this young girl through a series of military campaigns as an inspired leader

A soldier venturing into battle sees death as a distinct possibility but there is usually a good chance of not being harmed. He in no sense is choosing to die, though he is risking it, as we all do to a lesser degree when crossing a street. MLK also chose a path knowing the possibility of the ultimate cost but possibility is qualitatively different from certainty. If death be thought of lying at the summit of a staircase, in the case of Joan's case the trial may be thought of as a slow ascent, with a harrowing choice to be made at each step. She does falter and look back, as when she signs a "confession", but finally whatever call she hearkens to has the day. She doesn't want to die. She just wants to finish the job she has to do and then return to normal life and wear ordinary clothes. But fate won't have it so. There is nothing of perverted bigotry in her. She is just fortunate enough to have inside her something which is beyond ambiguity, the level of absolute certainty which is the great inner resource.

"Joan of Arc is so uplifted from the ordinary mass of mankind that she finds no equal in a thousand years."...Winston Churchill

"Had she not been as ordinarily human as she was, she would have been intolerable."...Shaw
Dreyer's comments
Roger Ebert's review

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Crimson Gold

*Jafar Panahi*95m*2003*Iran*

Yet another engrossing film from the thriving Iranian vineyards. I wonder why it's banned in Iran--is it because it shows people being arrested for dancing or because it shows that crime exists in Iran? In any case, as a bonus, it provides a view of life in Iran in an urban setting. The events shown could have happened anywhere, so religion and geography are only skin deep in impact.

The film opens with a failed robbery and a homicide followed by a suicide. Hussein is a slow, heavy, depressed pizza delivery man, on psychiatric prescription drugs, due to marry soon. He experiences repeated humiliation due to his lowly social status, finding himself trapped in a prison of servitude and want. The best part of the movie consists of his series of incursions into an expensive jewelry shop. The first time he is not even allowed inside. The second time he comes more appropriately dressed but the inside of his pocket and his status are all too transparent, and the rebuff is so painful that he comes out, stunned and dizzy.

Perhaps interesting as an account of just one more of the myriad prisons of the mind we construct for our own confinement. Like a rat in a trap, Hussein makes a clumsy attempt to escape, before his life snuffs out.

The film itself shows the maturity of the art in Iran. It discharges smoothly, never loosing a grip on reality, or lapsing into caricaturisation. These are living, breathing people. It has little of the third world in it, and if anything, proves that Iranian cinema has already come a long way in discovering it's identity and voice.
Review by Howard Schumann

Monday, March 1, 2010

Au Hasard Balthazar


This is the  biography of a beleaguered donkey named Balthazar, which at many times seems an autobiography, since the film-maker projects so poignantly the animal's viewpoint. We also witness the coming of age of Marie, the daughter of a teacher, running parallel to the bumpy ride which is the donkey's karma. The line which divides man from beast after all is not so sharp. The girl's sufferings do not seem to be all that different, since she too is  helplessly swept downstream by the overpowering current of events, repeatedly abused and rejected.

It is also a movie about the ugly side of human nature, man's capacity for violence, on a scale animal's are incapable of, and for which his very intelligence becomes a potent instrument. This aspect our our nature is visible when we see by turns the drunkard Arnold, the villain Gerard and a mill owner belaboring the donkey. The encounter with animals brings out the worst part us, more particularly when no body is watching. It is the same streak which is manifest in our relationship to each other and to the environment, which religions of the past have in vain tried to civilize. What sight can be more revolting than of a person uncontrollably thrashing a donkey or tying a burning newspaper to his tail, which, in another situation, all too easily becomes another human being--a slave, an employee, a woman, a foreigner or the "enemy"?

One of the most interesting sequences is where Balthazar is taken to a zoo and encounters a tiger, a monkey and a pair of polar bears, all in cages. It is as though they all communicate through the bond of shared suffering, or at least recognition and acceptance, which demolishes momentarily the divide of species. The monkeys squeal is an expression of  primeval life force. The tiger seems benign and contemplative.

The closing sequence when Balthazar dies due to a stray bullet is one of transcendent beauty.  He is surrounded by a flock of sheep as he kneels before collapsing, almost like adoring magi, silent in tears and compassion,  in a gentle requiem. It is as if he encounters his kindred at last. It is a sublime moment in cinema, biblical in tone, beautifully framed by the Schubert melody( linked below).

Bresson is sometimes described as a spiritual film maker. Be that as it may, he is a humane and compassionate one, empathic with suffering.
Bresson website
Schubert 959