Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Lancelot of the Lake

*Bresson *85m *1974 *France *

Though loosely based on the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, this is actually a very modern spirited presentstion of sordid court politics. It has been rightly compared to Shakespeare and in fact in it's mood of corruption and decay it comes close to Macbeth. Shakespeare, for that matter, is as modern as they come.

The film opens in a rampage of killing and corpses as the redoubtable knights traverse hill and dale in search of the Holy Grail, a biblical relic possessing magical powers. What was supposed to be a sacred mission has turned into mayhem. They return from their futile quest to Arthur's court after two years, decimated in numbers and broken in spirit. The seamy affair of Lancelot and  Guinevere resumes, with Lancelot trying to wriggle out of it, convinced that the misfortunes that have befallen the state are a result of  this sin. The queen refuses to let him go, with appropriate arguments. Lancelot's arch political rival Mordred wants to take advantage of  this, which leads us to a tournament, the centrepiece of the film.

Bresson's usual style of non-acting and extreme understatement is very much evident , with the difference that the black and white of earlier films has given way to shades of brown and red with yellow light pouring through in patches--a noire film in deep dark shades. The dialog seeps through the orifices in helmets in monosyllabic monotones and everybody looks more or less the same in their metal uniforms--"interchangeable clunking clones" as Ebert beautifully expressed it in reviewing another film based on the same legend.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The River

Jean Renoir *1951 *99m *English

Renoir, son of the impressionist artist, creator of the extraordinary portrait of upper class French society on the eve of WW2, Rules of the Game, is also one of the important influences on Satyajit Ray, The two came in contact during the filming of The River, and this was the reason Ray turned from advertising to cinema, and that is a good enough reason for watching this film, apart from the fact that it is about India and by an acclaimed film-maker. But it was hard to believe that this is the director who made the masterly Rules of the Game, and whether Ray was actually influenced by him (friendship apart).

This is yet another example of a Western director’s impressions of the East, obviously targeted at a Western audience. Imagine Ray making a film based in LA or Chicago, pretending to knowledgeably expound the “mysteries’ thereof for the Indian audience.  For a “native” this is about as digestible as David Lean’s A Passage to India. It is the land of snake charmers and mendicants, of people immersed in mystical mumbo-jumbo, somehow immune to the problems and issues people face elsewhere, and offering solutions to life’s problems through esoteric secrets jealously preserved. What characterizes India is poverty and lack of education more than the profundities of religious and cultural differences. This is yet another condescending picture of the colonial period, sentimental and poorly informed, demeaning in it’s shades of mysticism, magic, and superstition.

The core story is of a British jute trader’s family of five daughters (including one from a deceased Indian wife), three of whom become romantically entangled with a visiting handsome one legged cousin from the US. Here, the director is in his element more than his Victorian tourist brochure picture of the country, and we have a touching, engrossing and rounded human tale.

This is not a film Ray could have liked or identified with, except perhaps out of politeness or obligation. Ray’s picture of India, while lyrical and exquisitely delicate, is robust, down-to-earth and authentic. The Chessplayers (Shatranj ke Khilari) is the finest portrayal of India in the nineteenth century, the cultural glory side by side with political naivete.
Roger Ebert review

The Silence

*Bergman *1963 *96m*Sweden 

The final of the trilogy. It is about the breakdown of human relationships in the absence of a source of values. Chaos results when they are left at the mercy of the sea of shifting human passions, in the absence of a compass, internal or external. If the first film is about the longing for an anchor, the second is about anguish at its apparent non-existence. In this one, the subject is not even referred to and the silence of god leads to a silence between men. It is a world at war, or preparing for one, a silence of meaningless sounds in a language not understood, a movement towards chaos.

Sisters Anna and Ester and Anna’s ten-year-old son Johann travel through a strife stricken country whose language they don’t know. The elder Ester is seriously ill and confined to her hotel room, as she drinks and smokes and types (being a translater). The beautiful Anna defiantly goes out, and her excursions result in physical encounters with a man she picks up, espied first by Johann in his wanderings through the hotel corridors and finally under the full gaze of Ester. These erotic passages resulted in the unexpected box-office success of an otherwise sparse and difficult film. The love hate relationship culminates in the younger sister departing with her son, leaving the elder to die.

It’s a largely non-verbal film and most of the communication is perforce through sign language. The backdrop is of a world dissolving. A train with a cargo of tanks. People throng into small groups in the streets and cafes and scatter in confusion, as though waiting for a catastrophe. A tank rumbles noisily into the street below Ester’s room, rattling and whining. The only stabilizing element seems to be a troop of dwarves staying in the same hotel, as they amuse themselves with card games, or good naturedly amuse Johann with their antics. The adventures (peeing in the corridor, shooting people with his toy gun, gazing in puzzlement at a painting of a nymph in the process of ravishment) and observations of the child left to his own devices as he wanders around in the hotel are a vantage point to the adult universe, and the midgets serve as a half way house, sharing the child-world from an adult platform. The dwarfs represent a privileged position, a degree of remove. Another is the elderly attendant who tenderly ministers to the needs of the ailing Ester. 

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Through a Glass Darkly

*Bergman *85m *1961 *Sweden

The first in the so called "absence of god" trilogy, the others being "Winter Light" ('62) and "The Silence" ('63).

This film is  about the crisis of illness (of the mind, which undermines the very foundations of existence) which visits a family of four: Karin, the sick and ravishingly young woman afflicted with a sickness which involves hearing voices and visual hallucinations, so is serious enough to loosely earn the label schizophrenia; her devoted doctor husband, whose advances she repulses; her seventeen year brother Minus(more talented than his author father, apparently, and himself also somewhat "cubed" in) , with whom love down slides to incest; and the insensitive novelist father who, due to his literary ambition, is unable to love his two children (he wants to record his daughters gradual mental disintegration as material to write about, a fact which she is shocked to discover when she pries into his personal papers); the late mother who suffered from the same illness, is mentioned in passing. They are lives stalemated  each  in their own unique fashion.

The girl hears voices she is compelled to obey, for example in the repulsing of the husband and the seduction of the brother. For the rest, she is unrecognizably normal and charming. She shuttles helplessly between the two realities; she is alone, even her brother Minus is bewildered and uncomprehending. She yearns for a door in the loft to magically open and god (Godot?) to reveal himself: when it does it is due to the air blowing from the blades of an ambulance-helicopter which has come to take her back to the hospital. She imagines that god has revealed his identity as an obnoxious spider. Her slide into psychosis is delineated  in meticulous and convincing detail.

The absence of god or a universe malicious or worse, indifferent? To take the analogy of the elephant and blind men, the universe is what we experience, and this particular woman experiences it as an ugly and aggressive insect, perhaps personifying the physically absent but mentally omnipresent father?

One can justifiably addict oneself the iridescence of Sven Nyquist's  cinematography, the bonus to Bergman movies, as he captures the Swedish summer, the sea and beaches, the fairy tale cottage (all awash in the midnight sun), the grandeur of the human form, and the faces with the ephemeral changes of emotion like a surface of water. I am tempted to put the disc on again to see these faces again, having gotten over the subtitles.
Ebert's Review
Bergman site

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Winter Light

*Bergman *91m  *Sweden *1962 *

Voltaire said God would have to be invented if he does not exist. The present film is a critique of Christianity, of religion in general, and the impotence of the clergy to provide succor to those in distress. It captures a rural Scandinavian environment in deep winter, the gloom penetrated by shafts of wan luminescence. From the interiors of the humble church to the transcendent riverside setting, where, among the gurgling and clear waters the climactic suicide occurs, it is black and white poetry.

The film opens during a church service in progress as the pastor Tomas conducts the desultory rituals which are shown in all their prolonged monotony. Nobody is paying much attention as Tomas' liturgical drone peters off to it's conclusion. Afterwards he is approached by the fisherman Jonas and his wife. Jonas is extremely distressed about the possibility of nuclear holocaust, to the point of being rendered virtually speechless. But the priest is unable to offer any solace and confesses he himself is floundering on the same rocks of meaninglessness of life in a godless universe. Soon after Jonas shoots himself by a stream. Another plot-line relates to the school teacher Marta, who wants to marry the pastor. In a confrontation, in the most hurtful way, the pastor expresses the revulsion he feels for the woman. Towards the end Tomas' assistant, a man with a crooked body damaged in a rail-road accident expresses his own doubts about faith, claiming his own agony of years is greater than of Christ, whose suffering was physical and limited in duration.

Perhaps the director is expressing his own anxieties. The need for a sense of purpose in life is deeply embedded and one suspects that Bergman has raised questions of great importance and urgency and in all honesty made no pretense of answering them. It is the crisis of extinction of faith with no replacement in sight. As the UN charter perceptively states, the causes of war exist in the human heart. This is a film to do with more than just a pastor and a fisherman. The coming of the nuclear age makes these issues the more pressing.

Monday, April 12, 2010

A Man Escaped

*Bresson *1956 *95m *France

One of the simplest of Bresson and one of the best.

An absolutely edge-of-seat  escape-from-prison suspense drama. Bresson himself was a POW and this is closely based on a true incident, but not his own. Fontaine, a member of the French Resistance during WW2, is captured and imprisoned by the Gestapo. On the way to prison, he tries to escape from the car carrying him in hand-cuffs, is captured and beaten. He immediately starts planning an elaborate escape, regarded an impossibility by his fellow prisoners. He spends a month dislodging two planks from the door with the help of spoons sharpened like chisels by grinding them on the floor. Next he manages to manufacture ropes from the materials available in the cell and finally three hooks fashioned from the frames of a glass window, to lodge the ropes on the walls that have to be traversed. The sounds of gunfire are a daily reminder of the executions in the precincts of the jail. The inmates maintain a tenuous communication and a community of spirit in their mutual concern and encouragement, being joined by a common cause against a hated and despised enemy.

From the conception through the slow and meticulous planning and patient working out to the final leap to freedom or death, there is many a slip and twist and turn. Orsini, another captive who tries to escape is caught and executed. Fontaine himself is plagued by doubts and hesitation. Finally, the horizon of time shrinks when his own imminent execution is pronounced. At the same time, he has a room-mate, who must either be trusted or killed. And there is the doubting old man Blanchet, who has resigned himself to his fate. We see the gradual unfolding of a man's spirit as he grapples with himself, resolving his uncertainties bit by bit, prodded by events in his environment.

Bresson's clinically neutral style is very much in evidence in this early film. It is almost an exercise in cold logic--what Tarkovsky called "sculpting in time". The actors, or "models" as he would term them, are like mannequins forbidden to make any effort towards acting. Only the involuntary facial twitches and shades of creasing betray the mind behind. That is how people usually are, making no extra effort at "expression". If the face is the mirror of the soul, or it's screen, no need to paint it. It is more from the arrangement and movements of the persons and the objects and the sounds of wood and metal that the audience must join the dots to complete the picture. Utter economy is the byword. The beatings are off-screen (the audience anyway knows that nobody is actually beaten, explains Bresson). Fontaine kills a guard behind a wall, and we are spared the slightest detail so we can imagine our gruesome worst. The sounds of doors opening or closing, the sharpened spoon dislodging the planks or the metal rod creaking as it is bent, are heard loud and fearsome as they must have sounded to the prisoner, since it is made clear at the outset that detection would mean sure death. Bresson commmunicates himself through the soundtrack. At one point, he uses both his hands to stop the pounding of his heart. Fontaine is no superman.

The musical score comprising a Mass of Mozart surges triumphantly across several passages. It's a film about hope, optimism and victory over unsurmountable odds. Various symbolical interpretations are suggested for the film but it seems better to leave well alone, except that there are prisons other than the ones administered by the Gestapo. To quote from Tim Cawkwell: "The English title, A Man Escaped, does not convey the full meaning of the French one: Un Condamné à mort s’est échappé. It is important that we understand the escape is not just from prison but from death. And actually more than death: Fontaine’s escape in the film is from damnation." The worst thing, it is said, is not death. It is defeat and loss of self respect, which is tantamount to living death. In that sense, even Orsini, whose attempt fails, triumphs in making the attempt. As Fontaine tells the pastor (another prisoner), god helps those who help themselves. Perhaps it is in defiance of destiny that we achieve humanness.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Un Chien Andalou (an Andalusian dog)

*1929 *15 minutes * silent *Bunuel and Salvador Dali, directors *

A dangerous looking character (Bunuel himself) is sharpening his razor. Quite cheerfully, a pretty young girl allows him to neatly splice her eye with the sharpened instrument. As the transparent jelly comes out (an animal's eye was used for this notorious shot) a sliver of a cloud wafts across a full moon.

Eight years later. A man in a nun's habit pedals furiously down a deserted avenue. He falls unconscious below the window of the girl who rushes down to embrace him. She resurrects him by an act of mental concentration. Below in the street, a dignified girl toys a dismembered hand with a walking stick, and the crowd gathers around is held at bay by the police. She stands in a graceful pose in the middle of the street and is mowed down by a passing vehicle, as the man in the window observes her demise gleefully. As the man in the window makes insistent advances to the girl, she defends herself with a tennis racket. What is he to do except drag a piano sandwiching a dead donkey (or is it two) along with the corpses of two priests. As he escapes from the room, the girl has his arm wedged in the closing door, and a stream of ants emerges from a hole in his hand.

Dreams? There is no narrative (maybe just the hint of coherence) and nothing to interpret. Interpretation, in fact would be a violation of the very purpose. This is a pure cinema--a riveting flow of images. No plot to follow, no taxing of the mind. You are just meant to suspend the analytic processes and let the macabre magic take hold. They are the outpourings of the buried layers of the mind, the stuff of dreams, the forces of our fears, desires and sorrows.

This is a gem of fifteen minutes, a great size for a great film. It compresses a vast reservoir of cinematic creativity into it's span. A memorable movie.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeois

*Bunuel *1972 *French *101m *

This is about the failure of a group of well to do people to consummate a party. They gather repeatedly to dine together but are prevented from dining by one thing or another. The first time, there is a misunderstanding about the day of the appointment and the guests arrive a day earlier. As they settle down around the table at an inn, they are interrupted by wailing from the next door: the owner has died earlier that day. Invited to a general's house, the wall opens out and they are they find themselves on a stage in front of a hall filled with people, and worse, they have forgotten their lines, and of course, no food. On the next occasion, a bunch of hit men invade the room where they are about to start eating, and mowed down by gun fire. Another time they are all arrested. Interspersed with these episodes are a series of blood splattered dreams.

The movie leaves me almost cold. I can neither recognise the society I am familiar nor identify with the humor which is to a large extent bases on the fads, foibles and snobberies of the Western upper classes related to their culinary preferences (snails, hare and of course caviar)  food their  and the act of eating. Possibly the film is highly specific to western culture and that may be the reason for it's failure to tickle either the Asian funny bone or it's social sensibilities, even at the second viewing. The net result is bewilderment. Where lies the heart of this acclaimed movie? Acceptably amusing in it's social observation and compelling in the nightmare sequences-- but a great film? Or is it the law of diminishing returns--too many of a kind sequentially? It does seem a better idea not to see two movies by the same director together--unnecessary comparison is a sure result.

Postscript: The difficulties of the film are partially explained by the following perceptive remarks of Ebert: It was released in a year when social unrest was at its height, the Vietnam War was in full flower, and the upper middle class was a fashionable target of disdain. How different to see it again in 2000, when affluence is once again praised and envied. The primary audience for the film in 1972 saw it as attacking others; the primary audience today will, if it is perceptive, see it as an attack on itself.

There is an interval of twelve years between Discreet Charms and Exterminating Angel and Bunuel was now 72. The social class under observation is the same but the vicious satire of the first with it's dark and disturbing undercurrents has changed into parody and ridicule, with purely comic stretches. Perhaps the mocker has joined the ranks of the mocked. And in 2000, when Ebert made the quoted observations, the whole western society seems to be looking around in confusion on a plateau of affluence, with no where to go. And here at our end, as we hasten to catch up with the "developed" world, one can find classes with more money than culture. The struggle to make it good is well behind, and there is little to talk about besides brands of products. They are distinguished more than anything else by what they eat, drink, wear and drive. It is the poverty of the times.