Friday, June 18, 2010

Nanook of the North

1922, Silent, Robert J Flaherty (director)

I was drawn to watch this after reading it was at the top of Ramin Bahrani's list of ten best films.

This is a documentary film about the life of the Inuit Eskimo in the Canadian Arctic. The director spent sixteen months living with the Inuit. The film features Nanook, a hunter, his two wives Nyla and Cunayou, and two children, and captures a year in their lives. The film is only partially authentic-the characters understood that a movie was being made about them and paid for it, the wives were not actual wives, and the children not real children of Nanook. It is in fact a mixture of enactment and reality. It depicts with some romanticising a way of life slightly antecedent to the film. Western dress and rifles were already on the scene at the time.

The Inuit no longer lead a nomadic existence battling a pitiless environment, as the film depicts. The word Eskimo, which means raw-flesh-eaters is itself considered derogatory-Inuit is the acceptable term. This is similar to the distinction between American Indian and Red Indian. They have become colonised, wear Western dress and live in concrete dwellings with modern amenities. The present film authentically captures the life at a time not much before the making of the film, when a population of three hundred odd people occupied a Sahara of snow as large as the United Kingdom.

The search for food and clothing is the driving pre-occupation of this family of hunters. We see Nanook at the end of the day with a haul of fish, or locked in combat to pull in a walrus from the water, or pulling in a gigantic seal he has harpooned from a hole in a drifting island of ice ( the seal was already dead, but the walrus hunt was real). He erects an igloo in a matter of an hour when his family is caught in a snow storm. Igloos, made of snow, have a window made of ice, with a snow-block perpendicular to the ice window to act as a reflector to catch sunlight, beaming into the interior. We see the pack of small but ferocious huskies tearing at each other for pieces of meat, or the painfully slow progress of the dog-pulled sleighs through boulders of ice.

It is an forgettable document of human nature and life's tenacious adaptation. Human nature seems to be more or less a constant over variations of time and place. The ability to learn and inherit the accumulation of wisdom is what distinguishes us from other species. The erection of an igloo in minutes seems like a miracle of art, ingenuity and ancient technology. Neither were the pyramids built using earth moving machinery. Honed intelligence is what enabled these Inuit of old to track down and use the mighty walrus and seals. Culture is the accumulated wisdom to coexist and survive in different environments and every culture is a marvellous tapestry rich in surprises. This way of life shown leaves little room for what we all recognise as family discord-man,woman, child and beast seem to form a seamless symbiosis, with the environment as a fierce adversary.
Essay by Flaherty

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Still Walking (2008)

Kore-eda, director
This highly watchable, somewhat sentimental drama scans human relationships within a family. A retired and senile doctor lives in a seaside town with his wife. They are being visited by their family for an annual reunion to mark the death by drowning of  their eldest son twelve years ago while trying to save a teenager. The second son who is visiting now is married to a widow with a son. Also visiting is the daughter and her husband and their two children.

The aging physician is lamenting the lost son, in whom he seems to have placed his hopes. He does not think much of his younger visiting son Ryo or for his profession of art preservation. This becomes obvious in many unfavorable comparisons and oblique remarks. The daughter and her family have plans to move into the parental house, which the elderly parents do not want. Ryo's wife and her son are given formal treatment, though she never loses composure at any point. Also visiting is the young man whose life the elder son saved from drowning, who seems to be invited for the specific purpose of making him guilty and uncomfortable.   The tapestry of relationships, points of view and interests is presented in dazzling relief and with effortless delicacy.

No less delightful is the opportunity to wander in the interiors of a modern Japanese dwelling and to experience their way of life. It is an authentic portrait of a society, though that could hardly have been it's intention. It is a culture where attention to minute details comes naturally. The manicured if somewhat crowded neighborhood, the lanes and gardens, and the exquisite graveyard with glistening rectangular granite tombstones surrounded by flowers-white or black or mottled- all unhurriedly surveyed by the camera, make this film well worth watching. The slow quiet rhythm of the film as it unfolds itself, almost like a still-life, is sure to cast a spell and leave it's imprint.
Manohla Dargis

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Seventh Seal (1957)

Here is Bergman (1918-2007) at his gloomiest, hardly relieved by a few assays into the burlesque. One of the earlier films, it lacks the cinematic finesse, lightness of touch and structural simplicity of later movies like Persona. Wild Strawberries, made in the same year, seems a more mature piece of work.

Antonius, a knight, returns from the so-called crusades with his squire Jons, to a plague-ridden Europe. He encounters death personified (Death, shall we say) waiting for him on a seashore, but enters into a pact to have his departure postponed till the conclusion of a chess game between the two. The forty-year-old Bergman uses a gothic medieval background, to portray what could possibly be his own anguish, at that point in his own life when worldly success already lay at his feet. The knight passionately seeks for a meaning in existence. His squire cheerfully accepts the lack of any meaning, and represents the position of modern rationalists. For the actor and juggler Jof, and his beautiful wife Mia, who have their baby to think of,  life is no exercise in speculation and uncertainty, but a sacred, real and poignant journey. The black and white world populated by deformed human beings portrays a frightening, pitiless and god-free vision. Even a young girl about to be burnt on the stake shows nothing more than fear at the final moments.

The plague with its apocalyptic overtones is the reality of death, looming urgently over the terrified populace. Different people react in different bizarre and generally distasteful fashions in tune with the grim atmosphere which is conjured .

Perhaps for the first time in his career Bergman, freed from concerns of career and success, grapples with the question that was to hound him in most of his subsequent work. He has attempted to swallow the whale in one go, and the result is clumsy, overdone and depressing. The issues are modern, relevant and unanswerable as they ever were, and to clothe them in a theatrical fourteenth century costume drama confuses rather than illuminating the issues. Perhaps he is trying to tell us that our stance towards the fundamental problems of life and death continues to be medieval. The black robed balding figure of death would be comical if it was not distasteful. This is not a movie that has aged well, nor is it his masterpiece. This is not where you will find the revered Gloomy Swede at his most uplifting.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Air Doll

Kore-eda, 2009, 2 hours

This rather abstruse movie is disappointing after Kore-eda's previous sensitive and down to earth films. This one is about an inflatable life rubber size doll meant as a carnal substitute. The doll is owned by a nondescript waiter. But Nozomi the air doll comes to acquire a human heart and have feelings. She explores the world with child like wonder and falls in love with a store attendant at a video shop. There follows a tragi-comical relationship. I fail to make out what, if anything, this by now celebrated film-maker is trying to convey through this two hour marathon. It is the beautiful cinematography which somewhat redeems it. It is a sentimental and pretty packet containing nothing much. One may sum it up by saying that Nozomi the doll is human because she has a heart and the rest of us are air dolls because we don't. Fair enough, except he is a long time saying it, and whatever if any is the message does not come across with any force, and we are left with this air doll of a film and not the Kore-eda we have come to know.