Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Oedipus the King

Pasolini, 1967, 104m, "Edipo Re", based on Sophocles

The oracle proclaims that Oedipus, a heir apparent, will murder his father and marry his mother. Hearing this cataclysmic prophecy, Oedipus flees to distance himself from those who he believes are his parents.

Unlike Euripedes Medea, who is the deliberate architect and agent of a barbaric revenge on her deserting lover, Oedipus, for all his qualities, is a helpless pawn of destiny, caught in the vice like jaws of a deus ex machina, borne towards destruction. Here indeed we are in a universe in which human beings are to the gods as "flies to wanton boys" who kill them for sport.

Pasolini gives us an unusual treatment of the play, which opens and closes in the modern era, but transports us to ancient times for the bulk of the film. His treatment has an anthropological flavor, using the costumes, chants and mud dwellings of different peoples with complete artistic liberty to evoke a harsh and terrifying ancient era, with great poetical force more than historical veracity. The film uses the director's favorite barren desert landscapes, with undulating dunes and scorched mud or brick buildings, which seem to grow out of the ground. This is an apt stage to act out dramas of torment or exaltation. It seems as if the camera and the desert is the main protagonist of his intensely spiritual cinema.

Pasolini is a director who feels comfortable tackling large themes. He is an artist of compassion and humanism. He has been called a Catholic communist, an unbeliever who yearned for faith. His vision is integrated and holistic, unlike the fragmented analytic introspection which is the hallmark of many current film makers like Charlie Kaufmann.

Sunday, June 26, 2011


Pier Paolo Pasolini (1922-75), 1969, 105m, Italy, Maria Callas as Medea

This is good enough as an introduction to Greek drama, conveying it's primeval spirit and power in a nutshell. It's savagery leaves Macbeth many paces lagging. One can guess that the period of Greek civilization depicted was barbaric compared to modern or Elizabethan times. Pasolini was a precocious multi faceted artist, murdered for his communist leanings. He was an unbeliever who longed to believe. He won the Silver Lion at Venice for his ardently poetical interpretation of The Gospel According to Matthew, in which Christ is portrayed in strictly human dimensions.

Medea, a barbarian Princess, elopes with Jason, chopping her brother and strewing his limbs to stall her father and his men, who are pursuing. She is later abandoned by Jason for one of his own kingdom. She wrecks a bloody revenge, destroying his family, including her own children by him.

The movie has a hypnotic quality attesting to the passion of the film maker. The score is a monotonous drone of a chant which waxes and wanes like a chorus. The first half of the film has an anthropological flavor and transports us to a semi savage period. The film starts off with a gory human sacrifice performed in the full glare of the community to propitiate the forces which determine the harvest. From there the movie takes on the plot of Euripides play more or less.

This is a magnificent and powerful film and one can hardly imagine anyone but Callas to do justice to the intense opera like quality of the Greek drama.

Vincent Canby's review

Friday, June 24, 2011


Director: Doran, 2009 TV, 3 hours, David Tennant as Hamlet, Royal Shakespeare Company

Claudius wears a business suit, and the bespectacled grave digger is dressed in immaculate tweeds like a well to do gentleman. Many of the characters, including Horatio, are non-white and one of the two envoys to Norway is a black woman. Hamlet himself is a nervous and twitchy young man in modern western attire, like a graduate student, at his most disturbed with an unbuttoned white shirt. Surveillance devices like TV cameras have been planted by Claudius to keep the incomprehensible prince in sight. Hamlet makes a movie of Claudius' reaction to the play within the play. All these anachronisms come very naturally and go to show that the drama is beyond time and place. Since most of us are familiar with the drama, and know what comes next, the TV film arouses a kind of suspense by making us wonder how things are going to be presented and the director gives us a welcome novelty of touch (always unobtrusive) at every twist and corner.

This is not to say that this is gimmickry. By freeing itself from constraints of costume and setting--we almost seem to on a time and space machine which hops from period to period--the film focuses on the essence of the play: the speeches, the acting, the depth of human experience. The film has a fluency of narrative and is a most enjoyable and unburden some revisit to the classic. David Tennant gives us a convincing and powerful Hamlet. At first his thin and office clerk like very unprincely appearance made him seem an unlikely candidate but we forget all that in the abandon of his portrayal--Hamlet, after all, is universal in his composition, and need not be confined in any particular physical mold. The seasoned Patrick Stewart, balding, bespectacled, and across sixty, gives a magnificent performance as Claudius.

This is the best of Hamlets, certainly better than the theatrically ornate and unnecessarily gloomy Laurence Olivier take, and even the over cinematic and applauded Kenneth Branaugh film. The least meddlesome are the best of Shakespearean enactments. After all, a successful enactment is one which takes you a step closer to the bard, and I feel inclined to another reading.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

A Performance of Macbeth

Trevor Nunn, 1979, 145m, Ian McKellan (Macbeth), Judi Dench (Lady Macbeth), Royal Shakespeare Company (TV)

This is purest drama enhanced by the camera's ability to telescope the human face as it intimately eavesdrops on  it's changing expressions, mirroring the turmoil of the inner landscape. All superfluities are dispensed: the murder , the field of battle, the forest on the move. The focus of the direction is on what goes on in the mind. The leading pair have given unforgettable performances taking one as close to the heart of the drama as one's own ability to empathize with life at such an extremity. This beats any other Shakespeare performance on the cinema screen. The darkness of the screen is broken only by the faces and figures of the players and the camera revolves and leaps to scrutinize the faces and the expressions they wear as they melt, ripple or freeze. The faces seem like lamps. It makes you think of Bergman, but the bard's scalding intensity and breadth can hardly be scaled by mere mortals. A youthful McKellan gives a mouth frothing crazed version of Macbeth where one might tend to imagine a middle aged, calculating and philosophical person. Judi Dench has a matronly stoutness and the emotional range to take us through the shades of the metamorphosing anti-heroine. She was made for this role.

Once again, this (the play) is a pinnacle of art that leaves one struck with amazement that such could ever have been written by a human being. This is language like lava: thick, turgid, sulphurous. It is the kind of literature one can imagine to have been born only in a vision or a dream. Shakespeare takes the part of a murderous couple and shows us the human beings dwelling therein. In fact, the drama could not have power or be comprehensible if we did not partake of their natures. Trevor Nunn and his troupe take us one step closer to this unique self image of humankind. Perhaps this is the greatest of the plays.

Monday, June 20, 2011

King Lear

Trevor Nunn, 2008, 153m, Royal Shakespeare Company, Ian McKellan as Lear

This is a fine presentation of the play, without cinematographic frills. The enjoyment of Shakespeare lies overwhelmingly in the flow of words and the performer's ability to breathe life and authenticity into them. The only other production of King Lear I have seen is the 1982 version in the BBC series directed by Jonathan Miller, in which Michael Hordern gave us a restrained but powerful and nuanced Lear. The present film is superior in terms of production values, being of more recent date, and adequately conveys the drama, to add yet another canvas to come closer to the dramatist's intentions. The performances I find most memorable are Frances Barber as Goneril and Philip Winchester as Edmund. Frances' portrayal is far from the stereotyped vixen which Goneril is usually made to seem.

To gather my immediate thoughts soon after seeing the film it seems Shakespeare gives us a picture of common mortals in their frailty and foibles. The Lear of towering royal rages dissolves in a short span of several hundred lines into a helpless old beggar shivering in the storm. He transforms through the experience as though the storm and what went before had pierced his egoistic delusions to awaken in him dormant compassion and understanding. He metamorphoses more than disintegrates. Edmund, portrayed so well, may well be one of our modern politicians or men of business, who are well served by their single mindedness and lack of scruple. The pantheon of Shakespeare's characters are like humankind in procession. As my late friend, Prof Darshan Singh Maini, was fond of saying, Shakespeare was "God's spy on earth", using Lear's words to Cordelia. It is as though he miraculously packed inside him the thoughts and feelings of all kinds of people--ruler and ruled, women equally as men, villains more than saints, beggars, bawds, jokers. The present play, like some others, scrutinys the human experience to the brink, the very last breath of life. It is amazing, the familiarity and ease with which Shakespeare is able to approach the ultimate dilemma and mystery of death.

Since everybody does not have the chance to see stage productions, such TV versions of great drama, like the BBC series, are invaluable. Cinema seems to detract more than enhance from the richness of the drama, which needs no addition of spectacular surroundings.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011


Akira Kurosawa, 160m, 1985

Hidetora, a feudal lord who controls three castles, in his senescence, cedes his castles, Lear like, to his three sons. Two of them prove disloyal, and he is driven to a point, where ie has no option but ritual suicide, which also he fails to perform because of lack of the proper instrument. Crazed, he wanders into a storm with his faithful fool, to be reconciled with his Cordelia like third son, but the gods that be, in their perversion, allow them but a momentary reconciliation before the beloved third son is felled by an arrow.

The problem is that one keeps reading Lear into the movie, whereas it would perhaps be best enjoyed if you don't know the Shakespeare play. This is a film of great visual splendor. We have armies clashing, horses neighing, castles burning, concubines in mutual suicide, and vistas of Japan's traditional architecture and mountainous terrain, all in the glare of bright sunshine (or the light cast by houses on fire) and the blue dome of the sky. Kurosawa is a master of battlefield choreography and the pennants of the rival armies as they flutter (Japan seems to e a windy place) give the battles a ceremonial and carnival liveliness. Particularly poetic is the repeated symbolism of cloud formations in changing moods, which mark the dramatic turning points. Light is one thing the movie is not short of.

The most impressive acting performance, and perhaps the films high point, is Mieko Harada as the demoniacal Lady Sue. Her controlled yet explosive performance embodies her deep and single minded hunger for revenge for the destruction of her own clan and family. Hidetora's transformation into insanity is well depicted by his incomprehension as the world he has constructed over a lifetime goes up in a tower of flames.

The film is a shrine which had to be visited, and it does add something to the pantheon of Lear depictions, but the drama still remains something of a mystery. I have the Soviet and Ian McLellan's versions on queue, and if the gods allow, there is always the wine of the play itself to savor again.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Before the devil knows you're dead

Sidney Lumet, 2007, 115m

This is a drama of a crime veering tragicomically off the planned trajectory. It is a film chiselled to perfection which holds you by the seat from end to end. The pieces of the story go back and forth in time and are assembled with wicked ingenuity to grip the viewer with suspense and uncertainty about what is going to come next. The pace never lets up and the film gathers momentum till it explodes to a befitting finale. A gem of film craft and story telling which is worth watching for it's sheer wizardry of execution. The high point is the subdued but mesmeric acting performance of Philip Seymour Hoffman. He completely embodies the seemingly confident yet inwardly crumbling character of Andy Hanson.

It is a film about the depths of desperation which money can drive people to, the terrifying spirals of evil in which they can be caught. It begins with a mother's slaughter and concludes with a gut wrenching act of revenge. The title of this sombre masterpiece derives from a saying, "Spend a half hour in heaven before the devil knows you're dead." Lumet died in his late eighties soon after this film. It is a chilling vision of human fallibility seen from the pinnacle of age, experience and impending death. It almost seems as though the great director had taken a spot on the pulpit and was teaching the rationale of the Christian faith through this tragic modern parable with it's macabre grandeur..

Friday, June 3, 2011

High and Low

Kurosawa, 1963, 143m

The wrong child is kidnapped. As long as businessman Gondo (Toshiro Mifune) thought it was his own, he was all too ready to shell out the enormous thirty million yen ransom demand. But the next moment it becomes clear that it is not his but the chauffeur's son who has been abducted, and now he somersaults and refuses to pay, all the more because his financial situation (a bit complicated to explain) is such that he is likely to be driven roofless if he pays. Through the importunity of the chauffeur, the persuasiveness of his own wife, and his own inner awakening, he finally decides to pay the ransom at the cost of impending ruin. The child is recovered. The movie now turns into a thriller of police investigations.

What makes the movie interesting is the motive. The culprit turns out to be not one of the business rivals, as expected, but a demented unknown person. A poor man, he has a sickening jealousy of the well to do, and with devilish cunning he plans and works out his revenge. Marx was perhaps not mistaken in thinking that the material divide is the most elemental in all societies.

The film is plodding by Kurosawa standards and for the most is a fairly routine detective story, and the suspense is enough to keep you attached to the seat for two and a half hours. The cinematography is a salvaging feature and we see the sights and sounds of the faded world of post war Japan--the harbors, the crowds, the alleys, the undulating terrain and the sea at Yokohama, all captured in a wistful nostalgic black and white. Mifune delivers as always, with his cobra like intensity, a Kinsky without the kinks.

This belongs to the dwindling genre of wholesome, uplifting entertainment.

Thursday, June 2, 2011


2006, 121m

The best one can say about this film is that it expands the territory covered by the other two. Capote (2005) was more about the writer than the criminals, whereas In Cold Blood (1967) was more or less a straight thriller about the crime and the people involved. This film squeezes out some extra mileage by giving a portrait richer in detail about the fascinating personality of the author, though Toby Jones' portrayal lacks the texture and depth of Hoffman, though more finely etched. The treatment of the criminals' personalities is heavy handed, unnecessarily stretched, and maudlin. Keeping the other two films in mind, much of this is definitely redundant. The 2005 film was sufficient, and the other two seem just for curiosity's sake. The three movies in their totality are informative about how this particular best seller got written, and the pain, effort and sacrifice behind a creative triumph. Capote wrote little after this. Nor did his friend, Harper Lee, write a second novel after the one which got her the Presidential Medal.

Nothing like bloodshed to sustain interest over a span of three films.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

In Cold Blood

1967, 134m

This film is based on Truman Capote's docu-novel of the same name. The writing of that novel was worthy of a movie by itself, which materialized as Capote (2005) ( referred in previous post) and Infamous(2006). The present film adds little to Capote, which was a more sophisticated and multidimensional film. I intend, for the sake of completism, to seeing Infamous too, as the unavoidable third part of a trilogy.

The film covers the sensational Clutter murders in 1959, in which an entire well to do family comprising the parents and two teenagers, were killed for robbery. The present film covers most of the grisly details. Predictably, it tries to link the crime with childhood deprivation. The black and white photography and jazzy score creates a sombre melancholy mood. As Capote said, the event was the intersection of two worlds which co-exist, the world of respectable "decent" folk, and the social underbelly where jungle laws prevail.

Robert Blake as Perry and Scott Wilson as Dick give convincing authentic performances. Perry's mind is hunched by his early trauma. He sheds tears even as he slits a throat.Wilson is shifty, jocular, talented in criminality and completely scruple free--a likable conman.

I realized soon into the film that I had already seen it, but then it was like it seeing anew, so thoroughly was it forgotten, and that goes to show it's not memorable, though as well made, riveting and competent  as the state of the art.