Sunday, July 31, 2011

From Stephen King: On Writing

Stephen King’s books have sold over 350 million copies. Like them or loathe them, you have to admit that’s impressive. King’s manual On Writing reveals that he’s relentlessly dedicated to his craft. He admits that not even The King himself always sticks to his rules—but trying to follow them is a good start. Here are our favorite pieces of advice for aspiring writers:
 1. First write for yourself, and then worry about the audience. “When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story. When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story. Your stuff starts out being just for you, but then it goes out.”
 2. Don’t use passive voice. “Timid writers like passive verbs for the same reason that timid lovers like passive partners. The passive voice is safe. The timid fellow writes “The meeting will be held at seven o’clock” because that somehow says to him, ‘Put it this way and people will believe you really know. ‘Purge this quisling thought! Don’t be a muggle! Throw back your shoulders, stick out your chin, and put that meeting in charge! Write ‘The meeting’s at seven.’ There, by God! Don’t you feel better?”
 3. Avoid adverbs. “The adverb is not your friend. Consider the sentence “He closed the door firmly.” It’s by no means a terrible sentence, but ask yourself if ‘firmly’ really has to be there. What about context? What about all the enlightening (not to say emotionally moving) prose which came before ‘He closed the door firmly’? Shouldn’t this tell us how he closed the door? And if the foregoing prose does tell us, then isn’t ‘firmly’ an extra word? Isn’t it redundant?”
 4. Avoid adverbs, especially after “he said” and “she said.” “While to write adverbs is human, to write ‘he said’ or ‘she said’ is divine.”
 5. But don’t obsess over perfect grammar. “Language does not always have to wear a tie and lace-up shoes. The object of fiction isn’t grammatical correctness but to make the reader welcome and then tell a story… to make him/her forget, whenever possible, that he/she is reading a story at all. “
 6. The magic is in you. “I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing. Dumbo got airborne with the help of a magic feather; you may feel the urge to grasp a passive verb or one of those nasty adverbs for the same reason. Just remember before you do that Dumbo didn’t need the feather; the magic was in him.”  7. Read, read, read. “You have to read widely, constantly refining (and redefining) your own work as you do so. If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.”
 8. Don’t worry about making other people happy. “Reading at meals is considered rude in polite society, but if you expect to succeed as a writer, rudeness should be the second to least of your concerns. The least of all should be polite society and what it expects. If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered, anyway.”
 9. Turn off the TV. “Most exercise facilities are now equipped with TVs, but TV—while working out or anywhere else—really is about the last thing an aspiring writer needs. If you feel you must have the news analyst blowhard on CNN while you exercise, or the stock market blowhards on MSNBC, or the sports blowhards on ESPN, it’s time for you to question how serious you really are about becoming a writer. You must be prepared to do some serious turning inward toward the life of the imagination, and that means, I’m afraid, that Geraldo, Keigh Obermann, and Jay Leno must go. Reading takes time, and the glass teat takes too much of it.”
 10. You have three months. “The first draft of a book—even a long one—should take no more than three months, the length of a season.”
 11. There are two secrets to success. “When I’m asked for ‘the secret of my success’ (an absurd idea, that, but impossible to get away from), I sometimes say there are two: I stayed physically healthy, and I stayed married. It’s a good answer because it makes the question go away, and because there is an element of truth in it. The combination of a healthy body and a stable relationship with a self reliant woman who takes zero shit from me or anyone else has made the continuity of my working life possible. And I believe the converse is also true: that my writing and the pleasure I take in it has contributed to the stability of my health and my home life.”
 12. Write one word at a time. “A radio talk-show host asked me how I wrote. My reply—’One word at a time’—seemingly left him without a reply. I think he was trying to decide whether or not I was joking. I wasn’t. In the end, it’s always that simple. Whether it’s a vignette of a single page or an epic trilogy like ‘The Lord Of The Rings,’ the work is always accomplished one word at a time.”
 13. Eliminate distraction. “There should be no telephone in your writing room, certainly no TV or videogames for you to fool around with. If there’s a window, draw the curtains or pull down the shades unless it looks out at a blank wall.”
 14. Stick to your own style. “One cannot imitate a writer’s approach to a particular genre, no matter how simple what the writer is doing may seem. You can’t aim a book like a cruise missile, in other words. People who decide to make a fortune writing lik John Grisham or Tom Clancy produce nothing but pale imitations, by and large, because vocabulary is not the same thing as feeling and plot is light years from the truth as it is understood by the mind and the heart.”
 15. Dig. “When, during the course of an interview for The New Yorker, I told the interviewer (Mark Singer) that I believed stories are found things, like fossils in the ground, he said that he didn’t believe me. I replied that that was fine, as long as he believed that I believe it. And I do. Stories aren’t souvenir tee-shirts or Game Boys. Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible. Sometimes the fossil you uncover is small; a seashell. Sometimes it’s enormous, a Tyrannosaurus Rex with all the gigantic ribs and grinning teeth. Either way, short story or thousand page whopper of a novel, the techniques of excavation remain basically the same.”
 16. Take a break. “If you’ve never done it before, you’ll find reading your book over after a six-week layoff to be a strange, often exhilarating experience. It’s yours, you’ll recognize it as yours, even be able to remember what tune was on the stereo when you wrote certain lines, and yet it will also be like reading the work of someone else, a soul-twin, perhaps. This is the way it should be, the reason you waited. It’s always easier to kill someone else’s darlings that it is to kill your own.”
 17. Leave out the boring parts and kill your darlings. “Mostly when I think of pacing, I go back to Elmore Leonard, who explained it so perfectly by saying he just left out the boring parts. This suggests cutting to speed the pace, and that’s what most of us end up having to do (kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your ecgocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.)”
 18. The research shouldn’t overshadow the story. “If you do need to do research because parts of your story deal with things about which you know little or nothing, remember that word back. That’s where research belongs: as far in the background and the back story as you can get it. You may be entranced with what you’re learning about the flesh-eating bacteria, the sewer system of New York, or the I.Q. potential of collie pups, but your readers are probably going to care a lot more about your characters and your story.”  19. You become a writer simply by reading and writing. “You don’t need writing classes or seminars any more than you need this or any other book on writing. Faulkner learned his trade while working in the Oxford, Mississippi post office. Other writers have learned the basics while serving in the Navy, working in steel mills or doing time in America’s finer crossbar hotels. I learned the most valuable (and commercial) part of my life’s work while washing motel sheets and restaurant tablecloths at the New Franklin Laundry in Bangor. You learn best by reading a lot and writing a lot, and the most valuable lessons of all are the ones you teach yourself.”
 20. Writing is about getting happy. “Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink.” Which of these rules do you like best? 

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Othello (1952)

Orson Welles, 1952, 92m

This Othello is a flight of dazzling cinematographic imagination. It is a dark, brooding and melancholy vision set in the moisture permeated island of Cyprus, the waves from the far stretching sea lapping the stone architecture of the castle. Taking the play for granted, what remains from his viewing is the haunting power of the chiseled black and white images, the boldly crafted brushstrokes of the camera. It is backed by a perfect score which unobtrusively matches the flow of images. It is indeed difficult to do justice to the visual beauty of this film in words. The drama itself starts of somewhat slowly, but gathers pace to a satisfying climax. Welles as Othello gives a somber and restrained portrayal, very unlike the theatrics of Olivier. This is probably not a good introduction to the drama but stands as a cinematic vision on it's own strength. The movie is a tribute to the power of black and white. So what if the camera and not Shakespeare occupies the center space!

Friday, July 29, 2011

Richard III (1995)

Ian McKellan, 1995, 98m

Ian McKellan transplants the most unabashed of Shakespeare villains to the twentieth century, lending it an altogether unexpected immediacy and magnifying the impact. The action takes place in the second quarter of the last century, and although the movie is a deliberate cocktail of anachronisms, in flavour it combines into a slightly parodied presentation of the worst nightmares we have known. What is retained is the language and lines of the original, which combine with the modern setting to give a bizarre touch to the story, which ultimately becomes a stylised commentary on recent modern times, with specific focus on the Europe of the thirties. The setting is British, with some American flourishes and many echoes of Europe. The characters, the British aristocrats identical to the original play, don military uniforms or business suits, and tanks and aeroplanes substitute for the horses and swords. When Richard shouts, "My kingdom for a horse !", ongoing is a battle of armored carriers.

The cinematic element dominates over the drama and the movie goes much beyond what the bard could have said or conceived of. The film uses parts of the Shakespearean script as an element of a surreal recreation of the megalomania that characterizes our times. Everything is larger as twentieth century evil dwarfs the medieval conception. This is an "adult" movie compared to Olivier's, which is more or less a faithful photostat of what the audience at the Globe may have seen. Olivier's Richard is almost kiddish in comparison to what McKellan's is capable of. This is truly a state of the art Richard III complete with nuclear teeth. After all this is 1995. This is a Richard who means business, more than the narcissistic hunchback we are familiar with. It has more the flavor of Cabaret (1972) and Salo (1979).

Richard III

Laurence Olivier, 1955, 158m

Richard III may be the most colorful of the bard's constellation of rogues. He is the only one physically deformed and who has the central role in the play. Glossing over the historical intricacies of plot, Richard ascends the ladder to the throne by a series of murders of his close relatives, including two young nephews, his wife and a cousin. Moreover, at the outset, he declaims his resolution to chose the path of unbridled evil, as a revenge against nature for his deformed body. Olivier gives a spectacular performance which cannot fail to delight lay viewer and critic alike. From his hawk like nose (is it his own?), his marvelously executed limp,  the crooked monumental posture as he stands, his ominous shadow which trails him like a company logo and the masterful elocution of the lines, it is the work of an actor born to do Shakespeare without apology or inhibition.

This is Shakespeare's first play and he probably didn't want to risk a failure. He treads the safe path to the heart of the audience by providing bloodshed, wickedness, pathos (the killings are portrayed with extended dramatic detail to make them as heart rending as they are gruesome) and romance. The costumes, sets and the portrayal of the concluding battle are all competently done to evoke the era portrayed.

Shakespeare's villains are men driven by intelligence and ambition, single minded worldly risers who have shaken off the shackles of conscience. As such, they are psychologically simple, since once we decide to overlook the niceties of right and wrong, life becomes clear, focused and mechanical as a chess game. Obsessive monologers must be clear thinkers. Whether it is Richard, Iago or Edmund, the evil is played out to (almost) the very end with scarcely a hiccup of remorse. (Only milk liver'd Macbeth sleeps no more, but he wasn't villain enough to start with.) Only under the stare of death does the edifice of evil show signs of crumbling.

This is a drama more entertaining than profound, of Shakespeare's green days, and flawlessly done here by Laurence Olivier.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Henry V

Laurence Olivier, 1944, 135m

Of Shakespeare's ten or so dramas about English history this is one of the most popular, at least on the Isles. This filmed version was made in the thick of WW2, with support from the British government, including personal interest taken by Churchill. The film was intended to bolster the morale of the British public at a time of crisis. Shakespeare's play has a strong nationalistic streak, though it is nuanced by many negative aspects of the king's personality and deeds, which have been skipped. Keeping the purpose of war time propaganda in mind the drama has been pruned to half, portraying him as a popular paragon.

The film is in brilliant technicolor. It starts of as a play at the Globe theater. We see the boisterous Elizabethan audience and a hilarious parody of the opening as the chorus keeps forgetting his words and has to keep fumbling at the sheets of the script. There is a sudden downpour, which hardly dampens the spirits of either the audience or performers, the more or less open air nature of the theatre notwithstanding.The stage flavor is retained for much of the film and colorful backdrops are often used. But then it gradually expands to the open spaces of cinema and the battle scenes with the French adversary are brilliantly filmed. For all the staginess, there is an undercurrent of realism and urgency, considering the real war which was going on, and the the film's audience must have heard it's rumbling and echoes throughout

Europa '51/ The Greatest Love

Rossellini, 111m, 1952

Rossellini's Germany Year Zero (1947) ended with a macabre child suicide. That was an unrepeatable piece of cinema which the director perhaps could not drive from his mind. He attempts an encore and the present film opens with the suicide of Michelle, son of Irene (Ingrid Bergman) and her wealthy husband. Sensitive observer that he is, Rossellini weaves a picture of the world at that juncture of the rapidly changing times around this movie about a grief struck mother.

Irene suddenly finds herself out of place in the comfortable zone of life she has inhabited. Her personal tragedy has opened out in her a wide ranging compassion. She tries to find expression in the Communist ideals of her cousin, as she helps out some poor people. She spends a day as an industrial worker, and is horrified by the wage slavery she discovers. She helps a dying woman and comes into contact with religion. More and more she stays away from her family. She is arrested for helping a criminal to escape, finally ending up in a mental hospital where we see her subjected to a parody of psychiatric examination. Is she a saint or a lunatic?

Whichever the case, this is indeed a weak and meandering movie and which fails to edify or entertain. It's hard to believe it comes from Rossellini. Even Bergman is rather pathetic with a dyspeptic expression which conveys neither saintliness nor insanity. One may suppose Rossellini tried to express a personal experience of sudden alienation. At best one can appreciate it as another psycho-social documentation of a period. 

Saturday, July 23, 2011


National Theatre, Laurence Olivier, Frank Finlay (Iago), 1965, 158m

Olivier gives a spectacular and uninhibited performance in the title role. This is a staged film which closely follows the text and brings the drama to life in all it's psychological depth. Olivier is an actor, not a star, with the ability to step into the shoes of the most impossible roles. I always recall his portrayal as the Mahdi in Khartoum.

Othello's character portrays universal aspects of human nature. It is more than a romance, more than a tale of jealousy and cuckolding. The disintegration of a mind is portrayed in language of awesome power and precision. His love for Desdemona or more exacty her love for him, is the core around which his being is constructed.

"But there, where I have garner'd up my heart,
Where either I must live, or bear no life;
The fountain from the which my current runs,
Or else dries up; to be discarded thence!"

One can only marvel at such lines. Indeed, "chaos is come again."

More than jealousy, it is doubt which is his doing. Step by step, he tries to build certitude from the seed of doubt, cementing his delusion with driblets of proof. In a sense he is the helpless victim of insurmountable circumstances but finally it is the chinks in his own mind which result in his dissolution. His inner collapse is more profound even than that of Lear, lacking Lear's inner reservoirs. Hamlet in contrast sets force on a project of painful self reconstruction once the onerous duty is imposed on him, concluding with the triumphant "the readiness is all". Macbeth plummets down to the bottom and remains there where no shaft of light can reach.

The film may have cinematic deficiencies, the acting might be overdone. Certainly Finlay as Iago, for which he got a supporting Oscar, delivers his lines with convincing ease and power. He is the philosophic chorus, his intelligence a formidable foil to Othello's tempestuous nature. The simple sets keep us focused on the drama and the ochre palette accentuates the painfilled story. This is unmistakeably drama, Shakespeare, vintage Olivier.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Zorba the Greek

Cacoyannis, 1964, 142m

Basil, an introverted aspiring and blocked writer of Anglo Greek parentage, returns to Crete to revive an inherited lignite mine. He comes into contact with Zorba (Anthony Quinn), an exuberant old timer with an overflowing zest for life, who becomes his friend, business manager and mentor.

The film is memorable for bringing to life the rustic lives of the mountain folk, in an anthropological way. An adulterous woman is stoned to death. When an aging Frenchwomen dies bands of villagers descend to scavenge her belongings. A cloistered, harsh, unforgiving world enclosed by this picturesque, stone age environment. Quinn gives a powerful if unrestrained portrayal of a larger than life unlettered personality with a home spun philosophy which dwarfs the book learned Basil. Irene Papas gives an unforgettable tragic portrayal of the doomed widow. Lila Kedrova as the withered ailing courtesan, compassionately wooed by Zorba, won an Academy Award for her supporting role.

The sun drenched and sea embraced mountainous island has been beautifully captured.

This is a film with no message but the glory of life in all it's sadness and humor and the power of the spirit to negotiate stormy seas. It is about the voyage of life like a Homeric poem.

On the other hand, one can search out meanings in this deeply felt film cast in a somewhat traditional mold. One can sense the humanistic power of the Nikos Kazantzakis novel, which "almost" won a Nobel prize,  akin to the works of Hugo and Zola, . The rapacious villagers represent society as it always has been, from the time of the New Testament to the passive or conniving population which let the Shoah happen. The story is a parable. Zorba is the redeeming all too rare power of compassion. He is a human being, victorious even in defeat.

He does not believe in patriotism, finding no difference between Greeks and Turks, against whom in his younger days he fought. His age, in the sixties, has an accumulation of wisdom gleened directly, as for example when he recalls the death of a three year son, the grief of which he extinguished by dancing himself to exhaustion. His humanity lights up the younger man's life, and the concluding dance of Zorba celebrates this wondrous occurrence. It is indeed a cry of victory, the failure of the ludicrous business project notwithstanding. Even the two tragic deaths cannot detract from this exultant flood of optimism, the primal life force. Zorba's "affair" with the aging and withered Madame Hortense is another extraordinary story.

Bosley Crowther's Review

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

La Paura (Fear)

Rossellini, 1954, 71m

Irene (Ingrid Bergman, wife of Rossellini when this film was made) is the owner of a pharmaceutical industry. Her husband is psychologically impaired due to war time imprisonment. Irene has been having an affair for a long time. She is wracked by guilt and wants to terminate the affair to devote herself to her husband and children. But then a the ex fiancee of her lover begins to black mail her. Her anxiety and terror of being discovered as well as her guilt sucks her into an intensifying vortex to the brink of self destruction.

This is a tightly chiseled psychological thriller and like most of Rossellini's film the real action takes place in somebody's head (one is reminded of Janet Leigh driving away with the stolen money in Psycho), and the environment serves only to mirror the disquieted mind. What stands out in this one is the electrifying black and white camera work which explores all the shades of grey and black to paint haunting and ethereal canvases of mist, light and darkness. He made several films on wife Ingrid in the fifties. The nightmare of war is becoming a receding memory and concerns of ordinary life are his subject: love and betrayal, desire, jealousy, parenting. He handles the films set in this period with the ease and instinct for perfection of a master. He achieves a sad and gentle lyricism in the camera work. He eyes the ordinary happenings of life and creates an enchanted universe. As Pauline Kael said, great movies are rarely perfect and it's easy to forgive him the rather absurd twist in the tail in La Paura. This is a gem of a woodcut.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Crimes and Misdemeanors

Woody Allen, 104m, 1985

This has been called a black comedy but it is appropriate to call it a philosophical manifesto. Comedy happens to be his idiom but behind the irreverence is a morbidly thoughtful and incisive mind. His movies are verbose and witty and the humor sometimes laid on, particularly at a juncture when he steps on the scatological, so to say, unnecessarily.

Judah Rosenthal, a successful Jewish ophthalmologist, has an extramarital affair but when he wants to wriggle out after two years, the woman threatens to destroy his marriage as well as career unless he divorces his wife to marry her. He is viciously cornered and solves his problem by getting her murdered. This is as black as a Woody Allen film can get since both the murder and the body is for real (a movie with even a moderately gory corpse loses the qualification of being called any sort of comedy). He is tormented with thoughts of guilt and based on his religious upbringing, which he had long since rejected, forced to reconsider whether indeed there is, as his father once taught him, a god with eyes which see all. After a period of hand wringing a la Ms Macbeth, life is back to normal. He has got away with murder, but has he indeed?

A parallel plot relates to Allen as an unsuccessful film maker, who gets involved with Mia Farrow, who ditches him for a man Allen despises and envies for his success. This part of the tale is presumably the misdemeanor. He has gotten away with a mere broken heart, his marriage and his luster less career intact, unstained by what for want of a better word let's call sin.

Allen has addressed his own religious and philosophical concerns. Is there right and wrong, is there a god or his equivalent? (Yet a third strand of the story tells of a life affirming Professor Levi, who Allen admires and respects. Levi walks out of a window one day with no explanation.) Allen is probably too smart for his own good and cannot reconcile himself to a moral order to the universe (the classic holocaust argument is interposed). He ends up in the manner of existentialists by concluding that faith and meaning are what we endow things with. Judah hasn't really gotten away with his deed, because actions are their own reward or retribution, and all one does either ennobles or demeans our being. The movie concludes with the words of the deceased Levi that one is the sum total of one's choices.

Woody Allen's films are intelligent, witty, philosophical but beautiful is the word which does not spring to mind. He is talented in his chosen domain and this movie is perhaps the distillate of his art and craft.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Korol Lir

Kozintsev, 1971, 132m

This is the Soviet version of Lear, which I abandoned just where Edmund steps in. The script is faithful to what must be a standard translation of the play, going by subtitles. The movie starts with a grandiose panoramic spectacle of the age of feudalism, duly populated with lepers, beggars and hunchbacks. The aim obviously is to inform us how bad things were in the pre-socialistic days. You have the the prols in their worn tatters crawling in a biblical  procession, to the almost grotesquely primitive palaces of indeterminable vintage owned by those in control of the reins. The lot of the exploiters would seem to have been equally pathetic. It is an age of wood, from wheels to walls to ramparts. We have beggars, the maimed with their crutches, and sick being dragged in wooden trolleys. This mournful vista, duly trumpeted by a pompous musical score of Shostakovich, is supposed to remind us of  Lear's words in the play:

Poor naked wretches, whereso'er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your loop'd and window'd raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta'en
Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp;
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,
And show the heavens more just.

In fact, the herds of people are more reminders of the Communist and Fascist regimes than of a pre-modern age.

This is for one thing too spectacular for a Shakespeare drama. The power of the bard is entirely in the words, even more than the acting. Spectacle detracts from the essence. Shakespearean drama is about individuals, not aggregates--the humblest of minions and underlings are persons. To make the play into a statement of political ideology is really twisting it out of shape. The subject matter is an individual's journey through life. Further it makes little sense to see a literal translation of something you know in the original. Kurosawa's trans-creations of Lear and Macbeth are not bound by the original and depart freely in plot, language to transmute into the idiom of cinema. This is stilted, melodramatic, an unsavory reminder of an oppressive era, providing little insight into the great play.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Umberto D

Vittorio de Sica, 1952, 88m

Umberto is a government pensioner on the point of eviction from his apartment, where he lives alone with his small dog Flike. He does not have the 15000 lire owed in rent arrears and the landlady, for reasons of her own, wants him out. He tries to raise money by every possible means at one time even getting himself admitted to a hospital on some pretext. But nothing is working out and we see him driven step by step to a pitch of desperation and sadness. He cannot bring himself to beg on a street corner (he was a respectable official all his life). Finally we see him gazing with a kind of longing at a train rushing by. But what will become of Flike?

This is a perfect piece of humanistic cinema about the sadness and loneliness which can be a part of old age. More than that, it is about the pain of living. Vittorio de Sica has captured a life's throttled cry of despair. But it's not all bleakness. It has humor, courage, defiance, defeat and a rising from the ashes. It is a picture of "life" through eyes of compassion. Nor is it about old age alone. Somewhere the artist has touched what one may call universal life. The youthful pregnant maid who does not know which of her two lovers is the father now faces an uncertain future, no less than Umberto. And the yelping puppy who itself has had some perilous brushes with disaster is no less an expression of existence. Everything melds. The black and white camera work, the mournful score and the pitch perfect acting make this a great movie to watch.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Dead Man Walking

1995, 122m

Violence is deeply rooted in human beings and this film ends up making a case more in favor of capital punishment even as it set out to do the opposite. Although it examines the issue from different viewpoints, the one emotion that comes across authentically is the pain, anger and grief of the two sets of parents of the murdered teenagers. Sean Penn as the condemned man gives a fine portrayal as a man of impaired mental development. He is obstinate, feeling-less and vain and only impending death hours or minutes away bursts his dams of defense. As he finally "walks" the sister encourages him about death on the basis of her faith and it is at this point alone that the film achieves moments of transcendence.

The abolitionist viewpoint is subtle and goes against our "natural" grain of thinking. The Catholic nun with her armory of  faith becomes an object of ridicule from all quarters including her clerical colleagues and even the condemned man himself who only wants to use her as an intermediary to exhaust all legal stratagems to change the death penalty to life imprisonment. The execution of the death by lethal injection is graphically portrayed and the cold machinery of state sanctioned death is the only chilling argument of what seems like necessary justice. The process of execution is described by the lawyer defending him:

We strap the guy up. We anesthetize him with shot number one. Then we give him shot number two which implodes his lungs.And shot number three stops his heart.We put him to death just like an old horse. His face just goes to sleep while inside, his organs are going through Armageddon. His facial muscles would contort, but shot number one relaxes those muscles. So we don't have to see any horror show. We don't have to taste the blood of revenge while this human being's organs writhe, twist, contort. We just sit there quietly,nod our heads and say: "Justice has been done."

Intellectually, it is easy to argue against capital punishment, but only an unusual sea change in our habitual thinking could give it substance.

Th sensational subject of the film manages to grip your attention till the end. The gruesome crime itself is depicted in short segments like pieces of a jig saw spread through the movie and the picture completes only towards the end. One gets the feeling of pieces sewed up, rather than being apiece. The film is an adequate and fleshed out but somewhat superficial treatment, with an eye to the box office. One may be tempted to compare it with Dekalog 5.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011


Rossellini, 1974, 152m
This is a documentary/biopic about Rene Descartes (1596-1650) the French philosopher and mathematician. He was a contemporary of Galileo but by exercise of prudence avoided any collision course with the authorities, though his ideas, like those of Galileo, specially regarding planetary motion, were at variance with Christian religious dogma of his time. Rosselini has made a beautiful Rembrandt tinted film depicting the era. The life of the well to do Descartes as he zealously devotes his life to research is presented without the least effort at dramatization.

We share the excitement of  the scholarly life and the all consuming passion of a mind absorbed by the search for elusive truths. We attend lectures of men of medicine as they carry out dissections and hotly debate Harvey's new theory of blood circulation. We come to understand the perilous linkage between science, philosophy and religion in those times. The authenticity and grace of the narrative along with the polished and quickening dialog carry us through the long running time with little exhaustion as we savor the colors and aroma of that bygone time. Through the genius of an inspired director, one shares the wonder of existence and the fascination of history..

This is a movie about the excitement of the pursuit of knowledge, the delight in the exercise of intellect, and finally, perhaps, lack of commitment so often characteristic of scientists. Camus has said that Galileo was right in not putting his own life on the line, because the truths at stake were not important enough, inasmuch they don't touch our lives. Camus interestingly further states that the only important philosophical question is that of suicide, whether life is worth living or not.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Journey to Italy

Rossellini, 1954, 84m

This is a film from Rossellini's middle period, after his acclaimed war trilogy and before he shifted to TV to give around a dozen faithfully historical films with a view to educating people. The female lead is Rossellini's then wife Ingrid Bergman and one may wonder how much is autobiographical. A wealthy English couple arrives in Naples to sell of some property inherited by them. They have been married for eight years and have reached a point of mutual boredom and resentfulness, finding little amusement with each other. We are taken through a series of incidents where their relationship is portrayed with a delicate brush.

Woven into this waning romance is a beautiful travelogue, as Catherine soaks in the fascinating sights and sounds of the place. We are introduced to the museum with it's awesome ancient sculpture, the sulphur springs whose vapors spread up to the horizon, the catacombs with thousands of skulls are displayed as a chilling monument to mortality, and finally the ruins of Vesuvius, which was wiped out in a moment as the volcano erupted two thousand years ago, much like an ancient Hiroshima. These exquisite journeys, showing us things through the disturbed mind of the heroine, is itself adequate reason to see the film.

It is as an authentic portrait of human relationships that the film excels. The marriage bond is particularly fragile, which is why it has cemented by strong legal and ethical boundaries. Peoples' feelings towards each other shift from moment to moment, influenced by even a word or a gesture. It is a film of magnificent refinement and delicacy, as Rossellini's ventures into the mysteries and wonders of ordinary life.

Monday, July 11, 2011


Pasolini, 1979, 112m

This is an unwatcheable film, in it's unrestrained outpouring of scatological, sado-masochistic and sexual perversion culminating in torture and sadistically engineered murders. This is a true holocaust film and the metaphors are hideously apt. It made me think at once of Claude Lanzmann's unforgettable Shoah. It is based on Marquis de Sade's well known novel, 120 Days of Sodom.

Salo is a town in Italy which was the headquarters of a short lived Nazi-Fascist puppet regime from 1943-45. De Sade's seventeenth century narrative is transported in time and place to Salo in 1944 and the perpetrators are four individuals in positions of power who use the opportunity offered by the impending defeat to enact their fantasies on a group of chosen young men and women. Also, it is Pasolini's last film, since he was murdered soon after it's release, further magnifying it's ill fame. However no one can deny that Pasolini was a great artist, and the film is far from a purposeless exercise to shock for the sake of shocking.

The film is a powerful metaphor for the blinding of entire nations, specifically narrowed on the transient fascist regime in the town of Salo. Ordinary means would not be commensurate to express the realities that transpired, and the director's choice of using the French novel as a metaphor is impeccable. The subject of the holocaust hardly admits of decorous language or sentimental finery of images. This film is as crude, shrill and agonized as its subject demands. Even Dante's Inferno belongs to gentler times when things like the Holocaust were beyond the ken. The squalor of the soul which Salo reveals is a reality we have yet to learn to face. This is no mad dream but seldom visited chambers of the human soul. It calls for a strong stomach.

A Mad Dream, an essay by Pasolini

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Rise of Louis XIV

Rossellini, 1966, 92m

In the last third of his career, Rossellini abandoned cinema for TV to turn out a series of historical and biographical films made from an educational viewpoint. The present film is a fascinating slice of French history as it examines the reign of Louis XIV, starting with his seizure of real power at the death of his trusted adviser and prime minister, Cardinal Mazarin. The concluding part shows us the court of the sun king in Versailles, in it's zenith of ostentation and excess, as the king consumes an endless meal with the entire nobility in attendance. The film abounds in veracious historical detail like a group of doctors attending to the dying cardinal, trying out or contemplating remedies like extensive bleeding, or consumption of gold and precious stones, as they smell and examine his perspiration and urine.

The film is worthwhile as a lucid, colorful and entertaining presentation of the political system of monarchy through one of its extreme manifestations.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Germany, Year Zero

Rossellini, 1947, 73m

The concluding sequence of this film is one of the most harrowing, tragic and perfect things in cinema. Rossellini remarked that this was the only thing in the film that occupied and interested him. A boy around twelve years, driven to desperation by the pressures of hunger and want, poisons his ailing father in an earlier part. Now, driven hither and thither, by unnameable sorrow and remorse, he leaps to his death from the top of a war devastated, bomb hollowed ruin. Just before, he is seen wandering among the ruins of Berlin, now kicking a football as he meets a group of children, now going up and down the staircases surrounded by piles of rubble, lost in thoughts, far beyond the reach of tears. He looks down to find his family calling out to him. He is momentarily dizzy and scared by the height but the tunnel of emotion sucks him deeper, and, in incremental steps, he is led to the edge of his doom or salvation. To quote from Rosenbaum:

It is especially in this closing section—anticipating Robert Bresson’s Mouchette in its depiction of a child oscillating between the contradictory reflexes and demands of childhood and adulthood, where suicide itself becomes the culmination of a child’s game—that Rossellini’s film achieves its devastating lucidity.....  his playing with a piece of rubble as if it were a gun, are integrated into Edmund’s behavior, which includes some desultory stabs at hopscotch and similar kinds of play.

Even though this is a powerful film about life among the smoldering ashes and a documentary which can hardly be equaled, it is in essence a human tragedy of epic compression. Edmund is a twelve year old Hamlet, and the movie is almost as little to do with it's historical milieu, as Hamlet is about Denmark. We see Edmund aging in the last fifteen minutes as he is overpowered by unfamiliar feelings. The child suicide is an apt metaphor for the profanity of fascism. It is a weird, gut wrenching sequence, exquisitely composed.

An earlier review is here.

Friday, July 8, 2011

The Shawshank Redemption

1994, 141m

A riveting drama about life in a US prison. A young banker is awarded a double life sentence for killing his wife and her lover, a crime of which he is fact not guilty. The story is mainly about the corruption and brutality of the officials as well as the inmates towards each other. It has many twists and turns and tests one's credulity at many points. It is based on a clever and skillful Stephen King yarn, after all.

It might be termed a modern fable about the travails of imprisonment, with a somewhat far fetched happy ending appended which was probably responsible for it's popularity over the years. Somewhere along the way it gets confused between chronicling the harsh realities of prison and it's determination to insinuate the soaring human spirit, in this case not unaided by luck.

The fairy tale finale seems like a conjurer's trick. In any case, to escape from the prison after thirty and forty years respectively and land oneself into an idyllic Zululand-on-the Sea is a conclusion lacking in depth and power hardly qualifying for the word redemption. Brooks as the aging librarian who is paroled after fifty years but fails to connect with the world he encounters outside, choosing to end his life, is a more convincing figure, apiece with the magnitude and duration of the suffering. Andrew Duresme is no Count of Monte Cristo with the cleansing vindictive flame--he remains a clever Mozart loving banker, a sore thumb in the environment into which chance lands him. Dead Man Walking was a far more consistently knit and powerful film of the genre.

Overall, a juvenile romance with touches of soap, which manages to grip your attention for it's long running time. So now we know that good does triumph over evil, and how.

Washington Post Review

Tuesday, July 5, 2011


Vittorio de Sica, 1949, 84m

This is de Sica's first film and a favorite of Pauline Kael. It tells of two boys working as shoeshines in harsh post WW2 Rome. They fulfill their dream of buying a horse by entering into dubious transactions but are eventually framed and arrested for a burglary of which they are innocent. The movie is about the heartbreak and dehumanization of these youngsters as they are thrown into an overcrowded prison for young offenders.

This first of the director's film is marked by the humanism which runs through his entire work. The film is restrained and realistic and nowhere tries to project the law enforcing establishment as excessively wicked or perverted. The cops too have a human touch. It is a portrait of the period it depicts and human beings, specially children, trapped in an environment and circumstances which they have learnt to regard as the norm of life. This is humanity waking up from the dream of war.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Notes towards a film about India

Pasolini, 1969, 33m

This is a film about a film about or set in India which never got made. Pasolini was in the process of formulating a plot as well as exploring with his camera. He starts by asking a variety of people whether they would be willing to offer their bodies to feed a starving tiger. Sadhus, rivers, eagles hovering, faces, autorickshas, the Indian parliament. Pasolini indifferently roves over the images which one imagines a tourist to associate with this land.

Once upon a time there was a Maharaja, who, after India became independent, decides to give up his palace and luxury to fend for himself as a commoner. The family falls into ill days, and the film concludes with a cremation, presumably of the scion.

The movie includes some interviews, with farmers, industrial workers, people on the street, news paper editors, eliciting dull responses to dull questions.

The film has nothing to recommend it except the director's name and the short running time. It is no surprise it never got made, which attests to his sound judgement. It is a relic and a curio.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

How to Die in Oregon

2011, 107m

Physician assisted suicide became legal in the American state of Oregon in 1994. Such a law already exists in three European countries.The documentary examines the working of the law and the experience of some patients who chose this route out of their suffering. The main focus of the film is on Cody Curtis, a middle aged woman stricken with liver cancer. The film mainly consists of interviews of patients, doctors and family members, and the travails, sorrows and emotional upheavals on the route from taking the decision to it's final implementation. It is a story made up of tears, courage and laced with much humor, black or white, as for example when one person describes the taste of his dispensation, for posterity's benefit, as "woody". This is a film which may disturb, but which can hardly be devoid of interest to anyone subject to the law of mortality.

Suicide has always been with us, for all the moral and legal sanctions attached to it. Death is scary, but life being painful as it is, one suspects that what keeps a lot people from doing oneself in is the ignorance or unavailabity of the means and the messiness of the whole business. Not least of it's attractions is the economy it effects, which may positively dispose those miserly inclined. An intelligent person contemplating it may yet make it his study. But with the mushrooming of legislation like this making it a graduated painless reversible choice under the supervision of the best that medical  science has to offer, it's popularity could well increase. Five hundred Oregonians have already benefited from the law.

One of the fundamental features of life, the very foundation stone of philosophy, are the uncertainties attached to death. By reducing, if not eliminating, these, the way we view life alters considerably. As such, this may be the ultimate luxury, or trip, that science can offer. If, that is, convenience and comfort is what you seek.

One must hasten to add that the benefit of the Death with Dignity Law is only available to terminal cases and circumscribed by other stringent conditions, making it's use as a convenient escape route difficult, if not impossible. From the back of Jack Kevorkian's Volkswagon, to the gleaming interiors of hospitals, and reassuring no nonsense practitioners, is a long way.

Friday, July 1, 2011

You Don't Know Jack: the Life and Deaths of Jack Kevorkian

Levinson, 2010, 134m

Medically assisted suicide is a procedure where the patient is provided with the facilities to terminate his life but must pull the plug or press the switch himself, making it a voluntary act and absolving the administrator. In euthanasia or mercy killing the mechanism is triggered by the doctor. Currently, euthanasia is legalized in Belgium, Switzerland and Oregon, USA.

Jack is Kevorkian, nicknamed Dr Death. He attained fame and notoriety for facilitating 130 assisted suicides, all furtively and often with makeshift arrangements like the back of a car. Finally he carried out an act of euthanasia , video taping the event. The tape was nationally broadcast on TV. Kevorkian was tried and convicted for second degree murder and sentenced from 10 to 20 years. He served eight and half, after which he was paroled. He died in June 2011 at age 83.

The movie stars Al Pacino in the title role. Going by the film, Kevorkian, apart from his humanitarian concerns as a doctor, seems to have been a zealot fighting for what he made his life's cause. He even went on hunger strike on occasions protesting the unjustness of his arrest. "If Gandhi could do it, so can I." The film is absorbing and informative, with an excellent script and acting all round. The concluding drama at the Supreme Court is particularly well done.

The question, the ethical side, the legislation, the social consequences is a complex enigma of a far reaching nature touching the core of life and cannot be lightly discussed.

At least, We Know Jack Now.