Friday, October 28, 2005

Antonioni's The Passenger

Michelangelo Antonioni's rarely seen masterpiece The Passenger starring Jack Nicholson, has just been revived in a new print with a director's cut. If everything goes well, I should be able to catch the screening next week when it opens at the music box theatre. For now here are some interesting articles I found on the film (yes, I have a bad habit of reading about the film before I go to see it).

An interesting article in Cinema-Scope has lots of details on the history of the film and its critical reception at the time of its release. What caught my eye however was this enlightening comment:

Antonioni'’s “thriller” is not merely dissimilar to Hitchcock: it can be read-—and this is reinforced with every viewing-—as the most elaborate critique of HitchcockÂ’s shallowness that any director has ever made.

Indeed. And why only Hitchcok thrillers, Antonioni's films are a critique of the shallowness of all films which rely on narrative resolution to drive their point across. The way he did away with narrative, psychological determinism (that moth-eaten concept inherited from the realist novel of the nineteenth century) was nothing but revolutionary. Antonioni in this respect is "modern" auteur in true sense of the word.

The Passenger, even though it had Jack Nicholson in the lead, has long been out of circulation. Quite paradoxically it was Nicholson himself who owned the rights of the film. Koehler in the same article explains this:
What caused this unexpected, delayed timing to meet up with current events? According to Nicholson's attorney Ken Kleinberg, the actor had long wanted to purchase the worldwide rights to a film he loved as an art collector might; if he wasn'’t able to hang it on a wall, he could at least protect the film from potential corporate skullduggery and exercise some control over its proper exhibition.
And as Manhola Dargis in The New York Times says, and I echo her feelings, "how delightful for Mr. Nicholson and how maddening for the rest of us who, for years, could watch "The Passenger" only on a crummy-looking home video." In my case I have not seen it even on video.

Here is Jim Hoberman from Village Voice and here is a review from New York Observer which succintly summarizes Antonioni's point, perhaps ironically (not an easy task by any means!):
The point of The Passenger (and Mr. Antonioni'’s psychic philosophy) is that life is not worth living. Trade in your own for a different model and you'’ll only discover that nobody else'’s life is worth living, either.

In case you are interested in something contrarian, Andrew O'Hehir of Salon thinks that Antonioni's philosophy is "sophomoric" and the only influence L'Avventura had, was on fashion photography. Arrrgh!

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

More on Nirmal Verma

I remember reading an article by Rajendra Yadav, the editor of the very prestigious Hindi literary magazine Hans and a writer of significant repute himself, where he criticized Nirmal Verma for what he thought was his soft hindutva. I don't remember the exact line of his argument now, but the basic point was that Verma and some other writers like Shailesh Matiyani, with their soft-hindutva and spiritual mumbo-jumbo are helping the sangh-parivar by giving the Hindu revivalist movement a good name. I remembered this essay as I was looking up on Internet to find something to read about Nirmal Verma. I found this interview on Hindu Vivek Kendra (a site dedicated to Hindu revivalism). On asked about how Indian and European cultures are different he says:

On the basis of three sets of relationships: those of time, nature and self (atman). We were under a severe negative attack from Western civilisation. Nature for them is an object to be appropriated, because man is at the centre of the universe. And Time is measured by them in fragments of past, present and future. The past is overcome by the present, which in turn takes you to the future. Even for Max Mueller, India's "past was glorious" but its present merely a ghostly remnant of the past, and the future depended on its Europeanising itself.

Although he forgets that the western scientific tradition also produced Galileo and Darwin who demolished the Christian anthropocentrism. But overall, I think this is a valid argument but I could understand the problems people like Rajendra Yadav or even myself have when he says this about secularism and western civilizaztion:
Because of this concept of Dharma, there was no divide between the religious or spiritual, and the secular or civic life. This division began in Europe with the rupture with divinity during the Renaissance. The divine stayed with the church, and the civic with the society, which placed man centrestage. That may have led to the glory of the Renaissance but its ultimate consequence was also the ego-centred view of man in Nazi ideology.

I am fully aware of the ongoing debate on the secular versus the spiritual. But indian civilisation had an integrated approach to sansara or lok (this world) and the spiritual, parlok (the other world). Dharma is the harbinger of all our transactions in both, this world and beyond. This was the most important concept of Gandhism. Gandhi never used the word secular when talking of Hindu-Muslim unity. The religious and the secular were not separate but a confluence that nourished Indian civilisation.

This is just plain wrong. First, saying that the Nazi ideology had its roots in enlightenment rationalism and second resorting to obfuscation, that somehow secular and spiritual can be merged together. It is this kind of fallacious thinking that has enabled politicians to play politics in the name of secularism in India. What I don't understand is that in his stories and novels there is no writer, even among those who write in English, I find more "European" than him! No wonder people like Yadav were furious.

On a more positive note I found another interview on the same site, where he defends Rushdie's freedom of speech. As against Khushwant Singh who gives some really lame and sorry excuses. I also didn't know that Khushwant Singh (himself a writer of an almost-porn novel) advised the Indian publishers not to publish Rushdie's book! Talk about irony!

And here is a nice article by the noted literary critic Vishnu Khare from Frontline when Verma got the Jnanpith award a few years back. He sums up Nirmal Verma's themes very well:
Nature, especially hilly or northern European grass, flowers and trees, rains and monsoon clouds, sunshine, moonlight, tender animals, circuit houses, dak bungalows, civil lines, servants' quarters, aging colonial houses, Western cities such as Prague, Vienna and London, convents, churches, hospitals, town squares, walks and gardens, restaurants and concert halls, sausages, beer, chianti and cognac, Chopin and Mozart - all these populate his short stories and novels. Love, separation, abortion, divorce, alienation, lack of dialogue and mutual understanding between most intimate relations, nostalgia, guilt and repentance over unnamed things done and undone, secrets and mysteries and horror of relationships and psyche, mental masochism and sadism, death wish, death and the conjuring up and eternal presence of the dead, all enveloped in brooding, pitying tenderness, are Nirmal Verma's recurring themes.

Doesn't look like a healthy list? But then who needs sugary ideas in this age of Coelhos, Dan Browns and those predator self-help gurus? I, for one, will do well with some bitter medicine. Too bad, I don't have any of his books here in Zembla!

Previous post here.

Nirmal Verma Passes Away

Nirmal Verma, one of the most famous of the modern Hindi writers, passed away yesterday. Although I don't consider myself very well read in Hindi (not that I am well read in any language) but I have read most of Verma's short stories and at least one of his novels (Lal Tin ki Chhat). His most famous story Parinde, which broke new grounds in form and heralded the nayi kahani movement, is still one of my all time personal favourites, in any language, even after 12-13 years when I first read it. I still remember the cold, foggy day, much as the weather in the story, when I finished the story completely overwhelmed with a most mysterious sadness. It was not the kind of sadness I associated with reading a sad book -- the kind of sadness, that just goes away or fades as soon as you close the book. Perhaps it was just something that I was too young to understand then because the story tackled the quintessential adult themes of death, human disconnection, memory, loss and regret. But even though I didn't understand all the finer motivations of the three main characters, they remained with me for long and I continued to worry about their fates. Did Lathika eventually marry again or did she leave the school and the hilly town? If yes, where did she go? Did Mr. Hubert eventually die of tuberculosis? What about Dr. Mukherjee? Did he change his mind or did he a get a chance to go back to his home?

In fact these feelings still return when I read the story and I read it at least once every year. But now, more enlightened as I am, I can understand why this was considered to be a revolutionary story in the modern Hindi literature. It must have broken almost all the literary conventions of the time. There were no farmers in his story, nor was any social reformism. There were no rapturous evocations of rural landscapes, nor any gushing over the triumph of the proletariat (or human spirit in general). Instead of looking outside at the society, Verma looked inside, into the consciousness of his characters and raised those eternal questions which plague our sorry existence on this earth, regardless of our class or gender. What are we doing here on this earth? Where are we going? Are we just like those migratory birds of the title of the story? He also did away with the elements of plot and caricature and instead focused on the ways in which those characters introspect themselves to find out answers to those questions.

And perhaps the most important convention he broke was the idea that a storywriter is basically a storyteller. Verma didn't want to just tell a story (an easy and entirely futile thing to do), he aimed to evoke a complex mood and feeling, things we generally associate with poetry or music, certainly not with prose. Curiously Verma did it without resorting to any overtly "poetic" language or creating innovative imageries. His prose is a model of simplicity and restraint. The best example of this writing is again in the story Parinde where Verma describes the effect of Music in the scene where Mr. Hubert plays Schubert on his piano and how it affects everybody in the dark room. It is simply marvelous. I don’t have the book with me right now so I can not provide any excerpts.

In these ways and the others, Verma is generally credited with bringing modern and European sensibilities to the Hindi literature and thus widening its horizons beyond what the progressive and social realist tradition had straitjacketed it into. He was 76 and his best work was behind him but even then his death does leave me very sad. At least with people like him Death does appear to be grossly unjust.
Here is something more.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Happy Atheist?

Yes why not? One of the strangest stereotypes is that of a melancholy atheist. If someone doesn't believe in God, ipso fact he believes that life has no purpose. He sees darkness and emptiness everywhere, inside and outside. Love, family, friendship have no value whatsoever for him. He spends all of his time through the dark nights of his soul, totally immersed in himself, doing endless solitary introspection and painful self-analysis. He breaks his head (and occasionally even gives soul-stirring speeches and monologues like they do in Bergman's films and Dostoevsky's novels) over the mysteries of human suffering, spiritual emptiness and futility of salvation!

I guess this might be true for those fictional characters but not all of us atheists who live in the real world and go through the grind of daily life worry about "larger" implications of the absence of God. Perhaps we just don't have enough time to do it even if we want to! Anyway, a practical atheist (let's coin this new phrase) knows that it is not necessary to invoke God and religious scriptures, everytime we question the morality of decisions that we make. He knows that Ivan Karamazov's dictum that "if God is not there everything is permitted" is only of theoretical interest. He knows that concept of morality is a priori and doesn't need a set of commandments or some black magic to rest on.

A practical atheist also knows that nothing awaits us after death (just forget about Aftermath for a while!) and that's the precise reason why we should make most of what we have in this life, which is the only one we have got and use every opportunity to explore and know things and die more enlightened than we were born. Also, be as close to people, who you really love or who really care about you, as possible and cherish all the moments and memories when they are gone or else leave some memories of your own in case you depart first! Isn't the knowledge of the unpredictability of the life of your loved ones even a greater motivation to love them more when they are alive. And isn't the knowledge of one's own mortality the greatest motivation to live a more observant and meaningful life, open to all sensations, feelings and thoughts as they occur? You don't need to have read Proust to understand this but this is one of the most important themes of his great Book. It's the knowledge of an unpredictable and certain death that motivates some of our most noble instincts, specially our artistic ones. It certainly motivated Proust to write his novel and the last volume where the narrator realizes his true vocation in life after all the disappointments that life has thrown in his way, is one of most soul stirring episodes in the novel. Okay, Proustian digression. Back to atheism!

So, a practical atheist also knows that a belief in love and friendship does not require a belief in extra-temporal, extra-material things. I think it is here that the stereotype is the strongest. An atheist is generally considered a loser, a smug one at that, who is a loner because he can't find a girl friend or worse he lost faith because his girl dumped him, or some such stupid thing. People forget that love, friendship and the general feelings of human connection have nothing whatsoever to do with a belief in benevolent God. In fact, love and friendship for an atheist have deeper and more lasting value because he doesn't harbour any illusions about it. It is not an all-powerful God or some such cosmic force which brings us together but we ourselves, driven by our need to be with someone who understands us and who we understand that brings and keeps us together. Relationships based on this realistic understanding of mutual benefit invariably last longer and are always much more meaningful and productive.

Okay, did I leave anything, which an atheist should feel sad about? Of course, there are many things in this world to be sad about but the absence of God is certainly not one of them. And next time Mr. Karamazov makes his famous pronouncement ask him to drive in the wrong lane and park in the no-parking zone or just take him to the screening of Woody Allen's Love and Death!

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Bernardo Bertolucci's The Conformist

To me, Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris symbolizes the worst excesses of European art cinema of the sixties and the seventies. Actually the film itself acknowledges it, with an element of self-parody specially in the way the new wave filmmaker character was written and portrayed in it. It is the kind of cinema where style is used, not to uncover secret meanings of things, but as a facade to hide the void that lies beneath the surface. The filmmaker thinks what a great filmmaker he is, the cinematographer thinks what a great cinematographer he is and the actor is not far behind. He thinks he is the greatest actor of them all. And perhaps all this is true for Last Tango in Paris. But film is a collaborative medium and if the final product of the collective endeavors has to make some sense, everybody involved in the film has to find the right balance, the right tone. In Last Tango in Paris this balance was not there. That's why it became a big mess (comparatively speaking, it still is a great film by the way). In the film The Conformist (Il Conformista), which he made just before Last Tango in Paris, Bertolucci found the right balance. Perhaps that's what makes it such an effective political drama. And not just that, it works as a pretty effective musical love story and a moral, cautionary tale in the old style. And I have just come out of the screening completely mesmerised by it.

The film is about the life and times a young philosophy professor Marcello from Rome, who wants to live a "normal" life. And to do this he joins the fascist party as soon as Mussolini comes to power. He also marries a silly, petty-bourgeois girl, with petty ambitions ("bed and kitchen, that's all") because that's the "most normal thing to do". But there are darker things behind this pursuit of normalcy. Marcello wants to escape from his messy past (homosexual seduction and murder) and his own emotioal and sexual identity. He is also disappointed with the decadence of his parents' generation which has left his father in a mental asylum and his mother a morphine addict. As a result he finds himself isolated from his fellow human beings and just so that he can "belong", he dedicates himself to the obsessive quest for the average and the mediocre which he calls "being normal". And since this is just the goal fascism had, he naturally finds that the right place to be is in the fascist party with its firm emphasis on deindividualization of the masses and denial of emotional realities.

Marcello soon gets an assignment to kill his former philosophy professor (there's short discussion of Plato's Allegory of the Cave, brilliantly staged by the director and the cameraman), who has now turned a radical Marxist, living an exiled life in Paris. In Paris things get more and more messed up as Marcello falls in love with the bisexual wife of the professor. There are convoluted flashbacks into Marcello's past and the film ends with a devastatingly ironic climax which gives ample chance for Jean-Paul Trintignant (who plays Marcello) to display his acting abilities. Trintignant is same guy who shined in the role of the old judge in Kieslowski's Red. Here too he is utterly brilliant and much of credit for the success of the film should go to him given how believable he makes the complex motivations of the character to the audience.

What I liked best, apart from the usual stuff about the fabulous cinematography, highly stylized and innovative production design and a hauntingly evocative soundtrack, was how Bertolucci analyses the nature and origins of fascism. He thinks that it is not the political and economic reality that fashion a fascist man (although they do contribute) but it is the psychosexual dysfunction that somehow gets transformed into a fascist rhetoric. And also that fascism is not something macho or aggressive but on the other hand it is cowardice and passiveness. It is fear of following one's true instincts and acknowledging the emotional realities of one's self that lead men to the dark pits of fascism.

Okay, even if all this intellectual talk bores you, I can assure the film won't. It's so lush and so visually arresting that most of the contemporary films positively look like home made videos after this. In short an essential watching for all aficionados of European art films, and those who are not will be persuaded after this. And to end with the same note this is the film which symbolizes all that was best in the European art films of sixties and seventies. Don't miss it if you get a chance.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Aftermath: A Short Film by Nacho Cerda

Last Saturday-Sunday I was at the horror movie marathon. Apart from accomplishing the brave feat of watching one horror film after another for twenty four hours continuously, I also achieved something else. I found the answer to many questions -- questions such as which is most sickening film you have seen? most frightening? most horrifying? Or what was your most unpleasant experience in a movie theatre? The answer to all these questions is without doubt--the screening of the short film Aftermath by the Spanish filmmaker Nacho Cerda. And as anyone even mildly sane, who is lucky (or unlucky, depending on the perspective) enough to watch the movie will attest, this was an experience like no other.

The film begins as if it were some music video. We see a mutilated body of a dog with camera gradually receding so that we get to know that it is a dead dog only when the camera reaches a certain distance. We also get to know, through soms stylistic cross cutting that a woman has died in an accident (perhaps with the dog). Then we see one of the doctors handing over the locket with the cross, which belonged to the dead woman, to her grieving relatives. The next twenty minutes or so is set entirely in the autopsy room, in which we first see with clinical detail, how an autopsy is done. So far the film didn't do much for me, but there were occasional flashes of the eyes of the coroner and I knew that the worse was yet to come. And come it did. The coroner turns out to be evil psychopath who mutilates the dead body of the woman and does other unsayable things. It is not completely graphic but when it is suggested it becomes even more horrifying than when it is shown. After the gruelling ten minutes or so the film ends with a scene that packs such mighty wallop to the heart and the mind and to all the delicate human sensibilities that it left me paralyzed not just with horror but also a very deep sadness.

And did I foget to mention, when all of this is happening on screen, Mozart's famous Requiem plays in the background (I knew about it only later. Okay, I am an ignorant philistine). Finally, the most important question that anyone might ask: What was the point of the film and more importantly, was it a work of art? Although I thought differently when I finished the film, now I think the film did have a larger philosophical point and it indeed was a work of art. Actually the film is a part of a trilogy of films about death, the first and the last being The Awakening and Genesis respectively. And I guess if I had seen the other two I could have appreciated it more. But even then I found it very interesting, both thematically and stylistically. There is some innovative and very effective camera work, lighting and editing, specially in the begninning and the end of the film. And as far as the themes are concerned, it asks one simple question, if death is indeed the end why do we find the violation of a dead body repulsive? Why does it affect us so much when the dead body itself does not feel any pain? After all a dead body is just like any other perishable matter, right? No, wrong! And the film proves it. Death is not the is definitely not the end. Now whether we should feel good about it, is a different question altogether!

If you are curious to know more, here is something and here is something more.

Religion Bashing Updates

I found this thought provoking extract from a book by someone called Robert Winston on The Guardian. The book is about the God-question and tries to answer it using Darwin's theory. What caught my eye was this quote by Dawkins (by the way, who can discuss evolution and religion without invoking his name) explaining the evolutionary costs of religious belief:

Religious behaviour in bipedal apes occupies large quantities of time. It devours huge resources. A medieval cathedral consumed hundreds of man-centuries in its building. Sacred music and devotional paintings largely monopolised medieval and Renaissance talent. Thousands, perhaps millions, of people have died, often accepting torture first, for loyalty to one religion against a scarcely distinguishable alternative. Devout people have died for their gods, killed for them, fasted for them, endured whipping, undertaken a lifetime of celibacy, and sworn themselves to asocial silence for the sake of religion.

Religion does appear to be a misadaptation of monstrous proportions if we take all facts into account, but in the hunter-gatherer societies, where most of our innate instincts developed, religious belief did offer a lot of comparative advantages -- like a sense of community and togetherness, illusion of control over things which are obviously beyond human control (like weather or untimely death) through rituals etc. The article explains these and other reasons of the adaptation of religious belief pretty well. What it doesn't do is to evaluate the worth of this adaptation in the context of modern life. Which is what should be main focus of any such writing.

In any case read the whole thing.

And if you haven't yet read it, don't miss this classic essay by Dawkins where he explains why religion is a "virus of the mind". And since we are on the topic of viruses why not expand the argument to deadlier proportions. Yeah, faith is a virus comparable to smallpox, and even AIDS!

Previous religion bashing posts:1,2,3,4,5 and most interestingly this.

I hope some infections get cured after reading all this!

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Horror Movie Marathon

So finally went to the horror movie marathon. And what an experience! I thought I will just pass out today morning, completely zonked out. I realised my limits this morning and I will surely take note of this before planning to do any thing like this in future. But one thing surprised me. The attendance. I was expecting it to be some small affair with a group of zombies and horror nerds but it was actually a massive gathering with lots of "normal" looking people in attendance too. Although I didn't find any Indian face in the crowd. Other than films there was costume competition (Edward Scissorhands won), a burlesque horror carnival and fashion show and some live rock music played by some band called "Mucus".

Anyway, here's a brief write-up on some of the films. Sorry, if things don't make much sense, for obvious reasons!

The show started with the silent German classic of 1920's, Nosferatu ("A symphony of horror"). The most interesting part of the screening was the live organ music that accompanied the screening. The music box theatre has a music box in the auditorium and a rather professional sounding organ player plays it before the screening of the film. Anyway, the film was great although it would surely have been of more interest to film students than casual horror fans! I enjoyed it. The print was good and the live music effect was something new too.

The next film was Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Pulse which started off pretty well and now that I think of it, even ended pretty well (I love apocalypse!) but in the middle I lost interest. I will write about the film in detail in some other post. It even had some social message as well - as in how technology and latest innovations in the means of communication are utterly useless in the face of human disconnection and solitude, which runs really, really deep. But as I said, more on that later.

The most important film of the night, which pretty much sealed everything, was Nacho Cerda's Aftermath (no links from this blog to this film, I refuse to defile my blog). This was a short, spanish film (although it had no dialogues) and easily the most sickening and frightening film I have seen. The film wasn't cheap, on the other hand the production design,camera work, special effects were rather brilliant and it did make some larger, philosophical point (it's some kind of Bunuel for the generation of horror-punks), but it's definitely not something I will recommend to even the most devoted horror-geek. The film is banned in many countries and rightly so. I am not going to tell you what the film was about and would sincerely advise you not to google or read about it anywhere and if at all you do so, please desist from renting the dvd. Please.

There were many other attractions too. One was made for TV film called Incidents from On and Off the Road which I really liked. Then there were countless trailers of B-movies from 60's and 70's and several short films by Chicago filmmakers. One of them was even present in person to attend the screening of a film that he made in London in early 70's. The film was reasonably good (it's called Death Line) and I liked it even though it had cannibalism and sentimentality (two things I don't like, even in horror movies!).

And then there was David Cronenberg's Scanners. But it started around 2 in the morning and by the time the first head exploded I was completely jaded and zonked. And Aftermath had spoilt the mood anyway. So I just slept through the last half-hour of Scanners and the whole of the next film. In the last film (I think it was some cheap film produced by Dario Argento) I was just waiting for dawn to break so that I could catch the first train back home. Which I eventually did. And now in the evening when I have slept through the entire day, I feel not much better than last night. Totally Sick and Alone.

Monday Evening Update: I feel better now. I have already forgotten most of the details of Aftermath. Feelings of despair and disconnection are going away too.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

To Go or Not to Go?

The Music Box Theatre ("Chicago's year round film-festival") is organising a twenty-four hour non-stop horror movie marathon. It starts this Saturday afternoon and will continue through all night to next day afternoon. The line-up includes mostly nasty exploitation/B-movies, which I don't always find fascinating, but there are some on the list which I really wanted to see. One is Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Pulse. It came in early nineties and pre-dates those genre-making J-Horror films like Ringu and Dark Water. David Cronenberg's Scanners is also on the list although I have heard this is not as good as his other early horror films like The Brood or Shivers. There is also the classic silent film of German expressionism Nosferatu (which I have seen, but on a faulty video projection). I haven't heard of other movies but by their descriptions they sure look like pretty nasty ones.

Check out the entire listing here.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Reading Updates

Haven't read anything serious in a long while now (more than a month). I have been half-way through three books (I guess, that's the main problem), Mario Vargas Llosa's Death in the Andes, W G Sebald's Austerlitz and the third volume of Proust's novel. Even though the week days are really busy, with lots of work in office (and the fact that I have started cooking at home too), I could have read a lot on the lazy weekends. Yes, I saw some films (scroll down to see details and it doesn't include Cronenberg's latest and Kubrick's 2001) but even after that I had plenty of time.

I think it is just laziness. I have to stop reading stupid blogs and spend more time reading the real stuff -- Proust, Nabokov, Sebald et al.

Title Update

Someone asked me what the sense/nonsense quote in the title of the blog meant. I then realized that I should have put the name of the author with the quote and the book where it was taken from. It is done now.

Those who are interested in details can go here. For those too lazy to click on the link or search on the page, here's the extract from John Shade's Pale Fire:

But all at once it dawned on me that this
Was the real point, the contrapuntal theme;
Just this: not text, but texture; not the dream
But topsy-turvical coincidence,
Not flimsy nonsense, but a web of sense.
Yes! It sufficed that I in life could find
Some kind of link-and-bobolink, some kind
Of correlated pattern in the game,
Plexed artistry, and something of the same
Pleasure in it as they who played it found.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Robert Bresson's A Man Escaped

The Gene Siskel Film Center is showing a series of films linked together by religious themes, under the curious title, "The Religious Imagination in Cinema: Altered States & Sacred Blasphemies". Luis Bunuel's L'age d'or was shown last month, which explains the "blasphemy" part of the title. As for "altered states", I guess, Andrei Tarkovsky's headache inducing (okay, I didn't read this guide before watching the film) The Mirror should be the right film. Robert Bresson's A Man Escaped was shown in the same series and I managed to catch hold of the screening last Friday.

I feel ashamed to admit this but this is the first film by Bresson that I have seen. Now he is perhaps the most highly regarded filmmakers of all time, if not with the general viewers but at least with film critics, historians and knowledgeable film buffs. His films, specially Au Hasard Balthazar, L'Argent and Pickpocket, almost invariably find their place in any high-brow top ten list.

Anyway, A Man Escaped is exactly what you would expect if you have read anything about Bresson. Yes, it is austere and minimalistic and it concerns itself with the religious, mystical themes of faith, purpose, freedom, perseverance and human connection. The film is based on a true memoir of a French resistance fighter who was condemned to death by the Germans and who managed to escape from his confinement. The story in itself is as simple as it can get. The film from start to finish consists just of precise and meticulous staging and reenactment of the protagonist's attempts to escape the prison walls. But in Bresson's hands each of the scenes and each dialogue acquires a complex philosophical subtext. And then we start asking questions like, what does it mean to be free? How much of what happens is determined by fate and is there anything like free will? What about God? What is he there for if man has to do everything by himself, including sustaining himself in the face of evil? What about love and brotherhood? Are these things possible in the real world, given the realities of human nature?

What is important and interesting is that Bresson achieves this without any overt symbolism, visual trickery or philosophical voice over. The actors are all Bressonian, in the sense that they don't display any emotion. It is only through their gestures that we get a handle to their inner life. And for most of the film it is only gestures of the condemned man that we are privy to. There is hardly any dialogue, any music or any drama.

Yeah, I know the film sounds a little drab and dreary, something that would appeal only to the film snobs but actually that is not true. If you are looking for The Great Escape kind of action and suspense you might get disappointed, but even then the film does manage to hold your attention for the entire period of around two hours and keeps you interested in the fate of the protagonists. But the film will work very well for those people who have their Sartre and Kierkegaard in right place. (Okay, I don't!).

Anyway, here is a nice article on the film. Senses of Cinema has an informative summary of his career and other articles on various aspects of his work. And finally a collection of tributes to Bresson (he died a few years back). Check this one out by Paul Schrader:

For the last 15 years Robert Bresson has seemed like God himself, distant, beyond communication. Now, like God, Bresson is dead.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

"The Discreet Masochism of the Bourgeoisie"

I often find myself in situations during discussions over films or books where I proclaim the film to be "feel-good" and that's where the discussion ends. It is, as if the film is feel-good, I don't bother myself too much thinking about it. It is ipso-facto sentimental, dishonest, manipulative or worse, it flatters the bourgeois illusions of the viewers. This doesn't happen always but it does happen sometimes. On the other hand if the film is "feel-bad", it often gets called "subversive", "moral" , "serious", "intelligent", in short, a work of art. Early this year I saw two such films and had a hard time defending them. One was Lars von Trier's Dogville, which plumbs new depths (okay, make it heights) of cynicism about human nature and the other Michael Haneke's Piano Teacher, which made me shudder with fear with its stark and utterly clinical portrayal of human disconnection. Although I loved both the films, Haneke's more than the other, I had a hard time defending these, specially with friends who call films like Forrest Gump a work of art. (Me? I find it feel-good and so, manipulative, sentimental and dishonest !)

That's why I found this short essay by A.O. Scott of the New York Times very interesting. Discussing the latest films by the two of the most feel-bad filmakers of contemporary times, he says:

The sting of movies like "Manderlay" and "Caché" can have a salutary effect, since the discomfort they provoke, even when it takes the form of defensive anger, is an antidote to the soothing reassurance that we find elsewhere. But the masochistic embrace of art that tries to hit us where we live can provide its own perverse form of comfort. Feeling bad about ourselves can become a way of affirming our own goodness, a sign of moral virtue and political concern that costs nothing more than the price of a ticket.

Which is quite true. These feel-bad movies, quite paradoxically, make us feel good about our intellectual and moral capabilities, not by doing anything but just by the act of having seen and understood those films. This is not to say anything against Michael Haneke or Lars von Trier. They are artists in the true sense of the word and of course, not just because their films are feel-bad. More on their films later. I am feeling too bad right now!

By the way, Scott says, "Mr. von Trier's cynical view of human nature can make Mr. Haneke look like Frank Capra,". Hmmm. Now, I am not too sure about that.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Time Regained

I saw Raoul Ruiz's film adaptation of the Novel some time back but didn't find time to write about it. Also, most of the film went way above my head. Okay, I have read only the first two volumes of Proust and my understanding of Proust's technique and his philosophical ideas are vague, to say the least. To me, the film's incomprehensibility was a heart-warming reminder that in this age of dumbing down of everything there are people like Raoul Ruiz who would take up projects like this. I was wondering who and where will the audiences of the film be. I mean, movies don't come more high-brow than this. First, Ruiz chooses Proust to adapt and then selects the last volume and starts the film without giving any character or plot background and on top of all that he uses all kinds of visual tricks and obscure surrealistic symbols to approximate Proust's stylistics. I was overwhelmed within half an hour into the film. I knew I had to, not just read the whole book, but also understand the themes in a more detailed manner and then do the same with the film version.

As exercises in literary adaptations go, this must be something unique. I don't think there are more oblique adaptations of a literary work. Now, I have not read the entire novel but I am broadly familiar with all the characters and the main events in the narrative. In spite of this, I couldn't find a single scene which was "directly" lifted from the book. There were few scenes specially the party scenes from the salon of Mme. Verdurin but even there the situations and dialogues were not from the book at all (but then I don't remember everything very well and I haven't read the entire thing anyway). Ruiz, instead of attempting a literal adaptation, approaches the book from a thematic perspective. He tries to capture its essence and then translates the same to screen using the language of cinema. For example, early in the novel, the narrator reflects that, it is only by the forces of habit, which dulls our senses of perception and makes us inattentive, that we come to think of space as absolute and objects as inanimate. Perhaps we get closer to truth when we wake up in the middle of the night and find that the furniture has moved on its own. In the novel it is just presented as a thought, but in the film Ruiz actually shows objects moving in the foreground as well as in the background even as the camera itself pans across the scene. And then there is a scene of the church steeple (whose descriptions in the Novel are one of the most lyrical and evocative) in which trees appear to move until they give way to the spectacle of the steeple.

There were scenes like this which made some sense to me but what about the scene in which hats are lined across the floor and the narrator as the child is with the adult Saint-Loup who is looking at the horrors of the war from a telescope! Or, the scene where Marcel runs and then stops midway and it appears as if he is floating in the air. Or, the final scene in which the adult narrator sees his boyhood self playing on the beach and then the film ends with a grand operatic surge of a musical score. These scenes are not there in the book at all and they will make sense only after a good understanding of the Novel's themes and ideas. The fact that Ruiz thought there were enough audiences who could understand this speaks volumes about his optimism. The film was actually a critical success when it was released. It was shown in competition at the Cannes film festival, where it didn't win any awards. But if we believe this report from The Economist, it "outshone all these[films], and utterly eclipsed the jury's whims".

Perhaps the film owes its success to its fabulous star cast. Catherine Deneuve as Odette is a little too old but then we never get to see her young. Emanuelle Beart is sublimely beautiful and looking at her, I could understand the justification behind hundreds of pages of agonising that the narrator undergoes because of her! Although in the final novel the two (Marcel and Gilberte) come together but the film doesn't exploit the situation to full potential. Chiara Mastroianni (by the way, is she related to Marcello Mastrioanni?) as Albertine has, rather curiously, a small role as compared to that in the book (two full volumes!). And some French actress who played Mme. Verdurin was fabulous too. The male leads were equally good specially John Malkovich at his eccentric best in the role tailor made for him (that of Baron the Charlus) and of course Proust himself, played by Marcello Mazzarella who looks uncannily like the real Proust and who has a curious tilt to his head and walks and talks in his own peculiar way. All in all a perfect ensemble cast.

As Anthony Lane points out in this short write-up,"if you come out of the movie suffering from a mixture of nausea and nostalgia, then Ruiz can pride himself on a job well done." Well, I finished the film with a heavy head and it definitely was spinning after two and half hours of Time Regained. I will notrecommendd the film to Proust neophytes but curious, patient and diligent people might take something out of the film. The ordinary mortals can take a look at the trailer instead and can feel happy about it. Here.

And finally, many heartfelt thanks to Anurag for getting me the DVD. Check out his excellent blog here.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005


I know, the poster is a little too big for the blog, but it is difficult to write anything about films like this. It is something to be seen and experienced first-hand, rather than something to theorise about in leisure. The poster captures some of the lighting, colours, background details and the "atmosphere" which is impossible to describe in casual posts like this.

2046 is the latest film by the Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai and the long-awaited, much delayed and much speculated follow-up to his 2001 international art-house success In the Mood for Love. It is technically not a sequel but those who have seen Mood and are familiar with wong's earlier films (specially Days of Being Wild) will find a few references which others who have not seen will miss. Not that this should stop anyone from watching and appreciating the film before those earlier ones because Wong is not much of a story teller anyway. Such old fashioned concepts like narrative coherence, closure, redmeption or plot and character development are not things that bother him much. What interests him, on the other hand, is the creation of a 'mood' and an 'atmosphere', which he achieves by a virtuoso blending of sound and images, which can only be seen to be believed, or felt.

I think even the themes and ideas that he explores are rather banal and surely in some other, less visually gifted, hands the same material could have become a third-rate sentimental nonsense. I mean, how can you not wince when an intertitle early in the film announces, "All memories are traces of tears" or when our narrator-hero offers this nugget of romantic wisdom, "Love is not just about meeting the right person, it is about meeting the right person at the right time". Needless to say, in Wong's films it is never the right time when two beautiful people meet. It is always either too early or too late. He uses this basic conceit to explore the moods of romantic fatalism and impossible desire. And he does it really well.

I won't summarise the plot and to be honest I lost bits of it midway through the film but if you have seen In the Mood for Love you will like it even more and if you have not seen that then it is a perfect introduction and a good summary of Wong Kar-Wai's career (who is surely one of the most exciting and important filmamkers working today). Also since the film is all about sound and images, seeing the film on big screen helps. And if all this was not enough there is even some sex, not explicit but the way Wong Kar-Wai makes the walls of the seedy hotel room shake was really erotic, at least I thought so!