Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Martin Scorsese: My Voyage to Italy

My Voyage to Italy is Martin Scorsese's four hour long paean to Italian cinema. Don't go by the length of the movie, it is hardly an encylopaedic survey, let alone even a complete and an objective one, rather it is a personal account of how movies from a particular country and culture influenced him when he was growing up and helped him become the person and filmmaker that he eventually became. Scorsese himself comes from an Italian background. His grandparents emigrated from Sicily in the 1920s and settled in a New York neighbourhood. It was there that Scorsese was born and grew up. The documentary starts with him recounting his family history and showing footage of family movies about how those Italian emigrants kept their traditions and cultures alive. And one way to keep oneself connected to the home country was the movies which used to be come on his sixteen inch TV, sometimes dubbed and sometimes on subtitles.
Scorsese remembers the effect the earliest neo realist films the immediate post war era had on him, specially Open City and Paisan directed by Roberto Rossellini. It is indeed not difficult to imagine what kind of effect these movies could have had on people who had grown up only on Hollywood entertainments. Actual location shootings, no make up, no close-ups, realistic framing, cast of non-professional actors telling the story filled with poverty and despair with unrelentingly and gut wrenchingly downbeat endings -- all in all complete polar opposites to glossy star-studded Hollywood entertainers. Scorsese actually even juxtaposes scenes from Open City with a few scenes from a glossy western, another genre that he used to like. Italian neorealism must surely be the most influential film movement of all time. Andre Bazin (the guru of younger cahiers du cinema critics) championed it in his writings and inspired the cinema verite movement which came to be called the french new wave. Satyajit Ray himself was inspired to make movies after watching The Bicycle Thief.

The whole documentary actually feels like a spirited defense of the neorealist film movement -- which scorsese points out is not just a genre or a style but a filmmaking philosophy, a way of looking at the world. The filmmaker Scorsese most fawns upon is Roberto Rossellini whose Open City is considered the be one of the first and certainly the most influential film of the movement. He shows extensive clips from the movie and explains why people at the time almost took it to be actual news reel footage rather something shot and staged. The film most personally affected him though was another Rossellini film called Paisan which he made not long after Open City. As a kid he was moved and terrified to see a world where kids his age and even younger had to steal and fight for survival. He shows a long clip from an episode from the movie in which an Italian kid befriends a drunk black American Soldier and when he passes out, steals his boots. After a few days he finds the kid again on the streets and demands to be taken to where the kid lives to so that he can get his boots back but when he reaches the slums he is horrified to see the condition in which people live. In another episode from the same film a teenage Italian girl helps a bunch of American soldiers to cross a mine field and falls in love with one of them only to meet a tragic end soon after. Scorsese peppers his commentary with anecdotes from his experiences of watching the film. At one place he compares the accent of his uncle's Italian with that of the American soldier speaking Italian in Paisan.

Scorsese champions almost every other film made by Rossellini. With Germany Year Zero, he says, Italy seemed to have redeemed itself and regained its humanity that it had lost in the fascist period. He then goes on to defend the less well known movies that Rossellini made with Ingrid Bergman. He is all praises for Stromboli and Europa '51 and ecstatic about Voyage to Italy (that's where he takes his title too). These movies were panned by critics at the time (except the French ones) and comprehensively rejected by the audiences. The Italian critics felt that Rosselini had betrayed the working class and the neo realist movement by making melodramas which were actually Ingrid Bergman vehicles more than anything else. Scorsese tries to defend him, and succeeds too, from these criticisms. He also praises two religiously themed Rossellini pictures The Flower of St. Francis, which was about the life of a saint and his followers and The Miracle, about a simpleton woman who thinks she is pregnant with Christ. The Miracle was written by Fellini who also acted in it playing a fraudulent saint who impregnates the woman. Scorsese tries to connect the religious themes of his own movies to these movies that he saw early in his childhood.

It is a little surprising that more than half of the four hour documentary is dedicated to the career of Rosselini. The rest of the documentary is about Vittorio de Sica, Visconti, Fellini and Antonioni. He likes Shoeshine and The Bicycle Thief and I think loves Umberto D. more than the either two. He praises the skill with which de Sica directed the children. Indeed, isn't the performance by the kid in the bicycle thief the greatest performance by a kid in the film history? And I thought the name of the little dog in Umberto D. was Flike, not Flag as the subtitles inform us in this documentary. The Bicycle Thief is certainly my personal favourite of all. Watching the ending sequence after such a long time moved me again. It was actually the first "international art film" that I ever saw, I think it was in 99 when I was in second year of my college. It should have been in my top ten too.

Anyway, he then moves on to Visconti's Ossessione and La Terra Trema and shows extensive footage from the later but reserves the most effusive praises for his colour movie Senso. He calls it the "neorealism of the past" and defends it from its critics who hated its operatic style and visual opulence. He finds the story of I Vitelloni a little too close to his life and wonders what would have happened to him if he didn't "grow up" and become a filmmaker. Surprisingly he skips Nights of Cabiria and La Strada and skips directly to La Dolce Vita and tells us how its release was the highest point of Italian cinema (it still remains) in terms of awards and worldwide recognition (it won the Oscar and the Golden Palm). He then moves on the Antonioni and discusses briefly his revolutionary filmmaking style and compares him with other pioneers who experimented with the cinematic form. He also shows the spellbinding ending sequence of L'Eclisse almost in full. He ends the doc with a long discussion of 8 1/2 which he thinks has been very influential to him in the way he sees himself as a filmmaker.

Overall it is a fantastic and an exhilarating documentary. Indispensable for any movie lover and for those who are not this documentary will certainly have them converted! It is much better than the similar documentay he made on the history of American Cinema called A Personal Journey. I might need to see it again because I had seen it long back and don't remember much now. Anyway, I had hardly seen anything at the time when I saw that film. This documentary is not a text book guide, he skips many movies (Rocco and his Brothers, The Leopard, La Strada, Nights of Cabiria) and doesn't even mention Bertolucci or Pasolini but still it is very informative and very well structured. Also if you don't like endings of the movies to be revealed you may want to postpone watching it before watching the actual movies because for almost all the movies he discusses he shows the entire ending sequence in full. It really works for me even for movies which I had not seen before but can't say for everybody.

A list of Movies discussed in the documentary:

(I haven't seen any Rossellini film apart from Open City. Shoe Shine is another film I am yet to see. Even Raj Kapoor was inspired to make a gritty realistic film after watching it. He acted as a producer to the Hindi film Boot Polish. Visconti is another totally undiscovered territory too.)

Must See's by Scorsese:
Paisan by Roberto Rossellini
The Flower of St. Francis by Roberto Rossellini
Voyage to Italy by Roberto Rossellini
Umberto D. by Vittorio de Sica
Senso by Luchino Visconti
I Vitelloni by Federico Fellini
8 1/2 by Federico Fellini

Other great movies by Scorsese:
Rome Open City by Roberto Rossellini
Germany Year Zero by Roberto Rossellini
Stromboli by Roberto Rossellini
The Miracle by Roberto Rossellini
Europa '51 by Roberto Rossellini
Shoeshine by Vittorio de Sica
The Bicycle Thief by Vittorio de Sica (My Favourite)
Ossessione by Luchino Visconti
La Terra Trema by Luchino Visconti
La Dolce Vita by Federico Fellini
L'Avventura by Michelangelo Antonioni (another of my favourite)
L'Eclisse by Michelangelo Antonioni

This is a review of the documentary from The New York Times and a fine essay on The Bicycle Thief by Jim Hoberman in the village voice. This is the wiki entry on Italian neo realism. Has links to important movies.

What I am reading...

One thing I like about this new place is that there is a nice public library very near to where I live. It is a very small library, which is actually good because unlike those public libraries in Chicago or New York it doesn't feel like a Museum. I feel sad I didn't use the Chicago library as much as I should have had (actually, I hardly went there), I hardly read anything last year but this time I am trying not to waste too much time. Although so far I have been using the DVD section more than the books!

So what am I reading...

I have finished reading Stanislaw Lem's science fiction novel Solaris. It is quite good though slightly disappointing or rather it was just very different from what I had expected it to be. I have seen the Tarkovsky and the Soderbergh versions of the novel and I like them both very much but the novel is very different from both those movies, in terms of tone and emphasis on ideas. I will write about it in detail later.

I was pleasantly surprised to see the Russian literature/culture/history section of the library. Apart from the regular penguin classics of Dostoevsky, Gogol, Pushkin, Chekhov, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Lermonotov etc there are massive tomes of biographies (including a five volume Dostoevsky biography), essays and literary criticism. In the history section there are at least half a dozen books on the Bolshevik revolution and massive biographies of Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin and others. Russia is one country that really has always fascinated me and now that all those books are so easily available I do plan to spend my weekends loitering around that section of the library. Will try to write about them on the blog too. It definitely forces you to read more carefully than you otherwise would care to.

This is my current reading list...

The Complete Short Novels by Anton Chekhov
Collected Stories by Anton Chekhov
Sketches from a Hunter's Album by Ivan Turgenev
Eugene Onegin by Pushkin
Russian Thinkers by Isaiah Berlin
Lectures on Russian Literature by Vladimir Nabokov
The Kreutzer Sonata, Hadji Murad, The Stolen Coupon and other short works of Leo Tolstoy
Dostoevsky: The Miraculous Years (fourth volume of the biography) by Joseph Frank
A People's Tragedy: A History of the Russian Revolution by Orlando Figes
The Charterhouse of Parma by Stendhal (this is not Russian but I am going to read it too)

Monday, August 28, 2006

Mulholland Dr.

Warning: Adult Content :)

Third Man Links

The NFT in London is celebrating the centenary of film director Carol Reed by devoting an entire season for his films. I haven't seen any of his films other than The Third Man which is one of my all time favourites. The website has a large collection of articles, reviews related to Carol Reed, The Third Man and his other movies. Really worth browsing.

There are many other informative entries about The Third Man. Specially this about the origins of the film and this about the musical score. I can't think of any other movie which has such a distinctive background score. Once I saw the original American trailer of the film and it was remarkable that it didn't mention either Welles or Joseph Cotten at all but just said, in the old movie trailer voice-over, "featuring the background score by Anton Karas! his zither will have you in dither!!"

I haven't read all those articles. Will just be a public bookmark.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Ugetsu Monogatari

People write and direct ghost stories with different aims. Some try to convince the audiences of some vague possibility of life after death or some just want to take them by surprise by some twist ending and then scream "gotcha!" ("didn't you know, he was talking to a ghost all this while?!") Manoj N. Shyamalan, for example, has this idea of what a ghost story should look like. This is of course all very boring.

The 1953 Japanese film Ugetsu Monogatari directed by Kenji Mizoguchi is also a ghost story but his approach couldn't be more different. Ugetsu, translated as Tales of Moonlight and Rain ('U' means moon and "Getsu" means rain in Japanese as the excellent commentary track informs us), is based on a set of Japanese folk tales and also incorporates influences from a Maupassant story. And exactly as it should be, ghosts in this movie are used to point to human subjectivity and consciousness and not to make some useless point about life after death or some such thing. I think it is very interesting to see those ancient tales in such light, the way they captured such "modern" concepts of subjectivity and incorporated it in their storytelling. It was perhaps their way of writing an interior monologue. Also the story becomes a very powerful tool for exploring how extreme emotions of grief, loss or desire can destabilise one's perception of the world and one's self so radically. When the dead come back to the living to voice their longings and regrets, it is the emotion that counts more than the fact that they have some kind of a life after death.

Anyway I am not writing anything about the story or the plot of the film because it might spoil the experience of watching it. I liked it a lot, may be even more than Rashomon which points to a fluid barrier separating the quick and the dead too just like this film. The criterion DVD got the DVD of the year award from many different websites last year and it is easy to see why. While I didn't care much for a two and half hour documentary about Mizoguchi's life (it is the first film by him that I have seen) the commentary track by the film critic and east Asian cinema expert Tony Rayns is the best commentary I have ever heard on a DVD. It is scholarly, accessible, pleasant on the ear and very well structured. He goes in detail into the production history of the film, Mizoguchi's career, his editing and filming style ("long take, one cut one scene"), literary and cultural background, Japanese theatrical history, political subtexts and hosts of other things. And he makes all very interesting. It is like reading a fat little book about the film...

Top DVD releases of last year. L'Eclisse DVD was also excellent. It is at the second place. Haven't seen Au Hasard Balthazar yet! This is an essay from the criterion site. Although I would rather suggest not to read anything about it before watching it.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Murmur of the Heart

Finally a film which celebrates sex and sensual pleasure without summoning Freud or Sartre or giving us lectures on the theories of "alienation" or feminist politics. That is not to say that it is shallow slapstick sexual romp like those Hollywood teen movies. It does get into really dark and outre sexual territories and is extremely frank in showing all of it but its worldview regarding sex and its place in our lives is refreshingly benign.

I won't reveal what the dark sexual territories are but I will just say that I was surprised my own reaction to those scenes. And it is entirely to the credit of director Louis Malle that he turns those scenes into something very tender and touching. I don't know how he does it. Lea Masari (the girl who disappears in L'Avventura) is absolutely brilliant in the role of young, free-spirited and libidinous mom of three hormonally charged young lads. I bet you have never seen any mom like her not only in your life but even in the movies... :) And also I can't help but note. The fifteen year old central character is really precocious, not just sexually but intellectually also. He reads Proust and wonders if the two girls dancing with each other are lesbians because he reads about it in the book! He also surprises his catholic teacher by writing an essay on Heraclitus to which prompts the teacher to express surprise to his mother saying that Heidegger took 200 pages to translate two lines from Heraclitus!
Overall a nice erotic fun. A great way to spend the evening. There were only a few people in the audiences which was good because I didn't how people would have reacted to those scenes.

Articles on the film from the Criterion site here and New York Times. Roger Ebert seems to like it a lot too. He gives it four out of four stars.

Previous posts on two other fantastic french movies of the same "sexual awakening" genre, Fat Girl and Innocence (there are more links in the posts.) Isn't it interesting that when it comes to adolescent girls rather than boys, the focus shifts from sex to the culture of oppression and the politics of gender? It is also worth noting that both these films were made by women directors.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Out of the Past

This is one of the best film-noirs ever made and I think I should have seen it before. Sometime last year in Chicago a double bill of Cat People and I Walked With a Zombie, both directed by the same Jacques Tourneur, played at the music box theatre which I missed. I am going to hunt them down now. I hope they are available on DVD. Though a movie so moody and atmospheric like Out of the Past should only be seen on big screen. This is really a fantastic film.

Robert Mitchum plays the archetypical hero with such effortless abandon that it seems that he is sleepwalking through his role. His trademark droopy eyes (look at the picture above) and his lethargic, laid-back persona were made for playing these kinds of roles. Kirk Douglas, the other hyper-masculine long-nosed hero, is electrifying too. He doesn't have much of a role, it was only his second film, but the way he delivers those crackling trade-mark noir dialogues just sizzles on screen. And of course the best of the lot is Jane Greer in what must be the greatest femme fatale ever in a noir. Just look at how the poster maker has painted her in the portrait. I don't think it is from the movie but it captures her personality so well, specially the way she is holding the gun and the way she is looking. In my opinion, she handsomely beats Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity. She is unbelievably beautiful and so alluring is her persona, that you think perhaps doom is all worth it!

Very entertaining and not only that, it is the kind of film which carries with it an entire world-view, a way of looking at the world, and convinces you that it is indeed the right way to look at it. Rent the DVD today if you haven't already seen it. I think it is much better than Double Indemnity and The Maltese Falcon or even some other top-notch noirs. I still have to see a lot of films from that period though.

P.S. A Deluxe edition DVD of Double Indemnity is out this week. Enthusiastic thumbs up from Green Cine and some qualified praise from New York Times:

Wilder, who had as little interest in visual expressiveness as Jackson Pollock had in figure painting, remained a literary filmmaker to the end of his career, relying on such stock techniques here as endlessly repeated lines and situations (how many times will MacMurray light Robinson's cigar for him before the gesture has a dramatic payoff?) and a condescending approach to his audience that led him to spell out everything in large capital letters (compare Stanwyck's blatant, vulgar sexuality in Double Indemnity to Jane Greer's elusive femme fatality in Jacques Tourneur's Out of the Past).

A Russian Poem

A poem by nineteenth century Russian poet Fyodor Tyutchev translated by Vladimir Nabokov...


Speak not, lie hidden, and conceal
the way you dream, the things you feel.
Deep in our spirits let them rise
akin to stars in the crystal skies
that set before the night is blurred:
delight in them and speak no word.

How can a heart expression find?
How should another know your mind?
Will he discern what quickens you?
A thought once uttered is untrue.
Dimmed is the fountainhead when stirred:
drink at the source and speak no word.

Live in your inner self alone
within your soul a world has grown,
the magic of veiled thoughts that might
be blinded by the outer light,
drowned in the noise of the day, unheard ...
take in their song and speak no word.

*silentium is a place where silence is enforced.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

First Love by Turgenev

First Love is a novella written by the Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev. I had read his Fathers and Sons a few years back. It was a great love story too though it is more famous for the first coinage of the word "nihilist" in literature. First Love is also quite good, very well written though a tad conventional at times. Sixteen year old Vladimir falls in love at first sight with a pretty girl five years senior to him who has just moved to his neighbourhood with her mother. The pretty girl already has a few suitors competing for her attention and young Vladimir soon finds himself plunging into the painful world of unrequited passion and desire. The novella is actually an account of how he goes through all the familiar emotions of passionate love--attraction, devotion, jealousy, anger, despair, renunciation and then back to devotion and so on in a circle. But he does get out of the vicious circle unlike Goethe's Werther, of whom I was reminded more than once when I was reading it. The story is actually narrated by him to his friends some thirty years later who are sharing their experiences of first love. The other two didn't have anything remarkable to share! There was one thing amused me slightly. I learned that the accursed line, "let's be just good friends", which has broken so many adolescent hearts was popular with nineteenth century Russian girls too! Haha!!

Anyway, it is written in a beautiful prose and is quite small (just over fifty pages) and a great account of the agonies and the ecstasies, the miseries and the splendours of sexual infatuation. All these things have been turned into a cliche in this postmodern and artificial world but reading a great writer still makes you hopeful about the existence of real and honest feelings, which are not mediated by the shallowness and vulgarities of our commercial age. I am thinking of the numerous romantic novels and movies which explore similar territories. Anyway, do check it out if you can!

One sample paragaph from the book. The romantic hero is just out on his horse in the beginning of the story and trying to understand his feelings...

I had a horse to ride; I used to saddle it myself and set off alone for long rides, break into a rapid gallop and fancy myself a knight at a tournament. How gaily the wind whistled in my ears! or turning my face towards the sky, I would absorb its shining radiance and blue into my soul, that opened wide to welcome it.

I remember that at that time the image of woman, the vision of love, scarcely ever arose in definite shape in my brain; but in all I thought, in all I felt, lay hidden a half-conscious, shamefaced presentiment of something new, unutterably sweet--in a word, something feminine....

This presentiment, this expectation, permeated my whole being; I breathed in it, it coursed through my veins with every drop of blood ... and very soon it was destined to come true.

Tarkovsky on Big Screen

The Walter Reader theatre at the Lincoln Center is showing a retrospective of Russian "Fantastik Cinema", a collection of fantasy movies ranging from the silent period to the recent years. I was there on Friday evening for a screening of Solaris. It was quite good though I thought I should have gone for Stalker instead which played last week but I came to know about it only a few days back. Stalker has much more visual splendour than Solaris though it is not as affecting. It is also remarkable that Tarkovsky didn't think very highly of Solaris. He felt the science fiction element was too restrictive and you can almost see his disinterest when the characters talk of "neutrino structures" and "magnetic field" in an extremely casual and careless way. Stalker was more of a "Tarkovskian" sci-fi film--openly symbolic and with very little interest in the real science or any scientific "explanations". Tarkovsky, of course, to put it mildly, didn't think very highly of the whole scientific enterprise which I think was based on a misunderstanding of what the aims of scientific investigation are. By trying to understanding the nature of human experience through science we are merely trying to understand its objective and "universal" aspects. By doing this we don't in any way devalue the personal and unique nature of individual's own experience. And this is where art comes in and complements science. And I think Solaris beautifully illustrates this.

There were other movies in the selection too, none of which I had heard of before, except perhaps The Night Watch which opened theatrically a few months back. Anyway, it was a good experience. Watching a movie on DVD never does full justice to any film.

The Walter Reade theatre is also showing Sholay. It will run through the entire first week of September. So if you want to update yourself on some of its mythologies, be there! Link to the schedule

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

My Top Ten Movies

Now I have not given much thought to the list, may be an hour later it will be completely different. I am getting all bored and I am thinking perhaps it will be some diversion before I get back to work.

1. L'Avventura: Now I am not sure why this should be at the top but I just love everything about this film. I like the opening title score. I like Monica Vitti, her dress, her hairstyle, the way she walks and everything else and of course her acting too, I mean the way she is bored and depressed all the time. I could have replaced it with L'Eclisse which has more of the same things that I like in this film but this one is more famous and more mainstream. And this is exactly the kind of "date movie" I like going to.

2. Wild Strawberries: I choose this over Persona and The Seventh Seal because I find it more personal and affecting than either of the other two. It is also more humane than his later works which almost verge on fetishization of extreme emotional brutality.

3. The Night of the Hunter: Is this the greatest American film ever made? Perhaps yes. It is mind boggling to even imagine what kind of career Charles Laughton could have had if he had made more films.

4. Mulholland Dr.: Second best American movie ever made. There is nothing more hallucinatory than a drive down the Mulholland Dr. in the company of David Lynch. This also contains my favourite erotic scene ever.

5. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie: I often feel as if I am living inside this Luis Bunuel film. All dressed up and walking down the road to nowhere...

6. The Apartment: This is another contender for the best american film ever made. It is generally classified under comedy but I find it very, very sad and depressing. Also I think this is the least stylized film on this list.

7. Solaris: Why is there no romantic movie in the list? Well, here is the one. Though it is more about love and loss and less about romance but anyway.

8. Taxi Driver: Okay, now I am really confused about the best american movie question. One question that I can answer without confusion though is, which is the greatest screen performance ever? You will find it in this film.

9. The Third Man: Contains the weirdest musical score ever composed for a film. One of my touristic ambitions is to go to Vienna once and take The Third Man tour.

10. Breaking the Waves: Okay now this film really infuriates me. It is manipulative, melodramatic and extremely silly but I still feel compelled to put it at number ten.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Bush is reading Albert Camus!

George Bush is reading Albert Camus.

White House spokesman Tony Snow said Bush "found it an interesting book and a quick read" and talked about it with aides. "I don't want to go too deep into it, but we discussed the origins of existentialism," said Snow.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Proust Sighting

A hilarious article in Time on the "ubiquitous Proust".

I was thinking of going to Little Miss Sunshine yesterday but got busy with other things. This weekend perhaps. Link to official site.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Visions of Europe by Bela Tarr

This is a short film by the great Hungarian film director Bela Tarr called Prologue. It is a part of an omnibus film project Visions of Europe, in which one director from each of the members of the European Union was asked to make a short film on the personal vision of current or future life in Europe. This is Tarr's entry for the film, done in his signature style...

"Substance Syndrome"

Something that has been troubling me for some time too. From rediff review of Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna:

Tragically, Johar too seems struck by the 'Substance Syndrome', something that usually affects item girls. Not content to merely shake their booty in our glad faces, the well-built lasses suddenly bring out the dupattas and nurse deluded dreams of acting talent, resulting in much audience grief.

I have never seen a Bollywood movie in an American theatre, in the last more than a year that I have been here. I was thinking of going for this one. I might even go after all this.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Dostoevsky in Manhattan

I am currently deep into Dostoevsky's The Possessed (also translated as The Devils and Demons). I had bought the book last year but have managed to get around to reading it only now. It is more than 700 pages long so it requires more than usual level of commitment and intellectual energy to finish it in one go. Looks like I will finally be able to finish it. I am already more than half way through. Will write about it once it is over.

Actually I got interested in reading it after reading some interesting articles about Dostoevsky linking him to the phenomenon of Islamic terrorism. Specially this article by the literary critic James Wood in the guardian. Dostoevsky is certainly the master psychologist revealing how resentment, and other "modern emotions" of envy, rage and impotent hatred manifest themselves in nihilistic violence. And it is indeed intriguing to see people like Mohammed Atta as modern day Underground Men. Here's another review by Wood of a recently published novel of John Updike called Terrorist. Wood says:

The academic and journalistic analysis of terrorism is usually too indulgent of rationality or too indulgent of irrationality: either the terrorist's motives are robustly explicable (the existence of a Jewish state, the American occupation of the lands of the desired Caliphate) or sensationally inexplicable ("but why this young woman with everything to live for set out one morning to commit her dreadful deed will never be properly understood. ..."). Such work tends to founder precisely on the unimaginable--on the margin of irrational rationality that seems to lurk in the decision to blow up oneself and many others.

It is quite true in fact. You can't dismiss the religious terrorism as a result of stupid intellectual confusion. They do make some rational sense in the mind of their perpetrators and not in the straightforwad causal sense. Dostoesvky and Conrad (whose Secret Agent I have not read) do seem to understand how that rationalization takes place in the minds of those people rather well.

Another book that had created some news some time back was Dostoevsky in Manhattan written by a french philosopher Andrea Glucksmann. I don't think there is an English version of the book yet. There is an interesting interview with the author though. Link here. He says:
Actually, the beautiful thing about Stavrogin is that you don’t really know him. You don’t know if he believes in God or not. In the end, what surprised me was to find that he is a little like bin Laden; he might be very cynical, or fanatical, nobody really knows.

The inner nature of this nihilistic terrorism is that everything is permissible, whether because God exists and I am his representative, or because God does not exist and I take his place. That is what I find so impressive about Dostoevsky: he is a secret, a riddle.
I am still in the middle of the book but I don't think I would agree with this Bin Laden comparison. In a way Bin Laden is a revolutionary too, fighting for an ideal, and willing to go to any lengths for that absolute ideal but still it just doesn't feel right.

Anyway, here is another article by Slavoj Zizek in which he says that Dostoevsky might be right in his diagnosis of nihilism but his prescription of countering with a dose of Christianism just won't work today. He says:
FOR centuries, we have been told that without religion we are no more than egotistic animals fighting for our share, our only morality that of a pack of wolves; only religion, it is said, can elevate us to a higher spiritual level. Today, when religion is emerging as the wellspring of murderous violence around the world, assurances that Christian or Muslim or Hindu fundamentalists are only abusing and perverting the noble spiritual messages of their creeds ring increasingly hollow. What about restoring the dignity of atheism, one of Europe's greatest legacies and perhaps our only chance for peace?

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

George Galloway takes on the sky news

George Galloway takes on a sky news anchor. Pity, they didn't show her face.

Really worth watching...

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Army of Shadows

Army of Shadows is a French film directed by Jean Pierre Melville famous for his stylish and philosophical gangster movies and inspiring Godard, Tarantino and other filmmakers. He even makes a cameo appearance in Breathless and so does "uncle Bob", alluding to the titular character in his movie Bob le Flambeur. Army of Shadows was released in 1969 but has found its way into the American theatres just now! Well, the print is restored so I guess it looks as good as it would have looked then.

It is about a group of people, all members of the underground French resistance, who fought against the Nazi occupation in the second world war. The subject sounds familiar but the way Melville handles the story is really something unique. At least I have never seen any thing like this before. One thing is clear from the very beginning though, this is not an anti-war or a pacifist film. Melville himself fought with the resistance and so did the novelist on whose novel the film is based on and he obviously thought the war against the occupation was just and the characters who participated in it were all heroic. But his idea of "heroism" is so radically different from what we generally assume, at least in the movies, that it really takes time to understand what is really going on. For example, throughout most of the film there is hardly any dialogue, characters mostly talk to themselves in detached voiceover. There is not much of action, I mean "any" action, much less of a "heroic" action and a feeling of an extreme melancholy fatalism always hangs in the air. The palette is wintry, the mood is sombre, and everything reminds you of that Beckett saying, "I can't go on, I will go on". (It is also worth noting that Beckett, one of the greatest pessimists ever, the great poet of futility, also fought with the resistance.) It is like all those heroes are so sure of ultimately futility of their endeavour and yet they can't help but go on. Something like the philosophy in the Gita.

The style of this film reminded me of the experience I had of watching films by Robert Bresson, specially A Man Escaped. Half way through that film I started wondering what exactly the film was all about. Just a convict trying to escape and Bresson recording his persevering attempts with painstaking patience? And then in the end it suddenly dawns that it is not really about escaping from the prison at all, everything automatically takes a deeper meaning. Army of Shadows is a little less extreme than Bresson films but the feeling at the end is the same. It is not just a war against the nazis and it is not even about winning the war, it is about doing what you got to do. It is only when the film ends with a shattering postscript that you understand this. Excellent film though it might leave you sad but it is the kind of sadness worth nurturing...

Link to more reviews.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Innocence, Again

I was reading this long article on the French film Innocence and I remember that freezing December evening last year when I braved raging snow storms to reach the Music Box Theatre just in time to catch the screening. There was just one couple other than me (alone of course) who had to come to see it. I feared that they might even cancel the screening but they went ahead anyway. Actually, I didn't know about the film much because I hadn't read anything about it before and it was more because I wanted to go out in the cold and snow that I went ahead but I was pleasantly surprised, rather enthralled, by this little film. I thought it was one of the best films I saw whole of last year and it seems strange to me now why it didn't receive more mainstream critical attention and acclaim. Perhaps the new york times was to blame -- in one of her stupidest judgments its critic Manohla Dargis found elements of child pornography in it!

I thought it was an extremely sensitive, intelligent, provocative and ultimately poignant take on the flowering of sexual knowledge and the concomitant end of "innocence". One can easily take issues with her quasi-Miltonic idealization of the prelapsarian period of childhood innocence and her demonization of sex and traditional sexual roles ("all adult women are prostitutes and baby producing automatons", well it's a monstrous simplification but that's what her point boils down to ultimately) but her command over the medium and the subject and the way she creates a disorienting, other-worldly effect in the audiences was just too astonishing to ignore. Specially, the way she uses sound and lighting reminded me of David Lynch at his best. And that is one mighty praise coming from me! I had written a short post on the film before too here. There are more links at the end of the post.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Avant-Garde Blog-A-Thon

Girish (scroll down to the end of the post for links) is organizing a blog carnival of people celebrating avant-garde films. I have hardly heard of anything, let alone having seen them. Plenty of new names to add to the to-look-out-for list, specially these days when I feel bored with all kinds of three act dramas. I really want to see more non-representational, non-narrative and experimental movies.

One of the more "mainstream" films I found on the list, and the one which is a personal favourite, was The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie on the Culture Space blog.

I had written about a few experimental movies on my blog too. The best among them was perhaps The Asthenic Syndrome by Kira Muratova. The link is on the side bar but a far better article can be found here. Muratova's other movies Chekhov's Motifs and Three Stories had avant-garde elements too and so had the early movies of Michael Haneke, some of which I have also written about before. Then there was this weird and brilliant Conspirators of Pleasure by the Czech animator and puppeteer Jan Svankmajer. Will try to write about some of his other movies in future. Then there was this Marat/Sade but that was actually avant-garde theatre rather than cinema.

btw, I am in the US now. It is a small place called Stamford in Connecticut not very far from New York. Life is a little hectic and will remain so for at least a couple of more weeks. Obsessive movie watching and other solitary hobbies should resume thereafter.

And why is it so hot here? I feel as if I am back in Patna!