Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Devil's Backbone Trailer

I like this trailer. I also like the definition of a ghost - "a tragedy doomed to repeat over and over again", "a feeling suspended in time, like an insect in amber"... there is more in the film.

Another trailer with less dialogues and more sound effects here.

The Orphanage

I saw The Orphanage a few weeks back but didn't write about it because I was a little ambivalent. It suffers from the regular problem of horror genre - it tries too hard to be scary, too many creaking doors etc - so much so that one begins to doubt if the writer/director himself had doubts about the story or else they just didn't trust the sensitivity and the intelligence of the audience. It is a shame though because the film has a terrific story and is very powerfully anchored by the Spanish Actress Belen Rueda in the central role who gives a stirring performance as a woman trying to come to terms with soul-crushing maternal grief.

It is actually very similar to films like The Others and The Innocents (both magnificent films), both haunted house ghost stories with kids seeing ghosts and having imaginary friends. What I liked in this film in particular was the way it interprets the story of Peter Pan. The boy who refuses to grow up and the gang of "Lost Boys" both acquire dark and sinister meanings in the context of the story of this film. Refusing to grow up comes across as a reaction to the knowledge of impending death and lost boys becomes souls lost in the hereafter. It also has quite a lot in common with Guillermo del Toro's The Devil's Backbone which is similarly set in an orphanage and revolves around the ghost of a young boy. Del Toro by the way produced and "presented" the film. The way his name was splashed all over the posters and credits it felt like it was cashing in on his post-Pan's Labyrinth fame but it does stand up on its own. Worth watching, that is after you have watched the three classics I mentioned already. Actually Spaniards seem to be an expert in kiddie-horror genre (that is horror with kids in it, not horror for kids). Both The Spirit of the Beehive and Cria Cuervos, while in no way horror films, use similar narrative devices too. And of course the greatest kiddie-horror of all - The Night of the Hunter.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

More Heidegger

Via Bookforum a review of a book about Heidegger's philosophy. I liked the reference to Pierre Menard Author of Quixote, the famous short story by Borges. (I have to read it sometime, I keep coming across its references at so many places. It seems to be available online.)

Anyway, back to Heidegger. I thought the comparison was very appropriate and quite astute. I spent a lot of time last year with Rudiger Safranski's biography Martin Heidegger: Between Good and Evil but couldn't get very far. The biography part was okay but when he came to discussing his philosophy Safranski had to fall back on Heidegger's own terminologies, neologisms and linguistic formulations.


An article in NYT about recent Hollywood remakes of Asian horror films. I have so far seen only the first The Ring (which I thought was excellent).

I love horror films. More than any other genre they are far more suited to exploring subjective mental states under extreme situations (I am talking at the level of genre, not individual films), a subject that personally interests me very much. It is specially galling then to see so much crap being produced in the name of horror films. Rather than sensitively and intelligently tackling serious subjects of death, madness, despair and the feeling of utter helplessness when pitted against uncertainty and unsurmountably evil and malignant forces, these horror films instead trivialise these.

Anyway, here is a list of a few very good J-Horror films that I like. In order of preference...

Audition (Takashi Miike): It loses some of its shock effects on second viewing but sadness and despair remains. It is a penetrating (and very pessimistic) portrait of gender relations, specially of masculine desire, paranoia and guilt. It is gory but also poetic. Lines like "Words create lies; Only pain can be trusted" will have you running for a copy of Wittgenstein, that is, after you get over the impact.

Dark Water (Hideo Nakata): Horror movie as a tragedy, it is much better and much more effective than his more famous and now iconic Ringu series. The NYT article says that the American remake was very good too, though I remember it didn't get good reviews at that time.

A Tale of Two Sisters (Kim Jee-woon): This is actually a K-Horror but it shares a lot of same tropes complete with recurring images of a young girl with her hair over her face. The poster of the film is one of my favourites. Another version of the poster has this tagline: "Fairytales have never been this Grimm."

Ringu (Hideo Nakata): A popular horror film which is also very good. The Hollywood remake is excellent too.

Cure (Kiyoshi Kurosawa): I need to see this again because I couldn't connect all the plot points the first time around but this definitely deserves a place in the list.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Walter Benjamin Reviews

More linking for now... two reviews of English translation of Walter Benjamin's scraps, notebooks and other miscellany in Guardian and Financial Times.

And to brighten up the evening, an excerpt from his essay "The Storyteller." (PDF) I like the first two paragraphs too in which he talks about how the art of storytelling has declined in the modern age in commensurate with a parallel decline in the ability to exchange experiences. I need to find Nikolai Leskov's Lady Macbeth of Mtensk District too...

"It has been observed for a number of centuries how in the general consciousness the thought of death has declined in omnipresence and vividness. In its last stages this process is accelerated. And in the course of the nineteenth century bourgeois society has, by means of hygienic and social, private and public institutions, realized a secondary effect which may have been its subconscious main purpose: to make it possible for people to avoid the sight of the dying. Dying was once a public process in the life of the individual and a most exemplary one. In the course of modern times dying has been pushed further and further out of the perceptual world of the living. There used to be no house, hardly a room, in which someone had not died. Today people live in rooms that have never been touched by death, dry dwellers of eternity, and when their end approaches they are stowed away in sanatoria or hospitals by their heirs. It is, however, characteristic that not only a man's knowledge or wisdom, but above all his real life - and this is the stuff that stories are made of - first assumes transmissible form at the moment of his death. Just as a sequence of images is set in motion inside a man as his life comes to an end - unfolding the views of himself under which he has encountered without being aware of it - suddenly in his expressions and looks the unforgettable emerges and imparts to everything that concerned him that authority which even the poorest wretch in dying possesses for the living around him. The authority is at the very source of the story."

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Islamic Science

A nice article in the TLS about the history of Science in Islamic societies.

There was also an interesting review by Michael Dirda in Washington Post of Robert Irwin's book about Orientalism and its critics. Irwin wrote the above review.

Another review in the same TLS talks about the works of Tariq Ramadan. Bit too technical for me but might be of some interest.

"Truth is the unconcealedness of that which is as something that is. Truth is the truth of Being. Beauty does not occur alongside and apart from this truth. When truth sets itself into the work, it appears. Appearance - as this being of truth in the work and as work - is beauty. Thus the beautiful belongs to the advent of truth, truth's taking of its place. It does not exist merely relative to pleasure and purely as its object. The beautiful does lie in form, but only because the forma once took its light from Being as the isness of what is."

- Heidegger, The Origin of the Work of Art

Saturday, January 26, 2008

4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days

After reading so many raves I was a little apprehensive about watching it, thinking whether it would live up to all the hype and inflated expectations. After having watched it today I can only say it really deserved all the awards and acclaim all around. It really is a masterwork - riveting throughout and leaving one with deeply unsettling thoughts as the credit rolls in the end.

The film is set in Bucharest of 1987 when Romania was still a few years away from overthrowing the regime of communist dictator Nicolai Ceausescu. When it starts we see two young college girls named Otilia and Gabita preparing for something. Only later do we learn that Gabita is pregnant and that her friend is helping her get a backstreet abortion since it is illegal in the country. Through a common friend they manage to find a creepy looking man, impossibly named Mr. Bebe (it might be a real Romanian name but it adds to the extra creepiness in English), who agrees to risk prison sentence (that's what the law was under the Ceausescu regime) in return of money and when money falls short he demands something more terrible.

Like The Death of Mr. Lazarescu it is also set on a single day with events unfolding in almost real time. We don't get character expositions or lengthy flashbacks. For example we never learn about Gabita's boyfriend or the reasons why she had to delay it for so long. Like any film with enough integrity and intelligence it trusts its audiences to make their own conclusions, while giving a few hints here and there. Like in one scene when Otilia herself finds out that her own boyfriend is reluctant to even talk about these messy things in their relationship. She knows (and through her we also get to know) that when she gets into trouble she will be on her own. This is also one of her motivations for going to such extreme lengths to help her friend too. If she is in trouble it will be Gabita's turn to sacrifice for her.

The film (wisely I think) doesn't get into the abortion debate - No technical discussions about the inalienable rights of live foetus or sentimental homilies on motherhood and nurturing life. The fact of abortion is already a given, it is more about how to negotiate and find one's way through bureaucratic insensitivity and in a society without trust, compassion or moral responsibility. It also doesn't explicitly points its finger at the authoritarian regime but it doesn't take too much to understand where all the corruption and darkness of ordinary life stems from. It is somewhat similar to the German film The Lives of Others in this respect, only here the grimness is not relieved by a cathartic burst of humanism in the end. If at all one wants an ideological label, I think the only label that can fit it is the feminist label. May be it is an extreme reaction from my side, but it really brings one face to face with the horror of what it really means to live inside a woman's body and as a consequence how monstrous it is to deny women the rights over their own bodies.

This is reportedly the first in a series of films titled "Tales from the Golden Age" (rather heavy-handed in irony I think) that the director Cristian Mungiu plans to make. I can only say more power to him. During the cold war there was so much talk about censorship and restrictions on artistic expression but bringing down Iron curtain didn't really result in unleashing of great artistic talent from these countries as was expected. Or perhaps the more likely reason is that these countries are now no longer on the radar as they were before the Berlin Wall came down. I hope this recent spate of Romanian films redresses the situation to some extent. May be we get to see good stuff by young directors from Poland, Hungary and Czech republic too. Meanwhile hoping it is available on DVD soon and widely so that more people can see it.

More reviews from the rotten tomatoes and a trailer here.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

New Bookforum

New Bookforum issue is online.

Some review-essays of interest: an article on Knut Hamsun, whose novel Hunger is a huge personal favourite (as perhaps I have mentioned many times before on the blog).

An extract from Roberto Bolano's forthcoming book Nazi Literature in the Americas.

And a short review of the praise of melancholy book I had mentioned a few days back. The review in New York Sun is more straightforward. Looks like the author is against morons rather than all around happiness...hmmm.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

An extract from The Star Diaries

Below is an extract from Stanislaw Lem's The Star Diaries. A specialist in "Mechanical Psychiatry" presenting his findings before a committee investigating an incident involving a computer gone mad... (the part about how the electronic brain was seduced by a mathematician's wife really cracked me up!)


"Gentlemen! he said in a quavering yet still resonant voice. "For some time now it has been known that electronic brains must be not only constructed but educated as well. The lot of an electronic brain is hard. Constant, unremitting labour, complex calculations, the abuse and rough humour of attendants - this is what an apparatus, by its nature extremely delicate, must endure. Little wonder then, that there are breakdowns, and short cicuits, which not infrequently represent attempts at suicide. Not long ago I had, in my clinic, one such case. A split personality - dichotomia profunda psychogenes electrocutiva alernans. This particular brain addressed love letters to itself, employing such endearing terms as 'relay baby,' 'spoolie,' 'little digit drum-dump' - clear proof of how badly the thing needed affection, a kind word, some warm and tender relationship. A series of electroshock treatments and a long rest restored it to health." [....]

"There are certain insensitive natures who have no sympathy for this. They provoke the brains out of all patience. An electronic brain, gentlemen, wishes us nothing but good; however the endurance of coils and tubes has its limits too. It was only as a result of endless persecution from its captain, who turned out to be a notorious drunkard, that the electronic calculator of Grenobi, designed to make in-flight corrections, announced in a sudden fit of madness that it was the remote-control child of the great Andromeda and therefore the hereditary emperor of all Murgalandria. Treated at our most exclusive institution, the patient finally quieted down, came to its senses, and is now completely normal. There are of course more serious cases. Such for example was a certain university brain, which, having fallen in love with the wife of a mathematician professor, began out of jealousy to falsify all the calculations till the poor mathematician grew despondent, convinced that he could no longer add. But in that brain's defense it must be stated that the mathematician's wife had methodically seduced it, asking it to total up the bills for her most intimate undergarments."

Adam Kirsch on Heidegger

There is a great essay by Adam Kirsch in the latest poetry magazine about Heidegger's conception of language and poetry.

Only poetry in this larger sense—only the art of language—makes possible a full understanding of an artwork's "world." Language, the distinctively human possession, is what allows "stone, plant, and animal" to be fully perceived, in a way that they can't perceive themselves. "Where there is no language . . . there is also no openness of what is," Heidegger writes. "Language, by naming beings for the first time, first brings beings to word and to appearance." Only by talking and writing about something can we really understand what it is and what it means.

I am obviously not well-read enough, but it seems to me to be an extreme position - the idea that language is central to any conception of consciousness i.e only when you name things that they come into being in your head.

Anybody knows a good introductory book on the subject? Apart from Heidegger or Philosophical Investigations of course?

Monday, January 21, 2008

Romanian New Wave (?)

There is a nice long essay-reportage by A.O Scott in the latest New York Times Magazine on the recent crop of films from Romania which have grabbed one award after another in various film festivals in the last couple of years. The only film I have been able to see so far is The Death of Mr. Lazarescu. It is very grim (as you can probably guess from the title) but, as Scott says, it is also full of life. Its concerns are not metaphysical but the ordinary goings-on of daily. It brings us to face not the horror of death but the horror of a certain kind of death - an impersonal death. I will try to find the other films too, specially the new abortion movie which won the Golden Palm last year.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

"locked into separate phases of inwardness"

Looks like another tirade on the internet culture. I loved that phrase from the book though. It almost makes me want to pick it up even though I don't think it is true. The problem of our culture surely is exactly the opposite, there is too little inwardness, too much interaction (blogs, social networking sites, cellphones etc).

In “Against the Machine,” the swaggeringly abrasive cultural critic Lee Siegel pays a visit to Starbucks. He sits down. He looks around. And he finds himself surrounded by Internet zombies, laptop-addicted creatures who have so grievously lost their capacity for human interaction “that social space has been contracted into isolated points of wanting, all locked into separate phases of inwardness.”

Friday, January 18, 2008


A nice autobiographical essay by Eric Hobsbawm about Weimar Germany in the London Review of Books. Also an old review of his autobiography Interesting Times in New Yorker.

Adam Kirsch on the difference between eloquence and rhetoric in new york sun (first is good and the other not so good according to him)

Ron Rosenbaum in Slate pondering over the question whether Dmitri Nabokov should be allowed to destroy his father's unpublished manuscript.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Reading List

I haven't been able to read much lately. A few bureaucratic distractions of real-life coupled with vague uncertainties about the future and I am finding it hard to pick-up a book and concentrate. I managed to find a few interesting books though...

Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan: I thought after seeing the excellent film version the book would be redundant, specially given the fact that it was written by (shock! horror!!) an eighteen year old girl (sexism plus reverse ageism alert) but I was proved wrong. While not an earth-shattering masterpiece by any means, it is a very engaging, thoughtful and perceptive book, certainly much wiser than what her age would lead one to believe. It is also a relief to read a simple and straightforward book after a long time.

The Sleepwalkers by Hermann Broch: Last year it was Musil, this year his friend Broch? Frankly, I don't intend to finish it anytime soon. I am just curious to know what is inside it. Will update once I find something.

The Star Diaries by Stanislaw Lem:
This is a Swiftian take on the Science fiction genre. If you remember the academy of Lagado section of Gulliver's Travels you know what to expect. (It can be read in its entirety here.) Like Solaris, once you get the drift, it gets a bit tedious but mercifully the book is actually a collection of short narratives. Like Gulliver, it is structured as a travel account in the form of diaries of one space traveller named Ijon Trichy. Lem riffs on all sorts of intellectual ideas, not just scientific but also religious and political. The back cover of the book compares Lem's writing to "intellectual rock throwing" which is a pretty accurate description.

I did open the new year account by reading the celebrated short fragment Lord Chandos Letter by Hugo Von Hofmannsthal. I will just point to Disquiet Thoughts for a nice overview rather than reinventing the wheel myself. Hoffmansthal's Letter describes very eloquently what most of us have felt from time to time - the failure of language to mirror the inner world of experience in any meaningful way. Lord Chandos Letter puts this idea in a wider philosophical and literary context by showing it to be the essential part of what it means to live in the modern world. The way it stresses the fact of uncertainty and doubt involved in any artistic use of language, it is often seen as some kind of manifesto of modernist literature.

It seems to be available here though I am not sure of its completeness or accuracy (it does look okay at a glance though). The NYRB edition is, as usual, a complete delight. It contains quite a few of his other short works too which I have not yet read.

I'll be there

A great scene from The Grapes of Wrath. Too bad, Fonda didn't win an Oscar for his role. His friend James Stewart got it for The Philadelphia Story. The restored DVD looks and sounds much better than this clip.

I like this song a lot too.

I was looking around on the net and found this review of My Darling Clementine, which I saw a few weeks back, by Michael Atkinson on the TCM site. Before praising the film, he fires a few scattershots:

"He is generally a hallowed filmmaker, and worshipful encomiums have landed at his feet for decades, praising his pictorial beauty (which often seems merely that), his sureness of storytelling (often as shapely as a dime novel, and in any case rarely his screenplays to claim), and his mastery of iconography (which requires no mastery). It’s an argument still happening; for every vague hosannah I’ve heard sung for Ford’s meaningfulness, I could count a hundred examples of clumsy staging, booze-sodden sentimentality, militaristic fetishism, vaudeville overacting, bar brawl camaraderie, and racist war-mongering. (Among his last projects before he died in 1973 was a pro-intervention documentary for the USIA titled Vietnam! Vietnam!) For Ford, Manifest Destiny was never out of fashion, Native Americans were malignant pests, and women were too often pink-cheeked cartoons."

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

In Praise of Melancholy

nothing new but worth reading.

I think it's worth keeping in mind that melancholy can be superficial too. In fact that's the only thing to conclude given how popular misery memoirs and similar reality TV, talk shows and other varieties of emotional porn really have become in our culture. It is not melancholy we should praise but rather authenticity, autonomy and truthfulness.

Meanwhile on Guardian books blog Nicholar Lezard is asking: "Does melancholy literature deepen depression?"

Well, if one is really depressed, most likely he wouldn't feel like reading. Julia Kristeva in her book Black Sun talks about "asymbolia" as one of the side-effects of chronic melancholia i.e. a state of mind in which familiar signs and symbols lose their original meanings with a concomitant loss of faith in the communicative and representational power of language. But yes reading indeed helps if one is experiencing mild sadness by providing vocabulary and expressions using which one can detach oneself from one's feelings.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Val Lewton Blogathon

Head over to The Evening Class where Michel Guillen is hosting a Val Lewton Blogathon. To my slight embarrassment my own two bit comment expressing my slight disappointment with the new Kent Jones directed (and Martin Scorsese narrated) documentary on Val Lewton The Man in the Shadows was selected as one of the entries. I should have added that I was disappointed only because with such high-profile names attached I was expecting much more than an A&E style talking-head documentary interspersed with clips. It still is a very informative documentary and a good place to start. Another reason was that I was too excited to have got a chance to see I Walked With a Zombie on big screen which was scheduled to start after the documentary and as a result I was feeling a little too impatient. Anyway, I gather that this is now being packaged with the new DVD box set of Lewton's films. The documentary "Shadows in the Dark" (can't escape shadows) that comes with the Box set right now is quite good as well. In fact it has many more interesting talking heads - Guillermo del Toro, William Friedkin, Neil Gaiman and others, all expressing their enthusiasm for these films.

While you are at Michael's blog, don't miss the amazing and mind-boggling number of interviews he has done with directors, actors and film people from all over the globe, all linked on the right side-bar. You may want to start with these two long ones with Guillermo del Toro here and here.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Memories of Murder

Writing and thinking about Zodiac reminded me of this Korean film which I saw a couple of years back. It is a similar police procedural about a real-life serial killer who was never caught. Unlike Zodiac, which is about the impossibility of making conclusive decisions when subjected to a barrage of facts and information, specially within the intricacies of insitutional liberal justice system, Memories of Murder points its fingers at the crisis of whole Korean society itself. It doesn't just remain a story of two detectives brought to the brink of madness and despair by their inability to catch the killer but about the wider moral apathy endemic in the society. It even hints at the idea of a disembodied, transcendent evil (Twin Peaks style) haunting the verdant paddy fields of Korean rural scape giving the story a metaphysical edge. It is guaranteed to disturb and haunt even the most jaded of viewers. Don't miss it if you get a chance.

I don't remember all the details of the plot so I will just point to some excellent reviews instead:- in Sight and Sound, New York Times and village voice

Nice Trailer here:

Bonjour Tristesse

Can we have a movie which makes a moral case for hedonism please? I am such a moralistic person (in an anti-fun loving sort of way) that whenever I see a film like Bonjour Tristesse, rather than feeling sorry for any of the characters or having a shock of recognition of the emptiness of my own life, I instead feel an intense deja vu, even schadenfreude. More seriously, I thought Otto Preminger's film was really very good, a masterpiece even. I have wanted to read the original novel of the same name by Francoise Sagan for a long time but never got around to doing it. May be watching this movie will spur me to locate a copy.

In the way it portrays upper class European bourgeoisie Bonjour Tristesse anticipates films like La Dolce Vita and L'Avventura both of which came a couple of years later. It complicates (or dilutes, depending on one's perspective) the social criticism by introducing Freudian elements into the story. I thought it made the film more interesting. It works on both levels - as a specific story about emotionally troubled characters and as a more general sociological critique.

Jean Seberg is fantastic in the main role. What's even better is that she cavorts around in swim-suit in most of the film. Even the generally prim and prissy Deborah Kerr (that is not meant as a criticism, she is one of my favourites actually) shows a lot of skin. That said, I would have preferred if it had French actors. All three feel a bit out of place in the setting.

A nice review here. Incidentally Godard was one of the champions of the film when it first came. He even cast Seberg in his film Breathless so that she could continue to play the same role in it too.

Last Year at Marienbad

An article about the film in the new york times.

“Marienbad” either does or does not tell the story of what may or may not be a love triangle that does or does not end violently, though the movie could also be presenting shards of a dream, a memory or a fantasy. What transpires among the three nameless principal characters is, the filmmakers have always maintained, up to you to figure out.

Film Forum link here with more quotes and details.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

David Fincher: Zodiac

I had a somewhat ambivalent reaction to David Fincher's Zodiac when I first saw it early last year. I admired its style, attention to detail and most of all its restrain but so densely packed its (160 minutes long) narrative was that it left me completely exhausted much before it actually ended. Reading the reviews did help me realize what Fincher was trying to achieve. Since then I had been waiting for it to come on DVD. I just saw the new director's cut (nine extra minutes! yay!!) and I now feel that this certainly is the best and the most important American film of last year, much more satisfying than either No Country for Old Men or There Will Be Blood.

Zodiac was a box office disappointment, which is not surprising at all given how it consciously rejects (or "unexpectedly repudiates", to use a phrase from Manohla Dargis's review) the standard Hollywood aesthetic, as seen in the serial killer and police procedural genres. Fincher himself directed Se7en, though not entirely conventional but still a standard Hollywood product. By contrast, in this film there are no heroic characters, or for that matter no villain, though we do feel his presence even though he is absent from the surface. We never see the killer, though Fincher does show the murders, some in his typical grisly style. The killer is of course never revealed or caught, though we do feel we are tantalizingly close to him at a few occasions. There are no shootouts, no macho cops, no funny, smartass dialogues which is the staple of cop movies. And most important of all it rejects psychological realism, thus denying any easy opportunity for identifying with any particular character, in order to concentrate more on the investigative and legal process - in all its mundane, undramatic, even tedious detail. Having said that, last section does become a story about the Graysmith character which I thought didn't fit well with the rest of the film. A more radical approach would have opted for a style used by films like The Battle of Algiers or Salvatore Giuliano. Even the New Hollywood movies of 70s, which are obvious touchstones for Fincher, do this very successfully - they show more interest in institutions and processes than human beings which are anyway shown to be too weak to have any character or any authentic motivations of their own. It is also important to keep in mind films of Alan Pakula's (All the President's Men, The Parallax View), Francis Ford Coppola (The Conversation) or Sidney Lumet (Network) to really appreciate what Fincher is doing in this film.

At the heart of the film (and the thing that interested me the most) is the idea of epistemological despair - the profound desire for knowledge yet understanding that it might be impossible even if you bury yourself under an avalanche of facts and information (which this film does). It shows the limits of rationality and taking from there the limits of our liberal justice system which takes rationality and the possibility of knowledge as an implicit assumption. We may never be completely sure about what we really know or can know. But it is to film's credit and its political integrity (and it shows how far Fincher has come from Se7en, Fight Club or Panic Room) that it never wavers from its faith in the rule of law and liberalism. We know that bringing the guilty to justice is important but it is equally important to make sure that no injustice is done to any innocent. The film makes repeated references to Dirty Harry, thus clarifying its own position relative to that. It makes Fincher's past films, and indeed any standard hollywood thriller, which all essentially work on the principle of wish-fulfillment fantasies of meting out violent justice look illiberal, if not downright fascist. It is specially important in these times when so-called "preemptive" ways of handling crime are becoming more and more acceptable. An excellent essay in Slate goes in more detail about it. There is a scope for a much more involved and detailed discussion on this topic. Somewhat reminds me of essays collected in Richard Rorty's Contingency, Irony and Solidarity. You can allow truth and reality to be contingent and yet build liberal institutions on that foundation and indeed there is no other way to be liberal in this postmodern age.

I have been thinking about these philosophical questions about assumptions of rationality in the context of detective stories even since I saw Twin Peaks. In fact watching it second time the Zodiac killer reminded me quite a bit of Windom Earle from the second season. One uses code cyphers and other uses chess positions to communicate - both consciously making a point about limits of rational, logical deduction when it comes to identifying and weeding out evil. I am sure Agent Cooper would have cracked the Zodiac case with his unique mind-body technique and the Tibetan method! But its really hard work for ordinary detectives.

I know most people missed it when it came but the two disc special edition more than makes up for the lost chance. I haven't been able to explore extras or been able to listen to the two commentary tracks but will try to find time for them soon. Anyway, Zodiac definitely deserves a place high on your to-watch queue.

Trailer to whet the appetite:

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Witchfinder General

Michael Reeves's 1968 film Witchfinder General is an acknowledged cult classic of British Horror. I don't think it rates as high as other British horror classics of the same period like Peeping Tom or my personal favourite The Wicker Man in purely artistic terms, but that said, I found it extremely disturbing and deeply affecting, despite many obvious objections. At more than a few occasions I even thought of stopping but couldn't do so because it was so powerful. It is gruesome, graphic and unusually sadistic but one can't doubt its sincerity or moral seriousness. The film ends with the hapless heroine screaming in anguish and despair and one feels like adding one's scream to hers too.

If the focus would have been only on physical torture and pain, it wouldn't have worked like that. It is a proof of the artistry of the film that one doesn't realize when physical torture and pain have segued into spiritual anguish, as one realizes the indomitable power of evil. Reeves was only 24 when he made this film and he committed suicide (in dubious and unexplained circumstances) shortly after. This fact, which admittedly is external to the film, nevertheless gives it an added feeling of sincerity which makes it even more disturbing. Did he really believe there was so much evil in the world?, you begin to think. Another factor which adds to the overall effect of the film is the way Reeves used the actual locations. The story is set in the Villages of the East Anglia region of England (the same setting of W G Sebald's The Rings of Saturn, places I really want to visit sometime). The way the spare and peaceful pastoral landscapes are used as backgrounds for the staging of a purely human evil, makes it particularly affecting and unsettling - almost as if human beings befouling the purity of nature just by their presence. It is also interesting to compare it to The Wicker Man in this respect, which is a work of pastoral horror too but which works in an entirely different way.

The Wikipedia article on the film is pretty comprehensive so I won't go into the same details here. As I was watching it I was also thinking of Carl Th. Dreyer's masterpiece Day of Wrath dealing with the same subject - the persecution of witches. Unlike Dreyer's film (which is no less gruesome and horrifying in its depiction of torture), Witchfinder General is not about the nature of faith or religious doubt (or power of human emotions, of course). The titular villain, played by a genuinely terrifying Vincent Price, doesn't believe in Satan, or for that matter even in God. He is just a cynical opportunist, inebriated with power and abusing it to gain what he really wants - money, political favours and sex. It is not surprising that the narratives about persecution of witches have been so easily and powerfully appropriated as political metaphors. Arthur Miller's The Crucible is the most famous and the most obvious example. The word "Witchhunt" itself has taken political overtones signifying abuse of power, systemic injustice built on collective delusion and irrationality and moral panic exploited for political ends. Jim Hoberman in his short review also calls it "an extraordinarily bleak story of political evil." As the description might have made it clear, this film is clearly not for everyone's tastes but those who are looking for something unusual and very strong may like. It certainly should be much more well-known than it already is.


I found this article about self-help uses of literature in The Guardian pretty annoying, though not surprising.

Incidentally there was a column by Stanley Fish in The New York Times on the same subject - asking "Will the Humanities Save Us?", a couple of days back. He goes to the other extreme.

It is not the business of the humanities to save us, no more than it is their business to bring revenue to a state or a university. What then do they do? They don’t do anything, if by “do” is meant bring about effects in the world. And if they don’t bring about effects in the world they cannot be justified except in relation to the pleasure they give to those who enjoy them.

To the question “of what use are the humanities?”, the only honest answer is none whatsoever. And it is an answer that brings honor to its subject. Justification, after all, confers value on an activity from a perspective outside its performance. An activity that cannot be justified is an activity that refuses to regard itself as instrumental to some larger good. The humanities are their own good.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Tropical Malady

Tropical Malady is a good example of what I call the whatsit genre of films - the kind in which at the end you wonder, pointing at the screen - what was it that just happened there? I had wanted to see it for quite sometime but never got a chance until recently. Meanwhile Apichatpong Weerasethakul's (who goes by friendlier name "Joe") new film Syndromes and a Century has found a place on many a top-10 lists from the last year. (It came at number 4 in the indiewire list.) It is already high up on my to-watch list.

Coming back to Tropical Malady, it is actually very simple if you think only of the plot. The film is divided into two parts. The first part tells the story of a blossoming romance between two young boys. One of them is a soldier stationed in the Thai countryside and the other works in an ice factory in the nearby town. The two guys are very bashful so their courtship remains very chaste too, they mostly just hold hands and smile at each other. Just when you think it is getting too much, along comes a mutual declaration of love. They lick each other's fingers and then the young guy goes away and disappears in the darkness. Then something weird happens. The screen goes blank for may be more than a minute, at least long enough to make you think if something went wrong with the player or the projection system. After the blackout it seems like we are watching a new movie altogether about shamans, forests and shape-shifting beasts. The same soldier is now in the forest, alone in the dark hunting a tiger who may or may not be his lover in disguise. We also meet a ghost of a cow and monkey who dispenses aphorisms about memory and desire. Actually it doesn't talk. We just see it on the trees and hear the voice-over. Finally he comes face to face with the tiger itself and thinks about surrendering to it. It may sound comic as I describe it here but the film itself is dead serious. You just have to listen to what the monkey says or see the final confrontation with the tiger. There is something magical and deeply evocative in those scenes which is difficult to articulate in words.

What happens in the second half is not that difficult to explain, at least not at the lever of a general idea. Tropical Malady of the title is of course love itself - a malady which makes one see the world in a magical way. For someone in Love, specially when confronted with an absence of the loved one, the whole world becomes a collection of signs and symbols, ready to be deciphered and interpreted, in the hope that they will give away some proof of love. In the film Keng (the soldier in the forest) is looking for and interpreting the signs of his lover's presence - the footprints, the claw marks on the trees - in the hope of finding the object of his desire again which has become elusive. His lover meanwhile has been transformed in his own imagination, again under the influence of the same malady (Somewhat reminds me of the title of Bunuel's film That Obscure Object of Desire.) I don't have a copy of Roland Barthes' Lover's Discourse with me right now but many of the ideas and aphorisms in the book, specially about love and its relationship with semiotics, will help explain the film much better ("Signs are not proofs of love," one sentence that I remember from the book).

In short, a marvellous film. Actually a perfect date-movie for the thinking types. Just keep a copy of Lover's Discourse handy. A nice review by Dennis Lim in Village Voice, which mentions Barthes too, though in a different context.

Carlos Saura: Cria Cuervos

Cria Cuervos takes its title from the Spanish proverb which says, "Raise the ravens and they will peck your eyes out" - sort of Spanish version of "As you sow, so shall you reap" applied to families and bringing up of children. In the context of the film it also captures the way traumatic memories of childhood work. You can wish them away, but the repressed memories will keep coming back in newer and more unsettling forms, however strong your will to forget may be. Again in the context of the film, the personal experience gets merged with the collective repression of trauma resulting from the experience of Spanish civil war and the dictatorship that followed it.

As the description makes it clear, this film shares a lot with Victor Erice's masterpiece The Spirit of the Beehive, a film which is very close to my heart. The fact that they both feature Ana Torrent, the miraculous child actor, at the center of the story only makes the parallel between the two even more clear. Carlos Saura was actually inspired to make it after watching Ana in The Spirit of the Beehive. He had to wait until she was available again to act in his film. Watching both of these films together in a double-bill will be a perfect introduction to these films, such is the level of inter-communication between the two. Or may be, if triple-bill is your kind of thing then round off these two with a screening of Pan's Labyrinth, which in so many different ways communicates with these two films too. In fact there are some really striking similarities with this film and not just in the way the two mothers look and suffer.

At the center of the story is young Ana (her character was named Ana in Beehive too) who has seen her mother succumb to cancer after suffering extreme physical pain. She is convinced that it is her father, who is a military officer in Franco's Spain, who is responsible for her mother's suffering and death, contributing to it by his philandering and emotional brutality. After he dies in a heart attack, Ana mistakenly begins to think that she has poisoned him. She becomes obsessed with the thoughts of death and dying and even concocts plans to dispatch her frosty aunt, who has come to take care of her and her two sisters, and her catatonic grandmother in the same manner. Meanwhile her mother continues to haunt her imagination by appearing out of nowhere. The film doesn't distinguish between reality and fantasy in the visual sense, thus avoiding the pandering to child's imagination which ruins most of these kinds of films. Saura respects Ana's imagination and it is through her subjective experience that we see the reality. It is actually this factor that makes the film succeed so well more than any other.

The narrative of the film is very elliptical. The story is narrated by a grown-up Ana (played by Geraldine Chaplin who plays her mother too) reminiscing about her childhood. The flashback itself contains many flashbacks and "fantasy" sequences. The way Saura withholds information and makes the narrative unfold slowly is absolutely masterful. Only after a while do we learn that the figure of mother played by Geraldine Chaplin is in fact dead, and that she is present only in Ana's imagination. The subplot of the poison becomes clear only towards the end as well, when we see her cleaning the glasses after a similar attempt.

The political critique is much less oblique in this film than in The Spirit of the Beehive. The father figure obviously represents the fascist, military leadership of Spain and the bitterness and despair at the way Ana's mother (who in a way represents Spain) suffers is evident and obvious too. In one aspect it is quite similar to The Spirit of the Beehive - in its quietness and a complete absence of anger. It is full of despair but there is also an understanding of what happened and a feeling of resignation. We wait for some emotional catharsis, a scene of extreme violence or opening up but it never comes. It is actually only natural in a film which deals with repression of traumatic memories as the main theme. (Luis Bunuel's Viridiana has its share of anger and cathartic violence alongwith bitterness and despair. Bunuel was Saura's artistic mentor and it is interesting to compare parallels between these films too.)

The film is very well-acted by its all-female cast. Ana Torrent is of course magical in this film too. The way she stares at the camera, her dark sad eyes and her abrupt pronouncements about death are sure to haunt anyone who has seen this film for days after watching it. The film also uses music very imaginatively, specially two tunes. One a muted classical piano score and the other a chirpy pop tune called "Porque Te Vas" (Because you are leaving) - they both evoke a feeling of loss and sadness in totally different ways, one from an adult perspective and another from children's.

Like I said in my post on The Spirit of the Beehive, it is extremely difficult to capture children's subjectivity without pandering, paternalising or making it seem childish. The fact that both these films succeed and succeed so well speaks volumes about the skill, sensitivity and intelligence of both the filmmakers. I don't think one can ask for a more perfect and a more beautiful film than these two. If you haven't seen them, you should leave everything you are doing and run to the nearest rental library. Both these films are available in excellent double-disc criterion collection DVDs with lots of interviews and background documentaries. It is again a relief to see Ana Torrent grown-up into a normal woman. Watching these two films you start worrying for her emotional well-being. In an interview Erice says that he felt sorry for robbing her of a few years of her childhood. Ana's interviews are actually very disquieting - she herself, like the rest of us, seems to be searching for Ana of the two films who seems to have vanished somewhere. Moreover she says that she doesn't remember much from the time and she didn't understand what she was doing anyway. Whatever it may be, no one can deny that she is a miracle personified. There are few haunting presences in film like the figure of Ana Torrent in these two films. Like I said, not to be missed. A trailer here. The foot-taping Spanish pop song "Porque Te Vas" in full here (English translation here.) Also a nice essay on the film at the criterion site.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Claire Denis: Beau Travail

Claire Denis's The Intruder must be one of the most confounding films I have ever seen in (admittedly short) film-going life. After having seen her earlier effort Beau Travail ("Good Work") recently, I can now, to an extent, understand what was it that made the experience of watching The Intruder so difficult. It is a much simpler work than The Intruder, one reason being that that underlying narrative itself is very threadbare and obvious but the two films do have a lot in common in form and technique. Denis isn't interested in dialogues or in structuring her story in a conventional manner aiming for dramatic payoffs. She also avoids psychological realism, or in other words "character development", which is the main staple of conventional narrative cinema completely. And most importantly it is the way she edits the scenes. There is no continuity in time and space, again something that is assumed in a conventional objective storytelling. Instead there are disparate images bound together by a "poetic" narration (or rather a reverie) which may or may not have anything to do with the images on the screen. This is a radically different way of portraying subjectivity in cinema. Actually it somewhat reminded me of films like Last Year at Marienbad or even films of Terrence Mallick, specially his most recent The New World, which used similar narration to join disparate and discontinuous images together and at the same time functioning as a counterpoint to it. I was also thinking what would the screenplay of this film look like. It seemed to me manufactured entirely in the editing room.

The main problem I had with the film was that the underlying narrative didn't interest me much. Specially if you are going to do away with all dramatic structures, at least there should be some elemental ideas, which should keep you interested in the goings-on. Beau Travail doesn't have any such thing. The Intruder probably was more interesting in this respect. Now that I am a little wiser I should check it out again. Who knows, may be this time I will understand what is it really about? The way male bodies are eroticised in this film is also quite remarkable. It can be accused of eroticising militarism but that would be unfair in my opinion. The way she shoots the landscapes is also exquisite. Actually it is a bit of a sensory overload.

Two long essays on the film here and here.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Slate Movie Club

Slate Movie club is back with lots of amusing and insightful comments, as always. There is something in the format perhaps which makes reading it so much more enjoyable. The links to past movie club roundtable are also on the same page in the left sidebar.

Some amusing comments...

On No Country for Old Men
'It blows a hole in our brains, over and over again, without explanation, and then asks us to walk out going, "Wow, that was quite a hole you blew in my brain. Thanks." '

On I'm Not There
"The movie has experimental balls, but I couldn't get the zipper down to really feel them the way other people seemed to be able to. "

And more seriously Scott Foundas about some of the "unresolved", and certainly unconventional, endings of many of the most acclaimed American films of the year..

"What does all this mean? Well, if you follow the logic of Movie Clubber alumnus Jonathan Rosenbaum in his controversial No Country for Old Men review over at the Chicago Reader, our unresolved state of affairs in the Middle East may be partly responsible for the sheer number of psycho killers, psycho evangelists, and psycho oilmen who've been lighting up our movie screens these past 12 months. And perhaps, by extension, it applies to the endings—or lack thereof—of those stories too, as the title of one acclaimed Iraq documentary (No End in Sight) succinctly posits."

Wednesday, January 02, 2008


From the third and last chapter of "Time Regained" ... looked apt to me as something to think of when a new year starts, with thoughts and fears about what future might have in store for us:

"How many times in the course of my life reality had disappointed me because at the moment when I perceived it, my imagination, which was my only means of enjoying beauty, could not be applied to it by virtue of the inevitable law which only allows us to imagine that which is absent. And now suddenly the effect of this hard law had become neutralised, held in suspense by a marvellous expedient of nature which had caused a sensation to flash to me—sound of a spoon and of a hammer, uneven paving-stones—simultaneously in the past which permitted my imagination to grasp it and in the present in which the shock to my senses caused by the noise had effected a contact between the dreams of the imagination and that of which they are habitually deprived, namely, the idea of existence—and thanks to that stratagem had permitted that being within me to secure, to isolate and to render static for the duration of a lightning flash that which it can never wholly grasp, a fraction of Time in its pure essence. When, with such a shudder of happiness, I heard the sound common, at once, to the spoon touching the plate, to the hammer striking the wheel, to the unevenness of the paving-stones in the courtyard of the Guermantes’ mansion and the Baptistry of St. Mark’s, it was because that being within me can only be nourished on the essence of things and finds in them alone its subsistence and its delight. It languishes in the observation by the senses of the present sterilised by the intelligence awaiting a future constructed by the will out of fragments of the past and the present from which it removes still more reality, keeping that only which serves the narrow human aim of utilitarian purposes. But let a sound, a scent already heard and breathed in the past be heard and breathed anew, simultaneously in the present and in the past, real without being actual, ideal without being abstract, then instantly the permanent and characteristic essence hidden in things is freed and our true being which has for long seemed dead but was not so in other ways awakes and revives, thanks to this celestial nourishment. An instant liberated from the order of time has recreated in us man liberated from the same order, so that he should be conscious of it. And indeed we understand his faith in his happiness even if the mere taste of a madeleine does not logically seem to justify it; we understand that the name of death is meaningless to him for, placed beyond Time, how can he fear the future?"