Monday, June 30, 2008

Spanish Cinema Beyond Almodovar

The Guardian publishes a piece about an ongoing festival of Spanish films in London bemoaning the lack of distribution and general awareness of Spanish films other than those directed by Almodovar. Some enthusiastic subeditor chose to title it as "The Curse of Almodovar" which prompts a response by Almodovar himself.

The story of Spanish cinema (and culture in general) in twentieth century is a sad one, perhaps best exemplified in the career of Luis Bunuel, one of the greatest film directors of all time.

Last year museum of modern art had a retrospective of Spanish films made under the Franco dictatorship. This list should be a pretty handy guide to start. Victor Erice's The Spirit of the Beehive and Carlos Saura's Cria Cuervos are both amazing films, extremely rich in social and political subtext. They actually even complement each other. Viridiana is of course a classic - less a film and more a frontal assault on the official Spanish culture of the time. The Hunt another film by Saura is also a thinly veiled allegory of Spanish history in twentieth century, specially the civil war. Death of a Cyclist was recently released on DVD by criterion which I haven not seen.

Among recent Spanish films. La Communidad (The Community) was a hilarious black-comedy/satire about an apartment community and the mayhem that starts after an old man dies leaving a few millions in cash in his apartment. Crimen Ferpecto by the same director was considerably less funny but still a pretty effective send-up of the stereotype of Spanish machismo. Solas (Alone) won many Goya awards in Spain but I found it somewhat sentimental and button-pushing, though definitely well-made and well-acted. Open Your Eyes by Alejandro Amenabar has deservedly achieved the status of a cult-classic too. Wikipedia has more links.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Two Hollywood Thrillers

My general aversion to multiplexes (too much commercialism , too many teenagers) means that I sometimes miss watching some good mainstream films on big screen. On the positive side this also means that it is very rare that I am disappointed with a film. In fact I don't remember the last time I saw a film which was either bad or boring and I have been watching way too many films these days. (Not all of this goes here though I do try my best).

Anyway, on to the two films I saw yesterday. When it came last year Michael Clayton looked like one of those awful (in that middling, middle-browish way) "legal thrillers" in the John Grisham mould. My expectations were way-off actually. In fact it has got a real heart and soul and is propelled by a real and sincere sense of outrage at the way things are. The film begins with a bravura monologue by Tom Wilkinson which reminded me of Peter Finch's "I'm not going to take this anymore" in Sidney Lumet's Network. We hear only his voice and on screen see the images of empty, dehumanised, almost abstract, spaces inside a sleek corporate office. This is a fantastic way to open the film, in the way it brilliantly captures the main theme of the film - corporations as instruments of soul-destruction.

As we learn a little later Wilkinson is one of the senior most lawyers of a leading law firm in Manhattan who has been cleaning up the mess created by one of his clients, a multinational agricultural research company (kind of like Monsanto), and has now decided that he just can't take it anymore, and enough is enough. His bosses at the law firm and his clients (played by Tilda Swinton who seems to be following Faye Dunaway from the same film) are of course not very happy about it and George Clooney who is a "fixer" (sort of fire-fighter) is sent to calm him down. He tries to convince everybody that it is "a chemical problem" (that quintessential solution to every modern problem), a result of relapse, since he has a history of mental sickness. Things however soon spiral out of control. I won't reveal what happens but it kept me on edge throughout. Corporations hiring spies, surveillance experts and contract killers again reminded me of those fantastic 70s thrillers like The Conversation and The Parallax View (two touchstones in my personal canon for these kinds of thrillers) but it falls short in its climax, using that awful formula of "instant redemption" that Hollywood is so fond of. Still it provides enough thrills and food for thought for its preceding two hours.

One of my favourite scenes in the whole film was the Tilda Swinton character rehearsing her lines that she is going to speak in a meeting in front of a mirror. The whole sequence brilliantly captures how life in in these big corporates is just an act, a performance, and also shows the ethical implications when this performance is confused with the real and the authentic self. Also a brief note of remembrance for Sydney Pollack who died a few weeks back. He is one of the producers of the film and plays a secondary role in it.

It is hard to believe Sidney Lumet still making films. This guy made 12 Angry Men in 1957! On top of that Before the Devil Knows You Are Dead doesn't look like a film made by a man in his 80s. I was again somewhat reluctant to watch it when it came last year since I am generally sick of melodramas about dysfunctional families and "sick soul of suburb" that Hollywood continues to churn out on a regular basis. Many of these even go on to win Oscars. It follows the conventions of this genre pretty closely (complete with daddy-issues and stuff) and the backward and forward narrative style feels a little grating initially but soon you are stuck in the whirlpool of the story and the desperateness of the characters. Like all "from bad to worse" crime stories you begin to wonder if there is anything that can still go worse but then they always do. The acting is really top class specially by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Really an excellent piece of film making. Hope Lumet has a few more like this inside him before he decides to call it off.

Vincent Minnelli: The Band Wagon

A major gap in my film history education so far has been my relative unfamiliarity with American movie musicals. I also feel somewhat reluctant to do anything about it since I am not particularly fond of this genre. Recent death of one of the great stars of MGM musicals Cyd Charisse and reading all the eulogies prompted me to see the classic 1953 musical The Band Wagon by Vincent Minnelli. (An appreciation of her in new york times here.)

To call it inconsequential, I realize, will itself be a totally inconsequential complaint. One is supposed to admire the craft and the skill, the way bodies move gracefully through the space and the way it manages to express a feeling, though in this case, it is true only for one dance sequence in the film, "Dancing in the Dark" (copied below). Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse enter the central park (created on the studio sets) as colleagues in an upcoming dance musical and leave as lovers. The dance sequence captures this progression beautifully, the effect couldn't have been the same if it had used any other narrative means. Rest of the song and dance pieces are also very skillfully done. Specially the last one in which Fred Astaire parodies a sleazy hard-boiled detective from one of those film-noirs, complete with blonde and brunette femme fatales. (The blonde in trenchcoat will remind of Kiss Me Deadly. The youtube only has a section of the whole sequence.) My eyebrows were raised at the way the film seems to offer an apology (or defence, depending on one's point of view) of populist mass entertainment but then again it is, as I understand, totally missing the point. Anyway here is the "Dancing the Dark" sequence...

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Douglas Sirk: Imitation of Life

Douglas Sirk's 1959 classic melodrama Imitation of Life is that rare thing - an intellectually provocative film which is also an excellent exercise for the lachrymal glands. Be prepared with at least half a dozen hankies before you watch it. It didn't make me cry (but that is only me) but left me feeling quite bitter. I still prefer his earlier film All that Heaven Allows more which not only has a satirical tone which is missing in this film but also exhibits a more self-conscious critical intelligence in its expose of the hypocrisy, shallowness, cruelty and materialism of social and family life in suburban America of the 50s. Imitation of Life is actually even more bitter and the picture it presents of American society even uglier, which is all the more powerful and effective because it is presented to us through remarkably glossy and shiny images. It is this stylistic irony that makes Sirk so beloved of critics and directors, specially those who use popular genres and employ irony as a tool of social criticism. As I have mentioned many times before on this blog, I really love the Fassbinder and Todd Haynes versions of the Heaven story.

Imitation of Life tells the story of four women who struggle to make their life more than just imitations of life. Lola is an aspiring actress who has been struggling hard and having a rough time at it after her husband's death. By chance she meets a black woman Annie Johnson, mother of a daughter herself, who is herself desperate for finding a job of a housemaid because no one wants to employ a maid with a child. Lola reluctantly agrees to take her into her household. The story then follows two different threads. First is about Lora and how she navigates the sexually opportunistic world of show-business and finds success. The second thread follows Annie's daughter Sara Jane who tries to deny her racial identity (she is light-complexioned) in order to find fulfillment in life. For her denying the racial identity is same as denying her mother which is the main source of dramatic conflict, specially when the mother is so super-humanly angelic and self-sacrificing. The scene where she goes to meet her daughter in California (where she works as a backstage extra in a sleazy variety show) for the last time must be one of the saddest in the all of classical Hollywood.

The way Sirk takes the thrust of the story away from Lana Turner (the film's obvious star attraction) and the white protagonists is another subversive element which distinguishes it from other soapy-melodramas. To give black characters autonomy and their own subjectivities must have been revolutionary at that time, when they were mostly consigned to supporting and stereotyped roles. Also the way he deals with the thorny question of racial (and in general any persecuted minority) identity is pretty sophisticated. Sara Jane can't understand why she can't live like a white person when she has a white skin. In a society which is racist and discriminatory identity is not something one can just simply choose. And in such a society repudiating who one is is an unethical and politically reactionary act, even when one doesn't identify explicitly with the group. It is Sara Jane's tragedy that she can't fathom the true ethical horror of her decision, at least not until it is too late. The actors who play Annie and Sara Jane (Juanita Moore and Susan Kohner) are also both astonishingly good. They were deservedly nominated for Oscars though they didn't win. There is also a brilliant and very moving rendition of a gospel song at the end of the film by renowned gospel singer Mahalia Jackson (billed prominently in the credits). The film was also a huge box office smash but was dismissed by critics as being too soapy and melodramatic. It was only in 70s that Sirk's films grew in reputation with european critics and directors like Fassbinder started championing him. Sirk had retired long before, in fact it was his last film in hollywood, he went back to Europe and lived a life of retirement and occasionally teaching at film school).

I need to see some of his other films too - specially The Magnificent Obsession. In any case Imitation of Life and All that Heaven Allows are two of the finest melodramas made in Hollywood. Just keep those hankies ready.

Nakadai Podcast Interview

Filmforum has uploaded the podcast (mp3 link) of the Q&A session with Tatsuya Nakadai which took place at the Harakiri screening last friday.

Another brief article in new york sun explores his work and career.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

List - Greta Garbo

Last week I overdosed on Greta Garbo. At one time I fell asleep while watching one of her films and after waking up I realized I had seen an entirely new film of hers in my dream, made up completely in my own imagination! Of course it was not much different from her other films. She laughed a lot. She cried even more. She died in the end (of course). She wore outlandish but beautiful costumes. She repeatedly sprung her head backwards, exposing her neck (both when too much happy and when too much sad. She never walked in a steady manner or in a straight line. She has to flail left and right with hands in random motion too, as if she were drunk on too much happiness, or much more often, too much grief. And most of all her truly unique accent and deep voice. Despite acting in so many films and spending so much time in hollywood she never mastered the American accent and thank heavens for that!

For a modern audience (I am extrapolating from my own experiences and prejudices) watching Greta Garbo doing all this and more presents a very unusual experience. We are accustomed to look for "character" and "individuality" and instead we are confronted with an "icon" and an "idea" - the idea of "Greta Garbo" (in quotes). Even in her early films her entry is shown and treated as an important event. She can't walk into a frame just like that. She has to be heralded accordingly as befits her status. There is also this whole grandstanding thing, the Diva mode which seems remote to a modern day cinefile (who grew up on neo-realism and similar films... like me). As a viewer then the only thing that remains in these movies is to decipher what this idea of "Greta Garbo" really consists of, what does it entail? For Roland Barthes her face represented "the platonic idea of human creature." In other words perfection itself. I don't find it particularly useful though Barthes is always worth reading and thinking about. More on Garbo from Mythologies here.

One of the most interesting aspects to me about Garbo the Icon is the inherent sexual ambiguity in how her body and in fact her persona is eroticised. Some of her performances will fall under the "camp" category as it is defined now, specially in the context of ambiguity of gender representaion. (This is something valid (in fact even more so) for Louise Brooks in Pandora's Box too.) They are definitely female creatures but the erotic gaze doesn't seem like a conventional male gaze. Or it may just be because their broad-shouldered, mostly two-dimensional body figure feels so remote to the contemporary (predominantly masculine and patriarchal) notions of female beauty, most notably in its totally infantile mammmiferous obsession. The Garbo film that highlights this best is Queen Christina which is also I think her best film overall, that is if one is looking for Garbo in quotes, Garbo the idea. If you are instead looking for just a great film then Ninotchka will fit the bill. Even there, familiarity with the idea of Garbo is required otherwise you will miss a few laughs.

Here are my top 10 favourite Greta Garbo films (that's all I have seen so far):

1. Ninotchka (Ernst Lubitsch, 1939): Garbo plays Nina Ivanovna Yakushova aka Ninotchka, a dour and humourless Russian envoy and a very enthusiastic commie whose heart is melted by the all-around wonderfulness of capitalism and Paris. It sounds like a propaganda but in real it cuts both ways. Wilder & Brackett were responsible the screenplay.

2. Queen Christina (Rouben Mamoulian, 1933): Garbo has to choose between her kingdom and her love. One of the most romantic films I have seen in a long time. This is really the essential Garbo film. A must watch.

3. Camille (George Cukor, 1936): This is where she tries the hardest and succeeds most of the time. Too bad, the story is just second-rate sentimental opera. La Traviata was based on the same story by Alexandre Dumas fils.

4. Anna Karenina (Calrence Brown, 1935): Garbo at her most beautiful. Overall ordinary but the last scene will leave you haunting, though still not even near to the book.

5. Anna Christie (Clarence Brown, 1930): Based on a play by Eugene O'Neill. For a change she plays a working class character, actually a reformed hooker, though it is pretty hard to believe her turning a trick. It is still a very entertaining film mostly because of some amazing support from a small supporting cast. She made a German version of the same film too. The print included on the DVD was atrocious but hearing her speak German was a delight. She reportedly preferred the German version herself.

6. Grand Hotel (Edmund Goulding, 1932): Garbo as Diva - Diva with a capital 'D'. Joan Crawford almost steals the show in this from her.

These three silent films and one last talkie, though mostly ordinary-to-good as standalone films (they are very well-crafted but rather indifferently so) are still very important in the way they helped in the creation of the Iconic image of Garbo. The two spy movies are awesome too.

7. Flesh and the Devil (Clarence Brown, 1926)
8. The Mysterious Lady (Fred Niblo, 1928)
9. The Temptress (Fred Niblo, 1926)
10. Mata Hari (1931)

Woody Allen Essay (and Top 10)

A nice article on Woody Allen talks about some of the philosophical themes in his works (Is Woody Existentialist, Nihilist or Pragmatist? Discuss.). I also found what he says about his comedy very interesting (which is quite true, at least for his brand of humour):

I think that had I been better educated, I could write poetry, because a writer of comedy has some of that equipment to begin with. You’re dealing with nuance and ear and meter, and one syllable off in something I write in a gag ruins the laugh. . . . In actual one-liners, there’s something succinct, you do something that you do in poetry. In a very compressed way you express a thought or feeling and it’s dependent on the balancing of words.

I think I have seen more than 80% of his work (the percentage makes sense in his case because his oeuvre is really huge and still going strong). Some major gaps are his "unfunny" films like Interiors or September. I was thinking of making a favourite 10. So here it is:

1. Hannah and Her Sisters: This is also one of the best "New York Movies" ever made.
2. Love and Death: Not one of his sophisticated comic-dramas but certainly that makes me laugh the most.
3. Annie Hall
4. Manhattan
5. Husbands and Wives
6. Radio Days: Woody at his warmest, sweetest and most nostalgic. He isn't a nihilist after all.
7. Crimes and Misdemeanors: Ok, may be he IS a nihilist.
8. Bananas: Another non-sophisticated film but full of laughs from start to finish.
9. A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy
10. The Purple Rose of Cairo

(link via bookforum)

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Masaki Kobayashi: Harakiri

True to its title Masaki Kobayshi's Harakiri is an extremely grim and brutal film. It is also spellbinding and a stunning piece of work, quite simply the best samurai film I have ever seen. Although the story is set in medieval Japan (1630) it is quite obviously filtered through the sensibilities of immediate post-war Japan. By critically interrogating the Samurai code of honour and attendant elements of feudal culture it is obviously a response to the calamities of Japanese history (in the second world war). Pacifism, introspective humanism, critique of masculine and traditionalist codes of honour are some of the recurring themes in post-war Japanese cinema but in Harakiri these come out as particularly powerful. It might be possible that I was not really prepared for its grimness, bitterness and intensity (and to be honest I don't really like the samurai or chambara films all that much), watching it felt like being hit by a bullet train.

I won't reveal anything about the plot and I will suggest not to read anything about it before watching the film because the way the story is told the effect is cumulative as plot surprises and revelations pile up one after another. (It is told through multiple episodic flashbacks). Tatsuya Nakadai is simply astonishing in the main role of the aging Samurai. He said that when he was first offered the role he was skeptical about it and thought he wouldn't be able to do it. He is a man of average physique which works well in this role because his strength seems to come out of his will and intensity more than his body and physical prowess.

Kobayashi's visual style is also stunning. His shot compositions, camera movements and framing are highly formalistic and stylized which makes the sheer visceral impact of the film all the more surprising and effective. The swordfight scenes are also highly formalistic which may disappoint fans of the genre who may be expecting more fast paced action. Even then the final standoff between Nakadai and hordes of other fighters will take the breath away of even the most jaded of fans. The film was adapted from a story by famed screenwriter Shinobu Hashimoto, who also wrote many of Kurosawa's early classics like Rashomon, Ikiru, The Bad Sleep Well and The Seven Samurai. A few words about the soundtrack which was done by famous avant-garde composer Toru Takemitsu, most famous for his collaboration with Hiroshi Teshigahara (The Woman in the Dunes, The Face of Another). The music is very "modernistic" in the sense that it is not easy to assign a particular emotional register to a particular sound. Or, it may be that I am just not familiar with the Japanese instruments. It is also used brilliantly in the film by Kobayashi. Music just doesn't fill up the "empty" scenes but adds new meanings and depth to what would be a conventional and predictable scenario.

This is really a must-watch not just for the fans of Samurai and Chambara genre but also for those interested in the post-war golden age of Japanese cinema (quite simply one of the genuine high water-marks in the history of this art-form). I had earlier linked to the film forum series on Nakadai which has some nice quotes and details about the film. For those who are curious the wikipedia entry on Seppuku. It is also available on an excellent criterion DVD. Don't read the reviews just rent the DVD!

Vladimir Nabokov: Mary

Mary, Nabokov's first novel, was first published in the early 20s when he was living in exile in Berlin and writing under the pseudonym of "V. Sirin". It was published as Mashenka and in the forward Nabokov says that he thought of using the diminutive of English equivalent for his title of the English translation which would have been Mariette but decided to use Mary instead. (The book is translated by Michael Glenny, "in collaboration with the author" as the book jacket says.) I actually wish they had used the original Russian which sounds really wonderful. He also says that it contains elements from his autobiography in a direct manner, unlike his other later works - something which he is very defensive about: "The beginner's well-known propensity for obtruding uopn his own privacy, by introducing himself, into his first novel, owes less to the attraction of a ready theme than to the relief of getting rid of oneself, before going on to better things." In fact most of the book will remind the readers of his autobiography Speak, Memory (a masterpiece and a huge personal favourite), specially the masterful and unforgettable chapter 12 of the book in which he writes about "Tamara" (Valentina Shulgin in real life), his adolescent love. He in fact says that "headier extract of personal reality" is contained in romanticisation (that is, this book) as compared to his autobiography which is more distanced. He then claims that this apparent paradox has a simple explanation: "in terms of years, Ganin was three times closer to his past than I was to mine in Speak, Memory"

Mary is set in the Russian emigre colony of Berlin. Our hero Ganin lives in a residential apartment which houses other immigrants who fled Russia after the revolution and the civil war. The story starts when Ganin sees the photograph of one of his co-resident's wife who is about to arrive in Berlin from Russia and recognises in her his adolescent love Mary. This event sparks off a chain of reveries about the time he spent with Mary in Russia, which fills up most of the rest of the book. This is of course vintage Nabokov territory and it is nice to see that he had already found his unique voice and style (mostly the extreme sensuousness of his prose) in his first book. His reminiscences are interspliced with characters and events in his current life in Berlin, which a little disappointingly, never really come fully alive. It is never dull but it is also not Nabokov. To get a real portrait of emigre literary circle in Berlin one has to again go back to Speak, Memory. I don't know the reason why Nabokov chose not to make Ganin a full-fledged writer or artist and set the story in a more typical artistic circle, the kind he was used to. The characters here are artists too, and Ganin himself is a man of obvious artistic temperament but it is still a pretty humdrum environment. Most of them are extras in films, ballet and struggling and forgotten poets.

Ganin in the end is able to convice himself that Mary might still be in love with him and it might still be possible to continue from where they lost each other. Thinking this, he plans to whisk her away when she arrives in Berlin after incapacitating her husband through inebriation. But at the last moment the sudden realization of the unalterable finality of the break with the past dawns on him and he leaves off for a different place on his own and alone:

As Ganin looked up at the skeletal roof in the ethereal sky he realized with merciless clarity that his affair with Mary was ended forever. It had lasted no more than four days - four days which were perhaps the happiest days of his life. But now he had exhausted his memories, was sated by them, and the image of Mary, together with that of the old dying poet, now remained in the house of ghosts, which itself was already a memory.
Other than that image no Mary existed, nor could exist.

This is one of the recurrent motifs in Nabokov's fiction - the interplay between the idea created in one's imagination by memory and its counterpart physical reality. Like Ganin, Nabokov also chose to live with the idea of home and idea of Russia. In one of his interviews he said that even if the Russian government would allow him to return he wouldn't go there because his Russia didn't exist anymore, not in the physical reality. He also refused to make a home for himself anywhere else. He spent his entire life, after he gained financial independence, living in a hotel! It was as if making a new home for oneself was betraying or repudiating the idea of home one had in one's imagination and that idea was so "real" to him that he didn't feel the need for a real, replacement home. The character of Mary in this sense also represents the idea of home and idea of Russia itself. This correspondence is again much clearer and explicit in Speak, Memory than it is here but it is definitely present in this book too.

Overall it is definitely one of Nabokov's minor works, somewhat dispensable if one has read Speak, Memory but it is still great to see how it all began. It is also immensely interesting to identify themes, images and metaphors that would reappear again and again in his later work. For example this description about an advertising sign reminded me of Nabokov's short story Signs and Symbols about a paranoiac young man in a mental asylum who thinks that everything in nature (clouds, wind etc.) is trying to tell something to him, only it is encoded and indecipherable. But then who can tell what it really is that flickers up there in the dark above the houses - the luminous name of a product or the glow of human thought; a sign, a summons, a question hurled into the sky and suddenly getting a jewel-bright, enraptured answer?

Or elsewhere the comparison of letters with butterflies which is there in the "Tamara" chapter of Speak, Memory too: There was something touching and wonderful about the way letters managed to pass across the terrible Russia of that time - like a cabbage white butterfly flying over the trenches.

The book has fewer Nabokovian touches - the language tricks, the word games, self-conscious cleverness - which actually puts off many readers but which I really like. There is for example this description of shaving: Softened by flakes of lather, the bristles on his taut skin steadily crepitated as they fell to the little steel ploughshare of his safety razor. Ploughshare of a safety razor! I am going to remember this image the next time I shave!!

The final words on the book to Nabokov himself who anticipated criticule (nice word!) of his book:

Because of the unusual remoteness of Russia, and because of nostalgia's remaining throughout one's life an insane companion, with whose heartrending oddities one is accustomed to put up in public, I feel no embarrassment in confessing to the sentimental stab of my attachment to my first book. Its flaws, the artifacts of innocence and inexperience, which any criticule could tabulate with jocose ease, are compensated for me (the sole judge in this case and court) by the presence of several scenes (convalescence, barn concert, boat ride) which, had I thought of it, should have been transported virtually intact into the later work.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Fassbinder: Fear of Fear

Fassbinder's Fear of Fear (or the better sounding German title Angst vor der Angst) is one of the best examples of films of the "desperate housewives", or in fact more accurately, the "housewives going nuts" genre. Cassavetes' A Woman Under the Influence, Todd Haynes' Safe are other great examples. In fact Juliane Moore seems to be the reigning queen of the genre, she was terrific in similar role in The Hours and Far From Heaven too. I haven't seen Chantal Akermen's Jeanne Dielmen yet which has a very high critical reputation too.

Anyway, here we have Margit Carstensen (who is a veteran of angsty characters as well) playing the same role. She is as superb and spectacular here as she was in The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant. She is in every single frame of the film and she is just spellbinding. In the beginning of the film she is heavily pregnant with her second child when she starts having anxiety attacks. Fassbinder shows it from her subjective perspective as the screen goes "wavy" and background swells on a soft and melancholy musical note. There is also another problem of a mysterious Herr Bauer of her neighbourhood who seems to be stalking her. If all this was not enough, her mother-in-law and sister-in-law, who live in the apartment next to hers, always intrude and pry upon her to give her good housewifey tips. She goes to a psychiatrist who prescribes valium and other medications but things get only worse as she gets addicted to valium and sinks lower and lower into isolation, despair and madness. The psychiatrist turns out to be the true villain in the film. He insists on sexual favours from her in return of drug prescription. She also tries to commit suicide impulsively by slitting her wrist but fails. (She herself runs off to the doctor after realizing what she has done.) In the end she is committed to a mental hospital where she meets another patient (played by Ingrid Caven) and forms an unspoken bond with her. After a while she is cured or at least that's what it seems. In the final scene we see the corpse of the mysterious Herr Bauer being carried away. He has apparently committed suicide. It is never clear who he is or why does he stalk her. The one sensible interpretation is that he is her double, the "insane" side of her personality and now that he has self-destructed she might be normal. But the ending is still ambiguous.

One important aspect of the film is that unlike other films mentioned earlier Fassbinder isn't really interested in analysing the root causes of Margot's nervous condition. He takes the soul-destroying effects of cold and impersonal life of domesticity as a given, he doesn't spend much time detailing and interrogating her daily routine or her past experiences. Instead he is more interested in how people in our society react to a someone like Margot. He is very prescient in his portrayal of our thoroughly medicalized society, where every nervous ailment can be cured through external psychiatric and pharmacological intervention. In the institution of psychiatry Fassbinder sees an agent of social and political oppression, one which makes possible for the status-quo to remain what it is by preempting any deeper scrutiny and questioning on the part of people who actually suffer from depression and anxiety and people who surround them. This is not the same as romanticising depression - something like wearing a cross for being sensitive in a brutal world - his criticism is entirely political. Quite a few leftist critics of Fassbinder while sharing his political position find his films too pessimistic but then they forget that despair and madness are forms of social protest too. In fact it is probably the only form of social protest available to someone like Margot who has an underdeveloped political consciousness or sense of self and is surrounded by such powerful institutional forces of normalization.

This excellent essay raises these points and others in more detail.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Why Does Herr R. Run Amok?

Fassbinder's Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? will be an excellent companion film to Michael Haneke's The Seventh Continent. Of course, someone has to be brave enough to watch the two together in a double bill. Like in the Haneke's film we see a series of episodes in the life of Herr Raab (Kurt Raab), a young man in his thirties with a wife and a son who works as a draughtsman in an architectural firm, before he runs amok and commits a random act of violence which, cataloguing the numbing routine of modern social and corporate life as the rest of the film does, comes across as cathartic not just for Herr R but for the audiences too, which makes it all the more disturbing.

There are some beautiful subtle touches in the film. Like the scene in which Raab says that drawing windows is what really interests him. Alas, all we see is him drawing the walls! There is also the final scene in which one of their neighbours relates the story of her skiing trip in mind-numbing detail, which ultimately provokes him to commit random violence. I was in the exact same situation not so long ago actually, of course I didn't bludgeon anyone to death though I did feel like taking some drastic step. In fact all the episodes in the film are wonderfully done. Raab's trip to the school to meet his son's teacher, His coffee breaks with his office mates, His hilariously inept attempt at spouting empty banalities himself at an office banquet - all these will strike very close to most viewers of the film, even more to the contemporary viewer as things have only gotten worse over the years.

Alienation, death of affect and coldness of life in modern urban societies are quite common themes in modern cinema. What makes Fassbinder's (and Haneke's) vision so extraordinary is their willingness to take the situation to its logical extremes however horrifying it can be and however uncomfortable it can make the viewer feel. It is like Antonioni with a Grand Guignol finish.

There is a great essay on the film on reverse shot website (though again a bit riddled with hyperbole.)

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

John Frankenheimer: Seconds

John Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate is one of the best and certainly the strangest political thrillers to have ever come out of Hollywood. The remake starring Denzel Washington and Meryl Streep which came a few years ago was excellent too but still the original remains unsurpassed, even by the great paranoia classics of the 70s like The Parallax View or The Conversation, of which it was definitely a precursor.

Seconds is not really a paranoia thriller though it definitely has some elements of that genre too. The story reminded me of Vanilla Sky and its original Spanish film Open Your Eyes though it must be said that use of plastic surgery to gain a new identity isn't really a unique or uncommon idea for a plot. It is not just the idea but what you do with it and how that matters and the film really scores in that department. The film begins with a sad and nervous looking man, approaching his old age named Arthur Hamilton being followed by a mysterious person and getting calls from a friend long thought of as dead. After a while we learn that he is being offered a chance to change his identity by faking his death and transform himself to a different and younger person, that is to have a "Second" go at life. The outfit making the offer identifies itself simply as "The Company." He is initially skeptical but after reflecting on it and giving a truly unsettling and disturbing monologue, reflecting on the usual stuff - how life is wasted in the pursuit of the trivial and the realization of the essential phoniness of human relations in modern society - he accepts the offer. As expected he gets a new life with the personality of Rock Hudson and an apartment in california but soon enough he realizes once again that the life of a "Second" is not what he had really expected it to be. What follows is really too shocking to reveal here and you must see it for yourself. Suffice to say that the ending is really downbeat and frightening.

As I said, the plastic surgery plot is quite cliched even when it is mixed with a sharp and biting social critique but what makes the film so powerful is its visual style and the atmosphere Frankenheimer creates with his extraordinary set-design and some of the most bizarre camera-angles and scene compositions ever. (It was the work of pioneering cinematographer James Wong Howe.) Like in The Manchurian Candidate one of his signature style is having a face in an extreme closeup in one corner of the frame with the background still in deep focus. He also uses the architectural interiors in a very evocative manner. The film also uses lot of really strange point-of-view and hand held shots all in effect create a nightmarish ambience which gives the story its power. It is a great classic, surprisingly little known even among the fans of sci-fi and horror.

There is a great essay on the film on the senses of cinema website, though I must say that the claim that it is the most depressing movie ever is obviously a hyperbole. That living a "normal" life (that is materialistic and acquisitive) is the same as wasting a life isn't really a revolutionary idea after all, however unsettling it might be to introspect on it.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Painted Veil

When the movie The Painted Veil came a couple of years back I really didn't want to see it. The poster made it look a cliched romance and even worse was the tag line - "Sometimes the greatest journey is the distance between two people" which sounded like something lifted from one of those ghastly hallmark cards. (I have seen this quote at so many places, I wonder where is it from originally.) But then I did go to see it eventually (mostly because I like both Edward Norton and Naomi Watts very much) and I am glad I did because it is definitely one of the best romantic dramas of recent years. (Not that I get to see too many contemporary movies, much less romantic movies).

I had wanted to read the book by W. Somerset Maugham ever since I saw the film and finally read it last week. I found it satisfying, quite good at places in fact but ultimately quite plain and predictable. These days I just seem to prefer watching movies more. This kind of straightforward, naive and untroubled-by-doubts realism doesn't hold my interest anymore, however "well-written" it might be. The basic narrative is the same. Kitty, a self-centred, vain and shallow young girl accepts the marriage proposal from a young research doctor Walter, who is very shy, introverted and awkward, only because she is desperate to escape her oppressive home and parents. She moves with him to Hong Kong where she soon falls for the charms of a womaniser. Walter finds out about the affair and in bitterness accepts a job in a remote town which is reeling with a cholera epidemic and whisks her along with him (after she fails to persuade her lover to divorce his wife). The rest of the story is about her moral and spiritual awakening as she comes face to face with suffering and desolation all around her. She also meets the nuns running the local orphanage, who also help her get away from her illusions and finally stripped away from the painted veil of life as the title of the book has it, she emerges a wiser and mature person and a feminist too, which is important because some sections of the book can be seen as faintly misogynistic, at least by less charitable readers.

The main difference between the two is that in the book the character of Walter always remains in the shadow and we never get to learn about his motivations or inner thoughts because the third person point of view is closely aligned with Kitty's perspective. This was the main reason for my disappointment with the book, specially because of the movie I was much more interested in what was happening with him rather than Kitty. (It is probably just idle and shallow speculation but it was certainly interesting to learn that the screenwriter of the film Ron Haynsmayer is a homosexual and a prominent gay rights activist.) The film is also more aware of problems of colonialism, racism and western humanitarian intervention and has a sense of history which is missing from the book. There are also a couple of scenes, staple of commercial movies in fact - one chase scene in which Walter comes to Kitty's rescue and one other love scene - which are not in the book but somehow both fit very well with the story in the film and work very well. The on location cinematography is superb, in a David Lean sort of way (that is touristy, but good). Alexandre Desplat's background score is another highlight. It won a few awards too, alas one of the only very few awards the film won. It certainly deserved more applause and recognition.

A nice and informative article in the new york times talks about the various film adaptations of Maugham's books. I really want to see the original version with Greta Garbo in the lead. The article says it is pretty dull but with Greta Garbo it can't be bad, specially if she sighs a lot and is sad and depressed. I also want to see Of Human Bondage the film which first put Bette Davis in the limelight.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Tatsuya Nakadai

Film Forum is holding a retrospective of films of Japanese actor Tatsuya Nakadai. The film forum web page is very informative and shows what an impressive career he had. I have seen the films he made with Akira Kurosawa. I am also familiar with Hiroshi Teshigahara's The Face of Another and Masaki Kobayashi's anthology ghost-story Kwaidan, though somehow I don't quite remember his face in either of the two. He has also worked with Kon Ichikawa and Mikio Naruse. There is a short article about his career in new york times too.

It is nice to see a foreign language actor getting a retrospective. Even after having seen so many of his films I had never really noticed him, may be because he took the second lead in most of them, often against Toshiro Mifune who always towers above the rest of the cast. Besides Mifune my other favourite Japanese actors are Setsuko Hara, Chishu Ryu, the father-daughter duo from quite a few of Ozu films.

Alberto Moravia in TLS

TLS reviews a posthumously published novel by Alberto Moravia. This is a pretty good summary:

Moravia specialized in composing requiems for the death of traditional humanism, his central themes being the reduction of man to the status of a commodity, one “thing” among many, and the psychological suffering that occurs as a result. In a word, alienation: external and internal, all-pervading and inescapable, conveyed in the stark titles of his novels: Gli indifferenti, La disubbidienza, Il conformista, Il disprezzo, La noia. His work consists of a series of variations on the myriad ways in which modern men dehumanize themselves and others, as articulated in different, but essentially analogous emotional registers: indifference, refusal, conformity, contempt, boredom.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

A Face in the Crowd

I saw Elia Kazan's A Face in the Crowd yesterday, a terrific film in every respect. There is absolutely no reason why it should remain unheralded as a genuine American classic, it is every bit as a good as On the Waterfront, in fact in some respect even better as the subject matter - the nexus between politics and pop culture entertainment and the inbuilt potentiality of culture industry for demagoguery - remain more relevant for our times than ever before.

This is a typical American phenomenon though of course it is now no longer confined just to America. Almost everywhere Politics has transformed into show business, a variation on vulgar popularity contests, with politicians playing the role of media personalities. The fine line which separated advertising, public relations, media, business, politics and entertainment no longer exists. Kazan's film is an extremely sharp, and somewhat bitter, expose of this phenomena before it really became mainstream.

Andy Griffith gives a tour-de-force performance as a country singer who becomes a national media phenomenon not long after starting as an improvisational singer in a local community radio program "A Face in the Crowd". His rise is shown in a highly exaggerated (and very witty) manner. He is advising presidential hopefuls about how to run their campaigns. He is even offered a role in the cabinet, handling the department of boosting of national morale. Politically Kazan and his writer Budd Schulberg (they were together responsible for On the Waterfront as well) are firmly positioned on the left. Lonesome Rhodes might be a voice from the grassroots but he is still a demagogue, a populist demagogue but that doesn't change the essential nature of his politics. The senator he is helping is obviously a right winger who is exhorting people to be "individualistic" like true Americans so that he can cut social security and pensions!

The tone of the film is hyperbolic and bitterly satirical, may be that's one reason why it wasn't a success when it was first released. Also, the fact that people generally won't take kindly to the suggestion that they are just dumb sheep, always ready to believe what they see on TV or listen on radio. In its mood and tone, and also the subject matter, it is similar to Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole though fortunately it avoids excessively misanthropy and spleen. It also seems to be a precursor of Robert Altman's classic and much superior Nashville, which also explores the intersection between politics and culture industry. Nashville is also a satire but it is much more subtle, complex and incisive.

Kazan is a very important figure in the history of American films, mainly because of his conception of film acting ushered in a new era. Andy Griffith in this film is in the same league as James Dean and Marlon Brando. He was not a trained actor, he was actually a stand-up artist which fits perfectly with the role in this film. He is not "polished" which is exactly what his character also is. The rest of the cast is also superb as is the subtle but very effective visual style of the film. A great film in all respects, certainly deserves to be on the same shelf as On the Waterfront.

For more, an article by Jim Hoberman in Village Voice.

Friday, June 13, 2008

List - Joan Crawford

"These days, all it takes to be labeled a diva is to release a couple of pop albums in a row and exhibit some bad behavior in public" - that's Dave Kehr reviewing a bunch of DVDs in the new york times. I was reminded of this while thinking of making a list of all films of Joan Crawford that I have seen so far, probably the greatest diva of all time, if not the greatest actress. It didn't matter who the director was or who her co-stars were, she always had to be in the foreground in every scene, always occupying the center of the frame with her face strategically lighted. Not a beautiful face in a conventional sense, at least not in her 40s movies, but a face you can't take your eyes off. It also helped that she remained always in the high-drama mode.

I had seen some of these before and some I saw recently in the last few weeks. From the rest of her oeuvre I really want to see the 1931 Possessed, The Women, A Woman's Face and most of all Johnny Guitar. For now, in order of preference (all are heavily recommended, except may be the last one)...

Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz, 1945): One of the greatest achievements of classical Hollywood film making, it also captures the essential elements of Joan Crawford's screen persona, at least of her later career. She mostly seemed to be going through the same motions as a character even when the story and the settings were different.

Possessed (Curtis Bernhardt, 1947): Film noir filtered through the tropes of woman's film with good dose of amateur Freudianism thrown in the mix. It is absolutely first rate overall, the only weak link is the hopelessly dull male lead Van Heflin (not that it matters in a Joan Crawford picture) but since she is supposed be possessed by her desire for him it just felt unconvincing. Also, rare for her she even sheds her diva image for a few scenes and appears on screen without any makeup.

Daisy Kenyon (Otto Preminger, 1947): Joan Crawford is pursued by two of Hollywood biggest stars and both very good looking actors - Dana Andrews and Henry Fonda. It is pretty unusual for a hollywood film of that time, the characters talk so much and are so complicated that it almost feels like a suspense film. Even at the last scene one are not sure who she will go with finally. She is confused herself as well. All the talkings and to and froing gave me a headache so much so that I felt like asking her to toss a coin or even better agree on some kind of menage-a-trois arrangement.

Humoresque (Jean Negulesco, 1946): It starts of as a film about the John Garfield character (the story starts from his childhood) and Joan Crawford doesn't even appear until after half an hour as passed but then soon enough Garfield goes duly in the background and Crawford takes the centrestage. Even when he is playing the Humoresque it is Crawford's face the camera is more interested in. Her final scene is very beautifully shot. There is also a very funny and annoying supporting character who supplies most of film's wisecracks.

Grand Hotel (Edmund Goulding, 1932): I have already mentioned it in a previous post. Rare for her, she actually doesn't have much to do in the ensemble cast but she is very beautiful and unforgettable in whatever she does.

Sudden Fear (David Miller, 1952): Crawford plays a successful playwright who refuses to cast Jack Palance as a romantic lead in one of her plays thinking he is not suitable for the part. Soon after she falls for his charms herself and marries him but then gets suspicious of his intentions about murdering her. The film also has Gloria Grahame in a supporting role who deserves a list of her own.

The Damned Don't Cry (Vincent Sherman, 1950): This is Mildred Pierce redux. Crawford plays woman from a poor and ordinary background who won't stop at anything to realize her ambitions. Things get tough when she finds herself mixed up with the underworld gang.

Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (Robert Aldrich, 1962): Unpleasant, pointless and totally avoidable. It is not really her picture, it belongs mainly to Bette Davis who does a caricature of all the screaming harpies that she was such an expert in playing.

History as Catastrophe

Syberberg's film and Susan Sontag's essay on it reminded me of one of my favourite phrases - "History as Catastrophe". And conversely, there are few ideas I find more ridiculous than the idea of historical progress and yet if I say this in front of other people they think I am some kind of loony, a pretentious loony at that. You don't really need to have read lot of books on history and philosophy to realize that the story of human civilization, and indeed on a miniature level the story of individual human life is nothing but a story of continuously unfolding disaster, a complete calamity. Indeed is it even possible to think of Life as a concept without thinking of Death. This is another aspect of German(-ic) literature that fascinates me - this melancholic awareness of the existence of a principle of destruction which unifies history, not just human but also natural history.

Theses on Philosophy of History by Walter Benjamin (very cryptic essay but I love that image of the angel of History that he describes)

The Rings of Saturn by W G Sebald (much more readable illustration of Benjamin's theses. Also interesting that his doctoral dissertation was titled The Mythos Of Destruction in Works of Alfred Doblin and his essays on Austrian Literature is collected under the title, "Describing Disaster: Austrian Literature from Stifter to Handke")

Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Doblin (Doblin will have you convinced that life has an essential negative value and that will-to-life is a force of evil, a force you can't but surrender to even if it is Death himself telling you otherwise)

The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil (Like a good Nietzschean Musil sees an opportunity of renewal in destruction)

The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth (Less hopeful and more sentimental than Musil. The end of Autrian empire is end of history for him and he is very disconsolate about it.)

Thursday, June 12, 2008

On Syberberg's Hitler

I have been struggling with Syberberg's Hitler, A Film from Germany for the last couple of days. I don't think I will be able to see the whole film. It is daunting not just because of its length (seven hours) but the sheer breadth of critical, historical and cultural resources it draws on. I am not the intended viewer of the film it seems. Reading Susan Sontag's brilliant essay on it is also not enough though it might be a very good start.

Just a couple of fragmentary thoughts. One of Syberberg's main aims in the film is to explore the various ways Hitler retroactively haunts European culture. Syberberg is of course not the first artist to have done this but the audio-visual medium of cinema and its attendant complexities does give his indictment a kind of immediacy and hence power which a more dispassionate academic study can't have. He is convinced that one can't separate European culture from the European crimes. (Hitler is not the only one - there is also imperialism and communism both of which get short shrift in these kinds of discussions but then in this case they are not its subject). At a basic level, the film can be said to be an interpretation of a particularly despairing version of philosophy of history which sees in Hitler a culmination of European civilization. Syberberg is not the first German intellectual to propose this, even before Hitler many German philosophers were writing treatises in this apocalyptic and eschatological vein.

Another important motif of the film is the way it treats Hitler not a person with a special existent in place or time but rather as an Idea or a representation which just got embodied in the persona of historical Hitler once. The film through various monologues, speeches, historical and cultural analogies tries to pin down what this idea of Hitler might be.

Susan Sontag says in her essay:

Syberberg asks that we really listen to what Hitler said—to the kind of cultural revolution Nazism was, or claimed to be; to the spiritual catastrophe it was, and still is. By Hitler Syberberg does not mean only the real historical monster, responsible for the deaths of tens of millions. He evokes a kind of Hitler-substance that outlives Hitler, a phantom presence in modern culture, a protean principle of evil that saturates the present and remakes the past. Syberberg's film alludes to familiar genealogies, real and symbolic: from Romanticism to Hitler, from Wagner to Hitler, from Caligari to Hitler, from kitsch to Hitler. And, in the hyperbole of woe, he insists on some new ones: from Hitler to pornography, from Hitler to the soulless consumer society of the Federal Republic, from Hitler to the rude coercions of the DDR.

His denunciation of consumer societies and commercialism (taking Hollywood as an example) left me perplexed and unconvinced. I even found them bizarre on many occasions. I am of course not a fan of consumerism at all and there is indeed a disease of soullessness that is common to both isms but this strain of argument didn't fit very well with the rest of the film. Zygmunt Bauman is more convincing in his critique of consumerist society as a continuum of societies functioning under fascism.

I will try to revisit it sometime in future after (hopefully) I am able to accumulate the necessary critical mass of knowledge that seems to be prerequisite to watching it. I also need to develop an appreciation of Wagner's music. Unlike Woody Allen he doesn't make me want to invade Poland, he just gives me a terrible headache. I had to lower down the volume while watching but I still couldn't go on after a while.

Susan Sontag's essay on the film is really one of her finest, worth reading even if you haven't seen the film. An extract here:

Although Syberberg draws on innumerable versions and impressions of Hitler, the film in fact offers very few ideas about Hitler. For the most part they are the theses formulated in the ruins of post-World War II Germany: the thesis that "Hitler's work" was "the eruption of the satanic principle in world history" (Meinecke's The German Catastrophe, written two years before Doctor Faustus); the thesis, expressed by Max Horkheimer in an essay written just after the war, that Hitler was the logical culmination of Western progress. Starting in the 1950s, when the ruins were rebuilt, more complex theses—political, sociological, economic—prevailed about Nazism. (Horkheimer, for example, repudiated his essay.) In reviving those unmodulated views of thirty years ago, their indignation, their pessimism, Syberberg's film makes a strong case for their moral appropriateness.

Syberberg asks that we really listen to what Hitler said—to the kind of cultural revolution Nazism was, or claimed to be; to the spiritual catastrophe it was, and still is. By Hitler Syberberg does not mean only the real historical monster, responsible for the deaths of tens of millions. He evokes a kind of Hitler-substance that outlives Hitler, a phantom presence in modern culture, a protean principle of evil that saturates the present and remakes the past. Syberberg's film alludes to familiar genealogies, real and symbolic: from Romanticism to Hitler, from Wagner to Hitler, from Caligari to Hitler, from kitsch to Hitler. And, in the hyperbole of woe, he insists on some new ones: from Hitler to pornography, from Hitler to the soulless consumer society of the Federal Republic, from Hitler to the rude coercions of the DDR.

In using Hitler thus, there is some truth and some unconvincing attributions. It is true that Hitler has contaminated romanticism and Wagner, that much of nineteenth-century German culture is, retroactively, haunted by Hitler. (As, say, nineteenth-century Russian culture is not haunted by Stalin.) But it is not true that Hitler engendered the modern, post-Hitlerian plastic consumer society. That was already well on the way when the Nazis took power. Indeed it could be argued—contra Syberberg—that Hitler was in the long run an irrelevance, an attempt to halt the historical clock; and that communism is what ultimately mattered in Europe, not fascism. Syberberg is more plausible when he asserts that the DDR resembles the Nazi state, a view for which he has been denounced by the left in West Germany. Like most intellectuals who grew up under a communist regime and moved to a bourgeois-democratic one, he is singularly free of left-wing pieties.

Syberberg's notion of history as catastrophe recalls the long German tradition of regarding history moralistically, as the history of the spirit. Comparable views today are more likely to be entertained in Eastern Europe than in Germany. Syberberg has the moral intransigence, the lack of respect for literal history, the heartbreaking seriousness of the great illiberal artists from the Russian empire—with their fierce convictions about the primacy of spiritual over material (economic, political) causation, the irrelevance of the categories "left" and "right," the existence of absolute evil. Appalled by the extensiveness of the German support for Hitler, Syberberg calls the Germans "a Satanic people."

And her final recommendation

Syberberg is a genuine elegiast who knows how to use the allegorical props, the symbols and talismans of melancholy. But his film is tonic. The poetic, husky-voiced, diffident logorrhea of Godard's late films discloses a morose conviction that speaking will never exorcise anything, and an inhibition of feeling, both of sympathy and repulsion, that results from this sense of the impotence of speaking. Syberberg, with a temperament that seems the opposite of Godard's, has a supreme confidence in language, in discourse, in eloquence itself. The result is a film altogether exceptional in its emotional expressiveness, its novel aesthetic, its visual beauty, its moral passion, its concern with contemplative values.

The film tries to say everything. Syberberg belongs to the race of creators like Wagner, Artaud, CĂ©line, the late Joyce, whose work annihilates other work. All are artists of endless speaking, endless melody—a voice that goes on and on. (Beckett would belong to this race too were it not for some inhibitory force—sanity? elegance? good manners? less energy? deeper despair?) Syberberg's unprecedented ambition in Hitler, A Film from Germany is on another scale than anything one has seen on film. It is work that demands a special kind of attention and partisanship; and invites being reflected upon, reseen. The more one recognizes of its stylistic references and lore, the more the film vibrates. Syberberg's film belongs in the category of noble master-pieces which ask for fealty and can compel it. After seeing Hitler, A Film from Germany, there is Syberberg's film—and then there are the other films one admires. (Not too many these days, alas.) As was said ruefully of Wagner, he spoils our tolerance for the others.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Fassbinder bric-a-brac

I was looking around for some information on Hanna Schygulla after watching The Edge of Heaven a couple of days back and found this short interview of her with Susan Sontag. Actually it's Sontag who does most of the talking but still it is interesting. She also had a short role in Bela Tarr's Werckmesiter Harmonies but she didn't have much to do in it (unlike in Heaven) which was specially disappointing since her character in the book is really one of the most important. Anyway, the film isn't really a character-based drama so it works out pretty well, the film is quite great actually.


I love these chapter titles in Fassbinder's Berlin Alexanderplatz. These are not from the book, they are all Fassbinder's inventions...

1. "The punishment begins."
2. "How is one to live if he doesn't want to die."
3. "A hammer on the head can injure the soul."
4. "A handful of people in the depths of silence."
5. "A mower with the violence of the dear Lord."
6. "Love has its price."
7. "Remember: an oath can be amputated."
8. "The sun warms the skin, but burns it sometimes too."
9. "About the Eternities between the many and the few."
10. "Loneliness tears cracks of madness even in walls."
11. "Knowledge is power and the early bird catches the worm."
12. "The serpent in the soul of the serpent."
13. "The Outside and the Inside, and the Secret of Fear of the Secret."
14. "My dream from the dream of Franz Biberkopf von Alfred Doeblin: An Epilogue."


I was reading some reviews of Berlin Alexanderplatz on amazon and there was a one-star comment which expressed a strong disapproval of scenes of animal slaughter in the film. This is something that troubles me too whenever I see scenes of animal abuse in a film, even in the "certified" works of art. How ethical is it to torture a real animal just to prove a symbolic point, however vital that may be because with animals the concept of "acting" is not applicable at all. It is always "real" for them. It is probably as ethical as killing them for meat... (I speak as a vegetarian but one who is somewhat confused and non-committal about the philosophical concepts surrounding Animal Rights)

That said, the slaughterhouse imagery and the sacrifice of the lambs are indeed extremely important in the film because they serve as one of the key motifs and the central metaphor of the work. In the hallucinatory final epilogue Fassbinder even shows human beings being slaughtered (symbolically of course) and being hanged on a hook like raw meat. For Biberkopf life is just waiting for a final slaughter with a persistent voice, a stand-in for an embodied Death who in turn seems like God himself, telling him what the final life-lesson is going to be like. There are also elements of Passion play with Biberkopf playing the Christ-like figure alongwith references to other Biblical stories of God's cruelty and ruthlessness, the story of Job and the story of Abraham and Isaac. It is also interesting that "Death" is voiced by Fassbinder himself.

After all this I really do hope that the horrible death of Mieze's beautiful little Canary was simulated and not real!

Monsieur Verdoux

There is a nice short article by Jim Hoberman in the new york times on Charlie Chaplin's Monsieur Verdoux.

“Monsieur Verdoux” may once again be timely, but the audacity of its statement derives less from Chaplin’s antiwar polemic than from his antiheroic pose. No star ever took a greater risk with his public image or more directly challenged his audience. If Chaplin ridiculed Hitler by transforming him into the Little Tramp, he did something far more disturbing in socializing the Little Tramp. “By his very existence,” Bazin noted, Verdoux “renders society guilty.” Approaching eternity, the convicted killer subtly reverts to the Tramp’s distinctive gait. Has humanity sunk to this? In the movie’s ultimate gag it becomes apparent that, as Bazin wrote, “They’re going to guillotine Charlie!”

It is scheduled to be screened at film forum for one week. It is also available on Google video in a pretty good print.

Film Log

Some classic movies I saw recently... It was just a coincidence that all three were directed by the same guy Edmund Goulding, who like William Wyler or Michael Curtiz was a very competent and efficient studio hand.

The Razor's Edge (Edmund Goulding, 1946): In this adaptation of the novel of the same name by Somerset Maugham (which I have not read), 40s matinee idol Tyrone Power plays a sort of proto-hippie who is disillusioned with his upper class life in Chicago and after breaking off his engagement to Gene Tierney takes off to Europe and then to India searching for Truth and salvation, which means walking on a "razor's edge" as a helpful Indian guru explains to him. He then returns back to Paris where he tries to clean up the mess in the lives of people he knew using his new found wisdom. In general I find this brand of sentimental religious hooey exasperating but from a historical point of view one has to concede that Maugham was writing this before these ideas became cliches. The film anyway doesn't dwell much on these ideas and instead is more interested in straight-forward melodrama. Clifton Webb is particularly remarkable in his role of an awful snob, very similar to the unforgettable role he played in Otto Preminger's Laura. He says things like, "I don't like the propinquity of the hoi-polloi" or at other time, "I can't think how a young man can come to Paris without evening clothes." In true melodrama fashion he gets his moment of redemption in the end which Webb does a good job of. He was actually nominated for an Oscar for this role. Gene Tierney is also good specially in the later half of the film when she transforms herself into a jealous harpy. Anne Baxter is also excellent in a supporting role. In fact she won an Oscar for it too. Overall, it is a bit too "respectable" and conventional and like other big-budget well-intentioned Hollywood movies of the period somewhat dated.

Grand Hotel (Edmund Goulding, 1932): Grand Hotel is less of film and more a parade of Hollywood stars of the period and as a result its appreciation will depend on the extent to which one is familiar with the iconography of all these stars. The proto-Atlmanesque narrative style of ensemble cast playing a bunch of characters, each one of them with their own background stories criss-crossing each other's paths throughout the film, is pretty well done too, extremely impressive for its time. Most of the actors act as if they were in a silent film - with exaggerated gestures and body movements or may be they are just playing icons. Greta Garbo is specially amazing as a depressive ballet dancer who is crying to be left alone all the time. Actually the quote "I want to be alone" has become associated with her real-life persona too. I have never seen any of the early films of Joan Crawford and this was a big surprise. John & Lionel Barrymore and Wallace Beery complete the rest of the cast and they are all pretty good as well.

Nightmare Alley(Edmund Goulding, 1947): Nightmare Alley was one of the pet projects of its star Tyrone Power who wanted to do something other than romantic and swashbuckling leads, which were good fit for his pretty but mostly inexpressive face. Nightmare Alley really goes to the other extremes, it is really dark, even disturbing specially the ending which must be one of the most brutal endings in all of film noirs, or may be it feels that way because it befalls Tyrone Power. The plot is complex and I won't describe it here but there are some amazing sequences specially a faux-poetic monologue which shows how easy it is to manipulate other people into believing something they want to just by being good at spewing fancy words, "a story about a boy and his dog" as one of the characters says. The later section when Power becomes a famous mentalist who claims to have communion with the dead are particularly fascinating in the way it so powerfully shows how his betrayal of other people's trust goes way deeper, to something betraying God. This is really a terrific film in every sense, not just a brilliant noir. Not to be missed.

Just to end, a snap of Tyrone Power (taken from his wikipedia profile)

Friday, June 06, 2008

The Edge of Heaven

Fatih Akin's The Edge of Heaven is a good example of the new breed of post-national European cinema, cinema which is informed by the spirit behind European union. Of course the post-nationalistic idea still remains mostly a bureaucratic abstraction and on the ground there are many more borders to transcend than just those on the map as Akin's film demonstrates beautifully. My personal favourite of these recent European films tackling this subject is Michael Haneke's Code Unknown which is actually a reworking of his own earlier film made in Austria 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance, which is equally great. Both these films tell the stories of immigrants from Romania (another controversial entrant into the Union )and Balkan countries to France and Austria respectively and the attendant problems of alienation and social anomie.

The Edge of Heaven also reminded of another recent globe-trotting, border-hopping film with inter-connected narratives Babel - a gun without an owner forms the central plot point in both. The plot is slightly complex and built on surprises so it is better if one goes to see it without reading what really happens in the movie. Suffice to say that those who find such criss-crossing narratives overly deterministic and schematic will have some problems with this film too, though I am myself not one of those. That said, given a choice I will definitely prefer a more free-form narrative (like in the films of Robert Altman who was the master of this style).

The film did leave one sore point with me however. Like more than a few recent films (like for example another German hit Goodbye Lenin) it takes a shallow approach to left-wing militancies and student movements and its "critique" verges on sentimentalism. It even employs Goethe to this purpose who said that only a fool would want roses to bloom in winters which Akin interprets as an argument for social and political quietism and against revolution. I am also not that well-informed on the recent history of Turkey to find out if the militant movement shown in the film was any specific movement at a particular point in time or just a generic plot device.

Anyway, the actors are all wonderful - both young and old. I was specially glad to see Hanna Schygulla back in a meaty role. I really love her in Fassbinder's films. She is one of my favourite European actresses and she is just marvelous in this film too. The Edge of Heaven is definitely one step ahead for Akin after Head-On. It is more contemplative and subdued than his earlier effort and also more ambitious. The fact that he is still in his early thirties is another reason for rejoicing.

(Not) Reading

I haven't been reading much recently. Not really busy, but too many things on my mind. I did pick-up one book, All the Sad Young Literary Men by Keith Gessen, which I found terrible and abandoned in the middle. Complete Review collects some reviews which the book has received, some of which are more enlightening and entertaining than the book itself.

It did make me think about a few things though, not all of them related to the book or its characters. Most of all, what it really means to live a life of the mind in a culture which is so hostile to it, a culture in which people can say things like "I am a marketer by profession and a poet at heart" (got it from a real blog profile) and really mean it without realizing the sad and ugly irony beneath?

List - Hitchcock Top 10

1. Shadow of a Doubt
2. Vertigo
3. Notorious
4. Psycho
5. Marnie
6. Rear Window
7. The Wrong Man
8. Suspicion
9. Rope
10. Strangers on a Train

Somewhat conventional I know, except for may be the first one for which I feel a sort of personal attachment.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Musil in New York Times Book Review

The latest NYT book review has an article on The Man Without Qualities, or rather about how big it is. Pretty ironic, as the book (among other things) makes fun of exactly the same kind of writing and the same attitude of glib, self-serving, self-deprecating irony towards works of art. Obviously there were many newspapers in Musil's Vienna which had similar "Arts and Leisure" section as The New York Times of our time.