Paradesi (“foreigner”, “nomad”), the latest by noted Tamil filmmaker Bala, is a film that’s not going to win any new converts for the director. Those who find his work to be representative of the best of Tamil cinema are going to come out nodding while those who question its merit, among whom I’m moved to classify myself, will find themselves shrugging. It’s either the next logical step in the evolution of a personal vision or the result of a filmmaker becoming prisoner of his own image. Perhaps it’s both. The title “Bala’s Paradesi”, two words that feed into each other, kicks off the opening credits, which consists of a series of monochrome sketches depicting a community of natives forced to pose for the artist. Locating Bala’s film in the representative, visual tradition, the sequence also unwittingly bestows upon its author the role of a chronicler, a mute observer and of a person in and colluding with power. In the first shot, the camera cranes down quickly from a bird’s eye view of a village down onto the ground, as though indicative of a world where God has fallen, before nimbly snaking in and out of the muddy alleys to give us a sense of life in this village. This is India a few years before independence, we are told, but the seemingly anachronistic village seems to be completely isolated from the happenings elsewhere in the country. We are introduced to the local announcer and workhorse Rasa (Atharva Murali), a quasi-outcast who falls in love with an upper caste girl – a union that gets rejected by the local council thanks to his profession, which primarily involves trumpeting news of death. To marry the girl, he tries to rise above his position and find a more honorable job outside the village. By turn of events, he, along with hundreds of others from the village, ends up as a bond labourer at a tea plantation estate owed by an undesignated Briton. Doomed fatalism and an affable mythic simplicity characterize this first half, which functions as a portrait of Man’s dignity and the transformative power of love. More importantly, this section of the movie is studded with images of silhouetted bodies and huddled masses endlessly traversing through barren landscape. Human body and land – the two chief material elements of Paradesi, as much as DI-inflected brown and green are its two major chromatic elements – are in perpetual conversation in Bala’s movie. The Marxist of transformation of nature through physical labour and decimation of bodies by and for the sake of land are two actions that recur throughout. The second half of the film, which bears an aesthetic and thematic symmetry to the first, comes across as something of a heightened, contorted version of the former. At the tea estate, the classified community of the village is flattened, with slavery of one person, Rasa, transmogrifying into the slavery of an entire populace. This juxtaposition is becoming of Bala’s film, which comprehends slavery less as a political phenomenon and more as a human condition. This stance enables Bala to wallow in his signature brand of miserablism, with its characteristically condescending camerawork and wailing soundtrack. For his film, slavery is a universal condition enforced upon one people by another with no room for resistance. It elides, on a conceptual level, the question that the plantation owner in Quentin Tarantino’s new film asks: Why don’t the slaves all rise up and kill the masters? (For a Hegelian examination of slavery, see Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s Vidheyan (1993).) There’s an unknowing yet eerie parallel between the idea of a group of lumpen workers surrendering their bodies to an all-powerful plantation owner on the promise of remuneration and the way Bala uses non-professionals and their bodies in his film. If Tarantino the filmmaker, like his bounty hunters and plantation owners, deals in corpses, Bala, like his many mythical villains, deals with human bodies, exotic and imperfect. (One shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that Bala, like Tarantino, is incriminating himself here. The film itself is oblivious to the similarity and the parallel is curious, at best.) Of course, I could list all my fascinations and problems with the film, but I would only be repeating myself. Bala’s method here, despite the film’s CGI-finish and surface gloss, is at times reminiscent of Third Cinema films, both in its cut-and-dried ideology and roughhewn dramatic values – broad acting, blunt satire, authorial omniscience and a superficial mythic allegory that reveals its social criticism as much as it conceals it.
March 16, 2013
March 10, 2013
Far From Heaven (2002)
“Do you think we ever really do see beyond those things, the surface of things?”
Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven (2002) opens with a shot of red autumnal leaves before the camera cranes down from heaven into the town of Hartford. This shot – a direct reference to Douglas Sirk’s beautiful All That Heaven Allows (1955), whose quasi-remake Haynes’ film is – locates the film squarely within Sirk’s universe and announces right away the derivative and thoroughly cinematic nature of this enterprise. It also signals the film’s preoccupation with the look and sound of the Sirkian world that it wants to depict. Right from the retro typeface of the film’s title card, through the emphasis on era-defining objects of the film’s world and seasonal details such as autumn foliage and clothing, to its use of outdated figures of speech and Elmer Bernstein’s intense score, Haynes’ film is obsessed with the minutiae of Sirk’s universe, with the surface of things. (Haynes shares another trait with Sirk: the two are among the most articulate American filmmakers, directors who are remarkably clear-eyed about their films.) Far From Heaven is the kind of film that academicians instantly cotton on to. It is an analysis of Sirk’s cinema and a case for it as cinematic art (as though that were necessary). It is Douglas Sirk refracted through decades of film theory.
Set amidst the suburban excesses of Eisenhowerian America, the film centers on Frank, an affluent resident of Hartford, Connecticut, and the earning member of the Whitaker family which comprises of his wife Cathy and their two children. Dennis Quaid plays Frank playing the role of a upwardly-mobile businessman with familial responsibilities while Julianne Moore plays Cathy playing a dedicated homemaker and much lauded society woman. The Whitakers are the cynosure of the town’s eyes (Mr. and Mrs. Magnatech), with their professional successes and grand soirees. Frank, however, is struggling to confront his sexuality, a revelation which might bring down all that he’s worked for. Cathy, meanwhile, barely more than a prop in her picture perfect household, takes a special liking to her composed and taciturn African-American gardener Raymond (Dennis Haysbert). Caught between a crumbling marriage and a forbidden love, poised to lose everything that has given her an identity, Cathy must choose between what she wants and what is wanted of her and negotiate the lines between the personal and the social.
One of the things that sets the film apart from its contemporaries is its almost classical use of the mise en scène. Haynes uses a meticulously picked, heightened colour palette that conceptually takes off from Sirk’s (saturated primary colours for the white denizens and their environment and deep reds and browns for the black community) but produces striking images of its own. Same applies for the lighting that alternates between chiaroscuro and softly graded and the dialectical use of indoor and outdoor spaces. Haynes and crew retain the cinematographic devices of the studio-era, especially the dissolves-in-camera and strategically employed Dutch angles. In fact, Far From Heaven, imbibes much from sources besides Sirk, such as Max Ophüls’ Madame de.. (1953, a film that’s also about the horror of surfaces), Rainer Fassbinder’s remake of Sirk’s film Ali; Fear Eats The Soul (1974, entrapping double-frames using architectural elements) and, of course, Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman (1976, décor details, which also haunt Haynes’ Mildred Pierce adaptation). Outside of film, it appears as if Haynes’ major aesthetic inspiration comes from Edward Hopper, whose downbeat yet somehow hopeful vision of post-war America and use of incandescent light and chromatic contrasts seem to inform the scenes depicting Hartford at night.
Period films run the risk of treating History as a closed project, as a fossil frozen in time, clinically isolated from the present. Steven Spielberg’s period films, for instance, are informed by historical hindsight and characterized by current day morality bleeding into the past being depicted. Issues of the past are addressed as just that: issues over and done with. As with most mainstream films, the audience here knows right away where their sympathies and convictions lie and what is morally just. This triumphalist perspective of history offers – not unlike films about poverty, problems faced by Third World women and pre-modern cultural practices, in general – the liberal audience an opportunity to pat itself on the back, to patronize on groups not yet shown the light of the day and to align itself to and ratify the Enlightenment project. On the other hand, ambitious period films, as do ambitious sci-fi pictures, locate what are decidedly concerns of the present – problems affecting us here and now – in a narrative apparently located in a different historical time. They open up history for scrutiny, presenting it as a force that still bears upon us, and undermine our moral convictions. History, as it were, bleeds into the present.
Admittedly, and evidently, Far From Heaven attempts to work against conventional narrative approaches to history by trying to retain a radical edge to its story. It replaces partly outmoded taboos of Sirk’s film with ones that are still provocative. The rationale is that today’s audience would find the forbidden love story between an upper-class widow and her working class gardener a bit too easy to resolve compared to the edgy sexual and interracial tensions of Haynes’ film. (Substituting class with race and sexual orientation is, in a way, indicative of the trajectory of Western counterculture, where the more global grand-narrative of class conflict has made way for niche identity-politics and the struggle for economic overhaul has transmogrified into a struggle for cultural change.) The swap pushes the envelope, sure, but is it radical? Hardly. Fassbinder’s remake of Sirk’s film, made three decades before Haynes’, had a younger African immigrant labourer as the object of an affluent widow’s desire. It is, of course, unfair to demand of Haynes’ film to emulate the radicalism of Fassbinder’s by stacking up the odds against the union as much as possible. However, like numerous primetime social experiments with hidden cameras, the moral equations remain so clearly resolved that even a conservative audience would know which side to take.
Perhaps it’s the inherent simplicity of the form that Haynes employs that necessitates the film’s moral clarity. Two obvious questions come to mind watching Far From Heaven: why the 1950s New England milieu and why Douglas Sirk? Why not a current day realist drama? (That’s a question provoked by the entirety of Haynes’ body of work, which consists almost completely of period pieces.) Haynes’ answer is part-Bazinian, part-Godardian:
“I think the best movies are the ones where the limitations of representation are acknowledged, where the filmmakers don’t pretend those limitations don’t exist. Films aren’t real; they’re completely constructed. All forms of film language are a choice, and none of it is the truth. With this film, we point out at the start that we’re aware of all this. We’re not using today’s conventions to portray what’s ‘real.’ What’s real is our emotions when we’re in the theater. If we don’t have feeling for the movie, then the movie isn’t good for us. If we do, then it’s real and moving and alive.”
One infers that, instead of creating a new schema for this self-conscious artifice, Haynes chooses to adopt a démodé form, to draw from a more primal, more impassioned aesthetic. What is interesting here is that Haynes’s film embraces this form neither for parodying representational conventions (as has become the norm for many films too clever by half) nor for emotionally disengaging the audience (as do many films, including Fassbinder’s, that consciously take to melodrama). Instead, it places full faith in this ornate, innocent yet complex form to generate emotional connection between the text and the viewer. A postmodern exercise with genuine affect, if you please.
Although Haynes is working in an anti-naturalistic mode, he is still very much works in the psychological tradition – an unusual combination that further complicates Haynes’ complex brand of humanism. Despite his post-Humanist approach to his material and his formalist inclinations, there’s always been a streak of real humanism in all his films. Sure, the Barbie doll actors and the subversive documentary trappings of Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1988) are meant to satirize popular culture’s obsession with gender-programming, but it’s also sympathetic towards the plight of Karen Carpenter the person. Carol (Julianne Moore) in Safe (1995) may be the means by which Haynes criticizes the soulless lifestyle of Reaganite American suburbia and its empty concerns, but she’s also fully human. (Carol and Cathy are essentially the same people, separated by space and time.) The many Bob Dylan avatars of the trailblazing I’m Not There (2007) are definitely used to illustrate the politico-cultural space in which he created his music, but the film is also practically a love letter to him. In this film, Cathy is a victim of her ethos, but she’s also a rebel, as is evident from her many acts of defiance. Her osmosis from sacred to forbidden spaces is an act of revolt on par with Dylan’s countercultural gestures. The expectation-defying Far from Heaven - a warm and unironic heterosexual drama – like most of the director’s films, likewise, is something of a rebellion on Haynes’ part against a film culture that perennially tries to pigeonhole filmmakers into broad labels and easily disposable categories.
March 2, 2013
The Attacks Of 26/11 (2013)
Ram Gopal Varma
Ram Gopal Varma’s latest exploitation venture, The Attacks of 26/11 (2013), which purports to illustrate what happened during that long night in Mumbai when 10 armed men entered the city via sea and carried out a series of assaults in key public locations, killing over 150 people, opens with a statement that only a certified cultural amnesiac like Varma could have made – that 9/11 is the most heinous crime to have occurred in the history of mankind. That it brings in an incident that happened 7 years ago in the US is not an analytical move that geopolitically links these two events, not even a naïve leveling of the two incidents as interchangeable acts of absolute Evil, but – bizarrely enough – a betrayal of the film’s ambition to emulate Hollywood-styled Realist-reportage pictures. However, Varma is too straight-shooting and tactless for employing questionable Hollywood screenwriting tricks and, unlike most successful Oscar darlings, Attacks does not refract its agenda through a protagonist in order to surreptitiously validate itself. It wears its ideology on its sleeve, telling us exactly what we want to hear. Sure enough, there is the account of Joint Commissioner (an indefatigable Nana Patekar), whose voice of reason (which is clearly Varma’s own unoriginal voice, as are all the other voices in the film) tries to pass off what were essentially stupid, haphazard attacks as a clear-eyed, exactingly-planned project, but, for most part, the narrative remains dispersed and free of character subjectivity, serving as illustrations of unshakeable truths – fictionalized Reality rather than Realist fiction. Inventive like a child, and just as intelligent, Varma’s film consists chiefly of a high-speed handheld digital camera sweeping the many enthusiastically arranged, corpse-ridden tableaus, with violins wailing in the background. Not artful by any stretch of imagination, of course, but it would do well to those complaining about the lack of subtlety (a currency that Varma doesn’t ever deal with) in the film to remember that the nation’s real-life response to the events of 26/11 itself had the subtlety of a shark in a bathtub, making Varma’s movie pale in comparison. Condemning the movie would only serve to conceal the fact that our response to the attack was no better than a tacky exploitation flick. Varma’s aesthetic has consistently celebrated Hindu belligerence, which was lapped up by the public when it was married to the ‘right’ subject, and it becomes especially problematic here, despite Varma’s vain attempts to undermine it with the film’s professed secularism and its tacked-up, self-defeating Gandhian ending. In an interesting gambit, Varma abstains from showing us how most of the attackers themselves were shot down, which keeps postponing gratification for the audience. This 90-minute-long-foreplay-without-a-release results in a special challenge for the film, with the sole possible means of retribution coming through the figure of Ajmal Kasab (Sanjeev Jaiswal), the only attacker captured alive, who is saved from graphic violence thanks to the film’s loyalty to reality. How the movie appeases the audience hereafter unfolds in two monologues that are better left undescribed. Besides its moviemaking aspirations, Varma’s film also has the obvious ambition to narrativize history, to resolve the necessary contradictions in our understanding of the events, to assure us that we have obtained closure, to simplify complex causalities of the real world and provide a ready-to-eat account of events that the audience can digest without trouble. It took America eleven confusing years to tell its story to itself. We took just five.
February 25, 2013
To Be Or Not To Be (1942)
Ernst Lubitsch’s divine To Be Or Not To Be (1942), which is arguably the greatest American comedy of the talking era alongside Dr. Strangelove (1964), opens with a sequence in which Adolf Hitler wanders the busy streets of pre-war Warsaw for apparently no reason. We are immediately taken into a flashback that purports to explain the faux-historical scene we just witnessed only to, eventually, reveal it as a piece of fiction – a provocative performance art – within the film. In fact, in Lubitsch’s movie, which is the most direct precursor to Inglourious Basterds (2009), History itself unfolds as theatre, with characters impersonating other characters, with Nazis playing Nazis, with timing, blocking, make-up and diction becoming questions of life and death; politics becomes theatrical and theatre becomes political. The funniest line in the film is perhaps also the most trenchant: “What he did to Shakespeare, we are now doing to Poland”. For these aesthetes of war, Warsaw becomes a theatrical space to be controlled, its inhabitants, actors to be directed and history, a grand narrative to be shaped. On the other hand, for the Polish acting troupe, the stage becomes the most politicized space, with even the most harmless subversion stamped out. In a disturbing way, History haunts Lubitsch’s film as farce, before unfurling as a tragedy a few years later. Like in Dr. Strangelove, History had not yet happened to separate comedy from horror. Now that it has, it has ensured that To Be Or Not To Be is not cheap propaganda but biting satire. Hysterical and terrifying from start to end, Lubitsch’s film is a coup de grâce from the greatest weapon that the Allies possessed: Hollywood.
February 17, 2013
Dancer In The Dark (2000)
Lars von Trier
The least everyone could agree on Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark (2000), without getting into a debate about its artistic merit, is that it is a work of immense range. Juxtaposing Dogme-styled kitchen sink ultra-realism with musical numbers replete with chorus dancers, it ambitiously attempts to marry genres that are positioned at the opposite ends of a spectrum. It’s a marriage that is perhaps doomed by construct, but in Trier’s film it is intended to be an unholy, internecine union. The flights of musical fantasy that Selma (Björk) launches into, like the stripped scenery of Dogville (2003), serve as Epic Theatrical devices that seek to thwart audience’s uncritical surrender to the film’s drama and continually remind them of the artificiality of the film’s construction. That even such a blatant disfiguration of the film’s tonal integrity doesn’t successfully prevent the audience from total emotional identification with Selma is less an indicator of the film’s conceptual failure than a demonstration of why a multi-generic cinema, like Bollywood, works on the same audience-character dynamic as the straightforward genre entries of the West and why a mixed-mode narrative doesn’t necessarily avoid the pitfalls of Realism. That’s because von Trier the screenwriter is an incurable melodramatist (tempered by von Trier the director), who, by heaping misery upon his protagonists, makes sure that there’s not a single dry eye in the house. (Unsurprisingly, he cites Douglas Sirk as a major inspiration here, but I’d think Sirk’s assimilation of Brecht’s method is a tad more successful). On the other hand, as a musical, von Trier’s film leaves a lot to be desired. He shoots musical numbers like action scenes (in contrast to Peckinpah, who shoots action scenes like musical numbers), forgetting that the secret to a great musical number lies in the Bazinian conquest of space and not time.
February 10, 2013
Der Fluss War Einst Ein Mensch (2011) (The River Used To Be A Man)
Jan Zabeil’s bone-rattling debut film The River Used To Be A Man (2011) revolves around an unnamed German tourist (Alexander Fehling) who embarks on a trip in the marshlands of Botswana. Early on, we see him on a boat – lying face upward, soaking in the atmosphere and, so to speak, reliving an imperial past – as an older local guide (Sariqo Sakega) rows him through the shallow river. He is the quintessential master of the universe that we have come to know through the movies: a young white male who can negotiate the thickest of woods and tame the wildest of rivers, an Übermensch for whom the world is a puzzle to be cracked, a finite space to be conquered. It is this all-too-pervasive, Caucasian, colonial Weltanschauung internalized by most of the world today that the film systematically dismantles when the guide suddenly dies in the middle of the forest and literally becomes the white man’s burden. The man dumps the corpse in the river and somehow ends up in the nearest village, where he is told that the deceased would come back for revenge unless his body is found. With no choice, he goes back, in vain, to look for the body, while occasionally witnessing the spectre of the dead man. We notice that he has not only acceded to the laws and beliefs of this pre-modern community but assimilated, interiorized and ratified it. Zabeil’s wildly inventive film tackles nothing less than the Enlightenment project itself – its Cartesian and Albertian perspectives and its ultimately arrogant repositioning of Man as the centre of the universe – and upends Renaissance-inflected rationalist approaches to filmic narrative. The final shot, in which the man – defeated and disturbed – looks outside the windows of his flight – presumably back home – only to feel as if he still floating in the river, is perhaps the most philosophically upsetting ending in cinema since The Birds (1963).
February 3, 2013
Kadal (2013) (The Sea)
The title of Mani Ratnam’s latest feature, Kadal (“The Sea”, 2013), conjures images of vastness, infinity and extremity. Like the sea monsters of many a folklore, it has a mythic ring to it, which is very apt considering the last half hour of the film takes place entirely in the realm of the abstract, the mythical and the elemental. There is a leap of faith that is to be made on the part of the viewer if one is to take Ratnam’s film for what it is – a leap that corresponds to a risky gambit that the film makes towards its third act. It is a manoeuvre that catapults the film from a temperamentally placid, naturalistic portrait of stunted childhood and sea-side romance to a melodrama of heightened emotions and larger-than-life stakes. The jump is grating, sure, but those willing to hold on would see that Ratnam manages to find a more cogent articulation of the misplaced metaphysical arguments of Raavan (2010), especially because he thankfully divorces his tale from political topicality. At heart, Kadal works upon the classic temptation parable, wherein Thomas (Gautham Karthik) must choose between the ways of the Devil and God, which is tweaked here to posit the tainted nature of an Absolute Good or an Absolute Evil, the impossibility of a foundational morality. When, in the end, Bergmans (Arjun Sarja) laughs at Father Sam (Aravind Swamy) hanging upside down like Nolan’s Joker – a universe cut from the same moral fabric as Ratnam’s – we discover a deconstruction of the Good/Evil binary that is more thorough, pointed and pulsating than anything in Ratnam’s previous film.