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[From my column on studio-era Hollywood films for Firstpost]

“Matching the labyrinthine machinery of the plot is an equally complex cinematography. Shot by Hungarian emigré Ernest Laszlo, Kiss Me Deadly employs a camera choreography that rivals those of Orson Welles and Max Ophüls, as do the low-angle, deep space compositions. A three-minute scene of Hammer questioning a contact at a boxing gym is filmed in a single shot. It includes a conversation about a champion boxer in the ring without even a glimpse of the ring. Another three-minute shot, dominated by horizontal camera movements, finds Hammer grilling a soprano in a cramped hotel room. Aldrich varies his sequence construction from scene to scene, and the film remains as unpredictable on the visual level as on its narrative level.

The single most accomplished element of the film, though, is its multi-layered sound design that imparts complementary values to everything we see. This principle is evident from the credits sequence onwards, in which Nat King Cole’s I’d Rather Have the Blues is overlaid with the sound of heavy breathing of the girl in Hammer’s car—we know something is off right away. Throughout, Aldrich mixes in ambient noise—the buzz of the boxing gym, the sound of the sea, street traffic—in a way that expands the world we see on screen. At times, he superposes contradictory sound elements running against the grain of the image. So you have chamber music playing as a voice threatens Hammer on the phone. Or Schubert’s Eighth Symphony over the detective’s interrogation of a witness. In one stylized action sequence, Hammer’s escape is scored simultaneously to a piece of generic music, the sound of the ocean and sports commentary.”

 

[Full article at Firstpost]

  • A pre-code sex comedy is just as outrageous as it sounds. But Lubitsch’s sense of suggestion is so subtle and delicate that it suffuses the whole film, colouring ordinary lines and sequences with sexual charge. In another musical, the morning-after breakfast song, “Magic in the Muffin”, might pass largely without a guffaw. Every object becomes a sexual symbol, its value predicated on the fact that the connection isn’t made concrete. The whole movie talks about only one thing—the perils of testicular thought—without actually talking about it.
  • The scene between Colbert and Hopkins is a masterpiece of subversive feminism later reprised by Monroe and Russell in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. It’s a bedroom scene in which two young women fight, reconcile and drool over descriptions of their common lover in various stages of undress. They don’t discuss anything but the man, their need for the man, about the sort of song to sing for the man, the kind of lingerie they should wear to please the man. (And it turns out that the man needs nothing more.) And through these rather anti-Bechdel exchanges, they arrive at the film’s most memorable, moving relationship based on recognition of mutual desires and vulnerabilities. Both actors reproduce lines and gestures conceived by men, but their comic genius consists of owning it and making them their own. The scene simply collapses without their intelligence.
  • There’s hardly a funny line in the script, but the film is hysterical. All the comedy derives from the acting (Chevalier alone carries a ridiculous French accent while others speak American), line delivery, découpage and cutting. Seventy-four shots feature opening or closing doors (and countless others have doors and doorways as the backdrop)—every fourth or fifth shot of the film. Besides tying into Lubitsch’s obsession with what goes on behind closed doors, it performs a musical function here. Equally distributed as clusters of 3-6 shots through the film—but never happening during the song sequences, which unfold mostly in single shots—they lend a snappy, dance-like rhythm to the script and impart the viewer a feeling of constant movement.
  • The doors are also a brilliant means to sendup Old World mores, whose chambers of secrets barely conceal a neurotic obsession with sex. (The principle is the same in Polanski’s new film, but the object of obsession there are Jews.) Having spent a decade in America, Lubitsch is evidently taken by the cultural and intellectual directness of his new homeland (a fact that reflects in the stylistic sobriety of his Hollywood pictures). A sense of liberation is palpable in the way he ridicules pre-war European pretensions. The king of a tiny country in Mitteleuropa rues bourgeois power (“A thousand years ago they were even smaller than we. It’s only the last 700 years they’ve got anywhere.”) while his daughter threatens that she’ll marry an American if her wishes aren’t granted. But it’s a double-edged satire, directed as much at American puritanism (the hero is a slacker, womanizer, cheat and a decadent—this is established in the first minute) as European ritual.

[From my column on studio-era Hollywood films for Firstpost]

“And yet, Moonrise makes an appeal for Danny. There’s a Christian charity at work in the film, no doubt part of Borzage’s temperament. Borzage, the most affirmatively Catholic of filmmakers in Hollywood along with John Ford and Frank Capra, shares the perspectives of Mose, Gilly and the sheriff. The church is present only at the margins of the story, but its fundamental spirit of forbearance suffuses the film. There’s a relentless seriousness about Moonrise that Borzage, unlike Ford and Capra, refuses to dilute with comic relief. There’s no irony or scepticism to be found in Borzage’s work, which embodies a sincerity almost pre-modern.

On the other hand, Moonrise signals a shift away from the director’s established style of soft, top lighting and diffusion filters. Working with fledgling cinematographer John Russell, freshly off Orson Welles’ Macbeth (1948), Borzage goes for an expressionistic style of high chiaroscuro. The framing is deep, the edges sharp and the shadows dark. The fisticuff between Danny and Jerry is as rough as anything in Fritz Lang, as is the manic frenzy of a key scene involving a Ferris wheel. The focus on hands, as in the extended shot that opens a conversation between Danny and Gilly or the shot where the sheriff tries to trap an insect on a table, brings in a materialist, hard-boiled texture to the images, far from the ethereal aesthetic characteristic of Borzage, where human beings often vanish into pure concepts.

It isn’t wholly unlikely that this change in style was influenced by the production company, Republic Pictures, one of the smaller Hollywood studios. Modesty of means often calls for invention, as is evident in a sequence at a railway station. The whole scene consists of shots of five people waiting on a platform bench. We never get a reverse shot of the approaching train or its passengers. This displaces the scene’s focus from the new stranger entering town to the reaction of Danny and the townsfolk to his arrival.”

 

[Full article at Firstpost]

[A report on Mirza’s masterclass at the Bangalore International Centre in February]

Saeed Akhtar Mirza in conversation with Aakar Patel.

“Asked about the long, revealing titles of his films, Mirza speaks of a democratic dialogue with the audience, of not wanting to deceive them. When the viewer buys a ticket, he says, he has an idea of the film he’s walking into. “It’s not some Khandaan or Jurm.

In no other film is the title as illuminating as in Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro (1989). The instruction—don’t cry over Salim the cripple—positions the film as a tragedy, with the fate of its lead character sealed from the start. Salim, a low-level hustler with dreams of making it big as a gangster, gets a rude awakening when he’s showed his place by a system that views him differently. The Mumbai slang of Salim and those who abuse him are far from the Byron-quoting urbanity of Mirza, who had to undertake midnight trips to Dharavi to talk to real underworld figures as part of his preparation.

            Mirza describes the last of his five major films, Naseem (1995), as the final nail on the coffin of the idea of India. Set in the months preceding the destruction of the Babri mosque, Naseem paints an elegiac portrait of a syncretic, tolerant nation, thrown into disarray by the events of and after December 1992. Like Salim, but on a lower, more heart-breaking key, the teenager Naseem (Mayuri Kango) is forced to confront her social identity as reflected in reaction of those around her. Naseem finds Mirza articulating space with greater surety, with the fluid camera stitching the rooms of Naseem’s middle-class household into long, unbroken shots.”

 

[Read full article at SilverScreen]

[Posters at film screenings at Cinépop in Bab El Oued, Algiers, following Algeria’s independence – from Peuple en Marche (1963) by René Vautier and co. Cinépop was a dance bar converted to a movie theatre, later converted to a mosque.]

 

[From my column on studio-era Hollywood films for Firstpost]

“This double signification of Abe as a greenhorn as well as a master rhetorician also manifests in the figure of Henry Fonda, who excelled at conveying good-to-the-bone innocence without making it seem boyish. His blank stares often serve as a clean slate on which viewers project their own emotions. Fonda is self-effacing in several sequences of the film. For most part of the final trial scene, his Abe is merely a dark silhouette seen from behind. He sits on the floor, refers to books at the corner of the courtroom, and stands at the judge’s desk with his head buried in his hands. It is not until he wins the case, when the familiar figure in a top hat walks transfixed towards cheering, off-screen crowds, that his character assumes a mythical aura, that his Abe finally becomes Lincoln.

Henry Fonda was a tall man, 187 centimetres in height, six less than the real Lincoln. Few directors understood as well as Ford that he was a great actor of the legs. The filmmaker accentuates Abraham’s clumsiness by focusing on Fonda’s long legs, which seem even longer the way he wears his trousers up over his navel. When we first see Fonda, he’s on a chair, with his legs crossed over a barrel. This horizontal position—made iconic in Fonda’s later collaboration with Ford, My Darling Clementine (1946)—will appear several times in the film, most strikingly in the final courtroom scene. When Abe is reading a book in the woods, his head rests on a log and his legs are posed against a tree. He then sits up, leans against the tree and works the log with his left leg. He scratches his right shin as he mulls over the words of the law. When Ann shows up shortly on the other side of a fence, he approaches her and hops over the high rail with an ungainly leap. Ford captures the actor in many such unflattering poses, making the legendary statesman feel more human, one among the people.”

 

[Full article at Firstpost]

Stavisky… (1974, Alain Resnais)


Inglourious Basterds (2009, Quentin Tarantino)

A for American Cinema

Perhaps more than any of his Nouvelle Vague comrades, Moullet retained a fascination with classical American cinema all through his writing and filmmaking life. Some count with numbers, some others with John Ford’s filmography.

B for Backpacking

Moullet has stated more than once that his real profession is trekking (which explains his love for movies with people on the move). That cinema is just a hobby. A hobbyist’s cinema then, free of the need to make statements or find a purpose.

C for Cinephilia

A great fidelity towards cinema over other arts. There’s are a few literary references, hardly any to painting and almost none to music or theatre in Moullet’s work—quite unlike his New Wave peers. The Cahiers du cinéma is the abiding literary material on screen.

D for Doors

Probably as many as in the Dardennes. There are four or five door-related events in the very first short film, including an appearance by Moullet himself. There’s a whole film about the different ways of bypassing the Paris metro turnstiles.

E for Economics

A perennial obsession with finances, both from a macroscopic, economic point of view and in the transactional, everyday sense. A shopkeeper recounts her dealing with a serial killer. Moullet: “Did he settle his account?”

F for Fake

Master of false histories and forged statistics, Moullet was a devoted explorer of the mockumentary. His short films, in particular, dwell in the slippage between the documentary form and the fictional nature of things being said.

G for Geography

Mountains, plateaus, marshes, rivers, grasslands, slag heaps are the central characters of Moullet’s cinema. It is what he paid the most attention to in his writing as well. Many of his works are virtually excuses to film certain landscapes.

H for Housework

No helping hand to lend, no shopping to do, no firewood to pick up, or dishes to wipe. Everyone is condemned to the anti-dialecticism of intellectualism. Write, write, write forever. I think, therefore I am… but no, I think therefore I don’t wipe, for there’s nothing to wipe.” Not in his films though.

I for Irony

The Moullet persona is a product of contradictory impulses, his great delusions of grandeur undone by the pettiness of his concerns. A neurotic, self-deprecatory figure somewhere between Jerry Lewis and Woody Allen, with a touch of the silent greats.

J for Joke

The Moullet screenplay is an occasion for chaining together quips and visual gags. The joke is often a radical simplification of a situation (Moullet stealing newspapers from a vending machine) or a radical elaboration (a two-minute sequence of a man noting down something from a newspaper).

K for Kitchen

Food, of course, is at the centre of Genesis of a Meal, but has a tangential presence all through. Hunger grounds the intellectual being, the act of cooking, preparing the table and consuming all serve a purpose of reverse-transubstantiation.

L for Lists

“I have 72 ideas for key scenes, I arrange them to have a logical order”. Enumeration is the chief manner by which Moullet builds his films and texts, which overflow with lists of all kinds, often rattled off by the characters themselves.

M for Maps

The capital of French cinema, he wrote, is a rhombus in the Centre region of the French hexagon. The capital of madness, we are told, is a pentagon between the Alpes-Provence regions. A body of work suffused with cartographic imagination.

N for Nowhere

The cinema’s poet laureate of boondocks and bleds paumés, Moullet takes particular pleasure in discovering and deriding the most disconnected and isolated settlements in the country. Mean? Perhaps, what comedy isn’t?

O for Omnidirectional

A Moullet film is a collection of unicellular entities with no central nervous system or sense of time and space. It wants to go nowhere and everywhere at once. The longer the film is, the more apparent its atomization.

P for Province

For a filmmaker born and working in Paris, Moullet gives the city of lights awfully little representation. His cinema doggedly heads for the provinces, militating for a relocation of French capital to the town of Imphy, population 4000.

Q for Quantity

Moullet, who determined that 3.5m² was enough for a new parliament, is nothing if not metrically rigorous: “I had to buy half a dozen cutlets, a half-hour worth of wine, 100 metres of noodles, a litre of fresh eggs, 4 francs of olives, and a pound of cake.”

R for Resourcefulness

Shots, soundbites, narrative threads from one film, one piece of film criticism will be reused in other. Repetitions abound, and not just for the sake of humour. The Moullet cinematic universe—and one could speak of a veritable universe here—is finite and ever-shrinking.

S for Statistics

I’d gather technical information—number and duration of shots and shooting, budget, box office of the film etc.—which made subjective positions sound objective.” “Contrary to expectations, certain statistics are even more subjective than critical opinion.

T for Transport

Four people depart from Paris for the provinces. One leaves in train, one on a motorbike, another on a bicycle and the last one takes a car. The time to their destination is in inverse proportion to the speed of their modes of transport.

U for Unemployment

Moullet might be the filmmaker most concerned with unemployment, of all of France as much as his own. The sight of waste heaps strewn across Nord-Pas-de-Calais is for him as much an opportunity for job creation as it is aesthetic real estate.

V for Vélo/Love

“Here I had a satisfying relationship that could last hours. One I could dominate, one which involved no problems. I tried to ride in a straight line. The more circuitous things got to be, the more I liked straight lines. I wish my life were a straight line.”

W for Whip pans

The camera oscillates between two points of interest, expressing indecisiveness, or an act of comparison. This dishonoured device finds shelter in Moullet’s cinema, a veritable refuge for such kind.

X for Xerophilia

Fear of water is the main subject of Ma première brasse, but water bodies (or lack thereof) are permanent fixtures. Moullet stays away from the coasts and is attracted to the driest of regions in France. The one film he made in the US was set in Des Moines, Iowa.

Y for Youth

A perennial boyishness, self-styled petulance and a lifelong refusal to grow up and “be serious”. A film on mortality he made at seventy is shot through with an adolescent flippancy towards death.

Z for Zsygmondy

Like the eccentric accommodation scheme of the eponymous refuge, Moullet’s writing and films are often demonstrations of analytical frameworks that are in part or wholly arbitrary. Just like the setup of a good joke.

[From my column on studio-era Hollywood films for Firstpost]

 

“Wilder’s images in the film are dynamic, with an emphasis on the diagonal throughout. The recurring shot of Chuck peering at Leo through a gap in the rocks has a straight line slashing across the screen, producing a sense of both instability and claustrophobia. A scene of Chuck corrupting the sheriff by promising him a re-election is shot in a tight space to conjure an atmosphere of twisted intimacy. Wilder makes the lighting progressively dramatic, and the shots are increasingly invaded by shadows as the film advances. He films Chuck from a slightly low angle all through, the compositions taking his character from assertive to threatening to positively malevolent.  

             Central to the composition is the figure of Kirk Douglas himself. An emblem of classical, rugged masculinity, Douglas had a face that was uncertain in its signification. While his wavy locks and genial smile gave him an air of a Greek god, his cleft chin, like those of Robert Mitchum and Cary Grant, and protruding jaw line bestowed a slightly sinister aura. Douglas plays with this ambivalence in Ace in the Hole. His characteristic head tilt combines with his leaning posture to accentuate the diagonality of the shots. Douglas peppers his performance with fleeting but eye-catching gestures—a matchstick dragged over a typewriter, the flip of a bottle, a snap of the suspenders, a spectacular drop of his cigarette into a glass of water after persuading the sheriff—to suggest a master rhetorician at work.  

            Chuck is a New York man, a master of the universe for whom a job at a small-town press is just a sojourn. Douglas conveys this sense of superiority in the fable-like first scene in which he strolls, unannounced and unflappably, into the newspaper office to sell himself. His tone and gesture paint him as a man who stands tall over the poor chumps of Albuquerque. But he becomes restless when he finds himself stuck with his $60/week job even after a year. In a remarkable scene filmed in a single shot, he paces about the news room, delivering a begrudging paean to New York life, evoking both nostalgia and desperation. His zing returns when he smells a breakthrough story, and he plays up his east coast exceptionalism by rough-housing a deputy sheriff.”

 

[Full article at Firstpost]

 

[The following is a translation of Georges Didi-Huberman’s Sortir du Noir, a long, open letter to László Nemes on his film Son of Saul, published by Ēditions de Minuit in 2015.]

 

Paris, 24th August 2015

 

Dear László Nemes,

Your film, Son of Saul, is a monster. A necessary, coherent, beneficial, innocent monster. The result of an extraordinarily risky aesthetic and narrative wager. How could a film about the Behemoth1 that was the Nazi extermination machine in the enclosure of Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944 not be a monster compared to the stories we are used to seeing each week in theatres in the name of “fiction”? Is your film something other than fiction? Of course not. But it’s a fiction that’s as modestly as it is audaciously attuned to the very particular historic reality it deals with. Whence the ordeal of discovering it. During the screening in the dark of the theatre, I wished at times, not to close my eyes, but that all that you bring to light in this film returned to darkness, even if for a brief amount of time. That the film closed its own eyelids for a moment (which does happen sometimes). As though darkness could offer me, in the midst of this monstrosity, a space or a time to catch my breath, to breathe a little amid that which was taking my breath away from shot to shot. What an ordeal, indeed, is this bringing to light! What an ordeal is this flood of images and this hell of sounds tirelessly giving rhythm to your narrative! But what a necessary and fertile ordeal!

Like many others, I went into the dark of the theatre equipped with some preliminary information—an incomplete knowledge, of course; that is everyone’s lot—about the (historical) story that your (filmic) story deals with, namely the Nazi death machine and the role played by members of the Sonderkommando, special teams formed from interned Jews whose terrifying work is soberly described at the beginning of your film in a title card that defines them with the expression “Geheimnisträger”, “carriers of secret”. Your story (your fiction) gets out of the dark: it “carries” the secret itself, but in order to carry it into light. It is dedicated through and through to the story (to the reality) of the diabolical fate of the Sonderkommando members at Auschwitz-Birkenau: not a single shot in the film that isn’t backed up, that isn’t directly drawn from sources, from testimonies, to begin with the extraordinary secret manuscripts that you claim to have discovered in the special edition of the Shoah History Review published in 2001 under the title Voices Under the Ashes2.

Despite having gone through the same sources as you, I was left without a defence, without any protective knowledge, by the images and cries of your film. They grabbed me by the throat in many ways. Firstly, I must confess that it felt like seeing something of my oldest and most painful nightmares in front of me. There’s nothing personal in that: it’s the power of nightmares to reveal to us the structure of reality, and it’s the power of cinema to reveal to us the structure of nightmares which so often make up reality itself. I automatically think of the situations that made up the reality you narrate—and which survivors like Filip Müller and Primo Levi3 attest to—these situations without respite for anyone, and where all of life’s energy, its capacity for invention, cunning, decision, persistence, with its genius for seizing the most improbable opportunity, well, all this nevertheless led to a death sentence.

(more…)

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