Review


City Hall, or 272 minutes of “the future that liberals want”. I don’t know if Frederick Wiseman intended his film to coincide with the run-up to the American elections. But what is certain is that this wide-ranging documentary on the day-to-day operation of the Boston municipal government presents the city as a kind of laboratory offering a glimpse into one possible future for the nation. Mayor Marty Walsh, who is a something of a protagonist in the film, says so in no uncertain terms: he hopes Boston will be a model for other cities to follow. If Boston is a laboratory, what are the experiments? More equitable contracting opportunities, better rehabilitation facilities, reinforcements for food banks, construction of homeless shelters, more funding for eviction prevention, pushback against discriminatory renting practices, certification for same-sex marriages, authorization of marijuana retailing, increase of inner-city school capacities, and so on. True to his style, Wiseman films all these processes non-intrusively, in which the subjects don’t interact with the filmmaker or even look at the camera. Most of the film’s scenes are either speeches to an audience or a group discussion, both of which allow the filmmaker to compose them with countless portraits of attentive faces.

While what we see is practically the ‘Democratic agenda’ made real, Wiseman remains focused on a central theme. Boston, we are told, is 55% non-white, a fact that the city hall hopes to reflect in its policies. Wiseman, likewise, picks out diverse faces in the audience speaking or listening closely, as though to mirror Boston’s demographic distribution. In a way, City Hall is a picture of how a multicultural city comes to terms with its ethnic reality, how identity groups gain in power and how values enshrined by institutions are challenged and modified, all through democratic, constitutional means. However, given Wiseman’s non-interventional style, we aren’t told what to make of these observations. Wiseman doesn’t provide any reaction to the municipality’s policies from people and institutions outside it. In this absence, the audience’s own opinion about the proceedings comes into play in a significant way. In other words, viewers from the extreme-right could find as much material to justify their beliefs as liberals might.

On the other hand, the fact that there is hardly any friction within the operations of the city hall itself tilts the film’s balance. For a film about democracy in action, we barely see any dissent within the meetings themselves. We get new angles into specific issues, sure, but nothing that resists the fundamental thrust of the institutional charter. Only a faintly humorous, somewhat superfluous sequence late in the film, in which businessmen seeking to commercialize marijuana in an impoverished district face the cross-examination of the district residents, comes anywhere close to capturing the fault-lines of the democratic process. Moreover, Mayor Walsh unequivocally comes across as a political hero dedicated to the cause of his people. The mayor is everywhere, now supporting a gathering of nurses on strike, now thanking a group of war veterans, now extending support to Latina hopefuls, now organizing an NAACP rally. The only opposition he faces in his work is Trump’s federal policies, which register as an abstract external threat that the paternalist mayor will help his people overcome. In this respect, the film veers uncomfortably close to propaganda.

So it’s ambiguous whether City Hall is really ambiguous. The film adds to the impression of objectivity by expanding sideways. Almost obsessively, Wiseman documents operations at every organ of the city hall, located all across the city: from traffic control to pest control, from animal shelters to archaeological repositories, from cross-cultural cooking sessions to construction sites. This breadth is aimed at exhaustiveness, to show that the municipality’s operations touch every aspect of the city’s life. To this end, Wiseman glues together his sequences with shots from the city streets showcasing residential and official architecture, commercial establishments and the sea port. This offers a dialectic in which the city hall’s work becomes the invisible labour sustaining the order and beauty of Boston’s visible surface. Conversely, these digressions also risk scattering the focus of the film, all the more so because they are presented in bits and pieces, almost half-heartedly. City Hall is at its strongest when it depicts Boston as a seismograph of the larger changes afoot in America. At the same time, when it remains on its focal point, it starts losing its nuances. More than Boston, it’s Wiseman’s film that is a real litmus test for its viewers.

Orson Welles has been quite productive of late, considering he’s been dead for 35 years. Produced by the same team as The Other Side of the Wind (2018), Hopper/Welles is a documentary born of the director’s filmed discussions with Dennis Hopper in 1970, prior to the making of Wind. Coming out of their graves to give us company in our collective confinement, Welles and Hopper hole up in a dark room with half a dozen technicians to talk filmmaking, politics, religion, love, magic, news, television and literature while dutiful assistants scurry about readying one refill of liquor for them after another. Talk is perhaps not the right word here, for what Welles to Hopper does may better be described as an interrogation, a grilling. He plays the Grand Inquisitor, pressing his timid interlocutor to state his artistic and political beliefs, pulling theories out of nowhere to counter him and never allowing him a respite or a resting ground. While part of it is low-key ragging, Welles’ insistence clearly comes from a place of goodwill and seeks to draw out the young man’s best. Hopper, in his early thirties, is rather unsure and self-contradicting before Welles’ towering figure. Sporting a hat, he constantly caresses his beard, qualifying all his tentative, half-joking answers with a nervous, self-protective giggle. What Hopper lacks in persuasiveness he makes up for with his keen attention and youthful vigour; his eyes are full of life. “You’re a hard man to talk to”, he tells his questioner.

At the beginning of the film, a short text let us know that both Welles and Hopper changed the face of movies with their respective debuts. In doing so, it places both filmmakers at par with each other. That doesn’t quite reveal the entire picture. Now, in 1970, Welles is a greatly respected, almost legendary figure, but whose glory days are behind him, something of a ‘has-been’ if he ever ‘was’ for Hollywood. Hopper, on the other hand, is a star hot off an era-defining blockbuster in Easy Rider (1968). Yet, in their conversation, they are able to find a common ground, namely the question of authenticity in filmmaking. We never see Welles, save for rare glimpses of his bellowing pin-striped trousers moving at the edge of the frame. Hopper’s eyes, wide in evident admiration, follow him everywhere he moves in the off-screen space. At several points, the Caravaggesque Hopper literally looks up at Welles, who appears to be playing some kind of metaphysical force, re-orchestrating a Kafkaesque trial for Hopper. What results is a stark power imbalance between the seen and the unseen, between the subject and the author, between the one who is recorded and the one who wields the camera. Hopper’s cinematic forefather looms large over him even as he speaks about the need to one-up his old man.

I can’t imagine what form the film would’ve taken had Welles edited and completed it himself, but as it exists, it looks nothing like what he has done until this point. Shot with multiple handheld cameras and a single lantern next to Hopper, the film never ‘settles down’. The operators constantly move around the room, seemingly for no reason, relocating the camera, changing focus, zooming in and out in a way that may be disorienting for those interested solely in the dialogue. The camera’s magazines run out and the clapboard cracks indifferently in front of Hopper’s face even when he is in the middle of an important point. Whether on Welles’ instructions or on editor Bob Murawski’s, the view keeps switching from one camera to another at a frenetic rhythm, with inexplicable black leaders inserted in between shots. The overall impression is that Welles is making something like a Cassavetes picture, improvising the whole film with his actor by placing him in a dramatic situation and teasing out his responses by way of direct questioning. Welles, we are told, is also in character, as the filmmaker from Wind, and Hopper calls him Jake (Hannaford) as well. So the film may be said to operate in some undefined region between documentary and fiction, a precursor to F for Fake (1973); as much a story about a director shaping and rehearsing with his actors as a record of a man eating, drinking and getting drunk over two hours.

But the primary pleasures of Hopper/Welles are rather straightforward: two maverick filmmakers in a terribly fascinating conversation. The movie-related anecdotes that emerge are very interesting, for instance Hopper’s relationship with the Fondas, or his work on Crush Proof (1972), a self-financed experimental film by architect François De Menil (scion of the Schlumberger family and a cousin to Sylvina Boissonnas, producer of avant-garde French films including the early work of Philippe Garrel), as are the political talking points, such as Welles’ support for Francisco Franco, his prediction about a black US president and Hopper’s observation about the rift between the counterculture and deep America as he saw it in the varied response to Easy Rider. Most of all, it is compelling to see two artists grapple with the cinematic-aesthetic problems of the time. As the discussion turns around the films of De Sica and Antonioni, Hopper and Welles reflect on the challenges in dealing with boredom and lack of drama on screen, a few years before Jeanne Dielman (1975), among other narrative films, would do away with drama altogether. Going public after 50 years, Hopper/Welles is both a standalone film and an anniversary celebration. It hasn’t dated one bit.

Chaitanya Tamhane’s splendid follow-up to Court (2014) deepens, inverts one of the primary themes of his debut feature. If the defence lawyer of the earlier film (Vivek Gomber, the producer of both projects) was an idealist groping his way through an indifferent system, Sharad, an apprentice Hindustani music singer not only finds himself unable to live up to the lofty ideals of his tradition, but is gradually disabused of these ideals themselves. Sharad (Aditya Modak, a Hindustani singer himself) is a conservative in the literal sense of the word. His occupation is to conserve: he works at a small music publishing house that transfers old cassettes and LPs into CDs. On a regular basis, we seem him physically caring for his aging, ailing Guruji (Pandit Arun Dravid), applying ointments, helping with his toilet, preparing food for him and accompanying him to concerts as well as clinics. Sharad is not the greatest of talents, he’s not even his Guruji’s best disciple, but imagines himself as part of a tradition, a tradition that gives a structural meaning to his life, but one that dissolves into legend the further one follows it into its past.

Sharad witnesses this tradition getting progressively ‘diluted’ under the pressures of modernity and technological advancement. He possesses rare recordings of lectures by his Guruji’s teacher, a fabled figure named Maai (‘mother’), none of whose music exists in any recorded form. Maai’s lectures call for an ascetic, spiritually rarefied, extremely demanding way of life on the part of the Hindustani musician (the words ‘disciple’ and ‘discipline’ sharing etymological roots). His own Guruji, on the other hand, concedes to a few intimate concerts to make ends meet. Sharad is scolded by Guruji for wanting to start performing concerts at the age of 24. He, in turn, finds it in order to set up a personal website and to teach music at a school, but chastises one of his teenage students who wants to join a ‘fusion’ band. On television, he watches kids without any musical lineage finding wide recognition, just as he notices on the internet that his peers have had larger worldly success without having to go through the rigours he has had to. The promise of omnipresence and instant gratifications of the modern world beckon him, but—spirit willing, flesh weak—Sharad soldiers on, hanging on to Maai’s words like St. Bruno to the crucifix: “While the world changes, the cross stands firm.”

On one level, the film is dramatizing artistic doubt, the musician’s feeling that he simply isn’t good enough. But, as a Hindustani vocalist, the stakes are higher for Sharad. His own failure to live up to certain ideals is one thing. But it’s when he learns from a music historian—or rather, realizes himself—that the tradition he enshrines is itself a bundle of legends that his life’s foundations are assailed. It isn’t, then, a dilution of tradition that modernity ushers in as much as a disillusioning, a reinterrogation. Maai and Guruji, it turns out, aren’t the exemplars Sharad had taken them to be. To be sure, he had this doubt all along, for he knows that his own father, despite his passion for and knowledge about the music of his tradition was a mediocre musician himself; for, at some point, Maai’s discourse becomes one with his own inner voice. The fountain is corrupt, innocence is lost.

Tamhane builds up gradually to this assault on Sharad’s worldview. But he isn’t particularly interested in showing how Sharad reacts to this epistemological violence. In fact, he takes particular relish in not giving us an idea of how he reacts. Throughout the film, he cuts from a popular talent hunt on television to Sharad watching it with a poker face; that is, Tamhane doesn’t tell us how to react to the TV show. That’s because it doesn’t matter whether Sharad regards the show with the condescension and contempt of a superior musician or whether he is jealous and resentful about its enticements. What matters is that he is exposed to socio-artistic structures outside his own.

In a very direct manner, The Disciple zeroes in on a fundamental, civilizational sentiment that underpins artistic succession in the subcontinent: that of filial piety, as opposed to the parricidal narrative that informs the Western conception of self-realization. Even when his faith has been questioned, Sharad continues his service to Guruji, caring for him till the final days, like icon worshippers who hold on to their idols even (and especially) when the meaning behind them are lost. Physically as much as psychically and artistically, he labours under the weight of Guruji, just as the rebelliousness of the lawyer of Court simmers under a begrudging respect (and dependence on) his father. In both films, this Oedipal repression is set against the pragmatism of the mother, who, in The Disciple, is more worldly, not possessing the redoubtably attractive idealism of the father. In the film, Sharad is estranged from his mother following his father’s death, and connects with her only after the idealist parental figures—Guruji and Maai—pass away in his mind. I must add that this bit of psychoanalysis isn’t at all gratuitous; it seems plain that the film is dealing in these simple, bold relations in a very frontal way.

Bold is not the adjective one may think of when speaking of the baby-faced Tamhane, who comes across as a well-behaved, dutiful child himself in his interviews, or of his two films, which seem rather averse to emphasis or overstatement. But some of the bluntness of The Disciple could hardly be described otherwise. One of Tamhane’s ostensible strengths is his belief in the importance of humour to his work. While comedy remained a sporadic visitor to the Court, here it is systematized, generalized in the way the filmmaker links two sequences. Some of it is pretty on-the-face: shot of Sharad sitting stunned in disbelief at losing at a competition cut to him meditating at a yoga class to let off the steam, moaning sounds from a pornographic clip spliced with Sharad’s belaboured aalap. If this is easy laughs, it also attests to a filmmaker’s increasing confidence about his material: the humour doesn’t undermine the characters’ values or the gravity of their situation.

Tamhane also has the very valuable knack of picking up interesting faces. His lead actors, many of them musicians themselves, are all very good; Modak undergoes an incredible physical transformation midway in the film, gaining a telling paunch that reinforces his kinship to the lawyer of Court. But I refer to the faces in the crowd, each of which seems individualized, with its own story. Tamhane’s sedate, wide-angle style was served well by the subject matter of Court, where almost every scene has a crowd. The Disciple, however, except in its fascinating shots of concert audiences, limits the filmmakers to a few characters, resulting in several conversations filmed tastefully as a two- or three-shot over a table, with the camera slightly arcing towards Sharad.

Equally of note is Tamhane’s decision to vary his compositions throughout the film. Firstly, we hardly see Sharad in the same place more than once. It takes a while for us to inventory all the spaces Sharad haunts: Guruji’s spare loft in a chawl, the independent house where he lives with his poor aunt, its terrace where he practices, the recording studio where he works, the yoga class, the various concert halls and patrons’ houses. Even when Sharad is in the same space, the composition is so starkly different that we don’t perceive right away that it’s the same location. The effect of this variation is that it doesn’t let Sharad settle into a routine, and he is constantly caught in a spatial flux. The only strong, anchoring image of the film finds Sharad on his bike, cruising on Mumbai’s deserted late-night roads, listening to Maai’s lectures—his sole guidepost in a changing universe. The Disciple is also a period movie that unfolds over several decades—and a meticulous one at that, picking out era-specific electronic gadgets, currency notes and porn clips—and ends in our time of the thumping return of conservatism (to be liberal about it), which imparts an ironic colour to Sharad’s disillusionment. Maybe it’s appropriate that, in our era of hollow idols, the film closes with Sharad stepping into his father’s shoes, giving up performing to run a music label, even though the hallowed values of his father have been rendered void.

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

Boxing films are always something more than about boxing. The violent quality of the sport, the limited space of the ring and the unique social profile of its participants render it conducive to productive artistic interventions. Adapted from Joseph Moncure March’s prose poem of the same name from 1928, The Set-Up (1949) centres on Stoker (Robert Ryan, in a characteristically tough, anti-heroic turn), a 35-year-old boxer riding on a string of failures, getting ready for what may be his last shot at success. Unaware that his managers have made a $50 deal with the opposing team to ensure he loses the match, Stoker prepares for the fight against the wishes of his girlfriend (Audrey Totter), who wants him to give up fighting and settle down.

It isn’t usual for Hollywood films to be adapted from poetry. But March’s composition, which one commentator described as “a noir poem”, with its vernacular language and short, punchy verse lends itself easily to cinematic transcription. March himself was a film enthusiast who admired the economy of movie storytelling (“I learn something of value every time I see a picture, even if it’s rotten—and when it’s a really good one, my eyes pop out and I feel like taking up embroidery as a life work.”) His poem’s protagonist is a black man described thus: “Pansy had the stuff, but his skin was brown / And he never got a chance at the middleweight crown”. In the screen adaptation, this character is changed to a white man, Stoker, who identifies with the one black boxer in the changing room.

This whitewashing of the protagonist has two effects. One, it shifts the story’s social focus from race to class. Hollywood before the Civil Rights Movement was still tongue-tied on the question of race, but it was always more responsive to the plight of the poor white. With the war over and veterans returning to civil life, the triumphalist tone of war-time movies made way for a more sombre atmosphere in films dealing with urban realities. RKO studio head Dore Schary, director Robert Wise and writer Art Cohn were well-known liberals with interest in social themes. In The Set-Up, they use the situation of a washed-out pugilist to emphasize the impossibility of the American dream and the persistence of violence in public consciousness.

The first time we see Stoker, he falls face down on the ring following a knock-out. This downbeat image gives way to a shot of a street with neon lights sardonically reading “Paradise City” and “Dreamland”. Stoker, like his peers, clings to the dream against incredible odds, always believing in the illusion that he is “one punch away” from success. The Set-Up is certainly an underdog story, but one which recognizes that the underdog loses the war even if he wins a few battles, especially when the system is betting on his failure. Stoker does come out on top against his rival in the ring, but soon as he leaves the arena, he is thrashed by a group of men who break his right hand for good. Casinos, those embodiments of the American dream, have taught us the lesson: you don’t get to win against million-to-one odds and walk away scot free.

Making Stoker a white character also imparts a markedly existentialist thrust to the narrative. This is because stories amenable to existentialist reading, or written in existentialist terms, were often structured around a white, male subjectivity. Stoker’s predicament is explicitly formulated as that of a man trying to find meaning in an absurd universe. He is an aging boxer struggling to prove his worth in a world where the new is constantly replacing the old. In the changing room, he experiences vicarious pleasure and fear watching young, idealist debutants getting ready for their first match or expressing their hope for a chance at the title. This boxer of twenty years, whose sole supporter is another aging newspaper boy, sees the doors of his life shutting one by one. The spaces he inhabits in the film—his apartment, the changing room, and the arena—seem like claustrophobic, enclosed spaces with no exit.

More than the boxing ring, it’s the changing room around which the film is structured. This constricted room of male bonding, whose busy activities are filmed in deep-space compositions, is a zone where men can express their vulnerabilities without self-consciousness, a privilege unavailable in the ring or elsewhere. All the emotions Stoker experiences before his final shot at success — fear, ambition, disgust, temptation and domestic anxiety — are externalized through other characters in the room, who serve as a kind of Greek chorus. The changing room is a purgatory of comings and goings, a limbo between dream and reality. It is also a transitional space located literally between home and the ring; Stoker keeps peeking out to see if Julie has left their apartment, his anxiety relieved when he notices that she might be on her way to the match.

Julie, though, refuses to enter the arena. She spends her evening wandering the city streets, gripped by the dread of imagining Stoker hurt beyond repair. A moment of respite finds her observing young boys and girls indulging in pranks and games of chance at a penny arcade—a dream-like space as artificial as the ring. The film gives the appearance of unfolding in 72 minutes of real time. But it nests two experiences of time within its narrative. Julie’s 72 minutes agonizing over her boyfriend’s fate feels much longer than Stoker’s waiting for his match, which marches on like the clocks we see throughout the film, implacably, indifferently. It’s this binocular perspective of time, accelerating or slowing down depending on whose point of view it’s sharing, that lends the film a meditative, philosophical quality.

Julie’s refusal to enter the arena is also a refusal to partake in its violence. Throughout The Set-Up, and during Stoker’s fight in particular, Robert Wise intercuts the boxing with reactions of people in the arena. As men and women whoop and holler, changing their allegiance to whoever is landing the harsher blows, we witness a primal taste for animalistic violence sublimated in sports. Images of bellowing spectators make us aware of ourselves as movie viewers, revealing the sadistic gaze underpinning all violent spectacle, a gaze that has the power to kill. To this end, Wise photographs the match from outside the ring, so that the ropes are visible at all times during the fight. This decision conflates the film viewer with the spectator in the arena. It also creates a sense of entrapment around the fighters, who come across as captives made to kill each other for mass entertainment.

But that doesn’t prevent The Set-Up from being a spectacle in itself. Wise, who edited Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941), exhibits a dynamic style comprising of elaborate camera choreography, wide-angle, high-contrast cinematography that makes use of all image planes, and a great sensitivity to the movement of boxers in the ring. The film barely has any musical score, and its soundtrack is made almost wholly of dialogue and environmental sounds. Even so, we don’t feel distanced from the action for a moment. In presenting the fight in all its vigour and energy, but breaking it regularly with somewhat repulsive shots of gesticulating spectators, the film has its cake and eats it too. Like many of the wonderful films discussed in this column, The Set-Up is a thing and its opposite, suffused with those perplexing, contradictory impulses that make the best of classical Hollywood cinema so rich and alive.

 

[Originally published at Firstpost]

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

With the American economy recovering under the New Deal and workers getting back to the factories, it would seem that a more fundamental anxiety about the industrial age resurfaced in Hollywood cinema. Fordist production of the previous decades had vitiated the skilled workforce, reducing the factory employee to a tiny cog in the production machinery—an awareness that was heightened by the brief favour socialism enjoyed in the country in the late 1930s. Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) responded most famously to this alienation of the worker by satirizing the principles of industrial management. The Paramount production Reaching for the Sun (1941) takes a less jovial route, exploring the theme within the framework of romantic comedy and marital drama.

Adapted from Wessel Smitter’s novel F.O.B. Detroit (1938), Reaching for the Sun follows Russ (Joel McCrea), a backwoods clam-digger who moves to Detroit to work in a car factory so he can afford an outboard motor for his boat. He plans to get back to the countryside as soon as he purchases the motor, but just as his roommate and colleague Bennie (Eddie Bracken) warns, he falls in love, marries and has a child in the city before he knows it. Obliged to toil at the factory to support his family, but also facing the opposition of his wife Rita (Ellen Drew) who wants to continue living in the city, Russ finds his dream of moving back to the woods slipping away from him.

Russ is first presented an innocent idealist living in harmony with nature, untouched by the harsh realities of industrial life. He lives for his clams, whistles at birds and deer. There’s not a resentful bone in his body: when he sees another clam-digger making a bigger haul with his motor boat, he simply tilts his head, as though to say “lucky man!”. McCrea’s towering stature bestows a rich dialectical quality to the character. Despite his lumberjack-like build, Russ is a gentle giant who gets knocked down repeatedly by Herman (Albert Dekker), his romantic rival at the factory. He keeps his hands close to his body even when he’s agitated. When he punches through a door in a rare fit of rage, it’s an evidently clumsy blow, made against his natural instinct.

Rita, in total contrast, is a world-wise city girl, a waitress and a taxi dancer who ribs Russ’ Southern-boy courteousness (“What will you have, or is that too personal?”). She has no abiding relation to nature: she doesn’t want to move to the countryside and falls into a brook the only time Russ takes her there. When they relocate to a new house, Rita points to a sorry excuse for a tree, telling Russ she picked this spot because she knows how much he loves nature: “The man said in the spring it has leaves and everything.” Just beyond this tree is a construction crane moving about its limb ominously.

The central theme of Smitter’s book, reprised as a secondary motif in the film, is modern man’s enslavement by his own inventions. “A machine geared to a man is one thing. A man geared to a machine is something else.”, writes the author. When we first see Russ in the film, he wedges out a truck stuck in the mud using a pair of logs. But the initial temptation of an outboard motor gradually brings him in contact with bigger and bigger machines. His first fight with Herman is with bare fists, the second with crowbars and pliers, and his final battle takes place through gigantic machines the two men operate. In the latter skirmish, Russ and Herman are barely visible, having become ghosts in the machines.

The film’s primary focus, however, is the machine that modern life as a whole is. Director William Wellman and scriptwriter Leslie River displace the immediate socio-industrial thrust of Smitter’s story on to an existential plane. Their Russ is a Thoreau-like figure wanting to live away from community in self-sufficiency, but who is caught in the rigmarole of social life, his personality gradually hollowed out by everyday grind. When Rita blasts him for obsessing over his outboard motor, he pensively tells Bennie that, without it, “I’ll be like everyone else”.

The machine thus comes to represent the life Russ dreams of, the identity he tries to hold on to. But, like the car in Ritwik Ghatak’s Ajantrik (1958), it is also a physical entity that supplants Russ’ human relations. Just after he purchases the motor, Russ carries it gently like a baby wrapped in rags. He addresses it with a “she” and nurtures dreams for it. In a humorous scene, he and Bennie try to get the motor started in their boarding house, just as two bumbling men would handle an abandoned baby. The machine competes with both Rita and Russ’ real baby for his attention and resources; at one point, it lies next to him on his marital bed, after Rita and her baby have left the house.

A contemporary New York Times review regretted such a comic treatment of the subject, criticizing the way the film strips away the socio-political import of the book. While this may be a fair objection, it should also be noted that the light touch of the film does not imply frivolity of intention. Producer and director Wellman, who retired early from filmmaking to spend more time with his family, often made pictures about characters who had to make hard choices between professional and personal lives. He recognizes the modern apprehension at the heart of the story. His success lies in finding a form that registers this hefty idea without letting it overwhelm the narrative.

A number of scenes in his film function on a register that is neither wholly comic or dramatic, an ambivalence that works in its favour. In a reconciliatory exchange, Rita inquires how important she is for Russ. Russ tells what she wants to hear, but when she asks “more than the outboard motor?”, he goes silent in a manner that’s both poignant and funny. In another sequence, Russ and Bennie attend a class for to-be-fathers where they are to learn how to handle newborns. It’s a broadly comic scene about changing gender roles, but Russ’ reaction to the idea of washing a baby’s bottom, a mixture of fear and worry, is the opposite of what such a comic scene demands. Towards the end, just after Rita has left with the baby, Russ receives a laudatory certificate from the class for being the best father—an ironic moment that’s tragic even if Rita and the baby were with him.

This heartfelt angst about the costs of domestic life is complex and unresolvable, all the more why the film’s ending seems so ridiculously contrived. Where Smitter’s novel leaves Russ hopelessly crippled after an industrial accident, he not only gets artificial legs in the film, but is able to move to the countryside with Rita and the baby. While there’s little reason to suspect that Wellman, known for his obstinacy and independent spirit, had to compromise, the postcard picturesqueness with which this tacked-on happy ending is filmed — Rita tossing a steak and singing a folk tune in the country house—can’t possibly be taken at face value. Considering that Wellman shows a large banner at the car factory reading “Quality First” (and not “Safety First”) just after Russ’ accident, we may suppose self-parody at work. It may be that a country on the brink of a great war simply needed to believe in such happy endings.

 

[Originally published at Firstpost]

[Disclaimer: I know the filmmaker Arun Karthick on Facebook. In principle, I don’t write about films by people I’m acquainted with. But since Nasir had a worldwide screening on YouTube as part of the We Are One festival, I thought it okay to write about it. Take it with a pinch of salt all the same.]

Arun Karthick’s Nasir is built on a series of refusals. As a non-Muslim filmmaker telling the story of a poor Muslim man, Arun seems to have felt that the only way he can negotiate this dilemma is by refusing to give in to objectifying characterizations of Muslims typical of a whole lot of non-Muslim cinema. So very little about Nasir (Koumarane Valavane) marks him as a Muslim in the viewer’s eyes. He doesn’t wear a kurta, doesn’t have a skullcap and doesn’t shave his moustache. We never see him eat meat or biryani. He doesn’t live in a Muslim ghetto, his impoverished neighbourhood accommodating poor of all stripes. His speech is plain, largely untouched either by Dakhni Urdu or the prevalent Kongu accent of Tamil. His household isn’t teeming with children; in fact, Nasir doesn’t have a child of his own, and he takes care of an orphaned, developmentally challenged teenager at home. This considered refusal of artificiality must not be confused with authenticity.

This extends to the dramatic construction as well. Right at the outset, we learn that poor Nasir needs money: he has an ailing mother and a memorial ceremony is around the corner. It’s the most melodramatic of all premises. But the film refuses to take Nasir through a parade of frustrations, disappointments and humiliations. The drama is constantly deferred, relegated to the margins, until late into the film. The filmmaker is mostly content in observing Nasir’s workaday over 24 hours, starting from his morning routine until his walk back home from work late in the evening. Nasir works at a clothing outlet, and the film captures his interaction with colleagues, customers, his boss and his family at length, interspersing it with pensive moments of Nasir smoking beedi.

Nasir is a relic from another time, something of a poet adrift in a commercial world. He listens to music on a tape recorder, writes loving letters to his wife who’s away from home for just three days. Like his poetry, his understated but distinctly innocent romanticism are at odds with a universe of short-term relationships and teenage affairs. His long letter to his wife—doubling as an elaborate expository device read out as voiceover—is interrupted thrice by instances of violence. But Nasir is out of pace with the world in other ways as well. As an unmarked Muslim unbound by his community and uninvolved in debates surrounding Islam, he mentally lives in a time and place in which he could survive behind the general anonymity of the city and the marketplace.

Echoing this isolation, the film hems close to Nasir’s perspective of things. The viewer experiences only what the protagonist experiences. Nasir is the centre of the cosmos on whose margins tumultuous things unfold, things that he keeps at bay unwittingly or not: signs of anti-Muslim sentiment and political mobilization in the city. A shorter sequence at his shop transposes Nasir’s condition temporarily onto a female co-worker. As the men at the outlet discuss porn, sex and adultery, the camera leaves Nasir to follow the young woman around the store as she tries unsuccessfully to ignore this ostensibly uncomfortable discussion.

Nasir’s observational approach isn’t new, and it plants itself firmly in the Hubert Bals-sponsored tradition of meditative fiction filmmaking. The film starts out with extreme close-ups of scenes from Nasir’s household, partially blocked or obscured images offered through layers of fabric or grills so that the viewer squints to perceive what’s happening. This formal scheme loosens up as Nasir sets out for the day, the scenes at the clothing shop serving both as visual and comic relief. The filmmaker often fixates on minute details of décor, setting or actors’ bodies, with one afternoon sequence around Nasir’s nap turning into an abstract vision of a state between dream and waking life. While this fetishization of the ordinary remains eccentric and tasteful for most part, it sometimes tips over into the exotic, such as when we see Nasir’s prayer at the mosque—a rare sign of his Islamic affiliation—at great, almost voyeuristic detail that goes against the general principle of the film.

On the other hand, the film’s treatment of the city of Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu, where the story is set, is quite refreshing. My recent memory of the city on screen is in the noxious Suttu Pidikka Utharavu (2018), where it’s a contested town filled with treacherous North Indian immigrants and Muslims to be strictly policed and surveyed from apartment rooftops. In Nasir, in contrast, we witness the city almost exclusively from the eye level on the street.

To be sure, the film does not purport to offer an objective, value-neutral glimpse of the city. For instance, we hardly see any political or film posters on its walls, or hear Dravidian political rhetoric—sights and sounds that are integral to public experience in Tamil Nadu. And the same could be said of the deep-seated caste and ethnic fault lines of the city. In Nasir, it would seem that these details have been supplanted by a pan-national communal discourse: Jamaats and Mahasabhas announce themselves on the walls as Nasir walks from his neighbourhood to the larger city—sequences whose lengths seem determined by the soundbites from mosques or BJP speeches we hear on the soundtrack. And a vaguely suspicious North Indian presence is still felt on the narrative periphery, most notably in the ubiquity of Ganesha idols during the Ganesha festival, which here becomes an occasion for Hindu assertion and mob violence.

Even so, Nasir does a good job of capturing the unique visual culture of the state, the sensory overload it imposes on the public, vying for its attention akin to the shop worker who calls out to potential customers: flashy private vehicles at a mofussil bus depot, serpentine chains of stores selling the same wares, coloured decorations cutting across roads like wires, etc. More importantly, it touches on the fragile cosmopolitanism of the city, easily upset by politically-motivated communal polarization.

Critics have hailed Nasir for its reserve, its abstinence from grandstanding, its relegation of the political to its margins and its refusal to give a message. While some of it is true, I think this profoundly mischaracterizes the film. For one, the rejection of messaging is new only as far as one compares it to mainstream Indian cinema, a comparison with little possible ground. Nasir is as far from mainstream Indian cinema as it is from Hollywood; its lineage is different and specific. Considered in light of other Rotterdam-funded films of the past two decades, its minimization of the political and its refusal to preach is wholly in line with that tradition.

Moreover, it isn’t to the film credit to say that it focuses on some fuzzy humanism, keeping the political and the communal out of its scope. Nasir’s indifference is a virtue only as far as there’s the threat of political and religious violence about him. The marginalization of the political is part of the film’s emotive substructure and not some independent artistic choice outside of its desire to follow Nasir’s life. One collapses without the other. Finally, it seems plain as day to me that Nasir has a message and one it wishes to convey ardently. It isn’t an ambiguous film by any measure, and there are no dozen ways of reading it. It isn’t any less message-oriented than many liberal-minded mainstream pictures, and to acknowledge that doesn’t take anything away from the film’s accomplishment.

[Spoiler alert]

Which brings me to the film’s ending. As Nasir walks home at night, reciting the letter to his wife on the voiceover, a Hindu mob confronts and kills him. Where arthouse filmmaking would typically omit this graphic event, presenting vignettes of its aftermath alone, Arun chooses to depict the violence. The camera unhinges from the tripod, frenetically following the men pouncing on Nasir. The shaky camera abstracts the lynching such that that the mass of men is reduced to an indistinct blob of low-def colours, with a face or a snatch of dialogue emerging from time to time to pin down the meaning of the event.

It is a bold choice that finds a novel (and morally defensible) midpoint between the iniquity of representing such violence and potential perversion (not to mention the aesthetic staleness) involved in artfully eliding the event. But I do wonder whether it isn’t a superfluous ending that could’ve been done away with altogether. I understand that it’s intended to inscribe homicidal violence within the everyday experience of the poor Indian Muslim. But I also think that it topples the affair by suggesting that the travails of Indian Muslims could only make sense within the optic of murderous communal violence. In other words, the low-key struggles born of structural problems—lack of state support, the dearth of economic opportunities, the obligation to ply one’s trade under neutral names, the pressure to move to the Gulf, the intersectional violence on women and the disabled—that are the focus of the most part of the film risk being relativized by what is evidently a coup de théâtre. It reduces the admirable qualities of the film to the setup for a dramatic punchline.

Jerry Lewis’s romantic comedy Three on a Couch (1966) works off a rather outrageous premise. Chris (Lewis) is an artist who has won a year-long residency in France. He wants to marry his girlfriend Liz (Janet Leigh) and move with her to Paris. But Liz, a psychoanalyst, can’t leave her practice because she’s not making progress with three of her patients who depend on her. Each of these three girls—of a uniformly doll-like beauty, differentiated by accents and hairstyles—has turned into a man-hater following a heartbreak. Liz is helpless and Chris is becoming increasingly morose. Chris’ best friend, the obstetrician Ben (James Best), gives him an idea: seduce the three girls so they can be cured of their misandry and Liz can leave for Paris. Playing three different men with characteristics tailored to each girl, Chris goes about making them fall for him.

As the title indicates, psychoanalysis here is euphemism for sexual intercourse. When Liz penetrates the minds of her patients, her office is lit in saturated, psychedelic colours, like some seedy den of sin conceived by Frank Tashlin. One of the girls, a sportive type, keeps moving her legs, through which the camera moves at one point. Psychoanalysis being a substitute for sex, the three girls are in an unstated romantic relation with Liz. The comedy therefore derives from one man’s attempt to win back his girlfriend from the seductions of other women by seducing away these women. Underpinning the humour is the rather retrograde notion that lesbians simply need a good dick to be cured.

Well, that’s the text. But there’s something else going on underneath, against the flow, reversing the text even. We are told that Chris was once Liz’s patient. During the credits, we see him enter her office with the appearance of a hermit, but we don’t exactly know what his problem was. Given how Liz exclusively works with issues of sexuality, we might suppose Chris too is tormented on that front. In the first scene, Chris goes to the French consulate to claim his residency and reward. He is an artist—one of Hollywood’s euphemisms for a gay man. Posing for the photo-op, he kisses the French diplomat, who tells him that it wasn’t necessary. “For $10000, you’re lucky it wasn’t on the lips”, says Chris.

When we first see Ben, he’s trying to convince Liz to go with Chris to Paris. “Any girl that won’t have babies is anti-business” is the reason this obstetrician gives. Shortly after, he arrives at a bar to talk to Chris. The whole scene plays out like the first meeting of two lovers who have long separated. This conversation, as all of Ben’s scenes in the film, is loaded with innuendo that suggest that his relation to Chris, “his best friend”, is more than platonic. He lays out the plan to Chris: “If I were a girl who hated men and wanted someone to talk me out of it, I wouldn’t go to another girl, I’d go to Cary Grant”. “Man is the cause, man is the cure”, he says, prompting Chris to play the “bohemian” lover to the three girls. Chris likes the idea, but demurs. Ben reminds him of their college days. “You seem awfully happy about this”, notes Chris, to which Ben replies, “Well, it’s good for my business”.

As the plan is afoot, Ben visits Chris in his apartment. The exchange between them strips away all context, accommodating any supposition:

Ben: “What are you so sad about?

Chris: “What am I looking so sad about? Suppose Elizabeth finds out.

Ben: “How is she gonna find out?

Chris: “That’s what I’m worried about.

Ben: “In a city as big as L.A.? It’ll never happen.”

Chris: “In a city as big as L.A. That’s when it does happen.”

Just then, Liz rings the bell. Chris opens fumblingly, and Ben prepares to leave the apartment right away for no reason. The couple sits on the couch as Liz starts recounting how her patients are showing signs of cure, not knowing that Chris is behind all this. Now, Jerry Lewis’ sequencing tends to be rather austere, not particularly marked by camera movements. During conversation scenes, he avoids shot/reverse shot constructions, instead drawing the viewer into the space through axial cuts from medium two-shots to tighter solo shots. But here, he allows himself a flourish. The camera arcs from behind the sofa where the couple are sitting and goes at the diametrically opposite point, reversing the actors’ on-screen positions. The reversal is equally thematic, for Chris is as much a pawn in Ben’s plan as Liz is in his.

Notwithstanding the tacked-on happy ending, one against-the-grain reading of the plot illustrates its symmetry: Chris thinks he’s winning back Liz by seducing the girls, but it might well be Ben who’s trying to win back Chris by urging him to carry out this hopeless plan. So we can’t always say who’s controlling whom; at several points, the three characters move in a way that swaps their positions in the frame.

Ben’s romance is barely veiled. In a ballroom scene, as Chris necks Liz during a slow dance, Lewis cuts to Ben’s reaction, a wholly uncomfortable insert held for too long. Ben forces an awkward, pained smile. As the couple dances, Ben gets up from the seat to encourage Chris to continue dancing, as though he needed that encouragement. In a later scene, Ben and Chris leave a party hall into a private room. Lewis makes an ambiguous cut to Liz discussing with her secretary about how pretty something looks; “a natural romance”, adds the secretary. (The entire party scene—constructed around a Kafkaesque elevator that’s always there but never accessible—is small masterpiece of screen comedy, dialled-up with uncharacteristically tight, claustrophobic compositions that cry for a release.)

In his extraordinary Rock Hudson’s Home Movies (1992), which played this week at the Filmmuseum München retrospective online, Mark Rappaport picks out moments from Hudson’s films that surreptitiously relay information about the actor’s homosexuality, revelations often mitigated by a safely heterosexual plot context. The filmmaker extracts these lines and gestures out of their context to build his case that Hudson’s homosexuality was there to see for anyone who cared to pay close attention. This hacking of the texts, this decontextualization, frustrating from an academic point of view, is very much the point of the film, which forges a young admirer’s private fantasy in the vein of Hollywood Babylon from public documents. Rappaport’s explosive work throws light on the complex workings of the Hollywood movie, where several extra-textual narratives intermingle to pin down an ever-slippery network of meanings.

Someone watching Three on a Couch with no knowledge of the actors’ private lives may similarly suppose that Jerry Lewis and James Best were queer, and that this detail was being sublimated in a story about heterosexual supremacy. The scenes between them have a touch of camp, but Lewis’ performance and characterization are especially striking.

A Lewis operation is generally room-wrecking, his physicality dominating every other element of the aesthetic. Here, on the other hand, he is largely withdrawn. He doesn’t begin with the Lewis persona right away. He starts off, in fact, as a rather obnoxious figure, throwing tantrums and blackmailing Liz when she refuses to go with him to Paris. In his scenes with Liz, he is often photographed from the back, not unlike how Cary Grant is filmed in Hitchcock’s Suspicion (1941), the lack of our access to his facial reactions making him seem even more sinister. There are no reverse shots, and his inward-looking body language clearly spells a repressed character.

What’s Ben’s seduction plan for Chris if not an opportunity for him to perform heterosexual romances with women without ever personally investing in it, just like what Rock Hudson and other queer stars of Hollywood always did in their movies? It even offers Chris a chance to cross-dress as a character named Heather. Sexually speaking, the Jerry Lewis persona oscillates between a childish pre- or asexuality and blustering ultra-masculinity. Here, Ben’s plan decomposes Chris’ relatively complex personality into three simple archetypes: Ringo the alpha man of the west, Warren the sportive urban male and Rutherford the gay mamma’s boy. Once this decomposition is in place, all three archetypes are subjected to the Jerry treatment; in a montage of funny courting scenes (chopped up into single gags so as to put Jerry back into his comfort zone), we see how each of these men fails in the sole characteristic he is supposed to uphold.

So I suspect Three on a Couch is to Lewis what Punch-Drunk Love (2002) is to Adam Sandler: a deconstruction, a look at what likes on the other side of his screen persona, defined equally by arrested development. But the more fundamental question of whether it’s legitimate for heterosexual actors like Lewis and Best to play gay characters playing heterosexual characters is a Gordian knot I can’t yet undo.

This kind of in-joking—whether imposed or willed—is not uncommon in the work of queer actors like Grant, Hudson and Montgomery Clift. And unlike, say, Indian male movie stars, who operate in a firmly heterosexual framework that can only allow their drag roles and performed queerness to be read as jokes, Lewis and Best are working in Hollywood of 1966, whose historical and cultural context won’t let viewers brush aside the significations of these ‘crossovers’. Which is to say, Three on a Couch may have been a cultural relic even in its time, like all Jerry Lewis films.

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

Warner Brothers was arguably the most interesting film production house of the 1930s, certainly at least from a political and social point of view. Like other studios, it knew how to harness the Depression-era audience’s desire to escape the doom and gloom around them by offering cheerful backstage musicals. But Warner also proved itself willing and capable of registering the harsh reality that this audience lived in. The studio’s tendency to both profit from the general resentment and to assuage it with uplifting messages of hope and courage may have its roots in the political leanings of its chief Jack Warner, a heavyweight supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt who is said to have gotten his wartime directives straight from the White House.

Heroes for Sale (1933) was produced by First National Pictures, a subsidiary of Warner Brothers’ that mostly handled the studio’s second-tier products. There were few stars in these films and the budgets were relatively low, which allowed them to be bold in their choice of plot and setting. While in a Warner Bros. picture, tragic stories would regularly be attenuated with a tacked-on happy ending, the First National films didn’t need to sugarcoat their bitter vision. Heroes for Sale was made just after Roosevelt swore in as the 32nd president of the United States. As though symptomatic of this particular time, the film embodies both a discontentment with the preceding Hoover administration and a hope for the new one, the duality manifesting as an incongruity between plot and character.

Injured in combat during the war, Tom Holmes (Richard Barthelmess) returns home to discover that the military accolades he deserves have been given to his army peer Roger (Gordon Westcott). Not wishing to rock the boat, Tom takes up a modest clerical job at the bank run by Roger’s father, only to be crippled by, and sacked for, a morphine addiction he acquired at a German POW hospital. After rehabilitation, Tom starts a family and successfully runs a laundry in Chicago, but finds himself unwittingly caught up in a riot following a wave of automation and job loss. Returning from an imprisonment of five years, he learns he is on a list of suspected communists, and is forced to wander the country as a drifter without a home, a family or a job.

The script, by Robert Lord and Wilson Mizner (an opium addict himself), has a stark anti-establishment bent. Throughout the film, we witness authority being abused to crush the little man that Tom represents: a commander who sends his soldiers on an impossible mission, a banker who misappropriates people’s money, businessmen who sack their employees without second thought, police who fire at protestors, law that accords disproportional punishment to white- and blue-collar crimes, enforcers chasing vagabonds from their camps. Heroes for Sale is punctuated by images drawn from real events of the preceding years, such as urban breadlines, the veterans’ march to Washington and the ensuing firing. At the end, Tom tells Roger, both hobos on the run now: “You started way up high and I started pretty low. And we end up here in the rain, together.”

While the grim analysis above remains faithful to the reality of the Great Depression, the reaction to it suggested by Heroes for Sale is one of stoic acceptance. All through his ordeals, Tom refuses revolts against his lot, nor does he switch over to the wrong side of the law. As a result, the account of his constant exile from society—army, rehabilitation centre, prison, endless wandering as a vagrant—scans like a modern-day Book of Job, where Christian forbearance, charity and an unquestioning faith in powers that be are presented as the noblest possible response to relentless suffering. This answer is justified by the failure of the anti-automation riot Tom tries to prevent, as well as by the presence of the inventor Max (Robert Barrat), a caricatural communist who is simply a disgruntled capitalist at heart.

This call for patience is wholly in line with the studio’s support for the new regime and the promises of the New Deal. In fact, the film devolves into an unveiled propaganda for Roosevelt towards the end. “It takes more than one sock in the jaw to lick 120 million people”, says Tom to Roger, explicitly referring to the new president’s inaugural address. The economy, and with it the morale of the nation, will rise again is the message. After one hour of attacking one American institution after another, here’s a turnabout, an unfounded appeal for trust. Trust in institutions, especially the banking establishments that had lost public legitimacy after the stock market collapse, was what the Warner brothers would have liked too; their existence depended on it: Goldman Sachs was on advisory board of the studio and had co-financed its purchase of First National Pictures.

Director William A. Wellman’s style is notoriously hard to pin down; his personal vision of the world, even more so. There is little formal or thematic consistency across his body of work, except perhaps a certain taste for gritty realism expressed in particular details of action, gesture and setting. Any line of moral, political or philosophical thought one can discern in one film will invariably be contradicted in another. As critic David Phelps puts it, “the films have no metaphysics but physics.” As a result, critical consensus on his work still remains unresolved, his status as a major American filmmaker open to question. Manny Farber was a great admirer of the textures in his films, asserting that “when Wellman finishes with a service station or the wooden stairs in front of an ancient saloon, there’s no reason for any movie realist to handle the subject again.” In contrast, Andrew Sarris declared that, with Wellman, “objectivity is the last refuge for mediocrity.

Be that as it may, Wellman brings a lean muscularity to Heroes for Sale, which possesses a novelistic sprawl without ever turning laboured or precious. The film hurtles from one genre, one setting to another, making vast leaps in time that are all the more striking in that they are executed with straight cuts without transitions. Wellman’s characteristic camera movements expand and contract spaces with considerable effectiveness. He tracks across the laundry floor twice to show the wrecking impact of automation on the employees. Wellman steers clear of sentimentalism despite the thoroughly melodramatic construction of the scenario. A comparison with his collaboration with David O. Selznick, a high-strung sentimentalist, a few months before in The Conquerors (1932) reveals on how light-footed Heroes for Sale actually is.

There’s something about Wellman’s style that makes it free of value judgments about what is being depicted. To be sure, scenes can provoke the desired emotion in the viewer, but only in so far as the script needs it. Many episodes in Wellman’s work seem to unfold in the passive voice, displacing interest from the characters on to the action they are embedded in. The riot sequence in Heroes for Sale is a good example. The strikers wreck the laundry and hurl stones at the police, who fire back. The camera pushes through the fighting mass to pick up Tom’s wife, who has come to look for him. A barely perceptible blow to her jaw knocks her down dead. Since the previous shot shows both the rioters and the police wielding batons, we are not sure who is delivered the blow. Wellman’s staging and editing of the action takes no sides, shifting the emphasis from assigning responsibility to describing results. A riot took place, blows were exchanged, a woman was killed.

 

[Originally published at Firstpost]

“Somi wears a broad smile. She’s in her late twenties—or early thirties, she doesn’t know—and pregnant with her second child. “I think it’s a girl”, she tells her husband Sukhram, five years her junior. Somi cooks, washes their clothes and takes care of their first child, while Sukhram is about the house doing nondescript work. They have a pet parrot and raise poultry in their plot of land. It might be the picture of a modest but ordinary family, except for the fact that both Somi and Sukhram are renegades from the Naxal movement who surrendered to the Indian state, got an amnesty, and were resettled under the country’s rehabilitation policy for ex-Naxals. Their “second-life”, in a colony in rural Maharashtra comprising of refugees like themselves, is the subject of a compelling new documentary titled A Rifle and a Bag, which screened online at the Visions du Réel film festival last week.

In long, fixed shots, the opening passage of the film gives us a sense of the couple’s everyday reality: scenes from domestic life, Somi’s visit to the pregnancy clinic, the couple’s conversation about their to-be-born second child. These images of quotidian life are, however, soon punctured as we learn about Somi’s past as a Naxal commander, the deadly reprisals the couple have risked in their surrender, their lingering feeling of deracination. Somi’s role as a wife and a mother is in stark contrast with her older role as a Naxal higher-up. But Somi makes no remark about this conventional distribution of labour, content instead to secure a future for her children.

A large part of A Rifle and a Bag presents the couple’s interaction with the Indian state and civil society on a day-to-day basis as part of their rehabilitation. Somi runs from pillar to post to unsuccessfully obtain a caste certificate for Sukhram, who can’t safely go back home to Chhatisgarh to get one. Without this certificate, they can’t admit their son into a school. The film develops around the central irony that Somi and Sukhram, of a tribal origin, have to identify themselves in terms the Indian state understands. The state and the civil society, though, aren’t malevolent forces. In fact, the officers, teachers and doctors whom we only hear interacting with Somi could hardly be more understanding and sympathetic. It’s the system they help function, faceless just like them, that holds Somi and Sukhram like a vice.”

 

[Full review at Silverscreen]

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

One of Paramount Pictures’ most prestigious assets was director Josef von Sternberg, a Viennese émigré most known for his seven-film collaboration with iconic actress Marlene Dietrich, who had moved to the States following the success of their first film together, The Blue Angel (1930). The sixth entry in the cycle, The Scarlet Empress, is a loose biography of Catherine the Great of Russia. The arrival of the talkies in the late 1920s had given fresh impetus to studios to remake their silent epics in sound. The year before had seen Garbo play Christina of Sweden in the commercial hit Queen Christina (1933) and Paramount themselves had released Cleopatra (1934), starring Claudette Colbert, a month before to considerable success. But nothing, not even Sternberg’s earlier films with Dietrich, anticipates the stylistic aggression of The Scarlet Empress, a box-office bomb.

Sternberg’s film follows a fairly linear trajectory. Ordained to be married to the Grand Duke Peter of Russia (Sam Jaffe), Catherine (Dietrich) travels from her hometown in Prussia to Russia, accompanied by the handsome Count Alexei (John Lodge). Catherine falls in love with the count, who has described Peter to her in lofty terms. Having reached Russia, Catherine is subject to a series of rude awakenings: Peter is a sinister idiot who devises torture toys, his aunt the current Empress Elizabeth (Louise Dresser) is a cold, cruel ruler who only wants Catherine to produce a male heir to her throne and Alexei appears to be a perennial skirt-chaser. Hardened by her betrayal, Catherine shields herself from the world, weaponizing her sexuality and waiting for the right moment to seize power.

It’s a rather intimate, psychoanalytical retelling of Catherine’s story that casts her private romantic problems as the motor of History. It locates the dissolution of her humanity in a wrenching scene in which she discovers that Alexei is also the illicit lover of Elizabeth. Later in the film, after taking over Elizabeth’s private chamber, Catherine restages this primal scene as a form of therapy, this time forcing Alexei into her old role in order to make him recognize the harm he’s done. Catherine’s ascension is conditioned by her private disappointments—the dissolution of her Prussian identity, her unhappy marriage, her heartbreak with Alexei and the her being reduced to an heir-producing machine. “We women are too much creatures of the heart”, remarks Elizabeth, lamenting the burden of the crown. It’s Catherine’s predicament too, one which she turns to her advantage.

Nothing in the synopsis above obliges Scarlet Empress to be the film that it is. In the hands of another equally-capable director, this might have been a sober, moving tragedy about thrust-upon greatness. But Sternberg was a sophisticated stylist and he conceives the film in an idiosyncratic form that derives from gothic, baroque and expressionistic tendencies in western art and architecture. Every detail of the film—sets, costume, lighting, dialogue, acting, music—is distorted to a grotesque degree having little to do with reality, leave alone history. Sternberg’s genre-bending treatment of the narrative applies horror movie tropes to a historical psychodrama, resulting in a very campy, very exotic aesthetic comparable to what Sergei Eisenstein would devise years later for his Ivan the Terrible films.

Sternberg’s primary means of breaking away from realism is through a ‘encumbered’ mise en scène, a deep physical space saturated with decorative objects all pointing to the unfathomable cruelty of the Russian royalty: a decadent palace housing gargoyle like sculptures, thrones attached to busts of withered old men clutching their faces in grief, clocks and toys depicting sexual deviancy and human torture, expansive clothes that seem like medieval torture instruments themselves, a skeleton leaning over a dining table, tableware and even food that spell out anguish and pain. (It is a curious irony that the contemporary face of evil, seizing power in Germany as Sternberg’s film was being made, glorified an aesthetic that was the polar opposite of the one pictured here.) The human characters are thus lost in layers and layers of clothing and décor, trapped in an ethos of terror they have little agency over. Catherine is doomed, physically and morally, to the same fate as her predecessors.

Nothing is left to accident in Sternberg’s film. Every visual, every gesture and every word planned in advance — Catherine playing with a suspended rope, falling on a haystack and tucking straws into her mouth for Alexei to remove, Alexei bowing his head in sorrow after Catherine asks him to perform an elaborate ritual, Catherine wrapping the tip of Peter’s threatening sword with a piece of her dress, a high official humiliatingly dropping a diamond in a priest’s plate — everything carrying specific meaning. Working with cinematographer Bert Glennon for the fifth time, Sternberg develops a rather complex lighting pattern that favours certain image planes over others (a similar scheme will be developed in India later by Guru Dutt and V. K. Murthy). This produces a film of great visual allure as well as ambiguity.

The chief source of ambiguity, though, stems from Sternberg’s bold mixing of tones. The Scarlet Empress is both a tragedy about Catherine’s sealed fate as well as risqué comedy about her sexual conquests. The challenge the film poses is that it never clearly distinguishes these two elements of the film. The duality of innocence and evil is introduced in the film’s first scene, in which a young, bedridden Catherine clutches her doll as her governor reads her tales of notorious Russian tyrants. The calamity facing Catherine registers clearly all through the narrative, reaching its peak in a gorgeously expressive wedding scene in which the bride Catherine’s halting breath threatens to blow out the candle she holds before her veil. Cutting to a soaring choral score, Sternberg films Catherine and Alexei in increasingly tight closeups, freezing them in their despair and helplessness via a characteristic top lighting.

On the other hand, the film suspends us in an attitude of uneasy humour about Catherine’s destiny. This strategy primarily manifests in the figure of Marlene Dietrich, an icon of screen irony. The viewer never once believes in the innocence of Christina even back in Prussia as a young maiden. Dietrich plays up the plain country girl stereotype, feigning wide-eyed naïveté and real love. Starting from this, The Scarlet Empress effects a progressive ‘defeminization’ of Catherine, her billowing white frock slowly giving way to military furs and finally to a dazzling white uniform with coat and trousers. Catherine’s rise to power thus coincides with a merging of the character with the Dietrich persona. The actor conveys Catherine’s sexual maturity with tremendous humour and wit. The joke on paper (that Catherine the Great slept with the whole Russian army) is taken through all its variations by Dietrich’s actorly intelligence, her manner of introducing wholly gratuitous but suggestive sentence breaks (“And your duties… Dmitri?”) and her typical way of sizing up men around her.

All of this excess somehow passed through the newly introduced Motion Picture Production Code. Part of it has to do with the film’s way of having its royal cake and eating it. A biographical picture situated in a different time and country (Russia, no less) perhaps gave the film immunity from the censors. The sadism, cruelty and debauchery could always be defended by appeal to a dubious historical accuracy. Whatever the case, it’s a wonder that Sternberg managed to go as far as he did, especially at a point where the country was reeling from the aftermath of the Great Depression. Film history is all the richer for it.

 

[Originally published at Firstpost]

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

A projectionist at a Universal theatre sets up his machine and projects a film. On screen, a bevy of beauties are seen walking down the stairs. The stairs turn into a ramp, the ladies slip and fall into an abyss. They end up in a bustling section of the netherworld where an army of devils is forging weapons and canning men and women into barrels. Amidst the commotion, a taxi appears out of which a seemingly endless number of animals step out. They drag two men behind them with a rope. The men have a fight with the tiny driver of the taxi, who hands them a bill several metres long. The two men burn down the taxi with a magic breath. Wanting to see this bit of action once again, they call out to the projectionist off screen and have him rewind the last portion. Somewhere between all this is a title card that reads “any resemblance between HELLZAPOPPIN’ and a motion picture is purely coincidental”.

If the description above makes no logical sense, it is intended so. One of the challenges that Hellzapoppin’ (1941), among the most unclassifiable films in the history of Hollywood, sets for itself is to disrupt conventional logic of film narratives and frustrate our expectations of them. Produced by Universal Studios and directed by H. C. Potter, Hellzapoppin’ was adapted from a highly successful Broadway revue of the same name that premiered in 1938. The brains behind the revue, the comic duo of John “Ole” Olsen and Harold “Chic” Johnson, are also the “protagonists” of the film. They drag the viewer through a potpourri of one-liners, terrible puns, running jokes, action stunts, visual gags, song-and-dance numbers and meta-cinematic games connected by little other than their presence. Their sole weapon is interruption, their only guiding principle, incoherence.

But Hellzapoppin’ does have a ‘story’ (“because every picture’s gotta have one”). After the frenzy of the first few minutes, Olsen and Johnson are revealed to be actors trying to make a film (“a picture about a picture about Hellzapoppin’”). In this film within the film, they are supposed to play guests at a party hosted by heiress Kitty (Jane Frazee). The affluent Woody (Lewis Howard) is in love with Kitty, but Kitty loves the playwright Jeff (Robert Paige), who doesn’t want to upset his friend Woody by returning her love. Olsen and Johnson, playing themselves, device a plot to first hook up Kitty and Jeff, and then to separate them. Orbiting around these figures is an undercover Russian prince (Mischa Auer), a love-hungry young woman pursuing the aristocrat (Martha Raye) and a free agent of no defined purpose (Hugh Herbert) who outbids Olsen and Johnson in their charades.

It wouldn’t be a hyperbole to state that there’s nothing quite like Hellzapoppin’ in classical Hollywood. The film doesn’t particularly obey the conventions of a genre and appears to lie outside of established moviemaking traditions. Its parentage in cinema is therefore hard to establish. If it has a certain affinity to the anarchic spirit of the Marx brothers, especially Chico, its sense of play and gratuitous action have strong echoes of the Dadaist cinema of Europe, such as the work of René Clair and Man Ray. In its tendency to make up the narrative as it goes along, it also recalls the Surrealist game of Exquisite Corpse, where a story or an image passed from the hands of one artist to another, the result bearing the signature of everyone and no one at once.

A more instructive comparison would perhaps be the world of Looney Tunes, the cartoon series produced by Warner Brothers where we find a similar kind of meta-humour at work. These cartoons, especially ones featuring Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, have an elastic narrative universe that accommodates every kind of absurd plot development and prepares the viewer to accept these bizarre turns of events as they are. Like them, Hellzapoppin’ constantly calls attention to its own artifice, as Olsen and Johnson slip in and out of the film (and the film within the film) to directly address members outside the story. They ask the cameraman to stop lingering on bathing beauties. They prompt the projectionist to adjust the misaligned frame weighing down on them. At one point, they instruct one particular member of the audience to go home.

It is also important to note that, before their eastward move to Broadway, Olsen and Johnson were renowned figures of the vaudeville circuit in the American Midwest. In the early 1930s, vaudeville, as a popular form of entertainment, was fighting a losing battle against Hollywood’s talking pictures, which poached both its audience and its talents. Chaining together unrelated variety acts was part of its tradition, but the competition with talkies appears to have obliged vaudeville to distinguish itself even more, not unlike the way cinema was forced to turn more spectacular when television posed a threat in the early 1950s. As a result, Olsen and Johnson’s act turned, per one report, “wilder and zanier”.

This change translated, in the Broadway avatar of Hellzapoppin’, into a gleeful transgression of the theatrical space. Accounts of the revue talk about the ways its action overflowed from the stage into the audience’s space. During the show, it’s said, that a man walked the aisles selling tickets for a competing Broadway musical, another interloper threw rubber snakes at the audience, while a lady ran up and down the hall calling out the name of a certain Oscar. This violation of the audience’s distance from the spectacle—domesticated later by the performances and ‘happenings’ of the 1960s art scene—makes the film’s regular breaking of the fourth wall seem tame in comparison.

Contemporary American reviewers of Hellzapoppin’ the film, for one, seem to have thought so. Writing for Time, James Agee wrote that the film “loses the frenetic quality it achieved on the stage” and that “Olsen & Johnson’s ability to exude a kind of ectoplasm which engulfs a theatre audience and makes it participate in the show is necessarily cut off when the show is confined to the screen.” The notice in New York Times called the comic duo “noisy, boorish and often downright sadistic”. Unburdened by comparisons to the Broadway version, the film appears to have better fared in Europe. The French critic André Bazin, for instance, likened the film’s operation to “the penetration of a neutron into a stable molecule” and stated that its gags “push the metaphysical limits of laughter”.

Even with eighty years of hindsight, we may perhaps not be able to improve on these reactions. For, despite all its chaos and confusion, Hellzapoppin’ conceals no great mystery. It is a film that wears all its enchantments on its sleeve. There’s a plainness and innocence in the way it rejoices in playing with the possibilities of the medium. Early on, Olsen and Johnson walk through the backlot from one set to another. Every time they enter a new space, the shot changes and so do their costumes, thanks to the magic of a straight cut. Footage is quickened, reversed or slowed down. Double exposures are used for amusing special effects. Off-screen space becomes integrated into the shots. And in the film’s crowning passage, familiar to many thanks to a viral clip on the internet, a group of black performers break into an astounding Lindy Hop dance number, jaw-dropping in its physicality and athleticism. It’s as pure as spectacles get.

 

[Originally published at Firstpost]

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