Bad Ma Ra Khahad Bord (1999) (aka The Wind Will Carry Us)
Abbas Kiarostami
Persian

“Well, since I’m good, can you get me a bowl to fetch milk?”
 

What would cinema be without Abbas Kiarostami? Watching his films is a process of unlearning cinematic conventions and relearning the humanity within. He has time and again proved that the audience can be emotionally stimulated and for the right reason, without ever engaging them in the film. The Wind Will Carry Us (1999) is a testament why he never sacrifices Kiarostami the humanist for Kiarostami the filmmaker. The moral questions – of choices, of priorities and of conscience – which the film presents seem pertinent now, in these tough times, more than ever. I can guarantee that one ready to confront them would have understood him(her)self better at the end of it all. All it takes is a little patience and a willingness to introspect after the film has ended.

the-wind-will-carry-usMore than the apparent issue of communication and the lack of it, The Wind Will Carry Us seeks to question the definition of communication. Sure, the protagonist Behzad (played to perfection by Behzad Dorani) does have a cellular phone and the speedy vehicle to move around, but what was the use of it all? He is shortsighted in more ways than one and seems to forget details that he had voluntarily gathered moments ago (Ironically, the villages consider him to be a telecommunications engineer!). The villagers, on the other hand, are scientifically handicapped but that seems to be utterly insignificant. They commute very easily, they have multiple paths to the same destination for easy or quick access and they seem to be able to even move vertically though the village using ladders and the serpentine alleys. They seem to know who lives where and at what distance a resource is to be found. This partly is reflected in their priorities in life and their attitudes towards it – gratefulness for the present and a reverence for the future.

The Wind Will Carry Us can very well serve as a commentary on how the developed nations and the Third World look at each other, but that would only be of minor significance compared to the seething humanity within and around the film. More than anything, The Wind Will Carry Us is a meditative self-portrait, or rather an attempt to look at oneself objectively. Kiarostami observes his own intrusion in the lives of unsuspecting locals and in general, the exploitative and manipulative relationship that exists between the filmmaker and his subjects. He drops enough hints suggesting this in the film.  At one point in the film, Behzad is seen shaving facing the camera as the latter assumes the role of a mirror, which is not much different from what Kiarostami uses it as. Unlike in other Kiarostami “car trips”, the filmmaker protagonist is often filmed head on while driving the car, thereby obtaining a literal and figurative reflection of the camera on his spectacles – an indication that the person in front of the camera is not very unlike the one behind it.

Behzad, his alter ego, is the symbol of encroachment. He arrives ominously in his giant vehicle, tearing through the serene landscape of the secluded village, with a motive that is no more selfish than ours. His work involves the demise of an elderly woman of the village who is presently on her deathbed. Behzad spends time hoping against nature for the process to happen fast but things are not to be so. His attempt to strike up conversations with the village folk, more often than not, turns them off and renders them uncommunicative.  In a remarkable scene, Behzad, in a fit of frustration, overturns a turtle on to its shell and leaves the place. The turtle, after a minor struggle, corrects itself and carries on with its journey. A while later, after he realizes that there is nothing now to fret over, he comes to understand how inconsequential his attempts are to dictate nature are, much like his car which is dwarfed by the colossal landscape.

In the court sequence of his marvelous film Where The Green Ants Dream (1984), Werner Herzog cuts away from the centre of attraction after the tribal chief starts unraveling a package that supposed to contain a sacred emblem as a sign of respect for the divine and the unknown. In The Wind Will Carry Us, Kiarostami keeps a host of characters off-screen and denotes their presence employing just subdued voices and Behzad’s response to them. Nor does he show us the interior of the houses in the village. The camera is fixed on Behzad throughout the film but prefers to stay at the doorstep even if he doesn’t. And this is where the contrast between Behzad the actor and Kiarostami the director– the past and the present of Abbas Kiarostami, his mistakes and their correction – is established. It is a reverence that Kiarostami seems to have gotten the hard way. A reverence that acknowledges the right of things to exist as they are.

The final scene is perhaps the most heartwarming and ethical Kiarostami has ever filmed. Behzad, convinced that his stay of two weeks has taken its toll on both him and the villagers, decides to do away with the final physical traces of the village on him, After washing the dust off the windshield of his car, he throws into a stream the last remnant he possesses – a thigh bone that he picked up earlier – in an attempt to restore the spiritual balance of the land that he may have disturbed. Like Herzog who has consistently been against the intrusion of man in the clockwork of nature, Kiarostami calls for a “calculated indifference” towards the way various cultures work and a regard for its methods against one’s own judgment. However, it should not be assumed that Kiarostami is lashing out against the domineering and subsequently destructive nature of man. Behzad is anything but despicable. He merely acts by impulse and his notions of right and wrong, which may well differ from the villagers’. By creating a multi-dimensional protagonist whose morals and desires are very much our own, Kiarostami’s gesture comes out both as a token of heartfelt atonement and a subtle appeal for recognition and preservation of diversity.

Panelkapcsolat (1982) (aka The Prefab People)
Béla Tarr
Hungarian

“What about those who are away for years? They never see their kids. The kids grow up with no dad. They grow up and the dad gets them ready-made “

 

The Prefab PeopleAfter watching films like Scenes from a Marriage (1973) and Hyderabad Blues 2 (1998), I had come to a kind of conclusion that films about marital life are and even have to be necessarily lengthy in order to depict relationships falling apart bolt by bolt. But Béla Tarr’s masterful venture The Prefab People brutally shatters that perception. The film is so masterfully crafted that I was afraid that Tarr would have to have a pathetic showdown in order to wrap up the film within 80 minutes. But gladly, one couldn’t have asked more after watching what Tarr delivers. He lets the film gradually evolve instead of providing it narrative momentum (but never without a direction). Watching The Prefab People, one can see why Mendes’ Revolutionary Road doesn’t exactly succeed.

The Prefab People is Tarr’s fourth feature and one can clearly see Tarr maturing as a filmmaker. He intelligently avoids all the mistakes of his previous outings (which were pretty good themselves) and makes it seem like a grand culmination of a chain of dress rehearsals. He substitutes the extreme verbosity of Family Nest (1979) with self-sufficient images. He sheds the self-indulgent meditation of The Outsider (1981) and makes a film that is universal in its appeal and as personal in its content. He avoids the complex mise-en-scene he employed in his mediocre single-shot adaptation of Macbeth (1982) and in exchange develops a keen sense of shot composition and cutting. One can virtually see where Sátántangó (1994) gets its pitch-perfect atmosphere from. But in spite of the trademark style of the director, The Prefab People is very much a cinema vérité film. It wouldn’t be a coincidence if one was continuously reminded of Cassavetes while watching this one. The resemblance is most glaring in the scene at the party, which has to be experienced to be believed.

These are beautiful characters and so are the actors. To use a worn out cliché, Tarr does not take sides. Both the husband and the wife have their own visions of what happiness is. Just that one is evidently naïve and the other is actually romanticized. But the masterstroke of the film is the Kubrickian theme of man and machine that Tarr blends in this outwardly boring suburban life. And just like the American genius’ style, Tarr controls his décor, landscapes and film equipment to provide a literature-free rendering of one of cinema’s most favorite themes.

Five Dedicated To Ozu (2003) (aka Five)
Abbas Kiarostami
Silent

“…”

Five

Unquestionably, Kiarostami’s films are unlike any film ever seen, leave alone Iranian ones.  But one film that is extreme and decidedly avant-garde even by Kiarostami’s standards – Five: Five long takes dedicated to Yasujiro Ozu (2003) – has turned out to be one of his finest works. In what can be described as a super-slow version of Koyaanisqatsi(1982), Kiarostami presents us five shots of the sea, filmed during various times of the day, at various distances and of varying lengths. Kiarostami quietly integrates the five elements of nature to create a film that is as warm as Ozu’s and as puzzling as his own, in a way, forming a singular connection between them.

The first shot shows us a piece of log lying on the beach as the incoming waves unsuccessfully try to pull it in. There is instant engagement here. I do not know about others, but I have spent hours watching such insignificant dramas of nature – the wind trying to knock off a fruit of a tree, a crow trying to pull out a twig that is stuck and the waves trying to sweep my feet at the beach. There is complete focus on the log and the incoming waves here. These are the only two components of the frame and these alone form the foreground of the image. Interestingly, this is the only segment where the camera actually moves in order to accommodate the object under consideration. Kiarostami shows us a very ordinary piece of event, but our mind conjures up a narrative of sorts – with its own formulation of safe-space and danger zones of the “narrative”.  And things become complicated as the log breaks off and the larger part is swept off into the sea. Though completely unrigged, this “turning point” makes our attention shuttle between the drifting piece in the water and the struggling one on the beach. Is Kiarostami alluding to Floating Weeds?!

In the second one, we are shown the image of the sea as seen from an embankment on the beach. We are drawn into the horizontal waves that decorate the widescreen in the form of broad white lines. Gradually, we have people walking across in front of us pushing the sea into the background. People of all ages flood the screen in many amusing ways, regularly diverting our attention from the sea. There are even critters that wallow into the frame and easily gather focus. There is a feeling of watching a Béla Tarr film – but only in a sense. That is, in Tarr’s films, the dynamics of the foreground, though initially attractive, feel like clockwork after a while. Slowly, we sense the background – the still life – gathering a presence of its own and even imposing itself upon us. There is a feeling of intimidation and ill-omen whereas here, it works the other way round. The patterned backdrop is quite fascinating to start with, but as the humans start coming in the foreground, our attention is naturally devoted to them. We start studying them and even start expecting some new ones (I was hunting Jafar Panahi’s cameo). This segment ends the way it started – the sea alone occupying the stage.

The next shot presents us the sea sandwiched between the sky and land. This is shot from considerable distance and looks like a painting. It is early morning and there are dogs lying on the beach. Almost nil action takes place notwithstanding the stray movements made by the canines. Everything is in the background here as opposed to the previous two shots. Gradually, the contrast of the image starts reducing and after one point we are unable to differentiate between the sky and the sea. The shot fades to white after all the three elements of nature dissolve into one another.

The fourth shot is perhaps the most “interesting” of all. In a direct homage to Ozu’s style, Kiarostami places the camera at knee level and in close proximity to the sea. Soon, the screen is infested by ducks of various sizes, colours and gaits. This is the as close to comedy as the film gets. The ducks move at almost a fixed speed and their footwork seems like a musical rhythm.  Suddenly, all the ducks that have gone past retreat as a bunch as if in a panic. The concentration is completely on the foreground here and the sea becomes no more than a comfortable backdrop.

The final shot lasts about half an hour and is the boldest of them all. It is night time and we can hear the loud croaking of frogs and barking of dogs. And it is only after a while we come to know that we are staring at the still sea. The reflection of the moon appears in a distorted way on the dirty surface of the water. Once more we desire the reflection to settle down to form the perfect circle. The notions of foreground and background are completely eliminated as the pulsating moon appears like a milk drop that falls into abysmal vacuum. And just when everything seems unperturbed, rain comes. The annoying frogs disappear and so does the reflection. Kiarostami has probably shot this in time lapse as the rain stops suddenly to restore the noisy atmosphere. The moon “settles down” and soon disappears behind the clouds. It is interesting to see that all the dynamics of the scene here is off-screen and their presence indicated only by the sounds they produce. We stare at nothing but dark blank space for most of the time but never once lose hold of what is happening in the film’s environment. A little later, we hear the rooster’s call and sure enough, bright sunlight strikes the image to reveal the clear blue water. This part is truly a revelation as one feels a fresh lease of life in the hitherto mundane and contemplative frame.

There is naturally a problem with a film that is as provocative as “Five”. How much of the content we derive out of the film is intentional? Was there a set of objectives for the director while filming the footage? Was every element in the mise-en-scene completely controlled by the filmmaker? Would the film have been different if each shot was prolonged or shortened?  Here lies the classic tale of the emperor and his clothes. With a name as great as Kiarostami’s in the title cards, one directly gets ready to attach significance to the images, however banal they are. At the same time, it is but natural to feel awkward while watching such material. There is that absurd feeling of watching a Stan Brakhage film (I’ve seen over two dozen of his films and I must admit I can’t recognize most of them!) to the point of laughing at yourself. You get the feeling that Kiarostami is probably toying with his audience after all.

But surely, this isn’t anything like what Warhol did. Here is a filmmaker who understands what Ozu stood for and how big a responsibility the title of the film places on him. A filmmaker in the tradition of Ozu himself, Kiarostami does not go for cheap attention using complicated mise-en-scene and steady-cam shots. He doesn’t just see the world but observes it. He studies the relation between the various planes of the image. He experiments with the distance of observation and the range of emotions they evoke. In essence, he analyzes the subjective and objective components of the cinematic image never once losing the most important ingredient of his entire body of work – humanity. And that is why “Five”stands as a fitting tribute to one of cinema’s greatest humanists, by another.

Sayat Nova (1968) (aka The Colour of Pomegranate)
Sergei Paradjanov
Armenian

“I am the man whose life and soul are torture”

 

Sayat Nova

If a list of biggest innovations in cinema is made, the Russian directors would arguably occupy the top few slots. Their gift to cinema has been the prime mover for so many other breakthroughs across the world of cinema. And Sergei Paradjanov was one such filmmaker who had the special ability to have a different perspective of cinema, much different from the others. And the most fantastic of all his films, The Colour of Pomegranate (1968) clearly tells why.

Unquestionably arthouse film consists of a series of tableaux-like compositions presented in a deliberately impassive manner by the leading lady who seems to take up various roles, both male and female, as the lifetime progresses. Though seemingly “of-the-moment” and radical, The Colour of Pomegranate does present a narrative if one could resort to the conventional terminology. Strung with the poems of Armenian poet Sayat Nova, the film presents his childhood, coming of age, adulthood, his unsuccessful love life, priesthood and eventual death using the most striking images and symbols one has ever assembled on screen. Decidedly not for all tastes, the images that Paradjanov conjures up are so riveting that it is impossible for one not to make a visceral connection with them that lasts a lifetime. Paradjanov’s use of reddish brown tinge throughout the film, as striking as his tragic classic The Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors (1964), provides it the painting-like quality that visibly enhances the “two-dimensionality” of the visuals.

There is virtually no camera movement and the stage-like setting provides the apt platform for the deliberate execution to explore the medium and take it to places it has never been before. The images of Sayat Nova’s death, his life at the monastery, the still life and his view of the world of the child are so strikingly assembled that it transcends the film’s bizarre nature and eliminates any alienation that the viewer may feel. How much one would appreciate and relate to the film remains a big question of subjectivity. But what is sure is that no matter what you feel about the film, you know that this is art, Must see it if one wants to explore the boundaries of filmmaking.


WordPress has introduced this new Poll feature. Thought I will try it out…

Lars and the Real Girl (2007)
Craig Gillespie
English

“I wish I had a woman that couldn’t talk”

 

Lars And The Real Girl

When almost all of filmdom was heaping praises over Jason Reitman’s refreshing flick Juno (2007), another quiet little independent film had made its mark. Craig Gillespie‘s Lars and the Real Girl (2007) is a little treasure in independent cinema and is as good as the former, if not better. Sadly, the judging panel for the academy seemed to overlook the film and give the nods to Juno. Regrets apart, meditation on modern alienation and urban loneliness has never been so amusing!

Lars (Ryan Gosling), as the title suggests is the lead in the story. He lives in the garage of the house where his brother Gus (Paul Schneider) and his wife Karin (Emily Mortimer) live. He is everything that the word “loner” stands for. He speaks economically and eludes from attention. He never comes out of his closed structure except for the occasional church visit. The human touch burns him and he wears multiple clothes to avoid one. Additionally, he works in an office one of whose employees Margo (Kelli Garner), an enthusiastic female in search of love, tries to win his attention, in vain. Meanwhile, Gus and Karin are also trying to break Lars’ self built shell.

One fine day, Lars receives a parcel from one of the internet sites that sells adult toys and lo! – It is a life size (and anatomically correct!) female doll. He gives life to it and starts treating “her” with respect. We feel as creepy as the characters even though the title of the film has made us cautious. Lars seems to open up to the world after the arrival of Bianca (that’s what he calls the doll). She is everything he is and isn’t. Lars bestows her with everything he likes and everything he dislikes. She is his opening to the real world and the conduit of his suppressed emotions and troubled past.

Gus and Karin decide to consult Dr. Dogmar (Patricia Clarkson) in the pretext of treating Bianca so that Lars visits the doc regularly. Here is where we slowly learn that Lars is fully aware of his situation and Bianca is his method of shedding his shell. She is not a product of his frustration but a tool that clears it. As it becomes evident that it is Lars who is responsible for his own cure, everyone decides to play along till the golden day arrives.

The film’s biggest asset is perhaps Ryan Gosling’s quiet brilliance that is definitely a shining bullet in his résumé. It looks like he is leading the race among the young crowd of Hollywood, all of whom seem like tailor-made for teen comedies. His restrained performance as the titular character leverages his critically acclaimed role in Half Nelson (2006) that fetched him a nomination for the best leading actor and makes him the most promising young actor in industry now. Scenes such as the teddy bear rescue and the dinner table conversation give a glimpse of this handsome young man’s talents and he can rest assured that he is going to be around for a long time.

Though it can be categorized in the conventional feel good flick category all of which are instant hits, Lars and the Real girl avoids all traps that films of its kind usually succumb to. Primarily, with a plot line as bizarre as the one it has, any director would be tempted to flood the script with a deluge of raunchy jokes and the target audience would have drastically changed. But Gillespie eschews all that and yet makes the film light-hearted all the way.

Also, and most importantly, Gillespie never begs for sympathy for Lars. It is easy for a director to paint the screen with the protagonist’s helplessness and hence gain unwarranted attention towards the characters. But Gillespie appeals to the audience to accept Lars as he is. Lars is just another person in the village though the rest of the public start giving excessive attention to him for his condition. One of the characters in the film says “These things happen” and that is all what it is.

Hyderabad Blues 2 (2004)
Nagesh Kukunoor
English

“If divorcing you was the only way to get you back, I would do it all over again”

 

Hyderabad Blues 2

“Indie Cinema” and “Indian Cinema” – Totally unlike the way they sound similar, the two terms have come to bear quite an adversarial relationship to each other. Undoubtedly, Nagesh Kukunoor forms a vital milestone in the history of Indian Independent cinema and stays in the cream of my list of most important contemporary film directors from the country in spite of his recent debacle Bombay to Bangkok (2007) whose elusive charm eluded most of us! Nevertheless, his films like Rockford (1999), Hyderabad Blues (1998) and its sequel still have the potential to inspire anyone to take up a camera and have taken the esoteric world of Independent films into the households.

And I felt Hyderabad Blues deserves an article in spite of the flak it faces regularly from the lovers of the earlier film. The central character Varun (Nagesh Kukunoor) has already been introduced to us as a broadminded, level-headed and immensely cool gentleman who has been charmed into staying in India by his bold and independent wife, Ashwini (Jyoti Dogra). Varun hangs out with his group of friends consisting of married and single men but most importantly with Sanjeev (Vikram Inamdar) who warns Varun about all the difficulties in having a baby that he has learned the hard way. Ashwini, meanwhile, hangs out with Sanjeev’s resourceful and cunning wife Seema (Elahé Hiptoola).

All is fine with the lead couple until the wife wants to have a child. Varun, however, is totally unprepared and tries to avert the matter. Things don’t help when Varun’s employee Menaka (Tisca Chopra) is found wooing him in the office by another resentful employee and the issue promptly goes to Ashwini. And just like that, they land up in court debating divorce and eventually getting it. Hyderabad Blues gets all the characters right. Be it the consciously flawed Varun or his voluntarily subordinating mother, you see them all in everyday life. And herein lies Kukunoor’s keenly discerning eye that penetrates into the real workings of the society, without the regular mainstream makeup.

I always thought Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage (1973) was a great idea (with performances of a lifetime by Erland Josephson and Liv Ullmann) overstaying its welcome. But after watching a series of films on the subject culminating with Hyderabad Blues 2, I have come to realize that divorce, in most cases, is itself a very precipitous event and to portray one, the film’s runtime has to be suitably long in order to highlight the impulsive nature of the decision. And Hyderabad Blues does that without making the film once gloomy or overly melodramatic. All this apparent lightness never takes the solemnity of its objective and only aids the film to move closer to reality.

Hyderabad Blues 2 bears a relation to its predecessor somewhat in the same way Toy Story 2 (1999) is linked to its path breaking prequel (1995). In both cases, arguably the sequel is better in terms of the production values and the wholesomeness of the film. However, it is the prequel that is revered unanimously since they are the ones that gave birth to the sequels and they are the ones that changed the way people looked at films of their kind. Hence, the prequels naturally become close to heart and their successors easily dumped. When Hyderabad Blues came out, it was an instant hit. It captured, with near perfection, the way how anyone in the position of Varun feels, trying to cope up with the increased moral and cultural standards and decreased technological advancements.

Hyderabad Blues 2 is as hilarious as it is outrageous. Though most of the dialogue is in English, they never once feel contrived or out of place. Be the typically American wit of Varun or the bumbling acts of Sanjeev (“Pardon my wife. She has a problem with truth. Always speaks it out” is a knockout), they put one instantly at ease even if the sudden dose of iconoclasm as compared to the first film catches one unawares. By iconoclasm, I do not refer the film’s reflections on the society but on the country’s cinema itself. I wonder if the film would have been so open had it been made under the big banners. And thank god that wasn’t the case.

Sátántangó (1994) (aka Satan’s Tango)
Béla Tarr
Hungarian

“They haven’t a clue that it is this idle passivity that leaves them at the mercy of what they fear most”

 

SatantangoSince the death of Andrei Tarkovsky, the search has been on for the heir to the throne he left behind. Many believed that his fellow countryman Alexander Sokurov would be the chosen one. Indeed, his films like Mother and Son (1997) and Russian Ark (2002), that disregarded montage in the same way as the Russian master, strike an immediate chord with viewers familiar with Tarkovsky’s works. But in a country a bit west to Russia, a Hungarian visionary called Béla Tarr had showed the world he had arrived, big time. In 1994, came out his long-cherished project – an epic by all measures – Sátántangó.

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The Killing (1956)
Stanley Kubrick
English

“It isn’t fair. I never had anybody but you. Not a real husband. Not even a man. Just a bad joke without a punch line…”

 

The KillingWhenever Kubrick’s canon of films is discussed, this quiet little early gem is invariably lost out amidst the mammoths like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and A Clockwork Orange (1971). But very much in the same way the latter films defined cinema of their decades, The Killing (1956) forms a vital film of the 50’s Hollywood.

The Killing follows a group of men who plan to carry out a robbery in a race course booking center. The group includes a cop in financial distress, an ex-convict who dreams of getting away to a remote place with his all-trusting girlfriend, the bumbling cashier at the booking counter, an employee at the course and a couple of other contract hires. They carry out the plan as per the text book alright, but the real trouble begins later, as usual. Things deviate from the schedule and needless to say, go awry. Thus follows a Tarantino-esque proceeding towards an immortal climactic scene.

When viewed today, it is inevitable that one is reminded of films like Reservoir Dogs (1992) and similar movies of the Tarantino age. The ultra-solemn genre of heist films is considered to be resurrected by the wry humour of Reservoir Dogs. But Kubrick had done the same even during the inception of the genre. Consider the scene where Sherry (Marie Windsor) is shot by her husband George (Elisha Cook). She goes down saying “It isn’t fair. I never had anybody but you. Not a real husband. Not even a man. Just a bad joke without a punch line.”. Now which director (but Kubrick) in his right senses would have made such a move in the age of Rififi (1954) and Asphalt Jungle (1950)?

The Killing is perhaps the oldest film with non-linear narration that I have seen. Multiple points of view give rise to different visual segments that overlap temporally and evoke a sense of thrill that is so uncharacteristic of the 50’s. I don’t know how the audience would have reacted then, but when viewed today, the film seems to have grown with time and its potency to enthrall audience has visibly become enhanced, considering the slew of films based on similar structures that flooded the 90’s. The film provides ample scope for a remake, for it seems tailor made for the new audience.

Black comedy, that would go on to become a strong point in many Kubrick films, clearly shows its roots in The Killing. The movie’s intense plot never becomes heavy handed, thanks to the presence of a comic thread throughout, be it in the strained relationship between the Peatty couple or be it in the intriguing arrogance of Nikki Arcane. Though the explicit oral narration becomes irritating at places, the film’s dynamics have enough to overcome that. At a time when film-noir had become a genre and heist films had become a sub-genre, The Killing sought to break away from rigid rules and provide fluidity and hence novelty to the genre.

It is fascinating to see what Kubrick has churned out without the use of even one A-list actor. The Killing was enough to launch Kubrick big time and tell the industry that he had arrived. There was no stopping the master now.

Apocalypse Now (1979)
Francis Ford Coppola
English

“The Horror, The Horror.”

 

Apocalypse Now

The name Francis Ford Coppola has become synonymous with The Godfather (1972). The Coppola-Puzo-Brando-Rota quartet had indeed pulled off what many could not even have dreamt of. But a film released a few years after the lionization of Don Vito Corleone, Apocalypse Now (1979), may arguably be Coppola’s real masterpiece. Fraught with stars such as Marlon Brando, Martin Sheen, Harrison Ford, Robert Duvall, Laurence Fishburne and Dennis Hopper, Apocalypse Now has the raw power to top the list of best (anti-)war movies.

Captain Willard (Sheen) lies on his bed in the interiors of Vietnam. He is fed up by the war yet is unable to detach himself from it. He tries to vent out his frustration physically. Note that many things here were completely improvised including the mirror shattering. He is called for action by his superiors and learns that he has to go in search of a man called Colonel Kurtz (Brando), who has deserted the army and had taken a course of action on his own somewhere in the neighbouring country. Willard is asked to “exterminate him with extreme prejudice”. Here begins Willard’s journey of discovering Kurtz and hence himself.

Coppola’s masterful use of imagery is at its peak in Apocalypse Now. The film starts with bright light and sparse locales. As the film progresses and as Willard ventures into his own dark psyche, the lights dim and the surroundings descend into thick impenetrable jungles and raging streams. By the end of the film, nothing but silhouettes is visible and Willard has discovered that he and Kurtz are one and the same by now. Though visibly inspired by Werner Herzog‘s astounding Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972) in the use of landscapes, Coppola’s work has enough horsepower to be considered a standalone classic. Herzog’s film had a very fantastic setting and contemporary themes whereas Coppola’s is a more Americanized and hostile version rooted in reality.

The film’s relationship with Aguirre does not stop there. Very much like the trouble between the lead and the director in Aguirre (Herzog had made Kinski act at gunpoint!), Apocalypse Now, too, marked the souring of relationship between Brando and Coppola. First off, Brando refused to read Joseph Conrad‘s book as was needed by Coppola. Furthermore, Brando had accumulated lots of flak from the industry for supporting the cause of the natives and hence the Oscar refusal. He had become apathetic towards Hollywood and had become quite irritable by now. The epic documentary Brando (2007) provides some nice insights to the making of the film. Interestingly, Brando refused to share the screen space with Hopper stating that the latter hadn’t had a bath for days.

Primarily, Apocalypse Now depicts the variegated impact of war and violence on the minds of men and how a small perturbation can increase alarmingly into madness. Kurtz went awry, the photographer succumbed to it and Willard breaks away. If it was the mellifluous and grand waltz of Nino Rota, it is the aggressive and unmitigated freedom of The Doors. Right from the first minute with “This is the end”, their soundtrack embodies what could be called the zeitgeist of the 70’s. Master DOP Vittorio Storaro captures the escalating fright and savagery of the protagonist and the environment with equal vigour and provides an unparalleled showdown for this unparalleled war movie.

Thevar Magan (1992) (aka The Chieftain’s Son)
Bharathan
Tamil

“Go on, go educate your kids”

 

Thevar MaganThe slew of movies in Tamil cinema based on villages stopped with the late eighties as cities became the prime audience of the filmmakers. Though infinitely many stories still lie in the villages waiting to be told, not many movies from the nineties and the new century have tapped it. One film that has indeed done it, Kamal Haasan’s Thevar Magan (1992), stands out as a vital milestone in the history of Tamil Cinema.

Coming as a revamped adaptation of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, Thevar magan chronicles the life of Sakthi (Kamal), the son of the village head Periya Thevar (Shivaji Ganeshan) who has just returned from his life in the city for a few days. He experiences a totally different and even savage life in the rural area and is disgusted by it. Just when he decides that he has had enough of it, things take an awry turn and Sakthi is forced to relinquish his career to take up the helm of the village administration. Past rivalries are dug up, cries of scores to be settled once and for all echo and hatred and violence reign. Sakthi decides that the village needs to be saved and the villager’s pride for caste and race needs to be eradicated.

More than anything, the film is a powerhouse of high wattage performances with the central conversation between the two veterans remaining one of the best scenes of recent times. One can easily condemn the film as glorifying violence but on second thoughts, it is indeed the violence of the film that supports its cause. At the end of the film, one does realize that nobody has won and violence does not pay.