Friday, November 28, 2008

Shoot First. Sightsee Later.

In Bruges is not a thriller, is not existential philosophy, is not a travelogue, is not a dark comedy, yet it is a little bit of them all. Two Irish conman are sent to Bruges after a hit goes horribly wrong. A hotel room is booked for them for two weeks; they are waiting for a call from their boss, and till then all they can do is sightseeing. Ray (Colin Ferrell) is young and is probably new to this job; he is impatient since he has come to Bruges and unlike his older and sympathetic partner Ken (Brendan Gleeson) has no interest in the medieval history of the land. Ken and Ray loiter around Bruges like tourists, and those initial scenes are eccentrically funny. Bruges is shot beautifully like a video catalogue of some travel agent, but it remains as a backdrop, and by being so opens a window to the psyche of the characters.

They have their suspicion – their boss cannot send them to Bruges just for hiding! Maybe, they will be given some assignment that is to be carried out in Bruges. Who knows? Meanwhile, they come across interesting characters: a dwarf actor shooting for a film that is very much like Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, a blond girl with whom Ray oddly bonds, a pregnant hotel-owner, and a guy named Yuri who does yoga and arranges guns for his clients. One of the conman has hidden sorrows. Maybe, he is trying to cop-up with what has gone wrong; but his eccentricities and absurd behaviors create curiosity in the viewer. You don’t know whether to be happy or sad for him.

Telling more about the film is like telling nothing. It is very much like Glengarry Glen Ross; as in, the story of the film, if told, is so simple that it will not interest anyone to even take a look. Its power lies in the way the characters interact. It entirely depends on how it is written; dialogues here just don’t drag the plot, but triumphantly denies the notion that a film can need a plot. It is written and directed by Martin McDonagh, an established Irish play-writer who like David Mamet (writer of Glengarry Glen Ross) shows uncanny playfulness with words and situations.

The call from Harry (Ralph Fiennes) finally comes one night, and the conversation he has with Ken is really amusing. The task he assigns is difficult to carry. There are ethical choices involved. And after that scene when the call finally ends, you will see how brilliantly the film grabs you till it reaches its unusual and inevitable close. By the time the film ends you might have guessed what is going to happen, but you will not be able to move your eyes away from the screen. Such is the power of its execution. Brendan Gleeson is very convincing as a gentle conman who has seen it all. Also worth mentioning is how Ralph Fiennes makes his character a treat to watch, the conversation he has with Ray near the end of the film with the pregnant lady standing between them is so absorbing. Murders that take place are darkly funny and bear the eccentric logic of the film’s characters. There are twists in the tale like any other thriller; the dialogues flow like they have been written by someone close to the theater of the absurd; but In Bruges is above all an allegory: a beautiful city like Bruges acts as a symbol of ‘waiting’. Maybe hell is on earth and after you have committed a brutal crime, wherever you go, you cannot find solace. You are trapped in the earthy hell, in Bruges.

Monday, November 24, 2008

The Horror... The Horror...

There is a scene in Apocalypse Now where two boats confront each other in a Vietnamese river. One is filled with local civilians and other has soldiers of American military. Despite the protagonist Captain Willard’s advice the soldiers search the civilian boat. The camera moves from the soldiers to the civilians meticulously showing how tense both the parties are. A soldier reaches for a box to inspect it, suddenly a civilian woman in the boat runs towards the box propelling the soldiers to shoot the civilians. Later it is found that there was a small puppy in the box, and the shooting was absurd. The woman is still alive, she moves a little. The boat pilot orders the soldiers to take the woman in the boat as they can save her – maybe there is regret in his heart and he wants to compensate by saving her. Captain Willard shoots the woman, with total lack of emotions, and coldly tells to the boat pilot “I told you not to stop the boat”. The film proceeds with no further explanation. And there cannot be an explanation. This was one of the most powerful scenes in the film. What image are we to gather of Captain Willard? (a disoriented military veteran who after spending three years in Vietnam has lacked all faith in human life, and is not able to connect with the society again). He knows to his guts that what all is going on is absurd, and checking a boat full of civilians in the midst of war will result only in chaos. The civilians were innocent, the soldiers were not cruel enough to kill them, but it happened. Maybe Willard shot the woman to spare her the horror of being the only person alive when all her companions were dead. I could never tell. Apocalypse Now is filled with such remarkable moments.

Captain Willard is played by Martin Sheen who genuinely looks detached throughout the film. The premise of the film is based on the novel Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, which was partly based on Conrad’s experience as steam paddleboat captain in Africa. Though there have been a number of plot modifications, the movie is faithful to the novel as it goes far beyond the war and reaches into the darkness of the human heart, a darkness lurking in even the most civilized of men.

Going through this film is indeed a visual experience matched by very few films made on war. I was amazed by the way sound of approaching helicopters was used. It was so much in synch with the images that it could have worked as a background score. As far as the cinematography is concerned, it is well-known that Coppola was inspired by Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes (1972) . Like Herzog, Coppola also intended to give an authentic experience to the viewer; as if, not only the unaware soldiers but the viewer too is aboard the boat bound for the deadliest place on earth.

A renegade Captain Kurtz, one of Army’s most decorated soldiers, has set up a secret abode and has established a Warlord like image among tribesmen. His whereabouts are unknown. Captain Willard’s mission is to find and terminate him. What follows is a journey to find Kurtz. Along the way Captain Willard and his crew encounter number of interesting characters and situations with American intervention in Vietnam as a backdrop. As the journey deepens, Willard grows obsessive towards Kurtz. He has been told that Kurtz has gone insane, operates with unsound methods, and is feared by both Vietnamese and Americans. Willard knows that he has to find him, but he is unaware of what he will do once he reaches there. Nevertheless, he continues upstream with only one desire: “to confront him”. The film remarkably creates the same feeling of anticipation in the viewer as well.

After voyaging through various military outposts, Willard and his crew reach a bridge which is the last American outpost in Vietnam. The bridge also marks the last traces of a world known to Willard, the last traces of an assumed sane civilization, beyond which lays chaos and darkness – beyond which “there is only Kurtz”. The journey towards Kurtz is so breathtakingly depicted, including the scene in which the boat passes through the natives and enters Kurtz’s world, I was weak-kneed with admiration. More than terminating Kurtz, the film concentrates on Kurtz’s discovery and his resulting madness. Marlon Brando as Kurtz is presented only in half-lit shots, with his voice doing the trick. Called a warrior-poet, he speaks to Willard about the discoveries he has made and that no one, not even his son can understand him. “I have not seen a man so ripped apart than Kurtz” tells Willard in voiceover. To make conclusions from Kurtz’s speech is difficult. Of what I have understood from it: there is a fine line between sanity and insanity, order and chaos, light and darkness, and the horror is that this line can get erased, more so at the time of war.

Kurtz is also seen reading T. S. Eliot’s “Hollow man”, a copy of The Golden Bough is also shown in one scene; he also chops off the head of one soldier and puts in Willard’s lap, a photojournalist (played by Dennis Hopper) worships him to the point of mania. All the scenes featuring Kurtz can have debatable interpretations. What a viewer can be sure about is that Kurtz is clearly insane, and Willard kills him. But what remains in end is something that cannot be killed by anyone – the discovery of a reality we are not happy to discover, but after going through war is inevitable to deny. The closure of Apocalypse Now is one of the most haunting climaxes I have ever seen. I first watched this film when I was in college. I certainly did not understand it then. But yesterday night after watching the film when I lay down in my bed, I was not sure whether I have finally understood it, but Kurtz’s last words were still echoing in my head: “The horror…the horror…”

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Metafilm, or when cinema gets self-conscious

It is not difficult to explain to an avid filmgoer the joy of watching illuminated faces of people in a cinema house from the front row. Movies create a world so fascinating, so magical, that some people just like to dissolve themselves into that world for hours. Nothing else appeals to them. Out of all modern means of entertainment, cinema is so powerful that it has become an integral part of human life; so much so that some people remember or associate important events in their lives with reference to movies.

One wonders how important the invention of kinematoscope was. Without it there would have been no Kurosawa, no Bergman, no Satyajit Ray, no Hollywood, no spaghetti westerns, no sholay, no make-believe synthetic sentiments, and no nauseatic celebrity scoops. No wonder cinema today has become a mammoth business enterprise; and most of the movies are, sadly, not art, but products. There are all kinds of films: sad, feel-good, noir, romantic, depressive, horror, hard-core action, you name it, but there are also times when cinema gets self-conscious, and looks inside to see what is actually going on. It is this self-reflexive activity that churns out films about the process of making films. And one such amazing film is Francois Truffaut’s Day for Night.

Its name refers to a cinematic technique of giving an illusion of night, while the actual shoot takes place in daylight. The story is simple: a film crew is trying to make a film called “Meet Pamela”, which is surely going to be a stinker of a film. Truffaut himself plays the director in the movie, and from the moment we see him, he is crazy busy, and his only concern is to finish the shooting as soon as possible. He is partly narrating his experiences of making “Meet Pamela” to the viewer. In one scene he says “When I started shooting, I wanted to make a great film. Now I just want to make a film, period.”

Day for Night shows the difficulties a crew faces while filming: personal and professional. When I started watching, I had mixed feeling about the film, but it turned out to be one charming experience. Beautifully shot at locations near Nice, in a fictional studio created for “Meet Pamela”, the process of shooting, the re-takes, the frustrations of actors, the laughter on the sets, the after-shoot romantic affairs, the ever changing script, the artificial snow in summer, death of an important star, a hysterical actress and her doctor husband, these are some of the snippets that make for a wonderful story in itself, far better and ambitious than the one the crew is seen shooting. Near the end of the film Truffaut’s character tells to the agonized actor: “people like us are happy only in making movies”. I was wondering how the process of making films, of being on the sets, and enacting the lives of unseen characters act as a potion for the glossy, but hollow lives of few actors. The film crew including actors, the producer, set designers, the director, among many others gather like a big family; they shoot the film, they go through difficult relationships like every family does, and eventually they leave each other once the shooting is done. An aging actress laments about how funny lives they (actors) lead. How many times have they married on screen? How many times have they died on screen? It may give a pointer to a thinking viewer about movies and their relation to life, or at least to the lives of those who make them. It is not a deeply thought-provoking film, but it points to the now-famous notion that behind the scenes things are not as glitzy as they are on screen.

In the film Truffaut’s character is seen dreaming about stealing publicity posters of Citizen Kane as a young boy. The scene clearly shows the inspiration movies have had on him. It reminded me of yet another beautiful film directed by Italian Giuseppe Tornatore: Cinema Paradiso.

Cinema Paradiso is a cinema-house in an old Sicilian village. The beauty of the film lies in the way love for cinema is depicted, almost nostalgic. Salvatore goes through varieties of loves during his life-time, but it is the love for cinema that gives meaning to his life. The projector room of cinema paradiso where his fatherly friend, the projectionist (played wonderfully by Philippe Noiret) teaches him things about life, movies, and off-course running the projector, becomes the most beautiful and nostalgic image in the movie, resonating a love, not only Salvatore, but we all share with cinema. Some critics will argue that the movie relies heavily on sentimentalism, and that is true. But it is told with so much passion and beautiful imagery that I couldn’t help but watch it over and over again. Most of the aspiring directors will see themselves in Salvatore, and one can also note that how a stranger can help you realize your destiny (if at all one believes in any such thing as ‘destiny’), and how, in one way or other, cinema can give purpose to one’s life. Salvatore goes through difficult choices in his youth; circumstances make him leave behind his first lover, and even though he becomes a director and fulfills his desire of making films, his life remains empty. The older Salvatore flings with a lot of women, and in every woman he is searching for that young girl whom he loved whole-heartedly as a youth. It symbolizes a simple understanding that life fulfills your one desire at the cost of other. Moreover, I loved the relationship between the projectionist and Salvatore: they were like father and son, like master and student; one seasoned in life and other very tender, passionate youth who is yet to encounter the bitterness that life reserves for all. The dead projectionist leaves behind a gift for Salvatore. The final scene when Salvatore encounters that gift was the most touching moment in the film, and yes, I came into the spell of sentimentalism. Cinema Paradiso left me smiling.

Films are important to those who make them. But there are individual cases wherein life means nothing, or has lost its value, and all that remains to keep one going is a projector-lit screen. Woody Allen’s Purple Rose of Cairo is a tragicomic, magical look at one such life. It concerns Cecilia (played by Allen regular Mia Farrow), a waitress working at the time of Great depression in America, who goes to watch movies to escape her bleak, loveless life. We see her watching films with dreams in her eyes, and a look on her face that tells that there is noting more to life that this moment.

Once there is screened a film called ‘purple rose of cairo’ whose hero Tom, an archeologist (played by Jeff Daniels) breaks the fourth wall and emerges out of the black and white screen into the real world, and falls for Cecilia. It is a magical situation and a dream come true for Cecelia. Tom is the most ideal lover she can ask for. He is almost child-like in his innocence, and never flirts with other women. In one scene in the film, Tom mistakenly drops in a whore-house where one aged whore asks whether there are other men like him anymore; but when the actual actor who played Tom on screen appears, an unusual love triangle forms between them. As the film comes to its conclusion, Tom has returned back into the movie, and we see Cecilia alone, dumped by the actual actor who played Tom. She sits in the theater hall watching the “cheek-to-cheek” dance sequence from Top Hat, absorbing herself into the ideal world of moving images, and forgetting, only for a moment, about her grief in the real world. Purple rose of Cairo is one of the few films I have seen that shows how the hyper-real replaces the real.

Kwaidan: a tapestry of strange tales

I had a chance to watch a classical Japanese horror film: Kwaidan, (translated as ‘ghost story’; also available as Kaidan in some countries). It is not much heard of, but watching it is like going through a visually stunning experience; one of the few horror films that I will remember for a long time. Made in 1964, the first thing any viewer will notice is the production value, knowing the fact that it was made four decades ago. It was the most expensive film to come out of Japan during that time, and had been applauded at the Cannes film festival. I don’t remember how I learned that a film like this exists, but I feel lucky to have found it. First of all, it is not too scary if one expects something like The Exorcist or The Omen. What is good about this film is something that is missing in most of the horror films being made today – the emotions of being in the midst of something unexplainable, the understanding that ghosts (if at all they exist) are more sorrowful than fearful. There is hardly a drop of blood in the film, and there is no emphasis on the killings the ghosts perform (elements which if removed from most of the successful horror films will leave them naked and boring). But Kwaidan may feel too slow to the audiences who want a fast-paced thriller served with a lot of blood and gore.

The film is based on the book Kwaidan: stories and studies of strange things by Lafcadio Hearn. Director Masaki Kobayashi has selected four tales from this book for the film, all unrelated. It is one of the early examples of anthology films. All tales have a little twist in the end, but the twists are not extraordinary like in The Others or The Sixth Sense, but they are though-provoking nonetheless. In all of the four stories the audiences may easily guess the mystery, but that hardly matters because the film slowly and progressively, with minimal background score consisting only of plucking strings, lets you enter into the mood of the tales – you know from the beginning that something terrible is going to happen, but more than fear what holds you is anticipation, the tension the film builds slowly and steadily with dreamlike imagery. Had it not been for the slow pace, the film would have been just another stinker. The four stories featured are as follows:

1) The Black hair: a Samurai leaves his wife in search of wealth and fame, but after years of lamenting and being unhappy with a rich but loveless second wife he returns back to his old village. Everything in the village is ruined, even his house, but what confuses him is that his wife hasn’t aged.

2) The woman of the snow: a woodcutter travels snowy regions where he encounters a Yuki-Onna (mythical woman according to Japanese folklore who is drop-dead gorgeous, and is always in search of warm human blood). There is a truce between the two, which if broken can end the life of the woodcutter.

3) Hoichi the earless: a blind Biwa named Hoichi is famous for singing a song describing an ancient battle fought between two samurai clans and its sad result. But every night he goes out of the temple, and returns in the morning, becoming tired and pale day by day. One stormy night the priest orders two servants to follow him to find out where he goes, and what do they see? The Biwa performs in front of an audience every night in a cemetery, unaware that his audience consists of ghosts of warriors who died in the same battle that he describes. But why do they call him earless?

4) In a cup of tea: Every time a Samurai tries to drink tea from a cup, an image of a man’s face appears. There is no one standing behind him or on the roof. He changes position of his hand, moves around the house, but the image remains persistent, and constantly smiles at him. Then the frustrated Samurai drinks from the cup…

For an Indian like me who hardly knows anything about Japanese traditions and myths it was a good experience. There is good amount of emphasis on period details, especially the samurai customs. After watching the film, I had a vague idea in my mind: why doesn’t anyone make a similar film on Indian folktales? I am sure our ancient scriptures are full of interesting folklores – and I am not talking about making a Drona!

Plan 9 from outer space, or the man who made bad films

After watching the film on the life of Ed Wood, the first reaction I had was: he was so bad that he was good! He was a director, who didn’t make great films, not even good films, but the worst films ever. He is recently titled as the “worst director of all time”. And this has resulted into a posthumous cult status, and a large number of underground fan following, something which he would have enjoyed had he been alive.

Tim Burton’s Ed Wood is an honest portrayal of Ed, and is beautifully crafted in black and white to give the feel of a bygone era. The film opens in a stormy night, and zooms into a ghost house of a sort; from the coffin a man emerges and informs us about how what we are about to see is collected from the testimony of the miserable souls who survived, and warns us: “Can your heart stand the shocking facts of the true story of Edward D. Wood Jr.?” Obviously, there is nothing so shocking in the film that can make our heart wrench, but this first scene is a note to the way B-films were crafted, and gives us the idea about how Ed’s films were: giant octopuses gorging mad scientists, aliens from outer space robbing graves, soldiers seeing ghost of a woman in the Warfield, and juxtapositions so bizarre that even pulp magazines would get shy! He was a pathetic writer, used to finish scripts in the span of two to three days, and never improved the written draft; during shootings as well, he never took a retake. After the first take of any scene, he would say “perfect!” His unit members also felt that the scene was not perfect, but he would reply “films are not about smaller details, but bigger picture!” Johnny Depp is convincing as Ed Wood. He effectively manages to have that half-proud, half-innocent smile on his face, all the time. Whenever he is seen directing he has this smile on! Anyone would feel, best or worst, Ed enjoyed making films. Ed loved being on the sets, shouting “action”, lip syncing silently the dialogues pronounced by his characters, and that glow in his big eyes, marking amazement, every time he watched his own films. I had a whiff that Ed didn’t even care whether he made good films or bad films. He just made films. (A similar notion I have found in another film called ‘Day for night’)

Ed took inspiration from Orsen Welles. Like Welles he would also write, produce, and direct his films. In one scene near the end of the film Burton brings the two of them face to face in a cafĂ©. Ed tells Welles that he is a big fan of him, and they converse. Welles tells him that film-making is about vision, and that a director should stick to his vision. Indeed, Welles, the maker of Citizen Kane, was talking about a substantial vision, and not UFOs meet Dracula, but there is a stark contrast in the scene: one of the greatest directors of all time and the worst one are talking about vision. There is still something which is common between them: passion for making movies, and an urge to keep telling stories. As a matter of fact, both had problems with production companies. In the film as well, the lengths Ed goes to get someone to produce his films makes some of the most interesting scenes. He even gets his whole unit baptized so that a local church could produce his film “plan 9 from outer space”, a film that today enjoys a clut status for being horribly bad.

The best moments of Burton’s film are Ed’s interactions with Bela Lugosi (a Hungarian actor known primarily for playing Dracula). We meet Bela as a ‘nobody’; he had enjoyed a star status, but no studio wants him now; Ed is an admirer of Bela and ropes him in. Martin Landau is amazing as Bela Lugosi; his hand gestures, the tired devilish smile while performing, the gait with which he walks is all blended superbly. Martin Landau won an Oscar in the best supporting actor category for this role, and rightly so. Bela is old, worn-out, lonely, laments the death of his wife, is trying to gain the fame he once had, and in some scenes we can clearly see that he is tired of this all! I was thinking: who is better? Bela Lugosi himself, or Martin Landau’s version of Bela! If not for anything, one must watch this film for this performance – it is so satisfying. Ed had shot the last footage of Bela in which the latter walks out of his house with a slow and tired gait, plucks a flower, and smells it. Black and white, and soundless, that scene looks so distant that it has a haunting feel to it. Ed, along with numerous actors of his unit who now exist only in the stock footages of B-films were unique; I don’t know whether to call them untalented because they didn’t make a perfect sensible film, but they were those whom fame and success always eluded. And in their struggles to make films Burton has found a story far humane and substantial than the films they made. I even think that this is the best Tim Burton film I have seen, even better than Big Fish which I enjoyed watching throughout.

In the final scene of the film, during the premier of “plan 9 from outer space”, Ed looks around the auditorium filled with people, their faces gazing at the screen, he tells to himself “this is the one I will be remembered for!” and so it is.