Wednesday, October 7, 2009

My best Cinematic Fiend

Watched Silence of the Lambs last night. I have stopped counting how many times I have watched it already, but it was quite a long time since I had last visited Hannibal Lecter’s cell. And with nothing better to do I choose to refresh its vaguely frightful aura in my memory. I remember being frightened by the film when I first saw it, and was confused for being so. There were no ghosts, no vampires, no lurking prehistoric beasts in it, yet it had managed to penetrate my skin and give me Goosebumps. I wonder whether it was Hannibal Lecter’s unblinking gaze that did the trick!

Films based on serial killers are more horrific than the ones featuring supernatural threats because the former are plausible; because such films are aware that evil dwells not without, but within humans. And out of all cinematic representations of evil that I have encountered so far, Hannibal Lecter provides utmost guilty pleasure. Off course, there are notorious killers lurking the periphery of the Lecter world – Buffalo Bill who rips the skin off his victims (featured in Silence of the Lambs, 1991), and Tooth Fairy who kills families on full moon nights and places mirrors in place of their eyes (featured in Red Dragon, 2002); but Lecter, more or less, remains the center of attraction – maybe because of his cold, indifferent presence marked by a sly and mannered way of communicating that makes those in his vicinity feel totally penetrated and uncomfortable in front of a man who appears to know their psyche quite well. We see him in his cell, behind Plexiglas wall, roaming like a patient beast; then we unconsciously ask ourselves a question: what can this man do if he is on the other side of the wall? Our fear arises from this possibility; from our imagination of what he is capable of doing. I cannot imagine any other actor playing Lecter except Anthony Hopkins. What a performance! He is one of my favorite actors, and in Hannibal Lecter he has created a character that will be feared and admired by generations of movie buffs. Hope I am not getting carried away, but it is one of my beloved performances ever!

On the other hand, I consider Hannibal Lecter mere fantasy. I don’t think a person like him can exist. Even the sequence when he escapes from the prison cell was too over the top. In fact, Zodiac (2007) directed by David Fincher, and a Korean film Memories of Murder (2003) are far more plausible films made on a similar subject because they follow the real case files very closely, involve us into the investigation, and are still thrilling. We only know what the investigators know; hence in both the films we end up without knowing who the real killers were. Though we get clues, they are generally misleading.

Come to think of it, a Buffalo Bill can lurk among us. But a monster as controlled and literate as Hannibal Lecter!? Um, no, he cannot exist outside the reel. And so is the Joker from The Dark Knight (2008), who also happens to be a fantasy and has his place only on the celluloid. But this doesn’t console us. They are the manifestations, or should I say, symbolizations of evil. Their dark and brooding presence provide gravity for the plot to curl and wrap around them, and we are made aware of the vulnerability of our sense of order. They make us unsettled. Needless to say, they provide a thrilling movie experience (our main purpose for watching such movies), unmatched by dummy movie monsters like Godzilla and Anaconda.

P.S. Did I mention that Hopkins has delivered one of the best performances ever?

Monday, July 6, 2009

A Thousand Years of Good Prayers

A Chinese father visits his estranged American daughter – no, not really estranged, but grown distant in time. They have not met for eleven years. She is recently divorced. And he thinks that he can heal her. A Thousand Years of Good Prayers opens with meticulous shots of the father, observing for the first time, the American life-style of his daughter. He knows that she has changed a lot, stays reserved most of the time, and is gradually accepting the fact that communication may never be possible.

While she is away on work he cleans the house, arranges things scattered all over the place in particular order and prepares food, to give her a feeling of returning back to home and not just to an apartment. Some of the touching scenes of the film are set on the dining table, when the father tries to make her eat well. “Are you happy?” he asks finally, at the same time being careful not to indulge too much into her privacy.
“I am” she replies.
“But you are so quiet”
“You were also quiet when younger. That doesn’t mean you were unhappy”
There are buried secrets, and the film is not about how the two will come to terms by revealing them. There is a hint that the daughter may marry a Russian guy. The father who always introduces himself as a retired rocket scientist turns out to be a clerk, and there is a mention of his early affair with a woman. “We used to talk. That’s all we did” he explains. But explanations are not needed at all. They won’t make any difference. There are many Indian films about generation gap, but they are one-sided, and in most of them children are shown in a negative light. This film is not about such simplistic, unrealistic demarcations. It is about good people and their inability to communicate. He may not have been a good father, but he is eager to become a grandfather. “Older people make good grandparents, no matter how they were as parents” he says to his daughter. The viewer is not presented with long monologues of what went wrong. We just get snippets, and they are enough. Wayne Wang, director of the film, said in an interview that he chose to make this film because it reminded him of all the Ozu films he so admired when he was a film student. The film indeed has the patience and wisdom of Ozu – whose Tokyo Story, based on a similar theme, is one of the masterpieces of cinema.

It so happens that we tend to share our most intimate desires and secrets with friends or strangers, but not with people of the same blood. And this communication gap increases even more when we are geographically apart. The father, played by Henry O, meets a Persian woman in a park. He refers to her as Madame. They cannot speak each other’s language but they meet everyday to communicate with gestures and broken English. It is not difficult to notice how much he tries to explain himself to her. And it is not difficult to realize his urge to communicate with the woman he was apparently having an affair with years ago. It may not have been an affair at all. They were just talking. Something he couldn’t do with his own people.

Near the end of the film, we get a hint that they may remain strangers and communication may never be possible . When the father is about to leave he tells to his daughter “don’t say goodbye. I still hope that you will come to China someday and visit me”.

*Note: I may have failed to use the exact dialogues spoken by the characters, but I have tried to preserve their essence nevertheless.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Stanley Kubrick once contemplated to make a film on the novel by Patrick Suskind before regarding it unfilmable. I read in a newspaper article that Scorsese, Ridley Scott, and Tim Burton were also once considered to bring the strange story of a murderer contained in the novel on celluloid. Now that the film is finally out, directed by the Run Lola Run director Tom Tykwer, I doubt whether it was really unfilmable. Off course, Suskind’s narrative power is par excellence. And a film can never exceed its source: that too when the source is soaring high, denying most of the possibilities of getting realized on-screen.

Perfume: The Story of a Murder is Suskind’s best known book and tells the story of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, born in the 18th century French fish-market amidst unimaginable stench and filth. He is gifted with a remarkable sense of smell. The way he is raised (or rather raises himself) is at times strange and heart-wrenching. Kids in the orphanage don’t like him because he makes them unsettled – he is always seen smelling something: sometimes rotten leaves; sometimes dead rats. His existence, devoid of love and human connection, revolves around smell. In the orphanage, and later in the tannery where he works as a laborer, he is subjected to stench alone. Only when he goes to Paris for the first time, he realizes that there are other kind of smells too. Paris presents him, in the words of the narrator, the “utopia of unexplored smells”.

There is a scene in which he follows a girl through the streets, not following her but her smell to be precise. After accidentally killing her, he tries to gather her smell through his hands like someone dying with thirst tries to drink from the river, he tries to preserve the beauty of the smell only to get frustrated by the impossibility of it. It is then he takes apprenticeship under Baldini, a once-had-it perfumer, to learn the art of creating and preserving perfumes. Because Grenouille is odorless, which according to his understanding means soulless, his existence has no value. In wanting to prove to the world that he exists, he gradually rises into a murderer, killing dozens of virgins, to preserve their smells – to make a perfect perfume: smelling which every last person on earth will feel like being in heaven, though only for a short while.

I have read the book more than once – yes, it has dark overtones, is disturbing, and is filled with such extraordinary descriptions of smells that one would wonder how it could ever be filmed! The film, though not as good as the book, is compulsively watchable: a sort of guilty pleasure with lush visuals and fine periodic details. The orphanage, the tannery, the streets of Paris, the pilgrimage of the perfumer where he learns the “art of effleurage” – Grasse, and numerous places in the film where Grenouille roams are shown in details with repeated zooms on his nose. The best moments are the ones featuring Baldini (played by Dustin Hoffman – what fine actor he is!) and Grenouille (played by Ben Whishaw very satisfyingly, sometimes – dare I say – making me sympathize for him, only to find it unethical the next moment).

There are notes (scents) in a perfume like that in a musical piece. Sometimes there are three notes, sometimes twelve. Every note (or scent) has its time-span with the final note lasting the longest. There can be, Baldini explains, an extra note – the thirteenth scent that dominates all the rest. Grenouille chooses the beautiful Laura (played by Rachael Hurd-Wood) to extract the lynchpin of his perfect perfume. Laura is sweet and child-like, and from the moment she appears, we wait in anticipation and horror for her inescapable end. While watching the film and even reading the book, I imagined how the perfect perfume would smell like. In the end when Grenouille releases it in front of the crowd gathered to execute him, its smell enamors them and makes them under-go an orgy in ecstasy!

The book is indeed better, but the film is fast-paced and will have us watch with curiosity the strangeness it presents. I only wonder how Kubrick would have made it had he not declared it unfilmable!

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Life is a state of mind

I wonder as to what it means by living in the moment. Present is always a battlefield between past and future. The world, in order to run practically, programs a human being under an illusion of education. The mind is trained to plan for the future, to analyze the past – a person who doesn’t plan in today’s time is seen as an outcast of some extinct tribe! To certain extent planning is important too – but it is also true that seemingly simple act of living turns frustrating under the burden of past and future. Is there a state in which past is not cared for (off course the memories are always there to cherish) and future is not given a single thought or remains nonexistent until it transforms itself into present? Can anyone achieve that serenity?

When I started watching Hal Ashby’s Being There, my only intention was to watch a penultimate Peter Sellers performance, and the above question was nowhere in my mind. But the question emerged and grew as the film rolled. Sellers was a comic legend. Here he plays Chance the gardener, a man who has spent more than half of his life in a townhouse of a wealthy man. He takes care of the garden, and in the spare time watches television. That’s his favorite activity – to watch TV! He is like a child who keeps on doing things he is taught to do. There is an old maid who brings him his meals. He is allowed to wear the old man’s suits, he knows very little about ways the outside world functions, the only thing he knows too well is gardening, and he has never encountered the world that lies beyond the townhouse. Then one day the old man dies. Chance is forced to give up his cocooned existence and the scene in which he puts his first step in the outside world is backed by Richard Strauss’s classic symphony Also Spoke Zarathustra (a musical piece also used in 2001 space odyssey) – the effect is amusing. Chance wanders around the neighborhood and encounters a street gang. One of the gang members brings out a knife: finding the whole situation unpleasant he brings out his remote control from the overcoat and tries to switch the scene, only to get shocked and realize that life is not a television program. It was at once a hilarious and thoughtful situation. Just see the expressions on Peter Sellers’ face during the whole scene – he was a great actor.

The film then divulges a series of odd situations that make Chance the gardener a very important man. His name is confused as Chauncey Gardener by the wife of a rich political kingmaker, and he soon finds himself among the rich and famous – giving advices to the president of America! Chance is simple, can imitate gestures, and appears to be a man of good breeding: probably because of the gestures and demeanor he has acquired trough a life-time of television viewing and watching the wealthy old man. He talks innocently about the seasons of nature which is confused by others as metaphorical understanding of the country’s economy. Chance is ignorant about what is going on around him, and the beauty is that he is not aware of his ignorance. He appears to be living in the present – in the moment to be precise. He cannot plan. He just responds. The result is that he is the calmest person in the film, almost at peace with himself, because he is always in the here and now.

This is what triggered few thoughts in me – I think Chance lives in the moment because he is not participating in the affairs of the world. He just likes to watch. This is also apparent in one scene in which he tries to kiss the kingmaker’s wife by imitating the kissing scene that is running on television, but soon he releases her from his grip and starts watching the kissing scene on television instead. Peter Sellers had an ability to dissolve completely into his characters – he even called himself a chameleon. After watching Steve Martin’s version of inspector Clouseau in the new Pink Panther franchise, I told myself that no actor, not even someone as good as Martin, can make us forget that only Sellers could give Clouseau the downright stupidity we so much adore. Likewise, Chance the gardener is a role, I think, Sellers was meant to play.

Is it possible for us to achieve the calmness of Chance – to live in the moment like he does? He has not attained this state through Zen meditation or mind control; off course there is a famous scene in the end when he walks on water. That is an allegory, and can have various interpretations including a comparison with Christ. But I think the ‘walk on water’ scene suggests that he is not like us. Maybe, because he has not undergone the training and fundamental education required to function in the world. The film does not suggest that ignorance is bliss. It uses Chance’s presence to uncover the folly in educated beings. Because he behaves like an aristocrat, people search for meaning and find optimism in his absurd talks. He is even considered to be a contender in the next presidential elections. Are they not limiting themselves in judging Chance with strict and predefined notions? They confuse his peaceful composure with wisdom. When he says “spring, summer, autumn, winter . . . then spring again”, he means just that. The rest of them find it wise!

I still have doubts that a man like Chance can exist. But the purpose of art is to evoke thoughts and not to provide explanations – we have the sciences for that. And this film has evoked an array of thoughts, some of which are so delicate that I don’t know how to put them in words. Maybe this film is not as profound as I think it to be. Maybe it is the mood I am in from last few days that made me dig out in the movie what I was myself searching elsewhere. But it is a through-provoking film no less, and comic too. At least it should be watched to see Peter Sellers' finest performance to date.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Devdas is Bollywood’s most decorated lover. The reason for him being an inspiration for most of the directors is I guess not his loss, but his tendency for self-destruction. A story that exceeds the height of tragedy is likely to become stuff of legend. Bhansali’s larger-than-life portrayal of Devdas was aesthetic excellence, but Anurag Kashyap imagines that had Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay written Devdas in today’s time, the reason for Dev’s demise would have been libidinal drives and arrogance, and not social differences. Above all, Kashyap succeeds in capturing the isolation of Devdas.

Apart from being a bleaker version among all the previous attempts to capture Devdas on celluloid, Dev D is a wonderful movie-going experience; more so because being Indian we don’t much get to see thought provoking cinema …ok, let me leave intellectual hunger of certain cinemagoers aside… we don’t even get a new experience (and we get either feminist or cliché-ridden patriotic films in the name of serious cinema). Film-making in Bollywood is just packaging. They make products these days, and not movies. Because one love-story is just a reinvented cliché from another mind-numbing film, there are many surprises in Dev D for an Indian viewer. The relationships between the characters filled with anger, egoism, sexual drives gives a very different facet of lovers, far from the image of lovers Bollywood has created (not that all relationships are meant to be fractured, but this was believable) something which reminded me of Faith Akin’s Head-on. Screen characters in Hindi films are becoming one-dimensional, shallow, and artificial – more desperate to flaunt their well-toned bodies in designer outfits than showing genuine humanness; and when they fall in love and sing those high-budget songs, they look like they are still advertising (maybe because of corporate funding). So Dev D comes as a breath of fresh air just like Dil Chahta Hai came few years ago. We like such films for their honesty. By honest, I don’t mean that a film should portray love in all its tragic incarnations, but the situations should at least submit to the character’s becoming. For instance, there came a film called Laaga Chunari Mein Daag in which Rani Mukerji enters deeper into the gritty world of prostitution, and in the end to give a stereotypical happy ending a prince charming enters her life and tells her that he cannot live without her. It must have disappointed a real prostitute sitting in the cinema-hall watching the film because she knows to her guts that prince charming exists only in fairy tales.

Anyways, the structure of Dev D explains the transformation of the three leads in episodes. Among many funny sequences of the film, the trumpet band that received Dev on his return to India and followed him behind his car akin to Emir Kusturica’s Once Upon A Time There Was A Country was amusing to watch. Dev’s crude relationship with his father showed in initial scenes opened a window to his psyche for the viewer to later understand his fall. Going by previous films of Kashyap who is known for dark films devoid of any melodrama, I don’t think he wants the viewer to sympathize for Devdas like Bhansali did. I think he is just observing Dev’s demise and expects the viewer to do the same. After being in the world of drug-induced hallucination, when Dev experiences a near-death experience: that is the first time we see him awake – an epiphany, maybe! It is through Chanda that the torn-apart Dev learns to come to terms with reality; not because she is an angel, but because he starts showing readiness (off course, she is always there whenever Dev needs her despite having her own demons to mend). In fact, Dev D is the most positive version of Devdas ever filmed as it allows Dev to resurrect. And finally, the best moment in the film was “Emotional Atyachar”! The song is performed in such an unrehearsed, matter-of-fact manner that it made everyone laugh out loud in the cinema hall, and it was meant to show the departure of Dev from his known reality.

Though a little uneven at some places, Dev D is finely made, and it is his first script since Satya and Kaun? that I liked. I didn’t like No smoking. It was a nice try to capture the disorientation of the protagonist through surrealism, something which very few have done before in Hindi films. Some scenes were really inventive and amusing, but it still had something missing. I don’t know what because I am not a film student. I guess you have to be David Lynch at the height of your powers to capture the essence of Kafka. I am not comparing them; I am just suggesting that it was Kashyap’s first attempt at something which Lynch has mastered so well in decades of surrealist filmmaking (best example being Mulholland Dr.).

Maybe in time we will see Kashyap giving us a breath-taking kafkaesque mindbender...

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Everything is illuminated in the light of the past...

An anti-Semitic grandfather and his fervent grandson Alex are told to escort a young American Jew, named Jonathan Safran Foer, through the Ukrainian countryside to find Trachimbrod: a place no longer existing on the map and where most of the villagers were liquidated by the Nazis. Jonathan (played by Elijah Wood) intends to learn about a woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis. The car used for the trip has “Heritage tour” written on the top of it. Alex’s grandpa drives the car, and Alex occasionally translates grandpa’s effusions to Jonathan who sits at the back with Sammy Davis Jr. Jr. (a dog…bitch to be precise). So begins Everything is illuminated: a journey that follows through the Ukrainian landscape towards a bitter past.

The story is narrated by Alex, in his broken English and gestures assumed from American pop culture. Played by Eugene Hutz, Alex is really amusing. The character of his grandpa is also interesting and watchable throughout. The humor during the first half of the film arises due to the idiosyncrasies of the characters. Jonathan has a curious habit of collection things, “family things” as he says. He keeps small plastic bags with him all the time, and whenever he finds something curious or striking, he puts it in one of his bags. He calls himself a collector. He collects because he is afraid that he will forget. There is a conversation between Alex and Jonathan, which I don’t clearly remember, but it goes something like this…

Alex: Father informs me that you are a writer.
Jonathan: Not really… I am more of a collector
Alex: What do you collect?
Jonathan: things… family things.
Alex: It is a good profession, yes?
Jonathan: No, it is not a profession. It is something I do.
Alex: why?
Jonathan: I don’t know. It’s just something I do… I mean, why does anyone do anything?
Alex (looking confused for a while suddenly says with a smile): I understand!

Their interactions are amusing and add to the flow of the film. The humor starts diluting as the journey progresses. They go through curious situations, which I better leave untold. After tiresome search they reach a field of sunflowers and at the heart of the field is a small house. Something occurs to Alex’s grandpa and he tells “check here”. It is a stunning view, like Alex’s grandfather even the viewer will feel that something must be there; that maybe this is the place where the journey is supposed to end.
Alex finds an old woman sitting outside the house, and he asks her the whereabouts of Trachimbrod. She replies “I am it”.
They have reached Trachimbrod. Though the place was destroyed by Nazis, the old woman has preserved Trachimbrod in her house, which is full to the brim with things belonging to the people who were killed. Like Alex, she is also a collector. Having known about holocaust only through films and literature, I wonder how painful it must have been for those who share a similar history. While watching the film’s last sequence where the characters go to the place where once Trachimbrod used to be, I was reminded of Roman Polanski’s film The Pianist. It was about a Jew’s struggle to escape Nazi Germany (though he escapes in the end, it is not dealt with triumph but with loss). Polanski too had lost his parents in holocaust, and The Pianist was constantly reminding me that if someone has survived, it is because of nothing else but chance. Everything is Illuminated looks like an extension of The Pianist, where the third generation of the one who survived returns to the place where it happened unearthing series of poignant revelations. Each revelation brings an illumination....
The film ends with a tragedy and Alex's conclusion “Everything is illuminated in the light of the past. It is always along the side of us, on the inside, looking out”.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Curious Case of the Human Chameleon

Imagine a man who can transform himself into anyone who is around him. For instance, if he is near a Chinese, he will start developing oriental features – he will walk, talk, behave, and even look like a Chinese. If he is in the company of intellectuals, he will talk like an intellectual on any damn subject; even referring to specialized papers on the subject, may or may not be written by him. Not only that. He can also transform himself physically; say, if he is around obese people, he will start growing fatter just like that. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine such a creature.

Zelig is Woody Allen’s vision of one such man, set in 20s and 30s. The film presents us the fictional story of Leonard Zelig in an unusual mockumentary-like structure with interviews and footages. Through interviews, prominent literary figures like Susan Sontag, Irvin Howe and Saul Bellow give their opinions on the life and times of Zelig. Side by side, we see black-and-white worn-out footages of Zelig’s metamorphosis, a notice of his ability by the writer F. Scott Fitzgerald, and an attempt to study and cure him by a certain Dr. Eudora Fletcher (played by Mia Farrow). As the film proceeds, America gets fond of Zelig and makes him a public icon. Dr. Fletcher discovers that Zelig’s rare feat is a result of isolation and unhappy childhood. An urge to be accepted by the people around him is so acute that he transforms himself into anyone who is around him so that he can be liked. The psychological sessions turn slowly into romance and till the story reaches its conclusion, we see Zelig standing near Pope Pius XI in the Vatican, escaping the Nazis by flying a plane upside down across the Atlantic (setting a record, indeed!) , and being destroyed by the same media that made him a hero. Zelig is at once a comedy, a love story, and a commentary on American popular culture. Technically the film is remarkable, mainly for the blending of actors into the newsreel footages. Shots are taken through antique lenses to give a vintage feel.

Woody Allen is a delighting story-teller: he can make you laugh, and at the same time can emotionally move you. The metamorphosis of Zelig also indicates the lack of personality. He has no “self". The film is not a total fantasy; it can also make one think: aren’t we all like Zelig? Trying in our own funny ways to be accepted by the society, trying not to divulge from the social norms, assuming gestures and accents that are not our own, keeping abreast with corporate goals, and after a fast-paced life when we retreat to a slow place and are left with all the time in the world to think, we realize that we have never known a person who recides deep inside: the “real me”!