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”!