Friday, February 25, 2011

A Standard Movie

The King's Speech (2010)/ Tom Hooper

The King’s Speech’s is not a small achievement – it transforms a speech impediment into a political struggle. The contents of King George VI’s speech, as England prepares to engage a rather sinister (Hitler is never scarier than in newsreel footage) enemy in combat, are ‘broadcast’ in the film over a montage of his ‘people’ listening intently to their monarch’s address. Secretly, all of them know that he stammers like hell, and in these times of crisis, it’s crucial they have a leader who is not ‘impotent’ in any regard. Therefore, the montage features shots of families hurled up in British proletariat houses, unfurnished industrial quarters, rich palatial mansions and strictly middle-class apartments – all of them listen, as the King grapples and gropes, but never stammers; thereby supplying England with its potency. At its core, The King’s Speech is about the struggle of King George VI to match up with the oratory skills of his rival, Hitler (and he is a really cool orator). Which is good too, because in times of such broadcast-proliferation, the war is won not by the one who fights better, but who speaks better. The King’s Speech is particularly British in its central method: it is a rather standard film. Standard performances written in a standard script that is shot in a standard way. One might fault it for its lack of any particular ambitiousness, but why miss the point: it is in its unwavering devotion to the standard that its noble ambition lies.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Sizing Up

Men filmed in/through doorways are always interesting. The doorway-shot, done mostly with a wide-angle and frontally, frames bodies in a manner that they seem to radiate phantom glow and the camera axis becomes a suction-hole for all the neighbourhood luminosity. It is a wholly corporeal composition, because its subject is reduced to a mere outline with a homogeneous interior, a dark smudge that resembles human shape; a cut-paper portrait. As the audience of the doorway shot, the most we are capable of is physiognomy. But it’s interesting also because of its Vitruvian capabilities – there is hardly another shot that sizes up the proportions of a man (thus, manly) body better. If this shot is fundamentally macho posturing, then the actor supplies the posture, but it is purely the composition that supplies the machismo. Because it is a frontal, and not a profile, the face ceases to be important, and the body takes precedence. Mitchum, a beast with shoulders as broad as the cinemascope, would be the ideal subject of a doorway shot.

Some doorways,

Pyaasa(1957)/ Guru Dutt

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly(1966)/ Sergio Leone

The Searchers(1956)/ John Ford

La Notte(1961)/ Michelangelo Antonioni
Altered States(1980)/ Ken Russell

Altered States(1980)/ Ken Russell

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Two Very Different Tourneurs

Out of the Past (1947)/ Jacques Tourneur

Tourneur’s depiction of the past as a dynamic entity whose shadow looms greedily over the present (and the future, for the present is the future’s past) is not as much an arty tic, or an auteurist obsession as it is a clever ploy. While Wilder’s film noir was a station for mourning the lost opportunities of the present, and Huston’s noir was typically cynical of the future, Tourneur understood noir for what it really is – a past that seeps into the present. A film noir essentially never takes place in the now or in the urgent – it has an overbearing sense of existing in or in other cases, through the past. A cursory glance at a noir frame will reveal areas steeped in shadows; it takes incisive scrutiny to discover what objects the shadows are of. They merely seem to be hanging from a hook that is above the frame, falling over it like specters whose precise source or owner is invisible. If a frame on the screen is the symbol of the present (it is being projected, thus it must exist now), then the shadows that cake it are a symbol of the past – residues of a time past, a second past, a frame past.

The people who populate the moribund alleys of a film noir always seem to refer to an existence from before the events of the film – their faces are battle-hardened, crease-laden, smirk-full and they sigh before they make a revelation. They sigh because the revelation is not novel (it might seem new to us as the viewer), it has all happened to them before. The lead is world-weary, but weariness is a quality that percolates from the past to the present – one who is weary in the present is that because of things he did in the past. 

All of the characters always seem to know each other from before, and their conversations are full of mentions of shared experiences - ones whose trifling mentions we hear, but whose event we never see. The characters inside a film noir seem to be the only residents in the universe; grudging co-habitants who, through their performance of similar mistakes over and over again seem doomed to be captives in their world of eternal recurrence.

Tourneur’s Out of the Past(1947) is considered by many as one of the prototypical noir films – but actually, it is less an example of film noir, and more an example of a film about film noir. He takes the assembly of eras that is a film noir and takes it apart piece by piece, era by era. He lets each of the three timelines (the present, its first past, and its second past) arrange themselves into nearly divided layers of time with clear, discernible boundaries. We see everything, and thus, the past is no longer a myth, a speculation or a notion, but an actual fact – the shared experiences of the characters aren’t just hearsay, but a visible reality. The origin of the creases on a character’s forehead do not exist in a hypothesis anymore, we see how he acquired them.  Tourneur’s film doesn’t just take for granted, unlike a lot of other film noirs, the fact that the past bears heavily on the present, but shows us how. All the male characters in the film are cursed with the oversight to trust a shifty woman, and doomed, thus, to a state of perpetual betrayal. Each time the woman betrays one of them, we jump a tense – the instances of her betrayal in the script are portals between different eras.  There is no other way for them to escape the state of eternal recurrence then but to obliterate her. One of them does.

Nightfall (1957) is the strangest of all film noirs, and it is only because while all noirs feature characters that are weary of the world, it is one with a director who is the most world-weary of all. It is rather similar to Out of the Past, but Tourneur the director seems to have grown, in the ten years between the releases of the two films, a certain kind of disillusionment with the iron-handed direction that is so typical of his earlier material. He is no longer interested in stimulating the kind of passion the characters in Out of the Past exhibit for escaping the past, and instead is more interested in expounding on philosophical tangents. In Out of the Past, the characters must escape their past because its darkness is self-wrought, since they commit the same errors again and again despite knowing better. Tourneur’s attitude towards them is in equal portions ridicule and human sympathy – but through all this, he seems to understand their situation. But the circumstances that form Nightfall are so absurd and irrational (and thus, so much like life) that Tourneur’s no longer interested in resolving them as much as he is in commenting on the irony inherent in the vast gap between what a man chooses for himself and what fate chooses for him. It has a narrative, but no one really takes it seriously – the characters in the film choose the most crucial events in the narrative to pick personal bones, be miserable and just generally act like people who can’t take a joke. They seem to be putting up a pretense of commitment to the narrative, but actually, they are more interested in following their private trajectories. Rarely is there a film where no one believes in what they are upto than Nightfall – as if they were busy doing something else and Tourneur forced them into the film. Nightfall has the quality of revisionism, because unlike in other noirs, the past still exerts its influence, but people learn to move on.

This posted as a part of the ongoing blog-a-thon on and also on that aims to save a film named The Sound of Fury from oblivion. In order to participate, donate here.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Sono Sion, the lampoon

Suicide Club(2002)/ Sono Sion
IIt would not be unfair to call Sion Sono a distant cousin of Kubrick himself, who inherited the contempt for authoritative figures and a similar wit from the great American, but failed to inherit the tenets of his meticulous method. For while Kubrick realised the potential of a satire to quickly become a self-parody, slip off the thin line it walked and become a farce; Sion Sono does not. Therefore, even as Kubrick painstakingly constructed each of his films, so as to preserve the curious balance between a satire and a farce, Sono’s impulsive filmmaking makes him fail that test quite often. It is for the same reason that even as Kubrick made a light-hearted black comedy with Dr. Strangelove, the undercurrent of livid sarcasm and anger remained undeniable; but with Suicide Club, Sono suffers from a tendency to be so fickle-minded about his own film, that the anger is prone to being diluted, purely because it is spread over so variable a schema. Suicide Club’s opening scene is much similar to the engaging climax of Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove, with scenes of horrifying and endless destruction (54 school girls jump under an oncoming metro in the former, and the world goes up in nuclear flames in the latter), played to the tune of a comforting soundtrack – as if mocking our own inability to laugh at ourselves, while consistently challenging us to laugh at the grotesque splatter – seen through not the conventional prism of sympathy, grief or tragedy, but through ridicule, and even, derision. It would not be wrong to say that Suicide Club is a Tarantino spoof of the brain-splatter genre; the only difference being that the there is a greater point than the spoof itself.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The cut as a moral question.

 The challenge of a Tsai Ming-liang film is a unique one, because unlike other technical challenges, it is not concerned with how or why, but with when. On every Ming-liang shot, there is window of say, two seconds when the shot must be cut to grant it moral appropriateness – on this side of the window lies heaven, on the other, hell. Ofcourse, when the shot goes on for too long, the viewer realizes the construct behind it, and distantiated from it, feels no remorse or regret for the character on the screen, and instead, may even be amused by his/her crass demeanour – but then, Ming-liang has a tendency to convert the normal people who populate his film into freaks – a tendency completely opposite to Hou-Hsien Hsiao, who presents freaks as normal people.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Accidental Murderers

Taken (2008)/ Pierre Morel

Taken is an action film whose affairs are conducted with utmost civility and etiquette. The men in the film issue earnest apologies, sincere requests, and polite notices to each other – they are all accidental murderers who seem to prefer the quieter charm of civilization. Indeed, most of the violence in the film is preceded, immediately, by a sequence of casual banter and mannish camaraderie. The ‘hero’ engages his considerable skill in murder right after a group of men settle down for a harmless game of cards, or when an elaborate dinner is set on the table. He is the party-pooper every time, and if not pressed by such an urgent objective, seems to be the kinda guy who would join in. Too bad he can’t, because he has a daughter to salvage within 48 hours - as such, Taken is at best a film about small little things,  vague abstractions or if you may, notions. Except the seek, destroy and recover motif that is the only coherent quantity in the film, everything is at best, an impression of something – so there is the distinction between the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ at the macro-level. But at the micro, there are impressions of a prostitution racket, drug cartel, a notorious immigrant group, the hero’s fractured married life, police-criminal nexus, a time-limit (48 hours) to save someone – it is incredible just how many ideas Taken grazes, without ever committing to any. Its victory as a film, ofcourse, lies in its single-minded pursuit of its central conceit – a father out to get his girl. In that, it is the sort of film that is singularly uninteresting by itself, but because of its ability to evoke so much of cinema’s past, it assumes relevance that would otherwise not befit it. It’s entirely hokey ideas of a man reclaiming his right on his off-spring’s live through his primal protection of it is a throwback to Schwarznegger vehicles of the 80s, but the general manner of gentlemanliness that pervades through the film also makes it similar to the psychological realism of the 30s and the 40s, where even in the face of a rather sensational occasion, characters would treat each other like long-lost friends. The profundity of Taken comes from the film’s achievement in making its villain truly responsible for what he brings upon himself. On the surface, the film is 2 hours of non-stop action, and yet, the greatest action takes place in the duration of a four-second long poignant pause. The hero, in following the tradition of casual courtesy spread throughout the film, informs the villain of his supreme ability of murder, notifies him of his vast library of skills in the same regard, and makes the polite offer of leaving him alone if he lets his daughter be. All this happens over the phone. A pause. The villain indulges in a sincere measurement of his odds, and finally, rejects the offer. It is in the rejection of this, almost business-manly deal that the entire point of Taken lies. Unlike a lot of other action films, the villain’s bad fate is actually self-wrought. It is shot like a completely modern action thriller (ridiculously fast cutting, white flashes, impeccable continuity), but adheres to the classical action-film mode of shot-reverse shot. Which is fine enough, because when someone punches you, you punch them back.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

In Hindsight : I

What did he know?

To quote an event in history without also elaborating on what led to its occurrence or what followed deprives it of any vitality whatsoever. It just becomes a footnote in history, a piece of trivia to be memorized, or worse still, a piece of trivia to be forgotten. The history of cinema is like the history of the world - preserved in amputated anecdotal segments that are individually, and thus deprived of context, nonsense. However, when they are accompanied by other segments that grant their audience the benefit of chronology i.e. to say, segments that inform us of simple details : what happened after a certain event, what happened before it, they suddenly acquire a more total form. 

The audience of this total or complete historical chronology assumes the status of an all-pervasive, all-knowing overlord then. They know everything. Even as they read details of an event set in 1954, they know its repercussions in 1959, thereby managing to view the erstwhile concern/ambition/hope of the people in 1954 with an almost condescending or sympathetic eye - the condescension or sympathy resulting from their awareness of the characters' future (and thus, the effectiveness of their respective emotions). That is the benefit of hindsight.

 It is funny to read Director Interviews where film directors talk about starting work on a film that you as the audience of history (or the overlord) know the eventual fate of. Your feeling on the subject could be determined by how the film turned out, ofcourse. If it eventually came to be revered as a classic, you can only feel happy for the young director so lovingly talk about a pet-project that he doesn't yet know will blossom into certain immortality. Or if the film was  eventually disregarded as waste, you can only feel sorry for the tragedies of blind ambition. Ofcourse, you may never read an interview of the latter director. 

Preservation of the amputated anecdotes of cinematic history ensures that one can read an interview from 1974 after having watched a film from 1977. The overlord-perspective can thus afford us the peculiar experience of measuring up an ambition against its yield. In what will hopefully be a series, the first of such interview excerpts. In this case, when measured up against the eventual result, you feel simultaneously elated for the young director, and sorry for him. For his next film is guided by a primal urge to film things, but it is also the film that will kill both the primal and the urge in him forever.

George Lucas on his new film, The Star Wars, and excerpts from a 1974 Film Quarterly article about him.

"The film I'm writing now, The Star Wars, has been turned down by a couple of studios already, but now we're finally getting a deal because they say, 'Oh, he's had a hit movie. We don't really know about the idea, but he's a hot director, so let's do it.' They don't do it on the basis of the material; they do it on the kind of deal they can make. because most of the people at the studios are former agents, and all they know are deals. They're like used-car dealers."
His next two projects are more obviously "commercial" projects than his first two films.
He describes The Star Wars as "a space opera in the tradition of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. It's James Bond and 2001 combined --super fantasy, capes and swords and laser guns and spaceships shooting each other, and all that sort of stuff. But it's not camp. It's meant to be an exciting action adventure-film."

After Star Wars he wants to try a slapstick comedy -"Woody Allen, Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton all rolled into one. It's been a long time since anybody made a really goofy corneay that had people rolling in the aisles. It's very hard to do, which is why nobody does it, but it's a challenge; it's like climbing that mountain."

"I always see images flash into my head, and I just have to make those scenes. I have an overwhelming drive to get that great shot of the two spaceships, one firing at the other as they dive through the space fortress. By God I want to see it. That image is in my head, and I won't rest until I see it on the screen."

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Deep In the Valley (2009)/ Atsushi Funahashi

The film's theme about the existence of an object being subject completely to its documentation is interesting, if not wholly original, having been explored before in films such as Night and Fog, Cinema Paradiso and Inglourious Basterds. At its very core, Funahashi’s film is also about scepticism that brews within the members of a younger generation regarding the truthfulness of the history that their elders have passed onto them. They find their immediate history fascinating, but dubious. They are ready to believe in it as fascinating verbal traditions that they will pass down the generations themselves, but not necessarily as what truly happened. Therefore, the two protagonists (the film association girl and the swindler), piqued by the mystery of the pagoda, instead believe in replacing a mere verbal document (as told to them by an elder), by a tangible one ( a photograph, a film), and thus, go around looking for an elusive film about the five story pagoda, in order to subjugate the ambiguity over its existence for once and for all. The conflict between what is ‘said’ and what is ‘shown’ – between a verbal account and a visual one is pronounced even more when residents append photographs with their descriptions, as if to assure conviction in their ‘listeners’. Funahashi seeks to pronounce this conflict even more through the inclusion of inter-titles at specific moments in the film, which provide the viewer with ‘written’ accounts of history. He then proceeds to extol on it visually, and challenges the audience to observe the differences between the written account and the filmic one.
Funahashi claims that film is thus, the definite proof. Anything captured film, has to have existed. It evokes legendary French critic Andre Bazin’s ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’ wherein he conveys an idea about the cinema essentially being a mode of preservation of a historical truth, and thus, a means for its immediate user to ‘defeat time’. Therein, Deep in the Valley makes another statement about the permanence of film itself – or its capabilities of immortalisation.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011


If faced with a pointed query in that direction, a lot of the great directors would confess to their biggest dilemma onset being the staging of a conversation. A dynamic, or for cinema’s purposes, let’s call it a kinetic object, can seldom present a challenge as overwhelming as a stationery one. Purely through the nature of the motion it is occupied in the performance of, the kinetic object will have already suggested its material and at most times, its psychological reality. Different aesthetic schemas applied, for instance, to the act of a character running cannot alter the basic fact of the shot: that the character is running. He exists in the state of a run, and no matter how one shoots him; the nature of his athletic feat is open to neither negation, nor affirmation. The most a cinema director can offer to answer (in psychological terms) is: what is the character running from? But even then, running is running, and cannot, even in the hands of a great director, suggest any other material state of being. 

When humans deposit themselves around a table for a conversation, however, they can become bundles of suggestion. Cinema is at its most fundamental, the art of gestures – those fleeting moments of supreme truth in which a character, if only for a transitory moment, lays out his entire being and makes it available to vulgar intrusion. The question for any great director, then, is to devise an aesthetic scheme that ensures that the camera does not fail to document any of these transient moments of revelation – a sideways glance, a restless leg, a quiver of the lip, a twitch of the nose. 

Ofcourse, cinema is a matter of what’s in the frame and what is not, but with a conversation with a number of characters sitting around the table, the more crucial matter is of who’s in the frame and who’s not. A conversation might, infact, be the toughest of scenes to shoot, because the reaction shot to each shot may contain a different emotional response, or each new line of dialogue may create varying levels of commotion around the table – therefore, each new line of dialogue or even a simple glance may demand its own camera angle, length of lens, and camera-subject distance. What may be revealed in a close-up may forever remain concealed in the recesses of a long-shot; also vice-versa. 

While kinetic motion may most literally fulfill the purpose of cinema, i.e. to capture moving objects, it is in the conversations that the real challenge for a cinema director lies. Because it is easy to shoot action, but it is darned difficult to suggest it.
Some conversations around tables,

Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974)/ Martin Scorsese
Close-Up (1990)/ Abbas Kiarostami

Dancer in the Dark (2000)/ Lars Von Trier

I Walked with a Zombie (1943)/ Jacques Tourneur
In a Lonely Place (1950)/ Nicholas Ray

Whirlpool (1949)/ Otto Preminger
Castle in the Sky (1988)/ Hayao Miyazaki

In the Mood for Love (2000)/ Wong Kar-Wai

The Edge of Heaven (2007)/ Fatih Akin