Sunday, May 29, 2011

In Private

A Time to Live and a Time to Die (1985)/ Hou Hsiao-Hsien

Hou-Hsien Hsiao’s 1985 breakthrough A Time to Live, and a Time To Die, is an immensely fascinating film, because while it is about a period in the life of a Taiwanese rural family, it is rather unwilling to give out specific details about what the family members are upto. As a result, most of the primary action takes place in quarters strictly concealed from the audience view: a lot of people die but no one is shown dying, a lot of people move away but no one is shown leaving, the lead’s first sexual encounter is only suggested at, and a lot of the gang-wars in the film are carried out in private. Whenever, infact, violence breaks out, the characters participating in its conduct run and disappear into the far background of the screen by the way of the narrow bylanes that run between houses. Consequently, you never ‘see’ violence – but you are always aware of its repercussions. This approach towards the portrayal of violence, as a perfectly palpable and ubiquitous emotion, but never visible, or even tangible, has since become typical of Hou’s films. This approach that treats violence as a perfectly sanctimonious act that must only be described in mythical terms, and never be allowed to assume a concrete nature is completely opposite to the American, and therefore, the Hollywood way of dealing with it. The American approach is to ‘show’ violence, while Hou’s is to suggest it. 

Hou’s treatment of violence in the film spreads out to all other ‘action’ as well – his film is not interested in ‘showing’ the cause as much as it is in showing the effect. People die, yes, but more important that the precise event of their death is the immediate influence of it on the family members that remain – an approach that is generally traceable to the neo-realists, who were the first professors of a reaction shot over a shot, and specifically to Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy, where incidents are not as essential as the telling of how they shaped up those that were affected by them. As a result, even if Hou does follow the life of a family for years, he is not a voyeur, because his camera (at a now legendary observational distance) is patient enough to let the family detail its own truth, rather than attempting, through intrusion, an excavation of another one.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

A Debate of Appearances

Allen somewhere close to the middle of the frame, Hollywood Ending(2002)
The problem with latter-day (post Hannah and her Sisters) Woody Allen films is that their philosophical concerns are reduced almost entirely to a debate of appearances. While the usual Allen-tussle between characters, one being seemingly perfect and the second being obviously imperfect – is still the blueprint for his post-1986 films, it is conducted not  through theoretical insinuations but through the completely phony methods of making the differences between the two characters ‘visible’ and because it is an Allen film, ‘audible’. The latter obviously-imperfect character in the template is usually occupied by Allen himself- he of the hypochondriac, bespectacled, frowning, wrinkled, meek, stuttering and bundle-of-nerves variety – and the former role, that of the seemingly perfect man, is invariably played by a conventional looker who dresses in light-pink cashmeres, suede loafers, white pleated trousers, hair gelled back; speaks like Cary Grant and needs a separate carry-bag for his persona. This discrepancy is manifest in more equally discernible conflicts – Allen’s a sensible, intellectual therefore cynical, artfully solemn New Yorker; his competition is a rich hustler from the West Coast. Allen’s character invariably has lines ridiculing the other guy, but more importantly, revealing him to be a snobbish twat; he just cannot believe that the world’s system conspires to give the hustler so much (for all his intelligentsia, Allen’s concerns are purely material), and him, close to nothing. By letting the subtext of some of his earlier major films – Manhattan, Annie Hall, even The Purple Rose of Cairo and of course, Hannah and her Sisters, be taken care of by the production and costume design departments in his later films – Manhattan Murder Mystery, Crimes and Misdemeanors (the film where Allen reveals a greater concern altogether, his La Dolce Vita), Celebrity but most potently, Hollywood Ending – he reduces the slightly bittersweet depiction of life in his earlier films to simple-minded underdog stories; where he is invariably, the underdog ( Allen and Schwarznegger should star in a film together – it would be interesting to see them reconcile with each other’s absolutely alien fallibility and invincibility respectively. ) 

Which is perhaps the reason why so many of Allen’s post-Crimes and Misdemeanors films, upto Melinda and Melinda, are simple genre pieces and betray no genre-jumping tendency like his earlier films. Manhattan Murder Mystery is well, a mystery; Shadows and Fog is an aesthetic throwback to Expressionism, Hollywood Ending is a farce. Allen’s career is also essentially a progression of the syndrome of a romantic relationship – in Bananas, he is trying to get with the girl; by Annie Hall, he is with the girl but she leaves him; in Manhattan, he is with someone; in Stardust Memories, he has found someone else; in Hannah and her Sisters, the someone else has left him – for, in Crimes and Misdemeanors, the richer guy, who makes his first appearance in an Allen film. In Shadows and Fog, he settles down again, but by the time he reaches Manhattan Murder Mystery, he is suspicious of his wife again. They reconcile, but too much damage has already been done by the time of Deconstructing Harry.

Saturday, May 21, 2011


Masculin, féminin  (1963)/ Jean-luc Godard
Jean Pierre Leaud is, at best, an aberration. He is the passerby who has mistakenly landed onto the set – the lost tourist on his way to the airport. His is not a performance of lucid clarity, but of muddled confusion. He is nearly always indulged in a state of interrogation: ‘Are women magic?’ in Day for Night, but most potently, the final freeze-frame of 400 Blows. And also in Stolen Kisses and Irma Vep. He is also always a near mess, with a semi-mullet that resembles the chaos of a retreating army and a physical frame of a scarecrow. His face betrays a lack of any specific conviction or even faith in anything at all – a quality manifest most resolutely in Godard’s double-bill, Masculin, féminin and La Chinoise – in which Leaud plays a youth who misunderstands sloganeering for ‘political action’ (much like Godard himself). The opening scene of Masculin, féminin in the café is one of the most painful ever, simply because of how incredible ridiculous Leaud’s character is – ‘only time where Leaud was anxious in front of the camera’, wrote Truffaut to Godard in a vicious letter. But perhaps that is an overestimation by Truffaut of his own effect on Leaud as an actor-on-sets, because there is hardly a moment that he is not anxious in front of the camera – restless, he always has a train to catch. Leaud functions on the other end of the spectrum as Belmondo; the latter is ‘Mr. Know-it-all’, Leaud is ‘Mr.Know-nothing-at-all’. With shoulders arranged in a perpetual shrug and the most lifeless pair of eyes since I Walked with a Zombie, he ties in for the leading man with the most insolvably troubled soul with only one other man.

Jimmy Stewart

Truffaut Letters - IV

 The following is an excerpt from a response dispatched by Truffaut to a journalist, it contains his views on the topic of shooting 'on-location'.

"I do not share your opinion that shooting in real decors has become routine, but there has certainly been – again since the use of colour became standard practice – an insufficient control over the filmed image on the part of many directors. For example, when I see a street scene in a comedy, and half of the street is in shadow and the other half in sunlight, it seems to me that the comic force of the shot has been reduced by half.

There are many directors and cinematographers who think the way to make a beautiful composition of some natural vista is to have a green meadow fill two-thirds of the image and blue sky fill the other third, whereas when it is projected, the sun is no longer the sun but simply a whitish or yellowish expanse through which can be seen the seams of the cinema screen, which is rarely as clean as it ought to be. In that particular case, instead of filmking the sky, one has actually managed to diminish the dramatic value of an image by a mutilation of space.

It is my opinion, in any event, that it is not in a film’s interest to be shot a hundred per cent on location, since there should always be an element of artifice. In the case of A bout de souffle which is probably the masterpiece of films shot entirely in real interiors and locations, its artistic homogeneity was guaranteed by the fact that the film was entirely post-synchronised and that particularity of sound created its style"

Friday, May 13, 2011

Industry of the Monster Film

Godzilla(1998)/ Roland Emmerich
Monster films reveal the metropolitan nature of their setting more vividly than any other type of film – mostly because the monster demands an urban zone through which it can rampage. Therefore, a monster film features shots of skyscrapers, pavements, highways, bridges, sewer systems, lampposts, and general industry – but never of open spaces, such as a park, a playground, a town square or a sport stadium (unless the monster has to be hauled ‘out’, for the film audience to catch a glimpse of it in its totality). As such, the ‘monster’ in question is nearly always obscured from a wholesome view by one structure or another – the film never quite able to compress its entirety inside a single frame. A monster film functions thus, completely through speculation – ‘the anticipation of the bang’ – because unless it is explicitly attempted otherwise, the ‘monster’ is never visible, except in small portions. The commonly repeated line of a monster film is ‘Did you see that?!’, only because some character wishes to confirm that the fleeting foretaste of the creature wasn’t a hallucination. Mostly, one manages to glimpse only at one section of its anatomy in one single instant – its tail, its eyelid, its toenail, its horn or its foot – the director of the monster film has to shoot the monster like Bresson would shoot his ‘models’. 

A monster film is also laden with instances of affected irony. Two characters or a group of them are present in a scene that depicts them as being so completely unaware, so completely naïve, and so completely ignorant of the monster’s presence in their vicinity, that they will not hesitate to utter a line that will assume another context altogether when the monster materialises in a few seconds. An old man heads out to fish and settles on the jetee with his fishing apparatus - he says to his friends: “I hope I get a big catch!”(or something to that effect) – in a moment’s time, he does. It is Godzilla itself. Now, the reason why a ‘monster’ never quite emerges in the countryside is also because it permits the film the luxury of multiple levels of such hokey (and completely Hollywood) irony. Because it is only in a metropolis like New York, that a sequence which finally introduces Godzilla into the film can be followed by one where the characters sit in a diner in another part of the town, and discuss trivialities, oblivious of the menace heading their way. Sure enough, one of them mouths a line that invites irony in the face of the impending monster. The occupants of the diner hear a loud noise followed by a prominent tremor; the character: ‘It must be a parade.’

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Kindling Temperature

Inglourious Basterds (2009) / Quentin Tarantino
2009’s World-War II magnum opus, Inglourious Basterds, founds itself completely on small points of contact between two alien cultures. It is a global film for a globalised world about a time when the world wasn’t so globalized. Each character in the film is a new ‘fish’, challenged by the prospect of adoption of a new custom (represented in the film, more or less by spoken language. It’s Tarantino, what else?), and the chances of survival of a new character depends entirely on how well it can adopt to the world outside its ‘water’. Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), the primary antagonist of the film, does it the best, and so he survives the longest. Tarantino being Tarantino, cannot relinquish entirely the debt the cinema of the present owes to the cinema of the past, and therefore, he cannot help but try to construct a few classical Hollywood type gags based on the uneasy interaction between members of two different cultures (uneasy because clearly, they would much rather be sitting at home than fighting the war); but almost always has to follow it up with great urgency an event of a clearly more sinister intent.
Sgt. Donny Donowitz (Eli Roth) messes up his Italian pronunciation and it is funny, but it also results in giving away Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt)’s identity to the Nazis. The point of contact between two vastly different cultures resulted in a short gag earlier, but in contemporary cinema, it is the game-shifter. A second of hesitation on the part of the alien can result in complete anarchy. The narrative does not break for snacks (as it would, in case of a gag), but is entirely and utterly annihilated and replaced by a newer one. In this regard, the narrative no longer remains a tangible coherent idea, but only a notion – meant to be replaced by another notion. Each major event in the film (mostly an all-consuming shootout) is a result of some character or the other committing a single mistake and revealing his/her true identity. It is funny because for a film set in a period of vast ideological disparity, it is completely about more tangible differences; and thus, in a rather bleak manner, declares humanity incapable of internal reconciliation.