Sunday, July 31, 2011

Levels of Lying

Real Life (1979) / Albert Brooks

Instead of letting the interplay between ‘real’ and ‘fake’ (or Hollywood, as Brooks emphasises) in his film assume Kiarostamiesque-proportions¸ he chooses to engage plot-based mechanics, thereby resulting in a film that is almost always on the verge of profundity, but ends up being only a ‘entertainer’. There are curious qualities of self-referentialism in the film, with the format of the film consistently folding upon itself. It is a film about a narcissistic and selfish manipulator who feigns verisimilitude but instead, begins to intrude or influence the subject of his film so as be able to capture ‘tension’. There might only be two ways to direct the film ofcourse:  you could claim the stature of a faux-documentary and aver that the film is ‘really’ a record of a wholly authentic sociological experiment, or you could make a fiction film (one part comio-thriller, one part chamber drama, one part satire, one part dystopia) about a director who claims to shoot the real life of a family over the period of an year. Brooks starts out choosing the former approach, but ends up with the latter – because perhaps, much like the director he plays in the film, he loses trust in his own method easily. All said, however, Real Life is one of the greatest films about film direction and one of the better films about megalomaniacs (at par with Aguirre : The Wrath of God, one up on The Great Dictator and one down on Three Colours : Red) who are wholly incapable of fulfilling their ambition of megalomania. The assignment of a divine role to the filmmaker is, infact, a theme constant in the film. Brooks tells the head-of-family that is the subject of his record : ‘To err is human, to film, divine’.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Newsreel Days

Zelig (1983) / Woody Allen
The driving force of the film, apart from its Forrest Gump-ish devotion to following the wholly inadvertent influence of a simple-man on the construction of pop-culture, is nostalgia. Much like The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), Radio Days (1987) and Shadows and Fog (1992), Allen’s period-film is essentially whatever he remembers of the period – a factual depiction distilled through a personal recollection. It is absolutely vital, obviously, that Zelig is a character from the past – a myth that is not absolute – a notion that seeps in to the present through the pores of grainy newsreel footage, because only then can he be speculated upon, or because only then can his story be ‘told’ by various people. Allen cheekily gets the subjects of his faux-vox populi to speak of how Zelig will essentially only remain a symbol – as if to discourage the viewers of the film from coming up with their own interpretations (he even interviews Sontag herself.) But quite crucially so, it is impossible to, because for all its worth, Zelig is definitely the most dense of all Allen films – and one of the shortest. The character of Leonard Zelig symbolizes a lot – the liberation of the far-left and the conservatism of the far-right, America and the rest, the vice of conformism and the gift of individuality, and because it is an Allen film – the literary allusions : Zelig as the Kafka-esque man who must fit into whatever mould the society demands of him, as also the Dostoevsky protagonist who must perform arduous labour to discover his true ‘identity’. Ofcourse, the greatest accomplishment of Zelig is not how it cleverly turns a clearly sensational second-rate science-fiction plot into a film about love and its healing power – but that in it, Allen is mostly playing a lot of people, but not Allen himself.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

American Soviets

Notes on Days of Glory (1943) by Jacques Tourneur:
  • In a war film, the Nazis are always a fuzzy abstraction – there is no enemy to ‘see’ or to ‘speak of’, no single individual we can lay our entire moral blame on, and no one to condemn – because it is to be understood that it the protagonists’ war is a noble one if it is against ‘them Nazis!’. A film, however, may go a step ahead and actually show the only Nazi in the world we actually know – Hitler.
  • Much like Inglorious Basterds, the alignment of our empathy is guided through spoken language – we are to side with whoever speaks a language from ‘closer home’. Therefore, the Soviet soldiers speak in English (a linguistic anomaly) and the Nazis speak in German (a linguistic gambit) because while the former is a move to endear, the latter is a move to alienate. Notwithstanding ofcourse that the Soviets speak English in a Kentucky accent; it doesn’t matter.
  • Days of Glory is a rather American film about a group of Soviet soldiers. A war film is a marketplace of ideas – an Indian war film is about selfless, almost lunatic nationalism, the European war film is absurdist theatre, the Soviet war film is a statement about loss of innocence – the American war-film is, buoyed by imaginary victories in all wars they fought, glorious propaganda. By the halfway mark, the Soviet soldiers get rid of their particularly Communist virtue: a lifeless and almost militant devotion to an intangible ideal, and embrace the American idea: one says to another, ‘You have taught me how to live again!’, thereby restoring humanity in the human. There are also the stout comic sideys who keep pulling off visual gags now and then. 
  • The end of the film, however, restores far-leftist insanity in the film – the merry band of soldiers begin delirious sneering and sloganeering and oath-taking as a Nazi tank approaches their stronghold. Such madcap adherence to meaningless ideas (Tourneur makes the sound of the approaching tank so loud that we cannot even hear what the soldiers are saying) in the face of imminent death suddenly converts a dreary, boring, messy American war film into a vital, thriving, animated European war-satire. The heroes are converted into total yuppie-idiots who ride the nuclear warhead while ‘yippie-ki-yaying’ their way to death.
  • There is also one of the strangest shots in all of cinema - almost serene and definitely surreal - as Vladimir looks in the far distance from within the foliage, a Nazi plane is engulfed by anti-aircraft fire. Small dark-grey ruptures around the distant plane suggest misfired projectiles, until one gets the plane – it explodes in the sky and out of it, supported under a neon-white parachute, a pilot descends to safety, until ofcourse, as soon as a hysterical Vladimir wishes it – a projectile gets the pilot too. It is a picture of incredible devastation – and yet, we do not know either the pilot, or the man who fired at him from the ground. Our investment is purely sensual; much like Vladimir's. In the next scene, a comrade admonishes himfor beginning to enjoy 'violence', much like we just did.

Saturday, July 2, 2011


World for Ransom(1954) / Robert Aldrich
Like Aldrich films go, World for Ransom is seen best on a faded print, which seems to enhance, somehow, the foggy, almost vapour-ridden nature of the universe inside which the film is set. The film resembles, at best, a state of exhausted delirium, a night in the winter of a north-Indian small town, and while a lot of ‘action’ takes place, it is never inexorable – each scene of a major ‘event’ is followed by one where two characters or more settle down and discuss the progress of the plot thus far. Made on the sidelines of the television show China Smith (1952), World for Ransom combines aesthetics of an action-film (continuous action, evolving plot) with that of television (the most major surprises to be revealed during simple conversation).  The location for the film is peculiar – it is set in Singapore (rather generic too, the Asian guys are called Wong and Chan) – the villain remarks: ‘What I am doing must be done along the Iron Curtain”; such fantastic alignment of verb with noun, geography with politics, a definite purpose with an abstract idea, is typical of the film. 

Similar to Kiss Me Deadly that he made a year later, the bomb is only an allegory, any of the two power blocs may secure the secret of the hydrogen bomb just like the shifty heroine cannot make up her mind between her former lover and her shady husband.

The wife, the lover and the husband as the looming presence.
She is a 60s Fuller-protagonist, and controls the entire plot of the film from inside her household, even as the foolish noir-hero goes about getting implicated for murders, beaten up by thugs and getting involved in firefights that involve grenades and sten-guns, only to impress her – the larger idea is obvious : you can solve a massive diplomatic row, rescue a major scientist, kill a number of trained soldiers and save the world from certain nuclear holocaust, but if the girl rejects you, what is the point?