Saturday, August 27, 2011


To Spot: Vadim

From Cahiers Du Cinema 73, 'Sufficient Evidence' on Roger Vadim's Sait-on jamais? :  Jean-Luc induces some common sense into the proceedings.

"Unlike so many beginners with five years of Cinematheque viewing behind them, Vadim does not say to himself, 'I'm going to move the camera thus, and frame the characters so. Now, what are they going to do and say?' Instead, more sensibly, he reasons this way: Michel pulls the curtain and hides Sophie as she lies on the bed, increasing his pleasure at knowing she is there by his displeasure at being unable to see her. How to film this scene? Nothing easier. A shot of Michel pulling the curtain: Sophie can no longer be seen. Change of shot with the camera now in Sophie's place, no longer able to  see Michel. Michel opens the curtain. They are together again. It is easy to see from this example that once the characters' motivations are clearly established, mise en scene becomes a simple matter of logic."

Wednesday, August 24, 2011


Modern Romance (1981) / Albert Brooks

The crucial distinction between Robert Cole of Modern Romance and Jake La Motta of Raging Bull, both jealous, perpetually paranoid men who are mistrustful of their respective women, is anthropological. Cole is an early 80s, latter-day Californian who works in a modern profession – film; La Motta is a early 40s, early-day New Yorker from Bronx who performs in a primitive profession – professional fighting. Of course, probed deeper, both filmmaking and boxing are essentially the same: thoroughly passionate systems of expression where the participants use automatic instinct that is informed by years of rigor (both physical and cerebral). Cole attempts to dilute jealousy-pangs by biting into a culture that claims be able to heal his heart by replacing love with a pair of sneakers; La Motta does it by pummeling other men. Cole is, however, a man of rationale, a film editor, one whose job is to locate reason in chaos – he can, at every step, justify his immense insecurity by announcing it as a feature of modern romance, thereby smudging an entire era with the misgivings of his psyche; La Motta, on the other hand, suffers from the simple-minded entitlement of a mid-20th century animal, he believes his wife is a territory no one trespasses. Ofcourse, they are similar men, and what would be hilarious is to replace one with another : Cole in the boxing ring, employing the sane forces of logic and rationale and  La Motta in the editing suite, smackin’ the foley-guys who mock his utter lack of talent. By the way of trivia, the director of Raging Bull directed the director of Modern Romance  in another film where Brooks plays the insecure, jealous aspiring lover: but there, he is always in the background, stealing furtive glances in the way of the girl as a crazy taxi-man in a red blazer takes her away from right under his nose.

Monday, August 15, 2011

This, that and then that.

The reason the sequence of the payroll robbery in Siodmak’s The Killers is one of the greatest in all of cinema is because it, at first, teeters succinctly between, and later, encompasses aesthetic approach(es) required to fulfill successfully: news reel reportage, crowd-direction, dirty action sequence, a thrilling getaway and finally, a moment of human compassion. Siodmak’s decision to shoot the entire bank-robbery in one single-take has major repercussions; it is definitely, and above all, a technical victory of the crane, but the variety of critical notions it invokes is staggering: simultaneously, the Bazinian notion of ‘realism’ without relinquishing ‘style’, the Cahiers notion of the film director as the controller, master, choreographer of the universe, the Penelope Houston notion of cinema being about ‘human emotions’ and most essentially, the Daney notion of the image being what ‘we see’, or what the director ‘shows’.

An insurance detective (O’Brien), to strengthen his belief that the murder of a two-bit Swedish hustler deserves more time because there ‘is more’, asks the boss of his insurance company to read a newspaper report from five years ago about a payroll-robbery in a hats factory – the boss, entirely unconvinced, begins reading. As soon as he does, the image eagerly fades into a flashback where we can see the events of the robbery first-hand. The narration of the boss reading the newspaper report (written, always, in simple past) in the movie-present is superimposed over the sequence of the robbery that takes place in the movie-past. The players perform within the image as and when the audio track provides them with a certain cue; if you were to watch the film with subtitles on, the subtitled text slowly becomes the caption of the image you ‘see’. As such, Siodmak lays bare the most essential function of modern-day, Jamesian notion of writing: invoking a series of visuals, or to assist the reader in ‘visualising’ what he reads.

Of course, as captions go, Siodmak shows only the fleeting moment in time that is most integral (or is the best visual representative of) to what line of text the ‘to-the-point’ newspaper report the insurance boss is reading.  

Such generous respect is extended to simple-minded causality throughout the film. It is like making a film in the short-hand : to show, what is ‘essential’ (Dassin), while pretending to possess a vantage-point that can see ‘everything’ (Ophuls). The story of the film begins, infact, with three shots that do not play in quick succession, but still, fulfill the most basic tenets of the Japanese woodblock paintings that form the basis of the Soviet Montage. The first shot is of two men driving, the second of a street-sign which reads ‘Brentwood’ and the third of the shadows of two men lurking on the streets of a foggy-old nondescript town. Once you take the first and the second together, it is easy to deduct that the two men have now reached Brentwood.

Other instances of meticulous causality, or relevance of the small-moment is strewn throughout the film. In this one, the insurance detective points his gun (those were simpler times, simple etiquette dictated that whoever had the gun would control the conversation) at one of the members of the payroll-robbery party, Dum-Dum. Dum-Dum answers his questions for a while and then asks for his permission to smoke. In a very careful and crucial moment, he decides to rest one of his leg onto the other – this small move will determine who will control the conversation next.

While on the topic, see also: this.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Dinosaur and the Baby

The Dinosaur and the Baby (1963) / Perrot-Minnot
In G.Perrot-Minnot's 1967 accompaniment to Jean-Luc Godard's Contempt, Fritz Lang and Godard deposit themselves at a table to discuss matters that are 'une common', and represent, collectively, the first half of the history of cinema. Lang, armed with a sage-like patience for the young provocateur, on many occasions, does not converse with him, but merely tolerates His Grumpiness. Godard, furtive as always and guarded by his goggle-armor, accepts Lang's generous praise for his prodigal talent with measured humility. 

Godard seeks permission to call him 'un dinosaur', one which Lang grants immediately. Lang belongs, as Godard believes, in a cinema of 'once upon a time', not cinema of 'coming soon' - but that is untrue, ofcourse, because the old fox Lang was 'newer' than many of the new directors. At one point in the film, both directors discuss the respective method(s) by which they will conduct a scene - a problem of aesthetics is transformed into one of mathematics. Lang takes out a sheet of paper and through a diagram, represents a room which has a chair, a table, a window and two people inside it. He then proceeds to use arrow-figures to depict camera angles. Godard rejects the method straightaway and says, 'I cannot direct like this. For me, the window, the chair, the table and the door must really exist. I should be able to see them. ' Pause. 'I can keep shuffling the two people though.'

In a moment, the two mutual admirers reach a stage of no possible reconciliation : Lang must continue to shoot a scene set in hypothesis, Godard must shoot what 'he can see'. As he said in a famous essay, he wouldn't believe in anything a priori. 

Friday, August 5, 2011

Grand Fixations

The online film journal founded by me and Broken Projector's Gautam Valluri, Projectorhead, is now out with its third issue. It can be read here : Projectorhead

Dil Se (1998) / Mani Ratnam
Of all the love-stories Shahrukh Khan has acted in over the last two decades (the first spent in first the discovery, and then the establishment of a convenient love-icon, 'SRK'; the second spent in endless self-parody and elevation of the icon to the status of a soup can), Dil Se is the most romantic. Set around the celebration of the 50th year of Indian Independence, Ratnam’s film employs a love-story to solve a political conundrum – of course, it is a wishful fantasy – one where the direction is even more militant-romantic than the characters itself. Everything in the film seems to happen, infact, with a profound affectedness – there are no small measures or half-hearted gestures: it is a film about impossible love, separatist struggles, wrongful indictment, a terrorist plot to disrupt a national event; nothing minor or perfunctory is essential, or maybe, even something as transient as a demonstrative glance is performed as opera. The leads are both young dreamy quixotes : one reserves his romance for a seemingly impractical love-affair, the second reserves hers for a revolution. They are both halves of a whole; the hero a na├»ve yuppie from the capital of the country, oblivious to an entire complex political circumstance that grows in smaller parts of the nation , and yet, blindly hopeful of a better tomorrow – the female, a member of an oppressed community which seeks separation from the Union, a young rebel who makes convincing arguments in sedition but is actually, a cynic. A lyric from one of the songs filmed over a sequence of the two leads secretly longing for each other goes : ‘Main Adhoora, tu adhoori, jee rahi hai’ (We are both merely halves without each other).Their eventual union elevates them to an absolute, a wholesome entity, so complete that beyond it lies absolutely nothing.

In the video for the title track of the film, the lovers conduct their private business even as villages burn, children run from unknown horrors, and the military calls for a curfew around them. Ratnam consciously juxtaposes the quality of destruction imminent in a love-affair with destruction imminent in a separatist struggle, deeming them essentially as products of the same human attribute: obsession. As such, it is one of the greatest films about obsession (with the notion of them together being his, and the notion of them separate being hers.)  In a curious case of foreshadowing, at the 3:12 mark in the video, the lovers embrace. As they do, a bomb explodes in the background. At the end, when the hero finally convinces the heroine to give up on her dream of a revolution and instead invest her romance in him, they embrace. She is a human bomb. The two halves join and form a whole – the bomb explodes and the world comes to an end. Absolutely nothing, Ratnam stresses, lies beyond this point.