Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Balthus’ Young Girls


There may not exist a prospect that is simultaneously so enticing and yet so intimidating for a man than the sight of a woman with her legs spread slightly and strategically, so as to reveal only a slender schism of uncertainty between them. A number of Balthus protagonists were young girls (to him, their pre-youth seemed eternal, if only through its malleability, as opposed to womanhood, which seemed conclusive, and thus, destructible) who he painted partly as perverse fantasies, and partly as objects that provoked continuous bewilderment in him. It is now a cliché to present women as deposits of continous enigma – clichéd to the extent that a lot of crass humour is a yield of the inability of the male section of the species to ‘understand’ its female foil – but the question still remains: how does this enigma manifest itself pictorially? How can undeniable beauty also seem cruddy, shady and basically, shifty? The answer may lie in Balthus, as it may not in Kar Wai Wong – for while the former looks at youthful romantic subjects with suspicion; the latter looks at suspicious objects with youthful romance. As such, a Balthus female will always have turned her face away from the painter’s gaze; either that, or she will furtively steal away from it the tunnels of disclosure: her eyes, by either looking downwards, or even more shamelessly, just closing them.

A Balthus girl is usually resident on a couch or a bed with crumpled bedcovers (still life in a Balthus painting is always suggestive of a past that existed before the moment the painting depicts; much like film noir). At the very moment of the painting’s doing, her legs have begun to spread apart, like a swan’s wings as it begins to take flight – shaped like derelict scrawny archways somewhere in ancient Greece. The darkness of the schism, the tiny separation between the two arches, could either be the greatest darkness mankind may ever witness, an eternal purgatory, an invitation, but such that of a venus flytrap; or it maybe the land of ultimate bliss, as it is conventionally thought of as. But with women, who knows?

Saturday, February 18, 2012

A Mere Mortal After All

Indian cine-legend and super-ham Dev Anand died of cardiac arrest last December (2011) in London. The initial reaction to his death was one of collective shock ("Dev Anand is dead?"), that later transformed into national bewilderment ("Dev Anand is dead?"). Anand, much like his contemporary, actor A. K. Hangal, was thought of as eternal: a timeless object incapable of mortality.


Friday, February 10, 2012


Atleast The Omen and The Exorcist had metaphysical explanations for their rather misbehaved child-protagonists. We Need to Talk About Kevin reminds me strangely of Notes on a Scandal(the book, not the film)a similar paranoia resulting from an anticipated loss of reputation (Kevin features as many shots of onlookers as The Knack… And How to Get It), an insolent adolescent social-heretic at the center of it all, an uptight righteous (an unreliable) narrator who always ‘tried’ but in vain, chronology-hopping to illustrate how a feeling of ‘sinister doom pervaded a past that forewarned us of this nasty present’ and the narrator’s gross failure to detach herself completely from the responsibility of a crisis.

The film’s protagonist, the woman whose joyous, beautiful, messy youth (much like in Rosemary’s Baby, another film about maternal paranoia, the child is a result of casual sex) degrades into an hideous, formal, bloody boring adulthood. In marking this transition, the casting of John C. Reilly (the eternal louse, I bet the C. stands for Chaplin) is perfect – because he somehow is an icon for the situation she finds herself in. As with all other horror films, Kevin is a film about appearances – Eva’s (Swinton) hairstyle is used as an era-marker: long, flowy hair is distant past, jet-black comb-over is recent past, and shortish, shoulder-length hair is present. At more levels than one, the film is not about the reduction of the gradual ruin of Kevin, who infact, grows into a beautiful young man, but of Eva (Swilton), who turns into a wreck. And when a wreck narrates the film, there is only so much you should believe (Psycho final scene, Memento, Yaadein). Whether her narration of Kevin’s behaviour is like it is because she secretly blames his birth for the mess her life is, is left open to some detective-work. I suppose that is the point of not explaining at all the behavior of Kevin, because it is not him that we have to figure out, it is her.

At any rate, I am not sure what to make of We Need to Talk about Kevin, yet; it works as a sensorial experience – Swinton’s talent is indubitable, but one of the central reasons she works as the rapidly ageing woman with menopausal-paranoia is because of how her hands look: they resemble networks of hastily-deposited concrete clothed with scaly, thin, beautiful imperfect skin – skeletal but human. Ramsay gives close-ups of human physiognomy a sinister air through long-lensed extreme close-ups: amputated from the rest of the body, these parts begin to look like the quieter inmates in a prison: you never know what they are upto.

Below, some Swinton-hands:

We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011) / Lynne Ramsay

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Two SBs

The thing about the production company logo of Shaw Brothers’ is that it appears carved into one side of a toughened-glass slab, while blue-pink light streams condense like cold water droplets on the surface of the other side. You are always expecting a martial artist to send a flying kick through it.

Filmmaking, taken at its face value, is an assortment of individually made (in ideal circumstances) directorial selections/choices (a selection is extracted from a number of available options; a choice is extracted from vacuum). The director is to play a field of innumerable options to finally arrive at a singular outcome – as such; the process of filmmaking may resemble the board game of Life: no matter which route you take, you are going to end up on the same existential highway made of plastic. As such, there are about a ten different ways to show how blood spills on screen (one of them being to show no blood spilling, just the infliction of the wound). One of ‘em is to do it how Sun Chung does it in Judgment of an Assassin (1977): when a character introduces the first of the two lone-wolf assassins of the film, David Chiang’s Heh Mo-Li, the film cuts to a scene where Chiang fights a number of studio-goons inside a studio-lot, killing them by slicing them open with his sword (not in an elaborate, amputational Tobisamuro Wakayama way; but in a brisk, swoosh David Chiang way). Instead of showing a blood-spill, or splatter or spray at the exact moment of the impact, Chung merely quickly cuts to a frontally framed quarter-second-long shot of a gravestone with fake-blood flowing down it. Each time Chiang kills another villainous sidey then, Sun quickly applies the basic tenet of the montage-theory: a photographic image as a stand-in for a theoretical idea (in this case: murder).

The Deadly Duo (1971) / Chang Cheh

The Shawscope is an incredibly wide monster (2.36, a decimal point over the usual) – its extremely horizontal nature ensures that a picture be composed along the x-axis more than along the y. A swift pan at this ratio can be quite a panoramic-view: a wisdom that Cheh Chang spectacularly imparts to one battle sequence in his largely tardy 1971 film, The Deadly Duo. The respective armies of the warring Sung (heroes, which means David Chiang is on their side) and Jin dynasties divide themselves rather civilly into sections of private warfare – so instead of a horde of Sungs against a flock of Jins, the battle is now conducted by groups, of six or seven soldiers each from the opposing parties, that dot the battle-scape. Chang ensures that the various groups together form a circle, and then, places his camera right in the middle of the formation. As the battle really erupts (film battle stages: taunts, close-ups of individuals, rushing in, eruption of wild warfare, a retreating, pensive shot of the destruction war leaves in its trail), Chang begins to swivel his camera on its axis – thereby creating a series of swish-pans that travel from one collective of warring groups to another – and filming, thus, his war as an interlinked series of personal victories and defeats. Slowly and slowly, as one group emerges victorious over their immediate opponent, they rush to the aid of their allies in the circular formation, thereby leading Chang to swivel back so as to keep track of them. The crucial difference between Ophuls and Chang: One films sequences of ceaseless restrain, and the other films sequences of completely untamed aggression. The crucial similarity: both do it La Ronde style.

A swish pan and so on and so forth…