Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Fuller/Fran├žois


Two observations on films watched recently:

The Story of Adele H. (1975) / Francois Truffaut

1. Shock Corridor(1963) features the dirtiest set of walls in film history – Fuller’s film is more about confinement than any other quantity (the title itself suggests a place closed from both sides; an enclosure if you must) and thereby, the walls in the mental hospital always seem to be collapsing onto its inmates. The feeling of incarceration is so absolute that the film’s most obvious scene of delirium features a rain storm that takes place indoors. The walls of the hospital are invariably laced with dirty crayon drawings that deface each inch of them – even the shadow-patterns formed by light that streams in from the hospital windows register on the walls like dirty graffiti-crummy wallpaper and/or other sorts of defacement.

2. In The Story of Adele H.(1975), a single visual cue is used to induce an almost abrupt fade-out of a music piece that laces each image of the film up till the point of the cue (the piece begins, infact, with the opening title-cards themselves). The opening credits are followed by a sequence where Adele reaches Halifax via-boat, then witnesses an argument between another passenger and the Halifax soldiers, and then hires a carriage that takes her to a hotel – all throughout this series of short-scenes, the music forms a looming background. Suddenly, as the carriage-driver informs Adele about how inappropriate the hotel might be for a ‘young woman such as herself’, the musical piece assumes a more menacing tone. Deprived of any sort of security or shelter, this young woman in an alien land is without any sort of assistance when the carriage-driver offers to take her to a boarding house that he believes will be appropriate for her. She agrees. As the shot of the signboard saying, ‘Room and Board’ appears on the screen, the recently-turned-nasty music abruptly comes to a halt. The safety summarised by the contents of the signboard neutralizes the peril of the soundtrack – the image tells the sound to shut up. This is interesting also, because five years earlier, Truffaut made a film called Bed and Board, where the two terms mean anything but a safe sanctuary.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Spectres

Three superimpositions below, as the succeeding image begins to haunt the preceding one like a screen-phantom:


Poison (1991) / Todd Haynes

 Baby Cart in the Land of Demons (1973) / Kenji Misumi

Sword of Vengeance (1972) / Kenji Misumi

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Preservationist

During my two-year tenure with Indian Auteur, I had the privilege of conducting an interview with various significant figures of Indian independent film. These included filmmakers Umesh Kulkarni, Tariq Tapa, Kamal Swaroop et cetera and film critics Baradwaj Rangan, Raja Sen, Pratim D. Gupta (as part of the Critic Symposium) - most essential of these, however, was a two-to-one I had (alongwith Projectorhead editor Gautam Valluri) with one of the instrumental figures of the Indian film industry, the former Director of the National Film Archive of India,  late Mr. Vijay Jadhav. Rather self-effacing and thoroughly proud of the efforts made by his organisation in the preservation of the national film legacy, following is the transcript of the interview conducted on the sidelines of the IFFI 2010:

You said in a press conference that out of the 43000 feature films that have been made in this country since the dawn of cinema, only 5000 have been preserved. What do you believe justifies this callous attitude towards our film heritage?
The tendency to preserve is not inherent in our culture. There is a clear lack of initiative in the field of archiving. There is also a lack of a proper series of steps being taken by the established authorities to educate the young generation of film lovers, or even the current members of the film fraternity.

Do you believe that this lackadaisical attitude also stems from a disinterest from a commercial standpoint in the preservation and later, exhibition, of these films?
I believe that these films, once released, will definitely find a commercial audience. There is an also a sustained effort from our side (NFAI) to upgrade these films to more updated formats – for instance, the present edition of IFFI features an exhibition of 5 obscure Indian films – including Rojulu MarayiMarthanda Varma, Ashok Kumar and Parwana, in their blu-ray versions.

So there is an audience out there. And you have updated films to contemporary formats. Will we see them commercially releasing anytime soon then?
No. Because currently, there are too many glitches in the process to allow one of these old films to release in theatres smoothly. NFAI only preserves these films. We do not hold the copyright to them. The copyright is still held by the producers of the film, and even if we were to enter a profit-sharing partnership with them, the process itself is ridden with just too many roadblocks. Most of them are third-generation inheritors of a film that was made, say, in the 1940s, and while they are ready to let go of a film, they refuse to let go of a legacy.

NFAI remains an agency under the direct purview of the government. Does its loyalty to the government ever extend to the list of films it chooses to preserve? Say, for instance, a politically controversial film like Satyajit Ray’s Sikkim. It was banned by the state Government. Would NFAI preserve it despite the governmental cold-shoulder to it?
NFAI does not make its choices based on any political agenda. It is a film, regardless. For instance, we have preserved an Assamese film called Runumi which was banned right upon its release in 1953. Its one single copy exists with us, in its preserved state.

NFAI is also involved in the digitization of its 30,000 strong book library, as well as its script bank. What other objects constitute the legacy of film?
Posters.

Posters, ofcourse. How many posters has the NFAI preserved till now?
Around 4 lakh of them.

That is an enormous amount. What is the process involved in the preservation of a film poster?
Most of these posters are painted on a paper. And paper is a material that easily decays. Essentially, we employ a method that removes all the moisture content from the surface of the paper. The paper poster is first mounted on a de-acidified banana leaf paper with an organic adhesive. We then use vacuum to extract all the moisture from the surface of the poster. This process ensures that a poster can be preserved for the next 100 years.

And this vast bank of materials present with the Archive, is it easily accessible to the common public?
It wasn’t, until a two years ago. But now we are taking these films and these posters to the smaller centres. We are organizing exhibitions in backwater towns like Patna, or Guwahati or even Yamuna Nagar, as part of the Film Heritage Mission. It’s a collective heritage. It has to be seen.

(The interview is available also, I believe, on Indian Auteur. Information about the man and the efforts of his organisation deserves wider dissemination/publication on more platforms.) 

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Pilgrim Men and Women

Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003) / Tsai Ming-liang
Tsai Ming-liang is the only director in whose films a protagonist may spend the entire duration of the film without ever having to encounter another character. It may well be reasoned that such a quality exists because they are alienated individuals living in a desolate landscape – if only two human beings were to survive an apocalypse, and if they were to be present in different parts of the world, how would they ever know about each other? (and Goodbye, Dragon Inn is more apocalyptic than any Hollywood apocalypse film) – but such an argument may wholly ignore the elemental reality of any Ming-liang : all of the characters in it are so goddamn busy, they just don’t seem to have the time to see each other.

Characters in his films are inextricably entangled in the execution of tasks that demand arduous labour –in order to survive the length of an average Ming-liang shot, they must approach even a simple chore with the seriousness reserved for an insurmountable obstacle. Therefore, the acts of climbing a staircase, standing at the urinal or eating a bun will all be conducted like another director may make the climax of his film: epic and herculean. The ‘motion’ in a Ming-liang film is all of-screen: the film that we can hear play in the theatre and we catch fleeting glimpses of, the rain that pelts the windows of the theatre-complex; thereby, via-the-soundtrack.

All the talk of Hollywood films engaging process-montages is fine (one thing-then the next thing-then the next), but consumed so wholly by their commitment (as opposed to performance) to a single accomplishment, Ming-liang’s characters must indulge in processes (as opposed to a single action). In the most particular instance of this phenomena, the ticket girl (Chen Shiang-Chyi),who wears an iron brace on her leg (and is the sort of figure who will haunt the theatre after her death), walks  up three flights of stairs to reach the projection room – she must deliver the steamed bun to her secret-beloved, the projectionist, but when she reaches the room after an year of climbing, he is not there. Her pilgrimage unconsummated, she must not lose her patience. What does she do then? She climbs back down.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Shimura Trick


Takashi Shimura is the eternal sufferer of the Akira Kurosawa universe; while Mifune is the primary architect of the Kurosawa narrative (via an anxious intention or a corrupt soul), it is Shimura who must bear the brunt of the former’s actions – together, therefore, they form a formidable team of assassination-specialists: the first kills, the second destroys evidence. Mifune is the impulsive protege; Shimura the elder statesman. This elaborately-conducted assignment of roles will reflect directly in their performances too – while Mifune is always overbearing physically, conducting his performance via-physical mimicry (a lion in Rashomon, an old man in I Live in Fear, a 20-feet tall statue in Hidden Fortress); Shimura is timid and weak, the sort of man you would favour yourself against if it came down to a slap-match. 

A Shimura performance is placid, burdened with the torment of the world, prepared to absorb the effects of all the misery of the world, responding with nothing more than a faint quiver of his large shock-absorbing lower lip. This is a meticulously constructed framework of faux-tranquil though – it is an entire plane of normalcy created to underline the single moment of abnormality, because if Mifune trembles, bulges his eyes and contracts his foreheads with a deep guttural grunt, it is just him acting – but if Shimura happens to do it, something must be wrong.

The Shimura Trick is a clever set-up – the actor will, having played the part in an absolutely ‘normal’ manner (the greatness of a Mifune lies in how visible the performance is; Shimura, on the other hand, must leave no traces of a ‘performance’ behind to be called ‘great') up till that point in the film, will, just moments before the single moment of abnormality (usually a shocking disclosure) turn the normalcy up a few notches: he will use his hanky to clean the sweat behind his ears, light up a cigarette, smile at a character standing in front of him – all to lead the undiscerning viewer into thinking ‘everything’s fine’ when suddenly, the moment will take place and Shimura, acting via-prop, will bring whatever maneuver of faux-normalcy he has been involved in to an abrupt halt. The hanky, possessed no longer by a firm grip, will dangle between his fingers, the cigarette will tilt vertically down and the smile will vanish – the entire intention behind such a ruse being to fully transmit the state of shock Shimura’s character is under. The ruse reveals itself to a viewer only after one’s watched a few Shimura performances – after a certain point, you wouldn’t fall for it anymore and what’s more, you can predict its occurrence – the moment Shimura, unnaturally upright in posture and a hesitant user of props – takes out a hanky or a cigarette or a large grin, you know something’s gonna change.






I Live in Fear (1955) / Akira Kurosawa