Saturday, July 28, 2012

The Sneak

Bigger than Life (1956) / Nicholas Ray
When Ed Avery (James Mason, tremendous ol' fashioned craftiness), only recently informed of an illness and disturbed, therefore, by the prospect of how it will disrupt his middle-class American life, goes to the bathroom and looks at himself in the mirror - he decides after a few moments of private contemplation to take the 'miracle drug' (the McGuffin in the film) that may cure him. When he causes the mirror cabinet to open, thereby causing the reflecting surface to swivel, one may catch a quarter-second glimpse of an intruder, a trespasser of Eddie's solitude, another occupant of the bathroom - half-crouched but very alert, it is the director of the film, Nicholas Ray, dressed in what seems to be a off-white (more white than off) overcoat. This is a very curious incident - one that momentarily interrupts the sustained poetic realism of the film up till the point but also, at the same time, enforces Mason's performance of Avery as a normal everyman desperate to live up to someone else's standards.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Notes on Gangs of Wasseypur - I

Gangs of Wasseypur (2012) / Anurag Kashyap

  • The film has been praised for being a sincere depiction of rustic life – the lower-class villagers are no longer weak or noble, but are vicious and self-serving within the universe of the film – as such, Kashyap has revised the filmic representation of the villager in Indian film, or even better, empowered them via-film. This is all hogwash – firstly, Wasseypur only rarely deals with the 'underprivileged' villagers that the film is assumed to revise – his characters are political leaders, gang leaders, the sons of gang leaders and owners of slaughterhouses/butcheries. Kashyap merely replaces social poverty with moral poverty - where they were poor and therefore, inhabitants of a land the middle-class didn't really understand earlier; now they are seen with an even more sinister eye: as people who can murder and mutilate you in a second. It isn't as if Kashyap gave them any real personalities/ambitions – they merely exist as vessels of different modes of violence. This is not empowerment; this is misrepresentation.
  • One may argue that the film has a genuine class-based unrest – but actually, the initial promise it makes of social/economic upheaval through a scene where a first generation criminal discloses his secret desire to usurp power (and is found out through the most convenient contrivance of Hindi films: a passing bystander who happens to overhear this disclosure) is soon replaced by personal vendetta and mano-a-mano upmanship. The son of the aforementioned criminal does not wish to climb up the social ladder (scenes depicting his ascent are done very tardily and lazily; unlike the picaresque dexterity that Goodfellas or even Deewar bring to the fold) because of a deep-rooted social ambition, but his life, as he states, has only a single motive – revenge. As such, he exists not as a social object (or symptomatic of a larger town, as Kashyap would have us believe), but as an isolated case – a person who has devoted his entire life to picking a historical bone.
  • The whole publicity of the film and the manner of the film itself sells Wasseypur as distant exotica – even worse than the likes of Boyle or Lang at their worst, because in their cases, atleast the director admits to not-knowing. The characters in the film are always bragging about the eccentricities that prevail in Wasseypur - so that us city-dwellers can laugh  and snicker at them without ever having to face the real danger of actually being in such a gangland because well, Kashyap, ever the documentarist of ‘real life’ - has ventured into that territory and shot footage, the rad-director that he is. The truth is, the film is merely 'replacing the urban cool with a rural cool' – as such, it is, at best, an ‘artsy’ Dabangg.
  • The Wasseypur of the film is as a mythical land that exists only to become a pop-culture object. So what if there really is no real geographical location of the town or it seems almost as if historically/politically severed from the rest of the country (the final sequence of the film that this film takes its name from, Gangs of New York, in which the skyline makes multiple-transitions to finally take the shape of the present, situates the place specifically within a historical context – and it is done with the simple precision that great directors always possess) – the publicity of the film tells you that if you are a fan of the film, you too can become a ‘Wasseypuri’. This sort of identification or syndrome of allowing the audience to place themselves in ‘someone else’s shoes’ is symptomatic of a comics convention (where fans step into the attires of their icons), but not of a film that claims to offer a kaleidoscopic-view of a real, existent social situation somewhere.
  • The directorial voice is perpetually amiss throughout the film – there is no texture that Kashyap as an artist lends to the film, there are no signs of a conscious intelligence behind a tale that runs throughout on autopilot mode. The truth is, even if your story is ‘solid’, ‘sprawling’ or ‘epic’, someone’s still gotta direct it. If, as Perkins said, cinema as an art that is a yield of a number of clear decisions made by the director – then Wasseypur has very few. In order for a film, any film, to exist as a real, tenable object – it must be something (good, bad, anything), but the problem with Wasseypur is that it exists as a nothing-object, it exists in some sort of a peculiar vacuum – as a result of which, you cannot call the film good, or bad, or anything else. It is strange to watch a film so terribly devoid of a(any) personality – yes, the film has all the crude sexual humour that you may associate with a Kashyap film, but it is critical to remove the script from its direction and see them as two separate functions. While there is former, which is why there is a film, there is no latter at all. If there are directorial decisions, however, they are ones like the following,
  • In showing a character who lusts after women and looks at them merely as sex-objects, Kashyap actually shows us all the women in the film from the character's point-of-view, thereby letting us, the members of the audience, share in the lust-show, instead of allowing us to merely look at a strange lustful eccentric from a distance and then, perhaps, putting him under the scanner, where he can exist both as an eccentric, a comic object or someone worthy of our disgust.
  • The huge myth that Kashyap has created around himself, a huge bubble of appreciators that follow his every move very dangerous - because while what someone else does is not my business, but I feel a lot of earnest cinephile interest is investing itself in the pursuit of an ordinary director - and such a large collective can make such mistakes only in the age of the internet. Earlier, if a large group of people would like one guy, you could be damn sure he is bloody good, but now, it could just be hype.

Monday, July 2, 2012

The Resurrection-Loop

Sunnyside (1919) / Charlie Chaplin

Chaplin is less a person and more a notion, and there really isn’t anything new anyone is saying when anyone says that. It wasn’t as if he was ever viewed as a real human being at any rate. Two years into his career, he inspired merchandise (itself pop-culture’s way of facilitating ownership/domestication of an otherwise inaccessible ‘star’ or ‘myth’ or ‘notion’), cinephilia consistently thinks of him as a cinema-deity and when they gave him that Honorary Oscar, they correctly, and trivially, discussed the possibility of his immortality (again, people are never immortal, symbols are) when they stated that he will survive as long as there is a screen and a projector. The idea that a Chaplin film may someday become a relic (like Leaud in Tsai-Ming Liang’s
Face) is not entirely ridiculous. If an apocalypse hit and if intergalactic invaders had to carry home certain proof that we did exist, a Chaplin film would suffice – in that, the idea that his work from the past will transmit to the future is one in which the quality of eternal sustenance is present. Yes, Chaplin is permanent – but his permanence is not of the forever-sort i.e. to say, he is not always relevant – Chaplin, or the notion of him, has to resurface, regain importance, re-emerge or resurrect – like the feeling of fear that will leave once to return again, Chaplin will go away, but never to never return again. He is the comeback-sort: whether in his career – first as the evolved Tramp (the Tramp in Mabel’s Strange Predicament, considered the character’s debut, is rowdy, mean and a prick – he also has a complete moustache), then as an actor who can speak, and then as an apolitical nostalgist – or as a symbol that stands in different times for different things, the qualities of resurrection or at worst, redefinition must always attach themselves with Chaplin.

That is why Sunnyside is Chaplin’s shorts-era masterpiece – while A Dog’s Life is great (and a heady introduction to Chaplin’s Miyazaki-type insistence that modern life has reduced man to an animal existence) and Shoulder Arms is where the notion that ‘even in the middle of a great tragedy the human heart will beat’ is most visibly manifest – Sunnyside is where Chaplin’s skill at spiritual resurrection after complete personal erasure comes through most solidly. The mysterious penultimate scene of the film, where Chaplin crouches in front of an oncoming vehicle (even in the 20s, vehicles were already considered apt for the carrying out of a suicide) and braces himself for certain death – as you expect a sudden gag, the film quick-dissolves into a scene where Chaplin’s character is reunited with his love, and together, both of them bid goodbye to the urbane-love-rival. This could be the dying character’s fantasy (he has a similar fantasy in the middle of the film) or merely a technical snag that caused the erasure of the gag that follows the action of crouching-down in front of the car – whatever it is, in both cases, it is resurrection.

Sunnyside is also excellent for another reason – Chaplin made silent films, which apart from an occasional whimsical contribution from the overlaid soundtrack, did not feature any diegetic or ambient noises. As such, most of his gags are based on visual hysterics – things you can see. Therefore, the broader, funnier strokes in a Chaplin film are often the most easily appreciable only through looking at them (this is a quality that is inherent in the Indian Chaplin-homage, Pushpak, where most of the thrill is through entirely ‘visible’ gestures: an illusionist, a knife made of ice and such). But the narrower ones, the unobvious routine-actions aren’t necessarily dependent only on the audience’s sight, but also in their ability to imagine a sound. When Chaplin’s employer in the film walks in from the other room (this geography or understanding of the spatial arrangement of the space is crucial to the comedy of Chaplin, even more to that of the Marx Brothers) one early morning to wake Chaplin up to get him to work, Chaplin responds by sitting up almost immediately. Satisfied, the employer walks back to his own room – the sly Chaplin, assured that his master can only hear him from across the wall and not see him, plays a feign-game that entirely involves sounds: he rattles his shoes on the floor, causes an object by his bedside to clink and creates other sounds so as to suggest a departure to the listening employer in the other room. In that, Chaplin’s silent film is full of sound and noise.