Saturday, September 28, 2013

Suffering of the Devoted

In a remarkable scene typical of Bauer's filmography, as Lily recovers from her operation and slowly opens her eyes to discover that she has gained sight, she sees Gregoriy in front of her and mistakes him for Vadim, the doctor who actually operated upon her and is in sincere love with her. Seeped in gratitude and happiness, she gives her heart away to Gregoriy, while poor Vadim lingers in the background, distraught at this peculiar undoing of his love. Characters apart from Lily all choose to preserve this error in recognition - Lily's only recently recovered from an operation and the mental trauma of a correction may send her into relapse. This sounds convenient, but Bauer is convinced of a universe where the devoted with suffer - this is visible in almost all his major films; his is a poetry of a world not fair or just in anyway, but open instead to the arbitrariness that is a yield of an irony-filled circumstance and often inexplicable forces of human impulse and feeling. The scene in question is a perfect example of Bauer's cinema - a microcosm, if you will - because it is full of two particularities. The first, the utter irony of the situation, wherein a man helps a woman regain physical, sensory sight which results, instead, in blinding her to his love. The second of course is inherent in Bauer's direction of scenes. Major moments or twists-of-fate in Baueur are not as much a result of events transpiring or similar apocalypses, but of the unpredictability of human movement: a posture, a brief strut across the room, a minor shuffling of position or a wrongly placed limb. 

In the scene, as soon as the operation is complete and Lily slowly begins to open her eyes, Vadim quickly moves from besides her to his apparatus in the background of the frame to fetch a comforting lotion for her; Gregoriy on the other hand moves quickly towards Lily to comfort her, replacing Vadim in his original position so to say. This movement across the floor where Vadim (literally) recedes into the background and Gregoriy is summoned to the fore leads to the central misunderstanding of the film: Lily opens her eyes, sees Gregoriy and falls in love with him. But the eccentric dance does not stop here. Vadim, grief-stricken and a loser in love, slowly saunters to the side of Lily, takes her hand and kisses it in resignation. Lily, so much in love now, is completely oblivious to the tragedy that her newly acquired sight has woven. Gregoriy, equally saddened by his inadvertent usurping of his brother's position, recedes back into the background, where he stares into a void that exists behind the frame, with his back towards us. Lily's mother, sympathetic to Vadim's situation but helpless nonetheless, attempts to comfort him but failing, turns to leave the scene, perhaps unable to bear the misfortune that resides within it. It is at this point that Bauer causes his actors to arrange themselves in what is a truly remarkable pose: Lily, seated on the sofa and in love, is exulting with happiness; her mother is exiting the frame from the right - slitting the frame right in the middle are the two brothers, placed in a two-dimensional frame to appear as if they are the same creature, mirror-images of each other, tentacles of the same organism. Their heads are bowed down in grief but it is Vadim whose face is visible to us; the insinuation is clear: it is he whose suffering will be evident to us and it is he whose physical being will become easily replaceable by that of his brother - the blocking within a frame presenting a clear account of Lily's confusion.

The Happiness of Eternal Night (1915) / Yevgeni Bauer

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Three Dead Bodies

Often in Robert Altman's films, characters who die submerge into a neighbouring water body: it's as if they dissolve into liquid and lose their material nature, significance.

McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) / Robert Altman

The Long Goodbye (1974) / Robert Altman
The Player (1992) / Robert Altman

The Revival of the Dead

Obsession (1976) / Brian De Palma

One is not prone to discussing the class-consciousness prevalent in De Palma’s work; the excitement of his films seems to derive as much from the perverseness of his directorial design (particularly; in terms of the central plot, the mood of the piece and the various rhythms/double-rhythms), but also, from (what seems like an) inevitable, and yet, unforeseen engagement of societal classes. In Obsession, for instance, De Palma revises Hitchcock’s Vertigo by entirely severing the original story’s connection with dreams, magic or enigma at-large, and re-depositing it instead in a world of open manipulation, schemers and hustlers – where the reincarnation is no longer the result of one man’s obsessive fantasy, but of his business partner’s (unbelievably) elaborate plan to annex the protagonist’s mind, and through it, his money. In short, De Palma airlifts Vertigo from Hitchcock’s private architecture and places it, as such, in America. Two great achievements of Obsession: the first is De Palma’s recognition of the plausibility of the central plot itself; a man obsessed with a dead lover/wife spots another woman who looks just like her and aims, through his own set of eccentric and aloof habits, to reincarnate the deceased in the alive. While Hitchcock’s film’s working class detective can hardly, in a ‘real’ world afford to devote most of his life to the peculiar pursuit of this young girl who bears an uncanny resemblance with his lost love, De Palma corrects this technicality by rendering the same plot as a holiday film. The rich businessman goes to Italy for a business meeting and spots this replica (what’s more, she works as a restoration artist, how cute!) – tells his partner to trudge on along to America while he will stay on for a few more days. These ‘few more days’ being the point of De Palma’s larger awareness (which he posits in Blow Out as a complete theory); that only a multimillionaire on a holiday can savour the luxury (as opposed to the hope-agony of Scottie in Vertigo) of rediscovering, perhaps, a lost love. In finishing therefore, this triumvirate (with Laura, and of course, Vertigo), De Palma’s point is made, i.e., only three types of people can spend their lives obsessed with the dead: detectives, rich men on a holiday and of course, at a larger level, cinephiles.

Obsession’s larger achievement is in the final shot of the film, when De Palma paints the final stroke over his Vertigo restoration – he dispenses with the wonder inherent in the circular tracking shot that captures the resurrection/reunion in Vertigo and replaces it instead with the bottom-line reality of such a complex affair: when the man and the woman enter the world-ending embrace in Obsession, she overdramatically and in a high-pitched voice, squeals: ‘Daddy! Oh daddy!’ And this is really how De Palma summarises for us the whole Hitchcock film; as some sort of a modern variation of the old Frankenstein-legend, wherein the reproduced girl is no longer a myth, and she does not see the fanatic whose obsessiveness makes her existence possible as her lover, but as her father, her progenitor and her creator ( of course, this is a terribly sentimental moment; imagine the Monster calling Frankenstein his father, but also a bit of a joke on ol’ Jimmy’s age in Vertigo) . Two other significant facts about this scene; it is set in the symbol of concrete, real and practical contemporary existence, the airport, and is thereby relocated from the dreamy, neon-lit hotel room of the Hitchcock film, and lastly, this scene ends the film (unlike Vertigo, where Scottie must suffer till he can exterminate this agent of recurrence herself). This is because the larger irony of the project – the story of a man restoring an object from the past being filmed by a man restoring an object from the past – is not lost on De Palma, and therefore, just like Scottie, he must end eternal recurrence with his own piece. How? By ensuring that the reunion scene is the final scene of his story, so that by the time the end credits begin to roll, the ghosts of an unhappy past are entirely exorcised.

Saturday, June 1, 2013


From an interview with Eye Magazine, an excerpt:

Three Times (2005) / Hou Hsiao-Hsien

R. Roger Remington:
How do you define quality?

Massimo Vignelli: Quality, like Modernism, is an attitude, which means that one does not go below a certain standard. Quality is a way of living, a life attitude and a constant fight to eliminate any hint of vulgarity from one’s mind. This is a constant job of enormous proportions because the bombardment that we continuously have, the amount of seduction that we receive from life, makes this fight against crudeness a very heavy job. It’s like the devil. I suppose the priest would call [vulgarity] the devil, and call quality the state of holiness.
Quality is when you know that you have reached a high level in your work, when it really sings, when it touches you, when it responds. Quality is a level of intellectual elegance that is unmatched in other forms. When you see that there is no more vulgarity in it, you’ve got the sense of quality. So quality is something that you can achieve by continuously refining your mind through exposure to things which are the best manifestation of people that came before you, or are around you. This is what you obtain by nourishing yourself away from anything which has vulgarity in it. Quality is when you solve all of the problems that you have to solve in a way that is beyond the expected. So it is the sum of many things, and the answer to many searches. Quality is a by-product of passion, curiosity, intensity and professionalism.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Artist Manifesto #1: Jean Renoir

In order to consider film seriously, one would have to first accept the precept that film directors are artists (or at the very least, believers in the possibilities of art) - once established, it is easier to locate, as in the work of all artists, an idea resident in their marrow. Often times, exclusively.

La Chienne (1931) / Jean Renoir

Sunday, May 5, 2013

A Dominatrix and Her Client

Detour (1945) / Edgar G. Ulmer

Both of Ulmer’s two well-known films feature a detour that is of enormous consequence within the events of the narrative – in essence, both Black Cat and Detour exist as ‘what if’ situations, i.e., the fundamental truth of their being coerces the audience to posit an alternative narrative permutation as hypothesis. But there is a catch: in Black Cat, the accident of the vehicle at night that forces the tourists to stray from their original path and deposit themselves as guests at the house of Hjalmar Poelzig is merely a geographical diversion; naive young American lovers unwittingly drift off into unknown, sinister alien territory. The film is bathed in similar tourist-paranoia; the Eastern-Europeans are creeps, played by actors who most famously embody (in other films) two of the most notorious pop-culture villains and their accents are their chainsaws. Even so, it isn’t as moralising as the backpacker-horror films of American 70s or those of the Australian 00s – it is still sympathetic towards its protagonists and doesn't punish them for straying off the normal or the tread path (horror for all its transgressions is a conservative genre; comedy for all its assurances, a radical one). 

It is the other film which exists as a great moral thesis - an unreliable narrator and a loser pianist Al Roberts intimates to us the details of his journey from New York to Hollywood to marry his dull girlfriend, aspiring actress Sue. On the way, he says, everything that can go wrong, does. A man gives him a lift and later, dies in the car itself. He decides to take off with the car, having assumed the identity of the dead man and with the intention of disposing off the car once he makes it to Hollywood, but on the way, he meets Vera, a woman who happens to see through his masquerade and threatens to blow his cover unless he becomes her accomplice in crime. Later in their hotel room, he causes the murder of Vera too - by accident, he insists. Ofcourse, you could take a lot of this on face-value as a viewer and believe Roberts’ version, but if one were to put it under scrutiny, it reveals very willing participation in all the scandal that he comes across. Firstly, with his passenger dead, it doesn’t even occur to him to perhaps locate a hospital; instead, he disposes his body off like a real pro and takes off merrily with the money and the car. Then, he offers a pick Vera up at the petrol station (why, you charmer!) – even later, when he discovers the black heart that beats inside the woman, he decides to go along for the ride, like a willing accomplice, never using force or coercion or blackmail or simple wits to get out of the situation. Instead, he submits to her – theirs is a keen psycho-sexual relationship, that of a dominatrix indulging her client; after all, both of them are role-playing too. In that, he only pretends to be a victim of fate (‘no matter which way you run, fate will find a way to trip you’, goes one of his thousand laments, he is a pretty whiny jerk) but actually, he brings it upon himself.

The operative question here, therefore, could be as to what the titular 'detour' indicates. It is certainly not a geographical one, considering he moves rather steadily and singularly towards Hollywood. It is also not a detour from his original plans, because he adapts them as he goes along - he is in it for the ride, an extended bachelor party before he becomes a routine American. Thus, it is a detour from conventional morality – a diversion from traditional notions of faithfulness and loyalty, of a rejection of avarice and care for the fellow man – Al Roberts is a cheater, a deserter and a conman, even if he’d rather pretend otherwise. The period of the film’s production also ensures that he is punished for this detour – if it were the 70s, Al and Vera would have escaped with the money to Mexico. 

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Two-Faced Jerks

Underworld U.S.A (1961) / Samuel Fuller

There is a sequence of immense cruelty in Fuller’s film – a dying man who has murdered the protagonist’s father asks him for forgiveness, ‘I gotta die with a clean slate’, he tells him and clutches onto the younger, more alive man’s coat-lapel as a plea. In return, the protagonist, who has gotten himself implicated (and therefore, in prison) repeatedly over the years only to preserve proximity with the dying man (since he’s been serving a life-term), asks for the names of the other three men involved in the murder. He presses onto the older man to the point of blackmail, repeatedly reminding him of possible post-death retribution in case he does not give his partners up. With the terms of the barter agreeable to both parties involved, the old man proceeds to rat. He then demands of the other man to keep his side of the bargain, at which point, the younger man takes the dying man’s hand and severs it from his coat-lapel, letting him die with blood on his hands. He does the dishonourable act by lying to a man on his deathbed – but the thing with Fuller is, there isn’t much honour at any rate, there is no glory or pride too; there is only dignity and individuals trying to salvage whatever little of it they can. The protagonist’s been the liar in this scene, the two-faced jerk, but who’s to say about the old man prepared to divulge the identities of his partners for an entirely selfish purpose – only because he’s dying and well, death means there aren’t any stakes involved anymore. Fuller will confuse the issue even more; the old man’s desire for forgiveness is entirely hokey – he is, after all, the man who murdered a father in front of his child and ended his possibilities for a normal adulthood. In that, Fuller is clear that the dying man’s more successful murdering partners – Gela, Gunther and Smith – who are honest (and even proud) of their criminal excursions are more admirable than this sniveling old man who believes an afterlife remission will save him. 

Wednesday, April 10, 2013


Projectorhead, the online film journal I also run, recently published its first yearly Almanac, which featured writers from around the world recollecting the previous year in cinema for them. Those interested can read it here.

Two Lovers (2012) / James Gray

I also contributed an essay on James Gray, called The Private World of Mr. Gray to Bangalore-based film magazine Deep Focus Cinema for their Mar-May 2013 issue. It's admirable that the magazine's out in print, because that is a blue moon in the skies of Indian cinephilia now. For those interested in the magazine or in subscriptions, you can learn more at the magazine's site.

An excerpt:

James Gray’s films are set inside a practical world.  A world whose rules aren’t dictated by a romantic commitment to the exalted yet equivocal notions of morality, loyalty, brotherhood, belonging or even love – this statement has larger implications than one may imagine; it is not enough for characters in a Gray film to carve their existences through broad strokes of subverting conventional gestures or patterns of behaviour, they must do more – subversion is, after all, an act that still depends on a relative existence– the subversive first requires an object to apply his radical impulse to. The men and women in Gray’s films, instead, exist in some of a movie-vacuum, they do not resemble or seem like people in other movies – they seem plucked out of Gray’s experiences, people he has met, some he has dated, a few he hates, others that he loves and one that he sees in the mirror. The choices they make or the decisions they take, which so often propel Gray’s unusual, even peculiar narratives forward, aren’t influenced by commitments to higher principles or grand (but hokey) moral devices, but by the strange and overwhelming force of the human impulse – as a result, these characters can come across as unreasonable, downright stupid, imperfect idiots and yet, at the risk of a cliché, more human. Perhaps that is why epithets that are most commonly attached to Gray’s films are ‘classical’, ‘old-fashioned’, ‘vintage’ and such - apart from the fact that the aesthetic construction of his films is undoubtedly influenced by fundamental principles of old-timey filmmaking (camera on tripod, economy of shots, meticulous cutting, narratives driven by repartees, soundtracks that swell up, sodium-vapour lighting), there is also the truth that audiences will deem as being ‘classical’ any behaviour in a film that they can relate to. Why? Because beyond its conventional definition (classical: anything that can be classified), the word is also meant to evoke the feeling of an object that existed back in the past, in our past, essentially, anything that we can identify by the virtue of already having seen it. But this is a confusion: Gray’s characters are not relatable (and therefore, ‘classical’) because they existed in the past or, as is sometimes alleged, belong to ‘a 30s MGM film’, but because in them, audiences in front of a movie-screen can see reflections of themselves: people on a Gray screen are people like they are, down to the marrow – they do not exist as gross exaggerations or underplayed variations – they are direct renders. 

Friday, February 22, 2013

In Hindsight - III

Navajo Joe (1966) / Sergio Corbucci

The precept of the 'In Hindsight' series can be read here.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Story of an Awkward Friendship

This is the full transcript of a piece I did for Kolkata-based magazine Good News Tab on literary-to-cinema adaptations; with a special focus on the Academy Awards and big-scorer, Ang Lee's Life of Pi.

The most recent film by Ang Lee, Life of Pi, is the film of a believer. Adapted from an early 00s book (a literary sensation, a prize-winner) of the same name by Yann Martel, it’s the sort of film which was, for the last ten years or so, as close to getting made as it was to not – several directors were attached to the project, several writers were hired to do drafts, several actors were cast (and even as much as shot their scenes), but much like the journey of the protagonist in the book/film itself, the project didn’t seem any closer to a finish. One could locate interesting parallels between the legendary journeys (journey; that great narrative trope which allows for physical as well as spiritual dislocation) undertaken by the book/film’s hero, Pi-the-sailorman and studio executive Elizabeth Gabler, who through this decade of uncertainty, kept hopes of an eventual adaptation alive. One could extend this analogy further and claim that the production of a film, any film is as much a question of faith as it is of a reason, as much a question of belief as it of pragmatism – like the journey of Pi, the effort involved in finishing a film is a theological epic in itself. And in this case, there are gold coins at the end of both the rainbows: Pi discovers God, Gabler’s film has eleven Oscar nominations.

But then again, Life of Pi is the sort of film the Academy likes.  The eighty-five year old institution likes what most eighty-five year olds like: pleasant, comforting grand tales that reassure them of a world full of optimism, generosity of spirit and eventually, light-at-the-end-of-all-tunnels. It is a world where bleak caste and race-related issues disappear entirely or atleast, by the time the film ends, resolve their personal issues amicably. The Academy also doesn’t like films that provide showboating opportunities for a single guy – a film shouldn’t be imbued with the personality of a single star-director, so too much auteurism and what-not is a big no; instead, the institution prefers films which provide a fertile ground for the visible convocation of diverse talent. The film, in order to score big at the Oscars, must feature evidently great cinematography, dialogue that is replete with scene-ending one-liners and majestic monologues, gut-wrenching performances and a story that traverses generations, if not eras. The Academy likes it if it can feel that a lot of people have worked on the film together – the winner of the Best Film at the end should seem like a summation of the night’s ceremony, of all the awarded categories put into a mix that then yields this one single film. Consider this, in the recent past (sample size: last 20 years) films that have won the Best Film trophy include: Slumdog Millionaire (2008), Million Dollar Baby (2004), The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), A Beautiful Mind (2001), The English Patient (1996), Forrest Gump (1994), Schindler’s List (1993), The Silence of the Lambs (1991).

All of these films essentially function on the same performative scale or exist, as it is, on an altogether consistent plane; they feature an overarching evolving narrative, an intriguing premise, a lead protagonist who must undertake an arduous journey (and in the process of reaching his destination, indulge in self-discovery) and a grand hokey statement at the end. Apart from these macro-level systems, most of them also share micro-level similarities: large ensemble casts populated by a just proportion of known and unknown faces, a socio-political debate (gender politics, disability, euthanasia, disease, poverty; all covered) and a story that is narrated through a very literary framing device: the flashback (one guy’s the ancient mariner, the second the poet) . Now, the reason a film like Life of Pi may very well make it at the Academy is because it does not in any way subvert this trend, if anything, it extends it. But that’s fine, not every film or work of art should be a gesture in subversion, to be able to expand a tradition or consummate its promise is in and by itself, a noble aim. And Life of Pi achieves this – it is nothing new and yet, in whatever it does that is old, it is very good. What may also work in the favour of Pi is that, just like all the titles in the long-list above, it is the adaptation of a literary work into the cinema.

Literature and cinema share a peculiar; part-paradoxical, part-synchronous, part-filial relationship, the first being an ancient artform, unalterable and permanent, ink impressed firmly onto the page, that is thought to have reached the end of a period in the first quarter of the 20th century – this is around the same time when cinema would begin to take its first steps as a medium capable of specificity (that is, a unique existence, torn from its aesthetic predecessors in painting, photography and literature, free of loans or debts). A number of commentators around the same time would begin pondering over this matter and contemplate the question of cinema’s existence as a medium capable of its own grammar, its own idioms and through these, its own expression. In her 1925 essay on the cinema entitled, quite simply, The Cinema, author Virginia Woolf observed,For instance, at a performance of Dr. Caligari (author’s note: a 1919 classic of the cinema) the other day a shadow shaped like a tadpole suddenly appeared at one corner of the screen. It swelled to an immense size, quivered, bulged, and sank back again into nonentity. For a moment it seemed to embody some monstrous diseased imagination of the lunatic's brain. For a moment it seemed as if thought could be conveyed by shape more effectively than by words. The monstrous quivering tadpole seemed to be fear itself, and not the statement 'I am afraid'.’

One may say that this is a rather simplistic resolution of the crisis, of the constant tug-of-war between the two media – and yet, for the year of its publication, it is rather remarkable. It is also not entirely false to claim that if anything, film has still not severed entirely its ties with literature – that images all over the world are still employed merely to illustrate text and to only be vehicles of meaning that are propelled, still, by words themselves. Insofar as one may think that cinema’s great ambition should be to tell its stories through only the visible – through visuals, pictures, photos, stills, slideshows, frames, illustrations – and in the case of Life of Pi, through computer-generated imagery, the film exists as an interesting prototype of the crucial differences between the two human forms of art. It frames its story familiarly – one dude with a writer’s block goes to another mysterious guy (Irrfan Khan, grappling in equal measures with an unimportant role and with English) and asks him to tell him this great story that he has heard somewhere he can tell – the second guy launches into an epic flashback which forms the central narrative of the film.

This, as one may recall, is very similar to another film made by a foreign big-name director in India that scored huge at the Oscars; 2008’s Slumdog Millionaire. In that film, our lead protagonist appears on a quiz-show and answers each question with extreme dexterity – but this is only a structural-ruse. Actually, each question’s like a portal into his past. We know as an audience that this guy’s only a tea-seller (with impeccable English), so how does he know all these answers? The film volunteers that each question he is asked relates somehow to an incident from his past life, the experience of which he summons to respond to the question. The film is told, therefore, almost entirely in a series of flashbacks and a series of very freaky co-incidences. It is also a great picaresque story, an ode to street-smartness and the virtue of experience – if anyone ever needs to make a case for the street-smart hustlers over the bookworms, this film’s on their team. More crucially to our present discussion, this film too, like Life of Pi, is based on a book: author Vikas Swaroop’s best-seller, Q & A. But there are other similarities in these two Irrfan Khan starrers: in both the films, the sequences which feature wordy tracts, conversations, dialogue exchanges, voiceovers or narrations weigh heavily onto the film. They are heavy-handed, badly played (in no less reason because of the discomfort of most Indian actors with English) and staged unimaginatively. On the other hand, scenes that contain portions of visual splendor and screensaver-beauty (or oddness) are handled with much caution, crafted meticulously and presented with much fervor. This is especially the case with Life of Pi, where the narrative travels back and forth between scenes of the teenager-Pie, shipwrecked in middle of the vast illuminated ocean, stranded on a boat with a CGI tiger and middle-aged Pie, sitting in an average American-living room, living out his life as an average dad of two, husband of one. 

One may argue that this contrast is pertinent to the whole idea of the film – that in order to reach a position of eminent and comfortable, almost dull stability in life, this character has to first undergo an arduous journey – but that belies the great proven truth about cinema – great directors can make sequences of ordinariness look spectacular. It’s interesting that when he started out in Taiwan, these chamber-drama types set inside modern tract houses was director Ang Lee’s specialty as well; this is before he moved on to awesome, outwardly spectacular films that eventually made him famous (starting with, perhaps, 2000’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). By the time he directs Life of Pi, Lee now spends his skill as a visual stylist entirely on sequences set in the outdoors, in the great open sea – this, he achieves through clever variations in aspect ratios (like a guitarist alternating between effects/ sounds/amplifications, Lee alternates between square and rectangular formats), colour temperatures of his images (the sea is sometimes a honey-coloured warm glow, sometimes a turquoise), emphatic special-effects (the sequence of the shipwreck is overwhelming) and of course, very effective CGI. Claudio Miranda, the DoP on his film is plucked straight from another film with masterful image-manipulation and CGI, another literary adaptation: 2008’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button – incidentally, that film featured major sequences with  its protagonist stuck in the middle of a sea-typhoon – this, perhaps, may have led to Miranda’s hiring. Pi is anticipated to sweep most of the technical awards at the Oscars and for good reason too.

The film is supposed to be a very faithful adaptation of the Martel’s book – one may assume therefore that the book describes textually all these sequences of nature’s fury and simultaneously, its immense enigma and beauty. In that, Martel’s writing is entirely of the sort that Henry James demanded in the early 20th century from authors when he said that contemporary literature must grow to more visual or atleast, visually imaginable. This is an interesting proposition, for if an author’s work is merely to describe a scene in detail so lucid that it can be visualised by his reader – is the job of the cinema director who then adapts this writing not akin to a police sketch-artist, who translates a vague verbal description by the witness into a visible, material, printable, copy-able form on the page? Is it not his task to expand on this ambition and not undercut the abilities of his own medium, to locate the spirit of a written passage and not its literal meaning and then to film that? One wonders, regardless, of how Martel’s book may have described the sequence of the storm that wrecks the ship or the carnivorous self-devouring island near the end – whether his words could convey the sense of immediate sorrow that permeates the first sequence and danger that permeates the second.  Maybe that in fact is the crucial feature of a filmed sequence: its immediacy, its ability to pass one by and already be past in the time that a reader may take to even begin composing an imagination from the words he reads on the page.

One could, however, also think of Lee’s film and its faithfulness to the words of Martel as being one type of adaptation - the sort where a well-known book is cautiously chosen by a studio executive (in the case of Pi, Gabler), optioned by the studio-heads, nurtured and tended for years at end by the property-owner because it can see potential – usually of the sort where the project will inevitably attract major industry-talent and trade-hype. This is to say that the moment it gets greenlit, a well-armed crew of scrawny, grown-up men will be dispatched to some corner of the world to translate a few passages from the book into sequences of vulgar scale and massive proportions – the sort that are ‘awe-inspiring, breathtaking and eye-popping’. And history is proof that a studio will blow up money if it can sense an eventual extravaganza – like bringing up a child only so that it can become the best pinch-hitter ever known. And then there is the second sort of adaptation, one where a personality-director himself first chances upon and then chooses a book he must adapt. This is usually because the director can sense more than merely an opportunity to leech on or extort from existing work – instead, he or she may think of the book as fertile ground; as material that facilitates a setting, a set of conditions, thematic or ideological concerns and peculiar individuals that populate its pages – this will permit him to use the book as some sort of a springboard for his own ideas. The book can then provide the empty vessel which the filmmaker can fill with entirely cinematic qualities: rhythm, mood, gestures, atmosphere, manners, quaint mood and such.

In a description of David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis while declaring it as the best film of this year, critic Srikanth Srinivasan began with, ‘'Surely, it takes a bona fide auteur like David Cronenberg to locate his signature concerns in a text – such as Don Delillo’s – that deals with ideas hitherto unexplored by him and spin out the most exciting piece of cinema this year.' I requested him over email to perhaps elaborate on this; he replied, ‘Cronenberg's cinema hasn't directly dealt with the crises of modern capitalism, which seems to be the chief concern of Delillo’s novel…[but] it is rattling to see what Cronenberg does here: he locates a body horror narrative within a story about the absolute abstraction of capital.’ Needless to say, this is very interesting – the fact that one artist’s work facilitates the other’s or at the very least, makes it possible – it isn’t entirely a collaboration (or a collaboration at all) but it is still a relationship of simulated synthesis – the adaptation extends the original work, confirming that any harmonious adaptation is, atleast in one way, a living proof of the ductility of the original work itself.  Satyajit Ray, a prolific literature-cinema translator throughout his own career (the Apu trilogy, Jana Aranya, Devi, Teen Kanya, Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne among others) wrote in his essay, ‘Notes on Filming Bibhuti Bhushan’, ‘…One can be entirely true to the spirit of Bibhuti Bhushan, retain a large measure of his […] … lyricism and humanism combined with a casual narrative structure – and yet produce a legitimate work of cinema.’

However, there are other instances in the history of cinema too where the whole adaptation business can come across as some sort of a turf-war, with the author of the book desperately attempting to reclaim his own work from the wrenches of a star-director who is running away with it. This usually happens when an uptight author refuses to free his work from the bondage of a single meaning, the one he intended – it is when the author feels that its adaptation will interfere, or worse, tamper with the agenda of the original text that he takes up arms. Apart from the obvious fun-times inherent in seeing two grown up dudes trying to prove who the bigger artist is (these are always fun), this sort of dissent also points at the infrequent inability of the two media to reconcile – to reach some sort of a peaceful treaty.

During the shooting of The Shining, pop-culturist author Stephen King would often receive calls at two in the night from the film’s legendary director, Stanley Kubrick. He would pick up the phone, half-asleep and groggy: ‘Hello?’; from the other side, Kubrick would ask, ‘Hi Stephen, do you believe in God?’ The eventual no-love-lost relationship that Stephen and Stanley shared could be attributed to these creepy post-midnight interferences, but King’s problems with Kubrick’s film were greater. He said upon viewing the film, ‘I was deeply disappointed in the end result…Not that religion has to be involved in horror, but a visceral skeptic such as Kubrick just couldn't grasp the sheer inhuman evil of The Overlook Hotel. So he looked, instead, for evil in the characters and made the film into a domestic tragedy with only vaguely supernatural overtones…it's a film by a man who thinks too much and feels too little…’  The last bit isn’t really a very original complaint when it comes to Kubrick; regardless, it is of great interest that at the same time, King expressed a desire to film the novel himself. He did, eventually. His version, released as a mini-series in 1997 was widely panned and cited as an example of a giant in one medium taking a bite larger than he could chew. In his failure, he seemed to have vindicated Kubrick’s understanding of how his own novel should be filmed – one must do only what one is good at. There have been other cases too, such as when Alfred Hitchcock quite famously declared that the book that resulted in Psycho wasn’t ‘all that good to begin with’ or when Forrest Gump author Winston Groom, hugely dissatisfied with the (enormously successful) Hollywood adaptation of his 1986 novel began the sequel with a grudgy Gump telling the readers, ‘Don’t never let nobody make a movie out of your life’s story…’ Anyways, these are all fun-and games. At any rate, ego-fights aren’t a new thing at all, with ego being the main propeller of the history of the modern world, so it isn’t unnatural for creators and later, propagators of an idea to develop cold feet, get insecure and fight it out as real men do: over press conferences.

One would imagine that in this era of post-art, the world–at-large is looking for newer ways in which to amuse itself, keep itself stimulated and to keep the gears of civilization oiled. Technology has turned a new era where the question isn’t about possibility as much as it is about conviction – everything is possible, as long as someone believes in it. These are therefore fertile conditions for a newer form to emerge, an idea that belongs to the new world, a medium that condenses contemporary anxieties, insecurities and agitations better than any other – perhaps in this evolution, we may finally see a real, complete synthesis of the cinema and the literature, two awkward friends who sometimes agree to make public appearances together – if only for the benefit of their patient audiences.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Cascades and Fountains

'Yet if so much of our thinking and feeling is connected with seeing, some residue of visual emotion which is of no use either to painter or to poet may still await the cinema. That such symbols will be quite unlike the real objects which we see before us seems highly probable. Something abstract, something which moves with controlled and conscious art, something which calls for the very slightest help from words or music to make itself intelligible, yet justly uses them subserviently—of such movements and abstractions the films may in time to come be composed. Then indeed when some new symbol for expressing thought is found, the film-maker has enormous riches at his command. The exactitude of reality and its surprising power of suggestion are to be had for the asking. Annas and Vronskys—there they are in the flesh. If into this reality he could breathe emotion, could animate the perfect form with thought, then his booty could be hauled in hand over hand. Then, as smoke pours from Vesuvius, we should be able to see thought in its wildness, in its beauty, in its oddity, pouring from men with their elbows on a table; from women with their little handbags slipping to the floor. We should see these emotions mingling together and affecting each other. We should see violent changes of emotion produced by their collision. The most fantastic contrasts could be flashed before us with a speed which the writer can only toil after in vain; the dream architecture of arches and battlements, of cascades falling and fountains rising, which sometimes visits us in sleep or shapes itself in half-darkened rooms, could be realized before our waking eyes.' 

 - The Cinema, Virginia Woolf

Thursday, January 17, 2013


Projectorhead Film Magazine, an online journal I publish, and which is edited by friend/colleague Sudarshan Ramani and whose pages are filled by a number of writers I respect very much, has just issued its eighth edition. The index for Projectorhead: Eight reads something like this:

  • All Things Come to He Who Waits - Sudarshan Ramani (Editorial)
  • An Era of Soft Economics – Gautam Valluri
  • The Wandering Company – Hamanpreet Kaur
  • The Sinister Chandelier – Anuj Malhotra
  • Wes Anderson's Kingdom - Sudarshan Ramani
  • The Real RockNRolla – Satish Naidu
  • The Magical Cabinet of Suarteh Yrboq – Rahee Punyashloka

2012 MAMI – 14th Annual Film Festival
  • Top of the Heap : A Look Back at the 14th Annual Mumbai Film Festival
  • Interview with Ian Birnie - Sudarshan Ramani
  • Film Restoration in Indian and Global Contexts

  • Lost in Translation: Trials and Tribulations of the Academy Award’s Best Foreign Film CategorySoham Gadre
  • Book Review – Zona / Anamaria Dobinciuc 
  • General Review: Independent Titles, Special Screenings and Film Festivals, Screen Diary by  Rahee Punyashloka, Theatrical Releases

Saturday, January 12, 2013


Insofar as one may understand cinema to be a pictorial form of communication; i.e., a medium with a number of two-dimensional surfaces, planes, areas sliding upon one another, like locomotive compartments, in a single-minded pursuit of a destination (in the case of the locomotive: a physical location, in the case of cinema's slides or frames: an abstract notion), it isn't difficult to appreciate why this pursuit is conducted both in space and time (as all pursuits must be). The fact, therefore, of a single film moving with time or within time is integral to the fulfillment of a number of ideas in film: the notion of a narrative itself is built on the central conceit of a present, its past, its immediate future, and the accompanying changes in the universe of the film within these units of time - someone comes, someone goes, others appear out-of-nowhere, more disappear, the hinges of a door come loose, skin wrinkles, the parts of a machine rust, the song on a vinyl record is over and the third song from it now plays, birds halt chirping and the crickets appear - as such, cinema always functions in a set of recurring appearances-disappearances; that it is the one artform that can engage elements of photography (after all, a picture captures not merely someone's presence, but also the absence of the rest of the world not in it), as also, of time-keeping (the ticking of a clock is the ominous soundtrack to all the transformations in the world around us). Of course, the idea in itself may seem a bit complicated, but then great filmmakers consummate it through the simplest of touches; below, two stills from a dysfunctional family from Takashi Miike's debut film, Shinjuku Triad Society (1995) - the younger dissenting brother appears for a family prayer, and as the parents pray in the foreground (the prayer itself becomes the metaphor for time, a device for keeping time), he:

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

A Summary

With this post, I complete a century on this blog, and it is an excellent co-incidence (as opposed to a devious plan) that this one also gives me an opportunity to summarise my engagement with cinema this year. I watched close to 160 titles this year, which is not much, but a relatively large percentage of those were remarkable or atleast, had permanent merit in them. Below, therefore, are the best films I watched this year (not the ones released this year, but the ones I happened to chance upon), a few images that stuck and a lengthy wishes I have for our national cinema as it were, in  the coming years.


Touki Bouki (1973) / Djibril-Diop Mambety

Best Titles.

  1. Le Trou / Jacques Becker
  2. The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog / Alfred Hitchcock
  3. Gate of Flesh / Seijun Suzuki
  4. Les Vampires / Louis Feuillade
  5. Marnie / Alfred Hitchcock
  6. Antonio Gaudi / Hiroshi Teshigahara
  7. Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler / Fritz Lang
  8. Statues Also Die / Chris Marker, Alain Resnais
  9. Zabriskie Point / Michelangelo Antonioni
  10. Cold Harvest / Isaac Florentine
  11. À Nous la Liberté / Rene Clair
  12. Goodbye, Dragon Inn / Tsai-Ming Liang
  13. Crazy Thunder Road / Sogo Ishii
  14. Monsieur Verdoux  / Charlie Chaplin
  15. Sunnyside / Charlie Chaplin
  16. Attack! / Robert Aldrich
  17. Muriel or The Time of Return / Alain Resnais
  18. Blast of Silence / Allen Barron
  19. The We and the I / Michel Gondry
  20. Touki Bouki / Djibril-Diop Mambety
  21. Eyes Without a Face / Georges Franju
  22. This is Not a Film / Jafar Panahi
  23. Hugo / Martin Scorsese
  24. Shock Corridor / Samuel Fuller
  25. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy / Tomas Alfredson

Notable, Too.

  Pauvre Pierrot / Emile Reynaud
 The Beiderbecke Affair / David Reynolds, Frank W. Smith
 The Dreyfus Affair / Georges Melies 
 The Yakuza / Sydney Pollack


Wishlist 2013

This isn't meant to be a manifesto or a call-to-arms, merely the expression of a series of very personal wishes for Indian cinema as it only now begins to enter the 21st Century. While a few titles did gather international appreciation this year, I believe a more permanent change will happen only when we have a setup in place that:

a) facilitates independent film distribution/production/exhibition; this will include funding agencies dedicated exclusively to fund ideas of independent film producers - and they can be both offline and online. These may include funding websites such as Kickstarter or Indiegogo, but more essentially, agencies like the NFDC of yore, development labs and grants that are dedicated to the cause of alternative filmmaking. A serious movement has been made in this direction in recent times by the revived NFDC (which was under a serious threat of being closed in 2009) but much more needs to be done – funding agencies will have to cast their net wider, so that the representation at international festivals is multilingual as well as multi-ethnic, which really is one of the unique features of our cinema. In this regard, the support given to Haobam Paban Kumar, who made an important political film in AFSPA 1958 is an interesting case-study. To extend this, this will also entail a support-system, in terms of funding, exhibition and distribution of documentary filmmaking in the country, which is where some of the most interesting work is being conducted right now. Filmmakers such as Rajesh Jala, Amlan Dutta (and his brother), Faiza Ahmed Khan, Haobam Paban Kumar and of course, Anand Patwardhan can only gain from consistent support. In this case, an agency like PSBT or Doordarshan may also like to revise its methods of granting funds only to established filmmakers and not to younger, lesser known faces who may have important areas to direct their cameras at but not biological age to represent their prospective quality, and helps institute,

c) repertory theatres, independent art-house cinemas, revival houses that are dedicated to programming of contemporary/modern/classic world cinema retrospectives, screenings and rental stores (again, whether online or offline; and rental stores, not streaming sites) of obscure alternative titles that are made available in a legitimate and legal way - not a storehouse of piracy for even if I subscribe to it out of compulsion, their quality is always suspect and well, it is illegal so it is not a part of a regular framework. 

d) a set of societies for film critics such as the international FIPRESCI (t
he Indian chapter is represented currently by individuals who were excellent critics back in the day, but aren't active anymore) but the more local film society circles in cities such as Austin, Boston, New York, Los Angeles - thereby allowing criticism to exist as a fully-formed profession rather than a weekly response to the 'latest releases' - in that, specific grants/institutions should be allocated to aspiring film critics and the work of established serious writing on film should be routinely awarded. As such, there should also be a network of critics that organises frequent seminars, discussions, student exchange groups that these critics interact with, and a general filmmaker-critic interaction that is literally absent in the country (the new Baradwaj Rangan- Mani Ratnam interview book is an excellent starting point).

e) in the extension of above, print journals/magazines/platforms that are involved in the serious and sustained publication of serious writing on cinema. In this regard,  Cinemaya which was run for 21 years, Deep Focus which has recently been revived in Bangalore, or film journals such as Close-Up or Movement, which were active during the 1960s and the 70s could be important precedents.

f) an agency instituted and much more essentially, funded for the preservation of our cinematic legacy – in this regard, the work in the recent years of a government organ like NFAI has been commendable, but truth be told, I believe it was only under the able leadership of the late Mr. Vijay Jadhav, who died end 2010, that the NFAI could really fulfill the promise of its early days under Mr. P.K. Nair. As such, there is a need for more awareness, more involvement of the youth and needless to say, formal courses at film schools/institutes for people interested in film preservation (I know they have instituted a 6 weeks course but that is nothing, and means nothing). Currently, the NFAI has 11000 titles with it and Films Division (who still haven’t released a boxset of the films of S Sukhdev, SNS Sastry and Pramod Pati) have another 8000 films. 4000-5000 titles made in the country since the dawn of cinema are irreparably and permanently lost while around 17000 titles are in active circulation. But what’s more important is the urgent need to institute a culture of curiosity in regards to old titles – even if NFAI does have prints of silent films, it is not as if enough demand is being made to make them available to the viewing public. The screening of Throw of Dice (1928) at Trafalgar Square which was attended by 10000 individuals should be an important point of discussion – it means film-lovers in this country are curious about India’s silent film. In this regard, the work of historian B.D.Garga and critic Chidananda Dasgupta should be read and circulated widely. Important steps have been taken in the recent past with the issue of the DVD boxset of three of Phalke’s films (out of which, Krishnajanama (1919) is even available on Youtube) and also a number of screenings of Raja Harishchandra (1913) to mark the centenary of that film, but more needs to be done.  A government funded autonomous agency, perhaps NFAI itself, should now be funded to build its own underground vault of our cinema and should be given enough money to help us locate our films from world over and get those prints back home. 

g) which brings me to the point of the need of film education - film as a subject should be included in school curriculum, but even at the level of higher education, there should be an opportunity for the students to seriously consider cinema as a profession and not a passing hobby - this will happen only when there is a proper film school  that is cheap/affordable/government subsidised and creates professionals with individuals sensibilities and not individuals with professional sensibilities. In this case, looking at the Lodz Film School (which FTII was initially modelled on alongwith VGIK, Moscow), VGIK Moscow and of course, the best of 'em all, the Beijing Film Academy will help immensely. Also film schools and film education should be exempted from five-year plans - because these need a sustainable fifty-year plan to make any real change. 

h) they will need to reorganise and revitalise the FFSI (Federation of Film Societies in India) - nothing interesting is happening on the Film Society front in the country, except in the Western Region where individuals like Sudhir Nandgaonkar are instrumental in putting up interesting programmes in colleges/universities as well as organizing film appreciation workshops. The FFSI main headquarters in Delhi are housed in one room and the rules for registering a society are archaic. An impetus from the central government wherein a society is setup in every city (if not every school, ala FILMCLUB in UK) is much needed. The older film societies such as Chitralekha in Kerala, Suchitra in Bangalore, the now-defunct Katha Center for Film Studies in Mumbai and Cine-Central need to be given further impetus to refresh their objectives and spread out to other parts of the nation with their experience. In this regard, we also need more serious film festivals - the work of the Baburao Painter Society in the Kolhapur Intn't Film Festival (and on a side, the Pune Intn'l Film Festival), Jan Sanskriti Manch in Gorakhpur and Gurpal Singh/Swagata Sen in Puri is exemplary - more such festivals should be organised with a regular incentive of both income and social change. The International Film Festival of Goa should quickly be severed from the government and made autonomous with an ambitious film professional who should be selected after a series of selection rounds as the director of the festival. 


A Few Resonant Images