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.