Four Poems

April 30, 2008 at 7:06 pm (Poetry, Sampurna Chattarji)

AGE  

(or when did she grow so old?)

 

Can you feel her bones under your fingers?

My arms hold a smaller bundle of flesh

than they did before.

Once, she held me bundled in her arms.

Now, she barely fills the space

between my body

and her embrace.

 

© Sampurna Chattarji

 

 

RIGOR MORTIFICATION

 

There is a corpse in the room.

We brought it here ourselves.

Mama said, isn’t it heavier than it ought.

We were too sad to pay attention.

They were all coming to see the body.

All of them.

Some from as far away as home.

No, we were too sad to listen.

And too busy making tea.

Such a rainy morning.

The sewers had burst.

The plank outside our door was wobbling.

Mausi couldn’t find the house.

Ravi found her, sari hitched above her knees.

 

If only we had a telephone.

Ramabai next door is making calls for us.

The rest are coming by instinct.

This death is no surprise.

My mother, killed by her self.

Being eaten up, the doctor said.

First the breast, then the liver.

Then the lung.

Her body ate her up alive.

And now she’s dead, under that sheet.

Come, fold it back.

Whoever’s here is here.

One last look before

 

The corpse in the room is a stranger.

Not my mother but a man.

Heavy, tall and thickly bearded.

I told you, Mama said, but.

It was dark, and they were rude.

Take your dead and don’t argue.

A quick flick of crisp notes.

 

That’s what they wanted to see.

In exchange, a quick look at the corpse.

Instead, empty hands and unshed tears.

The body, thrown like a sack.

We cry out loud.

 

Are strangers burning our dead?

 

© Sampurna Chattarji

 

EVIL EYE

 

What’s Evil Eye doing squinting on the glint of a smile like that why is Evil Eye jealous of the fellows looking at me I grew a mole on my cheek to tweak Evil Eye away but why does Evil Eye keep looking what does he see Does he see a dark blue mountain lashed with light a serpent growing scales at the base of my spine does he see a fang glittering with stones or does he see a pang of fear made flesh in the hollow of my bones Does he see the inside of my skin turning purple and gentle then furious and gold does he see fever and madness evil or sadness does he see tenderness turning old does he see skies in my eyes or lies in my thighs does he see a faint shadow on the side of a wall does he see me

 

at all?

 

© Sampurna Chattarji

 

OBJECT LESSON: FOUR

 

Sometimes it looked like a man in a kayak, sometimes like a petrel.

– Sedna myth

 

 

It is the moment

before the harpoon flies

In a second the bone white spike

will strike flesh wave weed

Black lacquered wood poised

around that act that one detachable

point of departure from its frozen

sleekness that desire for violence

and survival

The man’s face gives nothing away

Anorak and fist and boat

joined at the hip by the fluid craft

that made this fluid craft

interchangeable

Man and boat

waiting and flight

 

Unmoved the paddle rests

dreaming of other rivers

 

© Sampurna Chattarji

 

 

All poems reprinted here with the permission of the author, from Sight May Strike You Blind, Sampurna Chattarji, New Delhi, Sahitya Akademi, 2007. ISBN 81-260-2420-8. Pages 94. Price Rs. 50. Queries: sahityaakademisales@vsnl.net

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“The discovery of poets”

April 29, 2008 at 5:35 pm (Sampurna Chattarji, The Reading Room)

 

Reading Borges is like entering a spell.

 

When you emerge, you hesitate to express what you have seen, imagined, experienced. It isn’t the hesitation of befuddlement, but rather the slow dawning of mystery. Short, matter of fact, unadorned, often distanced, what is it about his stories that makes me feel I have dreamed them, and that I will forget them if I wake too soon, too abruptly?

 

Re-reading Borges in Kolkata a few weeks ago, I found this astonishing passage in a story I have long loved and (so I thought) remembered. But here was this passage, crystalline, presenting itself to me as if for the first time:

 

“another of the tribe’s customs is the discovery of poets. Six or seven words, generally enigmatic, may come to a man’s mind. He cannot contain himself and shouts them out, standing in the centre of a circle formed by the witch doctors and the common people, who are stretched out on the ground. If the poem does not stir them, nothing comes to pass but if the poet’s words strike them they all draw away from him, without a sound, under the command of a holy dread. Feeling then that the spirit has touched him, nobody, not even his own mother, will either speak to him, or cast a glance at him. Now he is a man no longer but a god, and anyone has licence to kill him. The poet, if he has his wits about him, seeks refuge in the sand-dunes of the North.”

         From Doctor Brodie’s Report, Jorge Luis Borges, first published 7th August, 1970

 

I copied it out on a scrap of paper the day I left Kolkata, as if I didn’t have Borges’ Collected Fictions at home in Bombay, which I could look up any time. That didn’t seem immediate enough. I had to have these words, inscribed, in hand, on a piece of paper that could fit into the small notebook I carry in my bag. No pages blank in the notebook, no time to buy a new one, hence a hastily torn scrap of paper. A talisman, torn from the context in which it first exercised its power over me, now true, and terrifying, only in another, entirely new context – mine, my life as a poet, my attempt to speak, and my often, utter, failure.

 

Six or seven words, generally enigmatic, may come to a man’s mind.

 

I care nothing for the fact that in the story, in that tribe, the poets are always men. What matters is the number of words, six or seven, their enigma, the mind that they enter, like a visitation. This is how poetry begins.

 

He cannot contain himself and shouts them out

 

The aural, the oral. He hears them and then he speaks them. Poetry as utterance. I have always believed this, but never has it been this explicit, this bound to an action, the speed and weight of a shout.

 

standing in the centre of a circle formed by the witch doctors and the common people, who are stretched out on the ground.

 

The poet is the centre. He has an audience that is unaware that it is about to become an audience. It is an audience that is unaware of the presence of the poet until the moment that he shouts. They are a group of people, enjoying, perhaps, their leisure. Their silence. Perhaps (though I know it is not true, not true in the context of the story from which it is taken) they are enjoying the weather, the stillness, the calm, the sunshine, the breeze. Perhaps it is grass that they are lying on. Perhaps some of them were dozing and were rudely woken by the shout.

 

If the poem does not stir them, nothing comes to pass

 

I could take umbrage to the words ‘the common people’. The witch doctors are special, the poets are special, the people are common. I could, if I wished not to pursue, and stay with, the revelation that has – and is to come. Not all poems stir. However loud the shout, however enigmatic the words, not all poems stir. And without that stirring, without the quickening, the restlessness in the listener, it is as if the poem had never been spoken.

 

but if the poet’s words strike them they all draw away from him, without a sound, under the command of a holy dread.

 

Like a blow, a fist, a whip, a bolt of lightning, an idea – the word strike. The power of poetry to move, not to tears, but to fear. Not just emotionally but bodily, physically, move. What is it about the poet’s words that sent them away, the witch doctors and the common people alike? What were those seven fearful words? What is this ‘holy dread’? The audience shudders and moves away. They do this not of their own volition, but under the pressing authority of something bigger than them. And that authority is the feeling the poet’s words inspire, the feeling of awe, of something sacred. They appreciate the poem, that it is something bigger, stronger, darker than them. Then they fear it. Even hate it.

 

Feeling then that the spirit has touched him

 

Are they afraid of contagion? If enigma were to replace the language of the everyday, what kind of disease would it be? What kind of spirit is this that touches a man to shout in the middle of a circle of reclining, stretching, lazing people? What is this about ‘touch’? Does the spirit have fingers that it may touch?

 

nobody, not even his own mother, will either speak to him, or cast a glance at him.

 

It is the contagion of the leper. Give the poet a bell that we may mark his coming. These unfortunates were caught unawares, and so they flee.

 

Now he is a man no longer but a god, and anyone has licence to kill him.

 

The discovery of the poets is their death knell. “And their last disease is hope.” Elevated above the witches, the commoners, the poets become outcasts, disfigured by the power of a shout that has moved and shocked and sent away.

 

The poet, if he has his wits about him, seeks refuge in the sand-dunes of the North.

 

Will he be killed, for staying? Will the horror of those enigmatic words be enough for an act of extreme violence? It has been known to happen. And if he flees, will he write? Will he inscribe, on sand, the words that no one will be there to hear, and so live on, and on, until he grows deaf and mute, from solitude? What will the silence of the sand-dunes be like – where is this fabled north where one may flee?

 

“Though with time he becomes reconciled to his deformities … his sub-conscious mind, which continues to bear the mark of injury, brings about certain changes in his whole personality, making him suspicious of society.”

                                                            – R. V. Wardekar in a pamphlet on leprosy

 

And so suspicion grows, like a beautiful poisonous weed. Narcissistic, the poet saves himself, his right to shout, his access to enigma, his mystery, his mistrust. If he has his wits about him.

 

Embedded in a piece of Borgesian prose about, among other things, Swiftian strangeness, I discovered something essential, and intense, about what it might mean to really be a poet. This is the gift that Borges offers, with the same humility (or is it humour?) with which he wrote, in his preface to the first edition of A Universal History of Iniquity:

 

“I sometimes think that good readers are poets as singular, and as awesome, as great authors themselves … Reading….is an activity subsequent to writing – more resigned, more civil, more intellectual.”

 

Perhaps reading that one passage, over and over again, is my act of poetry for now. I cannot tell. All I know is that small piece of anthropological reporting, scalpel in its precision, is at once too close to the bone and too remote. It haunts me.

 

Sampurna Chattarji

 

[Quotes from Doctor Brodie’s Report, Jorge Luis Borges, Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics, and A Burnt-Out Case, Graham Greene, Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics]

 

 

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How to Battle One-Book-Fatigue

April 24, 2008 at 2:50 pm (Sampurna Chattarji, The Reading Room)

 

‘It is the beginning of the end’.

 

I have picked that line out at random from William Burroughs’ The Adding Machine. I am trying the exercise he mentions in one of the essays in this wonderful collection, titled ‘Creative Reading’. It’s the exercise he calls ‘intersection reading’. Say you’re reading on the train all the way home from Nariman Point to Andheri. You’re lucky, you’ve grabbed yourself the window seat, your bag is safely stashed on the rack, it isn’t raining (yet), so there are no drippy umbrellas to threaten your book with splotches, and you’re reading. Let’s say you’re reading The Adding Machine by William S. Burroughs. You read the line ‘It is the beginning of the end’ and just then the lights blink off and the train grinds to a halt.

 

Life has intersected with your place in the book, with that very sentence you picked out. Burroughs would have it that it’s all pre-programmed, what is seemingly random is really significant at that precise moment in your life, and no other.

 

I’m trying out a different sort of ‘intersection reading’. It comes out of the Must-I-Read-One-Book-At-A-Time Syndrome. So I read say four books at a time. But that’s also too linear. A chapter here, a verse there? Nah! Fortified by the knowledge that I am, after all, proceeding under a Burroughsian blessing, I intersect not life with lines, but lines with lines.

 

And this is what happens:

 

I saw the wild hawk-king this morning

Sacred: purdah-veils, halal meat, muezzin towers, prayer-mats;

Death of the author: whodunnit?

Doctor Bream read through the letter to parents then signed her name at the end.

 

I love it. (Is it nonsense?) I love it.

In and out I dip again, changing, at random, the order in which I pick up the books:

 

The black hole of the masses

and then on a whim went for Indian Nectar

Then you went home, all of you went home.

grandmother’s moles like witchnipples

 

It is a kind of mad poetry and I’m wondering if I will hit upon something truly sensational. (Before someone hits me for being a sensational waste of time.)

 

 

awake in the beached boat of the marital bed

Every Christmas we feed the poor.

One afternoon in June

L.A., New York, Tokyo, Hong Kong

 

You can lay your strategies as carefully as you like,

Every message is a verdict

You seem to move continually forward

been there

 

‘Every message is a verdict.’ Precisely what Burroughs would have said. It is almost seamless. Dare I ruin what could be a perfect example of fragmented wholeness? The books tempt me, taunt me.

 

This cushion or pillow takes the form of a narrative space

She was History

I heard it said

Racked by toothaches

 

The absurdity of absurdity.

 

The desire to be clever purely by chance. The desire to control the desire to be clever purely by chance. Will I start cheating, then? Will I turn and riffle the pages looking for a better line? I better not.

 

And so one last, grand, reckless show of nonchalance:

 

…a legend half-heard/in a train

a sort of baleful twilight

it was the end

an ice-cream van crying and hurrying on

 

‘the end’ has appeared twice in this little game, and that, surely, is a sign. Trains have appeared twice. They are telling me something. Get on with it. Move on. I do. I forget about switching tracks, and I read, linear-style, chapter and verse. I have just found the perfect way to battle one-book-fatigue. Thank you, William. Thank you, ice-cream van.

 

 

[Lines quoted from: Salman Rushdie’s Midnight Children, Carol Ann Duffy’s Feminine Gospels, Neville Wakefield’s Postmodernism: The Twilight of the Real and The Oxford India Anthology of Twelve Modern Indian Poets edited by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra.]

 

Sampurna Chattarji

 

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A Rhyme and a Place

April 24, 2008 at 2:36 pm (Sampurna Chattarji, The Reading Room)

“There are places I remember, in my life, though some have changed

Some have changed, though not for better…”

 

Some places have an uncanny hold on that slippery terrain we call memory. For reasons unknown, such places live in our minds and hearts, untouched by reality.

 

Reality is a spoilsport in such matters. That’s when poetry comes in.

 

Take Kala Ghoda. My life in Bombay (after moving here from Calcutta) was almost totally centred on the Kala Ghoda area. I worked in an office on PM Road, and lunch-time would see me trotting out with friends to Rhythm House for a quick browse followed by a large and amicable lunch at Wayside Inn. Or else it would be Picolo’s (once, through driving rain, simply to devour a Parsi-bonu). Post-work, Max Mueller Bhavan, screenings, exhibitions. Outside Jehangir, on the sidewalk, the paintings, framed, or the prints, fingered. When I became a freelancer, Wayside Inn became the place where I would breakfast. I would sit with a pot of tea and a plate of eggs and regard the street for hours. No one hurried me. Or I would lunch, early, beginning with beer and ending with coffee, seeing as it was almost tea-time.

 

And then one day, it closed down. A new place came up, and with it, the only reality left was the one I found in my mind, and in the pages of Arun Kolatkar’s Kala Ghoda Poems. I read them greedily, again and again, marvelling at the precision and tenderness of this anthropologist of the streets. From now, nostalgia will be irrelevant. All I need is here.

 

Breakfast Time at Kala Ghoda

 

7.

 

They’re serving khima pao at Olympia,

dal gosht at Baghdadi,

puri bhaji at Kailash Parbat,

 

aab gosht at Sarvi’s,

kebabs with sprigs of mint at Gulshan-e-Iran,

nali-nehari at Noor Mohamadi’s

 

baida gotala at the Oriental,

paya soup at Benazir,

brun maska at Military Café,

 

upma at Swagat,

shira at Anand Vihar,

and fried eggs and bacon at Wayside Inn.

 

For, yes, it’s breakfast time at Kala Ghoda

as elsewhere

in and around Bombay

 

– up and down

the whole hungry longitude, in fact;

the 73rd, if I’m not mistaken.

 

It isn’t just one breakfast that this section makes you hungry for, it’s the whole gamut of all-possible-breakfasts-you-might-ever-have, if you happen to be that side of town. From flitting across the world, from diving down south, from commentating and speculating, the poem dives down, to settle, here, on this place on earth that we know as Kala Ghoda.

 

Sometimes, poetry can show us the worlds we inhabit clearer than we ever could. Not just the place but the people in that world. Take this:

 

The Potato Peelers

 

1.

 

Backlit by their dreams,

they sit on three upended wooden crates,

 

outside the entrance of a garage

converted into a restaurant kitchen;

 

elbows on knees,

bare-chested above their shorts,

 

hunched over potatoes

rotating slowly in their hands,

and the dark side of each one’s mind

faintly visible in

 

the reflected light

of the others’ unspoken thoughts.

 

 

Or this:

 

 

Bon Appetit

 

1.

 

I wish bon appetite

to the frail old fisherwoman

 

 

who, on her way to the market,

has stopped

 

to have a quick breakfast

in a hole-in-the-wall teashop,

 

and is sitting hunched

over a plate of peas

 

 

and whose mouth is watering

at this very moment, I bet,

 

for I can almost taste

her saliva

 

in my mouth.

 

Try visiting Kala Ghoda after reading these poems, and not looking for the characters in them. You can’t. Through keen and loving attention, through the craft of wit and polish, the poet has brought the people we pass everyday with hurrying, averted eyes, out of their invisibility into light.

 

What Vikram Seth did for the Brooklyn Bridge in The Golden Gate, Arun Kolatkar has done for this little patch of Bombay, unrecognisable now with its large parking space, its new restaurants and fancy shops. It isn’t that one longs for landmarks to be immortalised in verse. It’s just that some places are lucky enough to be recorded, simply because someone who lived there, loved them.

 

And when that someone happens to be a poet, lucky us.

 

 

[Excerpts from: Arun Kolatkar’s Kala Ghoda Poems, Pras Prakashan]

 

Sampurna Chattarji 

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Drama with the Dead Ball

April 17, 2008 at 9:54 pm (Rajib Sarkar, Sports)

Last Sunday’s English Premier League match between Manchester United and Arsenal had a couple of magical moments for me. And both were conjured up with a dead ball on the ground!

 

First, Emmanuel Adebayor bundled in one (did it come off his arm?) for the Gunners. Just six minutes later, the Red Devils equalized through Christiano Ronaldo’s twice-taken penalty kick. It was not the exquisiteness of the shot that was the highlight. It was Ronaldo’s supreme confidence in executing an action replay of a free-kick which was disallowed. Within seconds, Ronaldo, who was largely marginalized during the rest of the game, produced an encore, demonstrating once again how to glide a ball into a sublime trajectory. 

 

The second magical moment came when Owen Hargreaves’ free-kick (with Ronaldo playing a decoy) curled the ball over the wall and made it dip into a kissing distance from the left post, reducing Jens Lehmann into a helpless bystander.

 

Poor Lehmann! He didn’t do too badly under the bar otherwise. Blinding beauty of some free kicks can leave the very best in business stunned and stupefied.

 

Much greater terror had struck the German goalkeeper’s immediate predecessor in Arsenal, David Seamen during England’s encounter with Brazil in the semi-final of World Cup 2002. Ronaldinho’s free-kick taken from 35 meter was fantasy football at its finest.  Not only the ball went over Seamen’s head, this piece of wizardrdy dazed and demoralized David Beckham’s (himself, a fine dead ball artist) entire team.

 

How could Ronaldinho send a stationery ball with that precise amount of spin, drift, pace and elevation, sailing yards through wind, past coiled up bodies, over heads and shoulders huddled together , ultimately to rest at a precisely defined landing point? Did God himself navigate the flight?

 

This is what makes free kicks so fascinating!  Here is a moment where stillness is allowed to triumph over motion.  Modern power football is about relentless kinetic energy. While all the frenzied pace is about creating space, it is only when you are awarded a free-kick,  the space becomes yours to freeze.

 

Only during  a free -kick, the spectators can witness a duel between pre-meditation (striker) and pre-sentiment (goalkeeper).  A vision of beauty and grace is given a chance to be wrought out of choking pressure. As if, in a sudden twist,  focused tautness  transforms the intense physicality of the game into a silent prayer.  

 

On a football field, nothing can bring out the play between life and death better. 

 

– Rajib Sarkar.

 

 

 

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Imago

April 15, 2008 at 5:27 am (Poetry, Shiladitya Sarkar)

  Underneath a sun swept milieu, pictures copulated like snakes. At dusk, the same images turned into shrivelled skins. Watching, we laughed; our smile shaded into the evening light. After the crowd thinned from the show, we too decided to move some place else. We hunted, changed tracks, and left behind the familiar signposts that led to our doors. All for another beginning, we smelt of beehives, we stuffed new names within our cramped hands. We talked.

 

The listless moon watched us. Seeing us conversing, the stars smiled. They knew how soon we would grow into an ancient typeface if stray voices seeped into us. Seeing us gnawing on byte-sized beliefs the storyteller also laughed; he knew too, surely, we would puke in front of the victory stand after shouting out our hurrahs. Inside the womb of our waiting, imaginings alone bore the fatigue of lost tongues.

 

Hovering like diligent red ants, we still carried images inside the irises of the onlookers. Seeing us on the move, they parted their lips in a strange smile.  They whispered about death amidst rose gardens.  Meanwhile, slapped left and right, our voices clawed on graffiti stained walls. Our blotchy hands shuffled yellowing oath papers. And the pictures re-aligned all to a new order of alphabet. To talk again, simply, without colouring the wounds, without forgetting the commonplace.

 

– Shiladitya Sarkar

 

 

 

 

 

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Pushed into a Corner

April 15, 2008 at 3:38 am (Dominic Alapat, Poetry)

 

When they have finished

ordering your thoughts in

an air, which you will begin

to breathe shortly, you will

know what it feels like to

walk on the streets with no

joy in your heart; where

elements of wonder fade

as they approach you. You

will hurry to the railway

station thinking strange

thoughts unknown to

yourself; lost in a dead

cloud, that has become your

shining star, guiding your

way this indifferent night

to destinations of no solace.

 

– Dominic Alapat

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Days

April 15, 2008 at 3:29 am (Dominic Alapat, Poetry)

The moments live like they’ve

always done here; carrying their

share of the city. In daylight, in

dreams, the show goes on. Still,

in every view, something remains

elusive. You walk in broad daylight

amidst the swarm and the noises;

mute witness to these scenes;

waiting with the sky whose heart

is alive yet cold; looking into the

warm still air as time quakes beneath

your feet.

 

–  Dominic Alapat

 

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Breathing

April 15, 2008 at 3:28 am (Dominic Alapat, Poetry)

In a grey time and striving,

the kaleidoscope shows come

alive jostling in an odd time

that is jagged yet certain.

Prepare yourself for a bumpy

ride as shapes of conversation

and event go by their way;

some waving hands, calling

for attention. It is an imagining

beside an imagining; stories

living their lives, art in its only

form, free and for you in this

grey time.

 

– Dominic Alapat

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Ten Underrated Classics

April 14, 2008 at 10:03 am (Cinema, Kiran David)

    Carnival of Souls

 

Underrated is the word one could use very easily for the “Carnival of Souls”[1962], the only feature directed by Herk Harvey and his collaborator writer John Clifford. Underrated to the point that both Clifford and Harvey didn’t think much of it since its poor performance on initial release and as a matter of fact preferred the industrial films they did together.

 

Made on a shoestring budget and released in the early 60s as a part of a double bill for a drive-in program, it failed to get much of an audience. However, thanks to a small cult following it has had over the years, its viewer ship has grown, and has also been referred to as the movie that wouldn’t die. It has been described as the film with the look of a Bergman and the feel of a Cocteau.

 

The film is about a young woman [Candice Hilligloss} who survives an accident when her car falls into a lake during a race in Kansas. She leaves her hometown to take up a job as an organist in Salt Lake City where she is visited by a ghostly apparition [played by the director in a mask made with dough], which compels her to go to an abandoned carnival pavilion.

 

The film, shot in black and white has a lot of wonderful touches and the director uses mood in the treatment of the film and doesn’t go in for effects, which would have looked dated today. There is an almost magical quality about this film and its images continue to haunt you long after you’ve finished viewing the film. 

 

The film also boasts of very good performances particularly by Candice Hilligloss and Sidney Berger [who is outstanding] as a guy who’s trying to pick her up.

 

Over the years the film has been cut down to a shorter length. But thanks to restoration drives there currently exists a fully reconstructed version of 83 minutes.

 

Vive L’Amour

 

He walks into the empty bedroom of the apartment put up for sale he lies on the bed begins to masturbate hears a noise walks to the landing and realizes that the other guy and the girl are coming into the house he rushes back and hides under the bed. The couple that has just come in undress and proceed to have sex on the bed the camera moves to the first guy under the bed while the other two above are at it. He is masturbating. Morning approaches the girl gets up dresses and leaves the man on the bed who is still asleep while the other one is still under the bed observing the girl leave. The girl goes out crosses the street gets into the car and pauses. We get back to the apartment the guy slides out from under the bed appears to be leaving returns to the room and lies down on the bed with the other guy who still sleeps. He looks at him with a great longing he then moves closer to him, the sleeping man rolls over facing the first man who looks at him with great longing he moves towards him and kisses him. He moves away the camera lingers on the sleeping man. The girl is now walking alone the backdrop is the city the camera keeps her in sight as she walks at some point it pans away from her for a while observing other people like a man carrying a hose it catches her again as it completes an arc. She walks up to a place with rows of benches a man is reading a newspaper she sits down behind him. Looks at the camera, and weeps nonstop for a long time. She gets a hold of herself pulls out her cigarette appears to be calm and bursts into tears THE END.

 

The previous paragraph is the last 22 odd minutes of “Vive L’amour”. There is not a word spoken during that period.  It is a film directed by the one of the 3 great Taiwanese directors working today – Tsai Ming-Liang. The other two being Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Edward Yang. These three directors make Taiwan along with Iran the most exciting filmmaking countries in the world.

 

“Vive L’Amour” deals with 3 main characters   Hsaio-Kang played by Lee Kang-Shey a young man selling funeral urns, Mey Lin played by Yang Kuei-Mei a woman who is a real estate broker and Ah-Jung played by Chen Chao-Jung a vendor of street clothes. All three actors are superb. The 3 characters somehow rendezvous in an apartment that’s put up for sale at various times and the film examines their feelings of loneliness and functional existence.

 

Without any frills and very simply, Ming-Liang creates a world populated by his people who just exist and do not seem to have much of a history and who try to make some connection with someone however brief or meaningless it may turn out to be.

 

Very few films could come close to “Vive L’Amour” as a study of loneliness in a modern city.

 

Cape Fear

 

The version directed by Martin Scorsese is one of the most neglected films of his career. It is written off by most people, particularly when compared to the earlier version. Nevertheless, I think it is a film that needs to be seen again and revaluated.

 

 Like the earlier version directed by J. Lee Thompson, it deals with a criminal who feels he has been shortchanged by the lawyer who put him in jail and is out to seek revenge on him and his family. All similarities end here. In the original version we have this really clean family terrorized by Max Cady played fabulously by Robert Mitchum. The remake fractures this family and has them at loggerheads with each other. Scorsese adds psychological layers to this version.

 

“Cape Fear” is a film that deals with a broken family and how vulnerable it makes them. It also deals with Max Cady who is a man warped by the knowledge he gains. In the biblical tale Adam and Eve are told not to eat of the fruit of knowledge, as it would corrupt their innocence. Cady also on another level is like a religious nut gone awry and rabid.

 

DeNiro’s performance is bit tricky to lock on to because he is playing the part not so much as a character but as an image for what Cady represents. He is not flesh and blood but a nightmare.

 

“Cape Fear” has also other fine performances by Nick Nolte as the not so wonderful husband who is having an extra marital affair and Jessica Lange as his bitter wife but the scene-stealer is Juliet Lewis as the young daughter curious about the nature of the dark side.

 

Though the end does tend to get a bit like a slasher with its store of shocks, “Cape Fear” still has a lot going for it.

 

Within Our Gates

 

This is the one of the earliest features made by an African American director. It has been lost to audiences till 1993. Directed by Oscar Micheaux in 1919 it is much more than a curiosity.

 

Micheaux came from a lineage of slaves, was a Pullman porter and wrote novels. The first film he directed was “Homesteader” based on a novel of his, which he managed to finance with small stock sales similar to the way he sold his novels door-to-door.

 

He made 45 features between 1918 and 1945 of which 27 were silent. His silent version of “Body And Soul” with Paul Robeson was the only known film of his for many years.

 

However, thanks to the untiring efforts of film historians and restorers, a lot of his lost films have been found notably “Within our Gates”[1919] and “The Symbol of the Unconquered” [1920].

 

“Within our Gates” is his second feature featuring a cast of both blacks and whites, which was very rare in those days. In most white-financed films, painted whites played blacks.

 

It deals with a teacher – Sylvia Landry – with a scarred past played by Evelyn Preer who is trying to get funding for a school run for black students. She has been educated by her foster parents but loses them in a lynching when her stepfather is falsely accused of killing his landlord.

 

The film, as I mentioned earlier is not just a curiosity, it has an honesty far greater than films made by white filmmakers. It also is not slavishly pro-black and criticizes some black characters who curry favour with whites like the priest [the sort who peddles religion as the opium of the masses] and the landlord’s lackey or the thieving stepbrother who is Sylvia’s cousin.

 

But what is even more interesting is that he must be one of the few filmmakers in that period who used quite a few flashbacks.

 

The print discovered is from the Spanish archives so the English inter titles have been written using references from other films of Micheaux’s like “Body And Soul” and some of which have been translated back from the Spanish. There are also a couple of bits missing so have had to be filled in by a narrative inter title

 

The end of the film however has a rather bizarre speech by the heroine’s lover about forgetting the past and becoming patriots [I believe this was to take the World War I situation into consideration]. This and a couple of other plot contrivances could have been avoided . Otherwise this is really a very important film made by a remarkable man and is deserving of a lager audience.

 

Nang Nak

 

Thai cinema isn’t well known outside its country. I haven’t come across any one who seems to know anything about it either. However I happened to see “Nang Nak” during one of the international film festivals and found it deserving of a wider audience.

 

“Nang Nak” is directed by Nonzee Nimibutr. It is written by Wisit Sasanatieng, whose first film as director – “Tears of the Black Tiger” seems to be getting critical acclaim in the west currently.

 

It is a ghost story set in the mid 19th century similar some of the Japenese films like “Ugetsu” or the first story of “Kwaidan”. I don’t mean stylistically but in its story of a man coming back and finding his wife home without knowing that she had died during his absence.

 

Interestingly though, the director lets you know that it is a well known ghost story right in the beginning with a written title [maybe the Thai audiences already know the tale]. A soldier returns from war to his wife who has borne him a son. However unknown to him she has died in his absence. His friends and priest try to warn him of his error but he refuses to believe them. His wife’s ghost kills anyone who tries to warn him of the truth. Nimibutr has shot the film beautifully. He has used a lot of native elements and beliefs in telling the story effectively. There are some truly wonderful moments like in the beginning of the film when the wife keeps calling out to her husband who is leaving for war. It foreshadows her inability to leave her husband after death.

 

However one wishes he had paced some of his sequences a bit slower as his fast paced editing harm these scenes. The cast is adequate but look a bit too glamorous and seem to have rather trendy/modern haircuts which seems to go against the characters [however I wouldn’t profess a knowledge of Thai hairstyles of that period]!

 

Despite its flaws, this is an interesting film to see and I hope it will have a viewership outside Thailand. It is also serves as a good example to our main stream directors to use the wealth of our own stories/fables. 

 

   

El Dorado

 

Hawks made this western as an interesting variation on his more famous earlier film “Rio Bravo”. It got slammed as some sort of imitation when released though it has always had champions. 

 

Like most of his films “El Dorado” deals with tough men who have a job to do and the fabulous women characters who are strong, independent and make them uneasy though they deeply love them.

 

While it probably cannot be compared to both “Rio Bravo” or “Red River”, Hawk’s finest westerns with John Wayne, it is in its own right an important film and is great fun when playing it against “Rio Bravo”.

 

John Wayne is a hired gun in this film while in the earlier film he is a sheriff. “El Dorado” has Robert Mitchum – Wayne’s friend – as the sheriff who has a drinking problem because a woman has dumped him, while in “Rio Bravo” Dean Martin is the drunk friend of Wayne and a former hired gun. James Caan in an early performance plays a guy who’s great with a knife but can’t shoot straight, his counterpart in the earlier film is Ricky Nelson, a wiz with the gun.  The three men in both films have to guard the jail, there are prisoner exchanges – I can go on endlessly about these variations in plot and characters which really enrich the experience of viewing this film.

 

Like every Hawks film this is done in an almost invisible style but always leaves you wondering how the hell he did it. His cutting during scenes of conversation always shatters me because you get the feeling that there is no other way to edit the scene. He is among the greatest directors and “El Dorado”, made towards the later part of his career, is a film he can be proud to have made. 

 

 

 EXistenZ

 

In this film David Cronenberg continues his obsession with the human body/mind in relation to its environment. A concern that keeps appearing as a signature in all his movies from “Shivers” to “EXistenZ” (even in an unlikely film like “Madam Butterfly”) with the possible exception being the listless “Dead Zone” which most people who can’t stomach Cronenberg like.

 

EXistenZ is about virtual reality and how it shapes your mind and body. Unfortunately it released in the wake of “Matrix”, an enjoyable though more easily accessible film, and nose-dived at the box office.

 

In many ways, it is closely related to his earlier 1983 film “ Videodrome” which deals with rogue TV channels that have programs that control your mind. In the current film, we have a VR game that completely takes over your mind and takes you places you have no control over. What differentiates Cronenberg’s film from other films is the organic quality of his mind-controlling devices. In “Videodrome” the video cassettes pulsated like they were real live things and in ExistenZ the game pod looks like a living organism.

 

He uses effects not so much to dazzle but in the service of what he wants to say. The exotic food within the game is so real that you almost feel queasy watching it.

 

Though the film is about the mind, the body, as in all his films, plays the leading character. Orifices at the base of the spine into which the game pod is ported, a disease that affects the game pod – it almost has a post-AIDS ring to it. Mutant amphibians that are used in creating the pod and also served as exotic food all have a very organic quality about it. Here, like in many of his films, technology fuses with the body to create a kind of mutant.

 

While not in the same league as “Crash” [his master class], “Dead Ringers”, “Brood” or even “Fly”, it is still a film more than worth the price of its ticket.

 

 

Eva

 

Before the films that made him famous like “Servant”, “Accident”, “The Go Between” and my favorite “Mr. Klien”, Joseph Losey directed “Eva” [released in the UK and the US as Eve and shorn of 16 minutes which he disowned].

 

Thanks to efforts by restoration teams, a full length uncut version of the film but with Finnish subtitles has been found and released on DVD.

 

The film based on a James Hadley Chase novel deals with a Welsh writer [Stanley Baker] in Venice who carries a burden of guilt within and is obsessed by a high class prostitute [Jeanne Moreau] on who he keeps spending all his money, but she just taunts and humiliates him. His actions precipitate his wife’s [Virna Lisi] death.

 

The film is a wild romp and sometimes almost over the top but has great power and magic to see you through.

 

Stanley Baker performs well as the writer who has stolen his writing from his dying brother and Jeanne Moreau is just superb. The film is as much about the high life of the Venice of those days as it is about the people in the story. Losey uses the music of Billie Holiday to great effect in creating a feeling of sadness. Venice has rarely been shot so beautifully by two legendary cameramen Henri Dacae and Gianni Di Venanzo. “Eva” is perhaps Losey’s love song to Venice.

 

Ecstasy of Angels

 

 

This is a 1972 film directed by director Koji Wakamatsu who had earlier directed “Violated Angels in White.” He is probably the most important of the marginal Japanese directors who worked in the 60s and 70s on the payrolls of studios like Nikatsu which made films at extremely low budgets. Wakamatsu, like Suzuki Sejuin, Shunya Ito and others worked round constraints and created individual and remarkable works. Unfortunately for us most of these directors are hardly seen outside Japan.

 

“Ecstasy of Angels” deals with a group of young radical extremists, all of who are known by names of days like Monday, Friday etc who are betrayed by some of their group while raiding an US arms base. As the film progresses, the balance between members disintegrates causing distrust and ideals to get mixed up. It also deals with how the ruling powers try to neutralize marginal elements who could destabilize society. 

 

Like most of his films, sex and violence are very much a part of the proceedings but they are never titillating. Wakamatsu has always been a radical and believes in a perpetual state of revolution. He has said that he supports the left but if the left rules Japan he would rebel against them. Rarely has a filmmaker understood the psyche of young militants so well. He loves them but knows that they are doomed to failure, and yet the fight must go on. This film was probably made as a reaction to once witnessing the fragmenting of a group of rebels and realizing that their revolution would not work.

 

The film alternates between extremely poetic to grotesque to almost campy imagery like the free jazz score he uses in the soundtrack to achieve his vision. One can trace influences of the Godard of the 60s in Wakamatsu films of the 60s and early seventies.

 

This is a film no buff can afford to miss. Wakamatsu always brings an unusual perspective to his work, like in “Violated Angels in White” based on a news item about a man killing all the nurses bar one in a hospital. What the film examines is not why he killed the nurses but why he spared one…

 

Batman 2

 

After 2, Batman died. Joel Schumaker killed everything Tim Burton did.

 

2 is my favorite Batman film though many people seem to dislike it.  I like the first one but there are things that worry me, like Jack Nicholson, which I will get back to.

 

In most of his movies Tim Burton is interested in marginal figures with a tragic undercurrent who don’t quite fit into their environment. 2 is the film among all his works where he develops this to its fullest.

 

In the first film Batman and the Joker are both fringe characters and in his Bruce Wayne avatar Micheal Keaton brings a lot to the party. He feels even more of an outsider than his masked alter ego. The problem is with Nicholson’s playing of the Joker. Though a marginal figure, he plays it so over the top that it takes away from what Burton brings in. He probably also had some studio pressure as this was the first film.

 

With the commercial success of “Batman” he probably was given more freedom to make “Batman 2”.

 

In 2 there is always an undercurrent of sorrow. While the Penguin played by Danny DeVito is one of the bad guys, the imagery Burton evokes has this feeling of loneliness and pain, be it the crib of the baby Penguin floating down the canal or the shot of him caught unawares eating raw fish and when he addresses the kamikaze penguins on a mission unto death.

 

More than in his other films Burton examines the split nature of his characters. Both Cat Woman/Selena and Batman/Bruce are aware and pained by their split selves and even when they get to know each other’s identity they know they could never fall in love because of their inherent natures. Yet there is never a moment when he lets these scenes get syrupy.

 

The Gotham city of 2 like the first film has a dark and menacing design which 3 and 4 ruined with a candy-colored sensibility.

 

Unlike his most acclaimed film “Edward Scissorhands” which often gets bogged down with cuteness or “Batman” where the good guy and bad guy are more obviously defined, “Batman 2” is a much tougher film and exists in grayer hues which is probably why most people have a problem connecting to it and feel a bit uncomfortable.

 

– Kiran David

 

( This article was first published in the July 2001 issue of Gentleman magazine.)

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