Bunny Hopping Through A Long-Winded Take On Mr. Hitchcock’s Rope

November 25, 2014 at 6:25 pm (Cinema, Kiran David)

Cast

James Stewart: Rupert Cadell

John Dall: Brandon Shaw

Farley Granger: Phillip Morgan

Joan Chandler: Janet Walker

Cedric Hardwicke: Henry Kently

Constance Collier: Anita Atwater

Douglas Dick: Kenneth Lawrence

Edith Evanson: Mrs Wilson

Dick Hogan: David Kently

 

“Hitchcock is the only poet maudit to have made money” Jean-Luc Godard

Most, if not all, of my friends belonging to an insane film-watching gang had heard or read so much about Rope and the long take that it, in many ways, preconditioned our sensibility before we watched the film. So when USIS—the American propaganda machinery which stood in comical opposition to the equally propagandist but less subtle HOUSE OF SOVIET CULTURE—announced to our joy a screening of this film, we behaved, I will not say like “bitches in heat” as it’s so politically incorrect, in the process denying the reader the imagery I was hoping to evoke, but settle on the a more polite simile “elephants in masth”.

Before viewing the film, what we were led to believe either by reading—or discussions with senior film lovers who had seen the film—was that Rope as a film is in one shot, and that the reel changes were cleverly hidden in blank areas like the back of an actor’s coat or walls etc, creating the illusion of one continuous take. Fortunately for us these were still the days of film viewing, even though it was 16mm, which has some problems, and not 35mm. However this was probably one of the two most traumatic viewings I’ve experienced, primarily because instead of settling down and watching the film I was terrified that I would miss the reel changes. So stressed was I that it’s surprising I did not go incontinent and defecate on the seat. The screening itself for me was a disaster not because of the film but my feeble psychological state. My response to the film became more valid from the second screening which fortunately I managed to slip into at the same venue without a pass (thanks to a Mr. Chandran if my memory serves me well, who ran the auditorium for the USIS).

Now to the movie itself, whose myth in those days stated that it comprised of one shot. Nothing could be further from the truth. When I say this, I do not mean the shots that are camouflaged to hide the magazine changes during the shooting process, as in these cases one has to look beyond the technical limitations, but the linguistic possibility the filmmaker is trying to open up. To accept this is in fact an act of faith between an artist and his audience no less holier than the covenants we have been told existed between God and Man in certain faiths. The viewer needs to respond the way Japanese audiences do to the puppeteers of Bunraku. What I am talking about are the shots or the cuts in the conventional sense. Rope comprises of ten shots of varying length in a film that runs for approximately eighty minutes. Of these ten shots, five are camouflaged and five purely conventional, a word I’m using more to state a point. While it is easy to get this information on the net today for any idiot information junkie, in the eighties one had only attentiveness as a tool.  For me, however, it was less important to figure the nature of the cuts than to figure out the “why”?

Before continuing I have to mention we saw Rope some forty years after it released in 1948. We were therefore already exposed to various films made later that used long takes, many of which fascinated us. Films that immediately come to mind are Godard’s Weekend, many films by Miklos Jancso and others who were not practitioners of traditional narrative forms. Though an outsider within Hollywood, Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil begins with a long shot that sets the film up; something the stupid studio ruined by superimposing titles on and also changing the sound design. Fortunately for us it has been restored (in more recent years) to a version that is as close as possible to the original under the supervision of Walter Murch.

Rope, unlike most of these other films and even more recent ones like Russian Ark, has a narrative that is traditional. We therefore have to see whether the long-take that Hitchcock has used works within this traditional context.

The first thing that strikes a viewer is that the so-called invisible cuts in Rope seem more visible than the conventional ones. Creating this seamless long shot was always going to be a problem given the technology of the day. We have to remember that Sukorov’s more recent film used video technology which allowed him to make the film in one shot; the other filmmakers I mentioned earlier created their shots within the length afforded by the reel of negative. They did not try to extend the shot to the next reel. Hitchcock was, in some ways, fighting windmills and not a war. There was something heroic about it that the process could very well overturn. Further, the projection with reel changes and its start marks were going to undermine the notion of this continuousness. Also, from the point of view of the film language and not technical limitation, these hidden cuts seemed awry—they almost made the shots lose their purpose sometimes and messed up what they were expressing. It felt like the integrity of the moment was being compromised. This is a serious problem as Hitchcock normally is as precise as Bresson or Ozu in his film form. Despite these issues, it is quite marvellous the way Hitchcock manages to bring actors to the precise place needed, creating the necessary relationship between the actors and the space they inhabit.

On subsequent viewings I got interested in the conventional cuts, which for all practical purposes would have been used in a typical Hollywood film, though the rhythm, length and context of the shots may have varied from film to film. These conventional cuts, in a regular sense, signify key shifts in tone or narrative, but in Rope they achieve greater resonance mainly due to the relationship they share with the hidden cuts. The use of these two kinds of cuts seem to evoke something that  exists outside the narrative space and seems to be poetic and tragic,  while also making the viewing experience much richer as we ask why the filmmaker used these cuts without trying to hide them (as he does the others).

I want to mention a couple of things that make me revisit this film, but before that I want to digress and try to look superficially at some issues that rose during and around its production and release. Most of what I mention here is old hat that may (or better still, may not) have a bearing on what I hope to say later.

Rope is a film adaptation of the British play with the same name that was inspired by the real- life murders committed by Leopold and Loeb (who supposedly treated it as a Nietzschean exercise, something which would have a bearing on the film, referring as it also does to Hitler’s delusion). The play, I believe, was more overtly homosexual (I am deliberately not using words like “gay” as 1947-48 are the years in question). To Hollywood such a thing was poison. Homosexuality within the studio was, I believe, referred to as “it”. The job of the screenwriter was to tone down this aspect and also to make the language more colloquially American.

As mentioned before, while studio people referred to the film as dealing with “it” or having characters that were “it” (more to keep the film from being scrutinized by powers who could create problems), Hitchcock very clearly wanted the shadow of homosexuality over the film where sexuality and criminality are linked (and damned) within a Christian morality. Like Hollywood masters of that time, Hitchcock had the ability to bring in themes that interested him into regular, popular stories and knew, better than most of his peers, how to mould the screenplay to his cinematic needs. Hume Cronyn adapted the play and Ben Hecht worked on it (uncredited). Arthur Laurentis is the writer credited with writing the screenplay.

Laurentis, who was relatively new as a screenplay writer, seemed quite happy with Hitchcock’s treatment of the film but felt let down by the shot in which the murder by strangulation is shown. He did not want the murder seen by the audience, hoping to keep them guessing as to the contents of the chest, and possibly revealing the murder in the end like a typical film. Hitchcock’s was a far more complex idea, and in keeping with his position as a Catholic artist, he wanted the guilt very firmly placed on the perpetrators who are the protagonists of this work—Brandon Shaw and Phillip Morgan. Besides, it was important for the exposition that Phillip would be the person who strangles the victim while Brandon holds him. Besides visually expressing the nature of their characters in a shot (which is in fact the first to be cut into from the exterior post-credit sequence), it has a relationship to another shot later in the film (which is also a cut that mirrors this action and shifts the tone of the film), expressing a guilt that further isolates Phillip from everyone, even Brandon.

Other than the first shot outside the building on which the credits come on, the rest of the film takes place within the confines of the apartment in which the protagonists live. Beginning with the murder it takes place in between evening and early night. It is of great importance to be attentive to the way Hitchcock uses the entrances of the guests, the first of the two most important being that of Janet Walker (where he cuts in a way simultaneously revealing her and placing her between the killers of the man she loves therefore in a sense marking her fate). This is the only time Phillip goes to the door to receive any guest, Brandon normally goes alone to the door. Here Janet is let in by the housekeeper, Mrs. Wilson, off-screen, suggested by the non-diegetic sound before the two protagonists walk towards the door to receive her. The other entrance that is crucial is that of Rupert Cadell’s first appearance—the only entrance in which one does not hear the door bell nor see him enter; instead his presence is registered by a camera movement in one of the quietest moments of the film. Both these entrances have great significance in the way they are constructed— the connections they make and the bearing they have on the narrative process.

By shooting the protagonists like a typical heterosexual couple in the way they respond to each other, Hitchcock suggests the homosexual relationship between the two of them. In point of fact, the director gives the strangulation scene and the moment after a sexual and post-coital quality, which connects Brandon and Phillip’s sexual nature with the murder, making each act the other’s equal. As an aside, one has to remember both murder and homosexuality would be viewed as sinful within a Christian universe. I am not justifying this narrow view of sexuality but one must understand that in the late 1940s, and within a conservative Hollywood, one could hardly expect greater understanding. For Hitchcock, however, it is not the sin that matters, and he is not making an accusation but rather is exploring the burden of guilt his protagonists carry within a Catholic context. In many of his films, characters suffer from this guilt though they are redeemed in various ways, some even attain a state of grace. In this film however they—and especially Phillip, the clearly feminine part of the unit who is sensitive to this burden—will not find redemption. Brandon, who views himself as a Nietzschean super being who exists outside moral precepts, therefore does not feel any guilt, he however fears being caught and its consequences. Towards the end, there is an implication that by his transgression he takes on his mentor Cadell’s guilt, and frees him. Rupert Cadell has not been a part of this crime, but is present in an intellectual sense; there are other resonances outside the purview of this piece, which is already beginning to feel obnoxiously long, and not seeming to end. I am also omitting more complex issues pertaining to Nietzsche, and by implication, Hitler, both presences which cast shadows on the film; but those (and other issues of how Hitler and others misinterpret Nietzsche) I will save for something I want to write on post-war Hollywood cinema (which being a lazy slob, I may never get around to).

What the film does interestingly lies in the way Hitchcock constructs it, and the way he uses the other characters—the father, aunt, friend, absent mother and girlfriend—to allude to a shattering grief in the future, a sorrow which will not be present in the time of the film but after. Something which we will not see but will understand and experience through the nature and behaviour of these people. Also implicit in the film’s structure and in the way the director uses objects and space is this foreshadowing of the grief that is apparent to us but which the characters are ignorant of; in the process giving this evocation a greater sense of the tragic.

While watching Rope I sometimes wonder how the film would appear if we enter it from Janet’s point of view. While what I’m suggesting ties up with the grief I mentioned above, I want to incorporate the trailer of the film into the text, even though this reading could be a case of an over-active imagination. But if the little dog could tell his Master Baiter, “IT’S EASY TO SEE: THE CRUX OF THE BISCUIT IS THE APOSTROPHE” (to which the giant Monk after a pregnant pause muttered “EPISTROPHY”), there is no reason why one cannot proceed.

The character of Janet is quite intriguing. On the surface she is self-possessed and probably modern; she carries herself with assurance. It is also important to know that she has had relationships with Brandon and Kenneth (in that order) before her relationship with David, with whom she confesses to be most comfortable and in whose presence she doesn’t have to pretend to be someone else. If for a moment we look at the characters of Brandon, Kenneth and David, one has to confess the fiancé does appear the most conventional. Kenneth too as a person really does not hold your interest but somehow, by implication, David feels more conventional than even Kenneth. Kenneth’s purpose as a character in the film and Janet’s movement from Brandon towards David, among other things, seems to reveal the character of the dead man, and also suggests that Janet’s posturing as a wit is a camouflage of her more mundane aspirations. Hitchcock’s use of every character gives us greater insight into the work and has a bearing on other characters;  there is not one character who is superfluous—even minor characters like Mrs. Wilson, Anita Atwater (David Kently’s aunt) and the absent mother. The first part of the trailer of Rope seems more like a prologue to the film before it moves into a more conventional marketing device. Rather than using the word ‘prologue’ I should I think say ‘prelude’. This opening expresses the characters of David Kently and Janet Walker in a most economical way. David probably has more screen time here than in the film. Our knowledge about these two characters in the trailer is further completed in the film by suggestion rather than direct narrative. The tragedy that will descend on Janet Walker is announced in this prelude and will fully make its force felt in a time that exists after the film ends. The trailer gives pride of place to Janet and her expectations, though David’s parents and even Kenneth will feel the pain of this loss. I feel that by approaching the film through Janet’s persona, the tragedy has far greater implications. While maintaining the uniqueness of the characters who will be affected and at the same time using situations to evoke their regular and conventional expectations and making them the average everyday person in relation to the criminals—Hitchcock magnifies the magnitude of the impending tragedy and pain.

John Dall and Farley Granger are perfectly cast as Brandon and Phillip. Granger, who in real life, never hid his bisexual orientation, had affairs with various people including the screen writer of Rope Arthur Laurentis, Ava Gardner, Rita Hayworth, Leonard Bernstein and Shelly Winters, before settling down with Phillip Calhoun till death did them part. He also claimed to have lost his virginity twice on the same day, once to a prostitute and once to a sailor. All this would over the years give his role greater resonance. The supporting cast too works well. Unfortunately the most serious problem is with James Stewart, who is otherwise always credible and has worked well in other films by the master. In Rope he is fine as a wit and the person who solves the crime. By implication one feels that while he intellectually influenced the protagonists, he also has a similar sexual side which may be more closeted but exists nevertheless. This is where the problem surfaces. Stewart plays it absolutely straight, without subtext or concealed demons. Cadell as a character doesn’t realize his Nietzschean ambitions as achievement—he is purely intellectual. But as an actor, Stewart needed to evoke an undercurrent. By not managing to do this, his performance seriously damages the whole context of Brandon’s act (through which Brandon confronts him, inherits his guilt and, in a sense, exonerates him).

Stewart normally played men with integrity, which made audiences trust him; the studios probably used him and his history as an actor to diffuse the homosexual subtext and also the issue of the superior being which would have been problematic in the post-war years. Stewart would subsequently (and more successfully) explore darker realms in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, as well as in the set of westerns he would do with Anthony Mann. Joan Chandler as Janet Walker is marvellous. I’ve never seen her elsewhere. Supposedly a product of the first batch of the Actor’s Studio, she appropriates the role in which there exists an inbuilt contradiction.

I mentioned earlier that my first two viewings were in 16 mm. I wish I could see it some day in 35mm.  Most 16mm prints suffer from shoddy grading and generally poor projection and aspect ratio issues. While Rope did not suffer much from aspect ratio problems, the print was awful and the change of light evoking passing time was completely non-existent. For me the big loss was not being able to see how the 35mm reel changes affected the viewing process, given the original way in which the film was meant to be presented. Today, with a much better print available on home formats—currently Blu-ray which can be seen on a projector, giving us the ability to view it at least in a preview theatre size, which is important especially for many films in the past and a few contemporary ones—watching this on a small screen is really stupid, as within the Hitchcock frame there exists more than one syntax between objects and characters; something that is explored even further by Godard. This tension created by the syntax is lost on television screens, computers and mobile phones. One should see it in 35mm as during the digital process they have smoothed out the reel splicing and cleaned up the reel change marks. This smoothing process unfortunately obliterates the historicity of the work.

One of the reasons I decided to say something about this flawed work by a great master is because popular cinema seems to have lost the use of any kind of cinematic language. I am not suggesting filmmakers should make films the same way as the masters of the past—language must evolve and change. Unfortunately filmmakers like Christopher Nolan who are taken seriously have no language, just bombast. He does not even manage to express his ideas cinematically and his recent Interstellar is no different. The beauty and genius of the old Hollywood masters was that they could take a commonplace, even mundane, story—often forced on them by studios—and yet transcend those limitations. They were able to express, through the stories, personal ideas that could be complex and poetic. Today, in an environment where the filmmaker, the critic and the audience seem to be a part of one marketing mix, sadly what we see (with very few exceptions) is what we get: SHIT.

– Kiran David

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Haider

October 6, 2014 at 8:14 am (Cinema, Kiran David)

It is not at all surprising that Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider, a take on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, is a disaster. In fact Maqbool and Omkara give us empirical evidence that Bhardwaj who always seems wishy-washy has no clue of Shakespeare. In fact, after watching Maqbool in the Thiruvanthapuram festival, I asked someone if this guy read Shakespeare or Peter Popper’s collection of Shakespeare quotations or worse: some novelization of the play. Bhardwaj is not the only director (? )who has been done in by the Bard, many better directors  have fucked up. Bhardwaj is unfortunately a mediocre director whose films do not have an artist’s point of view or integrity, in fact he can’t even film minor writers like Ruskin Bond. Like most Indian – and a reasonable chunk of world – directors he has no ideology, I don’t mean moral, social or political but artistic. His work appears to be a mishmash of various things he has seen but not understood within their context, additionally colored by a kind of  self-important posturing which may be unconscious in his case. He probably believes the shit he makes is cool. In an interview with Indian Express he sadly displays the mediocrity of his thinking.

The funny thing about most Shakespeare adaptations is that filmmakers seem to follow the story (so called) or plot and make minor or major changes without taking into account what is essentially Shakespearean. Firstly, copying the story of the play or making alterations to it serves no purpose as most of his plays are based on narratives borrowed from sources like the Holinshed Chronicles, Ovid and others.  Hamlet, written for the great actor of his time Richard Burbage between 1599 and 1601, comes from The Legend of Amleth preserved by the 13th-century chronicler Saxo Grammaticus in Gesta Danirun and retold by the 16th-century scholar François De Belleforest. Also predating Shakespeare’s Hamlet – but during the Elizabethan era – there was another play using a similar narrative called Ur Hamlet which is supposedly of Norse lineage. Why Haider can’t be considered an adaptation of any of these other works? What in effect is Shakespearean is intangible; it exists in realms beyond the commonplace stories of his plays.

Another problem cinema has is – despite being a visual medium it has not managed to acquaint us with the imagery (we have seen great cinematic images) that Shakespeare evokes.  Look at the line with which Iago informs Desdemona’s father of his daughter’s elopement with Othello, where  cruelty and conniving is expressed with such  mastery and genius: “I am one, Sir, that comes to tell you, your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs.”

To evoke this image of the beast with two backs within the context of the narrative, its psychology, its emotion, is beyond cinema. Few artists have had this ability to express ideas and emotions  with such precision and poetry.

Also important to realize is Shakespeare’s ability to manipulate narrative time in relation to real time with great effect. This manipulation is also of key importance in the novel and cinema, and I feel – taken in an abstract sense, cinema, whose syntax allows large latitude in its use of time, seems to exist between the classical play and the traditional novel. (I am deliberately omitting non-narrative works and also omitting narrative or epic poetry purely for my convenience.) Having mentioned the latitude its syntax allows cinema, it depends on each director how he manipulates time and takes the work to a place of significance; Haider‘s director sadly lacks any sense of these possibilities of the idiom he has chosen.

Among my favorite Shakespeare films are those by  Welles who made Othello, Macbeth and Chimes of Midnight, which combines the Falstaff plays. Welles, despite being plagued by production and financial nightmares, manages to locate something Shakespearean in his mise en scene and succeeds to a reasonable extent. My other favourite Shakespeare film is by Derek Jarman who made a remarkable Tempest (and another film using Shakespeare’s sonnets). Jarman expresses something unique in a place where his sensibility intersects with Shakespeare’s.  (Jarman has also done a great version of Christopher Marlow’s Edward II).

Laurence Olivier’s Shakespeare films, which I like, are interesting in their attempt at capturing the theatrical essence, performance and experience of the works.

I will end with Kurosawa, who does something remarkable in his versions of Macbeth (Throne of Blood) and King Lear (Ran). He seems to have dismantled the plays and refashioned them in a way that expresses  the intangible Shakespearean essence as he perceives  it within a Japanese context. He has made an interesting Hamlet too (The Bad Sleep Well), a minor work that he seems to approach in an oblique manner, making it definitely a film at least worth watching.  Sadly I cannot comment on Grigori Kozintsev’s work: he made both King Lear and Hamlet  which I loved when I first saw them but it’s been almost 40 years since  and I, myself , am different now, more than a trifle jaded.

Coming back to Haider, which one should not waste time on, and neither should one waste time on Shahid Kapoor or Shradha Kapoor who play the Kashmiri Hamlet and Ophelia, both of whom can be  referred to as strictly inconsequential bores. Coming to Tabu, who plays Gertrude: the problem with her, as always, is that while she may be sincere, and bits and pieces of her performance work, she lacks the intelligence to construct a complete character and seems only to act both physically and psychologically towards the camera, a problem that comes from a conventional Bollywood and popular regional film sensibility. (An industry which includes the critical establishment that hilariously believes Priyanka Chopra’s turn in Mary Kom, Kangana Ranaut’s performance in Queen and Vidya Balan in Kahani who waddles with a coy expression as great performances). One feels sad for KK Menon, a guy who showed much promise and talent: he now seems to deliver his roles in a somewhat functional way and ends up being tediously adequate, only saved from utter mediocrity by his history that hasn’t abandoned him (yet). I suppose the abominable environment he works in is steadily corrupting his craft.  As for Irrfan Khan, a middling though highly overrated actor, who seems to be in some quaint auto-pilot mode, partially because of Bharadwaj’s lack of talent when dealing with eccentric /quirky – here he appears like a cross between some Greek Orthodox priest who has made changes in his costume, Mr. Chips, a person with a damaged leg and someone with cataract.

However as this film’s version of Laertes, Aamir Bashir, while a bit older than the actors playing Hamlet and Ophelia,  is superb in a small role, one of the sadly under-used but capable actors. He is the only one who seems to be reacting to the situation and characters around him which must have been tough as neither  Bhardwaj nor the other actors give him anything.  I was wondering if he had to create the scenes in his mind and respond to them. This film’s real tragedy is not the story of Hamlet/Haider, nor the story of Kashmir which Bharadwaj claims but the story of an actor Amir Bashir, who may never get his due.  Bashir has also directed Harud, a film set in Kashmir which is better than this mess and better than anything Bhardwaj has done. It has flaws, even serious ones, but it does manage to evoke a state under siege and a central character’s inertia/ennui effectively, also deeply felt.

What good Bhardwaj who is a nice guy shouldn’t do is claim (out of absolute ignorance) something his work is not remotely close to delivering due to his inept constructions. I think he should spend some time reading Shakespeare before he possibly terrorizes us with a King Lear.

A good section for him to read is from this very same Hamlet, the scene where the prince briefs the players how to play the scene. It may help Bharadwaj hone his craft and learn some life lessons.

As for the rest of us, we should spend time marvelling at the words “this sun” Shakespeare uses to devastating effect in the opening of Richard III.

A very strange thing happened while I was watching the film: in the scene where Shahid and Tabu were walking outdoors and babbling inanities, a little boy of about three walked down the aisle with a wind-up toy, went up to the screen, touched the black encasing, turned back, wound the toy and instead of putting it on the ground, walked back the way he came, making that moment more cinematic than anything in the film and in the process entirely capturing my attention.

– Kiran David

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Fandry

April 16, 2014 at 5:03 pm (Cinema, Kiran David)

Sometime ago, when a friend and I were sitting in a movie hall waiting for a film to begin, we chatted about the deplorable state of cinema, both globally and more so locally.  A bloke two seats away leans over and tells us that great things are happening in Marathi cinema. If there’s one thing among many I can’t stand, it’s a fucker, especially one I don’t know, worming his or her way into a conversation I’m involved in. However, instead of giving him the brush-off I normally would have, I said to him that these films may have decent or well-meaning ideas, but don’t work as cinema.

Having seen films like Shwaas, Dombivali Fast, Vihir, Tingya, Natrang and others: as cinematic experiences they did not work beyond a utilitarian functional purpose and were dull, inert and sometimes derivative. Vihir, despite its ideas, was floundering, lacking in the discipline it needed.  Gabhricha Paus was just about bearable, though I would not recommend it to anyone.  Even earlier films like Doghi left me cold, despite its heartrending story. I am not saying these filmmakers are not sincere and that the issues they are tackling are not important, but they just fail to be of any cinematic interest.  Just before this wave, which also opened up the box-office for Marathi films, was Chitra Palekar’s Maati Maay which had truly worthy moments and deserved better critical attention and commercial success. Its main problem, I felt, was in the casting of Nandita Das who just doesn’t work in the milieu, and has never convinced me as an actress. The other problem is the dream sequence which can be forgiven due to budget limitations. One way round that could have been to construct it in simpler terms.

[I will now digress from the main object with the hope to make a connection of some kind, this may or may not work for this piece but may for future pieces. Then again……..

I was recently watching some operas on the best home format currently available. The filmed version is an idiom which mutilates the very language of the “staged” opera.  As in every performative art which is the staging of a narrative, there are many languages at play. In opera there would be the libretto, the music, the performances, the setting, each expressing something in its own language. The director places these multiple languages within the context of the staged space, creating the desired experience; this is also a kind of composite language within which these other languages interact. What I am talking about should be understood only in the context of the staged version of an opera.

The blu ray with better image and seriously superior sound, while excellent to listen to  great singers and orchestras and follow the libretto thanks to subtitles in one’s language of choice, completely destroys the integrity of the stage performance, and here I am certainly not talking about scale.  The very language is wrecked, thereby altering the original experience. It completely destroys the spatial tension required for an appreciation of the performance, and though you can follow the narrative it converts the viewing experience from perception to speculation.]

It is with great enthusiasm and joy that one must greet Fandry, a Marathi film directed by first-time feature director Nagraj Popatrao Manjule. What is striking about his work is that there constantly seems to be a search to find something through cinema. He is not just depending on his story and telling it in a banal or gimmicky way like most recently regarded filmmakers in India seem to do.  Manjule has a wonderful way of using space in various ways. He uses it to create relationships between sets of characters, sometimes contradicting the primary emotion; and he also uses a space within a space as a fulcrum to create tension within the geography.

The very first shot, with great economy and simplicity states the theme of the film, while expressing the inherent contradictions present in the narrative—a strategy that recurs throughout the work. Early in the film he uses a track countering the protagonist’s movement, marginalizing him within the space he occupies, one of the themes inherent in the narrative that unfolds. The director structures the film with great intelligence, often letting two successive sequences evoke something beyond a commonplace narrative. He has the ability to reveal elements just when the narrative needs them.

While setting the story in an environment that has casteist prejudices, Manjule never overplays the relationships.  Everyone is playing out his expected part within the given society, this is what expresses the horror and tragedy of the situation.  It is Jabya the protagonist who is trying to cut through these divisions with his unrequited love for Shalu. But his movement towards the object of his desire is informed by a great faith that exists on a level of fantasy which perpetually gets stymied by the reality of the world he inhabits. Through the mysterious character of Chankya, the director is able to expand on his themes with subtlety. In the film’s village fair section, motifs recur  at various points, the whole sequence appears carnivalesque in nature,  where  one gets the feeling that all barriers have dissolved, the sacred and profane mingle; with remarkable skill the director surgically reconfigures the space isolating the protagonist within that frenzied milieu.

The film is paced to evoke the rhythms of life present in the environment only to shift gears at moments of crisis.  In relation to the rest of the film the last section (which ends with the stone thrown towards the camera) while in itself a symbol of revolt, carries with it the burden of a possible tragedy to come.

All the actors (I do not know if some of them are non-professional) are judicially chosen to express the characters they play and none of them disappoint. The director also understands how to use faces to their optimal advantage.

Using dead time and making it resonate needs a certain skill, and Manjule pulls it off.

While I am told the film has been appreciated and has done well, it is a pity it doesn’t get the kind of mileage that rubbish like Queen with Kangana Ranaut gets and Shubhra Gupta (in her Indian Express review) exults over: “Stop press: I have just seen an honest-to-goodness, full-fledged, full-bodied film. A FILM, hear me?” To this, one can only say: “BALLS. Film, my arse.” It’s more like a corporate morale-boosting AV that is a compilation of plausible sequences that may ring true in the most banal way. Predictable stuff geared to warm the cockles of the viewers’ hearts (Woody Allen in an early film says, there’s nothing like warm cockles). Besides it has the stupidest use of flashbacks I’ve ever seen and I’ve seen some pretty awful ones.

While I’m happy Fandry has been liked by audiences, I hope people, whatever their response be, appreciate it for the rich text it is. It needs to be seen on screen, it would lose on small home formats.  Queen, other than scale, would be the same experience even if seen on a mobile phone

Before ending, I must mention a couple of places where there are problems. One being: too many cutaways to shots of the school  before the pig-hunt starts, and second: the motivation used to make Shalu turn towards Jabya and his buddy Pirya seems a bit forced, as we have already realised earlier in the sequence what the director is trying to express.

Unlike the posturing of many directors, who these days keep harping about being different and in truth are only deluded in believing they are unique, this director, while he may not use a radically new form, ploughs the familiar with an honest rigor, finding truths and arriving at a form that is tenuous but rich, opening out possibilities and arriving at a place his contemporaries are incapable of. Kabir Mohanty, the great artist largely working with video, in his illuminating talk (at Jnanapravaha Mumbai) a couple of years ago, said that staking a claim to being different for its own sake is pathetic.

What makes Manjule someone to watch out for is that Fandry makes us aware of an artist who has an awareness of “Art” and that his is a quest to express the truth he seeks through it.

– Kiran David

 

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The Incredible Rubinstein!

April 10, 2014 at 7:14 pm (Cinema, Kiran David)

Was fortunate to see the 1975 film recording of the then 90 year old Arthur Rubinstein  playing on three concertos  – one each by  Greig, Chopin and Saint – Saens. He plays by memory as he could not read at that time. He had lost his central vision by then and could only see stuff that was peripheral. Unbelievable performance!

– Kiran David

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Bronte Sisters

June 21, 2013 at 11:03 am (Cinema, Kiran David)

Andre Techine is usually interesting. Made Bronte Sisters  in the ’70s. A film I had not heard of till now. With Isabelle Adjani, Mary-France Pisier and Isabelle Huppert as the three sisters and a young Pascal Greggory  playing the brother and unbelievably, Roland Barthes as William Makepeace Thackeray make an interesting cast. Will be out in Blu this July end.

         – Kiran David

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Inspired by Vertigo!

October 8, 2012 at 6:32 am (Cinema, Kiran David)

Most films that seem to have copied or be inspired by Hitchcock’s Vertigo have failed horribly. There have been honest failures like De Palma’s Obsession. Others have been less honest. The worst is the overwrought French film Le Pacte Du Silence. It is unbelievably horrid!

There are two films coming to mind that share a rapport with the master’s work. The first one is Sans Soliel, a great film essay by Marker, about whom one cannot say enough. The other one is Rivette’s Le Belle Noiseuse which could exist as analogous to Vertigo or in some ways be a dissertation on the film.

To an attentive viewer, I would also suggest L’Année dernière à Marienbad by Resnais.

I often wonder if any of these films, though not remakes, would have existed without Vertigo.

– Kiran David

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Chris Marker is No More!

August 4, 2012 at 4:16 pm (Cinema, Kiran David)

Sadly the great Chris Marker passed away last Sunday (29th July, 2012). Can anyone who has seen La Jete ever forget the shot of an eye opening? It is something that leaves you bleeding for the rest of your life.

Whenever I watch Sans Soliel (the film that travels through the time of Hitchcock’s Vertigo between Japan and Africa),  I wonder whether there is any point left for anyone else to even bother about making documentaries anymore!

The giants are dying one by one. And the pathetic, vomit inducing approval seeking midgets are being bred by dozens.

The cat might have vanished but grin lingers on …

By the way, according to Marker, Vertigo was the only  film that portrayed insane and impossible memory.

– Kiran David

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About Avatar

May 18, 2010 at 2:48 pm (Cinema, Mary McQueary) (, , , )

To say that the movie Avatar is about an alien Jewish American Princess having a hissy fit is actually a fairly accurate assessment. But that wasn’t the only storyline it contained. It was as if the writers’ brainstorming session became the script.  “What if the Indians weren’t decimated by smallpox and they united to fight against us?” suggests one writer.  “I say we pit the military against the scientists”, insists another.  “Don’t forget to plant the plot of boy-gets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl in there too, that’ll guarantee it to be a Academy Award nominee”.

That being said, you’d think this movie would be one I’d say pass on. But wait, underneath all the stereotypes and repetitious yawn provoking obvious storylines there truly were some thinking persons’ treasures.

To begin with, the alien planet’s animals are amalgams.  Is that part dinosaur, dragon, hummingbird, dragonfly? Thank goodness for that boring plot line, as your brain is suddenly found busily scanning the creatures, performing a type of IQ test, analyzing and identifying which part of the animal comes from which earth animal.

While your brain is busy analyzing creatures and/or creating its own chimeras and asking questions such as, “how many creatures do we have on Earth that are colorfully feathered?” and your inner child begins shouting, “I want to fly on the back of one of those too!” in slips a current events issue.  The hero of our movie has a spine injury and has lost the use of his legs. Note the subtle atrophy to them through the movie, so the question pops up, if medical technology exists to give a person back the ability to use their legs, should cost prevent them from getting such medical procedures?  While you mull over whether you support healthcare reform in slides a thorn to prick you about your internet usage.  

Today, more and more people are living two lives, one online and one IRL (in real life), and just as in the movie, one of our worlds goes limp and silent when the other is active. How IRL are we?  Have we become slaves to our overactive overfed imaginations? Is it possible to regain a relationship with our planet, to have it as our playground, our kitchen, our medicine cabinet, our protector, our home once again?  Or have we let cyberspace steal us away from our own place and kind? In Avatar choices are made, there is no playing for both teams.  This is this lesson I think merited spending $100 million to make and hopefully will be a couple hours of joyful movie viewing for you.

– Mary McQueary

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Sthaniya Sambaad : Something Bijjare This Way Comes

May 16, 2010 at 9:30 am (Cinema, Kiran David) (, , )

While we live in a country that makes the largest number of films in the world, unfortunately most of them are of the lowest quality. In fact, even the so-called ‘good’ films endorsed by cretins in the media are abominable. Most practitioners of the medium do not know even the basics, and the critics who write about them know even less. One enters halls screening most contemporary Indian [actually also most current Hollywood] films, with a sense of great terror at the idea of wasting a couple of hours of your pre-determined short life. It really curdles your blood when you are subjected to the bovine expressions and simian observations that critics, both in the press and more so on TV, pass off as ‘expert opinion’ on this so-called cinema. There is also a funny bunch of directors who say that if given a good budget they would make world-class films. My response to them has always been, “Bullshit man, learn the language and find your fucking idiom.” Yet another kind of mutt leans towards you and whispers, “I am making a film for the festival circuit.” I am tempted to vomit on this type. One thing our mediocre bunch should learn is to shut the fuck up and try to make films with a modicum of honesty. In the process, they may pick up intelligence and wit which most great filmmakers possess.  

Despite my reservations mentioned above, I do not deny that on very very rare occasions, experiencing movies both within and outside the mainstream has been rewarding. Listing them here is not the intention of this piece, but to talk about one in particular.

I was privileged to see the Bengali film Sthaniya Sambaad [Springtime in the colony], the first feature co-directed by Arjun Gourisaria and Moinak Biswas. The film, besides being a delightful work, is also one of remarkable clarity and musicality. Though the narrative is quite simple and easy to follow, the joy is in the way the filmmakers have structured it.

 Space and time, the two fundamental coordinates, are used with intelligence and grace. The film is set across three spaces. First, Deshbandhu Colony, where the protagonists live, many of them refugees who came from East Bengal (now Bangladesh) over a period of time, beginning with partition. The second is Park Street, referred to in the film as White Town (or Shaheb Para) and the third is New Town where, as the name suggests, new townships are being developed.

What makes the film special is the way the directors have used basic, almost seminal, tools of the medium to navigate between these spaces within the temporal context of the film. The first part of the story takes place in Deshbandhu Colony; it then splits the action between the colony and White Town. The third part fragments what happens between the first two spaces and New Town. After this we observe scenes unfolding between New Town and the colony, and finally, we come back to the colony in the concluding part of the film.

 The film also has a certain musicality – the makers structure the film as variations on a theme. Here every sequence actually works as a minor variation of the major theme, which is never explicitly stated but constantly implied. In point of fact, the almost shocking opening sequence with the braid (or did someone say ‘bride’) works as an evocation, a variation and also a metaphor of the film’s theme. Unlike the ham-fisted Let’s Talk, a film made a few years ago with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, where the filmmaker kept insisting it was structured like a Thumri (hence variations on a theme), Sthaniya Sambaad actually travels this path with incredible sophistication and grace. 

Besides the formal nature of the work, here is a film that states its geography, evokes its histories, exists on the cusp of a world that is changing. A young poet who is floundering, unrequited youthful love, misunderstandings regarding where the ‘nape’ is located, a chorus and life with all its joys, sorrows and endless other quotidian details emerge in this film.

The cast of Sthaniya Sambad seems handpicked for the job. Rarely has one seen such a bunch of talented actors in one film, all of them mercifully non-stars. To name a few – Anirban Dutta, Suman Mukhopadhyay, Anindya Banerjee, Suvankar Mitra, Sanat Sen, Sourya Deb, Thatagata Chowdhury, Shubam Roy Chowdhury, Aranya Chowdhury, Bratya Basu, Nayana Palit, Manali Dey, Kasturi Chatterji and the delightful duo Mrinal Ghosh and Dilip Sarkar. The list could go on but what is most important, more than the performances, is the way they understand and appropriate their roles. Recently, I watched on television an annoying TV-type with the expression of a computer-generated smiley interviewing Aishwariya Rai who actually referred to herself and some of her crones as artists. Talk about delusional. I suggest she watch this film, maybe she would realize that there is a craft in acting that is way beyond her.

One of the things that struck me after watching Sthaniya Sambad was whether this film (which was produced by the recently dissolved Black Magic Motion Pictures of which Goursaria was a partner) would have been given the thumbs-up by other corporatized production companies. I imagine those vacant employees hired by the companies to go through scripts wouldn’t know a good script if it became a projectile and fucked them in the ass. Most of them would not have the imagination or wit to know the poetics that exist beyond the script and within the process. For lovers of cinema who eternally hope that something worthwhile will happen in this part of the world, Sthaniya Sambaad is really a miracle.

While I always believe it’s the films that make the festival and not the other way round, I feel disappointed that Sthaniya Sambaad did not make it to the Cannes film festival. Not so much that it is the place to be, but that it would have given the film the international platform it deserves. I believe a film Udhaan from India has been selected in the Un Certain Regard category. I would not like to comment on it before seeing it. I honestly hope it is a good film and not something catering to the Slumdog Millionaire-type sensibility. I wish it success and if it is achieves 10 % of what Sthaniya Sambaad achieves, I shall consider myself a happy slob.

Finally, I have to say, as an aside to both Arjun and Moinak – “Man, or is it men, or just the usual friendly fuckers, the opening shot works.”

–  Kiran David

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Song for an Ancient Land … The Joys of Seeing and Listening…

September 14, 2009 at 5:45 am (Cinema, Kiran David)

 

Light and darkness both reveal and destroy images as does focus or the absence of it. These destroyed images then become images of great beauty and power. Similarly sound – in its clarity or lack of it – creates aural textures which, along with the images, evoke varied possibilities in Kabir Mohanty’s two-part Song for an ancient land.

 

Clocking just under two hours, this is one of the great audio-visual experiences I have had in a long time, and without doubt, the greatest Indian work of its kind in ages. It is indeed a relief that one can say good things about a film currently made in this part of the world without being patronizing or dishonest, to say the least.

 

Though technically video art, I would like to call this cinema in a purer sense, with some of the images reminding me of experimental work done in Europe in the ’20s, but totally different in nature, context and intent.

 

What is truly gratifying is that unlike many practitioners of video art, particularly in our country, many of whom are dilettantes or painters who seem to have no clue of the medium, often claiming to be doing something ‘different’ (a dubious word), Mohanty’s work reflects a complete understanding of the medium of his choice, and reflects the use of its inherent aspects.

 

While watching the work, the viewer feels the images, both audio and visual, revealing possibilities, and sees the dynamics change, as time, so key to it,unfolds.

 

Part One explores the histories of the artist’s immediate neighbourhood, Pali Mala in Bandra. Images of traders, roads, sea shores, take on different meanings through feelings that evoke their poetry…

 

…And then Mohanty announces the arrival of Diwali with images so astonishing that you watch and experience pure joy. There are images where light flashes reflect on buildings, revealing textures till then hidden. A dot of light, travelling within a frame where time seems to expand endlessly on the screen, yet seems to stop for the viewer.

 

Part Two deals with images that look at a post-Babri Masjid world, the camera traverses over photographs being illuminated by a spot light or possibly a torch that highlights textures on these still images and almost simultaneously destroys the details only to create other images.

 

Time opens out possibilities and resonances in the sequence shot at the Darga in Mahim built in the name of Makhdoom Baba.

 

In an interesting shift in space, the camera observes the nature of sameness in diversity as New Yorkers walk in a busy area. This was one of the few places I thought the voice narrating the idea was not needed as the image evoked it in horrifying detail.

 

One of the joys of viewing Mohanty’s work is that it demands your attention and engages you in its very being. It respects its audience by assuming they are intelligent and have the ability to make connections. It is an invitation to an intimate dialogue, not a call to consumption.  Every time you view the film, it offers you more meanings and emotions that enrich you. The greatest triumph of Song for an ancient land is that it invites you to see and listen, unlike works that numb you to a point of indifference as you only watch and hear.  

 

– Kiran David

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